Review: Nokia N97/N97 mini: part 3 - Camera, Multimedia and wrap-up
In part 1 of this review series, I looked at the hardware, design and build quality in the Nokia N97 and N97 mini. In part 2, I looked at the OS, The Interface, The Apps. Now, in this, the final review part, I look at the camera, multimedia and then I wrap up with my verdict of both devices.
Let's be clear about this. Once upon a time we had smartphones with 1.3 megapixel cameras that took half decent photos in good light, capable of being printed out at 6" x 4" with only a little embarrassment. Then came the 2 megapixel N70 which took things to a whole new level, quality wise, and then the N93 and N73, both with 3 megapixels and auto-focus. Then the ground breaking N95, with the first phone 5 megapixel camera, producing shots that (after the initial firmware was fixed) were at the time stunning.
But it's all relative. Critics of phone cameras over the last five years have rightly pointed out that in anything other than optimal light conditions, a standalone camera with far bigger lens with take far better photos than (even) an N95. And, taking back to back photos using the N95 and the N97 phones featured here, I was struck how advances in camera processing algorithms in the intervening years have meant that the N95's images are definitely inferior, on average.
And yet, we're now spoiled. The Nokia N86, with its focus (pun intended) on photography, the Samsung i8910 HD, the new Sony Ericsson Satio, and others, all 8 megapixels or more and with bigger sensors, bigger apertures, brighter flashes, and so on, have all provided us with a new benchmark. Whereas claiming that the N95's camera could replace a standalone was only true under certain conditions, this new breed of phone camera gets us a whole step closer to the claim being valid.
With the N97's 5 megapixel unit being largely comparable to the N95's, camera algorithms aside, where does that leave us in terms of camera performance on the N97 and N97 mini? Firmly back in casual snap land, it has to be said. Now that the 'bar' has been raised elsewhere, the imperfect 5mp photos don't seem at all special - certainly good enough for that special one-off photo you needed to grab quickly and with the N97 the only tool to hand, but not good enough for anything remotely arty or semi-professional.
There are a couple of other factors, too, unique to the N97 units, but have a look at some example photos first: (click each to enlarge or download it full-size)
A small photo set taken today in weak winter sunshine. Note the camera glass/lens flare in the second shot - this was on the N97 mini and was down to the various layers of glass and plastic and not due to explicit scratching
Two shots in very low light, with the N97's camera doing surprisingly well, pointing towards a decent size aperture and sensor
Two macro shots in weak sunlight, good detailing here
An ad-hoc indoor shot (from SEE 2009 and taken at 3mp), typical of something you'd take because the phone was on you and it was spur of the moment. Right, some great colouration in this winter sunlight shot
With the original N97, the camera protective shutter problems (still evidenced in units bought new in Nov 2009 that have been sitting on shelves for a few months) mean that it's common to see scratches on the camera glass. These add lens flare when shooting with flash or into the sun and, as described in part 1 of this review, have to be fixed by Nokia replacing the offending glass and mechanism with a fixed part. The N97 mini also has an issue with shooting into light, with the very exposed camera glass collecting and refracting bright light sources in unwanted ways, as shown in the second photo above.
Regardless, I'm still more than happy with the N97 camera unit in terms of ad-hoc quality. And, in controlled environments, for semi-pro shots as well, for Internet use. The dual LED flash does a good enough job for close subjects when called upon (e.g. down the pub), but as a better photographer than me once remarked, when was the last time a flash photo on any camera phone made its way into your 'best of' album? I'll not veer down the road of ranting about needing Xenon flash here, but..... The dual LED also works for 'fun' night time videos, though the quality is ultimately unsatisfying and you also run the risk of blinding your subjects!
In terms of interface, nothing has changed since that seen first on the 5800 - which is a shame. The confusing mix of pop-up panel of actions and traditional 'Options' menu is a downright mess and Samsung and Sony Ericsson's camera phones both win out here. More work needed here, Nokia, in terms of minimising screen taps and increasing usability.
As with stills/photos, we came quite a way in this decade, from phones which could only shoot video at 176 by 144 pixels at 15 frames per second through to full VGA at 30 frames per second, through to .... oh, hang on, we're still there. In fact, video quality on the N97 and N97 mini is arguably worse than that shot by the N93 in 2006 and the N95 in 2007, with lower quality encoding and 'inifinite' focus, meaning that any subjects nearby (e.g. people) are blurry.
