Following its Internet Tablet lineage, the Nokia N900 is built upon Linux foundations — Maemo Linux to be more precise.
Maemo 5 made its debut with this model, and is something of a departure for this operating system. Previous Maemo OS2008 applications aren’t supported without being rewritten in some or all parts, and the older models can’t be upgraded to this new version because Maemo 5 requires OMAP 3 processors to function, and those earlier devices don’t have them, nor the horsepower, to keep up.
All applications now run in a full-screen mode (which gives about the same physical screen-space as the windowed-mode within Maemo OS2008).
The notifications system has seen a complete overhaul, pulling a page or two from Android and Palm’s webOS with an innovative task manager and aggregated pull-down status/presence/system status tray.
In addition, a suite PIM applications have been added, and most major applications such as the MicroB web browser and Modest email client have been significantly updated.
The Application Manager remains. Maemo 5 supports over-the-air (OTA) updates, and so everything from minor application updates to firmware updates can and do occur without the need to connect to a host PC. Skype and other VoIP/SIP systems are supported (some with more manual configuring than others), as are multiple IM services such as Ovi and Google Talk.
Even with these additions, the N900 still feels quite mechanical and Linux-like. Graphics fade in an out in some places, but quickly transition from one screen to another. Some applications use gestures, while others still feel designed for a mouse-driven interface. If you will, it doesn’t feel as polished as Symbian^1 (S60v5) on the N97. Maemo 5 is getting there, but using it for any extended period of time back-to-back with another smartphone will reveal this disjointed feel.
Thankfully, that feel is something that can be worked on fairly quickly. Already, the N900 has seen two updates and is slated to receive a major update to address many concerns with device performance, e-mail, and other applications. It is not known how many updates the N900 will receive, or even if it will receive the already announced Maemo 6 — which promises to evolve the platform once again — but the platform and its developer/user community is well-positioned to enhance the N900 as needed.
The Maemo community is another part of owning and using the N900 that should not be ignored. Anyone who is willing to put in the time can contribute to creating, fixing, or testing applications. This nature of Maemo is very much like the former Palm OS in that the communities who use the devices, and the nature of the development tools, made it easy for people to feel very connected.
Its this idea of connectivity to devices and communities which makes the addition of cellular wireless to the N900 pretty interesting. Yes, this addition does add to the price of the device (even though it debuts at the same price as the N810 and N810 WiMax Editions), but it’s not needed in order to get the full functionality from it. But if you want wireless anywhere, add a SIM card that has some kind of a data plan to it and go between Wi-Fi hotspots in relative connected freedom — with the occasional voice call in between.
Once you get past the financial cost (and the philosophical hurdle that adding a SIM card seems to do with this style of device), the idea of cellular wireless starts to have some legs. Even with only supporting T-Mobile USA’s 3G frequencies (2100/1700/900) — though it’s otherwise quad-Band GSM (850/900/1800/1900) — the idea of being connected anywhere gets pretty fun. At one point, I was connected with Skype, two Google Talk accounts, and an Ovi account — and that was before adding my SIM. Add a 3G-compatible SIM and IP-based communication becomes an easier reality.
Of course, the other part of cellular wireless is the one that is more familiar: voice. Here, the N900 isn’t really much of a phone. It’s just not that polished. That’s not to say that its hard to make a call… it’s not. The device is just not designed for voice communication first. Thankfully, a recent update has made portrait mode — once only available to the phone application — available to all applications. Still, these applications need to be recoded in many cases, and especially for anything that would extend the voice/phone experience.
Nevertheless, call quality is pretty good. Using my AT&T SIM card, I experienced clear calls (and fewer drops than with my N97) and reasonably quick text messages. While holding the N900 is a bit of a chore, it’s no worse than the original BlackBerry Storm. The speakers are the traditional loud and clear Nokia variety, more like the 5800XM in that it can get very loud. Using my Jawbone Prime headset was easy once connected.
The N900 supports Wi-Fi b/g, and Bluetooth 2.0. What’s a nice carry-over from previous Internet Tablets is the excellent Wi-Fi antenna. Like my N800 and N810, the N900 finds signals and just doesn’t let go. The quality of VoIP over Wi-Fi depends on the connection. I found that anything under two Wi-Fi bars and the conversation gets too choppy to be useful.
So while cellular is the big addition to the N900, I don’t want to pigeon-hole this as a smartphone. The voice aspects are minimized — at least in traditional cellular terms. The N900 does IP-based communication a whole lot better, cellular more or less just adds to the experience (and cost).
The MicroB web browser returns for this version of Maemo. This too is an improvement over the previous version. MicroB saw some major improvements to the Gecko engine (same used in Firefox and Mobile Firefox/Fennec) and addressed finger-usability throughout. Weirdly enough, browsing with the higher-resolution screen was more comfortable despite being the same physical size as the N97’s screen. On most pages, I didn’t even feel like I needed to zoom as the font sizes seemed to be just right for browsing. MicroB supports extensions – unfortunately not the same ones as Firefox/Fennec, as well as Adobe Flash (v9.4) for those sites which do streaming content.
During the N900’s introduction, a zooming gesture was introduced where by doing a corkscrew with your finger you could zoom in/out. Depending on how fast you circle, this is how fast it zoomed. I rarely used it. Being more familiar with tablets, I simply used the volume up/down buttons to zoom when needed. Usually though, a double-tap on an area of the page will suffice.
