Nokia N900 Review

April 5th, 2010

When I reviewed the N810 a while back I thought it was an interesting data only device. I’d say the user experience was somewhere in-between a phone and a computer. Now this is not normally a good thing but the n810 had a large enough display with enough resolution that I didn’t mind it. Anyways the n900 runs a newer version of the n810′s software, the screen retains the same resolution but is smaller (3.5″ vs 4.3″), has a faster processor (600Mhz vs 400Mhz), more memory and storage and most notably a built in phone so you don’t need to worry about finding WiFi or tethering anymore.

The n900 is a thick phone. It reminds me of some of HTC’s older phones like the TyTN. Personally it doesn’t bother me much but your mileage may vary.

Here’s a quick tour of the N900 along with some comparisons with comparable phones:

The display has a resolution of 800×480 and is a resistive (you can use a stylus) touch screen. One the N900 I found the resistive touch screen works well and never really found myself wishing it was a capacitive one. This is mostly due to the fact that most of the time the user interface is designed so that it doesn’t matter if you’re using capacitive or resistive.

The only real exceptions are when you’re switching programs and if you’re using the on screen keyboard. Depending on your dexterity you might find it difficult to close programs. Anyways there is a stylus located on the bottom left of the keyboard – I never really used it.

The keyboard is excellent. The keys have a nice feel and shape to them. It’s easy to type quickly on the N900 keyboard with 2 hands and much harder if you’re just using one. I do wish there were separate number keys.

There is an on screen keyboard which isn’t that great since the N900 has a resistive touch screen so entering text is slow.

While I’m fairly proficient with the n810 I found the n900 software to be very different. This isn’t a bad thing since it didn’t take me long to learn the new menus. If you’re also a S60 user (like myself) the N900 is very different in that there are no buttons to control the menu. For example S60 always has a menu button and 2 soft keys. The N900 just has areas that you press to access menus and options.

Like the lack of menu buttons another Nokia paradigm which is not present are send/end buttons. I’ll be honest it took me a while to get used to this even though I regular switch between different phones like the iPhone or various Android phones which also lack send/end buttons.

Overall I thought the UI while being somewhat different from what I’m used to does work well.

There is a home screen which supports widgets but to be honest I rarely used the home screen. You can customize it plus there are 3 different home screens which you can scroll through.

You can dial from the phone book but the easiest way is to go to the standby display and start typing in a contact’s name (like some the E71, E72). This will bring up a list of matching contacts. Tapping a contact will bring up their information which you can tap to call, SMS, email, etc them.

While the phone function isn’t bad it wasn’t very intuitive to me at first because once I started using it a lot I found I never needed to be on the home screen.

With the exception of the phone app one thing missing from the N900 is a portrait mode. Nokia really expects you to use the N900 in landscape mode. While apps do work well in landscape mode it would be convenient to have a portrait mode since it’s a more single handed user friend form factor.

One aspect about the N900 that I really like is that when you’re using a program that can spawn new windows (like if you’re opening multiple browser windows or have multiple SMS conversations the new windows can be switched to via the task switcher rather than having to switch between them from within the program.

The first thing that jumps out is that Nokia is very confident in the n900′s multitasking abilities and indeed they’re quite impressive. When you tap the top left you’re presented with a list of currently running programs. Press it again and you’re at the main menu where you can launch more programs. Multitasking comes at a cost, if you keep to many programs open the N900 can be slow to respond when you switch from one program to another.

One thing sort of new to the N900 (as far as Nokia phones go) is that there is a built in threaded SMS application. It”s called “Conversations”. Converstations can also thread IM though you can only choose from Ovi Chat, Skype, Google Talk, Japper protocol or SIP. It works well.

The N900 supports IMAP, POP, Exchange and Nokia Email. Exchange and Nokia Email are both push email services. I used Exchange to sync with my Google Calendar and Nokia Email to push my Gmail and Hotmail to the N900. One thing that I didn’t like is that my Gmail and Hotmail don’t show up as separate windows. Instead I have to hit back, back, back to switch between the 2 email services.

The N900′s main feature is it’s Mozilla based browser (Mozilla also underpins Firefox). I like how the N900 treats each browser window as a separate program so you can switch between browser windows the same way you would switch programs. The display doesn’t support multi-touch (it’s a resistive display) so you zoom using the volume buttons.

There is flash support but it’s not as straight forward as flash support on a computer. First off not all flash is supported. Secondly while I wouldn’t say the N900 is slow it’s not fast enough to handle flash well. For example I can pull YouTube up on the N900 and it does work but it doesn’t playback really smoothly.

If you have a webpage that is all flash the N900 probably won’t do a good job with it. Now I use FireFox on my desktop and one thing I’ve found is that sometimes webpages will freeze – I suspect because of certain flash elements/ads. The same thing can happen on the N900. A few times I’ve tried using the N900 only to presented with a message that the application has become unresponsive and if I want to close it. In the end while the flash support isn’t as useful as you’d think it’s one of those things where it’s better to have it than it is to not.

