My understanding is that the N9 was all but complete when Stephen Elop announced Nokia’s sea change. In fact, I’m writing this review 60 minutes before Nokia (hopefully) announces their first phones running Windows Phone 7. So what does the N9 mean in this context? The rumoured (and demonstrated) “sea-ray” device looks uncannily similar in design to the N9, so you can assume that – software notwithstanding – at least one Nokia Windows Phone will look and feel very similar in the hand to the N9.
On that note, let’s focus on hardware, and I’ll touch on Meego at the end. As is standard, hit me up in the comments if I’ve missed covering anything you want to hear.
The N9 is simply gorgeous. The model I’m reviewing is matte black polycarbonate, with a piano black, slightly rounded screen. I can hand it to someone and have them gasping with delight without even turning the phone on. It’s a little hard to explain, but the combination of size, shape, and just overall feel makes the N9 a total standout. I’d go so far as saying it feels more comfortable in the hand than an iPhone 4, and (probably just because the ‘4 has been around so long), feels more futuristic.
The seamless polycarbonate body aches to be touched. I found myself gently caressing it to find seams, and failing. The other upside of a solid plastic (it feels wrong using such a cheesy word for this material) body, is that the colour is impregnated through the entire shell. If you can get hold of a blue or pink N9, and happen to scratch it, you’d barely notice.
The AMOLED screen is stunning too. The jet-blacks contrasted with the popping colours under the bulging screen give the entire thing an almost holographic look. The resolution doesn’t come close to the iPhone 4, but the readability in bright daylight blows it – and any other LCD – clean out of the water. The other upshot of the AMOLED display is that Nokia have used it cunningly to display a floating clock when locked – there’s very little battery cost because there’s no backlight burning up the Amps.
I’m not sure if the on-screen keyboard fits under the hardware category, but I do hope the haptic feedback carries over to other Nokia devices. There is a satisfying, but subtle click and de-click when you press and release keys. The timing is perfectly synced with your finger motion, and it adds a genuine “feel” to the on-screen keyboard unlike other phones I have played with.
The camera is Nokia-awesome, and works faster than any phone camera I have played with. I haven’t touched the latest Androids or the iPhone 4, but the speed difference compared to my current Windows Phone is incredible.
The last cool thing about the N9 hardware is the “pentaband 3G”. We humans call it 5-band. For kiwis this means you don’t have to worry if this phone will work on XT or Vodafone. Just stick the MicroSIM in and go.
There is one vexing issue with the hardware: Nokia use a different headset pin arrangement to Apple. I presume this dates back to pre-iPhone days, but the sad fact is that a majority of headsets today are built for the iPhone pin arrangement. Any normal headphones will work fine in the 3.5mm socket, but plug in an iPhone-compatible headset and they won’t. Nokia and Apple have transposed the microphone and ground rings. So, while the plugs at left look outwardly identical, the one on top (from my workhorse Ultimate Ears 220vi headset) does not work at all (no audio, nothing) in the N9. The bottom plug is the included Nokia headset. NB: photo taken using the N9, cropped.
If you position MeeGo as a loaded gun to Microsoft’s temple, they should rightfully feel motivated to make Windows Phone a success at Nokia. MeeGo (specifically MeeGo/Harmattan) is an excellent first release for a smartphone OS – notably with a more complete feature set than the original Windows Phone 7 release (and for that matter iOS 1.x). However, MeeGo’s uncertain future makes the Nokia Store for 3rd-party apps somewhat barren. Having said that, the core apps are there: Facebook, Twitter, Skype, YouTube, Foursquare, and yes, Angry Birds.
The OS performs well in most places, with just a wee bit of lag in strange areas like the Settings app, and an occasional miss-registered tap or swipe. Again, forgivable issues for a v1 release, and certainly nothing that really puts you off the day-to-day use of the phone.
MeeGo asks that users swipe in from the edges of the screen to perform common tasks such as switching between apps and checking notifications. Swiping from the left or right edge switches between the three core screens: apps, notifications, and running tasks. As a concept it works ok, but in reality I found myself swiping a couple of times in most cases to trigger the behaviour, then several times more to understand where in the OS I was placed.
MeeGo will serve most smartphone users extremely well. Nokia’s traditional expertise in the core applications is there, and I didn’t find too many rough edges. Mail4Exchange is a full-featured Microsoft Exchange sync; the browser is a variant of Webkit, and works well; and multiple calendars are supported in the calendar app.
Nokia’s mapping and GPS capability truly shines on MeeGo and the N9. Nokia maps with full driving directions and 3D landmarks, with the same fantastic worldwide coverage we’ve come to expect from Nokia. Map data is pre-cached, so using the GPS in the car is not going to cause you expensive data charges. Frankly, the N9’s mapping functionality blows Windows Phone out of the water in New Zealand, and is easily on par with Google Maps in iOS and Android.
There are a couple of software shortcomings that you should note before committing to MeeGo. Not deal-breakers, but just in case they matter to you:
- GMail contact sync doesn’t seem to be present. Mail and calendar work fine, but not contacts.
- Copy/Paste is spotty. Works fine from most editable fields, but not from e.g. website body copy.
It’s a great smartphone, and I’m sure it will stick around for a while even with the new WP7 devices coming out. Grab one if you like the look of it, and aren’t overly concerned by the future upgrade path and app store story (although, MeeGo 1.1 is in the wild, so we can hope it will come to existing devices).
You can buy the N9 for $999 from Vodafone, or less with a plan.