The right side of the handset sports the volume rocker and the dedicated two-step shutter key. They are both comfortable to work with and have nothing to do with the terrible controls of the N96.
The left side hosts the stereo speakers at each end and the microUSB slot and the screen lock knob in the middle. There is no protective cover for the USB slot so it will probably accumulate dust and dirt with use. The screen lock triggers a mild vibration every time it is engaged. The control itself does look rather cheap to some on our team.
The 3.5mm standard audio jack is on top of the Nokia N97, along with the power key. The latter is also used for alternating the ringing profiles on the device and locking it, as on the other Symbian devices.
The bottom features nothing but the lanyard eyelet (there goes the stylus dongle in case you are wondering).
The backside of the handset features the 5 megapixel camera lens and the dual LED flash. Those are hidden under a nice protective cover to prevent getting scratched and all. Unfortunately, dust gathers at the edges of the raised little deck where all those elements are placed and it's quite hard to clean.
Opening the battery cover reveals the capable 1500 mAh BP-4L Li-Ion battery. It's said to provide up to 432 hours of stand-by and 9 and a half hours of talk-time in a 2G network or 408 hours of stand-by and 6 hours of talk time on UMTS. In reality, we've nothing more to say than that the days when Nseries top gadgets (N95 blushes with embarrassment) needed a recharge twice a day are now gone.
The other element of interest under the cover is the microSD card slot. It can easily handle 16GB microSD cards which are the largest currently available on the market. You will have to remove the cover every time you access your card but at least you won't have to restart the handset, as it is hot-swappable. By the way, that's exactly the XPERIA approach too but the N97 is more likely to get away with it. You just don't mess around with 32 GB of onboard storage.
Keyboard could have used another row or two
Sliding the phone open reveals the three-row QWERTY keyboard. Now, the chosen layout of course opens plenty of space for ample keys, and the fact is they are very comfortable to type indeed.
The press feedback is excellent and a great help for faster typing. Basically, they got the best out of this setup, no argument there. However, we would have really liked another row instead, even if it meant smaller keys. It feels like the handset was made with big-handed users in mind, rather than the comfort of the rest.
With a three-row keyboard you've got two chars per almost every key, which requires much more intensive use of the symbol key. So yes - you will need time getting used to the specific layout but otherwise you might type at pretty decent speed.
Another thing that made quite a few eyebrows around the office raise is the peculiar D-pad location. It is placed on the left of the keyboard like it is meant for left-handed use. All due respect (and political correctness), right-handed people still were the majority the last time we checked. It would have made a lot more sense to have the D-pad on the other end.
The placement of the Space key on the right is also a part of the peculiar keyboard layout that needs getting used to.
The build quality of the Nokia N97 causes no concern. We already mentioned the particularly pleasant finish of the rear, and the metallic frame around the display is a nice touch too. The side controls are user-friendly and look resistant to wear and tear, so the N97 adopters can hope to have their gear in good shape for quite a while.
The sliding mechanism however is unevenly tense. The spring is quite rigid at first followed by an all too sudden release that makes a loud banging noise. It's not that disturbing, especially given the level of sturdiness it implies, but there is still room for improvement.
The specs quote visible on the back of the Nokia N97 once it's slid out make the device look like a marketing sample than a real retail product and we're quite surprised that Nokia decided to leave that sign there.