Thursday 17 November 2011

Nokia N9 - review of the disruptive device

Nokia N9 is very weird kind of beast. It is running MeeGo Harmattan OS and has been released after so-called elopocalypse when Nokia's new CEO Stephen Elop has announced quite sudden and controversial turn towards Windows Phone platform, ditching both homegrown smartphone platforms - Symbian and Maemo/MeeGo - into gloom. Nonetheless, Nokia N9 has received positive reviews from mobile technology blogosphere around the world, which posed the question whether pivotal turn in Nokia's strategy was actually right move? As a former user and fan of Maemo-powered devices, including the latest N900, and also being quite sceptical about Microsoft partnership, I was particularly interested to see N9 myself. Once again, thanks to Nokia Connects I've had a chance to use N9 for past couple of weeks and see how it performs in real life.

Once Nokia N9 is taken out of the box, it becomes clear that it is probably the most beautiful and visually sophisticated mobile phone Nokia has ever created. It has excellent unibody shell, which is plastic all way round yet doesn't feel plastic at all, rather very solid, robust and premium instead. Nokia designers and engineers did absolutely top job here. However, the downside, or side-effect rather of such design is the micro-USB port being hidden behind the somewhat fiddly flap at the top of the device. Thankfully that little flap is made of some sort of metal rather than plastic, so here's hoping it will last long.

Another thing in Nokia N9 to get seriously excited about is its display. ClearBlack AMOLED displays like the one used here aren't particularly new in Nokia smartphones, however coupled with slightly curved Gorilla glass and anti-glare polarizer coating, Nokia N9's display is simply the state of art, I can easily say this is the most amazing display I've seen to date, period. Its black is really black, I mean it is virtually impossible to distinguish the actual border between display and its bezel at the first glance. Colours are exceptionally vivid, brightness is excellent, viewing angles are fantastic and visibility in direct sunlight is spot-on too. Also while looking at the display from really sharp angle, the impression is that icons are floating on top of the screen, like they were imprinted directly on the device rather than displayed. Absolutely stunning!

Beautiful outer design and brilliant, eye-catching display coupled together make superb overall impression and provide a top-notch, premium feeling. However, Nokia N9 still has some impressive tricks up in its sleeve, namely one - the MeeGo Harmattan OS.

Once Nokia N9 is switched on and booted, it suddenly becomes apparent that it has no control buttons at all. I mean there are volume rocker and power/lock buttons on the side, but there's nothing like common "home" or "back" buttons anywhere in the front. That's exactly the main concept behind very unique and innovative Swipe UI - basically speaking, most UI interactions are a matter of a simple swipe on the screen, making such control buttons obsolete. To get rid of currently running application or some activity just swipe it away with simple gesture to get yourself back to the main menu. No need to reach finger out to the "back" button or anything like that anymore. That fresh approach might be a bit confusing at first, but quickly becomes very natural, intuitive and just ingenious in its simplicity. Oh, and very addictive too, as I found myself inconciously swiping screens of other smartphones now.

Another set of compliments has to go towards N9's UI as a whole. After much outdated and not really attractive anymore Symbian followed by nice-but-not-quite-there-yet Maemo, Nokia has finally come up with an user interface that is very clean, consistent, aesthetic and just pleasant to work with. Nokia UX engineers did their homework right and built the whole experience from ground up, thankfully leaving all legacy stuff behind. New icon scheme, new Nokia Pure font, new interface of common applications like Phone, Contacts, Messages, Calendar, Music Player, Nokia Store etc. It all looks beautifully laid out and thought through in almost every detail.

There is also plenty of hidden gems within the interface to look out for, for example a quick shortcuts appearing in the bottom once current app or activity window is just slightly swiped up. Or nicely bouncing prompt for incoming calls, alarms or calendar reminders. There's really a lot to like about the whole experience and to be honest, if it didn't have Nokia logo I'd dare to say it's anything but Nokia! Well done!

It's not all that perfect tough and there are some instances here and there which almost shout out "hey, I've been made in a rush!". Web browser is very basic in terms of configuration and customization - heck, it doesn't even have proper bookmarking in place (sic!). Settings menu structure is weirdly confusing in few places to say the least. Or non-English keyboard layout, Polish to be specific, is basically a bad joke. Nonetheless, all these little annoyances are pretty rare and on the whole N9's user interface is absolutely great.

3rd party apps for Nokia N9 are sourced via Nokia Store, formerly called Ovi Store. It's definitely nice to see that Store app finally works as it always should in the first place - it's quick, responsive and easy to navigate through. Installing apps is also a breeze, single click and it just gets downloaded - no nasty prompts to confirm security disclaimers that hardly anyone reads anyway. The flipside is that selection of available apps is pretty limited and due to MeeGo's fate choice of apps is not expected to rise in large volumes, unfortunately.

