Technophilia: The Nokia N900 Review
This header makes more sense down the road, trust me ...
What up? The Nokia N900 is a Linux-powered smartphone from Finland heralded for its idiosyncratic operating system. It uses a 3.5" resistive touchscreen (800x480 pixels resolution for 16 million colors), 5MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics on the dual LED flash, video recorder with WVGA, a MiniUSB power/data connection, Bluetooth 2.1, full QWERTY via a slide-out keyboard and a 3.5mm jack for stereo sound.
That's a good thing, right? No cloud computing necessary, 32GB of onboard memory (expandable via 16GB MicroSD card to a total of 48GB on your hip), completely open source OS which allows a wide variety of customization options, you can remove the memory card without taking the battery out, multitasking is available. Go on, install Firefox (Fennec or Icerocket), the code's fine. It can natively view virtually any media format you can throw at it, its web browser comes pre-loaded with Flash 9.4 (you can see almost anything on the web, like a real computer), wi-fi speeds are awesome, 3G speeds are pretty good, the application MaStory offers amazing integration with all leading blogging services, there's a built in FM Radio transmitter and receiver, tethering to a MacBook Pro is a 20 second affair with T-Mobile, you can have full MS Office emulation from OpenOffice with an optional installation of Turbo Easy Debian ... there's a feature list as long as your arm and a sense of freedom you can't find in any of the market leaders.
What's the problem? It costs between $530-$650 in cash with zero carrier subsidies available, and is extraordinarily rare in retail (Nokia has stores in New York and Chicago, outside of that you'll have to rely on having it shipped to you). The actual phone usage? Not so good in less-than-optimized reception areas (no call in Pasadena, CA has ever lasted longer than 30 minutes, sometimes dropping off as quickly as fifteen). The battery usage is intense -- keeping the phone plugged into a computer while on conference calls is a must. Outside of the phone itself, there's not much that works in portrait mode, not even the virtual keyboard (so forget about one handed texting unless you're blessed with intense dexterity -- 18+?) and sometimes the performance can be a little sluggish if you're doing way too much (downloading multiple channels) at once. The web browser, which is robust, can hang a little on the likes of Google Reader and Gmail, making for some frustrating delays (could be Pasadena connectivity again).
The full story: Let's start this way: I love this freakin' phone. I will also add that this love has virtually nothing to do with talking and hearing voices -- you know, the phone part.
After being a Palm user of ten years' standing and migrating out of a Treo 680 (ah, the love, the tragedy, oh the effervescent tragedy), I had a great deal of trepidation, moving my data allegiances to another continent, another platform, another world essentially. My fears were largely unfounded. I migrated all of my contacts (more than 700) over within five minutes and resolved all the conflicts within a day. After wrestling with a Bluetooth drama on a temporary phone I used for a while, I was able to get online and tethered so quickly that it was almost easier than my homebound wi-fi. Again, I love this phone.
Let's break that down into key areas ...
- Web browsing
- Word processing & productivity
- PIM/data management
- Voice calls
In a word: wow. Thus far, there's only one thing I've browsed to that would not work exactly the same way as it did on my MacBook Pro, and that's Hulu's actual show pages -- the front page, subscriptions, preferences and the queue all work fine. Both of my websites (this one and The Operative Network) look pretty much perfect. YouTube? Flawless, and exactly as it appears on my MacBook Pro. Even the big test, Hulu, looks great right up until you try to play an actual episode. See the browser here (and Firefox, and until I prove otherwise, Iceweasel) only work up to Flash 9.4, and the main website for video runs on Flash 10.1 (so the ads can work and pay for the joint). I've never had a mobile web browsing experience like this, and it's freaking amazing. If you want it, Firefox gives you tabbed browsing too. I can't say enough good about the online experience with this device ...
... even though sometimes, depending on connection speeds, there can be some freezing based on Java load times and what not. OTOH, I get that at home and at work too, so it's not like it's a big deal. Plus, sweet spirit, let it connect to wi-fi and watch it go! No complaints whatsoever on the web browsing, likely the best mobile browsing experience available.
Word processing and productivity
Here's where things get tricky ...
