Nokia is facing a tide of ferocious competitors in the lucrative high-end smartphone market, but the company is on the move: Nokia is battling on multiple fronts a the same time: OS, app store, maps and devices. With the N900, Nokia wanted to build a “handheld computer with phone functionalities”. I suspect that for prospective users, if it looks like a phone, it should work like a phone. Nokia has equipped the N900 with decent hardware: it has a 600Mhz processor (the same used in the Motorola Droid) that integrates a PowerVR SGX 530 graphics processor (OpenGL 2.0). Finally, the N900 runs Maemo, a Linux-based operating system that is backed by major players like Intel. Where does the Nokia N900 fit in the current smartphone landscape?
There are two things that I would like to point out before you read the whole review. First, this N900 unit is a pre-production device, and as such, the pre-installed software that is used might be different from the final product that is shipped. Secondly, the general performance (and battery life) is probably going to improve, to some extent. We are close enough to the launch so that I don’t expect Nokia to ship something that is completely different, but still, you might want to check this page again for a post-launch update.
Also, I’m going to quickly describe how I use the device so that you can extrapolate how your own experience might be. I have been using the Nokia N900 as my main phone. I check my emails from 3 accounts: Exchange (work), Gmail (personal) and Hotmail (random junk account). I keep an eye on my friends’ Facebook updates and email often (I reply moderately). I browse the web several times a day to check on news and the stock market but I don’t call much (about 10mn a day). I have WiFi ON all the time.
Physical Design (Nice, but chubby)
The Nokia N900 design is clean. It has a full qwerty sliding keyboard, which is practical for typing comfortably. However, this also contributes to the thickness of the N900. The keyboard keys remind me of the HTC Touch Pro as they are small and densely packed. The sliding mechanism is solid and that’s good because I feel like this device has been designed to use in landscape mode. Typing speed is on par with the Nokia N97: not optimum, but still better than a virtual keyboard. On the back, there is a 5 megapixel digital camera with dual-LED flash and a lens cover. There is a VGA front camera too.
On the top and bottom, there are two speakers. They are used in games, but also during calls in “speaker mode”. The sound quality is decent, but not as good as the iPhone 3GS.
The WVGA (800×480) touch display is superb and it is surprisingly accurate (it uses resistive technology, so you can use your nails), it’s practical to put the cursor wherever I want. Despite its resistive technology, it is very reactive and doesn’t require a lot of pressure to operate. Unfortunately, it does not support multi-touch, which would have been nice.
Phone basics (Very good)
Searching and finding contacts to place a call is very easy with the Nokia N900. At first, I was worried that an “internet tablet” with phone functions might not cover the basic “phone stuff” well, but I’m glad to see that the N900 is an efficient voice device. If you don’t want to slide the keyboard out, Nokia has implemented a quick way to find contacts: you can quickly go through an alphabetically sorted list. Once a contact is found the N900 will propose to connect via a phone call, or via a VOIP service like Skype. It is possible to place a Skype-to-Skype or a Skype-to-phone (SkypeOut) call from the handset which is awesome to save money, especially when roaming is involved. Make sure that you are not using international data roaming to call though! It is possible to place Skype calls via WiFi and via a 3G network (I’m using T-Mobile’s 3G network right now).
When not using the physical keyboard, there is a virtual keyboard that will appear whenever you are in an editable field. The virtual keyboard is large an comfortable because it takes most of the screen space. Thanks to its size, the error rate is lower, but the virtual keyboard works only in landscape mode. If you want, you can de-activate the virtual keyboard completely in the settings. Personally, I find it faster to slide the physical keyboard out when I need to type something.
Web Browsing (Excellent)
Yay! Flash ads are working too! Err wait… hahaha
The Nokia N900 uses the Maemo web browser, which is built with technology from Mozilla, the foundation behind Firefox. You can find more information about it from Maemo or Nokia, but there are a few things that I would like to point out:
Hulu works, but not fast enough yet
Flash support: The N900’s Maemo Browser is the first mobile browser that I have tried that has Flash 9.4 support. Yes, it means that you can go to Vimeo, Hulu or Youtube (for desktops) and it works… but… video playback in a window is significantly slower than on a desktop machine, so although Flash support is there, the actual experience isn’t (yet). There are good news: in full-screen mode, Youtube videos run fast enough to be enjoyable. At the moment, that’s not the case for Hulu or Vimeo unfortunately. Remember that the Nokia N900 has to manage a lot more pixels (800×480=384000) than an iPhone (480×320=153600). I suspect that the Flash player still needs some work and my sense is that Nokia engineers will have to write the low-level optimizations that take advantage of the hardware. It may come by launch time, but we won’t know until then.
