Unravelling the Mystery of the Nokia N9: A Review

Posted on 02/10/2012

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Every once in a while, a product come along that changes our perception of how we use technology

That was how the world was introduced to the Nokia N9. Bold words by Nokia’s SVP of Design Marko Ahtisaari to describe a product that was being brought into a market that had already seen a device four years earlier do exactly that (yes the iPhone). Moreover, the Nokia N9 had endured a turbulent gestation period leading up to that launch presentation. The N9 is the successor to the N900, powered by Nokia’s open source Maemo 5 platform. For what was by all accounts a very capable and powerful platform, it was resigned largely to the geek sphere, with little to no mass market penetration. The next big step was to be Maemo 6, with all the lessons learnt from the preceding builds of Maemo, which would be Nokia’s answer to the likes of the iPhone and the then upcoming Android platform in the high end mobile sphere. Then to catapult the platform forward, Nokia partnered with Intel and merged Maemo with Intel’s Moblin platform to create MeeGo. That was two years ago at Mobile World Congress.

Unfortunately concept after concept came, builds were shown running on the mighty N900 but no tangible device was released to the public. A year later, Nokia announced their smartphone strategy shift that all but killed MeeGo and relegated Symbian to a ‘franchise platform’.  There was the promise of the one MeeGo device, and so it came to be on June 21 2011, when Marko Ahtissari presented the once mythical Nokia N9 to the world.

Now how does one approach a device with such a chequered past and a swiftly aborted future? It was made very clear that this would be the first and last Nokia MeeGo smartphone device. As time has come to pass, it is also clear that this is probably the one and only MeeGo device, with Intel and new partners betting their lot on yet another collaborative Linux mobile effort called Tizen. In truth the N9 is not even considered a pure MeeGo device, essentially just a MeeGo API compliant Maemo 6, codenamed Harmattan. And of course the unique Swipe UI layer found on the N9 is pure Nokia and would not have likely been seen on other MeeGo porducts had they come to fruition.

For me as a long time user of Nokia products, and a genuine mobile geek, I was interested in the N9 from the get go. Visually it is one of the most appealing devices I have seen in a long time. From it’s unique pillow design with curved back and glass display, the sleek buttonless front face and the innovative Swipe UI, this has had the hallmarks of a genuinely ground breaking device. Unfortunately the N9 has been described as dead on arrival, powered by a dead platform, a few years late, running on legacy hardware. The mass market would  not take to it and it was missing a crucial element of a 2011 smartphone; apps. It all sounds bleak  but the device that Marko Athisaari showed off in Singapore was in every respect a model of genuine innovation, in a scene that sad to say is for the most part stale and is driven largely by a specification arms race than true innovation. Here was a device that like the iPhone four years before was driven largely with the user in mind, with every design element and the hardware and software level designed to work in unison. At least on paper that is.

A closer look

As I said, something refreshing about the N9, at least from the launch and all subsequent press releases and even early reviews, was how much thought seemed to have been put into creating a holistic experience, at face value a true marriage of hardware and software.

Unboxing the Nokia N9

A striking design

The Nokia N9 is carved from a one piece plastic polycarbonate shell with the innards literally crammed into it to create this unified look.

The Nokia N9

The poycarbonate shell is remarkable. It creates a device that is lighter and less ‘cold’ than the anodized aluminium shell of the likes of the Nokia N8 and E7, and one that feels infinitely better in the hand and more premium than the plastics of the Samsung Galaxy S2. One surprising element of it is just how premium it feels, and I have to say it is hands down the best feeling handset I have ever handled including the hero device from Cupertino.

The front face is completely buttonless, perhaps taking minimalism to it”s logical next step.

The stunningly designed Nokia N9

The only buttons on the device are the volume rocker and the power/screen lock button on the right hand size of the device. This is the one build quality issue I have with the device, at least this unit that I have. The power button feels a little loose to me and there is slight rattle when I just touch or lightly shake the device. This could just be this particular unit. At the top of the device is is the microUSB port and the microSIM card holder. Getting these open is a bit of a chore. You can’t get to the SIM slot without first opening the USB slot, which I found annoying. I guess the logic is that you will generally only use the SIM slot the first time you insert the SIM, and considering it uses the annoying not quite ubiquitous microSIM standard, chances are you will not be swapping SIMS any way. Also found here is the 3.5 mm audio port.

microSIM, USB and headphone jack

microSIM, USB and headphone jack

At the base of the device is the ‘loud speaker’, more on than bit of hardware later. Turning the device over, we find just the 8MP Carl Zeiss branded ccamera and a couple of LED flashes. The finishing at the back of the device is just stunning again adding to the premiumness of the device. As a physical specimen, the N9 really is something to behold. Even by Nokia’s high standards they have really outdone themselves here. Of course this design has lived on with the Lumia 800 and 900 Windows Phone 7.5 devices, so Nokia clearly known they are onto a good thing.

