Nokia's N-series smartphone flagship N97 has seen plenty of flak this year, deservedly so. Not only was it badly executed and came with outdated internal hardware when it arrived, it was also blighted with bugs - both in its firmware and hardware. The choice of plastic material used didn't help either and the keyboard was one of the poorest in its class. If you wanted a QWERTY based Symbian phone, you would be better off getting a E71, E75 or even the now dated E90.
With the N97 Mini, Nokia aimed to to rectify whatever was wrong with the original N97. They have succeeded - to a certain degree. Comparison pictures may not show it well, but the N97 Mini is significantly smaller than the N97 and feels better to hold and use. The stainless steel material used increases the premium feel of the phone and the weight (138g) gives it a reassuringly solid feel. The display, whilst smaller, is perfect for a device of this size. The sliding screen mechanism is the same but the tilt isn't as extravagant as the N97, which, in my opinion, offers a better view of the screen when opened.
Unfortunately like the N97, Nokia has only managed to cram in three rows of keys. The wrongly positioned d-pad has been removed giving users more room from the left side. Whilst still behind the E75 and E90, the N97 Mini's keyboard is better than the N97 and offers a bit more tactile feedback than the old N97. Even my old HTC Wizard had a better sliding keyboard and that was from a few years ago. At any rate it isn't beyond Nokia's design and engineering capability to fit in a better keyboard as they have done so with the E75 and E90. Quite why they did not is beyond me.
At 3.2 inches, the display is sufficient in size. I was perfectly happy with my old 2.8" touchscreen phones in the past, so 3.2 iches is actually pretty generous. The touchscreen is resistive, which may annoy some people. I have always been a stylus person, preferring to accuracy of a thin poking device or fingernails than a fat thumb, so this isn't a problem to me. A stylus is also useful when using the built-in paint application. I used it extensively when visiting a property last week and jotting down notes on a floor plan. You just can't do that with a capacitive screen, at least not with current devices on the market or until slim capacitive stylus become common (like the rumoured HTC version). The screen itself is lovely to look at and offers good colour saturation and is visible outdoors. Like ancient Nokia phones, there is a ambient sensor located on the top which will adjust the screen brightness accordingly. A proximity sensor also resides nearby.
The battery is a 1200mAh BL-4D variant, which is smaller than the massive 1500mAh battery found on the fatter sibling, and various Nokia none-touchscreen superphones like the E55 and E72. It is good for about a day of moderate use - certainly no where near the powerhouse of my E55 (which can go 3 days of heavy use despite the quicker processor - it does have a much smaller screen to power though). Use the GPS navigator, WiFi and the music player heavily and you will be lucky to last a full working day. An investment of something like Proporta's mobile charging kit is advisable if you are planning to be away from a wall socket for longer than a day.
On the back resides the same 5 Megapixel camera sensor with a Carl Zeiss lens. The lens protector protector is missing this time, though I am sure many N97 owners would be glad to see it go. The dual LED flash is thankfully separated from the lens through a raised divider, which prevents the flash to bleed onto the sensor. You can read my review of the N97 Mini's camera here. It is a good camera for a phone and is more than decent enough for everyday snaps. The usual rules applies here: no cameraphone is capable of replacing a dedicated digital camera, even a cheap sub £100 compact performs better than this. On the plus side, the N97 has some form of manual controls that are usually missing from dedicated cheap compacts.
The N97 Mini is quite a bit more stable than the N97 thanks to a reasonable out of the box firmware. It does freeze occasionally at some points especially when running heavy applications, which I will attribute to the lack of RAM and processing prowess. The processor here is actually slower than the one found inside my tiny E55! Again, it isn't beyond Nokia's engineering capability to put in a quicker processor so I do not understand why they didn't choose so. It is likely that the N97 Mini's product development cycle prevented them from switching to a quicker processor, but the N97 Mini's processor is already outdated - about two years ago! If my Dell Axim X50v from 2005 can have a 620Mhz ARM processor, I see no reason why the N97 and N97 Mini couldn't have the same. It makes no sense to purposely cripple a high-end flagship with a processor that is ideally better off suited powering low and mid-range devices.