Here's an example clip, shot this morning on the N97 mini in the default 'High quality, widescreen' setting (there's a full VGA setting as well, which adds extra vertical resolution, but you'll get the idea):
As you can see (despite YouTube's efforts to add extra artefacts), there are distinct problems with lens flare (again), with the encoding of areas of greenery and with general 'mushiness'. In contrast, video from the older N95 and N93, and video from the new N86, is much crisper, thanks to dedicated camera/graphics electronics. It seems that trying to encode MP4 purely in software is part of the issue (along with the lack of pre-set focus in video mode) and the end result is that, again, video capture on the N97 and N97 mini is strictly for 'fun' use or for only in an absolute emergency. Again, the 'bar' for phone video capture is higher than this.
There are numerous routes to video playback on the N97 and N97 mini. Here are just a few:
- Playing back videos recorded in the Camera application. These work particularly well, because you can't really tell how (relatively) ropey the video quality is on the small screen - and the video size (in pixels) is (by default) identical to that of the screen, making videos look crisper than they will end up on an TV screen....
- Playing time-DRMed videos downloaded from BBC iPlayer. These also work well, with very few glitches or freezes, though absolute quality is determined by the encoding used by the BBC for that programme (this varies according to popularity and programme type)
- Playing YouTube videos in a web page. As usual, Flash videos play OK within their box and then you can tap the box to bring up the Flash video full-screen. The process is quite smooth although it obviously hammers the processor and RAM and it's best not to have too many other big apps also running.
- Playing YouTube videos using the dedicated client. Although not officially available (why not, Google??), the standalone YouTube client works very well and plays full-screen on all S60 5th Edition phones.
- Playing MP4 video downloaded directly from an Internet source. Things get much patchier here, with many MP4 files refusing to play fully (often there was sound but no picture) and with no support at all for DivX or AVI movie container formats. Samsung have done better here on their S60 handsets, I'm sure Nokia could put in a lot more effort here and achieve wider compatibility.
Although holding the N97 in landscape mode in both hands works well for short periods, the automatic 'propping up' of the screen when the keyboard is slid open works even better, alleviating the need for an N96/N86/N900-style kick stand. With speakers (see below) on the bottom-front corners, video sound is then directed towards the viewer.
Overall, the N97 variants were fine for my multimedia needs, but less experienced users may well grumble when 'that trailer' that they downloaded doesn't play on their brand new 'multimedia computer'. Nokia, discuss and then go program. I'm also going to call Nokia out for their overly confusing 'Videos and TV' front-end app - having downloaded a video (e.g. via iPlayer), it's then often five or six taps to work your way through 'Videos and TV | My videos | Downloads' - wouldn't a simple flat file list be so much quicker and simpler?
S60's Music player hasn't changed significantly over the last few years - it still produces great sounds, is competent without being flashy at organising music and is utter rubbish at handling album art. Regarding this last point, I can see no reason at all why Music player shouldn't do something with 'Windows Media player' album art JPG files and why it can't also do something with iTunes artwork. The programming involved is fairly trivial, yet 90% of my music shows up in S60 Music player with a default icon instead of album art.
Left: where, oh where is all my lovely album art? Right: an impressive array of smartphone accessory drivers
Still, it's the music that counts and I've no complaints here. Both N97 variants come with decent in-ear headphones and the sound quality is excellent. There's A2DP, of course, for sending music to Bluetooth stereo headphones, plus the 3.5mm port also handles 'TV out', letting you pump music through a composite cable to a Hi-Fi.
Then there are the stereo speakers. And I'm going to be critical again, I'm afraid. Nokia showed with the N95 and N95 8GB, with the 5800 and, arguably even with the N96, that they can produce a smartphone with speakers that are pleasant to listen to. Noone's asking for High Fidelity here, just something that doesn't hurt the ears when listening to a little light music or a podcast while doing the washing up. The N97 and N97 mini's speakers are very treble-heavy, to the point that the sound produced can be be described as 'piercing'. I'd much rather have had something quieter and with better tone.
I would have mentioned listening to Internet Radio in the previous paragraph, except that it's AWOL, sadly. My hunch is that the guy behind this application left Nokia some time ago and they haven't found anyone who understands his code... This is a major unique selling point of S60, as far as I'm concerned, and Nokia should give getting Internet Radio back on track some priority.
There is FM radio, of course, but this is patchy, only picking up a couple of stations in any particular area, and also requires the headphones to be plugged in, to act as the aerial. As a result, I don't 'tune in' very often. Nokia Music Store is here, should you feel the need to grab DRM-laden tracks over the air - it's not a bad system for emergency use (e.g. you're on the way back from a concert and want to grab the artist's latest single), but the use of DRM will come back to bite you at some point in the future - when you switch phones or desktops or both - so it's not something I'd recommend wholeheartedly.
