With Engadget receiving pretty much a less than satisfactory experience with the 5800, then the Nokia N97 getting a scathing review over at Boy Genius Report together with some voiced disappointment in blogs and forums over the N97, it was indeed a surprise to read Engadget’s weighty review of the N97 and see it receiving such a fair and frequently positive analysis.
The >5000 word length is itself quite astonishing. The review is in the format of Dicken’s pen-pal conversation novel (A tale of two cities), with the shared and contrasting opinions of Thomas Ricker and Chris Zeigler.
There’s a lot of praise and enthusiasm for the form factor and build quality of the device. The keyboard problems that appalled BGR, the Engadget guys (like most N97 users) found to be an absolute non issue. It seems that on the face of it, a lot of the things on the N97 look odd and misplaced, but eventually you get used to it and realise it’s actually the best place it can be (given the other constraints), e.g. placement of the spacebar, arrangement and feel of keys, placement of D-pad and stereo speakers.
“The keyboard — a major concern for everyone prior to launch with the left-aligned directional pad and right-aligned spacebar — turns out to be a joy to use in practice, with plenty of tactile response, and I found that it really took me no time at all to get fast on it. In fact, it’s as good of a landscape QWERTY keyboard as I’ve ever used on a phone. Some will complain that the numeric keys would be better served in a traditional keypad pattern instead of being lined across the top row, but once you get past that, you’re good to go….”
That’s much of a stark contrast to The Boy Genius Report’s take on the keyboard:
“It’s hilarious that when Nokia finally listens and tries to make a somewhat normal QWERTY keyboard layout (we bitched and moaned that the Z key was always incorrectly right under the A key on previous devices) they mess it up even more. Like honestly, you’re expecting people to use something with the spacebar key stage right? If the layout isn’t bad enough, the keys certainly are. While the texture of the keys is actually pretty stirring, there’s absolutely positively the smallest tactile feedback imaginable when pressing in a key. For comparisons sake, the T-Mobile G1, whose keys aren’t the best in that department, is worlds better than the N97’s keyboard. It’s really disappointing because Nokia just can’t seem to nail this keyboard area”
The N97 may not have the best QWERTY keyboard out there, Nokia and Symbian fans admit to having better experience on an E90/E75, but it does have a pretty decent QWERTY keyboard and it’s great to know hear it echoed from such influential reviewers that it is no where near as bad as BGR had made it out to be – and in fact was actually pretty good.
With such high praise on the N97’s hardware, you’d expect them to come down on the software for not delivering a commited finger friendly touch UI that we’ve seen from iPhone and Pre. Well, for Chris at least, a user familiar to S60, there’s some reasonable comments on the shortcomings of S60 5th edition, with a lot of love for the Homescreen and widgets.
However, for Thomas who’s used to the fluidity of iPhone OS and WebOS, Symbian’s S60 UI is just a pain.
“Having gone through this learning procedure several times on several platforms, I can say with absolute clarity that this is the least intuitive smartphone OS that I have come across in the last two years and suffers dearly by comparison to what’s available right now on the market”
Frankly, as harsh as the next few paragraphs are, I whole heartedly agree with Thomas. For a seasoned S60 user, the N97 is absolutely fine.But for those new to the smartphone world or are coming from an environment where that manufacturer spoon fed you such a delightful user interface, it’s hard to attempt in using anything less user friendly.
“Unfortunately, Nokia’s widgets are just a thin veneer upon an otherwise rotting OS. As powerful as it is, S60 5th’s convoluted interface ensures that all that power shall remain unknowable to the vast majority of people looking to switch platforms or enter the smartphone market for the first time. It’s impossible for me to imagine a prospective first-timer choosing the N97 over the Palm Pre, iPhone 3G S, BlackBerry Bold, or any QWERTY phone running the latest Android build.”
This is what Symbian (and Nokia) crucially needs to address. With all those features, bells and whistles (Not just in Nokia’s hardware, Symbian is an extremely capable OS) – the N97 on paper should be the ultimate smartphone – but if you cannot get to those features because the UI is so inconsistent and confusing, you won’t/can’t use them. Since 2007, people have began expecting phones you can just pick up and know how to use it without going through the manual – and it has to do that with extreme elegance. Something, right now is lacking in Symbian.
Oh, for more contrasting opinions of the N97, check out this video by James and Ben from The Really Mobile Project.