A study in minimalism

Internally the phone is powered by a 1Ghz processor with dedicated graphics, and a wholesome 1Gb RAM for multitasking. There is no expansion of memory but the phone comes in 16 GB and 64 GB models, availability of the latter seems to be more rare unfortunately, in the case of South Africa not available at all.

Coming back to the front, the display itself is a 3.9″ Super AMOLED panel of FWVGA (854X480) resolution with Nokia’s Clear Black Display (CBD) technology that makes blacks um blacker! It must be said that CBD is not a gimmick. The displays retains astonishing clarity, contrast and has great viewing angles outdoors even in the harsh South African summer sun. For these qualities I would rate it even better in that regard than the Super Amoled Plus display on the SGS2, which is something of  a beauty.

To go back a bit, as I said, the N9 comes in single piece unibody shell that is curved at the back, and the glass panel is also curved, creating that lovely shape that feels so natural in the hand. But continuing the theme of unifying design, the curved glass display is not just something gorgeous to look but leads in to the primary way of interacting with the N9.

It all begins with a swipe

Well more of a double tap, or a touch of the power button to wake up the device, and then the swipe. You see with no buttons at all for common operation, the entire mode of operation of the N9 was built around the humble swipe gesture, with the curved display used to encourage one to swipe across the screen in a natural curved motion. And it really works. Swipe is used to navigate the homescreens, within apps, to background apps and by changing a setting, to close apps as well. Admittedly I had been following news on the N9 a lot and in some ways that helped my adjustment to the N9. Having said that I have probably watched about 200 Formula One races in my life but that doesn’t mean that I could given Sebastian Vettel a run for his money if I got a drive with Red Bull next season! I showed off the N9 to a number of people over the last three weeks and while as expected it was not universally found to be intuitive, particularly from those still grimly hanging on to button driven devices, I was surprised at how even some of my non-tech inclined friends were able to get the gist of how Swipe works. Quickly. Of course some of the finer nuances would have to be learnt with time but the basics seemed surprisingly easy to pick up for a lot of people I showed the device to.

In keeping with the approach taken with the physical aspects of the device, Swipe UI is a minimalist conceptualisation of what the standard phone UI should be. There are just the three homescreens, the notifications/feeds pane, the application grid and the multitasking pane, each accessed by swiping across the screen, and operating as a carousel with continuous scrolling.

N9 Homescreens: Notification, Applications, Running Tasks

A user will typically spend a lot of their time accessing apps from the application grid, which needs no explanation. One thing a new user will notice is that there are already a lot of apps pre-installed on the device. New apps are added at the bottom. A long press on the grid brings up edit mode allowing the user to delete apps and move them around. Currently there is no support for folders on the app grid, a feature which has been de-emphasized even in Symbian as other OSs bring it to the fore.

Editing the app screen

The notifications panel is exactly that, bringing together, mail and text notifications, and missed calls. It also shows alarms here. One thing that surprised me was that calendar entries did not show up by default, but thankfully there are third party solutions available in the Store, but I hoped this becomes baked into the OS in the future, if only for completeness. The Notifications pane also serves as an aggregate of Twitter and Facebook news feed, and Associated Press headline if enabled. Third party applications that have push notification can also tap into this, Foursquare notifications for example show up in the feed. It’s all very well done and seems flexible enough to me.

Application notifications on the N9

Multitasking on the N9 is a dreamy experience. Unlike the likes of Windows Phone and iOS which for better or worse, freeze apps in the background, multitasking on the N9 is as true as it comes. This is made evident by the fact that the application tiles are live in the multitasking pane. It is a visual delight that is  elegantly executed. Apps show up in the order they were last accessed,  with the most recent at the top left corner. Tapping the tile takes you through to the app. To close running tasks, a long press anywhere in the multitasking screen brings up edit mode, where you can end individual tasks or close all. It’s slicker than anything I’ve used on any platform.

Managing running tasks

Something I really like about how the N9 works is that when you launch an app from say the app grid, when you background it with a swipe, the system returns you to where you launched the app from. This might seem trivial but personally I feel this is far more intuitive than how the the non-deterministic way the back button in say Android functions. This is particularly useful when in the notifications pane, allowing an easy way to deal with a lot of notifications quickly, as a swipe from the edge of the screen always returns you back to the notifications pane. When the swipe down gesture is set to close apps, this returns the user to the multitsaking pane. Moreover with three homescreens, only one more swipe left or right will take you to another homescreen.

Swiping away an app on N9, revealing the multitasking view beneath

The always on status bar displays the usual expected elements, time, network and battery status, as well as relevant icons for notifications. Tapping on the status bar revelas more options to toggle phone profiles, volume, bluetooth, as well as information on current internet connection and instant messaging profiles. It also very neatly and beautifully designed.

Accessing common settings via the status bar

Something that is not so obvious but might come in handy when you do not want to dive back into the application grid is the application dock. Unlike iOS and some Android devices, LG and Samsung come to mind, this is not fixed, but discreetly tucked to maximise the use of screen real estate. When in any application swiping up from the bottom of the screen a short way will reveal four application shortcuts for phone, messaging, camera and web.  By default the user cannot change this but a quick look around the Nokia Store will reveal that some intrepid developers have written apps that allow you to change the defaults if they are not to your satisfaction.

