A while back, the cool guys at WoMWorld Nokia sent me a trial N900 phone to test out and give it a good run through. While I’ve found some observations then, it took me a while to understand where the N900 fits in the big picture. Now that some time has passed, I’ve begun to realize how the Maemo powered device now differs from the rest of the pack. The N900 definitely left an impression on me, and now its easier to reflect on it against the backdrop of today’s increasingly complex devices.
Design wise, the N900 is rather thicker and heavier than most of us are used to. However, its thin enough and light enough to slide into your pocket. The front features a glossy plastic with a black bezel surrounding the 3.5” 800×480 screen. The back is soft-touch plastic, making it comfortable to hold and feels solid to the touch. Once you slide the top half up, it becomes like a game controller on the hand, with your index fingers curling on the top of the phone behind the screen. The QWERTY keyboard is well spaced, returns tactile feedback and gives good audible clicks when tapped. This provides for faster typing, a faster learning curve, and requires little need to look at the keyboard when in use. The only possible gripes are that the highest row of keys are close to the top half of the phone which you can hit against, and that the spacebar is offset to the right, and both will require just a little bit of time to get used to. There is a built-in kickstand at the back for using the phone on a table, and is held by a smart use of magnets. The charger port and audio/video 3.5mm jack is on the top and bottom side of the phone when its in portrait. So its worth noting that when you slide it open and hold it in landscape with either wire attached, it becomes a little awkward to hold.
The icons in the main menu are of the familiar Nokia style
The user experience is primarily dictated by the N900’s Maemo OS and its Linux and PC inspired design cues. We’re already familiar with some of features like the 4 homescreens customizable with widgets, contacts, bookmarks and app shortcuts – and they work well. The OS allows for various types and sizes of widgets and will not constrain you with a grid-based widget layout. Because of the PC design cues, the N900’s Maemo is noticeably focused on an amazing implementation of visual multitasking with an unusual menu interface. One single button at the top left corner is your primary button. It works on several contexts. First, a tap of this button from any screen will show all the running applications on the phone, otherwise it will open up the phone’s main menu. Another tap from the multitasking screen will bring up the main menu as well. From there, tapping anywhere outside the menus or running apps will bring you back to your last screen. This permeates though most of the phone’s menus and works well once you get used to it. There’s even blur transitions between menus and pop-up notifications to add some visual flair. How this approach differs from other smartphones is that the common philosophy is to have one physical button for home, and optional buttons for backing out of menus. Instead, the N900 chooses to use the main button for home and the blurred background as a means of backing out.
Complex applications running simultaneously under the visual multitasker
The whole OS is inclined towards web browsing and consider each window of its powerful browser as a separate app, rather than showing just one browser app in its visual multitasker – the most prominent feature of the N900. It will show all running applications and a scaled image of the app still running in real time. From here, you can close apps or switch to them, or tap the background to return to your homescreen. It all works perfectly well. You can watch several web page windows while they load simultaneously which means the apps are never suspended when you switch out of them like most smartphones.
Text and IM conversations are integrated extremely well
Instant messaging is fully realized as part of the system under the Conversations and Contacts apps. Instant Messages and Text messages show up in the same app and can be replied to like they were exactly the same thing. You wouldn’t need a separate IM app and need to switch between the two anymore. Even Skype video calling is fully supported on the phone OS, and you can even add and approve friend requests all within the Contacts application.
It should be mentioned that the N900 is where I played Angry Birds for the first time
You can download various apps and themes to manipulate and customize the way your phone works. Themes can change the whole look of the interface including icons and menu colors. While some utilities can change how your phone behaves or what information it displays altogether. Maemo itself is a very customizable interface and welcomes any tweaks and modifications to suit your needs. (Proper technical knowledge is preferred if you’re interested in the more intricate customization.)
There’s not many things you can do in Portrait
My largest gripe about the user interface is it’s treatment of its portrait mode. The N900 is very limited when running in portrait, as most of the apps only run in landscape. Portrait mode is the best way to use a phone one-handed and for most people that’s an important omission. Similarly, the N900 can only be used with two hands almost all the time, requiring you to drop whatever you were doing with both hands and concentrate on using the phone until you’re done. So far, the only thing you can actively use in portrait are the dialer, the web browser, and the image browser – so you’ll need to use two hands for texting.
