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Nokia N900 - Mixed Emotions

 So being at the bottom end of the globe at the southern tip of Africa I waited patiently for my Nokia N900 which was back-ordered in Dec 2009 and finally was launched in June 2010 here in South Africa. Being a long-time Nokia fan like so many of you I couldn't wait to get my hands on this new baby. 

Of course there is the inevitable transitional period of "where did this feature go" or "how do I get to do this or that or the next thing" and this is obviously part of the fun of getting to know your new smartphone. This baby (or should I say monster) is a very powerful piece of equipment; that much is fact.

Main Reasons For Waiting For The N900:

  1. It is a Nokia and I am very brand loyal as most smartphone users tend to be. I enjoyed my E90, and before that the 9300 and before that the 9210i so very much that I was sure this was going to be my new ultimate phone.
  2. It has a QWERTY slide-out keyboard, which to me means it is a real touch phone. Why lose one of my senses (tactile touch) for something that is called a "touch" phone when in fact it should be called a "look" phone as you must look before you touch, as your eyes are your only guide to pressing the right "button". With a real button you can see it and you can touch it, so walking across a mall while typing your emails/sms's etc becomes very easy with a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, but very tricky with your "touch" buttons only. I have confirmed this concept over many weeks of working exclusively on my Nokia 5800 Express as well.


What Puzzles Me In The Smarphone Market Today?

  1. We are moving backwards touching, smudging, not feeling anything. You now have to really shop hard to find a phone with a actual keyboard,unless you want to play frisby with a Black Berry or the Nokia look alike.
  2. If a touch keyboard is so awesome then someone please tell my why you don't by one for your dekstop, laptop? I will tell you why, because it sucks having to type on a table as much as it sucks typing on any other flat surface.
     
  3. Why pay SO MUCH for a device just to spend most of your time pressing the delete/backspace button to correct yourself having once again pressed the wrong button. Sure touch screens are fine when you're standing still, sitting down, etc. but some of us are truly mobile, typing while walking. Why do we get sucked in by the concept because it's new and looks cool? What happened to practicality in this world? Is it just technology for technology's sake?

    There's a video that shows a race between 19th century morse code technology vs modern day cellphone typing speed (thumb typing), and you know what? We laugh at the old school guys with their funny caps and their little morse code machines, but guess who wins the speed test hands down? The 160 year old morse code technology is still faster!!! Unfortunately NBC has played the copyright card resulting in the removal of this video clip from YouTube and I can't find it on the NBC site either, so instead I will focus for a moment on the emerging technology called Nuance Mobile Dictation.

    This will likely become the next step and perhaps ultimately replace the need for typing altogether. Check it out here 
  4. There is SO much hype about the iPh*** I almost don't want to even mention it, as there's enough hype and criticism about that device already. Why, when even a simple feature like forwarding a contact card can't be done on it?? (Don't get me started)
  5. Why are so many so excited about BlackBerry when surely a smartphone should do calendering and contacts AS easily as email?


Ok, clearly I am in a griping mode, and it's not lack of sleep, but rather that I am a little frustrated that in some ways we seem to moved backward rather than forward, leaving behind the basics, to rush toward the next gizmo that does the same or less than the previous, but at least it looks cool, look how sleek it is, look how shiny, and look, I can use two fingers to resize a picture, but sorry for you if you happen to like a stylus, or your fingernal and sorry if your fat fingers keep pressing the wrong buttons or if you're an amputee.

 

So on to the business of reviewing the N900. Here's the low-down ...

What's REALLY cool about th N900?

  • Multiple Desktops
    So you have a default of 4 desktops to scroll across. So now you don't have to try and cram all your shortcuts into one little screen or sacrifice icons as you have to decide which is more important than the other.
  • Fully Customisable Interface/ Desktops
    Customizing shortcut, contacts, applications and widgets as you like. Really cool as it gives you a lot of flexiblity to create an interface as you would like it.
  • Easy/Fast Contact Search
    Just type the name of the contact to start the search for the name as you slide out the keyboard. No need to go to your contacts list first.
  • Face-down and it goes to silent
    It's that simple to put the phone on Silent, just place it with the screen facing down.
  • RSS reader
    The downloadable RSS reader is really highly functional and a real alternative to, for instance, the web interface for the Google Reader.
  • 32GB RAM
    The phone comes by default with 32GB of RAM which is plenty. The extra micro SSD slot in the phone is still empty.
  • Web Browsing
    Finally a mobile phone generation has arrived with real-world browsing with full Flash support, video, YouTube, etc. The Maemo browser is excellent and especially fast. Zooming in and out is made so easy, using the volume button or just circle clockwise with your finger or stylus to zoom-in or anti-clockwiseto zoom out.

