The Nokia N900 was just announced that it started shipping on Tuesday. I’ve been using a pre-production version for a month now and just updated to the production firmware (1.2009.42-11). I’ll edit this review when I get my hands on a production hardware model and notice any difference. Want to know what I think in one sentence? I like the Nokia N900, but Nokia still has a lot of work to do.
One of the reasons I started this blog was to share my experiences using what I believed were the best phones created. When the Nokia N70, N93, and N95 8GB were released, I thought everyone else’s phones were garbage. I was happily taking photos, videos, checking the web, my email, and navigating with the built-in GPS while most of my friends were just happy with SMS and making calls on their phones.
But then the iPhone 3G and 3GS came out. Now my friends, their parents, and their grandparents can do what I’ve been doing because Apple made it easier, faster, and prettier to use.
I’m a phone fanatic and always want the best. Unfortunately, I did not feel I was using the best devices anymore when I got the Nokia 5800 and the latest flagship, Nokia N97. That’s why I was excited when the Nokia N900 was announced to run on Maemo. I wanted something new… not just a touch-optimized layer placed on top of the previous S60 OS.
I’ve been asked several questions when I show the Nokia N900 to friends. Do I feel the Nokia N900 is the best device to have right now? Is it better than the iPhone or Android? Read on to find out.
Size. If you’re updating from a Nokia N97, the N900 it’s slightly thicker, shorter and heavier. It’s pocketable, but you’ll feel that it’s there. If you wear skinny jeans, you might want to carry this in your coat pocket or belt case, instead. Check out the size comparison between the iPhone vs N900 vs N97 vs E71.
Build Quality. The build quality of the Nokia N900 is fine. It seems plasticky, but it’s not terrible. The slider locks on to place with nice reassuring clicking sounds and the hardware buttons like the camera, keylock, power, and qwerty are firm. It’s not a dealbreaker, but my pre-production N900 makes a little creaking noise when I squeeze on the side of the device. Some metal would have been reassuring, but it would make the N900 heavier than it already is.
Internals. Inside the Nokia N900 is ARM Cortex – A8 microprocessor running at 600 MHz with 1GB (256MB RAM + 768MB virtual memory). It’s the same CPU as the iPhone 3GS. Opening, scrolling, and switching through multiple applications is really fast. On average, I have 4 windows open and don’t notice any lag. There’s 32GB of internal storage, but the N900 provides a microSD slot if you need more space.
Display. The Nokia N900 has a 3.5 inch touchscreen display with 800 x 480 resolution. That means a pixel density of 267 pixels per inch (PPI). Let’s compare it to other touch devices:
- Apple iPhone 3GS: 165 PPI
- Nokia N97: 210 PPI
- HTC HD2: 217 PPI
- Motorola Droid: 265 PPI
- Nokia N900: 267 PPI
The more pixels you have in an inch, the more information they can represent, and hence the clearer and sharper the picture. Believe me when I say the display on the Nokia N900 is sharp.
The screen on the Nokia N900 is responsive. It reacts quickly to the touch. Pages scroll in sync with the finger, while applications and menus open and close immediately. Unfortunately there’s no multi-touch gestures like pinching to zoom in or out like the iPhone. A unique gesture is a circular motion at the web browser to zoom. Might seem silly at first, but it’s great for one-handed browsing.
Keyboard. I needed a few days to get used to the QWERTY keyboard on the Nokia N900. Coming from the Nokia N97, it felt really different. The @ sign and arrow keys went to the right, while symbol and function were switched to the left side. It became easier after more usage.
Those who haven’t used the Nokia N97 before will notice right away that there are only 3 rows of buttons and the spacebar is placed on the right. I’m fine with the 3 rows, but it needs getting used to. I also don’t mind the weird placement of the spacebar because I’m right-handed. It makes it more accessible in my opinion. The buttons provide adequate tactile feedback, but I suggest leaving the keyboard sounds ON for a better typing experience. My major gripe about the Nokia N900′s keyboard is that long-pressing on a key does not output the corresponding symbol like other recent Nokia Qwerty devices such as the E71, E75, N97, and E72. I’ve voted for this feature on Maemo Bugzilla. We’ll see if Nokia decides to implement it.
On-screen QWERTY is available on the Nokia N900, but it’s off by default. It’s really good for typing, but I still prefer using the slide-out keyboard. Panning or zooming is not available when the on-screen QWERTY is displayed on the N900. For comparison, the iPhone and the Motorola Droid still shows some of the surrounding elements when QWERTY is shown on-screen.
