Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Smartphone of the Year - 2009 Edition

Over 6 major smartphone operating systems in the market, an app store from all the major players, and at least 2 networks crippled by data usage, this was the year of the smartphone.  With over 41 million smartphone devices shipped in the 3rd quarter of 2009, an increase of almost 2 million compared to the year before, smartphones are becoming the defacto high-end phone for most consumers.  They pack numerous features that were once standalone devices like 5MP cameras and satellite-based GPS, smartphones have become the ultimate all-in-one device.

Best Smartphones by Operating System
All the major operating systems (OS) received a healthy number of devices for 2009. Choosing a winner for each operating system was generally easy since each operating system had only one or two primary manufacturers.  Each manufacturer broke down each phone to a target market.  I looked at the highend because those are the phones with everything feature people want and least niche targeted.

Apple OSX - Apple iPhone 3GS
Google Android - Motorola Droid
Palm WebOS - Palm Pre
RIM Blackberry - BlackBerry 9700
S60 3rd edition - Nokia N86 8GB
S60 5th edition - Nokia N97 mini
Windows Mobile - HTC HD2

Best Smartphones by Form Factor
With very few smartphones being delivered in the bar, rotate, or flip format, it was easy to pick a winner for those categories.  A majority of manufacturers focussed on the QWERTY bar, slider (QWERTY), and touchscreen form factors so it was very difficult to pick a clear winner in each.

Bar - Nokia N82
Flip - Motorola MING A1800
QWERTY bar - RIM Blackberry 9700
Rotate - Nokia Twist 7705
Slider (number pad) - Nokia N86 8GB
Slider (QWERTY) - Nokia N900
Touchscreen - Apple iPhone 3GS

The Nokia N82 still stands ontop of the bar phones with its venerable TI OMAP 2420 platform packing hardware graphics acceleration, a rarity during its release. I don't recall anyone releasing a flip smartphone this year but the Motorola MING A1800 with its, UNIX based mixed with Java, JUIX OS remains an interesting phone that is sadly not available outside Asia. There was only 1 rotate smartphone released this year. The Blackbery 9700 won the QWERTY bar factor with its ease to use UI, trend setting optical navigation, and comfortable keyboard.  The Motorola Droid doesn't even come close with its often criticized keyboard.  The iPhone wins the touchscreen category, as most should expect, because of its intuitive responsive touchscreen and user interface (UI).

Best Smartphone by Function
As most reviewers say, there's no clear smartphone that will fit everyone's needs.  Otherwise we'd all be uing the same phone.  And some consumers make their smartphone buying decision based on their primary need so here are my top choices for the different smartphone categories:

Camera - Nokia N86 8MP
E-mail - BlackBerry Bold 9700
Tweaking/Modding - Nokia N900
Games - Apple iPhone 3GS
Making Calls - Nokia E52
Movies - Nokia N900
Navigation - Nokia N95 8GB with Garmin XT
Productivity - Nokia E72
Social Networking - Apple iPhone 3GS
Web Browsing - Nokia N900

Nokia's high end camera phones have traditionally captured some of the best photos and the N86 8MP is no exception.  It doesn't hurt to also win the Technical Image Press Association (TIPA) award for mobile imagery in 2009.
If you want no hassle e-mail, you go with Blackberry and their top of the line device is the 9700. The ergonomic keyboards have become a trademark of a Blackberry device.  Unfortunately a string of e-mail outages may strip them of this award.
The Nokia N900 runs a Linux based OS called Maemo allowing its users root access to the device.  Nokia even hosted a hacking contest called PUSH.
Even Nintendo feels threatened by the iPhone.  With the addition of hardware graphics acceleration and a very popular AppStore, the iPhone 3GS is positioned to take handheld gaming far beyond anything before.
As silly as it may sound, the E52 wins here.  Let's be honest, the number pad beats the touchscreen, it's not fun dialling on the chicklet-sized QWERTY keys, and reception isn't a strong point of HTC or Apple.
With a 3.5 inch touchscreen at 800x480 pixel, giving it a higher pixel density than both the 3GS and HD2, the N900 supports various codecs & players and TV out for an enjoyable movie experience.
The integrated GPS on the N95 is far more sensitive than most current phones.  With Garmin XT, th N95 becomes a very competent navigational tool.
Every social networking tool has an iPhone app and there are many apps that combine social networking features.  If you find it on another phone operating system, you'll find it on the iPhone.
Flash support, a large touch screen, and a Mozillla powered browser, the N900 delivers the best Interne experience on a phone.

Find out the best overall smartphone after the jump.

Overall Best Smartphone for 2009
The best smartphone is one that sets the standards for the rest to follow or beat and potentially changes how the smartphone game is played.  2009 had far more smartphones released and more operating systems in the marke than any previous year making it one of the most difficult to pick the best smartphone.  But after a few hours talking it over with some fellow phone enthusiasts, I came up with my pick for 2009.