    Firefox works very well also, though the zoom-in/out only works with double-taps which is still very usable. Having a bigger footprint means Firefox takes a bit longer to load up but then it too is a fast browser with some add-ons already supported like Firefox Bookmarks synchronisation.
  • Consistently better Reception, Connectivity Antannae
    This phone has proven to me that where all my previous devices in poorer reception areas would have broken-up voice calls,the N900 is far superior. I am unsure what Nokia did with regards to the reception capability of the N900 and whether it's a combination of things, but ultimately this phone just works better everywhere with regards to voice and connectivity quality.
  • Merging/Integrated Contacts
    This is a really cool feature in that all your Skype contacts, and GTalk contacts can now be merged with your phone contacts, giving you pictures from their Skype or GTalk accounts, updating birthdays, etc. What is more, is you get to see ALL your text from your contacts notes. If like me you have notes in your contacts section you would know the E90 cuts off the notes allowing for a very limited amount of text. No problem on the N900.
  • Text Conversations
    The next generation of SMS is based on conversations as opposed to seeing your outbox or sent items and seeing a list of all. Now you can follow your incoming/outgoing sms's, instant messaging (IM) of GTalk, Skype or OVI all in an integrated conversation thread.
  • Smileys (Emoticons)
    I use my emoticons a lot, and the N900 has the ability to easily insert graphical emoticons (which convert to text for older phones) alleviating the need for all those multiple button presses to get a wink or a smile out there ;-)  
  • Big screen
    A lovely 4.3" screen with capacitive touch and 800x480 resultion makes this phone a real little video player with great sound onboard or with headphones.

What's SORT-OF cool about it?

  • Cool Apps
    • Recaller
      Record your phone conversations without even thinking about it, as they happen. This is very useful if you for instance have a complex technical discussion with IP addresses and passwords etc, which you can then simply play back later (when you are not driving) . Yes this was available on the E90 as well, though the E90 is not really powerful enough (CPU & RAM) to have made this pratical.
    • WiFi Eye
      No need for a network scanner once you've installed this little application. It shows you your available APs (Access Points) and their signal strength in beautiful graphic format.Or you can change it to show a timed graph or the channels the AP is runinng on and the Hz.
    • VNC
      Access your laptop/desktop remotely using the VNC viewer. Very powerful, very usable, and a default application on the N900
    • Display your current IP address on the Network as a Widget
    • Display your upload/download usage in a widget.
    • FBReader for your eBooks is a great alternative to Mobi Reader though not as integrated with your PC as Mobi it works very well.
    • ... and lots more.

  • N900 Battery
    Difficult to categorise the battery aspect of the phone as a "cool" or a "gripe.
    • The cool things is the N900 uses the same battery as the 5800 and therefore if you already have a 5800 Express Music you already have a spare battery. If you don't have a spare 5800 battery lying around no worries as the generic mobile battery will only set you back around R80 (less than $10) and works just as well.
    • The not so cool thing though this is debatable is the battery life can be very short if you use the device in full wifi mode all day. You can even go through two batteries this way, with the first lasting around 10 hours.
    • Don't be fooled by the USB-2 charger either as in WiFi mode the battery will not necessarily charge, as the power the device needs is so high the USB merely slows down/maintains / or slightly charges the phone.
      The default charger for the N900 allows 1200mA of charging power, which is a LOT. So if you plan on using your older chargers with a USB2-B converter be aware you might again not be charging the phone or it will be charging very slow. Some really old Nokia chargers only push out 350mA. Check that your charger pushes at least 850mA.
       