Camera. The Nokia N900′s camera does not disappoint. It features a 5mp camera labeled with Carl Zeiss lens. It also packs dual LEDs flash, but don’t expect miracles when taking photos in dark restaurants and bars. By default, the N900 takes 3.5mp photos. It crops the top and bottom to give a widescreen aspect picture. You can change this to 5mp in options. It does not include all the camera options from previous Nseries cameras. It’s missing sequence, self-timer, color tone, contrast, and sharpness that are found in the Nokia N97.
The Nokia N900 is certainly capable of taking great photos under enough light. Nokia usually does well in this aspect of their devices. The flash is great to help out at night, but it will never be as good as the xenon on the Nokia N82. Overall, I found the N900 to have a better camera than the iPhone 3GS and the Motorola Droid.
Video on the Nokia N900 went both forward and back. As a step up from previous Nseries devices, it has the ability to autofocus before recording. This is done by half-pressing before recording. This makes videos sharper because previous models had fixed focus to either infinity like the Nokia N97 or a few meters like the N86. The N900 is also capable of shooting at a higher resolution of 848 x 480 pixels, but lower max speed of 25 fps. I wouldn’t mind having an additional option to shoot 640×480 pixels at 30 fps. Proper exposure is measured from the center and the N900 adjusts it automatically while recording.
Sharing photos and videos online is really amazing on the Nokia N900. If someone asked me what my favorite feature is on the Nokia N900, this is it. Just install the Pixelpipe plugin and you’ll be able to upload to several services immediately. Tagging and geotagging are also supported.
Speakers. The Nokia N900 speakers are loud, but the quality isn’t the greatest. The speakers are also on the top sides of the N900 so they get covered by my index fingers. I like the placement better on the Nokia N97 where they are at the bottom side corners. The Droid also has noticeably better-sounding speakers.
Maemo is refreshing to use after the S60 OS from previous Nokia devices. The interface is much nicer. It also places a lot of emphasis on multitasking. For example, when you’re running an application, the dashboard icon on the top left gives you quick access to other current open apps. From the dashboard, the icon changes to the application menu icon, where touching it gives you access to all your available apps.
It’s all easy once you familiarize yourself with the status area, menu, and application bar. The status area shows the current time, battery, signal strength, internet connection, available updates, and the active profile. Clicking on the area gives you the status menu where you can quickly change access points, turn on/off bluetooth, profiles, IM status, and volume. This is extendable too. Plugins allow you to add more options. For example, I installed a plugin that lets me quickly change the screen brightness from the status menu. The title bar is where settings for opened apps are available.
For the most part, the Nokia N900 is used in landscape view. Currently, the only apps I found portrait view possible were using the phone or the photo gallery. Portrait view for the browser is expected by the end of the year. I’m not sure about other applications.
Panoramic Desktop. The desktop on the Nokia N900 is very customizable. There are 4 panels for users to place bookmarks, shortcuts, widgets, and contacts. Out of the box, there are two available themes. It depends on you if you want orange or blue accents. You can place four different wallpapers, or follow my guide to loopable wallpapers.
Email. I’ve already thoroughly reviewed the email aspect of the Nokia N900, so I’ll briefly describe it here. Setting up email accounts is pretty easy. Nokia lists the service providers so you’ll only have to enter the proper login info. It’s very straightforward to compose, read, and reply to emails. I’m really glad that HTML is built-in.
Push email exists in the Nokia N900. Exchange is supported. I’m disappointed that Google Sync for email doesn’t work on the Nokia N900. It somehow grabs some email headers, but will not display all the other data like messages, sender, and time. Depending on the region, users will be able to use their Nokia Messaging account for push email.
Unfortunately that option is not available here in the US. It’s now available for US consumers.
There is a known performance issue for IMAP users like Gmail. Those with large amount of inbox messages will notice the Nokia N900 slow down. The workaround is to archive your old emails before setting it up on the N900.
Contacts. The phonebook is really powerful on the Nokia N900. It’s the one-stop place for messaging, whether it is email, instant message, voice call, or internet call. Out of the box, you can add Skype, SIP, Gtalk accounts to show your buddy list within the phonebook. It is also extendable. For example I added my AIM account with a plugin called Haze that’s currently in development. My favorite feature of Contacts on the N900 is sorting the list by status. Therefore, those who are currently online stay on top of the list. And since I’m using Google Sync, my phonebook will always be in sync with Google contacts.
I also suggest installing the Hermes app right away to grab additional information from Facebook that may be missing in your contacts like photos, birthdays, and web links. I’ve spoken to the developer Andrew Flegg before the application was released. Check out the interview here.
