Nokia N900 Review: Not an Ordinary Person’s Phone
8/27/2010 by: Anshel Sag
Many people know Nokia to be the biggest handset manufacturer in the world. They also sell more smart phones than everyone else as well. We now take a look at Nokia’s best offering in the smartphone arena, the Nokia N900, and evaluate how smart of a phone it really is and whether or not it’s really a phone that can help Nokia retake their crowning title.
First of all, we would like to start off this review by stating the fact that the Nokia N900 is by no measure a “new” phone. This phone has been out for quite some time but has slowly been releasing every month or so to new markets across the globe. The N900 internally is nothing spectacular by comparison with all of the phones out today. The N900 features a Texas Instruments TI OMAP 3430 which features an ARM Cortex-A8 processor running at 600 MHz and a PowerVR SGX 530 GPU featuring Open GL ES 2.0
Diagram of the OMAP3430 processor. This is the same processor as the Motorola Droid.
In addition to that, the N900 features up to 1GB of application memory utilizing 256MB of RAM with an additional 768MB of virtual memory. On top of that, it also has 32GB of internal storage and a memory card slot for an additional 16GB allowing up to 48GB of storage on the N900, still surpassing most smartphones today. The N900 also has a Lithium-Ion 1320 mAh battery which provides juice to all of the parts on this powerful phone. The phone is also a slider phone which means that it has a slide out full QWERTY keyboard, but in the N900’s case it is only a 3 row QWERTY unlike some larger ones.
When it comes to visuals, the N900 has a 3.5” screen displaying at 800x480 resolution. The camera itself shoots at up to 5 megapixels and is assisted by a dual LED flash. The video camera that is shared by the 5 megapixel camera is capable of delivering 840x480 resolution video which is effectively the same resolution as the phone’s screen. The N900 also has a front facing vga camera which enables video calling and video chatting which we will detail further into the review.
If you are into audio, the N900 has you covered from all angles. The N900 has two speakers that are setup in stereo to be on the left and right sides of the phone. It also sports a 3.5mm headphone jack for easy listening with headphones or to use a headset for making calls. As if this weren’t enough you can also wirelessly send your music via FM radio to your car or any other FM tuned device.
The N900 is packaged in a very discreet black cardboard box which is made up of recycled material. Because of this, Nokia automatically wins green points with us as we know that Nokia is very conscious about the environment. Because of that fact we can comfortably know that the hundreds of thousands if not millions of N900’s out there are not going to pollute the environment with packaging that will hurt the environment. You can also see the energy star logo all over the place.
The front of the box has an embossed picture of the N900 with very little information other than the manufacturer, series of device, and model.
The back goes into great detail about what kind of capabilities the phone has and then goes into a slew of disclaimers. Other than that, the box is extremely minimalist but sturdy enough to protect the phone.
Once you open the box you get the device itself looking straight at you inside of a recyclable plastic clamshell that states, ‘we recycle’. Once you take that out, you are met by the rest of the box with all of the accessories.
Nokia has not skimped when it comes to accessories as most manufacturers tend to try to increase their profitability by forcing you to buy things separately. Nokia, on the other hand, includes everything you might ever need for this phone with the exception of a case. The included accessories include a wall charger, a USB cable, a hands free in-ear headset, replacement cushions for the headset, TV out cable, manual and warranty guide. In our opinion, we would have to say that they have covered all of the bases with the exception of a case… which they probably don’t want to do as that would dry up a huge market for their supporting accessory manufacturers.
This category will cover everything that we have experienced with this phone and all of its ups and downs. Prior to this phone, we had been running Windows Mobile on an HTC Touch Pro in conjunction with a Tmobile G1 running donut. We did this mostly to give ourselves an experience with the other OSes prior to this one. While we do know that donut is not Eclair or Froyo they are still fundamentally the same OS.
The first thing that we approached when getting this device going for a review was the fact that our review sample had been running PR 1.1 which was already an outdated firmware version and that Nokia had just rolled out an update to PR 1.2. Supposedly 1.2 was going to fix many of the issues that 1.1 had and this made sense to us to review the device running 1.2. Upon doing so, we attempted an OTA update. This failed. We then proceeded to attempt an update using the Nokia updating utility. This also failed. The only way we actually had successful managed to flash the device with the new firmware was to download it from the maemo.org repositories and then run a flasher utility and run a series of commands in the phone’s terminal to successfully flash the device. In our opinion, this was not the way that a consumer should have to flash a finished device to a publically available OS update.