Runner up

Nokia N900

Running the Maemo 5 operating system, based on Linux (Debian distribution), Nokia has created the ultimate device for the technophile.  And it doesn't hurt that Nokia included so many hardware features for its users to tinker with.  Think of it as Nokia's version of Lego Mindstorm.  They've even hosted a hacking contest with the N900 called PUSH.  But even if you aren't the kind to tinker with your phone, Maemo provides a cohesive mature UI, a good number of applications like Open Office and a Mozilla-powered browser, quality camera, wealth of connectivity choices, and powerful multitasking capabilities.  The N900 is literally desktop Linux in your hands.


Apple iPhone 3GS

The iPhone set the standard for what is expected from a touchscreen UI and continues to set the bar which every touchscreen phone will be compared to.  It prompted Windows Mobile to increase the size of their buttons and forced Nokia S60 5th edition to add kinetic scrolling.  It was the first phone released to the general public with the new ARM Cortex A8 CPU giving users immense computing power on the go.  Games released for the 3GS were hardware accelerated 3D - it's what Nokia Ngage should've been.  The iPhone 3GS sets new standards for performance and ease of use while everyone is still trying to catch up with its predecessor.

If you don't agree with any of my choices, feel free to leave a comment on what smartphone you would choose and your reasoning.  Perhaps I'll change my decision.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Comparing dual LED to Xenon Flash - N82, N86 8MP, and N79 Low Light Showdown!

The Nokia N86 8MP (right) is positioned as Nokia's premiere imaging range of camera phones for 2009 and set to replace the venerable N82 (left). It is Nokia's first device to feature a wide-angle 8MP Carl Zeiss len camera with variable aperature and second generation dual-LED. Unfortunately, many N82 users bemoaned the absence of Xenon flash. Nokia responded with a slide show comparing the N86 8MP to N82 in low light which mainly focussed on when flash would be triggered when taking the photo of close stationary objects. Interestingly, they didn't address flash distance or moving objects in low light. Which I think are more important in real life situations such as taking photos of your friends at a bar or your children going trick or treating during Halloween.

Full review after the jump.

Photo dimensions (pixels)2592x19442592x19443264x2448
F number/Aperture2.8/5.62.8/5.42.4-2.8/4.6
Flash typeXenonDual-LEDDual-LED

Flash Distance

All camera phones were set to auto mode with automatic flash in a room with no light. I placed 3 objects on the ground a meter apart from each other in front of the camera. The big boxes were 4 meters away and the wall was about 5 meters away.






Canon SD850i


The N79 had to increase its ISO setting very high to brighten up the image which led to a lot of noise and a generally useless photo. The E71 was totally useless. Obviously the dedicated camera produced the brightest flash and clearest photo.

The N86 is a significant improvement over the N79 even though both use a dual-LED flash. I'm sure the larger sensor and improved LEDs helped the N86.

The N82 produced a much noiser photo compared to the N86 and the N82 needed a higher ISO setting to get a similar brightness to the N86. So just to see what would happen if I set the N82 to medium ISO to force it to use ISO-400.




With similar ISO settings, the N82 produces a definitely darker image, similar noise, and very similar details.


Photo capture of a moving object with flash

I used a metronome since it has a generally consistent speed, easily recognized by readers all around the world, and has various speed settings. I threw out all photos of the metromone arm at the very far right and very far left since the arm moves much slower at that point. I took 3 photos with each phone at each speed setting.

I found that each phone produced consistent image quality between the 3 photos taken. All camera phones captured photos between 100-200 ISO regardless of metronome speed. Now let's look at the detailed results.

Low speed (40 GRAVE)

Mid speed (72 ANDANTE)


High speed (120 ANIMATO)

The N79 and N86 produced similarly blurry photos of the metronome arm. Although the N86 sensor can take clearer photos of stationary objects, the sensor still can't get enough light in a short time to capture a still photo of the moving object.

It's no question that Xenon pays dividends with a clear photo of the metronome arm. As reported in many studies, Xenon produces more light at a specific object in a shorter amount of time than LED can. Which is why photos tend to be blurry in dimly lit environments when taken with current camera phones. Let's hope that either LED technology makes some significant improvements soon or Nokia switches back to Xenon for their next premiere imaging device.



Overall, the N86 surprised me by it's impressive flash distance that produced images of very little noise, even when compared to the N82's Xenon flash. But as predicted the N82 captured motion photos significantly better than the dual-LED equipped N86. Comparing the N86 to the N79, we saw an impressive improvement to the dual-LED and sensor technology that allowed the N86 to produce far superior distance photos. So it's a give and take with the N82 better at freezing motion while the N86 is better for distant stationary objects. I personally would prefer freezing motion for clearer photos while the flash distance is comparable. Until Nokia releases another Nseries with Xenon, the N86 is definitely a worthy device that gives the N82 quite a run.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nokia N82: Two Years Review

Looking and functioning like new after two years of use and taking over 5000 photos and 70 videos.

After my year with the N82 review posted back in 2008, I'm here to review the N82 again for its second year.

The Nokia N82 has been out for a little over two years and cell phone trends have left this phone looking dated. It has a small screen, no touch screen, and no slide out QWERTY keyboard. I don't think there's any respectable cell phone reviewer/blogger that still uses this phone. But for me, the N82 still doesn't have a direct competitor.