A double-tap in the text zone will make it fit the screen
Zoom modes: The Nokia N900 does not support multi-touch, so pinch and zoom is out, but Nokia came up with a “spinning” motion to zoom. It doesn’t work all that great, but it’s good enough to get the job done. I just feel like my finger has been traveling 10 times the distance, when compared to pinch and zoom. Another way to zoom quickly is to simply use the volume button. It’s convenient, except if you want to change the volume while streaming music in the web browser. Yet a better way to zoom is the double-tap: upon a double tap, the browser will look at the structure of the page and will try to zoom so that you can see the entire element that has been tapped on (image, text block or else). If you double-tap on a zone that is perfectly readable, the browser will assume that you want to zoom out and will do so. In practice, it works very well, but it depends on how the page is formatted. Douple-tap is my preferred way of zooming into content.
Hover mode: Some websites (especially Flash sites) do require a mouse cursor to hover above a user interface item. That thwarts many mobile browsers, but not this one.
A hot question in forums, and the answer is YES, Google Docs works
Web apps: Google Docs and Google Wave work too, although sometimes very slowly. It is fair to assume that most web services and websites will work without any issues, in fact I have not found one site that was not fully functional, but complex sites (heavy use of Flash or Ajax) will often be too slow to use on the N900. Overall, the web experience is excellent, and it’s great that most sites don’t even need zooming, if you have sharp eyes.
Rating: Note that I rate the web browsing experience as “excellent” because all web functionalities work and the page rendering is… excellent. That said, I still consider the web browsing experience on the iPhone 3GS to be more pleasant because the device is more reactive to user input and the (pinch and) zoom feature is better and faster.
Email (Very good)
E-mail is pretty efficient, no complaints there
Out of the box, the Nokia N900 supports a large number of email services like .Mac, AIM, AOL, Hotmail, EarthLink, Yahoo and many more. If you use one of the available mail services, all you need is your account login information. If not, you will be asked for the mail server name, port and so on. It is possible to add several email accounts. In my case, I’m using Exchange, Gmail and Hotmail.
Creating and sending an email is done quickly and efficiently, but the Nokia N900 user interface has not been designed to be email centric: there’s no homepage that tells you how many emails are waiting (and from who). Getting to the email application can require two or three taps, which is a lot if you check email frequently. Of course, that could simply be solved by an “email widget” (not available right now). Overall, it would be nice to have a faster access to email information.
IM and SMS messages are grouped in a single thread named “Conversations”. Currently, the N900 supports the following IM services: Ovi, Skype, Google Talk, Jabber and SIP. I can only assume that more will follow, but that’s what I have today. I like the idea of having all my conversations in a single list, but if I start an exchange with one of my friends by SMS, then continue on Skype, this will show up as two different threads. In short: the N900 is not yet people-centric like MotoBlur or Palm’s Synergy. Android 2.0 will have something like that, so I hope that Maemo will follow.
Photos/video captures (Excellent/Very good)
I’m pretty impressed by the photo quality, fulls-size photos on Flickr
Photos: The Nokia N900 is by far the best camera-phone that I’ve tried. Out of the box, the color balance and contrast are closer to what they should be. I’m very impressed with the photo quality.
Video: Video capture is done in 848×480 pixels (3.4Mbps, 22.3fps, AAC mono 48kHz), which is way higher than any Android phone that I know of, and superior (in resolution) to the iPhone 3GS, which records in 640×480 at 30fps. In good lighting conditions, the videos are really nice and detailed. In dim lighting, you will be able to see compression artifacts, but overall, the video recording is very good – I just wish that we had the option to trade off resolution for faster frame-rate.
You might wonder if it’s possible to use the flash as a flashlight when filming videos: I have not found this function, but I’ll keep an eye open.
Maemo user interface (Simple)
The user interface is reactive and fairly simple
It’s the first time that I have been using Maemo extensively. I’m not going to review the OS here, but the user interface is very responsive, which is definitely a plus. It’s very different from Android, Windows Mobile or the iPhone, but it doesn’t take very long to get used to it. There’s a “close window” icon at the upper-right of the screen just like most desktop OS. It works on app thumbnails too. On the upper-left, there’s a task view icon, which is equivalent to ALT-Tab in Windows. It will show all currently opened apps as thumbnails. If you press the “Power” button, it acts like a Ctrl-Alt-Del and brings a menu that lets you kill the current app, go the phone mode, lock the screen and more…
There is a main dashboard that lists all the applications, but there’s also a panoramic dashboard (up to 4x screens big) that you can customize with shortcuts and widgets. There are arguably not a lot of widgets at the moment, but Maemo has a lot of potential.