For those unfamiliar, the N900 runs on Nokia’s proprietary OS called Maemo 5 which is a Linux based operating system that is ONLY used on the N900 and not on any other device in the world. This is probably one of the device’s biggest benefits and pitfalls. Because of this, the device has a very dedicated community www.maemo.org who work very hard together to help develop applications and fixes for any bugs. Now, here comes the problem. Nokia has effectively left the community feeling like they have to fend for themselves. To this point, the N900 STILL does not have basic MMS functionality, 9 months later. In addition to this, Nokia introduced the development of Meego in conjunction with Intel back in February. In addition to that, they stated that the N900 would NOT be ported commercially over to Meego. This effectively put the nail in the Maemo 5 coffin before it even really had a chance to get going. Nokia stated that they would put their full force behind Meego and that they would be going Meego looking forward. The only problem was that that Meego essentially performed the same functions of Maemo. It was a Smartphone and MID operating system for high-end devices. Once Meego launched, Maemo would be obsolete. The worst part in all of this was the fact that the N900 is basically the only publically available existing development platform for the smartphone based Meego. This is because there are no currently announced Meego based handsets from any manufacturers and Meego was supposed to be used in conjunction with Intel and their Moorestown which currently has no major handset manufacturers using it. In our opinion, Meego was a good idea but because its tied between Intel and Nokia it causes somewhat of a dilemma. Does Intel push for Meego usage with all of their Moorestown chips? Or do they stick with Moblin? Intel is a big part of Meego and if they don’t make a decision it could hurt the development of such an OS in the future. But that’s for an entirely different article.
Getting back to the N900… Nokia has their own marketplace that they’ve been using for quite some time with their Symbian phones and has had a decent amount of success. The only problem is, this same marketplace [Ovi Store] that is used for the N900 has almost no applications. And when I say almost no applications, I mean fewer than the Windows Mobile Marketplace; That few. Nokia has promised to populate the Ovi store for months and it still really hasn’t happened. It’s gotten to a point where the Maemo forums create a new thread every time a new application has been added. This leaves the community almost entirely responsible for creating applications and testing those applications. Because of this, there are various repositories on the maemo.org website that enable developers to publicly release testing versions as well as finished versions of their applications. This is a great thing because it enables community generated applications that cater to the community’s needs. This has both upsides and downsides as it reduces the quantity of applications but improves their quality and effectiveness for their market.
The N900 uses a fully customizable UI that enables many unique features and a few that are common place across many smartphone user interfaces. The most common place thing about the UI is that it has a 4 pane main screen that allows sliding from side to side(only in landscape mode). These panes allow you to place applications, contacts, bookmarks, and widgets on any place on any pane if you have enough room for them. In our own customized version of the UI we’ve opted for one pane to be mostly widgets while another is entirely all favorite contacts for easy access. The other two panes vary with our desires, but customizing the panes on the fly is extremely easy and very simple. Once we press the upper left hand corner of the screen while on one of the 4 main panes a task manager of sorts pops up. This is one of the N900’s coolest features. It creates a small preview window of every application you are currently using in real-time showing exactly what that application would be showing in full screen. This feature is pretty nice and we can usually get around 10-12 applications to run simultaneously before the device starts to slow down. If you hit the upper left hand corner again you are given a full list of all of the installed applications on the device, a sort of programs page similar to what you’d see on iOS or Android. Like Android and iOS you can also shift these apps wherever you’d like on that page. In addition to that, any installed app can be placed anywhere on the main 4 panes of the UI as well.
Picture of pane one of the main screen.
Picture of pane two of the main screen. This was customized as a contacts page names are blurred .
Picture of pane three of the main screen, this is now full of more program shortcuts and serves as a daily email and calendar reminder page.
Picture of pane four of the main screen, in our case it serves as a web launcher of favorite pages.
Here is the 'task manager' with real-time previews.
Dealing with the professional side of things, we could not be any more satisfied with the N900. We got exchange to work fully on the device which allowed for the seamless syncing of calendars and email accounts. The exchange and gmail accounts that we got running on the N900 ran flawlessly since day one and were very easy to setup. Merging contacts and updating contacts was also a breeze and the way that the N900 sorts a contact you can merge all ways of contacting someone into one contact card. This means that you can merge someone’s phone Number, email, Facebook, Skype, Gmail, and MSN accounts all into one contact card and you can easily execute those programs from their contact card.
The media player built into the phone isn't anything to write home about, the media player plays Videos, Music and Internet Radio. In addition to that, whenever you are connected to a network via Wifi you can actually access the shared media on computers on that network. This was a surprising feature that we definitely found intriguing if you want to stream music from your home computer's music collection without having to store it on the phone or be at the computer.
The N900 is a fairly thick phone. There’s no denying that. It measures in at 19mm thick which is easily twice as thick as most of the new smartphones out today but still thinner than our previous HTC Touch Pro or most older phones. Because of this, some people may find this device to be too thick for their tastes in today’s ultra-thin smartphone market. We honestly couldn’t find a legitimate reason for the overall thickness of the device as there are many devices out there with a similar feature set that are still much thinner. We believe that this could simply be a result of Nokia not worrying about thickness but rather durability.