Completing the package, so to speak, is the design language of applications for the N9 whether third party or built, which in the majority of cases is faithfully adhered to. This is shared somewhat with Symbian, meaning in 2012 the transition from Symbian to the N9 will be somewhat seamless for a user. It also makes the curve of learning the ins and outs of interacting with applications on the N9 a breeze

The design language of MeeGo/Harmattan, third party apps Butaca and MeePaper, and the default mail client

For better or for worse, the UI is designed primarily for portrait use. This is great for one-handed use of course and particularly since the N9 doesn’t venture into ostentatious super sized screen territory. In screen size it’s slap in the middle of the N8 (3.5″) and the Galaxy S2 (4.3″), yet it’s hardly larger than the former and more comfortable to use in one hand than the latter. I do wish that there was better landscape support though as for some apps like maps, I personally feel that the information displayed is better suited to this orientation. And in some cases like text input, if you have larger hands, typing in landscape is likely to be better for anything other than a quick text. Like most things ‘there’s an app for that’ but it would be much better I feel if it was built in from the start.

A swipe a day…

As with any platform and accompanying device, no matter how gorgeous the hardware, how superb the component choice and even the slickness of the UI, how it all comes together as a package is far more important. It perhaps explains the success of the iPhone for example, particularly the 4 and the 4S, which I believe cannot be put down just to brand appeal. As many like to say, even on early iterations which lacked features that the likes of Symbian users took for granted, what was on device ‘just worked’ consistently. There is nothing more frustrating than a smartphone experience that is riddled with bugs and an unsatisfactory user experience, especially considering how much we do on these devices.

My phone is my primary communication device, and this encompasses, calling and messaging, include email. It’s my primary productivity device so I require solid and reliable PIM applications and a decent Office Suite (yes I occasionally do write on my phone). Outside the office, my  smartphone has become my primary computing device particularly with regards to connectivity at home where I don’t have fixed line interent. The smartphone is my primary multimedia consumption and creation device, long gone are the days when I owned a dedicated mp3 player for example. It is my fitness manager, I use it to store (encrypted) vital data and it is my access point to the cloud. It is my primary GPS device. And once in a while I also like to have a little fun with it.

There’s a lot to get through as we take a more detailed look into how the hardware of the N9 and the first and third party applications work on a day to day basis. So in some of order of importance what follows is a detailed roundup of the functionality and usability of the N9.

Communication

One of the hallmarks of Nokia device is superlative communication particlularly with respect to calls. The N9 wasn’t bad in this regard but I don’t think it was great. It held on to signal well enough, calls were crisp and rarely was there any obvious breaking in the signal. Where there were issues, like in my lounge, it was in area where I had documented that every phone on any network, struggles to hold a connection and call quality is poor. My problem with the N9 was the quality of the earpiece, particularly the volume. At full volume, it sounded about as loud as the Nokia N8 at around 50%. Sometimes I really struggled to hear the caller on the other end of the line. It is fine when you are in a quiet surrounding, but I got a couple of calls in less than ideal places and I really struggled

My primary means of communication however is through text, whether email or SMS, and as such text input is so important on a device, particular touch where the lack of genuine tactile feedback means the experience for the most part can never be good as a physical keyboard. And coming from a Symbian device, I must admit that I was no expecting very much from the N9 keyboard, despite having heard some good things about it. How wrong could I have been. The N9 virtual keyboard is superlative, and not only blows away the Symbian keyboard but in my opinion bests the very good stock Android keyboard, even the improved one in Ice Cream Sandwich.

The wonderful Nokia N9 virtual keyboard

From a design perspective, the keyboard layout is just right. Moreover the key size and spacing is perfect and I found that I could type with great speed while still maintaining a high accuracy. I’m not sure how I feel about the correction system though. As with Symbian by default the keyboard keeps the entered word and if it thinks you made a mistake, has the  suggestion hovering on screen. If neither the entered word or the suggested word is correct, tapping on the entered word brings up an overlay that brings up more suggestion, never more than four. Tweaking the text input settings, one can set the keyboard to autocomplete the suggestion with the use of the spacebar. This has the annoyance of adding an extra step if you enter say a city name, where you must push backspace to reject the suggestion and then continue typing. To be fair though from my experience the keyboard just worked so well that once I had tweaked the settings as I liked it was plain sailing for the most part.

For those who don’t like the stock keyboard, Swype is built in to the firmware from PR 1.1. This can be activated in language settings, or rather neatly by swiping left or right across the stock keyboard. I personally am not a fan of Swype, whether on Symbian, Android and now on the N9 but at least the option is there out of the box for those who do.

The great keyboard makes composing text messages and emails a breeze.

The actual apps themselves, Mail and Messaging are like everything else on the N9 very well thought and consistent with the rest of the UI. The messaging app by default displays a unified view of traditional text messages, as well as the more mordern services like Gtalk, Skype etc. which are wonderfully integrated into the N9s messaging and contacts. Toggling this is to display the message the of choice is easy enough achieved by simply tapping on the app header. Messages are as is the norm these days displays as threads.