I prefer Maemo over the Symbian OS 9.4 found in the N97, partly because it is more reactive (the hardware helps too), but also because the user interface is just better in general.
Performance (Very good)
There is no real benchmark to measure absolute performance from one handset to the next, but I guess that “reactivity” is a metric that we’re all sensitive to. In that sense, the N900 is much better than the N97. It reacts quickly, even when there are multiple applications running in the background. For multitasking, I found the N900 to be superior to many Android phones that I have tested so far (except the Droid).
3D graphics in the game Bounce Evolution
The N900 comes with OpenGL ES 2.0 support and this unit was loaded with “bounce evolution” a 3D game with simple, but relatively fast 3D graphics (somewhere in between the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS). The game doesn’t seem to use any GL ES 2.0 features (it’s more like a GL 1.x game) but the frame rate was around 25 to 30fps. It will be interesting to see what type of games will come out for the Maemo platform. Theoretically, the iPhone 3GS uses a PowerVR graphics processor (the SGX535, versus the N900’s SGX530) that is supposed to be twice as fast at drawing polygons. Updated 12/03/2009: Take a look at the Nokia N900 WebGL demo.
As it is the case with multi-task capable smartphones, having more programs running in the background will slow things down. Fortunately, the N900 is shows you exactly what’s running and makes it easy to shut things down. That’s not the case with current Android phones.
Entertainment (Good, needs content)
At the moment, the best way to enjoy the N900 as an entertainment device is to copy media files to it. There’s ample room (up to 32GB internally+16GB via micro-SD) and that’s how you’ll get the best image quality for the videos. Music is pretty easy to acquire, but videos formatted to the optimum size and bitrate is another story. I hope that Nokia will provide videos via the Ovi Store soon.
YouTube web video (plays very slowly)
Web videos: Of course, there’s always online video services like YouTube or Hulu. At the moment, YouTube works “OK” in fullscreen but could be better. Hulu “technically” works, but it is definitely not fast enough to be enjoyable. Flash is supposed to bring a world of videos to the N900, and I’ve seen some N900 demos showing YouTube working better than what I’ve seen on this particular unit. Let’s wait for the final release to drop a verdict.
Transformers played from the Flash memory
Videos files: The Nokia N900 is capable of playing DVD-resolution videos. The real issue is to find digital video files that have been properly sized and compressed to take advantage of the device’s screen and decoding capabilities. Video playback formats: Video playback file formats: .mp4, .avi, .wmv, .3gp; codecs: H.264, MPEG-4, Xvid, WMV, H.263. Video streaming formats: H.264, MPEG-4, Xvid, WMV, H.263 in .avi, .mp4, .wmv, .asf and .3gp containers.
Music playback interface
Music player: it’s easy: browse by Artist, Songs, Genres or Playlists by scrolling or by typing the first letters. There’s no search function that’s based in keywords. For example, you won’t find the song “Magic Words” by typing “words”. It should be OK if you don’t have thousands of songs. The playback interface itself is pretty classic will all the options that you would expect. The sound quality (tested with Bose Quietcomfort 15 headphones) is very good.
Photo gallery: it is on par with what you can find on Android, but it’s definitely not as fast as the iPhone 3GS or the Zune HD.
The Nokia N900 (middle, bottom) connected to a 52–inch Samsung TV
TV-Out: The Nokia N900 connects to a TV via an analog video out (it uses the 3.5mm jack). It would probably work best with a 30″ screen. I tested it on a 52″ LCD TV and with the length of the cable (3 or 4 feet), I was a bit too close. Readers, what would you use the TV-Out for? (add a comment at the bottom)
Broadcast the audio output via FM
FM transmitter: The N900 can transmit all audio output on an FM channel (user selectable). That allows you to listen to music (or games) wirelessly on a better audio system, without the hassle associated to cables and Bluetooth. It works in cars of course.
Applications (Waiting for more)
As I said earlier, I’m using a pre-release Nokia N900 and the official app store is not yet open/populated, so it’s hard to judge the quality of the software offering right now – there’s just not enough stuff to look at. I’ll highlight a few apps that I use a lot, and we’ll see what will be available at launch time and shortly after. What I do know is that the Maemo community is very active.