The 3.5 inch 800x480 screen is definitely one to enjoy as the pixel density can only be bested by the Apple iPhone 4’s ‘retina’ display. Viewing high resolution images is definitely a joy on this screen. Since the screen is a resistive one, it works well for those who wear gloves or live in colder climates. In our testing, we definitely had no complaints about the resistive display as it was very responsive and acted almost like a capacitive one. Because it was resistive, that meant that we could easily use a pen as a stylus which is useful in business applications when using a calculator and such.
The backlit slide out keyboard itself is very small and only has 3 rows of keys. In addition to that, the spacebar is off center and results in a lot extra m’s instead of spaces. The keys do have a slight bump to them which does make typing a bit easier, but a larger keyboard would have been much more effective. Adding possibly 1 or 2 more rows would be a great improvement.
The volume buttons are located on the top left hand corner when holding the device in landscape and top right hand when in portrait which is the default call making mode. When holding the phone in portrait mode, we found the volume button placement to be perfect for anyone who is right handed or holds their phone with their right hand. The camera button is also well placed and does not cause any issues at all. The simple fact that this phone has a hardware camera button is a huge plus to many in a world where there are ever increasing on screen shutter buttons. In addition to these buttons there is also a slide lock which is located on the right hand side of the device in landscape mode and at the bottom when in portrait. We found this placement a bit tough to deal with when the phone was in portrait mode and would have recommended that maybe Nokia consider moving it elsewhere; possibly to top of the device near the MicroUSB port.
View of the N900 from the bottom, note the stylus, headphone jack, slide lock, and speaker.
View of the N900 from the top, note the speaker and MicroUSB
One place that we found to be a little trouble was the headphone jack. The placement of the headphone jack was very good and didn’t cause many issues at all. The problem is with it’s design. Many Apple designed headsets are not compatible with the N900 which may cause significant interference once they are plugged in. We found this issue with multiple headsets including the Ultimate Ears TripleFi 10vi headset that we recently tested. This issue was remedied by simply adding the supplied extension cord from UE even though that meant a loss of headset functionality.
Calling and Reception
Overall, phone calls are very clear and the phone never drops calls. The dial pad is nice and big and making calls in general is very simple and straight forward. The only thing that we’ve noticed is that on occasion the phone can freeze when an incoming call arrives and it is effectively impossible to pick up the call until it has already stopped ringing. When using the phone’s speakerphone we can hear people extremely easily and it is probably the loudest speakerphone we’ve ever heard on a phone. Also, people had no issues hearing us at all even when we held the phone away from our head when using speakerphone. Overall, we were extremely surprised with the call quality considering that this is sold as more of a Mobile Internet Device[MID] rather than a smartphone.
The phone supports GSM 850/800/1800 and 1900MHz frequencies. It also supports GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, WCDMA and HSPA 10mbit. The phone does not support HSPA+ but should still benefit from the speed increases of HSPA+ network upgrades. Unfortunately for us, as far as we know there are no HSPA+ networks available in our local area to test speeds.
The web browser on the N900 is probably the best browser we’ve seen on any phone that came before or after. The N900’s browser has supported full flash since day one which was months ahead of Android 2.2 and other updates. The overall usability of the browser is great and it is very similar to a desktop experience. Because of this, when browsing sites like Facebook… some people are baffled to see a fully fledged Facebook page on the N900 even including Facebook chat which is already integrated into the device’s IM protocols. The PC-like keyboard shortcuts make using the N900 and the browser almost an identical experience to using a computer which really makes the N900 shine as a mini-computer. In more than one instance friends had asked me to borrow the N900 so that they could go onto their bank’s website as their phones had issues supporting the bank’s website. On top of that, since the browser can run flash 9.4 and was developed using Mozilla’s engine, there are add-ons that you can install for it much like Firefox itself. These include add-on like ad block, etc.
BSN* in the Maemo Browser by Mozilla
Extensions and Plug-ins just like Firefox
Nokia has also built-in tethering into this device since it isn’t custom made for any carrier and as such the only requirement for tethering is to have the Nokia software installed and the phone plugged in via USB. There are also some wifi sharing [mobile hotspot] applications available but those are 3rd party and not native to the N900. The application that we used [mobile hotspot] also requires a special kernel to enable usage, but it does work.
Video and Video Chat
The N900 is one of the few phones out there with a functional video chat. At one point, the N900 could video chat with other devices via the Fring service. Since Fring and Skype have had a falling out, that is no longer really as much of an option unless they also have Fring. But no fear, with the new firmware update that we installed prior to reviewing the device it gained Skype and Google Talk video chatting functionality. It is easy for us to say that this device has successfully made video calls via 3.5G across the United States and the Atlantic. This is one of the few devices that can do video chat using 3G and does not require Wifi. But there is also a disclaimer, there is a significant amount of lag when using 3G compared to Wifi and the incidence of failure is much higher. Also, there seems to be an issue when trying to make Skype calls to people who are on Macs… but that may just be a Skype issue. The lag issue simply illustrates that networks need to increase their upload speeds and overall network speeds for video chat to be useful. This is likely why the HTC Evo is only allowed to use Qik videochat unless in 4G mode or on wifi.
