Nokia N97 vs Nokia 5800 XpressMusic - A brief comparison of Nokia's touchscreen Symbians

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Nokia N97

Nokia 5800 vs Nokia N97: Is this 6120 vs N95 all over again?

Way back in 2007, Nokia's most prominent and popular Nseries device was the N95, while their most prominent and popular numbered S60 device was the 6120 Classic. The N95 was a high-end device designed for people who wanted cutting-edge hardware, while the 6120 was far cheaper and designed for people who were mainly looking for a feature phone.

Although the N95 might have seemed better on paper, some people (including this writer) actually preferred the 6120c, because while it was theoretically worse than the N95 the actual end product was in many ways superior. The 6120 was smaller and lighter, its firmware was more stable, the menu layout seemed a bit more intuitive, and the price difference was massive (at launch the 6120 was about 250 euros while the N95 was about 600 euros). The 6120 wasn't perfect, its keypad was poorly laid out and its camera was fixed focus, but as a whole package the 6120 was for many people a better overall deal. Unusually for smartphones, both the 6120 and N95 have continued to be on sale years after their launch, so they must have both sold quite well, and it would be interesting to compare their sales figures if Nokia ever releases that information.

Now we've moved well into the age of touchscreen Symbian devices, and once again Nokia has a very prominent Nseries device (the N97) released alongside a very prominent numbered smartphone (the 5800 XpressMusic). If we go by the tech specs once more the N97 ought to be the better phone, yet in many ways this is a repeat of the N95/6120 comparison, with questions of bulk, stability and price making it far from clear which phone is superior.

This writer has used a 5800 and an N97 as everyday phones for a while now, and here's what has stood out from that experience:

  • Stuff that makes the 5800 better than N97

Price - Interestingly, a year ago everyone was expecting the new waves of touchscreen smartphones to all be in the 400-500 euro range of above, and in that sense the N97's 600 euro unlocked launch price makes sense. However, the 5800's unlocked launch price of 300 euros completely changed people's expectations, especially as it included pretty much all major smartphone features such as GPS, variable focus camera, 3.5G, Wi-Fi, TV Out etc. Partly because the 5800 is an absolute bargain for its price, the N97 now seems far too expensive.

Stability - The 5800 feels more stable than the N97. While neither phone is perfect in this regard, the 5800 generally performs more reliably. This may change as the N97 gets future firmware updates of course, and the 5800 has already had almost half a dozen firmware versions, so a fairer comparison should be possible later in the year. However, it reinforces the point that it's better to wait several months before buying a device so that the worst firmware instabilities can be ironed out.

Size - The 5800 is more or less the same size as a normal monoblock feature phone, and feels very light and easy to use in one hand. Mainly because of its QWERTY keyboard, the N97 is a bit bigger and heavier and this may put some people off.

Interface Polish - One shock when this writer first received an N97 was the almost total lack of animated transitions. The technically-similar 5800 has had full transition effects for half a year now, so it's rather bizarre to find them absent from the N97. This is particularly strange as the 5800 is marketed as a low-price mass market touchscreen device while the N97 is being sold as a high end superphone. A slicker interface with proper transitions may appear in future firmware updates, but for the moment the N97 looks strangely static.

  • Stuff that makes the N97 better than 5800

Storage Memory - The N97 has acres and acres of mass storage memory, with 32 gigabytes built in and a memory card slot which can officially accommodate another 16 gigabytes on top of that to give a whopping 48 gigs of total storage memory (or even more if you use a higher capacity card, though the official limit is 16gb). By comparison the 5800 only has a memory card slot so it will always be 32gb behind the N97.

Camera - The 5800's camera was criticised for having a rather small aperture which meant it produced darker images indoors. The N97's camera produces brighter, higher quality images, and the pixel count is higher too (5 megapixels instead of 3.2 megapixels).

Web Browser Interface - One annoying aspect of the 5800's default web browser is the need to manually switch between full screen and partial screen modes if you want to access the options menu or toolbar. The N97 solves this problem by defaulting to full screen mode but bringing up the options and toolbar links when required. It still feels a bit clunky to use, but it's a step in the right direction and makes web browsing easier.

Interface Features - While the 5800's interface looks slicker than the N97's, beneath the surface the N97's interface has some subtle but useful functional improvements over the 5800. The most prominent is of course the much-improved standby screen which you can customise to your liking. Other useful updates include the "sweep finger to answer" button used by the N97 if the screen is locked, to prevent accidental call-answering if the phone is in your pocket.

FM Transmitter - You can send your N97's audio output to any nearby FM radio, which makes it very easy to connect to car stereos etc.

Photo Album - The N97's photo application is somewhat better-organised than the 5800's Gallery, though the practical difference isn't actually that large.

So, which one should you buy?

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the N97 or the 5800, both are pretty solid devices, and they both mark a reasonably good start for Symbian as it transitions from a button-based to touch-based platform. However, in the opinion of this writer the N97 is extremely overpriced. You're paying over twice the price to get a 5mp camera instead of 3.2mp, a physical QWERTY keyboard and a widget-driven standby screen.

It's difficult to see why the N97 is so much more expensive than the 5800 when the hardware and features in both devices are so similar. On the other hand, it's important to remember what happened to the N95 in the months after its launch: it became cheaper, and thanks to firmware updates it also became more stable, faster, and received a lot of new features. If the N97 follows in the footsteps of the N95, it may be worth taking another look at later in the year.