N97 Debrief: Against the iPhone

N97 Inspiration?

Look, let’s stop beating around the bush with this… It should be fairly obvious from the photo above who Nokia’s after with their flagship N97. It also can’t be denied that in North America, at least, Apple’s iPhone is everywhere.

My goal with this post is to highlight the key differences between the two and let you draw your own conclusions. Along the way, I’ll be pointing out what Nokia could have done (and can still do) better.

Character Input

The typical reaction I get to the N97 is something dismissive along the lines of: “So it’s like an iPhone”, at which point I flip up the screen to expose the full QWERTY keypad underneath, and all derision immediately stops.

The keypad is okay but not perfect — the space bar placement is a non-issue but putting the shift key next to the four-way D-pad makes it very awkward to select a block of text. You’re better off doing that with a free finger on the touch screen.

But there’s an additional way to input text which I find myself using more often than not, a full-screen virtual numberpad with old-school T9 built-in. It’s often a bit frustrating when I try to write something in Lolcat or enter my favourite curse, but one-handed texting is very useful when I’m on a crowded bus or train, or have bags in my other hand.


The second big revelation for anyone seeing an N97 for the first-time is the touch screen. But even then it’s not immediately apparent that pretty much every single element on the homescreen is a shortcut to something, and many of them are updating live by pulling in data from the Internet.

More on the homescreen widgets in a moment… I’ll finish my critique of the N97’s default display with the recommendation that entire folders — not just apps or bookmarks — should be an option for shortcuts from the homescreen as well.


It’s at this point that the wonders of the N97 begin to get lost on the new user. For starters, it’s not immediately apparent that the large diagonal menu will take you to into the handset’s filesystem. BlackBerries have a menu presented as a default screen, while Apple overwhelms you with screen upon screen of apps. I think Nokia would do well to eliminate an unlabelled physical button and put something that says “menu” right on the screen.

Back to the iPhone UI for a sec, the N97 has a nifty feature where you can organize individual apps into folders, like this. I really wish Nokia would include an option to sort these folders alphabetically. You can do it in the optional list view, but there’s too much wasted screen space to make me want to use that.


Widgets on the N97 are akin to many apps are to the iPhone — lightweight single-purpose tools that are often little more than mobile-friendly skins for web sites. But some of the the Nokia widgets can run on the N97’s homescreen — like the bundled one for Facebook, while others — like Dabr‘s excellent Twitter interface — cannot.

Dabr, could you kindly rectify this?

Ovi Store

It’s actually not the full-on disaster that I was expecting, but it’s certainly no iTunes App Store, either.


In a similar vein, Nokia needs to get N-Gage working with the N97, and fast. The included games on the US version of the N97 are embarrassingly bad.


Here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know: The N97 is actually cheaper than the newest version of Apple’s iPhone.

But the iPhone is only $199“, you say… Well for starters, that’s the 16GB version. To match the built-in 32GB of Nokia’s N97 you’ll have to pony up an additional hundred bucks.

Oh, and you’ll also have to sign on for a contract of up to three years, whereas the N97 is sold unlocked. I’ve ranted enough about the evils of contracts that I would be repeating myself at this point, so I’ll just point out that the actual, unsubsidized price of an iPhone 3GS 32GB is actually over $800, USD or CAD — and that’s if you can even buy one legally in the country where you live!

Meanwhile, the current price of the N97 from NokiaUSA.com is almost $100 less. No contract required. No iTunes required. And no unlocking or jailbreaking required should you ever want to sell it to someone on another carrier.

But like I said when I started this, I’m not here to tell you which is better — I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that.


12 responses to “N97 Debrief: Against the iPhone”

  1. So Andrew, how about some more in-depth analysis?

    How slow have you found the S60 operating system? Does it lag terribly as mentioned in many other reviews?

    What about the UI – does it feel like the 1990’s all over again?

    Do all the apps follow a consistent user interface or are they all over the shop?

