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n900 review



introduction

I'm not exactly sure I can pinpoint how the N900 came to be. I mean sure, Nokia has created linux-based internet tablets in the past, but how on earth Nokia decided there was a market for such a device when the N770 was released back in 2005 is anybody's guess. Perhaps they just thought it would be cool, or maybe they had a feeling that with the rate phone hardware was progressing it wouldn't be all that difficult for phones to run much more powerful operating systems than they currently could and thus by experimenting with mobile versions of Linux they would gain some expertise that could later be of great use. The reason why Nokia created internet tablets is a whole topic of speculation, at least to me, so I'll end there. What is important to know, however, is that the N900 is a direct descendant of the N770. It is also the first of this "other" line of devices to have a cellular radio (besides of course the N810 WiMax edition).

While the N900 may look a lot like its standard N-series brothers, most of these similarities are only skin-deep in terms of design or hardware that is directly interactable with the user. That's because while S60 is sort of a superficial operating system, where the user interacts with nothing other than the UI, the N900 is designed so that users willing to roll up their sleeves and interact with the root of the device... can. Many desktop-computer-oriented programs can be re-encoded to run directly on the N900. That thereby transforms the N900 from a fone with a lot of extra hardware, into a computer that has a phone attached to it. Of course, if you're a little less technically inclined (or just lazy), the N900 will work just fine as-is but will mean that a lot of the phone's untapped potential is wasted.

On that note, I should describe myself before digging into the review. I have had my days dabbling in linux, even on a portable level (a Zaurus or two). However when the N900 arrived at my door, I had already decided that I wouldn't give this phone as thorough review as it perhaps deserved, because that would require coming up with a list of things that the N900 can't do already, and then figuring out how to do them. The problem was I couldn't come up with many things I wanted to do that would be 1.) legal and 2.) useful. So I decided that I'd review only what the phone came with. Not really a bad thing, seeing how that is typically what I review on just about any other phone, the only difference here being that the N900 has a lot more potential to do things than other handsets. So it'd only be cutting the N900 short when compared to itself, not to other phones. Oh well. Enough babble, time to kick this review off.



design

The N900 sports a rather tried-and-true design of touchscreen with a QWERTY keypad hidden underneath a slide.  What makes the N900 a bit odd, however, is in how little travel this slide actually has. It gives the phone an odd visual appearance of being quite chunky and brick-like. I'm normally not opposed to chunky devices but the N900 in one's pocket is obvious, even in the rather big pockets that my jeans have. So while a few tapered edges and contours might help the N900 in the pants-department, I oddly feel like without them the N900 better portrays exactly what it is: a computer.

Once again, however, I am getting ahead of myself with analysis that belongs in a different section. When I first pulled the N900 out of its form-fitting packaging, I was taken aback by its striking similarity to an N97 on every single side except for the front, where it better resembled an iPhone than any other Nokia device has before. (By that I mean the absence of dedicated Answer/End keys... which is a trait that the just released N8 has.) There were the telling visual aspects of when the phone had been designed... super-glossy front, "metal" frame around it (not sure if it was metal), and then everything else was plastic. Obviously the same design theme as shared by the more recently available handsets, but recently made out-dated by the upcoming design trends if the N8 and E7 are anything to judge by.

Beginning with the biggest bore of the phone, the back, there is not a lot of interesting stuff to be found here. There is a Carl-Zeiss lensed 5MP dual-LED imager with a sliding lens cover, a fairly sturdy stand, and that's about it. There's no contours, similar to an N85 or N96, yet there is no artificial texture to be found here either. All-in-all, this is a bit boring. But hey, how often does one look at the back-side of the phone? It has but one purpose to fulfill... to not be ugly and to not be too slick that the phone drops out of one's hand frequently. The N900 fulfills these perfectly.

On the bottom of the phone is a slide-lock and one of two stereo speakers (plus a spot for the stylus). The right-hand-side is home to a camera shutter button, IR window (huh?), power button, and a volume rocker. And moving onto the top is found the last stereo speaker and a micro-USB port which supports charging (and is the only way to charge the phone). All of these things are pretty much standard kit on any N-Series phone, minus the IR port (probably added so a clever programmer could use the N900 with his TV as well.

Moving to the front of the phone reveals the rather large display and the front-facing camera as well as proximity sensor and LED indicator (if you can see the latter two... they're a bit difficult to see unless in a well-lit environment). The screen utilizes resistive technology, which is generally considered old-hat nowadays, but with the do-whatever-you-want-with-it mentality of the operating system, it makes sense to enable easy use of a stylus, especially since the physical keyboard makes pecking away at on-screen letters with the stylus a non-required activity.

After I popped the battery into the N900, I felt like the device had a certain amount of heft but not enough to prevent the "spin-test" (holding the phone between thumb and middle-finger at the center-of-gravity for the phone, then spinning it on this axis) from being difficult in the slightest. I have attempted the spin-test with thinner, lighter devices and found them to not spin nearly as freely, so chalk this one up as a win for the N900's idle-entertainment value.



usage

Alright, now to the fun stuff. I powered on the N900 for the first time and was surprised to find myself with a strangely high-def and fluid video of the "decapitated arms" startup sequence that Nokia is so famous for. I have never been amazed by this video but on the N900 I was. Maybe it was the high-resolution (from a Nokia, that is) display, or maybe the pretty high contrast rate, or some sort of super-high-frame-rate that the N900 is blessed with, but this video just seemed different from what I was used to. Just as soon as the startup video was done, though, I was surprised again by an aesthetically pleasing welcome screen, which then displayed a very simple 4-step setup sequence for getting my phone setup and running. There was a wallpaper in the background yet it wasn't visually interfering with the menus I was being presented with... it was eery. And once the quick setup was complete, I was baffled by the next screen that I found myself on: the homescreen.

