Nokia N900: Software review

After writing my hardware review of the Nokia N900, I wanted to also dive into the software side of things, as this is probably the more exciting part of the N900. Once again, I should mention the kind folks of WOMWorld/Nokia for letting me trial this device for 2 weeks so that I could make my mind up about it. I eventually bought one, and have now had it for about 4 months.

Interface paradigm

Every phone has its own paradigm for launching apps, switching apps, receiving notifications, and the likes. In a previous post (link) I discussed this for the 4 more modern Operating Systems in the market, among which we find Maemo 5. I summarised how it works in the following way:

  • It has no physical hardware button on the front. It has only touch screen interaction.
  • Similar to Android, it has 4 customisable home screens on which one can place widgets, bookmarks, contacts and shortcuts.
  • By pressing the button in the upper right corner, one accesses the Dash Board where you find a matrix of thumbnails that represent the running applications. This allows you to easily switch between them.
  • Once on the Dashboard, if you again press the button in the upper right corner, you access the application grid where you find all installed applications.
  • Notifications of incoming messages and the like are shown through a pop up on the screen that then minimise into a yellow thumbnail on the dash board.

There is a slight learning curve at the beginning, but I think it is quite easy to get used to and particularly for such powerful functionality, it works quite straight forward. I personally find it quick, useful and powerful.

Built in software package

The built-in software is in general quite complete. You have the standard applications for PIM, multimedia, communication and entertainment. All of them are not perfect, but I think they are generally sufficiently good for day to day use. However, I believe it was the guys over at AllAboutSymbian that noted that the software is not ready for main stream yet and that the software on the Symbian platform is more mature. In a sense they are right in saying that; take for example the following:

  • Media player… it does not save your point in a podcast when you exit in the middle.
  • Email… though easy to add accounts and quite functional, it is awfully slow.
  • Ovi Maps… in comparison to the Symbian app, it is quite poor in functionality and in speed.
  • Ovi Store… it is  simply a shortcut to the web client.
  • You can’t play DRM protected content such as Music from Nokia Music Store, protected eBooks or AudioBooks from Audible.
  • It does not support MMS.

I don’t believe they are show stoppers and make the phone rubbish, but it is for these things that I would not recommend the Nokia N900 to a normal smartphone user. You have to be quite an enthousiast to not mind these things too much.

It also helps to ignore some small problems, when you have other applications that work as well as they do:

  • Contacts: This application will allow you to store lots of contact information about the individual, such as the standard details like address, phone numbers, and email addresses, but also information about plenty of IM accounts as well as direct links to e.g. profile pages on twitter and facebook. Furthermore, it will allow you to order the contacts in alphabetical order, by (IM) availability or recent use. It is very functional and complete.
  • Conversations: this application contains your threaded conversations with your contacts for SMS and IM. It is very easy to have many different conversations open at the same time as they each have their own window that gets minimised on the Dash Board.
  • Phone: it has (just about) perfect integration with Skype. It is just as easy to call someone with Skype (Skype to Skype as well as Skype Out) as it is to call someone through a regular cell call. It also allows you to quickly purchase new credit.
  • Web: The web client is very good on this phone, as it has good flash support, good desktop like rendering, smooth scrolling and accurate zooming, but one of the things I like most is that it allows you to use bookmarklets for things like Delicious, or Instapaper, just like on your desktop (Mark over on the Nokia Blog explains how it works (link)). Browsing pages, sharing links, and saving links is just like on your desktop, though a little slower of course and on a smaller screen. Great experience.
  • Status Area: It is not an application as such, but a “tool” you can access from whatever application you are in. It allows you to quickly connect/disconnect to the Internet or Bluetooth, as well as set your volume, set your profile, and manage your IM status. And the neatest thing is that developers can create plug-ins for the status area, increasing its functionality. Very powerful and useful!

Third party software

Before I get into the details, I should mention that the platform is not terribly mature yet in comparison to iPhone, Android or Symbian for that matter. It does not have thousands of applications and has just enabled paid applications – rather important to get good developer take up.

That said, the scope of applications is quite impressive and is growing. I particularly hope that native Qt support will give the platform the push it needs.

In terms of what’s available, you have two types of applications:

  • There are your regular stand-alone third party applications that can be found on many other platforms, such as Twitter clients, blogging clients, foursquare client, podcast manager, etc. However, the variety and quality of applications is not really equal to other platforms. This does not have anything to do with the Maemo development platform, I believe, because it is powerful enough, but more with its popularity. Right now, the installed base is small and there is no proof that paid apps will work as they have just started to appear. Not exactly ideal for development to flourish.
    In this context, I do want to mention some of the apps I use most: gPodder (podcatcher I couldn’t live without), Panucci (podcast and audiobook player), Witter (twitter client), barriosquare (foursquare), conboy and maepad (notes applications), mobile firefox, MaStory (blogging client), and Vagalume ( client).
  • The other types of apps are the ones that integrate themselves (seamlessly) in the operating system and allow for additional functionality. These are very powerful little applications. For instance, I have two plug-ins for the status area that allow me to control very conveniently the screen brightness and my connection type (2G or 3G) – see screen shot below. This last one allows me to stay connected to Skype, Facebook chat and gTalk the whole day as long as I stay on 2G when I am out and about, but with 2 clicks has me connected to 3G when I do my occasional web browsing. Other examples are Pixelpipe for uploading media to your favourite websites, Petrovich for uploading and sharing any other file type, and Hermes for grabbing facebook and twitter profile pictures to integrate in Contacts.

A special mention should be made of games. Although there aren’t a lot available yet, Nokia has showcased in several ocassions what this hardware is capable of. Clear examples are Bounce and Angry Birds and some new games will come once PR1.2 is released.

In summary, I would say that the user experience of the maemo 5 operating system is really good once you have gotten used to the basic interactions. The actual installed software is very good in some areas and a little lacking still for others. In terms of third-party apps, I am afraid it is still quite immature: A 7,5 out of 10.


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