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The n900 is a star in the Nokia family

n900

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After the disappointing N97 it was all to easy to dismiss Nokia as a fading star of mobile phone design. The flagship which failed to float was the perfect excuse for a whole horde of doomsayers to predict the end of the once-greatest mobile company. A common quip was that unless Nokia were to pull off something entirely miraculous it would be “the end”. Fortunately the N900 is the miracle we had all hoped for, a truly remarkable combination of new software and hardware.

It’s hard to disentangle all the novelty in this new phone: Not only is it the first of a brand new form-factor (the sliding landscape keyboard-phone), but it’s also the first phone in Nokia’s huge portfolio to feature Maemo, an operating system entirely new to the world of phones. That’s not to say that Maemo is new: It’s been on the market since 2006 but only on Nokia’s ultra-niche tablet computers.

First of all, lets deal with the easy stuff- the hardware: Nokia vastly simplified the slider mechanism compared to the N97. Instead of the elaborate slide and tilt, this keyboard simply slides out from behind the screen. While it doesn’t look so impressive it makes for a device which is both more comfortable and rugged. The new keyboard is slightly wider than the N97s since they ditched the somewhat useless D-pad. I guess they figured out that users don’t actually need a d-pad and a touch-screen if the touch screen is good enough.

Ony of my big criticisms of the N97 was it’s insensitive touch screen (I called it a “punch screen“). At the time I put this down to the fact that Nokia had chosen the older “resistive” technology rather than the more trendy “capacitive” screens used by the iPhone and most android devices. The N900 has not switched to capacitative, and yet the screen seems a great deal more responsive. I’ve not yet encountered the frequent false-clicks of the older model. Nokia claim that the advantage of a resistive screen is that you can be more precise. This is why the N900 has a concealed stylus which slides out of the front. It’s not actually possible to use a stylus on a capacitative screen, so Nokia clearly see this as giving their customers wider choices.

The other major criticism of the N97 was that it seemed sluggish compared to the high-end phones: Once again this has seems to have been fixed. Even while multitasking the N900 seems to have the processing power to stay lively and responsive. This is no doubt a consequence of the shift to Nokia’s next generation operating system. Maemo is the phone’s biggest new feature: It’s an operating system unlike anything I’ve seen before on a mobile, but oddly similar to almost everything I’ve used on my desktop.

I dont want to give the impression that it was entirely perfect:

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The biggest problem with Maemo today is a complete lack of commercial apps. None of the official Google Apps (e.g. Mail, Maps) have been ported to Maemo. It also lacks some of my favourites such as Spotify, BBC iPlayer and Last.fm. There’s no technical reason to doubt that these applications will eventually be ported to Maemo, however early adopters might need to beware that they might have to do without their favourite apps.

As compensation for the lack of apps, the web-browser is really good: Good enough (for example) to use the web-versions of Twitter, and BBC iPlayer. The built in multimedia conceals some pleasant surprises, such as the fact that that the it can handle high-definition DivX movie files and Ogg audio files.

No other device I can think of can play all of these non-commerical formats despite the fact that they are hugely popular in the free-software world.

So is the N900 the “iPhone Killer” that everybody’s been pining for? No, and thankfully not. I think this product represents an entirely new territory for the mobile phone industry. Rather than replicate Apple’s model of a tightly controlled environment, Nokia are emphasizing openness by borrowing a strategy which has worked so well for the open-source movement. This is the most open mobile platform on the market today, and I feel that proposition alone will draw in the “core” of developers who will in turn deliver the novel applications which will usher in a wider audience.

In summary, the N900 is intuitive, responsive and a joy to use. A true star in the Nokia family.

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