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.

Navigation
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.

Contacts
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.

Calendar


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.

Photos
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.

Music

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
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

Flashplayer
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.

Drawing

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.

PhoneTorch
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

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.

YouTube

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.

Overall
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.

Continue to N97 Review - Multimedia & Conclusion > >

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

The gps antenna it's a fail!
The N97 have a very bad gps signal reception.

dsi r4 said...

it is nice set where any one like to bye it if the cost is maintained and reduced down, the features are good in this model..

Rolex watches said...

The N97 have a very bad gps signal reception.

putra said...

wow nice review i like it, i will try it.

opickaza said...

nice info brother