Selecting message types

Composing new messages is easy enough. One can compose a traditional text message or initiate an instant messaging  chat conversation directly from the messaging app.

Threaded text messages in the N9 messaging app

The mail app is worlds apart from what I’ve grown accustomed to on Symbian devices. Of course multiple accounts of any type are supported including multiple exchange accounts. Setting up accounts is done from the dedicated accounts app (I will deal with this more later) or from the landing page of the mail app, where you can add exchange, Gmail or other accounts. For the latter two it is as simple as just inputing username andpassword and the system takes care of the rest.

Mail landing page

Something that I know is done on say iOS but I have never encountered is the unified mailbox. This sounds like a good idea collating all your mail accounts, but I set up the accounts separately for a reason and as such prefer the traditional single mailbox paradigm. My Nokia account for example handles subscriptions for blogs, newsletters, that sort of thing and as such I don’t want to mix that with my Gmail account which handles personal email and important contancts like banks, medical aid and insurance.

Unified mailbox

The mail client is quite intuitive, offers up full HTML mail, and downloading and rendering of emails is brisk, far quicker than the Symbian client for example. Mail delivery also works for the most, though this seemed to be account dependant. Mail for Exchange (MfE) was flawless for the three weeks I used the device, whether for Gmail or for my work account. The dedicated Gmail account was slower when set to push, mails arriving 2-5 minutes after exchange. I also found that relaying read status back to Gmail, or if I read mail say on the N8, SGS2 or desktop was often not reflected on the N9 for some time, up to half an hour in some cases. Since the N9 supports multiple exchange accounts, I stuck with MfE.

Reading an email on the N9

Something that I found odd was that there was no way to flag emails in the mail client. It’s something that I do as a stop gap for say credit card statements and that sort of thing. On the N9 I had to mark the emails as unread which is an okay workaround I guess, but this is the first mail client that I have encountered that doesn’t support this basic feature. It is a small blemish on what is otherwise a superb mail client.

Personal Information Management and Productivity

I have long shed the diary and address book, and all of my PIM data is stored in the cloud. Equally managing tasks and note taking is a cloud based exercise for me, though all this data is backed up elsewhere lest my sync and storage providers fail me.

I’m a firmly entrenched in Google for contact and calendar management. I understand of course that this is not the only way to manage PIM data but I have found this to be the most reliable and platform agnostic way to manage my data. To be honest I found support for this on the N9 rather flaky, and a touch messy. In essence there are three possible ways to handle Google data on the N9. Mail for exchange for mail, contacts and calendar, Google account for Gmail and Gtalk, CalDav for calendar. I would have preferred to use mail for exchange but the one pesky fault was the lack of support for multiple calendars. Again this doesn’t affect everyone’s workflow but for me, separating my agenda using multiple calendars has done wonders for my productivity. This should not be a problem since the N9 supports CalDav for synchronizing calendars but for the life of me I could never get this to work. I could log in fine and could see all my calendars in the CalDav account, but despite never returning a sync error of any sort, calendar sync just did not work.  I was a bit surprised as well that the Google account only syncs Gtalk contatcs and not the full contacts, but MfE works well enough that this is not an issue.

Task management and note taking is also critical to my workflow, and in the spirit of being platform agnostic, I have moved my data to the cloud. I don’t use the built in apps, preferring cross platform services. For tasks I use Remember the Milk (RTM), for which I have two useful apps on Symbian and Android. Sadly the RTM app in the Nokia Store did not work as advertised, being read only despite stating otherwise, and only not pulling down my data correctly. Before the availability of a dedicated app on Symbian I would simply subscribe to my tasks in Google Calendar and sync those to my device, but since CalDav didn’t work, this was not possible. My solution was to bookmark the rather good mobile site, creating a web app shortcut in the app menu for easy access (more on that later). For notes I use the excellent Simplenote service, and the N9 has a killer app for the service, MeeNote.

There are other ways of dealing with all of this data of course, Outlook, other web based services like Evernote for notes for example, as well as services like NuevaSync. Outlook is a mystery on the N9 as Nokia Suite is not yet compatible with the N9 and Nokia Link only handles multimedia sync. All in all I was disappointed with the N9s PIM capabilities, as I don’t particularly consider myself a demanding user in that respect.

Social network integration and Account Management

Nokia have done their best to ensure there is a decent social networking experience out of the box on the N9. Home grown Twitter and Facebook apps are available which while not spectacular get the job done. There are third party alternatives available like TwimGo and Different tack for twitter and fMobi for Facebook available in the Nokia Store. The built in apps provide enough functionality to serve the majority of users but might be lacking in some respects for power users. Twitter for example only allows for uploading of media via Twitter’s own photo sharing services, so no twitpic or yfrog for example. Image upload is also not integrated into the gallery like it is with Facebook which I found odd. I also wasn’t sold on how Twitter conversations are handled for example. A single tweet is only shown and to view each preceding tweet in a conversation one has to tap the ‘in reply to’ link. Fine for short conversations, but I have had conversation spanning far in excess of 10 or 20 tweets and this would get tiresome in the end. Another bugbear is that only native retweets are supported, no option to quote text or the traditional ‘xxxx RT @user xxxx’ form. Facebook and Twitter can be integrated into the notifications screen but it provides just ‘news feeds’, so no @mentions or direct messages for Twitter, or Facebook notifications. I would rather have not had the full feed but just content directed at  me being displayed.

