What's hot: Best web browser on a mobile phone, elegant multi-tasking.
What's not: Portrait orientation not available in most apps, WiFi kills battery life.
Reviewed December 14, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
And now for something completely different. The N900 is Nokia's first Maemo OS smartphone and it's their first Maemo version 5 device. Maemo is a Linux-based OS, and prior versions powered Nokia's non-phone Internet tablets like the N770, N800 and N810. Maemo has morphed significantly since the N810 and it's now more of a consumer device than a geek tool. The User interface is impressively modern, slick and fun with its cool sound effects, animations and transitions, and the ARM Cortex A8 with GPU is very fast. The N900 is in some ways a developer's platform since it's Nokia's first foray into what may become the eventual replacement OS for Nseries high end phones, but that doesn't mean it requires a degree in computer science or that it's not a pleasant product to use. It means that Nokia wants to attract more developers to their new platform since the world's abuzz for phones with strong app stores.
The N900 is an unlocked GSM world phone with EDGE that will work with any GSM carrier. It has 3G HSDPA 10 Mbps on the Euro 2100MHz band and on T-Mobile's US AWS 1700/2100MHz bands. T-Mobile users: this is definitely a phone worth looking at! We don't see that many cutting edge, high end phones with T-Mo's US 3G bands and it's pleasantly surprising that Nokia made one since they usually opt for the larger installed base of AT&T users and their 850/1900MHz bands. Do you use AT&T? You'll get EDGE for data but not 3G since the N900's cellular radio doesn't support those bands.
The N900 is full of flagship specs-- gone are the slow Symbian OS CPUs and paltry RAM. The smartphone runs on a 600MHz ARM Cortex A8 CPU with hardware 3D graphics acceleration in the form of the PowerVR SGX with OpenGL ES 2.0 support (same as the iPhone 3GS). The N900 has 256 megs of RAM and can use virtual memory up to 1 gig. It has 32 gigs of flash storage and an SDHC microSD card slot. The 5 megapixel autofocus camera has a dual LED flash and a Carl Zeiss lens that's up to Nseries standards. The phone has WiFi with seamless switching between WiFi and cellular data networks (no there's no UMA calling but there is VoIP), Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR with a full set of profiles and a GPS that works with Nokia's own Ovi Maps. The resistive 3.5", 800 x 480 pixel display has an accelerometer, ambient light sensor and a proximity sensor.
The N900 ships with a micro USB cable, micro USB terminated charger, a stereo headset, TV out cable and and a stylus. It's currently sold direct by NokiaUSA.com and online retailers with a US warranty but no US carrier offers it, so there's no contract-based subsidy (nor is there a contract requirement).
What is the N900 and what is Maemo?
While the N900 certainly is easy to use (and don't be fooled by the Linux underpinnings-- the iPhone, Palm's webOS and Android all use some form of Unix or Linux inside), it's a hard smartphone to pidgeonhole. Though Nokia bills their Nseries phones as multimedia computers, in truth they're incredibly phone-centric and a joy to use one-handed. They're phones first, while the iPhone, Android phones and even the webOS Palm Pre are pocket Internet machines and mini-computers first. And so the N900 follows their lead rather than the Nseries: it's more a data-centric phone than anything else. It's exceptional for multi-tasking, surfing the web, reading RSS news feeds, and good for email and getting info like weather, news and sports scores. But if you were hoping for that Symbian OS dedication to easy calling with plenty of phone features and a hardware number pad, the N900 isn't for you. It's for the touch screen, pocket computer crowd. If the Motorola Droid tempts you more than the Nokia N96, the N900 should be your cup of tea.
Most applications currently run only in landscape view, which is great for viewing web pages, spreadsheets and videos but not so great if you want to use it one-handed. The phone dialer and contacts work in both portrait and landscape modes, so it is possible to use and hold the N900 in a phone-like orientation for calling. In fact, there's a setting that automatically launches the phone app when you turn the phone to portrait mode. You can also get to the phone app when in any application by quickly pressing the power button and selecting "phone" from the pop-up menu. From Nokia's developer pages, we gather that portrait mode may spread to other applications, and 3rd party developers can support one or both orientations as they see fit. The 4 screen panoramic desktop (5 if you count the running applications screen) runs only in landscape mode much as the HTC HD2 and HTC Pure's work only in portrait mode. The N900's screen is designed and optimized for landscape mode and I have no desire to run it in portrait mode; but then I'm using it like a pocket computer and don't expect it to act like a Nokia N95.
