Nokia N900 (Testing Notes)
A Tech Review

South Africa By: Mandy J Watson on 4 March 2010
Category: Tech > Hardware > Reviews Comments View Comments

Nokia's N900 is a classy touchscreen phone that emphasises productivity as well as play. It runs the Maemo 5 Linux-based operating system and using it feels almost as though you have a mini desktop computer in your pocket. Almost. Our testing notes reveal the pros and cons.

The Nokia N900 is a touchscreen and slider phone with a QWERTY keyboard. It runs Maemo 5, a Debian Linux-based operating system that can run on desktops and notebooks as well as phones. The Nokia N900 is the first Nokia phone to run on Maemo and it appeared to be part of a plan to move away from Symbian, even though Nokia is heavily involved in the Symbian Foundation and uses the OS on most of its phones. However, while I was testing the Nokia N900 a few days ago, Nokia and IBM announced that the two companies will be merging their software platforms, Maemo (Nokia) and Moblin (IBM), to form a product named MeeGo that will be able to run on almost any device including, of course, phones. Moblin will form the core of the operating system and Qt, in which Nokia has a stake, will be the application development system. Apps will be made available via the Ovi Store.

What this means is that the Nokia N900 may end up being the only Nokia phone to use Maemo 5 (the company wouldn't confirm or deny this when I asked but it seems logical). So, with this in mind, is the Nokia N900 a good phone to purchase? I quite enjoyed using Maemo 5 with the limited time I had with it in which I approached the phone as a consumer (I didn't jump into X Terminal and start bashing around in there to see what else I could do with it, for example) and looked at what was built in, what it offers, and how things work.

I've split all the information I gathered while testing the Nokia N900 into two articles. Today's one is specifically testing notes for the Nokia N900. Tomorrow's will be a showcase of Maemo 5 to look at its interface and, by extension, usability considerations, which will, by inference, also provide more information about the phone if you are interested in a visual tour of its software.

On to the Nokia N900 testing notes:
+ The capacitive touchscreen is fantastic and very responsive. It's a very high quality screen and the blacks are deep blacks.
+ The screen is about the same size as that of most touchscreen Nokia phones (such as the Nokia N97, Nokia 5800 XpressMusic, or Nokia 5530 XpressMusic) but the operating system actually runs and displays at 800x480, which is close to the size of a netbook's resolution. I didn't realise this until I was going through my screenshots and saw how (comparatively) large they are.
+ The characters on the keypad glow, which makes them a lot easier to see in bad light conditions.
+ There's a small indicator light on the top left of the unit that indictaes, among other things, charging, charged, and (unit) "on" when the screen is off.
+ You can instantly lock/pause/freeze the phone with a small slider toggle on top of the unit.
+ There are small, but powerful, speakers on either side of the unit. The quality is quite good and the distance between them makes stereo playback noticable.
+ There's a kickstand on the battery cover around the camera lens to allow you to prop up the phone. You can see it in use in the image.
+ The home screen is a(n up to) four-page desktop that is customisable - just drag and drop shortcuts around, including shortcuts for your contacts. You can activate or deactivate screens so as to have between one and four available, depending on your preferences. If you use all four screens you effectively have a desktop that's 3200x480 pixels and which can be scrolled in a loop in either direction.
+ You can have multiple programs and, for some programs such as the browser and the Conversations app, windows open and tapping to go back to the desktop screen will also allow you to switch between windows (think of it as similar to Alt-Tab in Windows).
+ There's a very good on-screen keyboard, though you don't immediately realise this as the ability to activate it is buried in one of the settings.
+ The web browser is a pleasure to use - double tap to zoom, swish around the page easily - it's all great, and the large screen and resolution, as well as the fact that the browser is detected as a desktop, not phone, browser, means that more web sites are displayed properly, with less need to scroll and zoom in and out.
+ The web browser has Japanese character display support and it also displays a lot of other web and extended fonts that often can't be displayed by phone browsers.
+ There's support for geotagging for photos snapped by the camera, which you can switch on and off manually. You can also add text tags before you upload photos online.
+ Application manager is very easy to use and allows you to view details of your installed apps (such as developer, size, and home web site) and uninstall them easily.
+ There's built-in FM Transmitter functionality in Music Player - in other words, pick a frequency, tune your car's radio (or a hi-fi) to that frequency, and hit play on the phone to listen to your music through your speakers.
+ This device is built for communicating, and not just by voice. There's an app called Conversations, which integrates SMSing and IM (instant messaging) chats (such as GTalk). If you're familiar with any chat app you'll know how it works.
+ The operating system uses the Nokia brand's corporate identity font (Nokia Sans). I thought that was slick. You may have other words for it.