Full review after the jump.

Two years ago, Nokia was faced with heavy competition from Sony Ericsson (SE) with their photo-centric Cybershot line of phones. To counter this, Nokia's flagship phone, the N95, was retooled into the body of a candy bar to compete directly with SE's 5MP camera phone, K790i. The N82 shared many of the same features of the N95 like integrated GPS, WiFi (802.11b/g), and 5MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics but it swapped out the LED flash with a Xenon flash to match the K790i's Xenon and Nokia had spent extra effort tuning the camera software for speed and quality. This instantly made the N82 Nokia's best camera phone and one of the best for night photos.

Xenon flash make photos taken in the dark look good.
Xenon flash is the main thing that keeps me using the N82. Most phones these days are using dual LED flash which is a lot better than the single LEDs used back during the Nokia 6682 1MP days. But they don't come close to amount of lumens you get from Xenon. There are a few papers out on the Internet that show LED technology can potentially match Xenon for brightness but the amount of time needed to light up something to match Xenon would be a few seconds, which is too slow for action photos.

But Xenon is not the only camera strength for the N82. The photo algorithm used on the N82 for photo capture and JPEG compression goes neck and neck with the best current N-series camera phone, the N86. Images are sharp, noise is kept to a minimum, and blurring isn't used much. There's good reason why Nokia enthusiasts keep coming back for comparisons against the N82 when Nokia puts out a new camera phone.

Build Quality

After many dents, the N82 still keeps working.
It has really held up well. I've dropped my N82 all over the place and on hard concrete and asphalt and the only thing that shows is the scratches and dents. It never shattered with battery or memory card popping out on any occasion I dropped it.

The N82 has not developed any new creaking since the first year and the D-pad still feels like new. The spring loaded camera lens cover feels a little less springy than last year but it could be dust getting in the way.


Dust goes into the front facing camera through the ear piece.
The front facing camera has gotten about 1/4 covered with dust coming in from the ear piece. If you strongly tap your phone on one of its sides, the dust should drop to one side. The battery cover still leaks in some dust and so does the memory card cover but it hasn't gotten worst. Dust has not gotten under the display yet unlike my E71. I also haven't gotten too much dust into the 5MP camera yet so the lens cover is actually doing a great job

Software Remarks
I've only updated the firmware 3 times on my N82. My N82 is on the latest firmware V 31.0.016 as of this writing. I recall one time it crashed with Garmin running so crashes are very rare on the N82.

With the popularity of touch-based phones, the N82 operating system, S60 3rd edition, has taken a back seat to both S60 5th edition and Maemo. This means less developer focus and little software released on this platform. The multitude of phone operating systems in the market like Android, Windows Mobile, and iPhone hasn't helped S60 3rd edition either. Thankfully the software I need is already available to S60 3rd edition like:
  • Office productivity - QuickOffice
  • Navigation - Garmin XT/Nokia Maps
  • Multimedia - Mobitubia/RealPlayer/Nokia Music
  • Games - NGage (it's been discontinued but still some good games like Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil)/vBag (GameBoy Advanced emulator)/MobiPad (allows you to use your Wii controller with your N82) - I don't see why everyone is so excited by Maemo being able to play SNES games when older N95/N82 phones handled GBA games that are usually ports of SNES games.
  • Browser - Nokia browser (I may need to switch to Opera as the built-in browser doesn't support all web sites or standards)
For me, the N82 has what I need for a smart phone even though it may not be the funnest phone (iPod/iPhone pun intended). But speaking of iPhone, I've been let down numerous times when I've tried to share photos with other people through Bluetooth only to find out their iPhone or Blackberry doesn't support Bluetooth OBEX (file transfer). Bluetooth OBEX has been implemented on phones since the SE T68i from 2002. iPhone 3.0 adds support to connecting to other iPhones however. Nokia definitely embraces industry standards and sharing a lot more than its competitors.

The Nokia N82 playing GameBoy Advanced games through vBag. Nseries Freescale phones could not run vBag at an acceptable framerate. It's even more fun hooking up the N82 to a TV and pairing a Wii controller to the N82 for some big screen gaming.

Unfortunately Nokia hasn't released a new firmware for the N82 since 2008 so I think Nokia has ended support for the N82.

Hardware Remarks
When the N82 was released, it was on the bleeding edge with many technologies that were just emerging. Even though the N82 is a two year old phone, it supports much of the features found on the latest smart phones like:
  • 5MP camera with autofocus and macro
  • integrated GPS
  • WiFi (802.11b/g)
  • WCDMA 3G (unfortunately only at 2100MHz for Europe/Japan and capped at 4MB/s)
  • 3D graphics acceleration
  • TV output
  • Bluetooth
  • 32GB microSDHC support
  • 3D accelerometer (Motion sensor)
  • MicroUSB

The only things I can think it misses are digital compass, touch screen, full QWERTY keyboard, and microUSB charging. There's no reason to look pass the N82 as a dated phone because it keeps up with the best in the market.

