The N900: A Game Changer for Nokia (First Impressions)

2 May

The release of the N900 comes at an important time in Nokia’s history. Despite a new Symbian operating system, new touch handsets, and a growing smartphone market, the company’s smartphone division is faltering, with market share dropping 6% in the previous quarter. It’s not too hard to see why: competition is fierce, with Apple and Android phones getting better, cheaper, and faster. Add to that Nokia’s Symbian S60 operating system, which hasn’t evolved with the times, and things are looking pretty grim.

But Nokia now has a new game in town, and that’s the N900. At a recent meetup held at Nokia’s Flagship store in New York City, I had the chance to test drive the mini-computer/smartphone/app phone. I came away fairly impressed – and with the feeling that the N900 could very well start something exciting.

Build quality, like most of Nokia’s high-end phones, is solid, but a little more plasticky than I’d expected. It’s surprising, considering this is a $650 smartphone. The touch-screen is fairly sensitive, and the keyboard works well and feels great (and by great, I mean tactile and clicky – just the way I like it). No more mushy keys, here! Normal keyboard users will have to get used to a new button layout (arrow keys in the bottom right corner, caps/special char key on left side, comma next to P key, etc). It’s a huge step forward from the travesty that was the N97′s keyboard.

Overall, the UI was clean, snazzy, and most importantly, quick. But Maemo 5 isn’t necessarily the easiest operating system to use – getting acquainted with the interface was a bit difficult, especially after years of Symbian mixed in with some Windows Mobile. Icons generally aren’t labeled, and there’s definitely a bit of a learning curve with this phone. Sadly, I think the N900 would be over the heads of most iPhone users.

One of the best features of the UI is the ability to control multiple desktops. Similar to Apple’s Spaces, the desktops let you organize stuff specific to a certain screen. So you could have a work desktop (Word/office shortcuts, news site bookmarks, maybe a remote desktop app shortcut), a play desktop (games, music, etc), and a social networking desktop (Facebook widgets, contacts, whatever), which you could easily cycle through with a couple of swipes. Combined with the N900′s multitasking capabilities, it works really, really well.

Maemo’s Mozilla-powered browser is excellent and quite speedy. I didn’t really delve too deep into it, but a conversation about Motorola’s MOTOBLUR service led me to Google, and then Motorola’s official site. And everything just worked.

There’s a lot of other preloaded software on the N900. In the limited time I had with the phone, I tried out Nokia’s Ovi Maps and Symbian staple game Bounce (this, after listening to a presentation by the head of Maemo that included a couple nice statements about the gaming/graphical capabilities of the N900). My experience with Maps was pretty lousy – dragging the map around was a slow, laggy process. It was also extremely confusing. To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the Maps application on Symbian Fifth Edition, either. Way too slow compared to Google Maps.

Bounce was a little more interesting, if only because the introduction had a really impressive frame rate. The actual game is slightly choppier, and looks/feels like the Symbian version, with the exception of the accelerometer control – to jump in this one you need to actually shake the phone. Not a very intuitive gameplay mechanic.

The N900 I used was hooked up to a muted TV screen, so I couldn’t really test out the media aspects of the phone like speaker quality and music. I did, however, get to watch a couple of preloaded videos, like a trailer for the movie 9. It looked pretty damn good. It reminded me of the time I first picked up the N85 and watched an Ice Age trailer on the AMOLED display. There were also a couple of Michael Jackson videos that I’m not quite sure were preloaded – they didn’t really look that great.

All in all, the N900 represents a huge shift in strategy for Nokia. A game changer. We’re talking about going from a standard operating system that hasn’t changed much, even with a new touch interface addition (Symbian), to a completely unknown, open Linux-based tablet OS. I don’t know what will happen. It’s hard to say, because the N900 is not quite a smartphone. It’s a user-powered mini-computer for power users. And to that end, it does what it’s supposed to do, very well.

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