Okay, so the N9 I’m trialling managed to spontaneously brick itself yesterday. No idea how – I wasn’t doing anything developer-ish with it, just treating it as a black box phone, and it happened while driving and the phone was locked and in my pocket at the time. It was working when I got in the car, and when I got to the range, all I had was the “Device is malfunctioning” screen. Resetting it (by pressing the power key for 8 seconds) did nothing. So I moved the SIM back to my n900 and started looking for ways to un-brick it.
Took a little while to figure it all out and find all the bits and pieces, but here’s how I did it:
Download and install the maemo firmware flasher from here, at least version 3.12 (the older 3.5 version won’t work on the N9)
So I’ve been using the N9 for a few days now, and wanted to compare it to the N900 I normally use, the same way I compared the N900 and E71 before. So I’m going to go through the points of comparison from then and apply them here.
First off, boot time – the N900 wins here, by a good ten seconds, both in time from power-on to PIN entry and from power-on to able-to-make-a-call, with the N9 taking a good minute to get ready to call out.
Quality of the screen? The N9 wins here. Hands down, no contest whatsoever. The display is crisp and bright and vivid, and just a joy to work with. The N900 screen is by comparison drab and washed out, though the resolution isn’t awful in comparison.
The touchscreen, on the other hand, is an interesting comparison, and oddly, one that I think the N9 loses. It’s not that there’s a flaw in the touchscreen – it works at least as well as the iPad/iPhone/iPod touchscreens that I’ve used in the past – it’s just that for those of us whose fingers couldn’t be called “dainty” with a straight face, capacitative touchscreens are a clunky sort of thing at times.
Ease of use? Hm. Hard to call for me here because I’m so used to the N900. I think I’d have to give it to the N9 though – it might not be the easier of the two for me, but for anyone who’s not gotten used to the N900, the N9 has to be the easier to use of the two. Though I will say that the swipe features are sometimes a bit… finicky about what is a swipe and what’s not. But that’s a minor quibble at best. And it’s not like the N900 doesn’t have glitches either (I’m getting tired of the widgets vanishing from the screen, for a start), but I’ve not had the N9 long enough to see its glitches so that’s not a fair comparison to try to make. The UI on the N9 does seem much more responsive… when it correctly picks up your input, that is. The N900 is definitely slower, but I’ve not had it misinterpret a swipe or a poke at an onscreen button yet.
In terms of audio quality, it’s a very slight and hesitant win for the N9. Honestly, I don’t think the difference is very noticable, and it could easily be something random (like the actual line quality) but it felt like the N9 slightly edged it here. However, the N900’s audio is perfectly fine itself, so it’s a fairly academic point at best.
Physically, side by side, here they are:
The thickness comparison isn’t really fair with the N900’s otterbox on though, so removing it:
So physically, they’re about the same footprint but radically different thicknesses, with the N900 twice as thick. However, for some reason, the N900 actually feels smaller in the hand (that footprint must be near the tipping point between “okay” and “big” for my hands I suppose).
I will say that the N900’s taken a year’s abuse or more, and even with an otterbox to protect most of it, it’s weathered it very well indeed. But I don’t think I’d feel comfortable using the N900 without a protective screen cover and something like the silicon case that it comes with (or an otterbox of some kind). Not when it’s selling for around the €600 mark. And that brings up a point I think is a design flaw with the N9 and it’s the camera:
The lens for the camera is right there, exposed on the back continually. There’s no protection for it. One good scratch from your keys, and that camera is toast. Every image from then on will be ruined. To me, that’s a bad idea, and it’s one the N900 avoided with a lens cover:
That cover’s worked perfectly for the N900 for a year for me now. The lens on the camera is as good as the day it arrived and all that’s needed is an occasional dusting. Why they ditched a perfectly good feature like that, I don’t know. I will say though, that the actual camera software in the N9 is a massive improvement on the N900’s, which wasn’t all that bad to start with. Being able to select an off-center point for the autofocus by touch is very useful, the options screen is well-executed, and while I found the lock button not doubling as a shutter button to be annoying and daft, once you get used to the operation of the camera, it works really well.
