Nokia has finally released a QWERTY-slider smartphone in the Nokia N97, a new Nseries superphone that will reach the global market sometime in the first half of this year. The Nokia N97 (specs) features a touchable 16:9 widescreen display, and will improve upon the standard Symbian S60 OS with a UI improved for touch input, as well as home page widgets of favorite Web services and social networking sites….. Nokia claims that the Nokia N97 will use a browser than can display Flash animation, which would put it at the head of the mobile browser pack. Like the Nokia 5800, the Nokia N97 will support Flash Lite 3.0 and Flash Video.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to see the Nokia N97’s Web browser in action, as the hands-on preview we were offered in New York City, to coincide with the phone’s launch at Nokia World in Barcelona, was anything but hands-on. We saw slide shows of the device, and a couple prototype models from arms length, but we were specifically forbidden from touching the device. This isn’t so uncommon, as we were similarly forbidden from touching the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 when it was launched. Both of those phones were announced months, even whole quarters ahead of their actual ship date.

That said, the Nokia N97 seems to have a lot of promise, but that’s all it is right now. Nokia seems focused on the phone’s location-based services, which is a wise move, but seems to be ignoring the larger picture. Nokia Maps does offer some welcome functionality improvements, but nothing we haven’t seen before in other mobile navigation software. Meanwhile, Nokia’s message is so centered on the messaging, the GPS location services and the cloud-based Ovi services that they seem to be wholly ignoring the fact that this is the first touch-sensitive Nseries device, and it will be entering a crowded and competitive

So, we’re most curious about how the Symbian S60 5th Edition OS has been modified for touch, and how well the hardware performs to provide a responsive experience. In our brief look at the Nokia N97, the touchscreen, which is apparently a resistive technology and not the capacitative touchscreen we see on the Apple iPhone 3G, performed fairly well for a prototype device. We saw widgets dragged around on the home screen, and we saw music selected from a list of songs. In both of these examples, the screen seemed to respond quickly. However, until we’ve had a chance to try a more advanced prototype for ourselves, we’ll retain some healthy skepticism.

It worries us that Nokia isn’t talking up the touch version of S60, and instead wants to chat about the 5-megapixel camera and advanced multimedia playback features. While the Carl Zeiss optics are obviously a nice feature on Nseries phones, we’ve seen the same “DVD quality” video recording on other Nseries phones for a couple years now. It’s touch that’s really new to the Nokia N97. Plus, we’re pleased to find a nice, wide touchscreen, with a 16:9 aspect ratio and a resolution of 640 x 360 pixels.

Likewise, the multimedia features are impressive, but not the main focus of our attention. Nokia has outdone themselves with 32GB of onboard memory, plus the microSDHC slot, bringing the total possible capacity to 48GB. That’s a staggering amount of storage on a phone. Still, all that memory will be worthless if the Nokia N97 doesn’t have a stand-out media player. The key will be in managing large music libraries on the Nokia N97. If it’s impossible to scroll through song lists quickly, or any long lists, like contact lists or long Web pages, the game will be up before it’s even begun.

Nokia hasn’t gotten specific on their plans to bring the Nokia N97 to the U.S., but it will eventually show up here in a version that supports U.S. HSDPA bands. We expect to see an unlocked version, probably in the middle of next year. The starting price for Europeans will be 550 Euros, so we imagine the Nokia N97 could cost $700 or so in the U.S. for an unlocked version.

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