Nokia N900

The N900 drops the moniker of "internet tablet", choosing to push forward with "mobile computer" as this model comes in to supplant the N810, released back in 2007. 2-years along and the landscape of internet-savvy mobile devices has changed greatly. Can this Nokia pocket computer trade blows with the best of them?

In the hand the N900 is something of a chunky monkey measuring 110.9 x 59.8 x 18mm. Lined up against the likes of the Motorola DEXT/CLIQ, it's is rather fat, weighting 181g, towards the top end of pocket devices.

The construction is good overall showing the wealth of experience that Nokia has. Finished in a neat matte black, the body stays free of dirty prints, except for the screen, of course. As a side-slider the opening action is critical. Forgoing any dodgy curves or angles, the straight-up slide opens with reassuring punch and is nice and tight in its construction: there are no wiggles or twists to worry about here.

The N900 wants to be used in landscape, taking advantage of the 3.5-inch, 800 x 480 pixel, resistive touchscreen display, which fits its side-sliding design. The keyboard has rubberised keys of a reasonable size, more on which later, but built with reassuring quality.

Sticking in a landscape format and working around the body of the N900 you'll find the left-hand side offering a Micro-USB socket and one of a pair of stereo speakers, matching another on the right. The right-hand side also gives you a rather unusual sliding screen lock, a 3.5mm AV jack and the stylus, which runs along the bottom edge.

The top then gives you a dedicated camera button, a small central power/device control button, and the volume/zoom rocker. That central button is really useful, letting you lock/unlock the N900, access the phone functions, change the profile and so on.

You'll notice that we've been talking around the phone in landscape. That's because the N900 really isn't a happy puppy in portrait; there is limited support for portrait interaction. With the N900 closed you'll get the phone in portrait mode, but little else, not even the customisable homepage. We are used to having the content of our devices change to suit how it is being held. There is an accelerometer on-board, however, as your photos will change aspect. It's an odd move and hopefully something that Nokia will address to offer more options when you want to use the device single-handed on the train.

As a phone it works nicely, with easy access to contacts on a large on-screen dialler. A proximity sensor kills the screen when it is next to your head: pull the phone away and you are presented with in-call options. Audio quality was good, but a hard rim around the screen is a little uncomfortable.

Recent announcements have revealed Nokia is looking to move its N series devices over to Maemo 5, an open source Linux platform, which is what the N900 is running on. Unfortunately at the time of writing this review, you won't find wide application support, so at present it doesn't compete with the likes of the iPhone or Android in terms of bringing in new apps. The Nokia Ovi Store for Maemo is yet to launch.

The N900 operating system gives you several layers. The top layer is a neat desktop which slides from side-to-side, giving you effectively four pages to customise. These can be filled with shortcuts, bookmarks, contacts and various widgets. So you get the usual offering of weather, Ovi shortcuts, media player, RSS and calendar widgets, with a neat mapping "where am I?" widget. They are live and seem to run well enough.

You can add contacts and once you have fed in the information, contacts are rich and full of detail and presented practically. Dump a contact shortcut and you'll have their picture (with online status if connected to one of your IM accounts) – a quick press and you have a full screen contact sheet, giving you the option to phone, message, call with Skype and so on.

The Facebook widget is a bit of a standalone feature: you still need to login to the webpage to use Facebook proper and to get your Facebook images to marry up with your contacts you'll need another app (Hermes). It's connected, but in a rather disconnected way, and doesn't go as far as HTC Sense or Motoblur.

You can login to Skype, Google Talk account, Jabber, SIP as well as Ovi by Nokia. You do get the option to import contacts from those services, but not your entire Google contacts or access other calendars for example. Merging contacts is easy, then giving you access to multiple avenues of communication for each individual.

IM conversations are handled rather well, as are text messages, in the Conversations area. This pulls SMS and IM threads into the same place, so you can open up a chat you were having with a contact. It's much better than having to open each different application individually. 

Email isn't handled in the same integrated inbox however. Setting up email is easy, whether you are gunning for Exchange, IMAP or POP mail. As with other Nokia devices, it will intelligently figure out your settings for common email services too. Received attachments are handled well, launching DocsToGo where necessary, or a PDF viewer.

One oddity, however, is that the send button is at the top of the message and as you write an email, it will vanish off the top, so you'll have to scroll back up to send it. Meanwhile at the bottom of the screen you'll get the option to change the font, colour and other such nonsense. If you want to attach a file or insert a picture, you'll have to open a menu to do so. It doesn't really seem to address the need of power emailers who want core features at their fingertips: we'd rather see font colours buried in a menu to be forgotten.

Talking attachments you really get to see the power of the N900 when you start saving pictures from websites, cropping them, and reattaching to emails to send out again. It's simple and a level of advanced file handling that many devices don't offer.

A big part of what the N900 is about is multitasking. The second level the OS offers is a neat icon-based breakout of your running application windows (behind which sits a third level in the form of a simple icon-based menu). Once you reach 12 windows however you'll need to start scrolling the page, so you'll never find what you are looking for. 