So, what about the camera’s image quality then? Well, it’s the N9 here I think, and not by a small margin:
Yes, the N9 looks darker (it was shot under artificial light while the N900 was shot in brighter natural light) – but look at the moire patterns in the bottom center and the crosses above and below the slanted H’s on either side – far more definition and resolution there. Click on the image to see the full size for comparison.
You can also see the colour reproduction is better:
Colors are just brighter and more vivid with the N9’s camera. That might be down to lighting for the test, but looking at sample images taken in the last week, it holds up:
Compare the colours’ vividness and the lack of moire stripes in the N9’s image, and the N9’s the clear winner here. Also, what you can’t see is that the N9 can get the same quality of image without the moire effect kicking in from a lot closer to the screen than the N900, which is a lot more convenient. And in wider-field shots of non-emissive targets (ie. what you normally take photos of):
Even with the seriously demanding lighting challange the firing range always gives, the N9’s image just holds up better under examination.
So, which wins?
Well, for use as just a phone, the N9. Hands down. Easier to use, smaller, lighter, longer battery life (longest I’ve ever gotten from the N900 is 36 hours of idle – the N9’s already gotten past that with 40-odd hours), and slightly better audio (though that last one’s a very, very slight advantage at best).
For the camera, it’s the N9 by a country mile.
But as a smartphone/communications device, it’s a tie at best and it’s more likely that the N900 wins here. Even after a week, I can’t send a single SMS message on the N9’s on-screen keyboard with ease, and email is out of the question. And it’s not a question of more practice – onscreen keyboards really are just inferior to the real thing, so the N900’s physical keyboard – small and clunky though it may be – just wins. Not to mention that the resistive touchscreen, while definitely not as slick and pretty as the N9’s capacitative screen, is easier to use for us fat-fingered folk. And the N9’s browser, while good, isn’t as good as the N900’s default browser or Opera Mobile (which doesn’t seem to be available for the N9 and I’ve looked).
So would I trade in my N900 for an N9?
No. I’m too used to what the N900 lets me do, and my fingers don’t get on with the N9 – but (a) that’s me, not someone with normal-sized fingers, and (b) if I was still using the E71 or something similar, then hell yes, I’d trade them in for the N9. It’s a wonderfully polished end product that’s very usable for the average user, it does everything it says on the tin and more, and honestly, it’s a monumental kick in the crotch from Nokia’s engineering team to the Nokia management decision to drop the Maemo/Meego platform in favour of Microsoft’s Windows Phone.
It does everything. Up to now, I’ve carried the E71 as a phone, a cheap digital camera for a camera and my laptop to read emails and watch podcasts and video online. With the N900, on two seperate field trips, I didn’t need any of them, the N900 was more than good enough to do everything I needed. But this point is more than just the fact that the sensors and hardware on the N900 are so good, it’s also about software and design – the N900 is about the best example I’ve seen yet, on any device, of convergence. Open up the conversations app and it’s not just SMS messages you’re looking at, but messages from almost every other IM platform as well, all woven into one single tapestry. Voice communications are handled the same way – VoIP and ordinary telephone calls get handled by the Phone application natively and directly. This isn’t just an interesting software tweak; this is a unifying design principle, and it means that the Nokia N900 really isn’t a telephone — it’s the first real communications device. And on this metric, it blows the iPhone right out of the water. The iPhone doesn’t even come close to doing what the N900 does here. More on this later.
You can program for it easily. Yes, with the E71 you can program for Symbian. With the iPhone or Android, you can write apps as well; but no platform out there gives you as much freedom and as much support and the ease of programming you get with the N900 and Python & PyMaemo. Yes, programming for the phone is an activity that only an incredibly small minority of consumers will ever do; but the fact is, the number of apps available for a phone is a major marketing point, so every little bit the manufacturers can do to make development of an app easier and better, will directly affect their profit figures every quarter. So it’s both nice to see Python on the N900 and sensible to see it there as well.
