Grant McWilliams

Tech Gadgets Blog Nokia's last stand.. aka. I got my n900.

Nokia's last stand.. aka. I got my n900.

I've been very excited about Android for quite some time. It's nice to see a form of Linux take over the mobile device market. Until the beginning of the 2011 year though hadn't personally experienced Android. For the couple of year before I got my phone I'd been using Nokia's Mobile Internet Devices (n800/n810) which have served me well outside of not having Internet connections everywhere. Nokia understood this and made the n900 a cell phone and released a new more finger friendly Maemo 5 operating system for it too. Because they needed to get the phone out as soon as possible they kept Maemo 4's Hildon (gtk) based gui with the idea of going to a QT based GUI for Maemo 6. Nokia had just purchased QT for millions of dollars. And then something happened, Android started to gain traction so Nokia did what any smart company would do - join resources with another large corporation getting the snot beat out of them - Intel. Intel had a mobile operating system called Moblin which was designed primarily for tablets. Nokia's Maemo had largely been a small tablet OS and since both were based on Linux it made sense to merge and form MeeGo. This however, put an already late project (Maemo 6) an additional year behind in the merging Maemo and Moblin into MeeGo. This resulted in Nokia being in a bad position as their Symbian OS was getting very long in the tooth.

Years ago I had a Psion Revo+, the forerunner to Symbian which I liked a lot. I wrote applications for it in the included OPL language. Then Psion spun off the OS and every major cell phone company jumped on the bandwagon but it was really Nokia that carried the torch. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when a company called MobilePC accidentally sent me a Nokia N97 instead of a Nokia N900.

Without knowing it was a mess-up I took the Nokia from the box and immediately I thought I'd been ripped off. The phone said N-Series and felt very very cheap. My first thought was that it was a Chinese clone of the N900. I powered it up and the operating system looked like it was from a different era, it felt very clunky and not very intuitive. It was only then that I looked under the LCD screen and saw that it was a Nokia N97. Having only dealt with the Nokia MIDs I was shocked that this hunk of junk could be a Nokia. Looking at the specs it looked great - 32 GB of flash, 5MP camera with Carl Zeiss lens,  3.5 inch screen, Quad Band cell radio and more. This appears to be a thoroughly modern phone - however, I'd be ashamed selling it. Without thinking (or doing a proper review) I put it back in the box and sent it to MobilePC then waited patiently for way to long for my N900. In hindsight I probably should have spent a day or two with it so I could give it a proper chance but since I didn't my opinion that it's a hunk of junk stands.

As soon as the N900 arrived I took it out of the box and immediately knew I was dealing with a completely different animal. Even though it is only 1 ounce heavier it feels good. It feels like it was made of good solid materials. The screen is sharp and clear, the keyboard slides with a satisfying clunk and the plastic case even feels better. They clearly are spending more money making this phone than the N97. The specs look similar with a 3.5 inch screen, 32 GB of flash, Quad band, same lens and so on but boy is there a difference. Powering it up introduced me to Maemo 5 which is definitely different than Maemo 4. A lot of the same applications are available in updated versions, the gui effects show off the beefier hardware and it's way faster than my old N810 tablet. It however, doesn't have the "start menu" for lack of better term. Instead it has desktops not unlike Android and it has a "view all applications" mode just like Android. What's different though is how widespread widgets are and how easy it is to switch between running applications. I'll be doing a video later but for the record Maemo is a breath of fresh air after using Android for 5 months. My biggest concern going back to Maemo was that Android has about 160,000 apps and Maemo has about 400. What I'm finding out is that if an OS is designed properly you only need about 10 apps. With Android I spent a lot of time just trying apps and finding out none of them did what I wanted. Things like having a weather widget on the desktop showing the next 4 or 5 days weather forcast. I can glance at it while I'm getting ready to launch an app without having to start a weather app, then leave it running because Android doesn't shut anything down. With Maemo I have more than one weather widget that does exactly what I want. There will be apps I miss though like Yelp and OneBusAway. I'm looking into writing a version of the latter for Maemo though.

Overall it's a very nice piece of hardware. I LOVE the stylus (any screen under 5 inches needs a stylus no matter how clever the interface designers are), the OS is fast and shows no noticeable slowdown when multitasking, it doesn't need to be "rooted" to work right, it's Linux so if you want to overclock the CPU to 1100 mhz you can, it has Video Out, FM radio, FM transmitter, 32 GB built in memory and expansion for another 32 GB, decent audio, a really nice camera for a phone and it seems very stable.

Update two weeks later:

I've now been using my n900 for a couple of weeks and I'm very frustrated, not with the n900 or Maemo but with Nokia. Are they really that stupid? Their plan was to move to QT for Maemo 6 then that got shelved for the MeeGo joint venture with Intel. The reason I'm frustrated is that Maemo 5 is a very very nice product. Once in a while you'll find an app screen that doesn't look finished (the app manager) but it's rare. The overall user experience with Maemo 5 and the apps built into it is so much nicer than Android (I have 2.2) that I'm just speechless as to why Nokia couldn't make a decision or stand behind a product. I just don't know what to say. Really Nokia, are you on drugs? I'll do a proper review of the n900 when I calm down. :-)

Tech Gadgets Blog Nokia's last stand.. aka. I got my n900.