As with videos, the front end to Photos is somewhat over-complicated, but it works well enough for casual use, providing folder overviews and touch-flicking from photo to photo. There's good integration with Ovi, Flickr and Vox, but that's as far as it goes - you'll be researching third party tools such as PixelPipe if you want to automate spreading your media a little further.
When viewing a photo, there's no double-tap or gesture to zoom in - instead, you tap to bring up a zoom bar and then drag the zoom handle up and down (or use the side-mounted volume up/down buttons) - it's all a bit clumsy and a spot-based (i.e. you know what you want to zoom in on) system would work so much better.
Zooming is also slow in that the current view is crudely zoomed (and thus becomes blurry), and then, a few seconds later, up comes the higher quality rendered version. I'm guess it's done this way to save on RAM, but it does rather leave you explaining to your friends "And here's the view from my window - I'll zoom in on that tower. No, hang on, it's coming. It'll look clearer shortly.... hang on..... there we go". Yet another casualty of the relative (designed) shortage of RAM in the device?
With no graphics chip inside, expectations haven't been great in this department for a couple of years now. When the N97 was launched, the S60 5th Edition version of Nokia's N-Gage client wasn't ready, but it duly came over the summer. And then N-Gage itself effectively got cancelled, in that plans to merge titles into the existing Ovi Store were announced. With the result that the N97 mini also doesn't ship with N-Gage on board. All rather ironic.
N-Gage still showing up in the N97 classic as an option....
There are plenty of games in the Ovi Store, of course, but there are only a handful ( a dozen or so) of titles that are really worthy of installing and playing over the long term. And they're somewhat swamped by Java titles that aren't properly optimised for S60 5th Edition and by trivial titles with little ongoing appeal. Still, you should be able to find a title or two to help you while away some free time - just don't expect iPhone-quality titles or quantity.
Wrap up, Nokia N97 and Nokia N97 mini
As with every other handheld and smartphone since the dawn of time (1995), the N97 and N97 mini aren't perfect devices. The N97, in particular, was beset by issues at launch, from buggy and incomplete firmware to a defective GPS and camera slider. But remember that here I'm reviewing the two devices as they are now, off the production line in November 2009. And, viewed in that light, the N97 variants present different attributes for different owners.
The N97 'classic' (as this will no doubt start to get called) now works generally very well, with the v20 software fairly intuitive and (relatively) fun to use, with the GPS now at 70 to 80% the efficiency of that in other models and with the camera protective slider replaced with a redesigned back section. The N97's main weaknesses are:
- it's arguably too large to be used as a regular phone by anyone other than a self-confessed geek
- the creaky plastic sides and rear belie the flagship innards and intentions
- the internal (C) disk can get filled up far too easily, with disastrous results for the OS
In contrast, the N97 mini feels like a far more polished product, with extremely high build quality, no creaks and a stainless steel back cover. It's also, significantly, smaller, narrower and thinner than the N97 classic, making it more suitable for mass market use. And the weak GPS and challenged internal disk has been beefed up significantly (256MB more). Thus solving all the issues of the N97 classic? Well, yes, but the N97 mini's weak points are:
- the mass memory disk is now 8GB. In truth, enough for most people, but it'll feel restrictive for anyone moving from the N97
- there's no FM transmitter - this has been a great feature of many S60 handsets and it's sorely missed here
On balance, most people would take the N97 mini when given the choice of the two models - it's simply a better phone. BUT, the six million dollar question for the power-user readers of All About Symbian is whether it's worth an N97 owner paying again (or at least taking a small loss by selling on eBay) to switch to the N97 mini? I'd say not. With v20 firmware and a trip to a service centre, the N97 classic is now working well and I don't see a pressing need for most owners to change over - at least not to another 97-variant.
There are plenty of other options for people who do feel the N97 has let them down, of course. The N86 has a far better camera, better GPS, and has a host of comparable gadgets, but at the expense of a much smaller screen and no qwerty. The iPhone 3GS has a slicker UI and superb app ecosystem but has multitasking issues and, again, no qwerty. The HTC Touch Pro 2 has a better qwerty keyboard but is also large and has, arguably, clunkier software. The Nokia E75 has a better qwerty keyboard, but far smaller screen. There's no obvious choice on any front though.
I'd advise N97 owners to sit tight, enjoy their still-being-upgraded smartphone investment. And I'd advise someone eyeing up buying one of these two phones to go for the N97 mini unless they really, really need the larger screen, memory and FM transmitter.
Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 17 Nov 2009
Reviewed by Steve Litchfield at