Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Nokia N9 Review

The Nokia N9 is the first MeeGo-powered smartphone from the Finns, and we certainly hope it won't be the last because it's actually a rather decent piece of kit.
The unibody polycarbonate chassis might feel a little plasticky to the touch, but it seamlessly integrates into the glass 3.9-inch OLED panel, which offers ClearBlack display technology to make the dark bits darker and the colours more vivid than ever before.
And like the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc, the Nokia N9 design team has worked to improve the quality of the screen by bringing it closer to the glass, making it look darker than ever when the screen is turned off.
The chassis of the phone is pretty much free from buttons, save for the volume and power keys on the right hand side. There's no physical home button, with Nokia preferring to use an innovative swipe gesture to navigate around.
With no microSD card slot on offer (Nokia says the N9 will come in 16GB and 64Gb variants) the only ports live on the top of the phone, with the headphone jack, a pop-up cover to the microUSB connector and a pop-up tray for the microSIM.
That's right - the microSIM looks like it's here to stay as Nokia joins Apple in the teeny SIM club.
The only other thing of note on the front is the front-facing VGA camera... it's at the bottom of the N9, and it will be interesting to see how this works in day to day life. Assuming anyone ever starts thinking video calling is a great idea, that is.
The back of the phone is 'pillowed' in the words of Nokia, which means it sits rather nicely in the palm of the hand. The dual-LED powered 8MP camera is covered in some natty Carl Zeiss optics, and features an f2.2 aperture which is better for low-light situations.
The camera is positioned more centrally than many other smartphones on the market, which means it's easier to hold - in our brief tests, the pictures felt more like we were taking them on a normal compact, which is definitely a plus.
However, there's no physical camera key, which is a real disappointment as Nokia usually loves them and we're real fans, as it means less camera wobble when you're taking a snap. Touch to focus is on offer to improve the quality of your shots, although we didn't see it making much of a difference when we tried it out.
The MeeGo 1.2 iteration on the Nokia N9 is a real departure from the maddening confusion of Symbian, with the 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 OMAP 3630 processor, PowerVR SGX530 graphics and 1GB of RAM all working together to deliver a fluid response under the finger.
We received huge criticism from Symbian lovers for our negativity towards the touch response on the Nokia N8 when it was released, despite the fact it took a beat or two for the phone to respond to gestures on the home screen.
But THIS is how a phone is supposed to work, with a rapid response to swiping and movement. Symbian Anna had better be as good, else we'll be very disappointed in Nokia.
Entering the phone can either be started by hitting the power key or double tapping on the screen, and a simple swipe of the lock screen to open the phone. A neat touch: swiping up a centimetre or two to get access to four often used applications, such as the internet browser or camera.
The main system is as follows (try to keep up): the 'centre' home screen has a long list of application icons to scroll through, and will just get longer as you start downloading more from the Ovi Store.
Speaking of which, Nokia won't give us any indication how many MeeGo apps there will be available at launch - although it's apparently very easy to port the Symbian versions over, thanks to both being based on QT.
It really depends on HOW easy it will be to port though - as given there's likely to be very few phones on the market that run MeeGo, it's going to have to be as simple as ticking a box for developers to want to bring their apps to the new platform.
Back to the home screens: if you swipe right from the list of apps, you get to the multi-tasking pane. This is a grid of either four or nine tiles (selecting by pinching and zooming) of your most recent applications and you can scroll down the list to see all the ones you've got open.
A long press will allow you to shut down the unwanted applications, and also gives the option to close them all down if you fancy saving the 1450mAh battery, which given Nokia's penchant for power management should last pretty well indeed.
Swiping left from the main app list will bring up the notifications list - this is basically a mash of all missed messages or phone calls, as well as Facebook and Twitter updates in one long view.
This annoyingly wasn't working on our prototype model, but we'll be interested to see if this is actually an intuitive system or a noisy muddle of Twitter updates with the odd SMS thrown in for good measure.
The internet browser was something we were excited to try out, running WebKit2 - which is supposed to offer a faster and more stable browser within a phone.
Sadly in our tests over HSDPA, the Nokia N9 still loaded websites very slowly and didn't feature text reflow, so you're limited in how close you can read the text all on one screen. However, the new fonts and rounded graphics do look rather nice indeed, so it's not all bad for the new browser.
Flash video isn't enabled either - we weren't able to find out whether this was due to the prototype, but it certainly niggles since we've seen it working so speedily on Android phones.
The text messaging system is a sight for sore eyes, with a portrait QWERTY keyboard offered as standard, rather than the T9 input of the Nokia N8.
However, it's not very accurate compared to the competition and word suggestions need to be tapped rather than auto-appended, which slows down typing speed somewhat.
The PowerVR SGX530 graphics chip at the heart the Nokia N9 is certainly working well already, with video in particular looking clean and smooth on the ClearBlack display. There's no HDMI-out port on the N9 though, so we're not expecting a strong push on HD video from Nokia with this model.
Similarly, Nokia Maps ran very quickly (albeit slightly juddery) on the phone, with the 3D buildings popping up quickly, and the navigation kicking in quickly despite us being indoors.
Oh, and Angry Birds looks superb and runs like a dream on the Nokia N9 - plus it's the first to take advantage of the NFC integration on phones to play extra levels, which is pretty cool.
The NFC capabilities of the Nokia N9 are used in an excellent manner thanks to some nifty accessories from the Finns to enable much simpler Bluetooth pairing.
With the Nokia Play 360 range of speakers, a tap from the phone onto the unit will see the Bluetooth connection instantly set up, so no more messing about with pairing and syncing.
It's an incredibly easy system and a solid reminder that Nokia is actually a brilliant innovation and design firm when it tries to be - if these speakers aren't expensive we can see them being big sellers.
Early verdict
Overall, it's hard to work out our opinion of the Nokia N9. The Finnish brand is making very little mention of the fact the phone is running MeeGo, as it seemingly doesn't want to crowd consumers' heads with multiple operating systems.
The new home screen design is innovative and different, although a little simplistic. We can see how Nokia is trying to be different here, but we're not sure if we're fans just yet.
The design is beautiful, despite feeling a little plasticky in the hand, as it rests very nicely in the palm and screen is both clear and not too large.
Our main worry is the support - the Nokia N900 was a cracking and heart-breakingly under-loved device, and given the focus on Symbian and Windows Phone 7 it's hard to see many more MeeGo devices emerging, despite it clearly being a better OS than Symbian ever had been.
The Nokia N9 UK release date has been set for later this year rather vaguely, and if the price comes in at less than £30 per month, the N9 could be an underground favourite. Please Nokia, don't let this be the only one of its breed... with a little bit of love, MeeGo could be a winning operating system.