The N82's built-in GPS is also a lot faster at locking onto satellites than any of the Freescale powered Nokia phones that have been released. I don't have the patience to wait for GPS to warm up. And in difficult situations like New York City, the N82 could obtain a lock but Freescale powered phones like the E71 or N97 never got a lock.

One stand out feature that has kept the N82 without direct competitor is its Xenon flash.

Without Xenon, the N82 would not be the best Nokia camera phone. A bit of dust has got pass the lens cover and onto the lens.

Two main problems come from equipping a phone with Xenon flash is that the charge capacitor is large so the phone won't be thin and charging up the capacitor requires a lot of power so it kills battery life. These two drawbacks have swayed manufacturers to choose small low powered LEDs which don't produce nearly enough light in the short time it takes to capture a photos. Therefore LED flash usually produces photos with ghosting or blurring.

Photos in the dark (N97 to N82):

Dimly lit night mode with flash (N85 / N82)

Dual LED isn't even close to matching Xenon.

I little interesting fact,, a restaurant review site, exclusively uses the N82 to capture their food and restaurant photos.

Battery Life
In my second year with the phone, it has been lasting me about 1.5 days with little use. With heavy camera usage, it barely lasts 3/4 of a day so I always need my car charger on road trips. If battery life gets worst I can buy a new battery unlike some other phones.

To Conclude
While a long term review of a phone might not be the most attention grabbing blog entry since everyone is excited for any N900, iPhone, or Android news, but a long term review tells you a lot about the quality of the manufacturer. Nokia spents considerable effort to ensure their phones are built to last and it shows with the N82. Nokia equips their Nseries phones with powerful features that keep their phones relevant for years. The combination of Xenon flash and great camera software make the Nokia N82 the premier camera phone with no direct competitors.

I'm looking forward to another year with my trusty N82 as my primary phone!

A little snipplet of the places I've taken my N82 in the second year:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The "What does Mobile Computing Mean to You" Winner!

Thanks to everyone that took part! I really enjoyed watching/reading what everyone thought about mobile computing. A lot of thought was put into the videos that ranged from replicating a dual for the laptop to getting lost driving at night.

It was down to the wire to choosing a winner...

Since I had only had 1 Nokia N97 to give away I had to choose one video...

The winner of Eric's Corner's Nokia N97 giveaway tells me that mobile computing is about:

  • fun
  • freedom
  • spontaneity
  • community
  • efficiency

Congratulations to CraigM who did a great job with showcasing how technology is put into real use to solving some of life's challenges. Hope you'll find some good uses with the Nokia N97!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Nokia N97 Giveaway: What does Mobile Computing Mean to You?

** update ** the contest is now closed. I will announce a winner this Sunday so stay tuned

You might recall, the Nokia N97 was released in the US far ahead of any other country in the world. That's a first for a Nokia flagship device. It shows that Nokia really cares about the North American market and is serious about getting it right.

Now Ira Frimere, the Nokia N97 US Product Manager, shares his thoughts on mobile computing.

Tell me what mobile computing means to you and you will have a chance at winning a Nokia N97 NAM courtesy of WOMWorld!

You must be a resident of the USA or Canada. You have until October 16, 2009 11:59 PM Eastern time to submit it. I accept video (preferred) or blog responses (post the link to your video or blog in a comment on this post so I can find it) or twitter. I'll also be accepting posts on Howard Forums. I will not accept any submissions previously submitted to any similar contest.

I'll pick my favorite response and announce the winner here on Sunday, October 18, 2009.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Nokia N97 Review - Multimedia & Conclusion

The Nokia N97 is the flagship Nseries product for 2009 and includes many of the expected multimedia features like 5 MP camera, integrated GPS, and WiFi and includes some new ones like a digital compass and FM transmitter. But what sets the N97 apart from its predecessors is how well these multimedia functionality are integrated together in the software.

Read my N97 hardware and N97 software reviews

More after the jump!

Bug: While typing this review, my Note application kept crashing without saving when the note got too long. Turning off predictive typing stopped the crashing.

The Nokia N97 includes a 5 megapixel camera sporting Carl Zeiss Tessar lens with dual LED flash, autofocus, and macro mode.

The N97 camera application looks different than other Nseries devices with an emphasis on simplicity. But that's not to say there's a lost in control as the advanced functionality is hidden in the menus. The camera retains white balance, color tone, light sensitivity, high-level ISO, exposure, and contrast controls.

A simplified camera app makes capturing great photos a click away.

The new camera application features a simple one press camera taking button that handles autofocusing and photo capture - just like on the blackberry and iPhone. The one click photo taking button is useful for quickly taking a focussed photo and for people not accustomed with a camera phone having focussing. The physical shutter release is still very useful for manually setting the focus before taking the photo and for taking self photos. In any mode, the camera will automatically use macro-mode if you're focussing on something near.

Advanced camera settings are hidden in the 3 horizontal bar bar button on the right

The camera software still doesn't save your settings, like contrast, after each use.

Just to see how the N97's camera compares, I pitted it against Nokia's premier camera phone, the N82:

Indoors (N97 to N82):

The N97 handled the incoming sunlight a lot better than the N82 in auto mode. However the N82 photo is sharper showing better detail in the bolts of the plane.

