Diving Into the Nokia N900

One of the devices that I most enjoyed seeing demonstrated at CES was the Nokia N900. This pocket computer’s impressive specifications, its solid build, its multitasking capabilities, a web browser that looked like it could take on the iPhone’s, and yes, I’ll admit it — the cool little widgets on its personalized desktops had me intrigued. But what I really wanted was to spend a bit of time getting to know one on my own.

My contact at Nokia promised that she would send a review unit, and two days ago “mine” arrived. There was a bit of a FedEx snafu — the N900 was left inside a plastic bag (to protect it from the freezing rain that was falling) and tied to our front gate overnight — but fortunately the contents inside the box were undamaged. 😛

I’ve used S40 and S60 devices before, but never Maemo – the N900’s operating system. All I really knew about Maemo before now was that it was somehow related to Linux, or in other words — not much. In the last couple of days that I’ve spent getting used to doing things differently than on my iPhone, I’ve found that Maemo is an operating system which is basically Nokia’s flavor of open source; it was previously used on the Nokia N810, with the N900 as the first Maemo phone. There are quite a few applications which have been written for it, but it is still

I’m only just beginning to dive into the N900, but I thought it would be fun to write about some of the things I am discovering along the way … things about the device that I like, as well as things which I find frustrating.

I realize that I will undoubtedly be in the minority, but I like the N900’s size. It measures about 4.4″ tall x 2.4″ wide x a little over 0.75″ thick, and it weighs about 6.5 ounces. It has heft as well as an amazing solidness that some will simply think it too much. You can squeeze and torque its body, and other than possibly sliding the screen a bit over the keyboard, you aren’t going to cause a bit of creaking. This is a device that feels good in my hand, and if I were to whack someone with it — I’d leave a deep dent. I consider that a “pro”, but I realize that I am not following the mainstream in this regard.

The gorgeous 3.5″ 800 x 400 screen is meant to be used in landscape mode, although it will adjust quickly to portrait for calls. This is a resistive screen (versus capacitive like the iPhone’s), meaning that you can use your finger, fingernail, or the built-in stylus to tap on things. With that said, I have only removed the stylus once — and that was to calibrate the touchscreen. I have found the screen to be extremely responsive, and if it didn’t include a stylus I might not have even caught that it wasn’t capacitive.

The full QWERTY sliding keyboard snaps in and out of position exposing about a 1″ ledge, and those with larger hands may find the thumb board a little bit confining. Luckily it is the right size for my hands, so I have no complaints. I like that you can set your preferences so that the onscreen keyboard will never show – requiring all data entry through the keyboard, which is what I have done to keep from having an onscreen (and desktop blocking) keyboard popup.

I am blown away by the fact that when I installed my 16GB microSD card, the N900 became a device with 48GB storage. I’ve loaded music on it, and unsurprisingly it sounds fabulous. I say unsurprisingly because the Nokia N-series phones I have written about in the past (the N95 and the N85) were solid multimedia devices with stereo speakers. So whether used as a speakerphone or used as a desktop boombox, audio is excellent. When I want to use earphones, there is a standard 3.5mm earphone jack. If I want to watch a video, there is a little kickstand which swings out on the back, not that I have used it yet — I’ve just given it a cursory glance.

My usual smartphone is the iPhone, and although I have it set up to almost perfectly meet my needs as a small connected tablet, it is by no means a perfect phone. For one thing, the radio is not as strong as other phones I own, so I generally carry a backup for voice calls. I have always been impressed with the radios in Nokia phones, as they seem to be stronger and calls are usually exceptionally clear; the N900 is no exception. For the moment I am enjoying only having to use one phone. Whether I will be able to keep that up or not depends on whether I am able to find a suitable suite of applications to replicate the ones I use daily on my iPhone.

Some of the vital iPhone apps include Yammer, Docs to Go, Facebook, Kindle, Groundwork (a Basecamp portal), TwitBird Pro, AP Stylebook, and Evernote. Some of the apps I enjoy using include Associated Press News, CNN, Prowl, Lose It!, foursquare, and RedLaser (to name a few).

Right out of the box the N900 had software to connect me to Facebook as well as a scrolling desktop Facebook widget. I’ve also installed widgets for Associated Press News, the Music Player, the Calendar, OMWeather, and several others which I got for free from the Nokia Maemo site. Instead of having N900 optimized apps for many of the sites (Yammer, CNN, AP Stylebook, and Evernote for example) that I usually access through the iPhone, I’ve got shortcuts to the full sites on the desktop and buttons for my favorite contacts. The AP Widget opens into a nicely “Designed for Nokia” mobile site, and the Facebook widget, which displays notifications and inbox message counts, opens into the full site, and I have Basecamp, eGether and Yammer buttons which open into the full sites. At the moment, I am using Hahlo as my Twitter client; it’s web-based, but with a sticky button on my desktop it almost looks like a built in application. While I am missing the convenience of having push notifications for some of these apps, I have noticed that life has suddenly become a bit less hectic, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

I’m using Nuevasync for push Email, Contacts, and enjoying how it handles multiple Google calendars. This is something I relied on Pocket Informant for on the iPhone, and although I miss its superior interface, so far I am coping.

Browsing is something that I use the iPhone for quite a bit, and until the N900 I thought that the mobile Safari browser was the best, possibly followed by Opera. Because I use Firefox on my Mac desktop I briefly tried Fennec, but I wound up removing it in favor of the built-in Maemo browser which also benefits from Mozilla technology. Maemo is easily one of the best mobile browsers I’ve ever used; it renders quickly, is easy to navigate, and handles full webpages quite well – including those with Flash … but it is taking me a little bit of time to stop trying to “pinch and spread” the screen when I want to look at things more clearly. The Maemo browser uses taps, instead.

As I mentioned, I’ve only had the N900 for a few days, so I still have plenty of things to try and many more opinions to form. I’ll admit that there is something in me that loves the idea of not using an iPhone like everyone else, and I am really enjoying the challenge of finding replacements for many of the apps on a device that seems up to the challenge.

So far I have not experienced any slowdowns or crashes, and I have had plenty of apps and browser windows open watching for something along those lines to occur; color me impressed.

Let me know if you are using any Maemo software that you think I should try, and I’ll post more impressions (including plenty of photos) as I get to know the N900 and Maemo better.

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11 replies

  1. I got to try the N900 for a few days. While I kind of liked it, I absolutely hated the keyboard. The placement of the space bar makes no sense. I kept making mistakes.

  2. I agree that the placement of the spacebar seems really awkward at first. I have gotten used to it I guess, as I find my right thumb seems to naturally find it now.

  3. @Judie, About the lack of pinch to zoom, have you tried using the circular motion to zoom in/out??

  4. @aamp – Yes, but I have actually found something easier and much more intuitive to do the same, and I can’t believe I missed this (until yesterday evening, anyway): You can use the volume rocker to zoom and pan on web pages! Tell me if that isn’t brilliant? :-))

  5. @Judie – Yep, and the placement of the volume rocker looks to be perfect for that kind of usage.

  6. @aamp – it is perfect, except when the keyboard is open. That’s when twirling on the screen comes into play. :-)


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