Nokia N900

- When you switch on the phone for the first time you are prompted to select your region by selecting your language. For English-speaking people this means English (US), English (UK), or English (Ireland). Whichever one you select then sets the phone's time zone and, as you can imagine, none of those time zones are applicable to much of the English-speaking world, including South Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand. There's no other South African-language option and there's no option (here) to select the correct time zone. To get around this I had to set the region and time zone to GMT+2 in the "local city" section of Clock or Clock & Alarms (I mean, I think it was one of those - I can't remember where I eventually happened upon the setting as I was just so grateful that I had found a way to change it).
- You slide the keyboard out... and that's it. You can't side it up. Why, Nokia? WHY?!?
- There's a slightly hard edge to the base of the physical unit around the keyboard (in other words, where you rest your palms against the unit) but it's not nearly as bad as the Nokia E75's physical design and sharp edges, which made it incredibly unpleasant to hold.
- The corners of the phone seem to scuff quite easily. This is not normal for Nokia units, which are specifically designed to withstand a certain amount of bashing (and I don't even do that anyway).
- The keyboard is very small (even for me) and I got cramps in my left-hand thumb trying to work the function key and its shortcuts.
- When you tap the nine-rectangle icon in the top-left corner of the screen, which takes you to the menu screen, you get icons for 14 apps and functions (generally the same sorts of things that you would see in the first menu screen in Symbian) and a "More..." icon that takes you to a second page of functions, programs, shortcuts, and widgets. This second page is scrollable (and, theoretically, infinitely long). Why can't everything just be on one scrolling page? Invariably you'll be after something on the second page anyway as most of the stuff on the first page is either activated by physical shortcut keys or it's already on your "desktop".
- Copying and pasting took a bit of figuring out. It's often not listed in the pop-up menus (but sometimes it is - the web browser's "Copy image address" for example) and instead you have to do it via Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V on the keyboard. Because the keys are so small and all three of those keys are on the left-hand side of the keyboard you have to do it with two hands.
- Related to that: in the web browser you get a pop-up menu with options such as "Save link as" but you can't copy the link address unless you open the page, select it in the address bar, and hit Ctrl-C... except sometimes you can because it's in the menu. Confusing? Yes.
- Browsing the Web was a pleasure but accessing the Web sometimes wasn't. I don't know if that was a hardware/software issue or whether it was a ::cough::dacom issue.
- I did experience a bug that sometimes caused the wrong Web thumbnails to display as I was flipping through open browser windows.
- You can't install Opera Mini because the phone doesn't support J2ME. I confirmed that this was the case with Opera and there's no word as to whether the company will ever release a version of the mobile browser configured for Maemo 5
- The 5-megapixel camera takes ok-quality shots; if you zoom (camera or video) the quality degrades terribly (my "official" note on this read: "- camera zoom crap"). This has been the case with Nokia phone cameras for years - I think it's time they were improved.
- Even with Maemo 5 (rather than Symbian), after all these years, the camera flash still always defaults back to "on" when you relaunch the camera app, even if you've set it to something else (such as "off"... honestly, it drives me crazy!).
- You can't perform batch options in File manager. You have to copy, move, or delete one item at a time. In fact, File manager is very basic, and rather disappointing.
- Using File manager I could copy files to the microSD card but I couldn't delete them (those that I'd copied or those that were already there). I could delete files on the handset, however.
- You can't select text on a web page to copy it to a Note note or into an email, for example. This is a major productivity headache for anyone used to clipping text from the Web.
- You can't switch off Flash in the web browser, but you can switch off image loading.
- There are no traditional SMS tools - folder creation, saving or storing as separate messages or archiving, and so on - because SMSing is integrated into Conversations instead of being a separate app. This may not be an issue for some but it was too much of a paradigm shift for me. (As an aside: Conversations is illustrated in the product shot below.)
Nokia N900

General Observations
 You can set up an external email account (up to 10, I believe) to access your mail via the phone but instead of it being intuitive and either automatically picking up the settings for you or allowing you to input them yourself you first have to select your country from a list, then select the service from a list (each country's "most popular" services are listed in its country list), and then set up your account or input the information manually via an "other" option in the list of popular services.
 The web browser acts like, and is detected as, a desktop browser. This is great if you want access to a site's full functionality (Gmail, for example - Standard View works perfectly) but it's irritating if you prefer to surf mobile versions of sites on a handset to save on data costs or time (although you can access, for example, Facebook Mobile and Twitter Mobile if you know the mobile URL and type it in yourself).
 The microSD slot is under the battery cover, which is never ideal, but the cover, for a change, is designed to be removed without you needing a Rube Goldberg machine on standby.
 The size and weight of the unit leans towards brickish but it's not quite there - and it's definitely nowhere near the HTC Touch Pro 2, which is the most brick-like phone I've tested in years.
Nokia N900 keyboard

Other Notes And Specs
Startup Time: 40 seconds
Charging Time: 2:18
Battery: Nokia BL-5J Li-Ion, 1320 mAh, 3.7 V, 4.9 Wh
Offline Mode: Yes
Processor: ARM Cortex-A8
On-Board Storage: 32 GB
Removable Storage: microSD (up to 16 GB)
Screen Resolution: 800x480x16
Camera: 5 megapixels, Carl Zeiss optics
Camera Resolutions:
2576x1936 (photo);
2576x1448 (photo widescreen);
848x480 (video - as reported by VLC but Nokia says it is 800x480).
In The Box:
Nokia Travel Charger (AC-10E);
Nokia Connectivity Cable (CA-101), micro USB to USB 2.0;
Nokia Video-Out Cable (CA-75U);
Nokia Charger Adapter (CA-146C);
earphones with three bud sizes; touchscreen cleaning cloth;
Getting Started Guide booklet.
There was no software CD but this may have been an omission as it was a review, not retail, unit.

Concluding Thoughts
Even though it has what one could now consider a "novelty" phone operating system and there are a few flaws I really like this phone - much more than the Nokia N97 with all its widget (and bandwidth-hogging) functionality and the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic with its multimedia emphasis. The simple task switching and ability to have multiple things open, combined with the customisable (Androidesque) home screen/desktop, really helps to make this device a good tool for productivity. I like the operating system a lot. It's definitely a step up from Symbian. For me, probably the worst problem is the inability to copy text from the Web, which is something I realised, once I couldn't do it, that I can't live without.

The Nokia N900 review unit was provided by Nokia South Africa. OpinionShare/Bookmark
Rating: 8/10

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Nokia BL-5J (Battery): Nokia Middle East And Africa | Nokia USA Comments Speak Your Mind

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