Outside (N97 to N82):

I think the N97 produced a sharper image but both cameras produced very similar results.

Macro Mode (N97, N82 without macro, N82 with macro):

The N97 produced a more colorful photo than the duller N82. Although the focussing area was slightly different (the N97 was higher than the N82), the focus area on the N97 is 25% narrower than the N82.

Dimly lit interior with flash:

The camera software and dual LED flash on the N97 did not work well together as a number of photos were washed out with a flood of white in dimly lit. The dual LED is overly bright and can't be turned off when focussing so it's not ideal for taking photos in light sensitive places like the art gallery.

Dimly lit macro (N97 to N82):

The N97 produced a warmer photo with more accurate colors than the N82. However the N97 had more noise compared to the N82.

Photos in the dark (N97 to N82):

The N82 produced a much brighter photo and had more accurate colors. The N97 photo was grainly and dim.

The photo processing time after taking a photo was slow, taking about 4 seconds to finish saving the photo. This went down to around 3 seconds with the v12 firmware.

Although I keep referring to the Nokia N97 as having dual LED flash, it actually has 3 LEDs. There is 2 white LEDs right above the camera and a small red LED between the two white LEDs. The red LED is flashed when taking a photo under sunlight.

Bugs - if you require a passcode on your phone, you'll run into frequent problems with unlocking the phone where the screen wouldn't light up. For exanple, the flipping down the camera cover won't unlock or prompt for passcode and the camera application doesn't start in both cases.

Defect - The lens cover on my N97 does scratch the lens. I have 2 deep scratches close to the LED flash. I have 2 more medium scratchs running through the camera area. However, I didn't notice a big impact to camera quality.

Although the N97 camera sounds very 2007 (i.e. the Nokia N95) on paper, it really is. It adds widescreen support but accomplishes it by reducing the video height.

The video recording software saves some settings like flash but not all, such as scene, after each use.

Video quality settings:
4:2 aspect ratio high: MPEG4, 640 x 480, 29 FPS, ACC Mono @ 48 KHz, 2.93Mb/s
Widescr. high quality: MPEG4, 640 x 352, 29 FPS, ACC Mono @ 48 KHz, 1.95Mb/s (default)
Sharing quality: H.263, 176 x 144, 15.5 FPS, AMR Narrowband Mono @ 8KHz, 107Kb/s

Other settings: Show GPS Info, Audio Recording, Scene modes (auto, low light, night), White balance, Color tone.

The N97's large screen makes watching captured videos on the N97 look especially nice.

Sample Widescr. high quality video:

The data connection software, called Destinations, is a vast improvement over previous S60 software. It works like Birdstep's SmartConnect by grouping a mix of multiple access points like home wifi, office wifi, and carrier network into a single point for use by all your applications. As with SmartConnect, you can define priorities to the access points so it will use your home wifi network before trying to use your carrier's network. Unlike SmartConnect, if you set your software to prompt, Destinations will search through your access points and suggest the best access point based on your priority. And any access point you successfully connect will be automatically added to the bottom of your group of access points. It's so intuitive that I rarely need to manage access points for my mail synchronizing.

The N97 support 802.11 b/g which most wireless routers support.

The N97's WiFi antenna is weaker than my E71 even when its keyboard is opened. As you may remember from my E71 review, the E71 is weaker than the N82 in pulling WiFi signals.

Sadly WiFi doesn't work without a SIM card.

Bug: In the Wifi wizard, the right Exit button can stop working but Option > Exit still works

Bug: Wifi wizard, connected then it wouldn't respond. Switching to the application showed a dimmed screen. Couldn't kill app and it started to slow down the whole phone. Had to shut off the phone. Got stuck connected to an access point and not possible to connect back to it and the connection manager doesn't show the active connection

Integrated GPS
I turned off assisted GPS to test the integrated GPS. Lock on time from cold boot (no prior lock ons) and stationary was twice as long as my N82 but beat my E71 which never managed to lock on within 10 minutes. However, in motion, the N97 had a lot of difficulty locking on compared to both the N82 and E71 - sometimes taking up to 20 minutes to lock on.

The N97 has a weak GPS with v12 firmware.

While locked, the GPS was jumping all over the place and frequently didn't report me moving even in an open area with direct access to the clear skies. With both my E71 and N97 running the same version of Garmin XT driving in downtown of a major Canadian city, the N97 frequently showed me driving between streets and easily got disoriented when I was stopped at traffic lights.

The N97 is very jumpy so you'll frequently see yourselve between streets while driving

Some users report the internal GPS was better before installing Nokia Maps 3 but I couldn't report that. I'm hoping firmware v20 will resolve issues with the GPS. I wouldn't rely on the N97 as my dedicated GPS.

FM Transmitter
Just like other recent Nseries devices, you can broadcast the audio from your N97 over FM frequencies - great for cars without an auxillery input. The frequency is configurable so you just have to find a frequency not used by your local radio stations. The audio produced was had a noticable amount of static and more muffled than listening through headphones. I would say it's worst that a real FM radio station but it's great for road trips into areas with no radio stations.