Other services are integrated into the N9s accounts management scheme. These cover uploading and are not dedicated apps. The N9 allows for uploading of content to popular services like Flickr and Youtube out of the box. For access to these services, third party apps will have to fill the void. I made use of QuickFlickr and cuteTube, the latter in particular being rather good. Other mail accounts can be added of course, as well as Picasa credentials for sharing and SIP. There’s no Google + integration but considering it is a rather fledgling services that does not surprise me.

Integrated accounts on the N9

Browsing

I found browsing on the N9 to be superb, with the Galaxy S2 as a reference point. The browser performs admirably, delivering great performance and generally very good rendering of pages. Pretty much every site I threw at it was rendered well and more importantly very quickly whether over mobile data or over Wifi. My standard for ‘impossibly large, my shouldn’t shouldn’t be opening that’ website used to be the full Engadget website but the N9 just scoffed at that and rendered it stunningly. A new champion of this category of sites has emerged since; the Verge. The Nokia N8 for example, running Belle, can load the website fine, but scrolling and zooming in and out leaves a lot to be desired. The N9 handles this new monster impeccably. Compared to the Galaxy S2 it was only ever a couple of seconds slower, sometimes faster loading the site, than it’s dual core equipped challenger. Like iOS and Windows Phone there is no Flash support in the N9 browser and since Adobe themselves have ceased development of the plugin, it’s no great loss in the grander scheme of things

The full desktop 'The Verge' mobile site, a behemoth handled with aplomb by the N9 browser

The browser is bereft of options and settings. Tabs are not strictly supported, opening new windows instead. These are treated as separate applications and switching between windows is achieved by accessing them in the multitasking screen. It seems cumbersome at first but the beauty of swipe is of course that every homescreen is never more than two swipes away from any open process. And since using swipe down to close windows the system returns you to the multitasking screen windows can be quickly accessed.  There is some logic to this design as well, when you look at how bookmarks are handled. Well bookmarks is not the correct term where the N9 is concerned. The approach taken is to create web apps, which get saved as app shortcuts for quick access. I created shortcuts for some often accessed websites like BBC Sport, ESPNCricinfo as well as app replacements like GetGlue and RTM. I can understand users hankering for a more traditional approach to web browser design, but the N9 method is not in my opinion necessarily inferior when looked at in the context of how MeeGo/Harmattan works

Multimedia Consumpution

Multimedia on the N9 is handled beautifully in software, not so much in hardware. The built in music player is a delight to use, even if continuing the minimalistic approach of the rest of the package. Every aspect of it is laid out beautifully, controls are clear, gestures like swipe to change tracks are supported, as are playback controls on the lock screen. There is really not much to say in that regard other than job well done.

Music playback on the N9

In terms of files support, all my music is stored in basic 196-320kbps mp3 files with some WMAs thrown in and I had no issues.

Video is something that I do less and less on phones even the SGS2 with it’s 4.3″ screen, and is largely limited to video podcasts like The Phones Show that I subscribe to. The little video that I did watch I found to be super and the N9s display is great for this sort of thing. It’s a nice size and the phone is of course a comfortable size to hold.

The one of flaw with the N9 as particularly a dedicated music player is that like with voice calls, audio quality leaves a lot to be desired. Considering it was a Nokia device that convinced me to never again consider buying a dedicated mp3 player, because of audio quality, the N9 was a disappointment. It does not get close to the N8 at all, and in my opinion is poorer than the Galaxy S2. Volume is a problem, and bass and treble are not handled as well as I would have liked. My music collection is varied but I can leave the N8 on the default equalizer setting and pretty every song is rich and sounds as I would expect. Sadly this was not the case with the N9.

Camera

For better or for worse, any camera phone that comes my well will be judged with the N8 in mind, the ultimate camera phone for now at least for stills as the new wave of 1080 phones like the iPhone 4S have pushed the bar higher when it comes to video output.

On paper the N9 doesn’t sound too bad. It sports an 8 MP sensor, with Carl Zeiss branded optics. It’s wide angle, in wide screen mode effectively 26 mm with a large aperture rated at f/2.2. Sounds good but as we know these numbers can be misleading. You see in keeping with the sexiness of the device, the N9 is relatively slim and as such the camera module is some 70% smaller than that found on the N8. The sensor is miniscule. At 1/3″ the surface area of the sensor is significantly smaller than that of the N8, around 45% or so. This tells me that this is not geared as a camera centric device, but first it carries the famous Carl Zeiss branding that has adorned some of Nokia’s most famous camera phones and second devices like the Galaxy S2 and iPhone 4S prove that even at these size constraints it is possible take quite pleasing pictures

The Nokia N9, Carl Zeiss branded and the similarly specced, camera wise, Galaxy S2

I did start out comparing the N9 to the N8, and to be fair it was not an appropriate comparison. The interesting comparison was with the Galaxy S2. Like the N9 it has no pretensions to be an N8 killer but promises and achieves pretty good results overall.