In regards to video playback, there is no easy way to say this… but it can on occasion be pretty choppy. The videos that came on the device played fairly smoothly in full screen and the definition and colors were impeccable, but there was still some occasional lag. The hardest thing is really to find the right bitrate so that it plays smoothly. This has been an issue, and we’d highly recommend Nokia look into improving their up scaling and downscaling as well as possibly bundling a video converter.
Camera and Photography
The N900’s camera is a 5 Megapixel camera that when used in stock mode, really isn’t much better than most 5MP cameras on phones today. The only thing that sets it apart is the fact that it has a lens cover that easily enables and disables the camera application along with protecting the lens. Recently, though, an application has been made by a few developers that adds a whole new set of camera drivers and creates an entirely new camera app that enables the user to effectively use the camera as if it were an actual camera. With the application FCamera the user can effectively control the exposure, gain, focus, white balance, and burst modes. In addition to that, there is also an option to take HDR photographs which isn’t new to the N900 but may be to others.
When it comes to capturing video, we consider this a sort of middle ground between video and photography. In the case of the N900 we could not capture video without getting some stuttering and some artifacting. Even so, many videos taken with the N900 do look good as long as they don’t stutter or have any artifacting. Overall, the artifacting and stuttering issues do affect the overall quality and have left us wanting more from this device’s video capturing.
Here are a few sample photos and videos.
This photo was taken with the stock camera software
This photo was taken with the FCamera software. It captures images in RAW format which usually results in much better photos.
This photo was also taken with the FCamera software. It captures images in RAW format which usually results in much better photos.
Here is an uploaded video taken off of the N900 using the stock software as FCamera does not do video.
The battery life of the N900 is quite poor even though it features a 1320mAh battery, which in our opinion should’ve been a higher capacity. On a good day, the N900 will last a full working day, and on a bad day it won’t last more than 4-5 hours. We have determined this to be partly because of the fact that the N900 is constantly searching for signal or switching between data networks. Specifically on Tmobile’s network we’ve noticed that the battery life is much worse. People who considering buying the N900 need to be aware of this fact and make sure that they have a car charger and possibly a charger at work or school. We must admit, though, that the phone does charge very quickly from being completely dead.
The N900 currently does not sell subsidized through any carriers in the US and as a result is only available through retailers, etailers, and directly from Nokia. The good thing about this phone is that the prices have gone down significantly since its original announcement and launch. Initially, the N900 sold for $650 but is now available for $450. Also, Nokia has improved their global availability of this device and by this point has made it available in most major markets across the world. When it comes to the actual value that this device provides, we would have to say that based on the price it sells for and the features it has, it would be over priced to sell at $450 considering the complete lack of manufacturer support on the application side of things. The fact that the phone has a built-in transmitter adds value as those can run in excess of 80 to 90 dollars each. So, overall, this device has quite a lot of innovative features packed into it that make it a good value for your money if the device performs as promised.
As we said in the beginning, the N900 is not the everyday man’s device. Through using this phone, we’ve realized that there is no way that this phone would ever gain mainstream adoption. The problems that keep that from happening are mostly to do with the lack of publicly available and Nokia approved applications as well as the amount of bugs that still exist within the device. The N900 has a lot of great innovative features for its time and to this point still has a lot of things over the majority of its competitors. Nokia’s decision to almost leave this device dead in the water has undoubtedly hurt the device’s success but even so, there are still tens of millions of downloads from the community supported applications repositories on maemo.org. As with many devices with a lot of potential, without the community… the device is bunk. This sort of reminds me of Windows Mobile back when I ran it a year or so ago, except Maemo5 isn’t nearly as broken as Windows Mobile was… it just lacked the similar support from Microsoft in regards to applications and such.
The N900 is much like other open source projects out there, they have a lot of good intentions and give developers quite a bit of room to work with, but ultimately don’t gain much market acceptance. In the end, if you know how to program and want full access to your device without even having to really ‘crack’ it… the N900 is for you. But if you want a phone with no bugs that just works no questions asked; then the N900 is not for you. The sky is the limit with the N900 but it still has bumps along the way.
In regards to awards, we really wanted to give the Nokia N900 an innovation award but the device is still too buggy to be considered award worthy.
Nokia, N900, Ovi, iPhone, Linux, Meego, Intel, Maemo, Maemo 5, Maemo.org, 5 megapixel, Cameraphone, Smartphone, Tmobile, AT&T, Mozilla, Firefox
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