The two small speakers at the top and bottom left side of the phone are tiny and weak.
Audio through the headset was also weak

The Nokia N97 includes 32GB of internal memory and supports removable microSDHC support.

The removable memory card lies under the back cover but you don't need to turn off the phone to access it.

I tested the N97 with a 8GB microSDHC and it had no problems with it. The internal memory and the removeable media both act the same in the phone - as a separate drives. One major advantage of the internal memory is that it's formatted in FAT32 file system which is better space usage over the FAT format of SD cards.

The BP-4L 1500mAh battery is the largest used in Nokia's line of phones. It's the same battery found on Nokia's E71, which is known for having a long standby time. Unfortunately, the N97 doesn't fare so well with the same battery, lasting only 2.5 days long with my typical usage of some camera, light GPS usage, light WiFi Internet browsing. My E71 would last 4 days under similar usage but my N82 wouldn't make 2 days. The longer battery life made using the N97 as my MP3/video player compared to my N82.

Being Nokia's biggest product launch this year against the mounting pressure from competitors such Apple and Google, there's bound to be criticism when expectations are so high. The N97 retains the legacy S60 platform which can be both a good thing (easy for previous S60 users to get around) or a bad thing (not as intuitive as it could be). Nokia made a significant effort to revamping the S60 software with a widget home screen, more intuitive reorganization of menu items, and improving the ease of use for beginners.

The new form factor is a welcome addition to the Nseries line of phones. With the qwerty keyboard and powerful 5MP camera, the N97 can easily replace my N82/E71 combination. But for those looking for a combination business tool while taking quality photos, you should also consider the E75 and upcoming E72.

To be honest, this isn't a groundbreaking product like the N95 was when it was launched but it's a natural evolution of the S60 platform. But it is worthy of the title of Nokia's flagship device, a big improvement over Nokia's previous flagship, the N96, and I think it'll do very well in markets where Nokia is strong.

Build quality...........7
Connectivity...............7 (a weak GPS hurt this score)
Features for $.........8
Software................7 (still buggy)
Battery life.............7


*amazing screen
*very impressive camera under sunlight
*Great incoming sound
*landscape screen
*longer lasting battery
*touchscreen or QWERTY keyboard when needed
*better data connection handling
*built-in FM transmitter


*thick phone
*no HTML in e-mails in built-in Mail client
*grainy camera in dark
*Paying for navigation in Nokia Maps
*creaking phone case
*smudges easily
*screen scratches
*software bugs throughout the phone
*lack of quality 3rd party software
*really bad GPS lock on and stability

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nokia N97 Review - Software

The Nokia N97 is the first Nseries to run Nokia's touch screen optimized S60 5th operating system and only the second Nokia phone to use it. I've had the N97 over a month now and made it my primary phone so I hope to give you a good idea what it feels to use the phone. In my first N97 review I covered the hardware aspect which is only a part of the phone. Here I will be reviewing the software that powers the N97.

Thanks to WOM World for supplying me the N97-1 in this review.

More after the jump!

S60 hasn't gone through much of a change - great for people already familiar with S60.

Nokia E71 with S60 3rd edition, Nokia N97 with S60 5th edition, and N82 with S60 3rd edition

Firmware Updates
It's not common to see firmware updates being reviewed so early in a product review but I want to emphasize to both current N97 users and prospective N97 owners on the importance of updates and Nokia's dedication to their products.

During my review process Nokia had updated the firmware for the N97 from V 11.0.021 (15-06-2009) to V 12.0.024 (04-08-09). This gave the N97 much better response and screen redraw speed throughout the phone. I also ran into less system errors and reboots. To put it simply, the N97 is still a work in progress, much like the N95, and Nokia is two or three firmwares away from a great phone.

Thankfully Nokia has included a very convenient easy to use over-the-air firmware upgrade software powered by Red Bend. Just start SW update under Applications and it'll automatically check online for software updates and one click downloads and installs it just like Microsoft's Windows Update.

Nokia's software update is a fabulous tool to help keep your phone working at its best.

Operating System

Home screen
The much hyped widget based home screen is a big customization improvement to S60. There are still limits as you can only add each widget once. So you can't display an Accuweather widget for both your home city and the city you're visiting on the home screen. But Nokia has given the user much more flexibility by including 2 shortcut widgets so you can add up to 8 application shortcuts and 2 contacts widgets to put 8 of your favorite contacts. Too bad Nokia didn't include 2 e-mail widgets so users can follow both their work e-mail and their personal e-mail. To configure any of the widgets, click Options > Edit Content and click on the widget you want to edit or tap and hold the widget to change the positioning. One annoyance with the home screen is that a slight flick of the finger on the widgets will hide them all instead making it more useful like revealing another home screen. To re-enable the widgets you can flick your finger again on the empty space or click Options > Show content.

The e-mail widget is improved over previous incarnations allowing the display of up to 2 of the latest e-mails and number of new e-mails or just displays the number of new e-mails.

Double clicking and single clicking isn't annoying as I thought it'd be but it gives the impression the phone is too slow and not capturing all touch input. You just have to realize that it's not an iPhone but S60 done up with touch so you still get scroll bars.

