Nokia N9 review - Disrupting your life
When Stephen Elop said back in February that the N9 is a disruption I thought he was deluded. I have to say now after I tried it for two weeks, he couldn't have been more right.
N9 is indeed a disruption. It's a disruption on many levels. It's a disruption in the way you think about your smartphone.
It's a disruption in the way you use and interact with your smartphone.
It's simple, it's easy, it's natural. It's so natural that you won't be able to imagine yourself without it.
It's new, yet it feels familiar.
It's not your phone, it's your pal. It's your friend. You gently tap it to wake up, and gently brush it with your finger when you need something from it.
When you don't need something anymore, you just push it aside just as you do in real life.
Starting with the curved body that fits perfectly in hand, continuing with the curved display that makes swiping a pleasure, the N9 feels not like a phone, but more like a pet. Man's best friend is no longer the dog, it's the Nokia N9.
Swiping up and down the screen and tapping are a real pleasure and they get addictive. So addictive that I actually tried to wake an HTC Desire with double tapping.
The preinstalled software that comes with the N9 covers all the basics.
The N9 has very good Twitter and Facebook clients. These two are also integrated within the news feed homescreen, where you can see your friends status updates and tweets.
You've got multiple accounts integration with Nokia, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Flickr, Mail for exchange and CalDAV.
The user experience is very smooth and I noticed one thing that I really appreciate: I restarted the phone only once since I've got it, and that was when I installed the software update. That is remarkable since nowadays you have to restart your smartphone almost everyday. With the new update you get swype input method which is a lot faster than the traditional method once you get used to it. Another nice touch is that you now have your music controls and your calendar events on your lockscreen. You don't even have to unlock your phone to interact with it.
What's in the box
The box contains the phone itself, a data cable which can be plugged into the included wall adapter to charge the phone, a rubber case, a headset and the usual Nokia booklets.
Every detail in this phone has been carefully crafted with a level of detail that I've never seen before. Its like Nokia decided to make the Rolls-Royce of mobile phones. The phone has no imperfections as far as the body and design are concerned. It looks great and it feels great.
Despite the screen size and the general phone size, the N9 is very light probably because of the polycarbonate body. Polycarbonate has the advantage of being light and tough. Maybe not as tough as the N8 but tough enough to withstand most cases of accidental impact and then some. To make it easier to protect, Nokia added a rubber case in the same colour as the phone itself. I have to say that this us the first phone that doesn't look pregnant with a rubber case on it.
The front panel is dominated by the 3.9 inch ClearBlack curved screen. On the right bottom side you can find the front facing video camera. It's a weird spot, I'll have to admit it, but I encountered no problems using it. I never obscured it while it was in use. On top of the front panel you have an array of sensors very well hidden above the screen. You can see them only by looking from a wide angle in the sunlight.
The top of the phone hosts the Micro-USB port which is used for data connection, charging and TV-out too. Unfortunately the box does not provide a cable for TV out, which is a shame. Next to the Micro-USB port you will find the Micro-SIM card tray, that can only be open by sliding it over, but only when the lid from the Micro-USB port is lifted. That is a good security measure, but can be a little hard to comprehend at first. To the left side of the USB port you can find the 3.5mm audio jack port.
The right side of the phone hosts the volume rocker and the lock button, while the left side is plain.
In the bottom of the phone you can find a grid that hides the mouth piece and the loudspeaker as well.
The back panel is where the camera and the LED flash is located.
The build quality is state of the art. I've never seen a phone as beautiful as the N9. Even the rubber case that comes with the phone sticks perfectly to the phone, giving no clue that it's an actual case.
The Clear Black Display used on the N9 has a pentile matrix, which means it has only 2 subpixel per pixel(usual OLEDs have 3 for RGB). That is sometimes visible, but most of the times it's not. However, there is one thing that I have noticed and I was actually stunned by it. When you look at the screen from it's sides, the items displayed on the screen seem like they are actually displayed on the top of the glass layer. I don't know how Nokia pulled that off but it's amazing.
The phone is powered by a 1GHz Cortex A8 CPU coupled with a PowerVR SGX530 GPU on a TI OMAP 3630 chipset. The specs may not be the best in business, but MeeGo Harmattan is insanely optimized to run on this hardware resulting in a flawless user experience.
The connectivity is covered from all angles with WiFi b/g/n on board, USB 2.0 and Bluetooth 2.1. A-GPS is also on board and TV-out as well. NFC is also on board for easy tap to share.
