We had high hopes for the Nokia N97 when we checked it out in June 2009. Armed with a touch screen and a long list of features, it looked like the flagship model of the Nokia N series would be a hit. Unfortunately, it turned out to be quite the opposite. Plagued with a poor user interface and lackluster performance, the N97 was forgettable, especially as the iPhone, Palm Pre, and Android devices hit the scene. However, not one to give up, Nokia came back with the Nokia N97 Mini ($479 unlocked). Sporting a more compact and revamped design, the N97 Mini is most definitely an improvement over its bigger brother. Performance is better and it's still very much a feature-packed smartphone. That said, the N97 Mini's UI is still confusing and frustrating to use; given that there a number of other similarly featured and simpler touch-screen smartphones on the market today, we can't see the N97 Mini attracting too many users other than Symbian/Nokia fanboys and fangirls.
The Nokia N97 Mini is appropriately named because it is essentially a mini version of the Nokia N97. The smartphone measures 4.45 inches tall by 2.07 inches wide by 0.56 inch deep and weighs 4.87 ounces, whereas the N97 came in at 4.61 inches tall by 2.18 inches wide by 0.63 inch thick and 5.29 ounces. Just by looking at the numbers, the difference in size doesn't seem all that great, but in hand, it's definitely noticeable and appreciated. The N97 Mini is a much more pocket-friendly device, not to mention a more solid one. Nokia replaced the plastic battery cover with a stainless steel one, giving the phone a more substantial feel and not one of a plastic toy.
Given the smaller size, it's no surprise that the screen size was also scaled back. The N97 Mini has a 3.2-inch QVGA (640x360) resistive touch screen that displays up to 16.7 million colors. The display is sharp and vibrant and features an ambient light sensor to automatically adjust the screen's brightness. In addition, it has a proximity sensor and a built-in accelerometer that was quick to change the screen's orientation from portrait to landscape mode and vice versa. As we stated in our N97 review, we would have preferred a capacitive touch screen over a resistive one, but our issue wasn't so much with that as it was with the user interface.
The N97 was plagued with inconsistencies that negatively affected the user experience. For example, some menu items required one tap to open and others required two. In addition, sometimes multiple steps were involved just to complete a simple task, and scrolling through lists could be a laborious and jerky. It was a completely confusing and frustrating. A subsequent firmware 2.0 update was released and incorporated into the N97 Mini; that alleviates some but not all of the problems.
Improvements were made to the touch-screen algorithms for better performance, and we did feel like the display was more responsive. You also now get kinetic scrolling for pages and menu items, so when you reach the end or top of the list, it snaps back like elastic. Unfortunately, what we didn't get was a more uniform and simpler menu system that would have made an otherwise good smartphone excellent and would've given it a fighting chance against the other major touch-screen smartphones on the market today.
Switching gears to the N97 Mini's keyboard, Nokia has removed the D-pad that used to occupy the left side, making way for a more spacious and more ergonomic keyboard. There's an adequate amount of spacing between the buttons, so you shouldn't have too many mispresses. Overall, we found it pretty decent to use. The keys are slightly stiff to press, which slowed us down a bit, and the space key is still off-center. It's a bit better in that the space bar is longer and moved over slightly, but it's still a far stretch if you want to hit it with your left thumb.
On a side note, prepare to use some arm muscles to slide open the phone. The slider is really solid but incredibly stiff, so it requires a strong push to get it open. We had an unsuspecting friend try it out and the phone ended up flying out of her hands because she was pushing so hard on the bottom of the screen. It loosens up a bit after some use, but those initial tries might surprise you.