The kind people from WOMWorld/Nokia let me use a Nokia N900 for two weeks in December last year. This was a device I was terribly excited about since it was rumored in August 2009, so being able to trial it was fantastic. Thanks for the opportunity, WOMWorld. It was great! Since then, I have not actually written anything up about the device, as my wife and I had a baby boy in December and we’ve been kind of busy. As they say, better late than never, so here goes myfirst part of the “review” of the phone.
Before I continue, I should also say that I have bought my own unlocked N900 that same month of December. My opinions therefore are based on 4 months of use. In this first post, I want to go through the hardware.
Physical dimensions and materials
I think that it is rather difficult to deny that the N900 is a large device, where particularly the thickness is currently unequalled in the smartphone market. Besides that, the phone is rather heavy, coming in at around 180gr. All this makes for quite a beast of a phone. To a certain extent, I don’t really mind at all in day to day life. I normally carry the phone in my coat pocket or my Freitag Dexter messenger bag; so, it doesn’t really bother me. On the other hand, I haven’t had a summer with the phone yet, and the size of the phone becomes a lot more important then. On the whole, I find its size and weight acceptable only because of all the things the phone offers me.
In terms of materials, I have to say I am not very impressed, though I know I have no reason to be unhappy. I think it is a matter of expectations. Given the phone’s price, 600 euros, I simply expected more. The back and sides are made of a matte finished plastic. It feels neither cheap nor luxurous, but gets the job done: It looks good and leaves no fingerprint marks. The screen has, what appears to be, a metal bezel around it. It separates quite visually the bottom part from the top part. It does attract fingerprints, but as it is such a small part of the phone, that doesn’t bother me.
Lastly, the build quality. I am always quite careful with my phones, so I am sure nothing will happen with this phone, but it just doesn’t feel terribly robust in spite of the size and heft. I always feel I have to be a little careful with how I put it down or put it in my bag or pocket … I think it is mainly due to the screen and the fact that it is a slider. In order to avoid misunderstandings, though,I have to say that it doesn’t flimsy at all either, and I think it will stand up just fine to daily use.
BTW, to put this into context, my previous phone was a Nokia E71. Small, pocketable, and great materials and build quality. Most phones compare unfavourably.
In summary, the physical elements of the phone don’t impress me very much and I am sure that the future brings better design, materials and robustness.
Storage, RAM and processor
This is one of the main reasons why I bought this phone. It may sound a little silly, because it is a very geeky thing to say this, but is the truth. The other Nokia phones I considered were the Nokia N97, N97 Mini, E72, and N86. I was particularly interested in the touch screen devices, but they are quite underpowered for the poweruser. I didn’t fancy committing 500-600 euros to a device that already had quite average processor speeds and rather limited RAM from day 1. Instead, I wanted a device that had “future proof” hardware specs.
I have to say, that the device handles most operations with elegance and speed. I barely slows down, and it allows me to run many different processes at the same time. For instance, I can quite easily launch the camera to record a 30Mb video, upload it to the Internet, while I continue listening to music/podcasts and browse the web. It is quite superb! As a side note, I am in general really happy to see that future Symbian 3 devices will be getting hardware specs similar or even to this.
Another reason to really like the N900 was the large 3.5 inch screen with great WVGA resolution. Those are simply great specs that allow for good screen real estate! The truth is that it would perhaps have been nice to have a capacitive screen, but I think Nokia achieved a good enough ressistive experience not to be turned off by this. In fact, through the firmware updates I have noticed the screen getting more responsive, and I am hopeful that Nokia manage to squeeze still a little bit more out. I am generally very satisfied with the touch screen on this device.
I must say that this doesn’t mean of course that I am not thrilled to see that future Nokia Maemo6/MeeGo devices will have capacitive screen technology. I do think that is the future.
Camera and external speakers
One of the main reasons I tend to like Nokia is for their cameras and external speakers. The Nokia N900 does not disappoint in these two areas.
The camera is the usual 5MP Carl Zeiss lens camera unit that we also find on the N95 and N97. It makes good pictures outdoors or indoors with good light. In any other situation, the result is not great. Mainly this is because the flash is quite usele… I don’t know what happens, but in these 4 months I have not made one decent picture with the flash turned on! And, unfortunately, I can’t configure the software to have the flash off by default, so I am continuously turning it off. Not good, but it certainly does not render the camera useless. In turn, I do love the video recording. The WVGA aspect ratio makes for a great video upload to YouTube for sharing with friends/family/world and the quality is really quite nice. I love it. I seriously hope that Nokia does this for the other phones.
I normally listen to music (MP3, Internet radio, and normal radio) as well as podcasts through the external speakers when I am at home or in the car. For me it is simply fundamental for my phone to have good external speakers. The N900 has that, as well as many other Nokia phones, for that matter.
For day to day use, with interupted on line connectivity (for instance listening to music for two hour, checking your email, calendar and notes regularly, shooting some photos, browsing the web for an hour and being on IM for an hour) the battery is fine. It will get you through the day. However, one of the main selling points for the N900 is always being on line, and as every smartphone user knows, this mainly depends on how far your battery takes you. Well, when I have 3G turned on and am always on line on IM – the way this device should work – then I can’t get to the end of the day, I am afraid. And this is a real let-down for me… I was hoping Nokia could deliver on that promise, but they can’t really.
I have found an intermediate point though, that works for me. There is a little plug-in you can install that lets you choose with one touch in the status area whether to connect through 2G and 3G (or dual). What I now do is always connect through 2G when out and about and only connect to 3G when I need to do some browsing when I am out . This allows me to be connected to my skype, gtalk and facebook chat accounts all day and not have to worry about the battery. It seems that 3G draws way to much battery. This works for me, because in Spain data plans are rather expensive and mine only includes 150 megs of data at 3G speeds, so you won’t find me streaming music or surfing the web for a long time.
The last hardware feature I want to address is the keyboard. As I mentioned, my previous phone was a Nokia E71. The one before that was a Nokia 9500. So, I am really used to having a QWERTY and I have a hard time imagining daily use of a phone with a T9 or on-screen key board. The N900’s key board has a rather strange layout that has been mentioned a lot with the space bar to the right. In practice it works quite nice, actually, though it takes some getting used to. Also, having arrow keys instead of a D-pad is just fine to move around; in practice, one uses the actual screen a lot to move around. The keys have decent travel, though are a little hard to push, in my opinion, blocking you from being able to fly over the keyboard. The fact that it is a three-row keyboard does not really bother me, but I can see how others have complained about that… to each his own.
In summary, I believe the device has decent build quality, decent looks, good internals, nice screen, good camera, great external speakers, poor battery and a good keyboard: A 7 out of 10.