Nokia N97 Mini and a RV tour of Western Canada

Last week, I travelled across Western Canada with a few folks from WOMWorld/Nokia, Michael, April, and Daniel in a RV as part of a cross-Canada promotional tour for Nokia’s latest N-Series smartphone (on Rogers in Canada), the N97 Mini.

Nokia N97 Mini

We started our trip in Vancouver, ending up in Calgary just in time for the Stampede with stops along the way in Salmon Arm, Lake Louise, Emerald Lake and Banff among other points of interest.

Unfortunately, and ironically, for a good portion of our road trip, we were in the mountains and had no cell (voice or data) reception at all. This was fine with me as it gave me a chance to explore the phone itself (being relatively new to Nokia and it’s Symbian OS) as well as take in the landscape as a passenger for a change instead of being the driver.

Nokia N97 Mini Tour

The N97 Mini is a slick little smartphone in a candybar style form factor that is smaller (although slightly thicker) than my iPhone 3GS. It’s been out for about six months in the US so there are plenty of reviews around. I thought I’d focus on a few things that interested me about the phone.

The Camera
With an onboard 5 megapixel camera, with autofocus and LED flash, it’s pretty capable and similar to the iPhone 4. Here’s a number of photos I took while travelling around in the RV:

Nokia N97 Mini Tour

Nokia N97 Mini Tour

I really liked the depth of field possible with this camera:

Nokia N97 Mini Tour

Nokia N97 Mini Tour

Nokia N97 Mini Tour

Welcome to Cowtown #n97minitour

Calgary Stampede

I really liked the quality of the images taken with the camera although I found it a little sluggish to use but fairly consistant to an average point and shoot camera which it could easily replace. I found the flash to be pretty decent and to work slightly better than the iPhone 4 which always seemed to suffer for ‘white eyes’ when I used it briefly.

It is also capable of shooting video (with the flash working as an always on light), although only in standard definition. It also has a front facing camera but it’s very low resolution. I never had a chance to try out the video calling features but hope to in the coming weeks while I still have the loaner phone.

Navigation with Ovi Maps
Nokia also includes built in navigation software that is pretty slick.

Three features really stood out about it beyond the standard functions you’d find in a Garmin or TomTom unit:

  1. You can choose and download your maps to the device using desktop software so you don’t need a network connection to use it (especially useful if in a foreign country without data)
  2. Using the Ovi Voice app, you can customize a large portion of the navigation system using your own (or anyones) voice. One of the tasks we were given on the trip was to customize the RV’s phone with our own voices so we had a lot of fun with it as it asks you to record over 50 different phrases and words that it integrates into the navigation…if the RV gets lost along the way, I think they can blame us for having too much fun with the feature.
  3. map updates are free for the life of your phone

Another nice touch is that the N97 Mini comes with a window suction cup mount in the box which makes it even easier to use as an in-car nav system and speakerphone.

Build your own Nokia apps without coding
Nokia recently announced a web based app builder for it’s Ovi Store. Basically it allows you to make a self contained app that pulls in any rss feed you want…so I made one for this site:

It’s pretty basic but it worked pretty well and took all of 5 minutes to create an app, followed by a 24 hour approval process before showing up on the store.

A few other Likes/Dislikes
I liked:

  • great form factor that is very comfortable in hand and slips into a jeans pocket easily with possibly the best flipout keyboard I’ve ever used on a smartphone…small enough to be hidden well, comfortable enough that I might actually type on it…also has a satisfying click sound when folding away the keyboard
  • Nokia’s app store (erm, Ovi Store) has a surprisingly deep amount of apps, games and themes – many things that on Android require rooting or jailbraking on the iPhone – although I haven’t had that much time to fully explore their usefulness
  • true multitasking by simply press’n’hold the ‘wonky button’ (Tom’s British, you know) method for closing running apps
  • decent battery life…although we were using these phones constantly, they managed to last about a day with heavy use

I didn’t like:

  • the Symbian OS feels dated and slow compared to Android/iOS…truly feels like the Linux of the mobile world…fine if you’re into command lines but not so much if you’re into a snappy GUI
  • the phone got very hot while charging or using as a wifi hotspot (or both as we usually used it on the RV), thanks to the metal back plate
  • some of the apps were pretty pricey…Gravity, seemingly the best (if not only) Twitter client for Nokia was $10
  • the video mode suffered from an auto exposure strobing effect that I found annoying…I didn’t find an option to lock it in place, just switch it between a few presets
  • constantly being prompted to ‘go online’ or being told that what I’m about to do would incur data charges or simply being offline & having to press a button or 3 to get an update…no matter what settings I changed, I couldn’t make it stop or stay online. I just wanted to be always online like I can with Android or iPhone. Perhaps this is a holdover from the past when data plans didn’t come in 6gb blocks for less than a mortgage payment

It was a lot of fun to spend time in the RV with other mobile geeks, learning about the phone while travelling around. Tom, our host, mixed things up on a daily basis by giving us challenges to perform using the phone…including dropping us off in an empty parking lot in downtown Calgary. It was early in the morning after a late night at the Stampede then they drove away leaving us with some coordinates to use with Ovi Maps to find our way to breakfast. Fortunately it was only a few blocks to walk but a solid and fun challenge.

I made a couple of timelapse movies during the trip…here’s day one where we travel from Vancouver to Salmon Arm with a brief stop at the Othello Tunnels:

Heading Home
The RV dropped us off at the airport in Calgary and was continuing on out East with a fresh batch of mobile geeks they’d pick up along the way.

While waiting to fly home back to Vancouver, we were entertained at our gate, Stampede style (captured by the N97 Mini), much to Daniel’s chagrin:

All the photos (many taken with the N97 Mini) I took on the trip can be found in my Flickr set.

Huge thanks to my hosts, Tom Hall and Donna Suffling with WOMWorld/Nokia, Chris our awesome RV driver, and my travelmates: Michael, April, and Daniel.

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