In all honesty, the "mini" version of phones is a new phenomenon that is kind of lost on us. In most instances bigger is better, a look at Sony Ericsson's Xperia X10 range will attest to that, but in the case of the Nokia N97, the mini version is the victor. The Nokia 97 mini's tighter dimensions make sense, but it also makes the original redundant in the process. Releasing the N97 mini seems like an admission from Nokia saying "We agree, the first one was just too bulky".
Good things, small packages
The N97 mini is only marginally smaller than the original, with the overall difference seeming irrelevant; a millimetre is shaved off its thickness, and a couple of millimetres off the width and length. The mini's smaller screen is also hardly noticeable, the difference between 3.2 and 3.5 inches isn't enough to make an impact, unlike the absence of the five-way nav pad alongside the QWERTY keyboard under the slider on the N97, a feature some will feel they can't live without.
Though without the nav-pad the keyboard feels roomier, each letter on the pad has a considerable gap between itself and its neighbours, and we've found the typing experience to be on par with the best in the business. The touchscreen uses resistive technology, and while this is a negative on many phones, the N97 mini feels as responsive to use as many touchscreen handsets with capacitive screens. It's not as accurate as the iPhone or the Nexus One, but it's close enough to make menu navigation a smooth and easy experience.
The mini feels fantastic to hold, the cool metal battery cover and the soft-touch plastic trim help give the N97 mini the appearance of a premium quality construction. Less appealing is the design of the user interface; Nokia's Series 60 OS has never seemed as out-of-date as it does now. It's functional enough (and more on that later) but next to the iPhone or the the HTC HD2, the N97 mini looks like Windows 95 next to the latest version of OS X.
Both the N97 and the mini seem like a good fit for business users; full QWERTY keyboards, MS Exchange support, document readers supporting MS Office docs and PDF files, but we can't say we'd easily recommend this handset for a business purpose. A lot of our misgivings come back to the inelegance of the built-in email client, and while this may seem like nitpicking, it does affect the every day experience for a busy business user. The inbox only displays the first 10 characters in the subject of a message, so it is difficult to filter incoming messages, and deleted items won't be removed from the inbox until the next time mail is synchronised.
The calendar feels similarly cluttered. At a month's view it is difficult to select a day without hitting the days beside it, due in part to half of the screen real estate being dedicated to a tasks list and there doesn't seem to be a way to maximise this space in the settings. The week and single day view modes are better and easier to use, and we've had no trouble setting up the calendar with our Exchange credentials and syncing with our business calendar.
Media and the web
For our money, the N97 mini is best when used as a portable media player. Its 8GB of internal storage are best suited to keeping music and video files to play when you're on the move, or for filling up with excellent photos from the 5-megapixel camera on the back of the handset. The camera is a real winner, easily on par with the best from Nokia over the last few years.
Web browsing is less exciting, with the built-in browser struggling to deliver the same level of performance we're coming to expect from smartphones like the iPhone and handsets running Google Android. Pages load slowly and in some instances refuse to load completely altogether. This isn't an issue with connectivity — the N97 mini supports HSDPA data and features Wi-Fi as well — but is about the way the browser communicates with the web. The browser does support Flash Lite, but this is cold comfort when it is so difficult to read the content around the Flash. We did have a better experience using the Opera Mini browser on the N97 mini (available for free through the Ovi Store). This browser renders pages faster and with fewer faults and is a must-have app for anyone who decided on an N97 or the mini.
It would be inaccurate to describe the performance of the N97 mini as "zippy" or "lightning fast", but it does operate at a usable pace. Menu selections do pause before executing, but overall the experience is fine, especially when you factor in the mini's multitasking functionality.
One major improvement to the mini since our review of the original N97 is the inclusion of kinetic scrolling in nearly all menus. In the N97 when you dragged your finger across a list of names or apps the system would highlight the selection and let you copy it to paste later. Now, on the mini, lists scroll, like the iPhone, and gain momentum based on the speed of your gesture. We should point out that this feature is now also available with a firmware update for the N97, and that the feature is still not available in the inbox of your email where this gesture will still select a large portion of text instead of moving the list.
The user interface is still littered with annoying inconsistencies, like the one mentioned above. For example, most menu items are single touch to select, but there are numerous instances in the UI where you will have to double tap an icon to make the selection you want.
If we could name one compelling reason to buy the N97 mini it would be its stellar battery life. While most smartphones struggle with a day or two of charge, the N97 mini almost doubles that figure to a solid two days with the possibility of a third depending on usage.
The physical design of the N97 mini is fantastic, and its refinements make it superior to the original N97 in our opinion. But the original did have one major advantage over this new model in the timing of its release. With the current implementation of the Series 60 OS the N97 mini already seems like an old phone and feels superseded by other phones in the market before it even hits the stores. Nokia hasn't skimped on the hardware with this release, but until it releases an overhaul of the Symbian platform its top-tier smartphones will suffer. If you're looking for a real treat from the Finns check out the N900 instead.