Keep in my mind that the images taken here were 99% of the time taken in auto mode as most of these phones are intended to be used. From my experience if you are willing to dive a bit into the settings you can get even better results than if you let the phone take control of everything

Just looking at the N9, I was genuinely happy with the snaps it took. The colours are accurate and the exposure was almost always spot on. Like with the N8 the N9 doesn’t seem to employ much noise reduction, but unlike the N8 the ‘grain’ is much more visible, as the large sensor of the elder device keeps it in check. I did some silly things with the phone, taking shots in extreme conditions and all signs pointed to pretty good optics, with for example very little flare when shooting into direct sunlight. Lowlight performance where flash was inappropriate was, all things considered pretty good I thought. Overall I found the N9’s camera to be one that was dependable, and actually offered great versatility.

Comparison to the Galaxy S2 was interesting. Something that surprised me was that the N9 produced slightly less detailed images than the Galaxy S2. What I mean is that at 100% zoom detail was no doubt finer on the Galaxy S2. Part of this might be due to the fact that the N9 has a wider angle lens than the GalaxyS2 so is in reality cramming more scene information into the same 8 million pixels. The Galaxy S2 also exhibits less visible noise than the N9 but this was due to some at times aggressive noise reduction on the Galaxy S2. But beyond those two factors I had a preference for images captured by the N9 for three reasons. First is that in order to create punchy lively images, the Galaxy S2 saturates images. It’s particularly clear when on a cloudy day images have a somewhat unnatural vibrancy about them. Some would describe the N9 images as cold, I would say truer. Second, the dynamic range is rather poor on the Galaxy S2 and in particular it is prone to overexposure, with a strong tendency to clip the highlights in preference for more detail in the shadows. The camera app does allow one to change metering mode which by default is spot metering, but in a lot of cases switching to matrix produced better if still unsatisfactory results. It is as if the camera is compensating for the limitations of the sensor as in a lot of images are shot at ISO 32 with shutter speeds at 1/250. The N9 by contrast was shooting with shutter speeds on 1/1000 at ISO 100 during the day. Third, the N9 has better low light performance, and here it captures more detail with less noise than the SGS2.

 

 

 

 

Overall, I just found the N9 to be that much more flexible as a camera than the Galaxy S2.

I’m not much of a video person, but I would put the N9 worse than both the N8 and the Galaxy S2 though videos are still decent. They certainly will not be winning any awards but are of decent quality if not spectacular.

Mapping Solutions

Perhaps the crown jewel in Nokia’s application suite is the superlative Nokia Maps and Drive bundle. This is a star on Symbian devices and performs just as well on the N9. The software package has matured incredibly in the two years that is has been a free service, offering true offline maps, an ever improving point of interest database, very good search, and voice navigation with clever route planning.

The N9 cradled in the Nokia CR-122 car docking unit

The N9 itself is a great unit for navigation. The 3.9″ screen is large enough and the Super AMOLED display with the CBD layer is readable in pretty much any light conditions when navigating.

 You call that a loudspeaker?

An often overlooked aspect of mobile devices, even on high end devices is component choices. Yes it is obvious that you want a good screen, fast processor, oodles of RAM but certain aspects tend to be afterthoughts. The loudspeaker is one of these, and I was rather surprised at how inadequate the N9 loudspeaker is. It is passable but coming from an N8 this component was disappointing. It’s easy to think that it is not that important a component. I didn’t bring up this aspect when talking about mapping solutions, but what use is the superlative Nokia Maps and Drive software when the speaker is barely audible and horribly tinny when in use. Honestly even at 50% volume the speaker on the N8 is audible with my car radio on and when I’m having conversations in the car. The first time I used Nokia Drive with the N9, I was a bit shocked when the voice came on and I had to check that it was at full volume. I turned down the radio a bit and continued on my merry way. But with each voice prompt my shock turned to visible horror. The N9 possibly has the poorest loudspeaker out of all the Nokia smartphones I’ve had a play/extended use with or owned, including the 5800 Xpress Music, 6710 Navigator, E63, E6, E71, E72, E7, N79, N8, N91, N95,  and N97.  It also falls short of the Samsung Galaxy S2, a speaker that I am not particularly fond of. I would put it on a par with the HTC Desire S. Yes, an HTC.

Considering Nokia’s heritage here, particular with the likes of the 5800, a phone with an astonishing loudspeaker, one would have expected the N9 to best devices like the HTC Desire S, which sorry to say were blighted with mediocre components. Beyond mapping, other applications suffer. Incoming calls, messages, notifications and alarms are badly audible when the speaker is not located optimally. What about when in a handbag, pockets or you are in another room? And this is even before we can to somewhat niche applications like podcasting or using voice coaching for exercise.

