Unbricking the N9

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:

  1. 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)
  2. Download the N9 firmware binary image using NaviFirm+. Here’s the (warning, 1.1 Gb!) file in case you don’t want to install NaviFirm+.
  3. sudo flasher -F DFL61_HARMATTAN_10.2011.34-1_PR_LEGACY_001-OEM1-958_ARM.bin -f -c

And done. All back up and working again. Simple once you have the bits and bobs.

Hope it helps someone…

N9 v N900

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:

N9 and N900

N9 and N900 (keyboard open)

N9 and N900, thickness (with otterbox)

The thickness comparison isn’t really fair with the N900’s otterbox on though, so removing it:

N9 and N900, thickness

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:

N9 Camera
N9 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:

N900 Back Panel

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:

N900 ISO 12233 test image
N900 ISO 12233 test image
N9 ISO 12223 test image
N9 ISO 12223 test image

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:

N900 color test image
N900 color test image
N9 color test image
N9 color test image

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:

N900 Target image
N900 Target image
N9 Target image
N9 Target image

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):

N900 portrait test
N900 portrait test
N9 portrait test
N9 portrait test

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.

N9 Target image
N9 Target image

Smartphone data traffic eclipses Feature Phones but the iDevices are coming up fast…

Admob released their Mobile Metrics for February 2009-February 2010 a few days ago. The most interesting information there is well summarised in one graph:

Traffic Share by Handset Category, worldwide, from the Admob Mobile Metrics report February 2009 - February 2010
Traffic Share by Handset Category, worldwide, from the Admob Mobile Metrics report February 2009 - February 2010

Right there, in October last year, the smartphone finally eclipsed the feature phone. This is something that every data provider in the mobile sector has been screaming about for quite a while now – the upcoming mobile data ‘apocalypse’. A mere three or four smartphones can generate enough data to swamp an exchange from only a few years ago; the only reason networks like AT&T’s haven’t been falling over more often than they have been is a lot of fairly rapid work on the part of the technical teams in charge of the backhaul for their networks. But the rise in the demand for mobile data, as game-changing as it has been, is only just getting started, and this report points that out.

Ignore for a moment the swapping of places between the smartphone and the feature phone — look at the growth rates of demand for smartphones and the third category of device – the mobile internet device (currently this is predominantly – ie. 93% – the iPod Touch). This category’s demand for data from the Mobile Network Operators has seen growth of almost 400% compared to the 193% of smartphones. But surely that has to top out, right? What could possibly maintain that level of growth?


Yup. When the iPad debuts, it’s going to be in this sector. And it’s a content consumption device almost by default – newspapers, youtube, you name it. Granted, only the more expensive model has 3G, but you know that’s not going to last – Apple has a pattern with their hardware which tells us that however slick the iPad is today, it’s only going to be refined and become more compelling as a device. And meanwhile the iPad clones like the JooJoo which will get to customers even before the iPad, will only add to the increase in growth rate that the iPad is going to drive.

And LTE isn’t going to save things. Ericsson’s latest figures indicate a 1000-fold increase in over-the-air capacity is needed and LTE will only offer around a 10-fold increase. To make up the 1000-fold, plans include introducing LTE in combination with taking over more spectrum, building nearly ten times as many basestations for cell towers as exist today, and three or four other impossible things before breakfast. And even if the MNOs can pull all that off, you still have to have backhaul to attach to that over-the-air network. But it cost $16 billion for last year’s backhaul in the US alone.

The pressure just got turned up a notch on the data teams in MNOs…

Ben Nanonote with WiFi

Ben Nanonote

One of the reasons I love my Nokia e71 so much is that it’s a pretty decent example of convergence. Like the iPhone and others, it rolls so many features into one box that we’ve stopped calling these things mobile phones and started calling them mobile devices, almost without noticing. Heck, the ‘in-crowd’ just talks about ‘mobile’ as though the OED had recategorised that word from adjective to noun. It’s not so much linguistic arrogance as it is necessity – you have to go to science fiction or back to mythology to find examples of the kind of multifunction tool these devices have become and are still becoming.

The iPhone is without a doubt the poster boy for this, as its marketing is, ironically enough, pretty much founded on using it for things other than as an actual phone (and that’s why the iPad, daftly named as it is, will probably be a great success but not as great as its more dimunitive cousin. The whole attraction of the iPhone’s ability to be more than a phone is based on the fact that you are already carrying it around with you). One quick download and your phone becomes a translation device, a 2-D barcode reader, or any one of a few hundred other devices.

My problem is that I don’t really like the iPhone. It’s very slick and very pretty but… no background applications and a hefty price tag and to use it as intended, I pretty much have to have a mac. Sure, you can fake around that need, but it’s a chore. The Nokia e71 is wonderful in hardware (if you overlook the very poor camera which is hard pressed to handle the basic business task of recording the contents of a whiteboard after a brainstorming session — unforgivable given that mid-range phones handled this task better five years ago) but it’s awkward to setup with calendars and contacts and apps, even going through Ovi (which is why I’m still using a paper diary).

Once you decide against the iPhone and Nokia (and Blackberry because support for it in Ireland is again, all tied to one supplier and it’s not the best supported device here even though it’s huge in Asia), you’re pretty much left with the outliers right now, meaning Android. Yes, Android is an outlier. It gets great press without a doubt, but if you’re not a technology or gadget geek, it’s just another phone that’s a bit dingy-looking with its off-white case that doesn’t sit flat in a jacket pocket. Most people don’t know it’s a software platform, not a phone — and most of them wouldn’t understand what you meant if you told them (and amongst the real experts, btw, there are a few who don’t think much of it at all). And if you don’t mean Android, you’re right out there into the fringe at the moment. Which means stuff gets very interesting and individual indeed, which is where things like the 本 (běn) NanoNote come in:

Ben Nanonote from Qi Hardware

The Ben Nanonote looks like it might be a very interesting part of the fringe indeed. It’s small, but has a physical keyboard (humans like haptic interfaces for a good reason) and is completely open (both in hardware and software). Granted, it’s no speed demon – the iPhone ARM chips have a bit more oomph than it does – but even so, it could run a reasonably wide array of applications. It’s a long way from perfect, since it has no camera, no inbuilt wifi or inbuilt 3G or inbuilt WiMAX; but it’s intended as a first model and for a first model it’s got some promise.

Not least of which is that it costs around €70 at the moment. Add in the €60 you have to pay to get a supported microSD wifi card, and you’re still looking at less than a third of the cost of most netbooks over here. It’s a hobbyist platform rather than a serious do-work-on-this box at the moment, but looking at the upcoming Ya and Mu Nanonote platforms and seeing how building in wifi and other hardware is so possible, you have to ask the question of how long it’ll be until a commercial interest starts capitalising on the work Qi’s done here, and creates a larger market than just the hobbyist fringe. There’s a principle in open source software that the fastest way to change how something is done is to do it differently and release the code. Personally, I hope that trend holds true in hardware and we see a new market of palmtops acting as miniature netbooks; I would love to get a platform the size of the Nanonote, just with a few more networking options (as in, all of them – WiFi, WiMAX, 3G, LTE, the works). A true mobile device.

And yes, I still want an N900. If nothing else, it’d make a good stopgap measure 😀 In the meantime… well, €130 isn’t too much to drop to play with a toy like this, right?

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