A first meeting review of the Nokia N900

by davidnielsen

The packaging itself is stunning and practical, everything is neatly packaged and the device itself is wel protected to ensure a flawless first experience.

The problem that meets the owner starts before even booting the device for the first time. To insert the battery, SIM card and any additional SD storage on top of the devices ample builtin 32GB storage, one has to enter into a power struggle with the rear hatch. Getting this to pop off requires a lot of force and the hatch feels brittle. Something you definitely don’t want to be the first feeling upon starting the device as the experience will have to be that more stunning. I don’t think this will lend itself to repeated interaction and since that is where the SD cards go it might become for some. Nokia needs to revise this to be polished.

The device itself is fatter than a comparable smartphone such as the HTC Hero I have experience with. It is heavier but comes with a high quality Carl Zeiss optic and a hardware keyboard with that device doesn’t have. It is a trade off I am happy to make but it leaves room to improve with technological advances with future models making the investment and long term commitment to the platform more attractive.

The look and feel of this black giant is good, though slight plastic with a sad touch of cheapness with touch. Not the experience you pay for nor the experience such devices are capable delivering. It is practical and pretty but not stunning.

The hardware keyboard though a bit small is comfortable in use provided none of the cables are attached as they current placement interfere with normal use.

The interface is slightly boring, the icons feel generic and not in touch with the device. It is themable, perhaps something inspired by the monochrome icons in Moblin and Ubuntu Lucid would do well here. The vanishing animation when you dismiss a window is just the right amount of bling to be useful and pretty. Very decent animations when you bring up application menu and it is tailored to not get cluttered at the cost occasionally to depth or lack thereof. Visually these are the only standouts and the interface otherwise feels functional yet a bit dull.

The Skype integration is great and skype to skype call are clear even on a 3G connection. It fixes my main problem with Skype on Android and iPhone devices by being capable and allowed access to the network through 3G making it useful on the go. The interface on Skypes part needs a bit of work especially since the skype-to-skype call option isn’t well placed.

The headset that comes with the N900 is the best I have had when it comes to sound quality, even the mic is of an acceptable quality. Though I wish the sleek style of just having a button to accept calls could be merged with the ease of the HTC Heros headset which allows interaction with the music application in addition to accepting calls.

Maemo as an OS has good features but the boot time of the device isn’t highlighting performance. Given my use of it as an nearly always on device thanks to it’s intelligent profiles.

The profiles are really what makes Maemo elegant and what Android sorely lacks. With an device that is always on capable it’s always you want to be entirely on, e.g. if you are at sleep being on instant messaging and away or busy sometimes isn’t enough but you stll might want Skype on but set to invisible. Maemo allows that. The only thing the profiles really need is a system to manage and categorize alerts. They already intgrated Tracker so they are probably going to increase the semantic component and just needs to be able to filter alerts.

The N900 is a key device in the newly announced MeeGo merger of Maemo and Moblin. Moblin takes performance very seriously and that is likely going to influence the platform. They also care about creating compelling visual interfaces. Maemo might be functional especially on hardware like the N900 but it’s icons and visual presentation needs a bit of a lift to really bring it to wow.

Contact interaction is really Androids strong point, with identity held by Google every contact can basically have every thing hooked in and they do. It is great in use. This part I miss from Maemo, the interface part of their People framework is weak and hard to use effectively. This really needs to be fixed.

The media player is a near master peice, it is powered by Tracker and the end result is stunning. An easy to use, comfortable, elegant interface that is quick. I put in the SD card from my hero which had media on it already and it just appear correctly indexed and available in the mediaplayer without any work, beautiful. My only complaint is that it doesn’t have an equally elegant solutions to audiobooks and podcasts.

The updater works well, when I first got the device I use it to check for updates and one was ready for installation. Downloading and applying the update was all done over the air and with a simple reboot into automatic flashing. Took a few minutes and was entirely painfree. A much better experience than on the Android powered HTC Hero, which forces official updates through a Windows only application. It looks like N900 users are in for a stream of useful bug fixes and experience enhancements unlike the big code drops Android pushes. I would consider this a plus and trust MeeGo to handle this with care in the future.

I’ve played with the camera a bit, it is responsive and takes quality images. Unlike the slow camera in the HTC Hero it is actually something I would consider using frequently. I have never carried a camera with me at all times before, now with the N900 I will, of sorts at least. I am excited about what that might add to life.

The screen feels a bit rough to move around with the finger, requiring force than on the HTC Heros display. This often leads to more force being applied and taken as a pressing action. This really sours the otherwise smooth interaction since you have to be very careful and attentive all the time. Which is normally not what you want e.g. while scrolling long lists of artists.

The lists of applications available to you is extremely small, unlike the firehose of the Apple App store or Androids marked. But those that are there are useful, if they are more ports of existing applications and not something that pushes the frontier like some of the Android and Apple apps. If MeeGo will be able to attract developers I think is helped by it’s openness and use of familiar Linux Desktop components with strong maintainers and good track records with the existing Linux ecosystem.

The standout is the lack of a good todo list, especially as a widget for the home screens. You also lack the easy of integrating mail and calendaring from Android. Androids centralized calendar in my pocket that syncs with the cloud is the first time I ever felt calendars were really useful. Maemo can do this but it doesn’t have the same feel of ease and there is a lot of configuration. The mail application is a disaster, on a device that can play 720p movies and have more processing power than NASA used to send mankind to the Moon.. why have you implemented a mail solution that doesn’t support threading for performance reasons. And then gone and made the interface uncomfortable and old fashioned, this isn’t the 90’s. You have tracker, present the information in useful manner look at the media player and learn. I miss the GMail client from Android and I am so sure the N900 is more than capable of delivering an experience that tops it.. then it present me this relic.

From day one my HTC Hero worked really well with my Ubuntu desktop. Media handled correctly by Banshee and nearly correctly by f-spot. The N900 offers no such joy, however this is not because Banshee isn’t capable, I suspect an OS bug is preventing this from working. The device is correctly detected but it doesn’t work even in USB mass storage mode. I am hoping this gets fixed soon.

I have been enjoying this device for a while and I am very happy with it. Some of that is hopes for MeeGo but the N900 is a great device and I am so far very happy with it. The hardware is sound, they have interesting technology such as Telepathy and Tracker to help them improve the poor elements of the Maemo experience. With MeeGo also comes Moblin and hopefully their work to integrate social elements into the experience. I am eager for the future, don’t disappoint me MeeGo.