Controversial screen technology

Something that has been a point of contention is the choice of  pentile matrix display technology as opposed to the full RGB array with the N9 screen. And I have to say the display is just noticeably so and there’s no working around it. Powering the phone on the first, you would not think anything is amiss until you end up on the apps screen. To my eyes it just didn’t look right, the icons in particular just looked fuzzy. Watching videos or doing anything with a predominantly black appearance masks this but open, clock, calendar, mail, the browser, any app that is predominantly and it’s striking. It’s even more obvious on the N9 than say on the original Galaxy S because so much of the N9 UI is white background with black text. Once seen it cannot be unseen. From my twitter feed this bothers a lot of people.

If I’m honest, the pentile nature of the display was not the worst crime committed to a modern day device. I have seen some pretty poor displays in my time and N9 display is not one. of them Despite the incredible quality of CBD it does mean however that the N9 display is not one of the best I have seen. To me the downside of pentile displays is that it looks like a display with lower pixel density than it should. The SGS2 for example has a resolution of 800X480 on a bigger 4.3″ panel yet looks like it has a much higher pixel density, with everything, particularly rounded edges and lettering than much sharper. The use of a lot of white, the round borders in applications and the squircle iconography actually brings the pentile nature of the display to the fore, especially when compared the original SGS which is only 0.1″ bigger diagonally and with a slightly lower resolution.

Overall Performance (battery, speed, multitasking etc) and other general observations

To put in all together, the N9 performed admirably over the three weeks I used the device. The camera aside, I’m not much into technical specs, benchmarking or whatever else you can do to a device, but I found the N9 to be very good, and speed wise only marginal slower from a feel and visual perspective than the Galaxy S2. I did observe some delay when tapping through notifications. Some apps like Maps and Facebook are a bit slower than you would expect. Also slightly disconcerting was that the target area in virtual buttons particularly the navigation icons in the bottom toolbar was minuscule. I have no problem tapping buttons on the tiny by comparison N8 screen but often I would tap a button and nothing would happen. And I’m 99% certain that it wasn’t because my touch was not registered, as I could immediately interact with other elements on the screen.

In the time I used the device, the phone did not reboot once, not a single app crashed and nor did I have to end an app that was unresponsive. Of the devices I have reviewed of late it is the only one that I can say that about. And considering that pretty much every process barring video continues unabated in the background it is impressive. Three months, six months or a year later, who knows, but the stability of the device certainly impressed me.

I found battery life to be okay. To be fair, the devices in my pocket rarely make it into a second day but I found the N9 to be worse than the N8 and Galaxy S2. Typically the latter two call for a charge late into the night, at the earliest around 8 pm, while by 6pm the N9 would enter power saving mode, set to kick in at 10% on all my devices. Thankfully with the device using USB as the means of charging it meant that whether in the office, at home, driving or visting people charging the device was not a problem. Considering something like the E6 has a 15o0 mAh battery perhaps something along the lines of the Galaxy S2s 1650 mAh battery could have beem considered.

In general the experience of using the N9, the speed, the multitasking and they way things was a refreshing change particularly for a predominantly Symbian user. Nokia has done a great job of getting the core exprerience, a few caveats aside, to be both functional and enjoyable. There is eye candy everywhere, but it smooth and well directed, never overwhelming the experience.

But that is not where the story ends.

A back marker in the apps race

The big elephant in the room, and one that is important when looking at (potentially) mass market device is the strength of the third party app store. And more than anything size seems to be the metric of choice, but  quality is as important. In this app race there are two run away leaders, both with a seemingly impossible lead, the Apple App Store with over 500 000 apps and hot on it’s heels the Android Market with over 350 000 apps. Lagging way way behind are the likes of the stagnating Blackberry App World and Nokia Store. The joker in the pack is the Windows Marketplace with over 60 000 apps and adding them at a rate now better than 10 000 every month.

While the Nokia Store is healthy and respectable but very much static, the apps are split between, S40, the Symbian range, Maemo 5 and the N9/MeeGo. And sadly very few apps are MeeGo specific. It is of course a very young platform but independent software catalogues like My-Meego which include both store and non store apps list a little over 1000 apps (1204 at the time of writing). While it is debatable whether one actually needs an app store with  half a million apps, it is perhaps clear that an app so lowly stocked is unlikely to meet the demands of an app hungry demographic. At my peak I hit 200 apps on both the N8 and the Galaxy S2, a sixth of the total apps on the N9. True most of that was garbage and soon app fatigue hit and I’m now down to about 10 critical apps though I keep a few utilities around  in the name of ‘future proofing’.

Throughout this review where appropriate I have mentioned some third party apps I use where first party solutions didn’t fit my needs, including stunning apps like MeeNote and utilities like Calendar feed.  Outside of these apps which were for the most replacements or enhancements for built in functionality (or in the case of Calendar feed something that perhaps ought to have been included from the beginning), how does the N9 stack up if given a fair chance?