The camera is a 8MP auto focus camera that supports 720p@30fps recording, with active noise cancellation.
The browser works very well but has a limited set of configurable options. The bookmarking is not handled by the browser itself as many would expect, instead the favorite websites can be pinned to the homescreen, giving you instant access without the need to open the browser and going trough a bookmarks list. In my opinion this is better than the traditional bookmarking done by every browser out there. The browser does not support tabbed browsing, but it does support multiple windows, which can be managed from the open apps homescreen.
The zoom in and zoom out is extremely fast, and I've noticed one thing that you can only do with Harmattan. While you're scrolling with one finger, you can put another finger on the screen and zoom in or out, and if you remove the last finger, it actually resumes scrolling. How cool is that?
The media gallery interface is classic, and shows a three columns view of your photos. The experience is fast and very entertaining. I have to note here that browsing to the next photo can be done by swiping left or right even when the current photo is zoomed in, which removes the need to zoom back to the fit to screen view before navigating. You can easily share any photos trough the configured sharing accounts.
The video player can be configured to resume video playback or start from the beginning when a video is played. When you swipe a video away into the open apps homescreen, the video automatically pauses, a behavior that is also natural and intuitive.
The camera is not the N9's strongest point. The shots taken in broad daylight a a real delight, but when the lights go dim, the LED flash shows it's limitations and the photos look washed out and noisy.
By default the resolution is set to 7MP wide screen, but you can easily switch it to 8MP 4:3 aspect in no time. Check out the photo samples below:
The camera user interface is very easy to use and has a lot of options that you can use to increase the quality of your photos. You can easily switch from photo to video recording mode, and also open the gallery. The camera supports tap to focus and has facial recognition too.
The 720p at 30FPS recording is very good, and the noise cancellation does the job really well. Take a look for yourself:
Since the Harmattan 1.1 update the in-call audio quality is much better, thanks to the active noise cancellation introduced in this update.
The audio playback quality trough the headset is top notch, but the loudspeaker performance leaves room for improvement.
The music player is probably the best music player I've seen so far, and since the last update, it gets lockscreen controls so you don't even have to unlock the phone in order to control the music player. The initial view of the application shows you an overview of you last played artists and a list of other views like categorized by Artists, Albums, a plain list of Songs, Playlists and a shortcut to Ovi Music.
First thing you need to know about Harmattan is that is has a set of four links that can be accessed from anywhere around the OS by a short swipe from the bottom of the screen upwards and then holding on for a second or so. The default shortcuts are for Phone, Messages, Camera and Web. These shortcuts can be later changed with an app downloadable from the Nokia Store.
The homescreen consists in three panels. The first panel shows you live feeds, social feeds, calendar events and weather information. The included weather app from Accuweather takes care of that. The feeds refresh automatically at specific intervals of time, but you can also refresh it manually by hitting the Refresh button provided.
The second panel is the applications grid, which is a classic four columns scrollable grid where you can see your apps and bookmarked websites as well. You can easily rearrange or uninstall your apps from this view by long pressing the screen.
The third panel shows the open applications. It also shows the order in which they were last used. Whenever you use an app, and then minimize it, you will see that app first in the open apps panel. This panel shows screnshots of the open apps, not plain icons like most mobile OS's out there. Long pressing on this screen switches to closing mode, where you can close each app by itself or close them all if you want so.
The Phone application
The phone application shares three views, the call log, the phone pad and the contacts list. Unfortunately the phone app does not support smart dialing which is not such a big deal, but can me useful when you dial a number while driving. Unlike it's Symbian counterpart, the call log panel shows an aggregate view of outgoing, incoming and missed calls, which is good thing. I'm gonna miss this one on Symbian. The contacts panel allows quick search and selecting a contact brings up a choice to call, message or email(where available).
The Contacts application
The contacts application basically shows you the list of contacts which is synced with your defined accounts. When you scroll down the list, a grey band appears on the right side of the list allowing you to easily scroll to the contacts that start with a certain letter. The app supports groups and favorites, favorites which kind of sweeten the pill of no smart dialing. The contacts support a lots of fields, and we have photo call support and custom ringtone support as well. You have a plain list view and a groups view.
A very useful feature when you have multiple accounts that sync contacts is the Merge contacts, which allows you to merge a Nokia Account contact with a Google Account contact for example. You also have an export contact function that can export your contacts into a file or to your SIM card(micro-SIM that is). The import is there as well, and it can import from another device, online service or SIM card.
