Nokia's Internet Tablet uses a Linux OS and the best Web browser around. Is it time to ditch your smartphone for something smarter? Find out in our Nokia N900 review.
Look and Feel – Good
Nokia is unwise to keep their Eseries design team separate from their Nseries design team. While the business Eseries devices are sleek and lean, Nokia's Nseries phones, including the Nokia N900, are chunky, heavy blocks. Though the Nokia N900 feels like a solid device, with rich materials and a smooth, professional finish, it isn't especially attractive, and the design disappoints when you start using the device. There are no buttons on the face of the phone. It lacks Send and End buttons, a Back button or a Menu key, and all of these would have been an improvement. There is a lock switch and a power button, which seems redundant, but few shortcuts for onboard features besides the shallow, 2-stage camera shutter button. Because the phone uses a resistive touchscreen, Nokia has bundled a stylus, and it's one of the cheapest plastic styli we've seen on a phone.
You won't necessarily need to break out the stylus with this phone, as Nokia has created their most touch-friendly user interface to date in the new Maemo operating system. The screen is very responsive to the touch, and quite forgiving if you're just a little bit off pressing the tiny onscreen buttons. The interface has a very smooth and polished look. Nokia fans will recognize the familiar onscreen fonts and application icons, but the phone also uses plenty of blur effects and animated screen transitions to give the OS a modern look and feel.
It's not very intuitive, unfortunately. To move back and forth between menus, sometimes you press a back button onscreen, and sometimes you simply tap off-window. The design is also inconsistent among the apps, especially the Web browser and Ovi Maps apps. Frankly, the multiple desktop homescreen with active widgets and hidden application menu has already been done much better on modern Android devices, like the Motorola Droid, so even Nokia's most advanced effort feels a step behind the curve. But compared to the aging Symbian OS on every other Nokia smartphone, the Maemo interface is a dramatic step forward. It would have been a welcome addition to Nokia's N97.
Calling and Contacts– Good
While previous Linux-based Internet Tablets from Nokia, like the Nokia N810, skipped built-in cellular network support and just stuck with Wi-Fi for online access, the Nokia N900 uses GSM radios for voice and data. In an unusual move, Nokia has opted to support T-Mobile's 3G HSDPA network instead of the larger, more popular AT&T radio bands, though the phone can also connect to European 3G data networks. You can use the Nokia N900 with AT&T's voice and slower EDGE network, but you won't get 3G speeds. We tested the phone on T-Mobile's network.
The phone app on the Nokia N900 can place normal voice calls, but it also integrates Skype and even Google Talk directly into the dialer. You just click on a menu in the phone app to change the type of outgoing call you're making. This was a bit confusing at first, as Skype calls require a "+1" country code for U.S. calls, but once we learned the protocols it was a breeze.
Voice calls sounded good with the Nokia N900. Call quality was similar whether we were using Skype for VoIP on the T-Mobile data network, or GSM for normal cellular voice calls. On both systems our callers heard a slightly distant sound and background hiss during calls, but this didn't interfere much with our conversations. On our end, calls sounded very clean and clear.
For calling features, the Nokia N900 comes up far short of what we expect from a modern smartphone. Battery life was abysmal. We never managed to break the 4 hour mark for talk time, which is a few hours shy of what we expect from a very good smartphone, like the Motorola Droid or BlackBerry Bold 9700. Reception was very good, though, and we always saw 4-5 bars of service on T-Mobile's 3G network.
The address book on the Nokia N900 is also quite simple compared to the best smartphones on the market. We had no trouble synchronizing with our corporate Exchange account thanks to Nokia's Mail for Exchange sync app, but other online address books are not yet supported. You can use the Nokia PC Suite on a Windows machine to sync with your favorite PIM, but don't expect the sort of social networking integration you'll find on the Palm Pre's WebOS or a good Android device. The phone can't gather information from Facebook, LinkedIn or other social networks.
For other calling features, the Nokia N900 is a surprising letdown. There's no voice dialing on the device, which is a necessary feature that we use often while driving. There's no visual voicemail support, though this feature usually requires carrier backing, so it's no surprise here. Conference calling was difficult to manage, as the drop down menu to activate the feature was small and somewhat hidden during calls, and the language Nokia uses to describe the feature is unclear. The phone does have a high quality speakerphone, thanks to the dual speakers on the side of the device, and the kickstand helps keep the speakers from getting muffled, but we'd still like the volume to be much louder.
