Nokia’s N97 is the latest in their range of high end smart phones. The first N-Series phone with a touch screen, the N97 also hides a flip-out keyboard. Laden with 32G of storage, a 5 megapixel camera, Nokia Maps, Nokia’s Comes with Music service, and more, this phone is a feature laden treat for mobile phone buffs and a worthy opponent to Apple’s newly released iPhone 3GS. In fact, the specifications for the N97 versus the iPhone 3GS are nearly identical, right down to the dimensions.
So which is better? I took both for a spin on a recent trip to San Francisco to find out.
Let’s start with the fact that the N97 is not Nokia’s first touch screen phone. That distinction goes to the 5800 XpressMusic. The N97, however, is a much better touch screen device than the 5800 was. More thought has been put into finger-tip user interfaces, and the interface itself is faster and feels more natural. For example, on the 5800, to scroll the screen, you had to put a finger on a small scroll bar and push the bar. On the N97, you simple touch the screen and swipe in the direction you want to scroll – a la Apple’s iPhone. One noticeably absent gesture, however, is the iPhone “pinch” for enlarging and shrinking a screen.
The biggest difference between iPhone and N97 is simply the fact that the iPhone is designed around the absence of a keyboard, whereas the N97 is designed to add touch features to a keyboarded device. That has profound implications for user experience, and generally iPhone succeeds better than N97.
The Home Screen is a new concept for Nokia. Unlike previous N-series devices, the N97’s home screen can be customized with widgets allowing you to see various kinds of information at a glance – weather, presence status of friends, emails received, or a summary of your Facebook account, for example. It works naturally with the touch screen as well. This short video shows it in action.
When compared to the iPhone springboard, it’s clear that Nokia has taken a different approach. N97 designer Axel Meyer had an explicit goal to connect the people around you with the content that you wanted to share with them. The result is that the N97 home screen provides a variety of different and useful information “on deck”. iPhone, by comparison, focuses on easy access to applications. Nokia’s approach is promising and may ultimately have more appeal than the iPhone springboard. However, it is easier to find and use applications on iPhone, because applications on the N97 are buried two folders away from the home screen.
Artfully hidden beneath the screen is a small keyboard. The keyboard took a little practice to be able to use well, but once accustomed to it, I was able to compose short emails as easily on the N97 as on the iPhone. Managing email was a little more difficult on N97 versus iPhone. The iPhone is really optimized for reading, filing, deleting and forwarding emails which makes for a smoother overall experience. One sorely needed improvement to N97 email is an auto-correct feature to allow spelling errors to be more easily corrected.
Another appealing aspect of the N97 is the fact that it can be used to watch video. It’s becoming more and more common to watch video on planes and while commuting on a small form factor devices like the N97 or the iPhone. And because you can pop the screen up on an angle by folding out the keyboard, it’s not necessary to hold the N97 in hand for hours at a time – a definite improvement compared to iPhone.
The camera on the N97 is a gem. With 5 megapixels of resolution, Carl Zeiss optics, and a xenon dual-LED flash, this is the equivalent of today’s snapshot cameras. Other camera phones can’t hold a candle to any of the N-series phones, simply because of the attention to detail that Nokia lavishes on the camera. For example, here are two unretouched photos of the San Francisco skyline – the first shot with iPhone, and the second with the N97. The iPhone photographs have a pronounced blue cast to them. Notice how much brighter, color saturated and clearer the N97 photograph is. Moreover, the differences become even more pronounced when each photograph is viewed at its original size (click on the photograph to see it full size).
The impact of the extra pixel density can be seen in other ways as well. For example, the photograph taken with the N97 presents several opportunities for cropping and digital zoom. I’ve created a dramatic photo here by cropping, warming the color temperature and saturating color. The same crop and manipulation of the photo taken on iPhone is dramatically different. Moreover, even after cropping the N97 photograph it is still 1496 pixels wide – large enough for a small print.
The digital zoom on the N97 is also quite good. The photo below is unaltered. It’s a little blurry because of the digital zoom, but with sharpening it could be improved easily. iPhone is simply unable to take this shot.
You can really get some amazing photographs with the N97. Here are a couple more that I shot walking around San Francisco.
The N97 also supports the capture of widescreen video. I found it easy to grab small clips, although the tiny form factor of the device made it difficult to hold steady. A welcome addition would be some image stabilization capabilities in the camera. In the absence of that, a small tripod would be very helpful.
The impact of 5 megapixels of video capture can also be seen in these two short clips of a fountain I walked by in Detroit’s Airport on the way back. The Nokia clip was shot on a two year old N95 equipped with a similar 5 megapixel camera to the N97. The clips are near identical, showing the same fountain. However, the Nokia clip shows much greater clarity, color, and detail than the iPhone clip does.
Another N-Series feature I took advantage of while in San Francisco was navigation. Both iPhone and the N97 come with mapping software, a compass, and the ability to plot a route. In addition, the N97 includes a 3 month license for Nokia’s navigation application. After the initial 3 months, a navigation license can be purchased from Nokia for €49,99 (about $70) annually. Coupled with an aftermarket dashboard mount, this turns your phone into a viable substitute for a dedicated navigation system from a manufacturer such as Garmin or Magellan. You will, however, want to purchase a car charger, as running the screen constantly results in a rapidly depleted battery. Navigation for iPhone will be available as a third party application from TomTom later this year.
Web browsing is roughly equivalent on both devices. The Nokia browser and Safari on iPhone are both webkit browsers, which means that they render pages nearly identically. iPhone has the edge, however, because of the multi-touch “pinch” gesture. It’s simply easier to display and read a web page on iPhone.
And what about music? Music is, after all, Apple’s heritage. Surprisingly, the N97 is very good here. With 32G of memory, expandable by a further 16G SD card, the N97 can hold more music. The N97 playback application is not as slick as Apple’s iPod application, but it’s still very serviceable. Plus, the N97 includes speakers for stereo playback if you don’t want to listen on your headphones.
Other notable differences:
- Battery life: N97 wins over the notoriously bad iPhone power consumption.
- Gaming: Both devices support touch screen gaming. In addition, the N97 puts a gamer style D-Pad on the device, whereas iPhone simply uses the accelerometer to create innovative new games. However, the sheer number of games available in the iPhone app store make iPhone the better gaming platform.
- Screen: N97 wins with a 640×360 pixel monster vs. the iPhone 480×320.
So N97 or iPhone? Which one wins overall?
The N97 is a smash hit when it comes to photography and video. If you care about taking great photos or videos and sharing them with others, then there really is no better choice than the N97. However, you will have to compromise on user experience. The N97 is less polished than the iPhone, and Apple’s iPhone experience is simply easier and better integrated overall than the N97.
If applications are important to you, especially email, iPhone 3GS is the better choice. Applications load faster, are slicker and easier to use, are better integrated with the platform, and there are simply more choices on iPhone.
I’ve been carrying a Nokia N95 and an iPhone for over a year now. I really do enjoy photography with the N95 plus the features of the iPhone. I’ve tried several other Nokia N-Series devices over the past year as they’ve come available to me, and always returned to the N95. After four days of carry an N97 and the new iPhone, I can honestly say that I would make the upgrade from the N95 to the N97… but I’m not yet ready to give up the iPhone.