The UI is completely finger-friendly and is in direct opposition to S60 5th Edition with its touch UI glued on top of S60 feel. Maemo is a completely separate OS with none of the legacy baggage of S60. Scrolling through lists works much like the iPhone or other well-designed touch screen phones and there's no odd reverse scrolling or tiny scrollbars as there is with S60 5th Edition. Nokia includes a stylus in the phone's silo, but there's no need for it unless you want to write, draw or click in tiny web page links (a fingernail also works well for link tapping). The UI is fairly fresh and unique (there are a few design elements that are similar to Android) and we enjoyed its consistency and intuitiveness. For example you can tap on the screen in any application to bring up a close box "x" in the upper right corner and a minimize and return to desktop function by tapping on the multiple window symbol at the upper left corner. When a screen or dialog demands your response, background windows are blurred out of focus, so you're not confused by stacked windows and wondering which one you're supposed to tap on. You can get out of any window by tapping in the upper right hand corner of the blurred background.
Though the screen is resistive rather than capacitive, we had no complaints with responsiveness and control. It requires a slightly firmer touch than the capacitive iPhone but a softer touch than most S60 5th Edition and Windows Mobile phones. There's no multi-touch for things like pinch zooming, so you'll have to double-tap on the screen to zoom in the web browser, or use on-screen zoom controls in applications like Ovi Maps. The display is easily viewable outdoors. In the 2.2009.51-1 firmware update released in mid-Janary 2010, Nokia added support for portrait web browsing. You'll need to hit Cntrl-shift-o (that's the letter o and not zero) when in the web browser to turn on portrait support. Once you've done that, if you close the keyboard and turn the device to portrait orientation, the browser will switch the display. Rotate it back to return to landscape mode.
Here's our video review of the Nokia N900, and you can get a much better feel for the user interface and responsiveness of the phone by watching the video. We also cover the web browser, GPS mapping, video playback and more.
Design and Ergonomics
The N900 has a side-slider design with a full QWERTY keyboard. It's a minimalist and not unattractive device but it doesn't have the sexy wow-factor of thin phones like the HD2 and iPhone. I'd say it's more attractive than the Droid, but looks are subjective. Though shorter and narrower than the HTC HD2, it's much thicker and you'll feel the N900 in your pocket. It has a rounded rectangle design and it looks, well, like a Nokia. The build quality and slider mechanism are solid and the non-gloss back is a plus. The screen does attract and hold onto fingerprints, though it's bright and sharp enough to be readable even when totally mucked-up with grease. The keyboard has fairly low key travel but the keys are clicky and you can turn on sound effects for key presses which helps. After using it for a day, the keyboard really grew on me and I found it easy to type quickly, despite the offset spacebar.
The N900's hardware keyboard. You can also turn on the on-screen keyboard if you like.
In keeping with the minimalist design and touch screen focus, there are very few hardware buttons. The combined camera launcher and shutter button are on the right side for natural placement when held like a camera. The power button, midway down the right side turns off the phone when pressed and held and with a short press brings up a set of menus to switch to offline mode, lock the screen and keys (the phone automatically locks when the slider is closed and you unlock it with an on-screen slider or the hardware slider), switch to silent mode and when in an application there's a menu item to bring up the phone dialer. The volume keys are on the upper right and the hardware screen/key lock is on the bottom along with the micro USB port and 3.5mm stereo headset jack. There are stereo speakers on the top and bottom edges (or sides when held in landscape mode) and an IR port on the right side (most likely use would be home theater remote control applications developed by 3rd parties). There are no buttons on the front face. A front-facing VGA camera lives above the display, but the phone currently doesn't support 3G video calling and there are no VoIP apps that currently support video calling (we'd love to see video calling via Skype!).
The camera lens lives on the back and is protected by a sliding door. Open the door and the camera application automatically launches. As with the Nokia N96, a pop-out ring surrounding the lens doubles as a desk stand.
Phone and Internet
As per usual with Nokia phones, the N900 has excellent reception and call quality. We've never seen so many bars of 3G HSDPA on T-Mobile's US network here in the Dallas area. Both incoming and outgoing call quality are impressive though we wish the earpiece were a bit louder for use in noisy places. We had no trouble hearing callers in in the office but it was hard to hear when in a noisy big box store. Reception in our area is relatively strong and we had no dropped calls nor did calls suffer when transitioning from GSM to 3G. The N900 lacks advanced call features like voice dialing (though given Nokia's track record with voice dialing, we're not sure we want to see it on the N900) and last number redial. It does have speed dialing, reliable voicemail notifications (though the number 1 isn't automatically assigned to voicemail, but should be in a future firmware), call history and an impressive selection of well-integrated Internet calling services. From the standard phone dialer you can make calls using Google Talk, Skype, Ovi, Jabber and SIP. Simply enter your login credentials in the phone account setup screen and select a contact to call. You'll see options for cellular calling and any VoIP internet calling services you've set up. Very, very nice! No separate application and geeky settings to fight with.