Social Networking – Good
For social networking apps, the Nokia N900 mostly requires users to load their favorite sites in the phone's remarkable Web browser. There is a basic Facebook widget on board, but this only serves to slowly scroll your friends' most recent status updates. If you tap on the widget, the browser opens to the Facebook site. There's no good Twitter app for Maemo yet available, though this could soon change.
The Web browser on the Nokia N900 is capable of rendering perfect versions of our favorite social sites, with all of the flash and streaming elements in tact. Without relying on external apps to deliver social network content, Nokia has finally delivered a Web browser on a mobile device that accurately replicates what you'll see on your desktop computer. The experience isn't flawless, but it's far better than any other mobile browser you'll find.
Navigation on Web pages is still not perfect. The resistive touchscreen is very responsive and uses kinetic scrolling, where the page sails by with the slightest flick. We like that the volume rocker on the N900 doubles as a zoom key when the browser is open. But on sites with multiple panes and scroll bars, the Web browser often didn't understand which element we were trying to manipulate. Often we got stuck moving the whole page instead of just the scroll list. Or, if the right button fell into the lower right corner, as the notification tab on Facebook does, it was hidden beneath the full screen toggle button on the Web browser.
For e-mail, the Nokia N900 had no trouble synchronizing with our Gmail accounts and our corporate Exchange e-mail accounts, but the experience was sub-par compared to other smartphones. The e-mail apps lacked the organizational prowess of, say, a Windows Mobile device like the HTC Touch Pro 2, or the advanced Gmail capabilities of an Android device. Notifications were also often late to arrive, and the e-mail app took a long time to update our inbox once we opened the program.
For text messaging fans, simple SMS messages were handled well on the Nokia N900, but the SMS app could have been better. It wasn't able to offer suggestions from our contacts in a live, while-you-type search, directly in the recipient line. Messages were presented in a classy, conversational style. The Nokia N900 lacks MMS support, a surprising omission. So, you can't attach pictures or sounds to messages or send a picture to someone else's phone directly from the camera.
Multimedia – Good
The Nokia N900 has a robust and capable music player, but it isn't anything special, and it barely lives up to what we'd expect from one of Nokia's Nseries devices. The music player on the phone is very basic. Playback controls were easy to use, but the phone lacks advanced EQ and playback options, or any fun features like a visualizer or direct Web or YouTube search from the music player. Even the media player desktop widget offered the bare minimum of features to play or skip through songs. The Nokia N900 also does not work with Nokia's Ovi Music software. So, while it was easy to drag and drop music onto the device in mass storage mode, there's no dedicated sync software to help manage your tunes, and no online music store to buy more music on the device. The N900 found all of our tracks with no trouble, but some of our album artwork didn't make the cut.
In terms of hardware, the Nokia N900 comes loaded to the gills for music and media fans. The phone packs a whopping 32GB of internal storage, and it can handle microSD cards up to 16GB capacity in addition. Besides the FM radio inside, there's also an FM transmitter, a Nokia specialty, so you can easily broadcast your tunes to your nearby home stereo or car radio without wired attachments. Of course, the phone also uses a 3.5mm headphone jack so you can use your own earbuds or the decent set of buds that Nokia packs in the retail box, or you can connect the N900 to a set of stereo Bluetooth speakers.
We were expecting more from the video player on the Nokia N900, and while it did an excellent job with some of our files, it wasn't able to play many of the videos we threw its way. The player can handle a wide range of formats, including MPEG-4 videos, H.264 files and even Xvid movies. But even in these formats, some of our files wouldn't play, especially files that were sized to fit the larger 800 by 480 pixel display. To the phone's credit, it did come with a preloaded movie trailer sized wide to fit the WVGA resolution, and this looked amazing on the phone's screen. All of our Xvid movies played with no trouble, as well. But some of our H.264 mp4 files wouldn't play, and others played with no sound.
Business – Good
The Nokia N900 comes preloaded with a nice, basic selection of business software. Our corporate e-mail, contacts and calendars all synchronized perfectly with Nokia's Mail for Exchange app. For e-mail attachments, the phone comes with a trial version of Documents to Go, which provides viewing and some editing support for Word, Excel and even Powerpoint files. You'll need to pay if you want to use the software longer than the 30-day trial, but for business users this will be worth the expense. All our Office documents opened quickly and looked great on the N900.