  • Capacitive vs Transitive Touch Screen
    Well this is a highly debatable and very personal choice. Some users out there won't go without a stylus in which case don't look at an iPhone as they only recongnise skin (transitive) like some lift (elevator) buttons. Sorry for you if you are an amputee therefore! The Nokia uses capacitive touch technology so cannot do the iPhone (two-finger) squeeze and stretch for zooming, which is a nice feature, but then Nokia's right-circular movement for zooming in or left-circling for zooming out  works just about as effectively. This feature is not available outside the Maemo browser though... as yet.
    This topic can likely be a blog post all on it's own.

  

What are my GRIPES?

  • Small Keyboard
    Well now this is a major gripe. Why on earth go through the trouble of creating a qwerty real-touch tactile keyboard and make it sooooo tiny? No mouse, no number line? I have over the weeks become more proficient with it and it's certainly faster than my touch screen like the 5800 or the N900 touch screen keyboard option, but really. I miss my E90 keyboard for it's robustness and would have been very content with something sized somewhere halfway between the E90 keyboard and the N900 keyboard.
  • Cool But Buggy
    Maemo (Meego) is still buggy sometimes which is to be expected in some sense as it is a new OS even though I am running the new N900 release. Some of the apps icons will sometimes disappear from the dekstop. This has only happened twice, and frankly I think overall the phone is very stable. It should perhaps not be listed as a gripe as I know too many phones with instabilities, and certainly not limited to Nokia.
  • Accents For Characters
    My name is René, not Rene and gosh did I battle to find how to put that little accent on the é. The symbol touch screen keyboard was very easy to find. The challenge was to find out that the symbols I was looking at were actually the right ones and needed to be combined with the actual letter of the keyboard. So it's now actually quite cool, but remains a gripe as it is somewhat more cumbersome that simply cycling through the varieties for "e" using the Fn button.
  • Exchange Company Directory
    Another feature initially thougt as not supported I now know that typing in the partial name, and select "Check Name" from the menu will result in a lookup against the GAL (Global Address List) for Exchange, it's limitation remains that one cannot lookup the person's phone number on the GAL as one could on the Symbian MFE (Mail For Exchange) Client.
  • Search Everything EXCEPT Contacts
    So say I want to search for a phone number or a note in my contacts or all the contacts from a company, I simply cannot do this in my N900. It's coming I am told, but for now a major gripe!
  • Scheduled Email Synchronization
    This was such a useful feature on the E90 to save battery power, and just not there in the N900 email version. There is a workaround, which is to use a add-on application called AutoDisconnect, but doesn't work as well as this basic feature in earlier phones.
  • Missing Favourite Apps
    • Best Profiles
      The major app I used on my E90 and chuckle about being such a headliner on the Android/iPhone is Best Profiles which has been around for Symbian for 3 years (at least). Switching from "Sleep" to "Day" to "Meeting" based on keywords you define in your calendar or time and day-of-the-week based the phone would go into Meeting mode when the word "meeting" was in my calendar and automatically go out of meeting mode at the end of the calendar entry. Similarly when it was bed time, the Sleep profile would make the ring a lot softer, and I would set SMS to silent. All very useful.

      With the N900 you can tell it to be on General or Silent ... That's it?? They have now released a timed Silent mode, which is a start, but it's nowhere near "Best Profiles"
  • Wobbly Stand
    The stand around the camera lens pops out allowing you to view the N900 screen at an angle. Don't try to type on it in this mode though, since it's off-centre and the phone will fall over.
     
  • Not So Cool:
    • Buffering issues playing haltingly before smoothing out when starting a video and don't be online while playing video.
    • Limited application selection, though growing fast!
    • There is a lanyard hole, but you don't get a lanyard in the box. I had to take the one from my 5800 Express Music.
    • The lanyard hole is at the top of the phone, by the earpiece so if you have the phone secured to your wrist with the lanyard you cannot hold the phone against your ear.It is upside-down. Major design oops!
    • Multi-select of emails ... Can be done, but select delete first! Not very intuitive.

 

Conclusion ...

Major learning curve, and the qwerty size is a real disappointment, but I guess the question I should answer is whether I would consider going back to my E90, and after some weeks I can now honestly say "No". This is definetely a step up. Like a typical selfcentric consumer I want and expect more!