Browsing. The web browsing experience is closer to what it’s like using a computer at home than other phones. It loads the full pages of my most visited sites like Techmeme, Engadget, and Mashable accurately and fast too. It’s powered by Mozilla Technology and includes Adobe Flash 9.4 and full AJAX support. It will show flash objects like ads, embedded videos, or even games. I can now access pages on this device that my previous phones couldn’t. For example, The Nokia N97, iPhone, or Motorla Droid can’t open Speedtest.net. Unfortunately, it’s not always smooth as I want it to be. Embedded Youtube videos only play nice if I pause and let it load first. Videos from Vimeo or Hulu are just horrible. It’ll load, but save yourself from headache and avoid these sites completely on the N900.
I recommend installing the Adblock Plus plugin for the N900′s browser made possible by Alan Bruce. It gets rid of ads and banners that often take longer to download than everything else on the page.
Music. When it comes to mobile devices, I usually install Pandora or a Last.FM application to stream music. Unfortunately there are no apps for those services on Maemo yet. I can’t remember the last time I transferred music to a phone, but for review purposes, I tested it on the Nokia N900. I downloaded from my Mac to the N900. I did not have to ‘refresh library’ to make the songs show up in the music library like I remember doing in Symbian devices. Album art also automatically showed up. There’s a built-in FM transmitter if you want to play the music through the car radio or home stereo. By the way, Pandora and last.fm websites will work on the browser, but I found them to be laggy on the N900.
Ovi Maps. I think Ovi maps is what I hate most about the Nokia N900. Searching is nowhere near the same level as Google maps on any platform so it’s often hard to find places. There’s also currently no voice navigation, but there is routing and tracking. Routing allows you to mark the destinations, while tracking follows the current position. The headache gets worse when the car hits a stop light. The map unexpectedly rotates, so I forget whether it was a right or left turn at the intersection. Without the navigation, Maps is actually very snappy on the Nokia N900. Panning and zooming is responsive to the touch. It also usually finds my location in less than a minute.
3rd-Party Apps. Check Maemo Select for third-party applications. There isn’t much right now and that could be turn-off for some. Since Maemo is still new, I’m sure the numbers will increase eventually. I’ll highlight apps that deserve attention in upcoming posts. We really have to depend more on the web browser than using standalone apps. There’s a Twitter app called Mauku, but it’s not even close to what Gravity on Symbian, Tweetdeck on iPhone, or Twidroid on Android offer. I resort to using the Dabr site for my Twitter activity on the N900. I’m also missing a music streaming application like Pandora, music-identiying magician like Shazam, and better map search with Google Maps. I’m glad the video-streaming Qik jumped on Maemo quickly. They’ve created their app in just a few days and have been updating frequently.
Cellular & VoIP
Cellular call quality is fine. I can hear the other callers clearly and noone has complained of not hearing me. Since Skype is built-in, it’s a little easier to make and receive VoIP calls. When using the phone, there’s a quick drop-down to make it a cellular or Skype call on the fly. I tested it on the T-mobile USA 3G network and calls went through fine. However, there’s one major flaw in this integration. Skype requires a ‘+’ before the telephone numbers. Since I store my friends’ numbers in the format 11234567890, pressing the “call with Skype” option on the phonebook returns an invalid number. If I want to use Skype to call my friends, I have to manually add the ‘+’ sign before the number.
The Nokia N900 packs a removable 1320 mAh battery. I haven’t done real objective tests, but I found my average usage on the Nokia N900 lasting me the whole day. An example of heavier usage consisting of snapping several geotagged photos, shooting a couple of short videos, uploading, navigating with Ovi maps, checking email and tweeting lasted me about 7 hours.
No device is perfect, but I like the Nokia N900. It has a sharp screen, fast at multitasking, great at web browsing, awesome at taking and sharing photos, and nicely integrates accounts in the phonebook. At its current state, most of the user’s activity will be on the browser. Buying the the Nokia N900 right now gives you a powerful internet tablet that makes calls and takes great photos too. However, it’s open to more customizations, plugins, and applications that potentially make it better.
If you skipped the whole review and went straight to the summary, you’ll miss that I had a few complaints. The good news is that most of those issues can be fixed with firmware updates and the addition of more third party applications.
Is the Nokia N900 the best device to have right now? That’s not an easy question to answer because there isn’t one perfect device. It depends on what you need. I’ve recently cycled between the iPhone 3GS, Motorola Droid, Nokia N97, and Nokia N900. If applications or music is important to you, then look elsewhere. I need a device that has to have a good web browser AND a good camera. That makes the N900 the best device for me… better than the iPhone 3GS, Droid, and the N97.