Nokia doesn't want you to call the N900 a smart phone. According to the company, the N900 ($569 unlocked) is a "mobile computer." Running Maemo 5 Linux, the N900--Nokia's follow-up to the Maemo 4.1-driven N810 Internet Tablet--delivers the Web as you'd expect it on your computer, including Flash 9.4 support. This device is also chock-full of high-end specs, including a Cortex A8 processor and 32GB of memory. However, the N900's less-than-intuitive user interface and bulky design will likely give even the target market of Linux geeks serious pause.
Hardware-wise, the N900 is a solid device, but at 4.4 x 2.4 x 0.8 inches and 6.4 ounces, it's relatively big and heavy. This smart phone actually rivals the HTC HD2 (4.7 x 2.6 x 0.4 inches, 5.5 ounces) in size, but that phone has a much larger 4.3-inch display and no physical keyboard.
The face of the black N900 is dominated by its 3.5-inch (800 x 480) resistive touchscreen, which slides out to reveal a keyboard. There's a stylus hidden on the left side of the phone, and a mini-USB charging port on top. The volume toggle, power button, and camera quick-launch buttons are on the right side of the phone. The back has a 5-megapixel camera with a slide shutter and dual-LED flash, and the border of the camera can pop out to serve as a hinge if you want to set the N900 on a desk to watch a movie.
The N900 lacks two buttons that are crucial to any cell phone: Send and End keys. That means if you want to place a quick phone call, you have to swipe across the device's UI until your find the screen with the dialer icon.
Like the Nokia N97, the N900's keyboard has one truly annoying feature: the space bar isn't in the center. Instead, it's off to the right, which requires a bit of adjustment while typing. Otherwise, the keys offer good bounce, even if they are a little small for our tastes.
The N900 is the first publicly available smart phone to run Maemo 5 Linux as its operating system. Maemo 5 is similar to Android (also a Linux-based OS) in that there are multiple screens for the user to customize. Like Android, BlackBerry OS, and webOS, it lets you run multiple applications at the same time. Also like Android, you can place live widgets on the home screen, which makes us wonder why Nokia didn't just use Android in the first place. Still, it's a very fluid and snappy operating system, thanks to the N900's 600-MHz ARM Cortex A8 processor and 256MB of RAM.
Navigating around the phone relies heavily on touch, and we found the user interface and screen to be very accurate to our finger presses. However, the device always orients itself to landscape mode, so even if you tilt it vertically, the UI doesn't react.
Like the N97, you can add widgets to the home screen, and there are four different screens that you can customize. To add or remove a widget or shortcut to the home screen, you just have to hold your finger on the wallpaper until the settings icon appears in the top left corner.
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At the top right of each application is an X to let you remove it, just like you would in a standard computer OS. To return to your home screens, you need only tap the Done button in the top right corner.
Nokia hasn't officially opened its Ovi Store application market for the N900, but we were able to access the beta version of the store. Apps are rated from one to three stars, and you can read descriptions and reviews of each before deciding whether or not to download it.
Downloading apps requires you to create a free Nokia account. The download itself is over in a matter of seconds, the process does not take much longer. First, you click the Download button in the app store. That launchesthe Application Manager whereyou must click Download again, and wait for your app to download. It then installs automatically.
As of this writing, there were about 30 apps, 10 games, and 40 videos in the Ovi Store. Suffice it to say, Nokia is a long way from catching up to the likes of Apple, or even Google. Apps include the slick-looking Anglemeter, which uses the N900's accelerometer to turn the device into a digital compass for measuring angles.
More advanced users will undoubtedly acquire such Maemo 5 apps as Witter, a Twitter client. As of press time, Maemo.org has 118 downloads available for the operating system, but there are others out there from independent developers, too.
E-mail and Mesasaging
Click to enlargeThe Nokia N900 supports Exchange, IMAP, POP3, and SMTP e-mail accounts. We set up our work e-mail account in just a few minutes. You can also install Nokia Messaging for a push e-mail experience. DataViz's Docs To Go is installed on the device for full Microsoft Office attachment support.
Google Talk, Jabber, Skype, and SIP all come preinstalled on the N900, but other programs such as AIM, Yahoo Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger are glaringly absent. The Google Talk client was robust; it pulled in all of our contact images, and we were alerted of new messages no matter what application we were running.