Storage space. 32Gb internal plus a microSD card. That’s enough to carry around multimedia files, documents and more. I can drop podcasts galore onto it without worrying that I don’t have enough memory for storing contacts or SMS messages. More, I can carry a few microSD cards and swap them if I so wish, so in effect, there’s an absolutely massive amount of storage space available to me on the N900 (though granted, carrying several cards, even if they are tiny, is awkward — and having to take off the back of the phone to swap them is even more so).
A wide range of codecs. Or, to put it in real-world terms, I can drag and drop a video file to the device and watch it immediately and directly. I don’t have to convert it to iPod format like I do with the iPod Touch or the iPhone or iPad; nor does it have to be of a set size or resolution. Nor, for that matter, do I need to sync it via iTunes to transfer files. I just take the file I’m watching on my desktop machine, copy it over like the N900 was any other USB flashdrive, and then watch it natively on the N900 without any intermediate processing steps. Simple, simple freedom…
Linux. Look, Apple might introduce proper multitasking eventually (I don’t care what they call that ‘feature’ in the latest iPhone SDK, but it is not multitasking and the fact that people are accepting it being called that says very bad things about the state of computer science degrees in the US and elsewhere — and I say they ‘might’ introduce it because I remember MacOS prior to OSX, and anyone who’d ship an OS that couldn’t do proper memory management might well never introduce multitasking even when everyone else has had it since the 1970s). Android has multitasking now, and so does the N900, and once you have it, you won’t want to give it up (and why should you?). But more than that, linux is a familiar development and working environment, with widespread support — and if you can have it on your communications device as well as your desktop, why on earth would you want it any other way?
Industry standard connectors. Seriously, we have electrical standards for a reason. The fact that it’s taken this long to get phones using a proper size headphones socket (and USB and all the rest) is a bit shocking; but at least they’re finally being used.
On-board hardware. GPS, FM receiver, FM transmitter, accelerometer, touchscreen, forward and rearward facing cameras, physical keyboard – the number of sensors and input devices on the N900 is excellent and pretty much comprehensive. If there’s a sensor out there that the N900 doesn’t have, it’s not a terribly important one at the moment. And that gives the platform an enormous flexibility when combined with the ease with which it can be developed for. Again, this is convergence as a design theme coming to the fore (this time in hardware) – the N900 really is aimed at being the one box you can carry to replace every other electronic gizmo you carry at the moment.
The camera. Granted, this is sortof covered by the point above, but the camera really is so outstanding that it deserves to be a point of its own. Once, a decent camera wasn’t part of the list of things I wanted or needed in a phone; but I’ve since found it can be invaluable for work because it lets me archive whiteboard sessions. And the N900 camera is the best I have ever come across in a phone. Maybe the N8 has more megapixels, but that doesn’t matter. Megapixels aren’t really a good indicator of image quality; and while all the happy reviews of its camera indicate that the N8 is a decent design, I would guess you would never tell the difference between the N900 and the N8 cameras for the kind of photos most people will take with them. And the N900 is as good as, if not better than, the dedicated digital camera I was carrying about with me. I don’t know what else you can say about a phone camera when it gets to be that good.
Nokia’s web browser. Forget the iPhone’s browser, forget the symbian browser, in fact forget all the mobile browsers out there at the moment. The N900’s browser is (and is accepted as) the single best mobile web browsing experience available on the market at the moment, bar none. Given that much of what we do in our day-to-day work is done on the web (from the ubiquitous gmail to the more esoteric web apps), that’s of vital importance to anything trying to be a mobile communications device, and Nokia has delivered on this very well indeed.