The contacts application is the poster child for multi-paradigm communications. Select a contact, and assuming you've got email, mobile, land line and etc. entered for that contact, you can tap buttons to call the person, Internet call that person, SMS them, email them and so on. Contact fields generally mirror Outlook with multiple email addresses, phone numbers, note, job title, nickname, web page and physical addresses. There are no categories however.
Bluetooth headsets were a mixed bag. We found that the Plantronics Discovery 925 and the Plantronics Discovery 655 both had good voice quality for incoming and outgoing calls. The Samsung WEP870 sounded overly digitized and hard to understand on the outgoing end and the Jabra Stone sounded just OK. The Jawbone 2 sounded tinny on the incoming end and distorted for outgoing voice. Perhaps Nokia needs to tweak their Bluetooth in a firmware update.
Email and Syncing
The Nokia has good email support as well as IM, and there's SMS but no MMS (again, something we're hoping for in a future firmware update). The email client supports POP, IMAP, gmail and Exchange email (via Mail for Exchange). The phone supports HTML email, checking email on a schedule and checking email only when a certain connection is available (i.e.: WiFi). The phone supports Exchange 2007 and Exchange 2003 support was added in a January 2010 firmware update. Google sync of contacts and calendar items over Mail for Exchange is sadly not supported. Though MfE sync with Google works fine for us as long as we set it to sync calendar and contacts but not email (you can set up email separately in the email client). PC Suite syncing (not the newer Ovi desktop sync) works well with Outlook in Windows, but there's no iSync plugin for Mac OS X. The N900 doesn't sync with Nokia's Ovi online yet either.
The stylus, 3.5mm jack, screen/key lock slider and speaker.
GPS and Ovi Maps
Yes, the N900 has a built in GPS with aGPS and it comes with Ovi Maps 1.00 for Maemo. The GPS worked well in our tests, and managed a fix even indoors and kept up with brisk driving. No, there's no Google Maps, at least not yet. But Ovi Maps has attractive and clear maps, good US POIs and passable turn-by-turn on-screen directions. There are no spoken directions, making the N900 less than a perfect co-pilot when driving. Will spoken directions come in a later Ovi Maps release, will 3rd parties release navigation applications for Maemo 5? We hope so. In the meanwhile, Ovi Maps' price is hard to beat: free. You can download maps over the air as needed, or side load them.
The news is all good here: the N900 has an Nseries level camera that takes excellent photos and very good video. The 5 megapixel camera has a Carl Zeiss Tessar autofocus lens and a dual LED flash. We like the active lens cover that protects and launches the camera application when you slide it open (and exits the camera when you close the lens cover). The camera button functions as the shutter button, which is more stable than tapping on the display like the HTC HD2. The camera can also shoot video at 848 x 480 resolution at 25fps with 48 kHz AAC stereo audio, and quality is quite good as you'd expect from a high end Nokia. When shooting video, the lens does an initial focus on the center of the frame rather than using a fixed focus on infinity. The N900's images are comparable to the N95 and N96's, and are far superior to the HTC HD2's. Here's a comparison of two cropped photos from the N900 and HD2:
As you can see the Nokia's image is sharper with much more detail. The photo is just slightly too cool, but the HD2's is overly skewed to the magenta and lacks real detail.
The N900 ships with a TV out cable that terminates in standard RCA connections. You can view photos and videos taken with its camera on the TV, and in fact you can view anything on the TV, even games.
Older Maemo Internet tablets were picky about video file formats but the N900 is the swiss army knife of mobile video playback. It can handle MPEG4, Flash Video, AVI, 3GPP, H.264 and WMV formats. We found that even high bitrate videos encoded at 1500kbps played well as long as we kept the resolution at 800 x 480 or less (comparable to DVD resolution). The N900's multimedia player reminds us of the clean and simple Sony/Sony Ericsson UI with a large icon-based launcher for songs, video, Internet radio and song shuffle playback. The main UI tells you how many songs, video tracks and Internet radio stations are available/stored on the 32 gig flash drive and microSD card. The music player starts with a large album cover view that's attractive and modern. The player itself is fairly basic with shuffle and playlists but no EQ. Music playback quality is very good with a decent set of headphones (Nokia includes a better than average set of stereo earbuds with interchangeable ear gels) and pleasant through the built-in stereo speakers.