The N900 comes with a massive 32GB of built-in storage. That's plenty of space for full-length movies, music, and photos. What's more, you can add up to an additional 16GB of storage using the N900's microSD Card slot. When watching the movie Step Brothers on the N900, the glossy 800 x 480 display was beautiful, and we loved the integrated kickstand, which let us rest the phone on our desk.
When listening to tunes, we were able to control our beats from one of our home screens using the music widget. We played Ra Ra Riot's "Suspended in Gaffa" at full volume and were impressed with how loud the speakers pumped the song. While the audio was enough to fill a small room, it lacked bass and was noticeably hollow.
Unfortunately, the interface was a bit buggy and sluggish at times. For example, one time when we tried to switch from watching the movie to listening to songs, the program said we didn't have any songs available; restarting the multimedia application solved the problem.
Web Surfing on the Nokia N900
Click to enlargeThe N900's has a proprietary Maemo browser powered by Mozilla. Unlike most other smart phones, it supports Adobe Flash 9.4, which means we were able to stream videos from YouTube and other sites. The trailer for Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel on YouTube played fine with minimal stuttering. However, video was literally like a slideshow when we watched Modern Marvels on Hulu, even though the audio was clear and remarkably loud. When we tried to fire up a few Hulu shows later, the video wouldn't play. Nokia told us it was looking into the issue.
Still, you can browse the full Web much like you can on your computer. We also like the interface for switching between windows: each is displayed as a thumbnail. Given that it loads full Web pages, the N900's browser was a tad slow compared to other smart phones, but not unreasonably so. Over T-Mobile's 3G network, we loaded CNN.com in 28 seconds, ESPN.com's full home page in 18 seconds, and Laptopmag.com in 14 seconds. The Motorola Droid loaded CNN.com in 13 seconds faster, and the Nexus One loaded the same site in approximately half the Droid's time. The N900 also has 802.11b/g Wi-Fi support; over a Wi-Fi connection we loaded the same sites in 14, 15, and 17 seconds, respectively.
Ovi Maps comes preinstalled on the N900. You can use it to search for millions of points of interest in the United States, plan routes, and save and share places. The premium navigation feature will cost you $10.99 for two years of service, but it also provides live traffic, weather, and more. Driving directions are available for $8.99 per month, and live traffic is an additional $3.39 per day. We weren't able to grab a GPS signal in New York City due to the high-rise buildings, so we wouldn't recommend relying on the N900 to navigate in urban environments.
Click to enlargeThe N900 has a 5-MP camera with autofocus and a dual-LED flash, and you can also use it to record video at up to 800 x 480 pixels and 25 frames per second. Under direct sunlight our pictures looked very good, and details were sharp. Indoors, shots were acceptable even under low lighting. As we've noticed on other Nokia phone cameras, such as the E71 (which has a 3.2-MP sensor), the pictures had a bit of green hue and some pixelation in dark areas. Sometimes the flash wouldn't automatically turn on if the scene was dark, so we'd have to manually activate it to be "always on" for some shots.
Video shot outdoors looked acceptable and was YouTube and Facebook worthy, but there was noticeable pixelation around moving objects.
Battery Life and Call Quality
Click to enlargeWe placed a few calls during our testing period, and made one directly to a landline to test the audio quality. Our caller said we sounded very clear, and she didn't notice any background noise. We didn't experience any dropped calls using the N900 on T-Mobile's network in New York City.
The N900 is rated for 5 hours of talk time over CDMA, and 9 hours on a GSM network. Online standby time (connected to the Internet, but not in constant use) is rated at 2 to 4 days. We were able to get through more than a full business day under moderate usage before the N900's battery ran out of juice, which is satisfactory.
The N900 is sort of an odd creature. Owing to its Internet tablet heritage, it's more like a MID that makes calls than a smart phone. The Maemo 5 operating system is unique (if somewhat challenging), and this device has all the right stuff under the hood. But until the Ovi Store fills up with apps, this device is best reserved for those who have the time and patience for Linux. At the end of the day, the N900 is a niche device that will likely never be sold through a carrier, and its $569 price and functionality reflect that reality.