Price. It’s better value for money than anything else in its class. Yes, it costs around €500 and you can pick up an iPhone 3GS for far less on the high street; but not without a contract attached, which means your TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) runs far higher than that of the N900. Compare the prices for unlocked, SIM-free new smartphones against the N900 and the real story emerges. A SIM-free Nokia N900 goes for €542 (including VAT). From the same supplier, a SIM-free iPhone 3GS goes for €709, a SIM-free Nokia N97 goes for €459, a Palm Treo goes for €495, and a HTC Desire for €479 (that’s iPhone, Symbian, WebOS and Android for those curious about the choices). So the N900 is far more reasonable when comparing like for like amongst its peers (and the subsidised price of €290 from Vodafone shows that too). And with what it can do, it’s very good value for money. In fact, given that the N900 is a practical replacement for a netbook, it’s worth considering that €542 is towards the lower end of the price range for netbooks at the moment. (BTW, for our US readers, yes, your prices are much lower; but (a) the same points apply, and (b) by the time you buy the product in the US, ship it to Ireland, pay the various taxes and duties and customs charges and buy the european power supplies and whatever; well, it’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other).
10 things I hate about the Nokia N900
Bug 6063. I love the N900, I think it’s a groundbreaking piece of design that beats the iPhone as a device – but bug 6063 kills it stone dead at a single stroke. Everything else about the N900 could be even more perfect than it is, Nokia could give them away for free to anyone who wanted one, and 6063 would still kill it dead. Bug 6063 manifests as total silence when you answer or make a call. You can’t hear anything, the person on the other end of the line can’t hear anything, and there’s no error message or hint that something’s wrong with the phone rather than the line. I actually tried calling someone several times before finding that it was the phone that was the problem, and that’s appallingly unacceptable. Equally, I lost several calls while fiddling about trying to find the hands-free headset and plug it into the phone and answer in time. That’s utterly unacceptable as well. Look, the N900 means I don’t have to carry several other tools. No need for a camera, a netbook, an FM radio, an MP3/4 player, etc, etc. It’s a great communications tool. But if I have to have a hands-free kit to use it as a phone, then, well, it fails. Completely and utterly, without hope of redemption. If this bug isn’t at the top of the Nokia tech team’s priority list right now, I’d be deeply worried.
No physical shortcut keys.On the E71, you have four physical shortcut keys which let you launch a few apps with a physical button, and one of those will take you to the home screen (or desktop, if you want to call it that); and with the iPhone there’s just the one button, and it drops you back to the home screen. That’s an important UI design point on a handheld device, where the amount of time it takes to tick off the end user is a lot less than on a desktop platform, and where the time it takes to launch an app can be critical. The different requirements for mobile and desktop users from a UI perspective are reasonably well known; but maybe not well known enough. Still, given the flexibility of the platform, it should be possible to jury-rig something in software. The power button menu, perhaps – there’s already an app that alters the menu that brings up.
The touchscreen. There’s been a fair bit of comment on the choice of a resistive instead of a capacitive touchscreen for the N900; and most of it seems to be accurate enough, unlike my (admittedly fat) fingers when using it. It does give a distinctly clunky feel to the device when you press an onscreen button, and nothing happens (especially so when you hear the click sound effect and feel the vibrate, which is a lovely feedback technique, but is let down horribly when the fingerpress isn’t actually accepted by the application). It works really well with the stylus, but the stylus is a rather double-edged sword (if you’ll ignore the really confusing mental image that conjures up). Using the stylus does give pixel-perfect accuracy; but it also means you’re using a stylus instead of your fingers, which slows things down, makes them feel clunky, and takes me personally right back to the Psion Series V. In this area, the iPhone has the N900 soundly trounced I’m afraid, but perhaps firmware upgrades can work a miracle here.