Mobbler is also compatible with the N97 Mini, a joy to all last.fm scrobblers
Julia Bradbury on my mobile? Count me in!
Because of the processor, the N97 Mini's multimedia capability isn't what it could be. Audio quality is brilliant as expected from a N-series phone and the 3.5mm headphone slot helps. It does suffer from a slight treble roll off. On the other than the bass isn't overpowering which is always a good or bad thing (depending on your point of view). The equaliser should help. In any case audio quality is similar to the E55, which is a pretty damn good audio player in its own right. With 8GB of built-in storage, and potentially another 32GB in the form of microSDHC expansion (once those flash memory cartels decides that their price fixing activities of 16GB cards is no longer sustainable and release the much overdue 32GB version), the N97 Mini is worthy of replacing your dedicated DAP.
As for videos, it supports MPEG4 videos out of the box and has SD TV-out support (which I did not test). There are no support for DivX and XviD files out of the box. Unfortunately it isn't compatible with high bitrate files as well, no doubt due to processing constraint. Third party applications like BBC iPlayer is supported, which is a great thing.
Browsing on the N97 Mini isn't a huge issue thanks to the higher resolution screen. With fonts set to the smallest one can comfortably browse sites without having to zoom in and out constantly with minimal scrolling. Rendering of sites are accurate as you can see from the screensnaps below. The browser also has support for Java and Flash. This means you can view flash videos such as those hosted at YouTube, directly within the browser, though quite why you would want to is another matter entirely.
The GPS receiver is far more accurate and quicker to gain a position than the N97, whether as a standalone receiver of with A-GPS enabled. I had no issues with getting a cold fix under ideal conditions (a couple of seconds with A-GPS enabled). Ovi Maps 3 is pre-installed and maps can be downloaded freely via the Ovi Suite desktop client or Nokia Maps Uploader. As the N97 Mini has a digital compass which allows the map to be rotated based on where the screen is facing, even if stationary. There are various third party applications that are being updated to take advantage of the digital compass - one of them being ViewRanger, an outdoor topographical map viewer/application.
Ovi Maps works in landscape and has polygonal renderings of famous landmarks
The N97 Mini is a good walker companion, though you would better invest in a spare battery!
In-call quality is brilliant. I have to admit I did not test the N97 extensively when it came to in-call phone call quality, but the N97 Mini offers crystal clear voice calls and brilliant reception (despite the metal body). As a phone, you will not be disappointed by the performance of the N97 Mini. Anyone familiar with a smartphone will have no issues with the PIM capability of the phone as well. It can be synced with various desktop PIM applications like Outlook via PC Suite. PIMs can also be synced to the 'cloud', though I do not recommend doing so exclusively when you have a perfectly good working computer to store your data in.
Many love the widget based homescreen, but I detest it. I prefer the 5800XM standby screen.
Ovi Store carries about 99% less applications than what is actually available on the Symbian platform. It is slowly getting there though.
The paint application is rudimentary at best, but works well for jotting quick notes
Plenty of third party applications including Gravity, a Twitter client; Fring - the first to bring Skype video calling to a mobile platform and the multi tasking compatible Spotify client (not shown).
The N97 Mini is a much better phone than the N97. From a design point of view, it is what the N97 should have been in the first place, and if I had to choose between the two, I would have chosen the N97 Mini even despite the smaller built-in storage. Fortunately I am not in the position to choose as the N97 Mini have also inherited the internal hardware weakness of its bigger older sibling and for that alone I cannot recommend the N97 Mini. It is actually a rather nice piece of kit hampered only by Nokia's reluctance to provide it the power it so craves.
The N97 Mini retails for £399 and is available now.
Thanks to WOMWorld/Nokia for providing the review unit.