Nokia N97: Nothing to Flip for

nokia_n97 copyTrue video connoisseurs are not likely to swap a dedicated video camera for a smartphone. But today’s phones are beefing up their video recording features, hoping to win over shoppers contemplating a low-cost video camera like the Flip or the Zodak (s EK) Zx1. Thinking of making the plunge yourself? Not so fast, I say: I tested the video capabilities of Nokia’s (s NOK) N97, a smartphone that is capable of capturing “DVD-quality” video, and I’m not ready to give up my Flip just yet.

The Nokia N97’s 5-megapixel camera can capture 640-by-480 video at 30 frames per second, and using it is a pleasure. A dedicated button on the side of the phone activates the camera, so you don’t have to dig through menus to find it. And the N97 has a nice, big 3.5-inch touchscreen, which allows you to really see the video as you’re capturing it. It makes the 2-inch screen on the Kodak Zx1 look miniscule.

Controls for starting, stopping, pausing and zooming the video run along the sides of the N97’s screen, and are nicely spaced so as not to look too crowded. The touchscreen is responsive, so the controls are easy to use. But when you press any of the buttons (to zoom in or pause the video, for example) you end up moving the camera slightly, and I noticed this movement when I played back my videos.

Most videos looked great on the N97’s screen, and even looked equally good when I transferred them to my computer via USB. (The N97 is sold unlocked, so you have to supply your own cellular service. Depending on what you choose, you also may be able to share videos via e-mail, MMS, or using Nokia’s Ovi file-sharing service.)

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I did, however, witness a noticeable degradation in quality when using the camera’s digital zoom. While using a digital zoom is bound to reduce the quality somewhat, the hit my videos took when I zoomed in made them unwatchable. See the clip above for an example.

I also found the zoom mechanism a bit hard to use; the on-screen slider is small, and I found it jumped from one extreme to the other, rather than letting me zoom in subtly. I also noticed that the N97 seemed to have difficulty picking up audio. When playing back clips on the phone itself, the sound was dim, and much of the audio seemed almost nonexistent when those same clips were viewed on my computer.

The Nokia N97 is a pretty slick phone, but it’s expensive ($700, unlocked) and I wouldn’t buy it for its video recording capabilities alone. I would, however, buy it for its other features and would just consider its video camera an added benefit — as long as I didn’t need to use the zoom.