The Messages application
The messaging application supports SMS threaded view and Google Talk and Facebook Chat as separate views. It's practically the messaging heart of your phone. Messaging is as easy as typing in text and hitting the Send button.
The Mail application
The emailing is covered by the Mail application that provides a hassle free client. The interface is clean and very easy to understand. You get the Inbox view, that can be changed from the folder icon at the bottom to whatever folder you like from your mail account. You have a new mail button in the shape of a plus sign, a refresh button, folder button and menu button. When you scroll down the list, a grey band appears on the right side of the list allowing you to easily scroll the list to a desired period of time.
In the message view you get a few options like Reply, Forward, Delete, Move or Mark as read.
The Calendar application
The calendar application can be synchronized to CalDAV accounts(yes that includes your Google account), and provides three views. The first view is the month view, where you see a screen split between the actual month and the upcoming events. The second is the today view, which shows all your events by hours and the third one, and the one I use the most is the agenda view, where you see all your upcoming events until the end of the year.
You also have a To-dos view accessible trough the context menu, where you see all you calendar events you marked as To-do. You can have multiple calendars, as well as a phone only personal calendar. Adding an event is easy and straight forward, and you can even attach a note to an event.
The Clock application
Well, adding alarms was never as easy as it just got with Harmattan. I was blown away by this little application. When you add a new alarm, and you can add as many as you want, you get a clock like panel, where you can drag two knobs across two circles just like you would set the time on an old wall clock. It doesn get easier than that. You can customize each alarm to use it's own tone.
The Nokia Store
The Nokia Store application performs extremely well, but unfortunately the application base is very limited for the MeeGo OS.
The Nokia Store interface is a very nice touch, and it brings smooth navigation and easy search. It has the Categories view, which is very useful, and most importantly the My Stuff view straight on the bottom bar. You also get update notifications on the bottom bar, and you can update all your apps with one click.
On a bright side, the N9 supports Linux like installation when you enable the third party applications installation, so you can install .deb files just like you would on a Debian Linux based desktop PC.
The settings app is probably the most complicated application on the phone, but also the most useful. All the options are in plain sight and are pretty self explanatory. Maybe the initial list could have been done better and include more of the options that are hidden under one category or another, because at times you can get lost in the options while navigating three levels down in the options.
At the first glance you can setup your internet connection and screen brightness, but if for example you want to enable call waiting you'll have to go to Device options first, which is a little confusing, and could have been an option under a category called Phone for example. The NFC also is under the Device category and could have been better located along with Bluetooth under a Connectivity category. I mean, if the Bluetooth options are in plain sight, why is the NFC hidden?
The settings app also helps you synchronize the device with a computer or another device and can also help you reset your phone. Unlike Symbian phones where a reset clears the user data too, here there are two options in the Reset category, one for restoring factory defaults, and one for cleaning the device data, gallery and more. These options are most welcomed.
Under the Applications category you can find most of the options for the built in apps, and that can sometimes be confusing. You can clear your browser's private data from the Settings application, but not from the Web application itself. Weird right?
In the Notifications section you can configure your homescreen items, which feeds to show, enable and disable Twitter and Facebook feeds and so on.
The sound and vibration category changes system sounds, ringtones and levels of vibration for various actions.
The settings application is complemented by the configuration panel that pops up when you tap the top bar with the battery and operator name, and you can switch profiles, and turn off Internet, Bluetooth and set your online availability for your instant messaging accounts. The profiles are now reduced to three: Ringing, Beep and Silent, but that is to be expected from a minimalist OS like MeeGo. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but hardcore Symbian users may not like it.
The Maps application
The Maps application is powered by the same engine as the Symbian version, but has been revamped for MeeGo. You can do search, find nearby places and get direction towards a desired location. You can easily find places by categories, where you can find, restaurants or local attractions, or places you've added to your favorites. The favorites are imported from your Nokia account.
The Drive application
The SatNav part of the maps is handled by the Drive app, which is optimized for using while driving so the UI elements are very big, visible and easy to touch. Just type in your destination and your voice guided navigation is ready to give you a hand.
The Accounts application
The Accounts application is the core of your phone's social and organizer skills. Here you can configure your Twitter, Facebook, Google, Nokia, Youtube, and Calendar accounts.
You can have your contacts synchronized with multiple accounts, for example a Nokia account and a Google account can live together in harmony.