In terms of social networking and online presence support, Nokia N9 also does very well. It has built-in Twitter and Facebook clients - both fairly basic but both working surprisingly well. Former N900 users should be familiar with integrated instant messaging and seamless Skype and SIP support for VoIP calling - all of this is still in place, yet much better polished. For those unaware readers - basically, making or receiving VoIP calls is done in exactly same fashion as regular GSM voice calls, that means no 3rd party apps or other weird tricks are required and generally it is absolutely painless process.

Web browser generally works pretty nice, most of the websites I use on daily basis are loaded quickly, rendered nicely and UI is pretty responsive all around. However, as I mentioned earlier - browser app on the whole is way too basic for my taste. The only option to store a bookmark for given webpage is to create a shortcut directly in the main launcher between all other app icons, as there's nothing like bookmark organiser at all. Anyone thinking it's one of these must-have features of virtually every web browser? Well, think again. Oh, and it doesn't support Flash, but that's probably not a big deal since Flash is being phased out in favour of HTML5 anyway.

Email client is again rather basic but works quite well. I particularly liked the idea of integrated mailbox where I can place favourite IMAP folders as well as separate email accounts, all in same place for quick access. Something I haven't seen in any other device before.

N9's camera is good but not hugely impressive. It definitely struggles in low-light conditions leaving lots of noise in photographs and videos, however it's still very good 8mpix shooter and 720p camcorder otherwise. I definitely like its speediness or continuous auto-focus in video mode, however I don't like lack of dedicated camera shutter button and touch-to-focus feature wasn't always working the way I wanted.

Gallery of few sample photos made with Nokia N9

Battery life, as expected, isn't by any mean impressive either. I reckon it's still much better than it was in Nokia N900 and a bit better than it is in HTC Desire Z, yet it definitely needs daily (or nightly, rather) recharge after a day involving always-on 3G connection, Mail for Exchange and Twitter sync, some web browsing, few texts and calls in/out. Pretty standard smartphone stuff, really, and battery doesn't particularly stand out or lags behind competition.


Well, personally I am a huge fan of mobiles featuring physical qwerty keyboard. I also love customizable homescreens with decent calendar widget taking prime spot. My daily workhorse currently is HTC Desire Z and it excels in both these areas, while Nokia N9 doesn't provide either. However, N9 has unquestionable charm - it looks beautiful, it has breathtaking display, user interface is unique and compelling, it's simply a stunning smartphone, suddenly making my HTC and Android altogether look plain, boring and somewhat dated. I've used it as my default mobile phone for nearly couple of weeks and found that I could ultimately live with on-screen keyboard (with Swype that is) and I didn't miss my calendar widget that much too. There were also few essential apps from Android I really missed, but I guess I'd found a way around those too. Seriously, Nokia N9 was the very first all-touchy, non-qwerty mobile phone that I actually considered to become my default daily device and I really regret to return my review unit too.

Sadly, the problem is that Nokia N9 and its platform has no future. Sure, it will receive occasional firmware updates, have bugs fixed and minor features added. But the point is that Nokia N9 was the first and the last device running MeeGo. That certainly won't help growing selection of apps in Nokia Store which seems to be very important factor in mobile "ecosystems" nowadays. Moreoever, Nokia itself is taking serious measures to make sure N9 won't become accidentally successful - limited availability in key markets, pretty steep price point for SIM-free unit, virtually no advertising compared to WP7-powered counterparts etc. It's a damn good smartphone and I heartily recommend it to anyone who has spare cash and doesn't really care about apps, ecosystems, platforms and such. Nonetheless, N9 and MeeGo are doomed in long run, and there's nothing to save it from WP7 wave anytime soon.

But hey, it's not all that bad - at least Nokia has proved to the world they are actually capable to create something fresh, innovative and... disruptive. Shame it was just about a year late.

PS. I'm still looking forward reviewing Nokia Lumia 800, which is basically N9 but running Windows Phone. MeeGo impressed me a lot, will Windows Phone impress me too? Hopefully Nokia Connects guys will let me see. ;)


  1. The key here is "disruptive". The maemo line of software (harmattan = maemo6) is nokia disruptive technology platform. It won't go away, in fact, they already announced meamo7, meltemi.

    So the ecosystem is not dead, the meamo line will live on and hopefully they'll come with a sliding screen phone soon again. Preferably on that slides up for keyboard and slides down for gamepad :D

  2. Jonas, all fine yet still - neither N9 or MeeGo/Harmattan/Meltemi is going mainstream as most of us hoped before elopocalypse. No chance for widely known and well regarded platform (think iOS, Android), vibrant app store, developer support... basically a "proper" success. "Disruptive" is just fancy name for "geeky side project" which Maemo always was and never taken seriously by mass market.

  3. Jonas, seeing is believing. As far as developers are concerned, there is no solid future for Maemo/Meego family of phones.

    Dawid, try Toshl for n9. We did quite a good job, I believe, and we are commited to future updates for n9. Performance update is coming soon :)

  4. I own a nokia n9 and get a little more than 2days per charge with the screen turned all the way down (which is still nice as this device has a great screen)