The browser supports plugins including Ad Block and Flash Ad Block. Let’s hope they port XMarks to the N900 browser.

The Media player supports music and video. You can listen to music stored on the N900′s 25GB of available storage space or internet radio. You can watch video stored on the device or stored on local UPNP servers. I tried watching a few videos on my UPNP servers and got video not support messages. That is not to say it won’t work with any video but you’ll probably have to do some tinkering to get it working. Music and pictures should work just fine over UPNP.

There is 32GB of storage built in but only 25GB of that is available for media storage. You can connect to the N900 to your computer via micro USB cable. I got around a respectable 17MB/s when copying a 350MB file from my computer to the N900. Smaller files will probably copy slower.

You can start the camera by sliding open the camera lens cover. While it’s 5 megapixels is quite common it’s still decent as far as 5mp cameras go. There is a shutter button which you can half press to autofocus. The autofocus is quite slow (this is normal for most camera phones). After you’ve taken a picture you can upload it to Flickr or Ovi.com.

The camera app doubles as a camcorder app. Video is recorded at 848×480. Quality is decent though I couldn’t find an option to turn the light on when you’re recording in low light.

You get Ovi Maps. Unfortunately the N900 doesn’t appear to have free navigation. You should be able to connect the N900 to your computer to download maps.

As I mentioned before the N900 actually runs on Linux. 2 giveaways are that you can get a shell prompt plus there is support for repositories. The UI is called Maemo but it’s actually based on Debian. When you download programs the N900 actually uses apt plus the files have a .deb extension. The Linux nerd inside me was drooling when I noticed this.

App manager is a front end to a Maemo respository where you can download more software to your N900. Some cool Linux-y programs you can download include Pidgin (an IM client), an rsync front end, Mplayer, OpenSSH, OpenVPN, and of course you also get VIM (Did I mention I love VIM?). Other useful program is a tether program (so your computer can use the N900′s internet connection).

While the N900 has 32GB of memory built in only 2GB of it is available for installable programs. 2GB is plenty but but it would be nice if you could change the allocation if you need more.

Docs to Go is included though you have to click the icon to download it. You get a free viewer version of Docs to Go. If you want to create your own files you’ll have to buy the full version.

Other included programs are Notes, PDF reader, File manager, RSS Reader, Sketch (a sketch pad), and 4 games; Blocks, Chess, Mahjong and Marbles.

Now the N900 has a 600Mhz ARM Cortex A8 processor which is similar to the one found in the iPhone 3Gs and Palm Pre. While I’d say the N900 multitasks really well it’s not as responsive as the 3Gs and Pre.

Now the N900 supports 3G on 900/1700/2100. Up here in Canada the only network that supports 1700/2100 (that I can use anyways) is Wind. I have extremely weak Wind network signal in my house. The N900 seems to have network signal more often than my Nexus One or Blackberry Bold 9700 did.

Sound quality is quite good.

Battery life is not that great though it will probably get you through the day. Remember to charge it at night.

It took me a while to review the N900. While part of is due to the fact that I’m quite busy lately part is also because it took me a while to get used to the N900.

As a person who has used a lot of Nokia phones it took me a while to get used to the lack of menu buttons. In the end I had to crack open the manual to learn how to use some functions (normally my manuals never get touched). It’s not to say that the N900 isn’t intiutive but rather it’s quite different from other Nokia phones, even previous Maemo devices like the N810. That said the N900 would benefit from a single button that takes you back to the menu or home screen at least (like on the iPhone). It doesn’t kill me that the N900 doesn’t have it but it would make the N900 a more user friendly device.

That said once I got used to it I really like it. The Linux geek in me likes how similar to a desktop Linux distro the N900 is, it’s powerful and while it doesn’t have tons of program available for it it has many of the popular ones. Browsing the web works well and while it needs to support more IM protocols the Conversations program is a nice start. It’s a powerful multitasker to the point that once it’s been on for a few hours I never need to launch any new programs. For the next version of the N900 I really hope Nokia gives it a lot more CPU power. While it’s not a slow device I get the sense that it could really utilize a much faster processor. A capacitive display may make the on screen keyboard more useful (if you want to use an on screen keyboard – I never used it personally).

One big problem I have with the N900 is that it’s the only one of it’s kind right now. While it’s true the N810 and previous version run Maemo the N900 is the first with version 5 of Maemo which isn’t completely backwards compatible. Indeed Maemo 5 has some good bones but is Nokia going to support it enough? Time will tell.

Howard Chui
2010.04.05

Entry Filed under: Nokia

1 Comment Add your own

    logan  |  October 4th, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    great phone. a little thicker than i’d like. processor is faster though than my old unlocked touch screen phones. simple to use, texting and web browsing is good. my partner loves it for the gps and the wifi and my family loves their unlocked at&t phones for the facebook and games. speaker is really loud and it hooks up to my computer simply. also the camera and recorder are great. got our last couple unlocked cheap phones at gsmauthority.com 2 thumbs way up

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