10 Ways to Improve the Nokia N97

How would you improve Nokia’s N97 smartphone? That’s the question of the day. My answers inside!
1. Prioritize the user experience over everything else. If that means throwing in a faster processor so the phone doesn’t lag when scrolling, so be it. But this could also be something simpler, like masking loading times with animations. A $750 phone shouldn’t feel slow or choppy.
2. Get rid of the directional keypad and make the QWERTY keyboard bigger and better.
No one is going to be playing N-Gage games on the N97. The directional keypad is way, way too close to the edge of the phone, making it difficult to use it effectively. It’s just too cramped, and for me, playing a game for more than 2 minutes strained my fingers. And the actual keypad just isn’t made for gaming. Game controllers are made so you can just shift your thumbs over to move Up/Down/Right/Left. Here, you’ve got to move your thumb around thanks to that (pretty useless) center button.
Removing the keypad would allow for a full QWERTY keyboard, with larger keys in the correct places. That means the Space Bar in the middle, the ZXCV row underneath the ASDF keys, Shift keys on both sides, etc.
Also, consistent tactile feedback would be great, too. Right now every N97 I’ve used has some very nice-feeling keys (anything in the second row, for example), and some really squishy ones (bottom row – ugh). I find myself having constant issues wondering whether I pressed or didn’t press a certain squishy key.
3. Fix the lock key. Once and for all. I seriously cannot believe how buggy the lock key is, and how Nokia hasn’t been able to fix this.
4. Move the Menu key somewhere else.
I personally can’t stand the location of the menu key (so much so that I’ve even remapped the camera key to act as a Menu key, more on this in a later post). It’s in a lousy spot that’s just not finger friendly to one-handers. Maybe this is a little revolutionary, but how about putting the Menu key on one of the sides, a la Lock key or Volume keys? It might not look as elegant, but it’d be a hell of a lot more functional.
5. Throw in a better email client. Preferably one that actually works (contrary to my experience with the onboard email client). Nokia’s own alternative, Nokia Messaging, is just far too slow to be practically used in a serious mailbox. My not-so-serious mailbox that’s filled with less than 100 emails lags like crazy when scrolling or opening up individual emails. We need a responsive email client, and we need it now!
6. Make the keyboard functional in more places, instead of just the Music Player.
There’s a lot of instances on the N97 when the keyboard just isn’t used or used to its fullest potential. Some examples are the Home screen, where the phone simply ignores all keys except those reserved for dialing, and the browser, where the keyboard is also summarily useless. The fixes aren’t difficult. At the Home screen, just default to contacts search (or the add a new contact menu). As for the browser, the keyboard should open up the Go To box and allow you to quickly enter URLs.
The funny thing is that S60 Third Edition phones with keyboards (ie. E75) do a great job integrating the keyboard into the phone experience. Why can’t the Fifth Ed.phones do the same?
Finally, I’d also love to see keyboard shortcuts for applications.
7. Put the 5800 XpressMusic speakers on the N97.
The 5800XM’s stereo speakers were, quite simply put, awesome. The N97′s, on the other hand, kinda suck. They certainly sound puny and tinny by comparison.
8. Move the audio jack. The jack is centered on the top of the phone. This is a really lousy spot because having something plugged in there directly interferes with using the phone in landscape mode (since people tend to hold the phone by its sides). Somewhere in the top right corner of the phone sounds good to me.
9. Remove (or change) the camera key.
I find myself constantly hitting the Camera shortcut key by mistake, usually when attempting one of those finger yoga exercises that I have to go through to press the Menu button. The lens cover automatically opens up the camera application anyway, and you can snap pictures using the touch-screen. A manual touch-focusing feature, similar to that on the Xperia X1, could replace the autofocus. Alternatively, if Nokia allowed me to disable the camera key entirely, I wouldn’t be complaining.
10. Improve the widgets system.
Widgets are small apps that can be added to your Home screen, and they’re an important part of the N97 experience. Yet there’s so little flexibility involved that it’s a wonder that anyone actually uses them. Why am I only allowed to have 2 sets of shortcuts? Why can’t I have widgets in different places, depending on the screen mode? What’s the point of adding a “Hide Content” button? Instead of flicking the screen to hide widgets, how about adding support for multiple “Spaces”, a la OS X? There’s a lot of potential here for some really cool stuff.