The public word is that "there's no built in word processor on the N900." Okay.
So I followed a link or two (or seven) and installed something called Turbo Easy Debian on my phone. It essentially installed a different kind of Linux package alongside the operating system I'm running. Sweet. Guess what that automatically installed. Open Office in all its glory. Full support for M$ Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint, the whole shebang. Fantastic. A little slow, and the emulation of a mouse's effect on a cursor isn't so smooth, but it's in there like Prego, baby.
Then, for kicks, I tried something. I created a new "note" using the built in software, and pasted in my weekly comics list for my reviews. I saved it on to the SD card and then plugged the thing into the nearest computer around via USB 2. An HTML file was created that I could read anywhere. Interesting.
Then I got ambitious. I decided to try and use the "open" feature in notes to crack open one of my development files on my current novel. I write stuff in either plain text or HTML (often HTML code in a plain text file) to preserve my usages of italics and what not while still keeping things fairly universal in their application (as I go web first in many instances). However, the notes application on the Treo 680 could only handle 2000 characters. I didn't think this one would be much more robust ...
The built in, plain jane, Notes application on the N900 can open up huge (and I mean really large) text files, copy, paste, and do whatever you need. I've been cobbling on my novel ever since. Is it Word files? No. I never used those anyway, I just wanted compatibility. It is fast, it is accurate, it is readable on every computer I come across and it is -- in a word -- awesome. Go you Finnish bastards! So for flexibility and usability, I'm gonna give a big thumbs up to this section. I am so in love.
This one deserves its own section, due to the wonder of MaStory. Let's say you run a blog. Wordpress, Blogger, Livejournal, Drupal, doesn't matter. You enter in your data (even if your blog uses FTP access, so get it together, Google!) for your account ... and start blogging. You can edit existing blogs. You can post. You can add images. You can add video. All from a client that is downloadable from the machine and works seamlessly. I've now posted three blogs, and aside from me forgetting a break tag, I haven't had to go on a desktop at all for any of them ... including this one! If I was a full time journalist, or trying to do live entertainment reporting, this would let me scoop almost anybody. The speed and flexibility of it are alarming. Outstanding work here, especially given that it's all open source work.
Ah, finally some areas where all the skies aren't blue. Contacts are fine -- you'll never go into the cloud here. I exported my entire Palm database as a vcard and saved it on to the MicroSD card. I was then able to import it all -- more than 700 contacts, again -- and resolve all the conflicts within 10 minutes of looking around.
I will note that I have just barely tested IM, which is threaded into the "conversations" tool. I didn't notice them any differently from text messages, which pop up as a window in a corner that I can click or ignore and benefited from my skillful mobile typing skills. Don't try it in traffic, as portrait mode doesn't serve messaging and the on-screen keyboard is not so wieldy. Maybe fixable in upgrades.
Now my calendar ... that I haven't figured out yet. Most of the things I learned were done by others first. The Nokia Maemo community is super supportive and very quick to communicate their success. I haven't seen any word on Palm Calendars (or maybe my Google searching skills need some sharpening) so I'm slowly re-entering everything that wasn't a birthday or anniversary (all of which came through with my contacts). Moreover, the alarms for the calendar are silent when the phone is silent, so without vibration I can miss 'em. Not so cool.
I also miss being able to assign ringtones to different contacts and not having an incoming text message sound that's distinctive (the one here is very wishy washy and doesn't get my attention at all, even with the less-than-robust vibration), but given all I get in return, I'm coming to accept that. A solid "B" in this area, as I'm making it work and not complaining on a regular basis (and Palm had some world-beating calendaring going on, so that's tough to top).
UPDATED: As mentioned in another blog, with the amazing help of Dave Smith and the gang at talk.maemo.org, I now have all my calendar and contact information regularly synchronized with my MacBook Pro via the Unofficial N900 iSync Plugin, a work of love and community that makes me so happy I could wet myself. All done without ever trusting a single bit of data to the cloud. Eat me, Android! On the laptop side, it's sad that what Palm Desktop did in one application takes probably three to do otherwise. Still, upgrade that grade for the N900 to "A-" for PIM and compatibility!
