Nokia N9 review

Posted Jan 16, 2012
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Nokia, once a powerhouse of a smartphone brand has slowly been losing relevance in the developed world. With Symbian failing to compete with modern OS such as Android and iOS some tough decisions had to be made. N9 running Meego was to be Nokia’s replacement for Symbian and would have paved way for an entirely new smartphone OS, however with the change of personell on top came a change in plans. Development on Meego was compromised and Nokia had adopted Windows Phone as its future OS of choice. However as an act of ‘goodwill’ or something along those lines Nokia did manage to release N9 in a terribly selected list of countries. So today we will be looking at a smartphone and an OS that will forever be remembered as a combination that ‘could have been’.

Design

While Nokia has been somewhat of a failure in the smartphone arena, the design and physical aspects is one area where the company has rarely ever disappointed. From the age old 3310 to the middle-aged N93 to the latest N8, all have pretty much left the competition humble in terms of their physical prowess. What about the N9? Think 3310, N8 and N93i all combined and moulded into one piece of plastic. The result is unquestionably the most stunning piece of hardware ever created. There has never been anything quite like it and with the level at which the bar has been raised with N9, I doubt there ever will be.

The body of N9 is a polycarbonate plastic that is machined to give out its distinct look. There’re literally no hands involved with the manufacturing of this plastic slab. The body is matte finished and is available in a variety of colors (cyan, magenta, black, white) all of which look equally exquisite.

The back is ever so slightly convex giving it a much more comfortable feel in hands than a flat surface. Nokia and Carl Zeiss logo is etched in a chrome finish that also doubles as a camera ring. On the left of the camera is a dual LED flashlight.

 

The front is dominated entirely by a curved 3.9″ Clear Black AMOLED display. There are no buttons, physical or capacitive. The Gorilla glass flows seamlessly into the body. On top of the display is the Nokia logo along with a pair of sensors (proximity and light). Speaking of displays, the 3.9″ FWVGA Clear Black AMOLED screen is a treat to use. Colors pop out at you at near SAMOLED levels but are a lot more controlled. The screen is fixed very close to the front glass making it almost feel as if the text is flowing on it. Even though its a pentile matrix display, it fares a lot better than the pentile in Samsung smartphones. You can see the pentile grid if you really focus on the display however under normal use its just a fantastic screen in pretty much every regard both indoor and under sunlight.

On the top are two flimsy latches which house a microSim and the microUSB slot. On the side is the volume rocker and power key. Apart from the top latches there really isn’t any other way to open the N9. The battery is sealed and irremovable though you do have a choice of either the 16GB or 64GB variant.

Dimensionally speaking the N9 doesn’t break any records. It’s quite thick by today’s standards (12mm) and at 135g is enough to let you know there’s something in your pocket. However with the flawless construction these measurements pretty much fall flat on their face. The fact of the matter is that N9 is truly a joy to hold. It’s simply irresistible from the moment you see it in the box all the way in your hands. Meticulous construction, fabulous design and the undeniable charm are enough to recommend N9 to anyone; and we haven’t even touched the software aspects of it yet. So much so that Nokia actually includes a matching protective case for it in the retail packaging. It’s a culmination of decades worth of experience and it shows that while Nokia may not be what they were as a software company,  as a hardware one they still have what it takes to sucker punch the competition.

Software

Nokia N9 is the first smartphone in the world to run on Meego/Harmattan 1.2 operating system. With Android and iOS dominating the current smartphone sphere it would certainly take something truly special from Nokia to make its mark.

The core of Meego/Harmattan are swipe gestures. Double tap the screen or press the power button to reveal the lock screen. Here you’ll get your most basic of informations such as time/notifications/current music track etc. Swipe from the edge of the screen to launch one of the three home screens. It’s pertinent to mention the way the glass on the screen is designed. With edges that seem to flow into the body, the natural tendency would be to swipe from its edges.

 

On the base of the OS are the three home screens. The first one is a list of all your feeds and notifications. The feeds include updates from Facebook/Twitter and RSS feeds. Any unread text message/email or missed call will also appear here. You can chose to disable either Twitter or Facebook if you want.

The second homescreen is a list of all the installed applications. There’s no folder support yet so the list would be rather long if you have a lot of apps. You can long press to change icon position or uninstall it which is reminiscent of iOS.