Screen rotation is fast enough. There is a noticeable delay where the screen goes blank with just the background color but it is very livable. The v12 improved the screen redraw speed considerably.

Nokia has gone through S60 and reorganized many of the menu items - more so compared to previous attempts. If I wasn't so accustomed to S60 I would think they made some good decisions to grouping similar functions together.

For example:
App manager is now in settings. Use Organize > Delete to remove applications.
Connectivity in Settings
Music Player, Radio, Music Store all merged into the Music application
Landmarks, GPS data, and Positioning all merged into the Location application

There's no smart dial on the homescreen. It would've made the dialpad much more useful.

Nokia, please add the letters to the numbers for the next firmware.

It would have been nice if Nokia included the letters associated with the numbers in the dialing user interface. Otherwise making a call to something like 1-800-CALL-ATT would be difficult. They fixed this on the N900.

When you finish an incoming call while the phone was locked and "Show call duration" is enabled, the N97 immediately locks after finishing a call so the call duration popup is quickly lost. This doesn't happen on S60 3rd edition so I believe it's a usability bug. I still hate how S60 doesn't keep call duration for each call; even my 3 year old SE W810i did this.

Scrolling with the narrow and small scroll bar is very frustrating. In a long note like this reviewing I'm writing, the scroll bar is narrow and small making it difficult to select and stopping it at the right spot in the file is hard as slight movements scroll a lot. This is where kinetic scrolling is sorely needed.

Input methods

One of the draws to the N97 is its full QWERTY keyboard but for those times when you just can't be bothered to open up the phone or need one-handed operation, the N97 offers numerous input methods:

T9 for the older schoolers

It even works in landscape

Handwriting recognition

The handwriting recognition is fairly good. I just had problems with having the N97 recognize my 'i' which turns into 'j'.
Handwriting recognizes both lowercase and uppercase input but it makes fewer mistakes with uppercase.

Typing software - it doesn't have some of the little usability enhancements found in Blackberries for typing like capitalizing 'I' when it stands alone or placing a period after hitting space twice.

Predictive typing is disabled by default but it's something every user should consider turning on to address some of the poor keyboard layout. For example, if you need an apostrophe you can just hit the period and the software will suggest apostrophe above which you just hit up on the d pad to accept. I never used predictive typing on the E71 but it makes a difference on the N97

With predictive typing turned on, the N97 is sluggish and can't keep up with my typing - and I don't even type fast!

Unfortunately the N97 does not offer an on screen QWERTY keyboard, as found on the 5800, for the few people that want it.

Bug - with keyboard locking turned on, if you leave the phone open, let it dim and autolock, the N97 won't unlock even if you open it or hit unlock key. I had to take out the battery to reset the N97.

Included or Nokia Software
For a smartphone to be successful it has to include some useful software and Nokia spent a lot of money in the last few years differentiating its products with a wealth of included applications like Ovi Mail and Nokia Maps.

The S60 contacts holds information the same way it did in previous versions of S60 with each contact having first name, last name, various phone numbers, and various details. The number of contacts limit is the memory of the phone.

For S60 5th edition, they've added an additional page as above that makes calling, texting, and video calling easier to click but it's 1 more click to look up phone numbers. You can no longer switch to the details of the previous/next contact by hitting left or right on the Dpad.

Mail & Mail for Exchange
If you've used Mail or Mail for Exchange (MfE) on other S60 devices such as the E71 or N95 then you won't notice any new features. Mail handles e-mail, text messages, Bluetooth transfers, and MMS. MfE provides Microsoft Exchange synchronization support to your Nokia S60 device through the Mail client (more details can be found in my MfE article). If you're planning to use the N97 for personal e-mail I highly suggest installing Nokia's new Nokia Messaging to replace the built-in client which features simple wizards to help set up your email account and boasts HTML support. Unfortunately MfE users are stuck with the built-in client.

Some changes to the Mail client are:
The top tab for Inbox, Sent, Draft, etc. is not scrollable.
Scrolling through a large list of e-mail is difficult as the scroll bar gets smaller as number of e-mail increases. When the scroll bar is small, the slight movements put you somewhere else on the list, likely not where you wanted to be.

Mail still doesn't support HTML or rich text email so all email appear as pure text
Also the much used Search, found in the latest S60 devices, does not support mail for exchange.

Oddly, turning off date grouping was found under messaging > other.

Bug: The mail indicator at the top of the standby screen won't disappear even after having read all my messages and email.


This is a big improvement over existing S60 devices. The event details now open instantly in contrast to the E71 where you needed to wait a second. Each of the listed details is also a link to the full description of the event. The Change view, add meeting, and add to-do note buttons at the bottom are very useful. With the N97s much larger screen, the week view is much easier to read than on the E71.

With the phone locked, the N97 will blink with the meeting alert once very quickly and not blink again as my E71 does (fixed in v12) and repeat as the E71 does.