Speed. Much as I hate to say it, the N900 was sluggish on a few occasions for me; though usually in terms of latency rather than throughput (ie. it’d take a while to fire something up, but it ran fine once it got going). Why this is so, I’m not sure. Maybe overclocking would fix this, or maybe it’s a software kink; either way, it really should be fixed before you open the box…
Battery life. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a full day out of the N900 if I used it continually. I could use it as an MP4 player on a three-hour train run, then as a GPS to find the hotel, and could then read my emails after checking in; but then it was down to about 25% charge and it was time to recharge. Certainly, I could get a day’s light use from it off a single charge, and far more if I only ever used it as a phone; the problem here is that the N900 does so much that you’re going to use it more heavily than you would a normal phone. A bigger battery really is needed here…
Marketing. Yes, it’s cheaper than anything that does as much as it does (if such a device existed, which I doubt it does). Yes, it does more than anything else out there. Yes, as an example of convergence in a mobile device, it kicks the iPhone from here to the wall (and in design, the iPhone’s strongest area). But no-one seems to have heard about it, and getting one is rather difficult and seems more expensive than getting any of its peers. If you want an N900 or own one, you’re probably a geek and therefore in a minority. Will the N900 be the new flagship for the business market, the demographic that could appreciate the communications convergence better than any other? I don’t see the marketing push to get that to happen. There’s a growing concern that the move from Maemo to Meego will leave the device effectively abandoned by Nokia – so why isn’t there a far stronger push than this one to counter that rumour and let everyone know that the N900 will be running Meego via an upcoming firmware release? Why, in short, aren’t we seeing the N900 pushed on every advertising channel out there? This is the best phone Nokia have on the market right now, the most innovative, and the only phone I can think of from any manufacturer that fundamentally kicks the iPhone’s backside; so why don’t I see this thing on offer from every mobile operator and in adverts from every billboard? Without that kind of push, without that kind of market, the N900’s long-term future isn’t as sound as it could be.
Time. This is both a cause and an effect — the N900 is newer than the iPhone platform and therefore there are fewer apps written for it at the moment (a few hundred versus tens of thousands for the iPhone/iTouch/iPad). It’s not as widely known, it’s not as widely available and it’s fighting an uphill battle to get recognised in this particular market segment. And because it was late to market, it’s got a big fight on its hands, despite having the goods. And because of that cause, the effect is a question of time – namely, if it doesn’t do well in the market, how long will it be supported for? It’s the best device out there right now for what it does; if it suddenly becomes a Palm Pre with questions over support and longevity, that’s not good for its adopters.
Lack of polish. Maybe it’s another effect of time, but the N900 just doesn’t feel polished. Yes, you can get it to do amazing things; but out of the box, it doesn’t do them. There are quirks. The PC Suite didn’t initally work with it (I’ve seen reports that that’s since been fixed). The gesture recognition, especially for the kinematic scrolling, wasn’t as flawless as it could have been. When your competitor for this market is Apple, you really can’t afford to skimp on the polish; and when you’re doing a better technical job than Apple, it’s a crying shame to skimp on it.
It feels reactive, not proactive. Mostly, you see this with applications like Witter and others; but you do get the distinct impression, using the N900 day-to-day, that it does things when you poke it; and that’s not always what you want. For example, when using a Twitter client like Witter, I want it going off to twitter in the background and constantly updating and keeping track of things. Likewise with Gmail clients and other communications programmes. When it doesn’t do that, when it takes a user action to initiate such a check for new messages, it’s a design error. I get the reason for not checking gmail every five minutes automatically, but frankly there’s no point in saving battery life if you’re not going to use it to do what I want you to! Happily, this is a software issue only, and can be tweaked fairly easily.
It’s only available in black. What? I needed ten points and there just isn’t that much that’s bad about it!
So, what’s the overall verdict? Should you buy one? Will I be buying one? Is it the best thing out there? Read on…
One of the things I wanted to see with the N900 was whether or not it could replace the laptop or a netbook when travelling. In general when I’m travelling, my computer needs fall into one of three categories: real work (ie. coding); communications (generally video skype calls); and entertainment (generally podcasts and videos). For most weekends away, it’ll be communications and entertainment; on longer trips (like the training courses in kuortane) it’s mostly been those two with either real work or reviewing video footage added in.
So first off, how much kit do you have to carry with the N900? Well, basicly, the phone itself and the power charger, and maybe the tv-out cable. Very little weight, the power charger takes up about a third of the space of the phone (and is about as thick). So in terms of convenience, top marks. I don’t need to bring a speaker because (a) the speakers in the N900 are pretty decent; and (b) the FM transmitter lets me use any nearby radio as a speaker (and it works pretty well). And if there’s a TV around, the tv-out cable turns it into a large monitor, useful for reviewing video or entertainment.
