Nokia has told us that it’s plumping for the new Maemo operating system on its future high-end Nseries handsets, rather than Symbian. Now that Android and its variants have set new standards for the expectations of non-iPhone folk, it seems like a solid move considering Series 60 has struggled to get things right in touchscreen form.
The N97 mini uses still Symbian – you’ll have to buy the N900 to get your hands on Nokia’s first Maemo-powered phone – but this probably isn’t that surprising considering it borrows heavily from the design of the original N97.
This means that its form factor is based around an unusually snappy slide-out QWERTY keyboard. It’s less likely to do damage to your digits than that of the N97, but the mini’s keyboard mechanism still takes a while to get used to. It’s difficult to get the thing to pop out unless you’re pushing almost exactly horizontally into it, for example.
Thankfully, the keyboard itself is a lot less likely to offend. In ditching the N97’s D-pad and increasing the relative size of the space bar, the N97 mini’s keyboard sits a lot more happily under your thumbs. There’s still no click to the keys, meaning you’ll have to keep your eyes glued to the screen to make sure you’re not leaving out every third letter, but that’s a minor complaint.
This isn’t bad going for the N97 mini, considering its cut-down size and that, in the world of mobile keyboards, bigger is usually better. While the handset itself is not tiny, it is enough to have shaken off the cumbersome, oversized feel that the N97 was burdened with.
In spite of these improvements, the N97 mini still doesn’t impress that much. The plain interface, based around a home screen featuring six customisable but uninspiring blocks and a vertical scrolling menu, seems flat-out dull now that there are a number of pretty smartphone operating systems with fancier front-ends to choose from.
Even the experience of navigating your way through the menus feels dated because the N97 mini features a resistive touchscreen (the X6 will be the first Nokia to use capacitive). This sort of touchscreen is only responsive when used with something with a very small surface area, like a stylus or fingernail. As no stylus is included, you’re just left with the fingernail, which feels awkward even if it is accurate.
Capacitive screens are fast becoming the norm, and for good reason. If you thought that the N97 mini had used that screen for price reasons, it didn’t work. The N97 mini is still a premium offering that will set you back around £30 a month on a contract, if you don’t want to shell out anything up-front on an 18 or 24-month deal.
Considering this not inconsiderable outlay, you should make sure that apps aren’t at the top of your priority list because the Ovi store still isn’t a patch on the Apple App Store or Android Market. The N97 mini comes with a handful of apps pre-installed though, including Facebook, weather and shares. Just don’t assume you’ll be able to adopt the ‘there’s an app for that’ catchphrase that’s become part of the smug iPhone user stereotype if you opt for the N97 mini.
Still, the phone does have some features it can show off without fear of ridicule. It isn’t a top end cameraphone, but the 5-megapixel sensor is capable of producing decent images, helped along by the swift autofocus and dual-LED flash. Despite the fact there’s no lens cover, that might be a good thing after the news that the original N97 cover could scratch the lens.
Other positives are the 3.5mm headphone jack and an overall sense of solidity. While we don’t generally drop our phones off tall buildings for the sake of reviews, it does feel like this phone could take a few hard knocks before calling it a day. Sadly, the 32GB of integrated storage has made way for just 8GB (add another 16GB via the memory card slot and you can take this to 24GB).
Connectivity-wise, the N97 mini puts in an admirable performance (so while surfing with a resistive touchscreen may not be the slickest, it can at least keep up) and now has the same kinetic scrolling first made famous on the Apple iPhone.
If you plump for this handset, you’ll be missing out on most of the stuff that gets us excited about new phones and still pay a pretty penny for it. The N97 mini would have made more sense if it had been nudged down a price point or two, but when it costs as much as the original N97, we can’t give it that strong a recommendation.
After a relatively short time on sale, what has changed with the N97 mini over the original N97? Not a great deal. On the plus side it has lost a few pounds, but it now has less internal storage and a smaller screen. Our criticisms of the N97 handset remain. The combination of Symbian and a resistive touchscreen feels dated and thoroughly uninspiring, which becomes more of a problem when you realise that, despite being a reduced N97, the N97 mini isn’t actually much cheaper than its big brother. It’s a solid phone, but we say: roll on Maemo/MeeGo…