Coming from S60, where I was either used to an extremely simplistic but functional homescreen (on v3) or a frequently buggy and not really useful widget-based homescreen (v5), I couldn't figure out the screen I was presented with. So I clicked on the top-left corner, which appeared to imply some sort of menu. Turns out I clicked correctly, because a menu appeared. And to my surprise, the wallpaper did not- but instead became blurry and out-of-focus. It was an odd sensation, as if I was working in 3D space only without the fancy 3D-TV or silly goggles. In fact, it turned out that a lot of the UI on the N900 operated in such a manner, as the homescreen widgets, which swiping from one homescreen to the next, did not move at the same rate as the wallpaper, giving further illusions of depth. I feel like it wouldn't take a lot of tweaking for the Maemo OS on the N900 to be extremely fun to use on a display such as that found on the new Nintendo 3DS (which doesn't require goggles). It'd be exactly the type of thing Nokia needs... an operating system which would both fully utilize new technology without making a big mess out of is as S60v5 did with its stupid widgits. (I'm not a big widgit fan, but on the N900 the concept of widgets is executed perfectly.)

In fact, moving around the N900 was so unlike any other operating system that it was truly a breath of fresh air, even though many aspects of certain programs weren't exactly what I would call intuitive and would definitely need tweaks to satisfy manstream consumers. Everything was fluid and crisp. I could open up a ton of programs and not only would the visual effects and transitions never drop even a frame, but nothing began to act slow. I wanted to test the N900 on such a whim because I had a feeling it might help me decide if the N8 or E7 are devices I should spring for as soon as I can, or if I should wait and see what might be around the corner (and would likely ship with MeeGo). If the performance level of the N900 is any indicator of the potential for MeeGo, then I have no doubt that there are some extremely cool phones just around the corner from Nokia.

That said, I ran into a few usage peculiarities. First, the built-in Ovi Maps never got a GPS signal while I was using the N900. Not that it really mattered once I figured out that supposedly Ovi Maps isn't properly configured for the type of GPS built into the N900. Nor does the N900 feature free navigation. And to top things off, I was never once able to get Ovi Suite to transfer a map to the N900. So it is a pretty fair assumption that the N900 will not work as a GPS device right out of the box. It'll require a 3rd party application, probably.

And then there's the hardware. While the OS is a breath of fresh air, the N900's physical presence isn't what I would call appealing. The keyboard is a bit cramped considering the amount of typing space that the N97 comes with. The stand, while rugged, is too small on such a device and props the N900 up at such a small angle that I'd almost call it pointless. The camera cover is a bit difficult to operate, that is to say it doesn't really slide as well as the N86 or N97. And lastly the phone creates a rather big rectangular bulge in one's pocket.



conclusion

...and you know what? All the negative things I've said about the N900 don't really matter. It was never being marketed as a flagship device from Nokia, or at least never seems to be perceived as such. It has always been seen as the member of the family that has it all, but doesn't really like to stand in the spotlight. The device that can do everything all the other phones can do, but doesn't deserve as nearly as much hype. And for that reason, the N900's faults don't really count as much. When a device is being marketed as a flagship device, such as the N97 was, it should arrive to consumers with near perfect quality control and next to no flaws. Take Apple for instance... it offers only one phone. Because of Apple's design philosophy, it is hard for any design flaws to exist, but look at what happens when they do: Apple had to pass out free cases to anyone who asked for them. To the extent of my memory, Nokia has never messed up so badly in regards to hardware. The N97 soon became known as the phone who's lens-cover actually would scratch the lens over time, but this was a problem that Nokia would fix for the users who were unfortunate enough to experience the problem.

However, where Nokia has managed to fall repeatedly over the past year, maybe more, is their choice of operating system. I have no problem with S60v3, but Nokia has had a bad habit of pushing phones out the door with unfinished firmware. I can understand firmware updates to add functionality, but Nokia has repeatedly pushed software fixes and tweaks through their firmware updates. That and S60 really wasn't designed to use much of the new hardware that Nokia is creating, leaving much of the potential there untapped. This is the reason why people keep asking Nokia if they will load Android onto any of their devices, because it is an operating system that was designed from the ground up to use current hardware. iOS is another example. Nokia needs to put the correct software on appropriate hardware.

And that is where the N900 is the exact opposite of what Nokia has been doing. Where Nokia has pushed S60 of the past couple of years on much more capable hardware, Maemo has been shoved onto the "other" hardware that manages to escape mainstream attention. N900 is an example of that. I have no doubt that, had Nokia deemed it worthy, the exact same hardware found in the N900 could have been formed into a much sleeker piece of kit. That's why none of the misses made with the N900 really matter. Think of it more as a testing ground for the future, one that seems very bright at that. I almost have to wonder why Nokia hasn't just offered something like the N97 with both S60 and Maemo, because of how similar the hardware is. Why Nokia is waiting for MeeGo is beyond me, as Maemo is definitely ready for primetime.

Would I buy an N900? Probably not. But that's mostly because I know that there are upcoming devices which feature MeeGo, and other currently available devices with hardware I'd much rather get my hands on. Had I known about how much better Maemo ran on the N900 over the N97 I bought last year, I probably would have hands-down picked the N900. It may have the same hardware though be bulkier, but with a hands-down better operating system which comes bundled with a lot more eye-candy without any of the extra wait time or cumbersome transitions, it's an easy pick for me. I'd go so far as to say that Maemo is one of the first truly beautiful mobile operating systems I've seen yet... easily beating Apple's eye-candy laden iOS.

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