The browser renders Facebook fast and without a hitch
The N900 specializes in its web browser. It runs fast and has great Flash support. Pages show completely and can be zoomed in and out through either the volume keys or making counter/clockwise motions on the touchscreen. Panning is smooth and lag-free and the fact that you could open as many windows as you like makes the experience all worthwhile. The internet tablet ancestry is definitely still strong within it.
The camera app can be used to take 5MP images from the Carl Zeiss camera with a dual-LED flash. The app has various scene modes to choose from, as well as some basic options. Some functions are missing though, like a self-timer, panorama, face detection, and tap to focus – which are features rapidly gaining popularity these days. The camera takes great pictures in daylight and does a good job of focusing on the right subject, while the dual-LED flash creates enough lighting to make for passable, if noisier, night captures.
Camera takes great images under natural lighting
The music player is basic but does the job well. A widget is available for the homescreen to control playback, and another widget can even find out the lyrics for the current song. Certain features such as an equalizer and visualizations are missing, though.
Video output looks good on TV
The video player can be improved by downloading extra codecs, so you shouldn’t have problems trying to play your favorite media. You can connect your phone via composite cable which came in the box to watch content or to use the TV as a larger screen for your phone.
The Ovi Store works well, albeit with smaller offering
The N900 comes with various standard apps pre-installed for your convenience, and even more can be downloaded on the Maemo version of the Ovi store and even on the Maemo site itself. It comes with a version of the popular Ovi Maps, but unfortunately doesn’t offer free navigation like its Symbian cousin. It can still pre-cache maps and locate you through your GPS signal, anyway. However, I found that it took a while for the N900 to get a GPS lock while it only took a minute to lock onto my N82, which I was holding right next to it.
Games are also widely available for the N900, including popular system emulators and mobile games, including a great version of Rovio’s Angry Birds. That said, there is still not as many as the applications available compared to platforms like the iOS and Android. It also needs a better Facebook widget and possibly a Twitter widget of its own, both with hopefully a larger space to show updates instead of just three at a time.
PERFORMANCE & HARDWARE
Hardware wise, the N900 runs on an ARM 600Mhz processor with PowerVR graphics and 256MB of internal RAM. It sports a 3.5 inch 800×480 resistive screen, comes with 32GB of memory on-board and a microSD expansion slot for extra storage should you ever need more. While these numbers are nothing to be amazed at, they’re still great compared with today’s modern smartphones. Nokia definitely did its best to make this phone as future-proof as possible by giving it high-end hardware when it was created, and it shows. During the entire time I’ve used the phone, there were very few events where I could clearly say that the phone was struggling to keep up. You can open multiple windows and lots of apps with no real fear of crashing the phone or locking it up. It can run some pretty complex games as well thanks to its PowerVR GPU.
An app here shows your battery cycling history
The battery life can be called somewhat of a disappointment for Nokia, but not for smartphones as a whole. In all, the N900 lasts for about a day of use before needing a recharge and is pretty much on par with most phones in this genre of power hungry devices.
There’s no doubt that with the N900, Nokia has come up with a powerful, flexible device. And it is one that holds up even today. Maemo is as unique as they come for mobile phones. Its an intuitive interface coupled with a well crafted multi-tasking feature, deep Contact list and IM integration, and optimized web browsing experience. On those merits, we can’t even find a similar phone that handles quite the same way. However, certain limitations like the meager app offerings, slight bulk, resistive screen, the slightly technologically inclined niche that it belongs to, and popularity of other platforms can sway users from experiencing this amazing device.
The future of the Nokia N900 lies in the hands of OS updates. Since the hardware is capable and the software is easily modified, the development community have already begun on creating various tweaks and even full replacement OSes for the phone – including a version of Android. Nokia is also giving the phone some love by enabling users to install a preview version of Maemo’s successor, Meego. If Nokia pushes through with Meego for its phones in the future, there is hope that they will roll out the update to its N900 and thus, keep it in your pocket for more years to come.
Alex likes doges and wowes. Much bio.
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