A top status bar (when not in fullscreen mode) displays the time, battery and data connections, with a neat pop-up menu where you can change profiles, volume, data connection or your availability for IM. In applications the top of the screen gives you access to menus, to close windows or to jump back into the multi-panel view.

The Maemo browser is easy to use and renders full HTML, thanks to its origins with Mozilla. You get Flash support too, something that hasn't yet appeared on rival devices. Flash video playback is a little haphazard, with the first play often just giving you an audio track with a few frames. A few plays would bring the frame rate up, but in all our tests over Wi-Fi, we were left wanting for better performance overall.

The high-resolution screen means that you can read full web pages, but the lack of conventional multi-touch interaction via a capacitive screen is glaringly obvious. Double tap zooming is a little random, but you can use the volume rocker to zoom web pages in their entirety. It's a little frustrating, but you do get used to it, especially as the swirly zooming alternative is unreliable. Selecting boxes for text input can be frustrating: sometimes you feel like you are being ignored until you zoom right in and stab it hard with your finger.

Multitasking does have an impact on the response of the N900 too. When pushing the device it will get sluggish. You'll often also find that background activities throw the N900 out of its comfort zone. When it can't connect to a particular messaging service it will pop-up a message telling you whilst everything else slows painfully.

The lack of applications (currently) means that things are more complicated than they need to be. In the absence of a solid consumer-ready Twitter application you'll find yourself using the website and another service for images, in another full webpage. It's a big draw on resources compared to a lightweight app, but does show you the power options that the N900 offers and that's the ultimate caveat: if there isn't app support for an online service, you'll almost certainly be able to easily use the web original. Only 265MB RAM is dedicated to apps, but it is boosted to 1GB by virtual memory.

The keyboard itself is good, but the layout isn't the best. Every key has an alternative function in blue accessed by depressing the blue arrow key, on the left side. Shift is only on the left-hand side as well, whilst the space bar is offset to the right. The right has a set of cursor keys, which can be useful and we'd rather have them than not. Overall we didn't find it as fast as a BlackBerry keyboard, but once you get used to the layout, it is responsive enough.

Impressively there is a degree of UPnP support on the N900, as it found our Cisco Media Hub and Mac running Orb on our network. Navigation is slow and we had little success with video or photos, but we did get playback of audio files. Video out, with a cable in the box is a nice touch, reminding us that there is 32GB of storage available here, as well as the microSD card slot hiding under the back.

Media support is generally good, with MPEG4, AVI, WMV, 3GP all claiming to play (H.264, MPEG4, Xvid, WMV, H.263 codecs), but in reality we had to be selective with which video formats we used. Music support gives you WAV, MP3, AAC, eAAC, WMA and M4A. You also get access to internet radio through the media player and there is an FM transmitter too.

Around the back is a 5-megapixel camera, with Carl Zeiss optics, which performs nicely in daylight, but suffers when the light dips resulting in noisy images. The dual LED flash will illuminate your subject but won't result in a nice picture at the end. Shutter lag is terrible, so blurring is often common as the subject moves on, or you forget to stand still and wait for the camera to catch up with what you were doing. Some sample shots are included with this review.

Video capture gives you the single option of 848 x 480 pixel resolution, which is fair in daylight shooting. The 20fps frame rate is a little choppy and it does tend to drop frames and sometimes deliver patchy audio too, suggesting some optimization is needed in this area. Low light video is poor.

Geotagging is an option on images using the on-board GPS and there is a degree of photo editing possible. We found that cropping was no problem, but the option to change the brightness and contrast caused the phone to get very laggy, so is best avoided. The N900 comes with Nokia's Ovi Maps included, which is a heavy-weight application, giving you 3D map views to get the most out of the GPS. 

Battery life, however, is a weakness. Nokia admits to a 1+ day of connected use, but we've found that it starts complaining from low battery levels within the day (and mostly only using Wi-Fi or 2G). Step-up to 3.5G and you need to stay near the power. A day of heavy use will see you out of battery during your working day.

We were testing a pre-production sample of the N900, so accept that it might still be needing some updates before it really hits the market. Hopefully this explains away a couple of restarts that the device executed off its own back.

Verdict

The Nokia N900 has been a highly anticipated device and with the divide between the internet tablet and mobile phone having closed, many have expected it breathe life into the struggling phone giant.

To a certain extent it achieves these aims. The N900 is an extremely capable handset, which will let you do some very clever things and too many to cover in this review. But would we choose it over the best smartphones the rivals have to offer? Probably not.

The N900 will do a lot, but you feel like you are working for it and as a consumer you are likely to get more satisfaction from some of the more recent Android devices, which still have the open source goodness, but with a community that is a little more established. At the same time, we can see that the N900 has the potential to go a long way. Resource-sparing apps to make your life easier, combined with the wealth of options here and you could have a very accomplished handset.

The ball is really in the court of those supporting the handset. It needs aspect switching for the home pages, it needs the Flash support enhancing and it needs to develop the app offering. Until these things arrive the N900 is a supporting role, rather than the star of the show.