What’s Good: Large 3.5-inch touchscreen, OS has a great deal of potential, good battery life for a smartphone.
What’s Bad: Earpiece volume is low and user interface needs work before it reaches mainstream appeal.
Though not prevalent in the retail space just yet, Nokia’s Maemo operating system has serious potential. Enter the Nokia N900, the first Maemo-powered cellular phone from the Finnish company. Featuring a large touchscreen, QWERTY keyboard, and a new OS, one would think that it’s ready for mainstream use. I believe that the Nokia N900 is a great step forward for the company, but the device needs refinement before it could be considered a competitor in the marketplace of iPhone, Android, webOS, and BlackBerry.
Design & Features
The Nokia N900 ships with the device, battery, home charger, USB cable, stereo headphones, a cleaning cloth, video-out cables, and instruction manuals. Coming in at 4.37 inches long by 2.35 inches wide by 0.77 inch thick, the N900 weighs 6.38 ounces, making it slightly heavier and bulkier than the average smartphone on today’s market. Though the body is made of plastic, you can tell that the N900 is durable. The 3.5-inch resistive touchscreen houses 16.7 million colors and 800 x 480 pixels. With 32GB of internal storage, the N900 offers a 600 MHz TI OMAP 3430 (ARM Cortex-A8) processor, and does a fantastic job at nearly any task you throw at it. I was able to multitask with 16 windows without issue.
The top of the device contains the microUSB charging port and speaker, while the right side houses the volume rocker, power button, camera shortcut key, and an IR receiver. The bottom of the device contains the lock switch, 3.5mm headphone jack, and an additional speaker. The 5.0-megapixel camera is housed on the back of the device, along with a kickstand. The front and left side of the device do not have any physical or touch buttons.
Usability & Performance
The Nokia N900 ships with Maemo 5, Nokia’s Linux-based OS platform. In a nutshell, Maemo is a phenomenal OS concept, but has quite a way to go before it garners any sort of mainstream appeal. The OS is certainly more fluid and relevant than Symbian, but I was often perplexed at certain things that were left off that could confuse a potential buyer. For example, when in the menu (see picture above), there is no visible way to exit out of it, and no buttons on the front of the device to end a task. You do get used to it over time (the exit button is hidden in the top-left corner of the screen), but it’s a bit cumbersome, and would be challenging for new users to become familiar with.
Though it has been rumored to come in future updates, all applications (with the exception of the phone menu) work in landscape mode only. I had no problem with this, but I can see users getting frustrated by not being able to use their favorite apps in portrait mode. Thanks to a software update earlier in the week, the N900 supports Nokia’s Ovi Store, though the app store is still in its infancy. That being said, a functional app store is essential in order to be successful in today’s wireless marketplace, and it’s nice to finally see the store support the Maemo platform. The number of useful apps in the marketplace pale in comparison to the App Catalog, Android Market, and the Apple App Store, but it’s a start.
The keyboard on the Nokia N900 offers an ample amount of tactile feedback, though it’s arranged differently than other keyboards on the market. Perhaps I’m spoiled by the spacious BlackBerry keyboards, but the N900’s keyboard placement is a bit off. Consolidated into three rows, the space bar is centered to the right, and the keyboard letters are centered differently than a typical QWERTY layout. Over the course of a week, I was able to get used to it and type with a reasonable amount of speed, but it may be frustrating for those that pound out e-mails or text messages on a regular basis.
The device ships with a 5.0-megapixel Carl Zeiss camera, and in my testing, image quality was very good. Editing options include white balance settings, an auto-focus, seven color effects, scene modes, three image quality choices, and a macro setting. The video camcorder offers less options, but allows you to record up to 30 seconds for MMS, or longer for a normal video.
The N900 sports a 1320mAh battery with a rated talk time of 9 hours on EDGE, and 5 hours on 3G. With moderate use encompassing text messaging, calling, e-mail, web browsing, and social networking, I was able to make it just over a day before the device powered down. With little to no use, the device lasted about two and a half days. Like any other smartphone, I expected the battery life to be relatively short, but I was quite pleased with the Nokia N900, given the large touchscreen and its “always-on” functionality. As always, battery numbers will vary with the level of usage that they’re subjected to between charging cycles, but the device should be fine for the average individual that’s near an outlet at the end of each day. For those frequently away from the home or office, make sure to purchase a car charger or an extra battery.
The device was tested in the Charlotte area, and though call quality was very good, I had trouble hearing out of the earpiece. Despite that, callers reported that they were able to hear me well, and reception was strong on my end. When I placed the device on my shoulder (thanks to carrying various bags), call quality was equally good, with myself and my other party reporting favorable results. Additionally, when visiting a known AT&T dead spot, I found calls to sound reasonably clear and static-free, though there was some slight fading every now and then. When testing the speakerphone in a busy department store, I was able to hear my callers without a problem, though they said that it was challenging to hear me. I successfully paired my Plantronics Voyager Pro Bluetooth headset to the device without a problem, and callers were pleased with the clarity.
The Nokia N900 supports the GSM 850/900/1800/1900 MHz bands, and in regards to 3G, the WCDMA 900/1700/2100 MHz bands. Though the N900 is an HSPA-capable device, the 3G operates on the 1700 MHz bands, meaning that the device’s 3G capabilities will only work on T-Mobile in the United States. Unfortunately, I was without a T-Mobile SIM card at the time of testing, so I resorted to AT&T’s EDGE connectivity. Despite the technology barrier, data functions were reasonably snappy, performing well. CNN’s full website loaded in 44 seconds, and the full PhoneDog homepage loaded in 49 seconds. Other data-intensive tasks such as e-mail, Hermes, and the Ovi Store performed very well throughout the testing. As a byproduct of Nokia’s “internet tablet” lineup (though they’re no longer called that), web browsing is the N900’s strongest feature.
Coming from someone who doesn’t like Symbian and hasn’t been very impressed with the company’s lineup to date, I’m very excited about the Nokia N900. I think there’s a great deal of potential behind the device, and more importantly, behind Maemo as an OS. In today’s competitive market, a functional OS (coupled with a good device) is crucial for long-term success, and while Maemo is a huge breath of fresh air, Nokia has a lot of work to do before the device and OS will be ready for mainstream appeal on a wireless carrier. The Ovi Store needs to be expanded, Maemo needs to be refined to be a bit easier to use, and Nokia needs to offer portrait support for the N900’s apps. As it stands, the Nokia N900 is a phenomenal mobile internet device (MID) and a decent media unit. With some slight refinements, I could easily see the N900 on T-Mobile USA.