Okay, top ratings here. The built in browser handles YouTube and lots of other things like a champ. Being Flash 9.4 instead of 10.1 (which people keep saying is on its way any second now) is a bit of a limitation, in that I can look at what's in my Hulu queue, but not watch the shows themselves.
The machine natively runs lots of video formats, and I've been watching movies and video files formatted for my PSP with great success (I normally use Handbrake to rip DVDs and then convert the files into mobile-friendly mp4s with PSPWare). The music player, stock, is a little weird, and doesn't have much playlist support, but we'll see what GoGadget has to say about that.
The built in FM Radio is great, because now I can listen to the New @ 2 mix for the first word on new music every day and never interrupt anybody else. It's weird, because the phone uses the plugged in 3.5mm headphones (which took some getting used to, as they can block out a lot of external sound when you use both, but are pretty good) are the antenna for the darned thing, but I'll tell ya, it's great, preset stations and all.
Ah, now here's a problem. I work in Pasadena, and use this as my primary phone. The reception? She's no so good.
"Cellular data not available" is something I see a lot, when the numbers on the signal indicator change from "3.5" to "3G" to "2.5." I don't know why this phone doesn't like T-Mobile service in Pasadena (I was once on a four hour conference call on my late, lamented Treo 680) but I have yet to be on any call longer than 30 minutes while in the city of Pasadena before I get kicked off. In the LA legal limits, I've had better success, talking to my pal Craig for 42 minutes (one of the longest phone conversations I've had in months, but we hadn't spoken in some time, so we took a chance to get caught up).
Being a phone is not the strong suit of this machine. However, I'm an anti-social bastard anyway, and most of my calls are either to my wife to check in during the day or to food places to order something and say "I'm on my way." Coverage matters for this, so in this area I'd have to give it "B-" rating.
I am absolutely gay for this phone. I would make out with it if I could. From the desktop search widget I found (that can search Google, maps or search, Wikipedia and eBay) to the blogging and productivity tools to the relaxing ability to watch movies and listen to the radio to the great contact management to the wonderful presentation of contacts and apps on four big desktops ... this phone is fantastic. I like Ovi Maps for its GPS/directional steez, but I can just as easily use Google Maps in the browser and know my way around.
It is also not for the weak of heart -- the apps installs sometimes come from crazy places or are beta software, in worse case scenarios you may be encouraged to go into the command line, hearkening to the days of DOS. If you're afraid of getting your hands dirty, suffer on an iPhone. For the brave and determined, your persistence pays off so hugely.
I'm still learning it, and getting new things (FTP, P2P, et cetera) all the time. It takes screen shots and screen casts, and stays hooked up via USB or Bluetooth to whatever computer I'm using bringing me most of my home computer experience with me everywhere I go. I've written/posted blogs on it, worked on my novel, used its flashlight function (really) ... it's amazing. The overall grade is a "A-" which can be improved upon by ...
- PORTRAIT MODE, UP AND WORKING! Let's size down that on screen keyboard and free up my hand when I need directions.
- Better playlist management on the road through the device
- More robust documentation of the community resources and solutions by Nokia -- can we get a freakin' wiki, dude?
- More ways to stop the machine if something's holding up (installs, what have you)
- Better indicators of what's happening (processing)
- A backout DVD-ROM in case you hack it into doing something too crazy
- GRR: Google Reader application, helps immensely on downloading and starred items
- MaStory: Makes blogging through multiple services a breeze (haven't checked the Wordpress or other blogging clients)
- Touchsearch: Search Google, WebMD, Wikipedia, eBay and more from your desktop.
- Notes: Everything you need in a word processor built in to the OS. Outstanding.
- FM Radio: Combined with the recording app I found? Excellent.
- Recaller: Record the call you're making? Excellent.
- Sketch/Xournal: Actual writing and drawing? Nice!
- LiveCast Mobile: Combined with Twitter, this could be the future of live reporting.
- ForecaWeather: Having an idea of the four day forecast every time I open my phone. Outstanding.
Playing (Music): "All I Do Is Win" by DJ Khaled feat. Ludacris, T-Pain, Rick Ross and Snoop Dogg