Next, what’s the battery life like? Once at the destination, it’s not so big a deal, but if you’re not actually driving there (and until Ryanair introduce their reduced rates for self-piloted flights, you won’t be for most business trips), you do rather rely on sufficient battery life to get to wherever you’re going so you don’t wind up missing the last half of Foyle’s War because the battery ran flat. Nokia claim 5 hours talk time for the N900; I certainly didn’t manage to drain the battery that way (even I can’t talk for five hours), but a full charge certainly lasted through a three-hour train trip playing mp4 and avi video over headphones, with about another hour left in it according to the BatteryEye app.
So how about email? Well, the email app isn’t as polished as even the e71’s S60 gmail app, but it’s certainly usable. However, the keyboard does take getting used to. After a fortnight, I was still only at half to three-quarters the speed on the N900 as I was at on the e71. But the keyboard hasn’t any really serious flaws (though the ctrl-shift-p sequence to take a screenshot was a bit awkward and the lack of a tab key does tend to crop up a lot). So by the time the reboxing day arrived, I was happily able to tweet on the keyboard. In another week or two, I think I’d have been happy enough to write reasonably-sized emails, if more slowly than on the laptop. But for on-the-go communications, it would certainly have sufficed.
So, can it replace a netbook? Well, basicly, yes. It’s an excellent communications device, though bug 6063 quite soundly kicked my evaluation unit in the head. Email, IM, twitter, phone, skype; it converges all of those communication channels into one portable device and I do love it for that. It is more comfortable to consume content than create it on the N900, to be sure; but I’ve gotten used to mostly operating that way when on the go because of smaller screens and keyboards being a wee bit awkward anyway, and catching up on arrival somewhere. And one bluetooth fold-up keyboard and a hotel TV screen and the N900 tv-out cable and you have a larger screen and more comfortable keyboard to use.
Can it do real work like coding? Well, I’d love to say yes, but frankly, I doubt it. But that’s okay for me – there’s no point in pretending that if you just had a bigger battery or faster CPU that it’d be easier – the problem isn’t the device but where we are using it. On the go on a train or a plane is just not a great work environment for coding.
I think that that points out why the N900 pricetag is actually less insane than it first appears. The problem is that the N900 looks like a phone. It isn’t one. So you’re not paying €500 for a phone. You’re paying €500 for a very small netbook that can do phone calls, has a built-in FM radio and transmitter and GPS (btw, bloody handy when looking for your hotel in a strange town, Ovi maps is quite good for that kind of thing), and so on. Looked at that way, it’s actually not a bad price, it’s in fact right in the mid-range for netbooks in Ireland these days.
For example, bootup speed. The tech specs say the E71 should take longer to get from cold to ready with it’s ARM11 processor clocking in at 369MHz to the N900’s 600MHz. In practice, however, the N900 from turn-on to entering the PIN takes 23 seconds versus 25 for the E71; but from turn-on to ready to being ready to make/receive a call, both phones take an almost identical time of 50 seconds (to within a second). So let’s look at the devices in real life usage.
The quality of the screen is far lower on the E71. For icons and the like, it’s not something you’d notice, but for any kind of complex graphic (like an image), and especially when looking at both screens side-by-side, it’s very obvious that the N900 is far superior to the E71 here.
In terms of ease of use… well, I’m not yet quite ready to call that one. The N900 feels more awkward for tasks common to both phones like making phone calls, or twittering; but I’m not fully used to the N900 yet, it’s hampered by the problem I’m having with it with bug 6063 (more on that later) and it uses different twitter clients (Gravity on the E71 is far more polished than Witter on the N900 at the moment; however that probably will change with more development time). Overall, it feels more like the E71 is more autonomous as a device, while the N900 is more reactive; but I want a few more days to get used to the N900 to be sure it’s the device and not the user.