The multimedia and web aspects alone are enough of an upgrade over previous tablets to notch the N900 in one’s toolkit. Compared to current Symbian devices, it’s comparable in many areas, better in a few, and not better in a few. Its a toss up really, and depends on whether you are more voice or media centric.
One could look at the N900 with the N800 and N810 and conclude that Nokia has indeed learned something in terms of the multimedia features for a mobile device. The N900 is improved over the previous tablets and is nearly feature-compatible with the N97 flagship model.
The N900 has added an impressive 5 megapixel camera with dual-LED flash, autofocus, full-screen viewfinder, and even a built-in photo editor. The latter is more for quick edits than being a full Photoshop replacement, but it’s usable.
The photo gallery picked up some lessons from the Canola application which was popular on earlier versions of Maemo. Being able to swipe from photo to photo and having images resize themselves automatically seems so normal, but these are areas where former Maemo versions weren’t nearly so polished.
Other Built-In and Third-Party Applications
I can say that having the Calendar and Contacts finally on the N900 was nice. I could sync the calendar using Mail for Exchange, or just use it by itself. The Contacts application was good, but rough — I could add and edit people easily. But, when I started to add IM/VoIP services, it would also add those contacts and I would have to manually merge similar contacts across services. Once that was done (a good two evenings of fun), I could click on a contact and would be presented with any means to contact them that I saved, plus an indicator if they were already online. Not polished, not simple to set up, but it was functional.
SMS messaging is handled by the excellent Conversations application. This integrates SMS and IM messaging within one threaded view. And like the Palm webOS, you can have IM and SMS conversations within the same thread.
The GPS antenna is much, much, much improved over the N810. It’s a shame that it’s more or less limited by the Maemo port of Ovi Maps. Ovi Maps for Maemo is not the same application that it is on Nokia’s Symbian devices. Besides missing integration with the Ovi Maps service (shared routes and POI), without fast wireless (Wi-Fi or 3G), it becomes useless for driving directions. There also no electronic compass to orient the map according to where you are facing. At this point, it’s just a map application. Thankfully, the GPS can be used by other third-party applications, but so far no mapping solutions are as polished as the built-in app.
Out of the box, there are a mix of simple applications (PDF and RSS readers, Notes, etc.) and a few widgets (Amazon, AP News, Facebook, etc.). Accessing the Application Manager you can find additional options. Some of those I used were DataViz’s Documents to Go Viewer, MaStory (disclaimer: I developed the UI), Xournal, and Bounce Evolution.
Application Manager and Ovi Store
Where the built-in software might not suffice, the N900 sits on an excellent Maemo 5 developer community. Many developers have had the SDK (software development kit), development boards, and even early batches of devices in order to get applications ported over. The main difference with Maemo 5 applications is the user interface being finger-centric. Aside from that, there’s a good deal more power under the hood to use, a better graphics subsystem, and initial support for the Qt development framework.
There aren’t thousands of applications yet, but there’s a good mix of everything from replacements for the bundled apps to specialty titles. I actually feel that the N900 is more complete out of the box than other devices. And with any kind of wireless connection readily available, lack of applications isn’t so much an issue that’s easily solvable by a quick web or Application Manager search.
There are three application catalogs available out of the box: Nokia Applications, Nokia System Software Updates, and Maemo Extras (disabled by default). Maemo Extras is the place where applications that are in the final stages of testing lie. Users should be careful in enabling this catalog, as many of these applications while tested for stability, haven’t been optimized for the memory structure of the N900 and may result in premature filling of your program memory. There are other application catalogs which can be found, but those are likewise not optimized and in some cases carry very alpha level software. Of course, if all you want to see is tons of apps, then enable them and make sure to backup your device.
In the midst of creating and publishing this review, the N900 received two major updates. Though both updates addressed many issues with the N900 (bugs, performance, and small enhancements), it was the second update that has slightly changed my perception of the support aspect of the N900 and future Maemo 5 devices.
Usually, mobile devices get one or two firmware updates, and there may be a change log published to detail some of the items addressed. With the two updates that the N900 has had, tracking what was fixed was not just doable through the published change log, but you could use the Bugzilla tracking mechanism — a service alongside the Maemo.org website — to see the items being addressed. This transparency, plus the attention of some of Nokia’s project managers in the Maemo.org forums led to some successful testing and addressing of many of the issues users have experienced with N900 early on.
The Ovi Store Beta appeared with the first update. While the Ovi Store is in beta, it seems to only be making available free applications and multimedia items. A bug was found within the purchasing system related to the now popular Angry Birds game which led to persons being able to download the additional level pack freely. This idea of using a repository and then grafting a pay-ware model on top of it is different for mobile software and highlights some of the new avenues and challenges that Nokia has with this platform.
The second update featured more core items, such as adding support for portrait mode across the entire OS, enhancements to Mail for Exchange for performance and Exchange 2003 compatibility, several performance improvements such as image loading and browsing speed, and some fixes to wireless and device drivers that caused some random bugs. This second update makes the N900 feel a lot more like a high-end mobile device in spirit of the Nokia N95.
Overall, the Maemo 5 platform is still quite fresh on the N900. The addition of PIM applications, the overall smooth UI, and the very impressive task manager (I’ve gotten over 10 apps running at once) shows that there’s a lot that this device can do. With the pace of applications being developed and ported, there’s a lot of life yet to be had in Maemo 5 and that alone makes the N900 attractive to the high-end gadget crowd.