The video player is thumbnail based and shows duration for each clip along with the title. There are 48 preset Internet radio stations from around the world (in other words, not all are English) and you can add more but that's not a simple task. Internet radio worked well for us over T-Mobile's 3G HSDPA connection and WiFi. The phone has an FM transmitter so you can stream audio to your car or home stereo but there's no FM radio application. Happily, there's a basic FM radio app available for free download and it gets good reception.
The N900 has mass storage mode so you can mount it on the desktop using the included micro USB cable to copy music, videos and other content to and from the phone.
It's all about the apps these days, or so some folks think. The magic actually comes when a good platform with appealing hardware and a great OS meet with a large selection of applications. Maemo 5 is a new OS and the N900's job in part is to get developers on board. Given Maemo's open source history, applications have so far been free and many have been ports from Linux. With Maemo 5 we're starting to see more "Joe Normal" apps instead of geeky ones. These include Documents To Go for viewing MS Office docs (currently the only pay-for Maemo 5 application, it costs $9.99 after the 30 day trial ends), an AP news widget, several weather widgets, games (so far mostly 2D though we expect some impressive 3D games given the Nokia's serious GPU and OpenGL ES 2.0 support), sketching applications, Witter (a Twitter app), a Facebook widget and more. Nokia's own Bounce game is a 3D showcase of what the N900 can do. It's as impressive as an iPhone 3D high quality game and we can't wait to see more. And yes, you can play it while the phone is hooked up to a TV!
A shortcut to Maemo Select showcases current applications (around 50) but the Ovi Store for Maemo isn't yet up and running. We hope it will be available by January 2010. There's also an application manager so you can download apps from additional application repositories. But at the moment, the app story is that there isn't a huge selection but there seems to be significant developer interest. Only time will tell...
The N900 is what we'd hoped the Nokia N97 would have been: seriously impressive hardware matched with a fresh touch-based operating system. I'll stop just short of saying that the N900 puts the N97 and N97 Mini to shame because the N97 line has stronger phone features and these are phones, after all. But in every other way, the N900 is superior thanks to its truly modern, touch-optimized OS, fast CPU, excellent video playback performance, best in class web browser, Adobe Flash support and seamless switching between cellular and WiFi networks. If you're looking for a pocket computer first and a phone second, the Nokia N900, though still immature, earns a place with the HTC HD2, Motorola Droid and even the iPhone 3GS. Though we'd say that the iPhone's appeal is different-- it's better suited to those who prefer a super-simple user interface or who want myriad application downloads to keep things interesting. Things we'd like to see on the N900? More apps of course, more advanced phone features and better Bluetooth performance with headsets. All in all, a great start from Nokia after the mild disappointment that was S60 5th Edition. Maemo 5 is an OS that can compete with Android, webOS and HTC's Sense on Windows Mobile. When the first firmware update comes out (supposedly by the end of 2009) we'll update this review to cover what's changed.
Display:3.5", 800 x 480 pixel resistive touch screen. Most applications run in landscape mode. Has an accelerometer, proximity sensor and ambient light sensor.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
Performance:ARM Cortex A8 CPU 600 MHz processor (TI OMAP 3430). 3D GPU: PowerVR SGX with OpenGL ES 2.0 support. 256 megs of RAM, can use virtual memory for a max of 1 gig. 32 gigs of flash storage.
x 2.35 x 0.71 inches. Weight: 6.38 ounces.
Phone:GSM unlocked quad band world phone with EDGE 850/900/1800/1900MHz. 3G HSDPA 10 Mbps on the 1700/2100MHz bands (compatible with Euro 3G and T-Mobile's US 3G network).
Camera:5.0 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss autofocus lens and dual LED flash. Max photo resolution: 2584 x 1938. Video resolution: 848 x 480 pixels (MPEG4, 25 fps). 5.2mm focal length, f2.8, focuses 10cm to infinity. Front facing VGA camera (currently not used by built-in applications).
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Has a music player and an FM transmitter. There's no FM radio built in, though there's a free 3rd party download available.
GPS:Internal GPS and Ovi Maps software.
WiFi 802.11b/g and Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR. Bluetooth profiles: A2DP, AVRCP, FTP, HFP, HSP and OPP.
Software:Maemo 5 operating system (Fremantle, Linux-based). Mozilla-based web browser with AJAX and Flash 9.4 support, email, Nokia Conversations, Mail for Exchange, , media player, photo viewer, PIM applications (calendar, contacts, notes), PDF reader, file manager, camera, phone application, RSS reader, backup, X Terminal, app manager, Ovi Maps, Documents to Go 30 day trial, a few games and a variety of desktop widgets including Location (shows your current GPS location on a moving map), Facebook, RSS, calendar, Google search and more).