Nokia Browser
Powered by Apple WebKit, the same technology found in the iPhone and Android browsers, the Nokia Browser was one of the first firmware embedded full browsers. Unfortunately, the Nokia Browser hasn't undergone much of a change since then and still runs an old version 412 of WebKit while the iPhone and Android run version 528. The Nokia Browser is considered slow to render pages when compared to more contemporary browsers. Many power users have switched to the faster and lighter Java-based Opera Mini, which now supports touch.

The browser is one of the few included applications that support kinetic scrolling. While scrolling it will display a thin scroll bar on the right that gives you a visual indication of where you are on the page but you cannot click on the scroll bar. I found it slower to get to the bottom of a page with kinetic scrolling comapred to the Dpad.

Like previous Nokia browsers, it does not include the built-in function to open new windows. Navigating the multiple windows opened by Javascript is clumsy at best requiring about 5 clicks.

With the added CPU speed over the last generation of S60 devices like the E71, page rendering was faster and the in-browser flash played smoothly.

My computer ran into problems so my n97 became my computer. Too bad the browser doesn't support activeX which is required for my work.

Gone is the flashy but useless carousel photo viewer in the N95. Replacing it is a very plain but functional photo viewer:

Pulling up the full image takes a long time - much longer than my N82. You're treated to a zoomed in version of the thumbnail while you wait. Zooming it done through a scroll bar.
Bug - photos crashed a number of time when zooming in on specific photos.

Photo Browser
This is a little beta project of Nokia's but I thought it'd be nice to include here to show my readers that Nokia is trying to improve the user experience but hasn't gotten it stable enough to include it with the firmware.

All those white outlines boxes should have photos in them but the software is slow pulling the thumbnails

The photo browser is much more geared to the touch screen of the 5th edition with support for kinetic scrolling and nice eye candy while scrolling. Too bad that pulling up the full photo is slow like the included Photo application. Moreover, zooming on this app is fairly useless as it magnifies the area directly below your finger so your finger blocks what you're trying to see.


The music player remains the same as previous S60 devices.

To have your newly loaded music appear in the Music application, you may need to click Options > refresh library.

Ovi Store

Many users have complained about Ovi search not working well. AllAboutSymbian even made their own. You'll need Ovi account to download anything, including the free things. You'll find a few useful applications like Bloomberg, AccuWeather, and Drawing in Ovi but absent are useful staple software like YouTube.

Nokia Maps

When I got my N97 I immediately upgraded Nokia Maps to 3.01 v09wk26 b02. Unfortunately, a number of users have reported that Nokia Maps 3.0 causes the GPS to become unstable having difficulties holding a satellite lock and giving jumpy data.

Realplayer has been the default video player with S60 for as long as I can remember. As expected, it will play mp4 and 3gpp formats but doesn't support the popular DiVX format.

Realplayer has been touch enhanced and made to look less cheesy and cumbersome than in S60 3rd edition

The flashplayer powers flash within the Nokia browser but you can also open flash FLV files within the included File Manager in Office.

Great to play those saved FLV videos from YouTube but lack of play controls limit its usefulness.
Bug: For FLV videos, audio shutters near the beginning and audio shutters after a few minutes of play it will shutter again and continue.


It's a fun simple application. No OCR support to convert notes to text. There are only a limited colors and editing tools. It's also not vector based.

You can even open photos captured with the N97 and make some interesting drawings:

Third Party Applications
No smartphone is complete without even more software! The main draw to a smartphone is the wealth of compatible 3rd party software to make the phone more useful to the user.

Similar to the transition between Nokia's older S60 2nd edition like the N70 to S60 3rd edition like the N73, the transition to 5th edition breaks compatibility with a lot of applications. Although some of your older S60 3rd edition application may install, not all will run (i.e. Garmin XT version 4) and not all will work well (i.e. Mobitubia doesn't have back button). So before you make the jump to a S60 5th edition, make sure your favorite applications or a viable alternative are available. Unfortunately there aren't a large number of applications designed specifically for S60 5th edition just yet.

Big bug - open PhoneTorch and leave in default settings, turn on light, open camera lense cover, and close camera lense cover. The N97 will now display lines and then reboot.


Garmin now works on 5th edition and, of course, works with the internal GPS.
Bug - Gamin is still buggy with frequent crashes, performance problems, and map drawing bug in landscape mode.


Changing Connection doesn't let you choose the specific connection so you're left guessing if it's using WiFi or your carrier's network

It would've been nice if Nokia displayed the left and right soft keys on the screen for non-compatible S60 3rd edition software since 5th edition doesn't include left/right keys. I tried Mobitubia on the N97 but couldn't navigation back as it's done with a soft key which isn't displayed.

The Nokia N97 software makes some great improvements to much used functionality like the calendar and Nokia Maps. However the N97 felt like a work in progress even after the firmware update to v12. I encountered more than a handful of times I've had to either restart the phone or pull out the battery to fix the phone. There are a number of navigation inconsistencies throughout the operating system such as scroll bars or kinetic scrolling, single clicking or double clicking, and using soft keys or holding your finger on the screen. And a final big sting to S60 5th as a smartphone platform is the lack of quality 3rd party software compared to its competitors. I'm hoping the rumoured v20 firmware update in October will fix much of my N97 software complaints.

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