    Is everything finger-friendly or do you have to whip out the old stylus to do anything serious?

    And just how bad is that old resistive screen? Do you have to press hard? Why not capacitive one wonders.


    • So Andrew, how about some more in-depth analysis?

      Man, tough crowd… I thought that was pretty in-depth! 😉

      1. There’s a bit of lag when switching apps sometimes — it’s hard for me to judge accurately because I’m pretty sure I’ve broken the lock switch on my handset, and that gets me off to a bad start every time I pick it up.

      2. I don’t think S60 was around in the ’90s. UI issues can always be fixed with a software update.

      3. There are some annoyances with the UI, but no-deal breakers. S60 as a whole requires some time to learn, anyway. It’s neither as intuitive or simple as the iPhone’s UI.

      4. I brought a stylus with me just in case but am happy to report that I never actually had to use it. One trick is to make the default font slightly larger in the S60 web browser.

      5. This is my first touch screen device and it seemed fine. Again, there are inconsistencies with the UI — sometimes you tap and other times you have to double tap — but it seemed very responsive enough.

      Generally I don’t get too wrapped up in technical issues, and try to focus on the user experience instead.

      • Sorry if I phrased my “in depth analysis” statement poorly Andrew. Didn’t mean to imply what you’d already written wasn’t useful. 🙂

        My questions were actually meant honestly. I used to have a very expensive Symbian smartphone and am wondering how much has changed.

        S60 may not have been around Im the 90s but the GUI look was.


  2. From a June 9th Andrew Currie post:

    “So if you’re looking for advice on Apple products you should probably look elsewhere. I just can’t be bothered anymore.”

    That didn’t last very long.

  3. Thanks for the heads-up about organizing individual apps into photos. Liked the photo too. I noticed that entering text via the Touch-Screen T-9 wasn’t a bad experience, but I’m really trying to use the qwerty keyboard as much as I can. The space bar is a non-issue for me anymore, but capitalization, and shifting for symbols is annoying sometimes. I am a very capable touch typist, and the above mentioned capitalization, and shifting really cuts down on my speed. Maybe Nokia can include a software update that allows shortcuts like holding down a letter to capitalize or something that will help typing on the N97 to be more efficient.

    I downloaded the NGage via the software update, and bought “Resident Evil”. It’s not a X-Box 360 level, but I thought it was pretty good. My only concern is that I’m using up phone memory. That’s really my main concern with the N97. It’s the low phone memory. I’m really conscious now of deleting old emails, internet cache, unused themes, etc. An N97 with more RAM would be awesome, but I guess there’s nothing I can do about it but to live with it. 32Gs of on-board storage is awesome! I have an entire season of one of the HBO shows on my N97 which I can watch at my leisure. That’s amazing, and there’s still 25G of memory left!

    • @ John Chew – Install the n-gage games onto the 32GB part, not the c:, I would recommend only installing essential apps on the C:. everything else on the 32GB so you don’t run out of space.

  4. Personally i’m using n-gage with the games on my N97 now, and it works ok. I’v actaully moved all my licences over to it from my N96, to do that, do the following:

    1) Load the game onto your N97 and run.
    2) Enter the Licence key that you should have got by e-mail when you purchased your original n-gage games on your old device and enter them into the new phone (It may show an error such as “unable to receive licence”, but this is normal)
    3) Now call nokia customer service and they will disable the game off your old device and let you use it on your new one.


      • nope – no reset generation on n97 n-gage
        and n-gage itself seems to only work with the d-pad not the touch screen.

        i like your comment ‘I think Nokia would do well to eliminate an unlabelled physical button and put something that says “menu” right on the screen.’

        my wife had an N95 for 2 1/2 years and never once pressed the menu button – unmarked but for a wierd ying yang symbol.

        within two days of getting an iphone shes been using youTube, maps, face book, email. On the n95 if it wasnt on the home screen she didnt use it. ie just txt, contacts and camera/mms!!

        s60 5th edition UI is terribly unfriendly

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