The third screen is your multi-tasking area. All your opened apps are listed here as cards. With 1GB of available RAM you can run up to 30 applications in the background without any notable loss of performance. Unlike iOS and Android, N9 multi-tasks in a slightly different manner. iOS pauses apps when they’re not open while Android gives no control over whats running in the background. N9 however is the definition of ‘true’ multi-tasking, something we’ve already seen in N900. You can even see the apps running live on the multi-tasking screen. To close any app you simply swipe down from the top from within the app or long press its card on the multi-tasking screen and tap the cross button.

I mentioned before the heart of Meego are swipe gestures. Where ever you are in the OS or whatever app you’ve opened, to return to one of the home screens all you need to do is swipe from the edge of the screen. To close the app just swipe down from the top.

N9 has built in support for Facebook, Google, Flickr, Mail for Exchange, Skype, Twitter, CalDAV, Picasa, SIP and Youtube. Signing into Facebook and Twitter will automatically enable their respective feeds onto the notification screen. You can also link your contacts with these social networks. The built in Facebook sadly leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately the Twitter app fares a lot better. There are no push notifications for either of these. N9 has built in support for Google Talk, Facebook chat and Skype. While there is a front facing video camera, there is no support for it on Skype yet. You can however still make calls using Skype. Just like Windows Phone 7, N9 also uses the messaging app for both your SMS and chats. Unlike Windows Phone though N9 doesn’t use the same conversation window for both chats and SMS. The built in keyboard is one of the best I’ve used and certainly fares better than the ones on Android. It comes pretty close to iOS and Windows Phone 7. The haptic feedback along with the clicky sounds makes it a pleasure to type on. You also have a Swype keyboard available.

The built in music app is relatively easy to use partially because it doesn’t offer a whole lot when it comes to various settings. The audio output through speakers is average but through a good set of earphones the volume is loud and clear.

On top of the homescreens is the notification bar which is like a stripped down version of what you have on Android. Signal strength, notification icons and the current time are shown here. Clicking it will reveal further options such as ringtone and media volume controls and your IM availability.

N9 has a built in Webkit based web browser that is extremely basic in functionality. It has support for HTML5 but no Flash. There are literally no settings to chose from. No history, cookie or cache settings. No nothing. On the performance front it leaves a lot to be desired. Web pages open at snail’s pace and there is extreme checker boarding. It’s good enough for mobile websites but for full HTML websites you’re better off using a computer.

On the software front Nokia has done more than just a good job. Meego/Harmattan is a beautiful looking OS that unlike Android and Symbian, follows a coherent design scheme. The Nokia pure font along with the oval looking icons make for a pleasing experience. The small animations here and there add a certain level of flair to the OS which makes it feel alive. It runs on primitive hardware which sometimes shows in the form of occasional stutters and lag here and there but as a whole the OS is brilliantly polished and very thoughtfully laid out. It’s hard to believe these are the same guys who came up with Symbian touch screen.

Meego is truly different from whatever is available in the market and that is apparent from the first time you unlock the phone. It’s thoroughly original right down to its core which really pains me to write that it will be the last of its kind. And because of that whilst the OS is relatively open to modification, there aren’t a lot of applications to choose from. Nokia has done well to built in the most basic of applications but somewhere down the line the lack of applications will be felt. There are some useful apps and games available in the Ovi store but it’s simply no comparison with Android or even Windows Phone 7.

Camera and Battery

N9 has a 8MP camera unit that incorporates Carl Zeiss Tessar lens. Unfortunately despite the popular name the resulting image quality is mediocre. It’s no match for the N8 and falls short of Android flagships like Sensation and Galaxy S2. You get a fair amount of settings such as scene, white balance, ISO, exposure and color. Video recording tops out at 720p.

 

While it doesn’t impress a lot in the camera department, the battery is one are where the N9 comes in its own. Under moderate use you can squeeze more than two days out of it which is simply unheard of in smartphone terms especially if you compare it with Android.

Conclusion

The launch of N9 was a breath of fresh air in the increasingly noisy Android littered smartphone sphere. It offers a brand new operating system that is both visually polished and functionally on par with Android and iOS. However with Nokia abandoning Meego as its preferred OS of choice for Windows Phone, recommending N9 has become quite difficult. On the surface it’s utterly irresistible to use and almost begs to be unlocked but deep down inside it offers only the bare essentials. It will continue to get the odd good app thanks to the relatively strong developer community but as a buyer you shouldn’t get your hopes up.

More than that though N9 is a testament to Nokia’s expertise when it comes to designing a smartphone where as  Meego shows they can develop top notch software if they wish. It’s difficult to recommend a N9 to anybody now, however if you want a device that is truly cutting edge in terms of design and software, I don’t see anything beating the N9 for the foreseeable future.

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