The Nokia N900 is the first device running Maemo — a Linux-based OS — to come with cellular-wireless (GSM) built in. Previous models running this operating system were called Internet Tablets and used Wi-Fi for connectivity.
I’ve had one for just a few hours at the time of writing this, but that was time enough to form some first impressions. And I’m ready to say that the N900 — depending on your experience with other smartphones — will amaze you and disappoint you all at the same time.
The first shock that I had wasn’t even with the device at all; it was with its packaging. Opening the FedEx box, you would have thought that this were some kind of prank. Nokia’s been doing a pretty decent job in using fewer packaging materials and it showed immediately with the N900 that this would be a different device.
Taking it out of the box, the first thing I did was sit my Nokia N97 right next to it, and run to get my Nokia N800 and N810 Internet Tablets (see here).
The N900 isn’t as narrow as the N97. It immediately feels like an N810 that’s gone on a considerable diet. And at the same time, looking at it next to the N97 reminded me of looking at the N800 next to the N810 — a later device, and one where there were definitely improvements made in the design.
The N900 is a heavy little beast though. I knew from a previous “5 minute fondle” of it that it was a thick device, but holding it just a bit longer drove that point home. As much as the N900 has telephony features, it just feels better when held in landscape mode.
The N810 and N800 cannot touch the easy setup experience of the N900. Besides smooth animations, crisp fonts from the 800 by 480 pixel, 3.5-inch screen, the general user flow felt more fun than functional when getting it set up. Before I knew it, the device was ready to go.
The keyboard was another thing that got me smiling. Compared to the N97’s, the N900’s feels more cramped and less friendly to my longer fingers. However, the keys offer excellent feedback and the domed shape lends well to typing quick messages, usernames/passwords, etc.
First thing I did was to setup Mail for Exchange — there are a number of complaints around the Web about this specific aspect of the N900 and I wanted to see if I’d run into the same issues. Nope. None at all. The first sync — over Wi-Fi — took less than a minute and there I was. No issues, and I even took the time to clean up some rogue calendar entries.
Speaking of the calendar — it’s not quite as good as the old Palm OS one, but it’s pretty close. The color coding, size of the display, and pretty much “point and do” user interface make editing and adding events easy. Swiping up and down the screen on the month view go forward or backward one month — or clicking on the title on the top bar brings up additional options. Logical, and well done.
Last positive aspect — the web browser. I was a skeptic. I’ve got a 640 by 360 pixel display that I usually work with, and I’m normally quite happy despite the scrolling. Let me say that the N900 is better here, and it’s not just the resolution. The font choice is much better, and this makes seeing sites as they should be an easy process.
Given all those positives, one would think that I’m pretty well satisfied at this point. Well, not exactly.
The Nokia N900 is definitely not a phone-first device. That’s evident in some of the unpolished aspects of the user interface. For example, even with the excellent task manager, I still find that the N900 needs two hands for effective use.
The user interface seems to be missing a few areas. For example, going into the All Applications view, there’s no top-left task manager button as there is in just about every other screen on the device. You can click the top-left and will go out just like you touched the task manager button.
The web browser also suffers from the same two-step process to accessing common functions when in full screen. You’ve got to click the “full screen” button to get out of that mode before initiating any functions.
The phone app is really cool in how you can make VoIP or voice calls easily, its not so cool in that contacts with the same names across several VoIP, IM, and voice services won’t merge. This creates an unnecessarily long list of contacts (and I’ve not even tried loading the 1230 some odd contacts that are on my N97 yet).
UPDATE: Contacts do merge. The process is tedious, though.
I didn’t think I’d run into this so early, but it seems that many with an N900 might want to watch out for this: a not-well-soldered micro-USB port. I had hoped that my review device would lack this problem, but upon the first disconnection from the charger, it felt unusually wiggly. I’ll continue to monitor this aspect of things.
The battery capacity is also a let down. The N810 and N97 have a 1500 mAh battery, my N800 has an aftermarket 1800 mAh one. The N900 sits at 1320 mAh — I don’t think that will be enough for most users, even with an advanced OMAP3 processor in there.
Immediately, I can feel and see that the Nokia N900 is a descendant of the N800 and N810, and at the same time it shares so much with the N97 that you can really tell that this new model represent a passing of the torch for Nokia. It will be interesting to see how Maemo 5 evolves from here — but so far, I like what I see, generally speaking.
At this point, all things being equal with carrier support and productivity needs, it would be very hard not to choose the N900 over the N97. It’s a good device, and definitely one for those who like to be on the bleeding edge of mobile technology.
Stay turned for my full review in a week or so.