Ovi Maps 1.0 is loaded on my pre-release unit
Mapping: This Nokia N900 is loaded with Ovi Maps 1.0, which is quite a step down from Ovi Maps 3.0 as you can imagine. I have not found a way to download maps and use maps in “offline mode” to avoid map downloads (one of the best features of Nokia Maps to save $$$ while traveling abroad). There’s no Google Maps apps on the N900 (yet) so “street view” is another feature that I sometime miss. Google Maps also has much better coverage for places like Tokyo, Japan. In a pinch that might be very handy. Ovi Maps 1.0 is “ok” to get by, but I can’t wait to see something more robust.
We needs social network apps. Widgets+Sites are not good enough
Facebook Widget: The Facebook widget displays status updates and tells you how many messages there are in your inbox. If you want to take action, it will send you to the Facebook website that is perfectly functional with the Maemo Browser. That is however not as convenient as having a mobile Facebook app, like the ones found on other smartphone platforms. There’s too much bandwidth usage due to the web page download, where a Facebook App would only need to download the actual data (status updates or messages).
No MMS support: The Nokia N900 does not support MMS at this point. I haven’t sent an MMS since I had my SE T68i, but some users do care about MMS, so I thought that it was important.
With the “To Go” series, you can read office documents
Office apps: Word to Go, Sheet to Go and Slideshow to Go are loaded on the N900. I have a trial version which it can read office files, but not edit them. There is also a PDF reader application on the N900. If you want to take notes (text only) or do quick sketches, there are a couple of apps that will do just that. There is no voice recording application on the phone right now.
Misc: Maemo is full of features, and I can’t cover every aspect of it, but I recommend taking a look at this compilation of tips for the power user that includes keyboard shortcuts and all. Check the Maemo applications too.
Just like most phones in its class, the battery life (with WiFi ON at all times) is less than 24hrs with very moderate use (basically sit around and fetch emails/notifications). With intense use, I doubt that you could use it for a full working day. In any case, the N900 will need to be charged at least every day, or you will find a dead phone in the morning. In this video a Nokia employee says that the goal was to get a “one day” of “full usage” (3:20). This might be improved by the time it launches.
Things that could be better
Left: iPhone 3GS, Right: Nokia N900
Left: Motorola Droid, Right: Nokia N900
Form factor: The N900 is on the bulky side, and while this could be justified by how powerful this device is (I’m not so sure of that), the fact is that the form factor might simply be too big for many potential users. Secondly, equally fast devices like the Motorola Droid with full Qwerty keyboards are noticeably thinner. There are sacrifices that need to be made in order to achieve sexiness: stylus, lock button, TV out, high-end lens, dual-flash, infra-red port and front camera: many would happily trade all of that for a thinner device. Apple’s strength with the iPhone is not to have every feature, it’s about adding the ones that matter the most at that time, while preserving the “soul” of the phone. It’s time for difficult choices.
Landscape mode bias: The N900 doesn’t work at 100% in portrait mode. Depending on your own habits, it might or might not be a big issue. I’m OK with it, but anyone who wants to use it with one hand might have a problem with that.
Lock screen: it would be nice if the lock screen had more information than the time: the number of emails/SMS/social updates would be nice. Btw, it could scroll too…
Social networking apps: Even though websites work very well, an application is the most convenient way to interact with social networks and web services from a phone, simply because of the small screen surface.
Conclusion (Very good, but…)
The Nokia N900 is currently the best smartphone that Nokia has ever produced and I’ll call it a smartphone even if the company brands it as an “Internet tablet with phone functions”. As a voice device, the Nokia N900 does very well, and as a communication tool, it is very good too. With Maemo, Nokia’s smartphone future seems a lot brighter than it is with Symbian OS, but despite the obvious potential, the number (and quality) of applications is still uncertain right now.
The Web experience is the most complete: the vast majority of sites work perfectly. All the functionalities are there, including Flash and Ajax support, but in some situations (Flash heavy sites), performance is still too low to offer a true desktop experience. I suspect that this can be mostly fixed by software updates.
The N900 faces stiff competition from the iPhone 3GS and the new Motorola Droid, just to name the obvious ones. It might have a “features” advantage, which is great, but I wonder if “technical coolness” will convert into actual sales. My personal take is that the 3GS will still be the most desired phone, with the Moto Droid fast becoming second in line.
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The Nokia N900 is much better than the N97 is, I can vouch for that. However, I think that its form factor alone will be a deterrent for many potential users. If Nokia wants to create an great smartphone eco-system, it needs to have a strong user base (in that space), and to achieve that, it needs sexier phone designs, there’s no way around it.