Otherwise, there isn't much software preloaded for business users, though 3rd party support could help here. The Nokia PC Suite doesn't fully support the Nokia N900, but it does allow you to easily use the phone as a tethered modem. Network speeds were not very impressive when we connected our laptop to the device. We never saw downloads reach 500 Kbps, which is fairly slow for a 3G device on T-Mobile's network. But in a pinch, this was an easy and convenient way to connect on the road.
Camera and Photos – Very Good
The camera on the Nokia N900 produced high quality images with plenty of fine details, just what we'd expect from a Nokia Nseries device. Though we weren't fans of the 2-stage shutter button, we felt it needed more travel to feel just right, the camera was fast and responsive. There isn't a wide range of shooting features on the Nokia N900, no panorama mode or variety of scene modes, but under good or even fair lighting conditions, the camera did a nice job. Like many small sensors, the 5-megapixel sensor on the N900 had trouble with reds, and these would lose detail or bleed into their surroundings a bit. Plus, under difficult indoor light, we saw plenty of spotty noise problems. But we had great luck with some outdoor close ups, and the dual LED flash was plenty bright for salvaging images from an especially dark situation. Check out our image samples below.
Buds Close Up
Self Portrait Outdoors
Thermometer Close Up
Baby Toys Close Up
Photo management on the N900 was also very good. There are some basic editing tools in the photo viewer to help adjust your pics and frame your shot. We also found easy options for uploading pictures and sending them to friends. The phone comes with built-in support for Flickr and Facebook, and our pics found their way to our mobile albums with no trouble. The Maemo Select App Store also offers Pixelpipe, which is a nice option for sending your images to a wide variety of online photo services. Once again, we missed having the MMS option for simple picture messaging, but it was easy to e-mail pics or send them via Bluetooth instead, so at least there were easy alternatives.
Traveling – Mediocre
Ovi Maps on the Nokia N900 is easily the most disappointing app we found in our test period. We normally like this mapping and navigation software, perhaps not as much as other options, but it usually gets the job done. Not so on the Nokia N900. The build of Ovi Maps we found on this device was sluggish and buggy. It often crashed while opening, which let us experience the N900's great crashed-app handling, but we'd rather have a working piece of software. Even when it would load, it found our position far off the mark by a whole town. The software offers some basic routing and directions if you can figure out the confusing interface, but it doesn't offer turn-by-turn directions. If navigation is important to you, best to skip the Nokia N900 and pick any of Nokia's other smartphones instead.
Staying Informed – Very Good
The Web browser on the Nokia N900, as we've said above, is the most powerful and accurate we've seen on a mobile device. Both the New York Times and CNN loaded in their full desktop versions, but we couldn't get streaming videos to play on either site. Flash-based ads did come through and animate nicely, however. On most flash sites we tried, including Hulu.com and Crumplerbags.com, a flash-heavy shopping site, the animations would load properly and even though they didn't play perfectly, we rarely encountered a site that the Nokia N900 left empty due to a lack of flash support. The N900's browser fills in a lot of holes in the Web that lesser smartphone browsers leave empty.
Google Reader was somewhat difficult to navigate. Because of the multiple window panes, each with their own scroll bar, it was difficult to scroll through our RSS feeds in the Google Reader window. The Nokia N900 comes with its own RSS reader, but we prefer Google's feed reader because it tracks the articles we've already read better than the dedicated app. We like having all the power that the Nokia N900 offers, but sometimes that power is difficult to control when wielded on the 3.5-inch touchscreen.
We also had trouble connecting to our networks with the Nokia N900. Nokia still hasn't figured out how to make connecting easy. The Nokia N900 was constantly asking us to confirm which network connection we prefer, even though we set the phone to use Wi-Fi whenever possible. The phone was never able to properly connect to our basic home Wi-Fi network, it kept forgetting our passwords and security settings. It did better with our business Wi-Fi network, but it kept asking us if we preferred Wi-Fi or T-Mobile Internet for our connection. No other smartphone we've tried handles these network connections in such an annoyingly obtrusive and forgetful way, so we hope Nokia can deliver on their promise to cut down these requests significantly.