Google Calendar users may be stupefied at first seeing that the Google account has not calendar synchronization. Fear not dear Google users, the Google Calendar is compatible with CalDAV. All you need to do is enter your Google email address and your password and gmail.com in the server field, and you're all set.
The Twitter client
The twitter app is one of the most complete Twitter clients you can find. It bares a striking resemblance with the official Android app, and that's a good thing. This is miles away from the Symbian WRT client. Another borrowed feature from Android is the pull down to refresh gesture which again is a good thing.
The twitter app has a timeline view, a mentions view, a direct messages view, search and a profile view. In the profile view you can find info about your profile, your favorite tweets, retweets and lists. Whenever there is a new tweet, mention or DM, the corresponding button from the bottom bar lights up in a blue color so you know that something's going on there.
The Facebook client
The Facebook app, just like the Twitter one, is complete in every way. It too looks like it's Android sibling, and considering the Social implementation on Symbian this is way way ahead.
The Facebook app brings you the News feed, profile, friends, messages, events and photos views, and a link to the messaging application for Facebook chat. Underneath the menu that pops up when you touch the top bar, there are two more links, one for notifications and one for settings. Whenever you have a notification, whatever that may be, you see a red icon, just like on the Facebook website, on the top bar of the application.
Both Facebook and Twitter client are seamlessly integrated into the Feed homescreen, which is a very convenient way to browse them. Both feeds are shown and posts and feeds are sorted by time. The only thing I don't like about the feeds homescreen is that it resets the scroll position when you navigate to the apps or open apps view and then go back to the feeds view.
The Calculator and Documents applications
The Calculator app is not much to talk about. A very basic calculator, missing all advanced math function. It doesn't even have a square root function. However I managed to find a free proper calculator app on the Nokia Store, but still I was a bit amazed about the very minimal approach the Nokia took with this app.
The Documents application shows you a list with all the documents that the N9 can read from your storage. I only had text files, but I guess office documents viewer and PDF reader are there.
The Notes application
Notes taking on the N9 is a bliss. It's so easy and the interface is so intuitive I think a monkey could successfully use it. But, and this is a big but, there is no Notes synchronization like you have it on Symbian, which is a shame. The app is too good to miss this very important feature. Maybe I'm a little subjective here, since I use note taking insanely while reviewing phones. I usually don't bother remembering stuff that I can write down.
The Weather application
The weather is covered by Accuweather which brought a top notch app to the N9. The weather app also integrates with the feeds homescreen, bringing you the current weather conditions in one quick look.
The application however is very complex. The Forecast view shows you the current conditions and a two weeks forecast. The hourly view shows you an interactive graph with the temperatures today, and if you tap on it, it will show you the forecast for that exact hour. You also have a maps view and a lifestyle view. The lifestyle view shows you some interesting stuff, like certain diseases risk, a BBQ forecast(yes you read it right), biking and beach and many many more activities forecast, which actually means that you can take a look at what activities you could do today. It may even suggest you some that you have thought about yet.
WiFi Hotspot & Trust and protect applications
As you may already figured out, this app turns your phone into a WiFi router, sharing your 3G connection with other devices. Very handy app when you're on the go and you need internet on your laptop.
The trust and protect application is a phone tracking and locking application. You create an account on their website and you can track your cellphone or block it if it gets stolen from you. You can see it's location on a map, share the location with the police, and even take a snapshot of the perpetrator with the front facing camera. A very handy tool indeed.
Gaming is a pleasure on the N9, it's fast and smooth. The N9 has a couple of games preinstalled that can keep you busy for a while. You have Angry Birds with Magic, Galaxy on Fire 2, NFS Shift and Real Golf 2011. This last one has been keeping me busy ever since I received the phone :)
The N9 has it's ups and downs, but it is the first phone, that I could properly use out of the box.
There is one main disadvantage here and many may shake their heads: the application choice is very limited. For example, I missed the File Manager and Zip apps from Symbian and QuickOffice too, though Documents can get the reading job done. I would have expected though a document editor on a 600 Euros phone.
However, MeeGo is still a bliss. Everything Harmattan does has been designed to be simple and easy to use. Swiping is natural and the N9 is easy to use by geeks and non tech savvy people as well. The user interface is so intuitive that you don't need an userguide to use the phone at all. The user learning curve is so fast it's actually unbelievable.
That being said, take a look at the unboxing video in case you missed it: