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December 21, 2009

Nokia N900 – the best N–series yet?

Writing about web page http://www.nokia.co.uk/find-products/all-phones/nokia-n900

Nokia N900Once again the folks at WOMWorld have been kind enough to lend me a shiny new phone for a few weeks. This time it was the Nokia N900. I was really looking forward to getting my hands on this. When I tried out this device’s predecessor, the N810, almost two years ago I liked almost everything about it. The main issue was that it only had a WiFi connection and so much of its functionality disappeared when you were out of range of a wireless network. The N900 is a phone as well as in “internet tablet” and so doesn’t suffer from that problem. It should be the perfect device for me…

Of course, in the last two years things have moved on. In particular the iPhone, which all new smartphones are inevitably compared to, has changed people’s expectations of what such a device should provide. Has the N900 developed enough to keep pace? I’m pleased to say it has. There are a few shortcomings still, not all of them with the device itself, and those mean that I still prefer my iphone to the N900. It was close, though. I do think that for me this is the best N-series device I’ve used. And so to the details…

The N900 is a Maemo-based device. This is a Linux-dervied OS built by Nokia specifically for their “internat tablet” range, starting with the N700. The N900 has the latest version, Maemo 5. I really like this OS and the UI. It isn’t quite as intuitive as the iPhone but after just a few minutes I had found everything I needed without having to resort to the manual. And one of the major issues I have with all Symbian-based phones, the way they deal with network selection on a per-app basis, is dealt with nicely. The OS chooses the appropriate network connection (WiFi or cellular) and everything just uses it. Perfect. It did feel like the UI needed just a little more horsepower from the CPU, though. Inertial scrolling wasn’t quite as smooth as you’d like, and nor was opening windows. To be fair, though, the same is true of my iPhone 3G (but not the 3GS).

Running multiple apps worked flawlessly, and switching between them was straightforward. All apps continued running in the background and could provide notifications where appropriate – new IM conversations, emails, SMS, etc… I so wish the iPhone worked this way. That said, I once had to reboot the machine because a background app was causing it all sorts of grief. Speaking of apps, there’s a default link to the “Ovi Store” for downloading new apps but that just took me to a “coming soon” page. That was a bit of a disappointment. One of the expectations that the iPhone changed was the “app” ecosystem, and shipping without a working app store these days is not a good thing. Without an app store you could make an argument that this isn’t really a smartphone. The Palm Pre has a similar problem, but it at least has some useful apps in its app store…

I did have two surprising issues with the software on the phone. I couldn’t get it to sync to our Exchange server. This is apparently because we are running Exchange 2003, and that isn’t supported (yet) by Maemo 5. Apparently it will be supported in the next update. That makes the device useless to me, and presumably many others, until the update is released. Next, and possible more surprising, the N900 doesn’t support MMS! How can a device released in 2009 not let you send MMS messages? Yes, I know the iPhone didn’t either, and Apple were rightly criticised for it. It isn’t like Nokia don’t know how to do MMS – they’ve got one or two other devices that support it. I’ve not heard when MMS support is coming along.

The touchscreen is resistive, which is a bit of a shame. It is the best resistive touch screen I’ve used, though, and most of the time it worked as well as the capacitive screen on my iPhone. It doesn’t support multi-touch, of course. Most of the time that wasn’t an issue but when you need it there’s no real substitute. The camera is Nokia’s usual 5MP device with auto-focus, Carl-Zeiss lens and LED “flash”, and it does its usual very, good job. I’d be more than happy for this to be my “carry anywhere” camera, even for indoor and low light situations.

Back when I tried the N810 I was really looking forward to a device with a physical keyboard, but was quite disappointed by that one. I also didn’t really take to the one on the N97 I tried earlier this year. I suppose I was expecting the N900 keyboard to be the same, but it wasn’t. I can’t quite put my finger on what is different, but I did like the N900 keyboard a lot. It worked a lot better for me that the others. I think I still slightly prefer the on-screen keyboard on the iPhone, but then I’ve had almost 18 months of practice on that and I’m sure I’d like the N900 keyboard more as I got used to it.

As far as the device goes, then, pretty much everything is good. The keyboard and resistive touch screen work better than I expected, the OS and UI are good, the camera is excellent. The major problems with this device are actually not with the device! I’ve already mentioned the app store, or lack of one. The PC software for communicating with the phone is also a bit of a disappointment. Getting music onto the phone is just too hard. iTunes for the iPhone just works. Nokia’s PC Suite is too much of a pain. It does the job, but it is too awkward to use. Maybe when you get used to it it is fine, but these days you shouldn’t have to “get used to it”. More work needed here, Nokia.

So, in summary, the device is pretty good. Definitely the best N-series device I’ve use, at least for my purposes. There are a few surprising problems (Exchange support and MMS), though, and they need sorting out. As does the PC software. Linking the N900 to a PC to swap data should not be as hard as it is. Overall, though, this was the hardest device to send back. Somebody asked me if I’d have sent the iPhone back and kept the N900 if given the chance. For previous Nokia devices I’ve tested, the answer would always have been a resounding “No”. This was much, much closer. I still sent back the right device, but when the N910 (or whatever it is called) comes along I might just be tempted! Keep up the good work Nokia – you’re definitely getting there…


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