Sadly not too well. Nokia did a decent job as I said earlier in getting some apps for some services like Facebook and Twitter, and tight integration with Skype for example. Going past this, it’s easy to argue like many do with Windows Phone that it is a fledgling platform and should be given time. On the other hand people are buying these devices now, and the general consumer will not be thinking about the future. People want to use these apps and services now on their powerful smartphones. Unlike Windows Phone one thing the N9 does not have is momentum with apps, and I’d go so far as to say it’s glacial. The My-MeeGo software catalogue has increased by around 150 apps in the three weeks that I have used the device. That has a lot to do with the platform being declared a dead end, and as such there’s very little independent development and likewise so many of the headline apps that users on Android and iOS, and at a gathering pace Windows Phone, have/are growing accustomed to are just not available.

Over and above the built in Facebook and Twitter apps and games like Angry Birds, we have official releases for Sports Tracker, Spotify (for European and American users), Foursquare, eBuddy XMS, Toshl, SPB TV. There are excellent free and paid third party solutions for some popular services like cuteTube (Youtube), MeePaper (Read it Later), Dropian (Dropbox), Musikloud (Soundcloud), Butaca (IMDB and Google Show Times), cutePress (WordPress), QuickFlickr (Flickr),  cuteWiki (Wikipedia) that I have downloaded and use. There is a smattering of utilities including podcast clients, photo apps, and apps to tweak your devices. The selection is surprisingly varied so there is a broad selection even with such a miniscule catalogue.

However there is still so much missing when you look at the broader picture. It’s just become impossible to ignore, at least for the mainstream, how imporant ‘the app’ has become. Ultimately I missed just a few apps in the end as a frugal app user, Opera Mini, Whatsapp, SBSH Safe Wallet, Adidas miCoach and Remember the Milk but these are apps that I consider indispensable. Ebuddy XMS is an able replacement for Whatsapp but try convincing your friends to switch over. Lacking the rest diminishes my experience on a mobile device and it has come to a point where I see no need to compromise my experience.

When you spread the wings and look for the ‘sexy’ apps, things look bleaker. Apps like Kindle, Nook, Pulse, Pandora, GetGlue, Springpad, Shazam. Like with Remember the Milk, where the have been attempts to bring some of these to the N9 it hasn’t worked unfortunately, mostly due to API restrictions. This is evident in the case of EverN9 and MeePlus, clients for Evernote and Google+. The former is hampered by being a read-only client, the latter by Google only allowing public content to be accessed by third pary apps.

It is debatable how many of these apps we actually need but that is not the point. I’m not an app glutton and by analysing my uses I have cut out the riff raff, strangely when freed from the shackles of the Symbian world and exposed to the Android Market. Having said that smartphones are hugely capable and apps take advantage of this, users want that opportunity and their importance can simply not be ignored.

Final Thoughts

The N9 was in all honestly a breath of fresh air. In some ways I can safely say it is the best smartphone I have ever laid my hands on. From a hardware perspective, it is the most beautiful device on the planet. The build materials and finishes are also of the highest quality and it is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the device.When looking at the ‘out of the box’ experience MeeGo/Harmattan, with Swipe UI on top is simply an achievement from Nokia. It is the most intuitive and enjoyable UI/UX that I have been exposed to (with the exclusion being Windows Phone and webOS which I have not tried). That is no mean feat. The simplicity of it, taking minimalism to it’s logical conclusion was amazing in that it didn’t feel like it was achieved through with functional reductionism as the mechanism.

Of course the device and the OS are not without fault. Of note is the poor choice of components in the audio department. The choice of a pentile matrix display, while adequate, like the poor speaker break the spell that attention to detail elsewhere weaves around the user. Some aspects of the OS felt incomplete or rather not thought out to the final step. Landscape support is inconsistent, the notification pane is clearly flexible as thrid parties show so it could do a bit more, the lack of folders in the application grid,  incosistent execution with some accounts (CalDav sync, Google sccount only pulls Google chat contacts), and some questionable implementation of features in some apps like Twitter for example, do diminish the experience ever so slightly. And the poor third party developer support, a product of being late to market AND events around Nokia’s strategic shift, will be a deal breaker for people who would otherwise be enamoured with this device.

Ultimately the N9 felt to me like the end result of a very expensive design project, in essence a proof of concept. In that respect it more than lives up to its billing. I can’t help but feel however that this should have been the beginning of something bigger not the closing of a chapter. The N9 works in the end and it is one of those rare devices that even when it fails, it delights because it does so with style. It is a difficult device to dislike but I found that after the honeymoon period it became a difficult device to love. Towards the end of my review process I found myself returning to the device to experience the joy of using it that I had at the beginning but more out of obligation. I found that a really pity because in all honestly this could have and should been one of the greatest mobile devices out of there.

It is a device that I would struggle to recommend to a lot of people and one that I would probably not choose even for myself, despite the eagerness I had for it and it’s many successes. When I balance the books, the N9 just does not do enough in the end to win me over, and I say that with a heavy heart.

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Posted in: Mobile, Nokia, Review