By: Hillel Fuld
A few days ago I was fortunate enough to receive a nice surprise from Nokia, their flagship Maemo mobile device, the Nokia N900. To be honest, I had lowered my expectations for the device as a result of a friend’s opinion, who told me I was not going to like the phone. Before I get into details about the phone with all its shortcomings and industry-leading features and specifications, let me just state in one sentence that overall I am extremely pleased with the device and pleasantly surprised by its endless capabilities.
My first impressions of the N900 as soon as I unboxed (who made up that word anyway?) it was “Oh man, this thing is bigger than I thought”. The phone is 18mm thick, which compared to the iPhone’s 12.3mm is pretty darn thick. In terms of its height and width, it is smaller than the iPhone, but still bigger than the average phone on the market. As soon as I powered up the device, my reservations about its size were forgotten. Upon seeing the nice Nokia introduction, I was immediately extremely impressed with the phone’s screen, which compared to a Bold and an iPhone seemed a whole lot clearer and more vibrant to me.
As soon as the phone is completely up and running, the OS presents you with a nice intro and small lesson on how to use the phone. This phone is so cool that even setting the time was an experience like no other. However, and this is a huge disadvantage, the difference between the Nokia’s resistive touch screen and the iPhone or Nexus‘ capacitive screens was felt immediately and in a huge way. The one thing that leaves me scratching my head about this phone is why Nokia would not use a capacitive touch screen in such a ground breaking device. Just a small explanation; resistive screens are kinda last generation and were originally engineered to work with a stylus and not a finger, whereas a capacitive screen like the one on the iPhone and most Android devices are meant to work with fingers. Having said that, the N900’s resistive touch screen is almost completely finger compatible since the Maemo icons are large and easy to press. In the last three days, I think I have taken out the stylus maybe twice.
At this point, let me just clarify that the reason I chose to compare this device to the iPhone is that there is no denying the iPhone’s popularity and the widespread opinion that it is in fact the most advanced mobile platform on the planet. I could not help but think “How does this feature compare to the iPhone?” every time I discovered something new or missing on the N900. So, putting the Android/iPhone/BlackBerry debate aside, I chose to compare the N900 to Apple’s mobile device. Having said that, it should be emphasized that the two phones are extremely different in their specifications, philosophies, and user bases.
So before I talk about how the N900 ups the iPhone, let me just list a few examples of things the iPhone has that the N900 is missing. For starters, the size, as mentioned above, is a huge factor. After all, you are going to be carrying this device around, and the N900 might save you a few trips to the gym it is so heavy, but at least it will get you into shape, right? Moving along, the screens cannot be compared. I liked the iPhone’s screen and its responsive nature better than the Nexus’, but the N900’s resistive screen does not even compete with the Nexus in this department. I found myself pressing on icons multiple times on multiple occasions.
Another thing some people might say the iPhone has over the N900 is its interface, which is polished and intuitive, but I have to disagree. I do not disagree about the iPhone’s UI, but rather with the claim that the N900 or more accurately the Maemo 5 UI is “half baked”. I think it all comes down to the kind of user who would be utilizing the UI and an N900 user wants a powerful multi tasking beast of a phone, which is precisely what the interface provides. Perhaps, the addition of a single hardware Home button would have been a blessed initiative, but as a whole I get the concept of Maemo and how one is supposed to use it. Was it as short of a learning curve as the first time I used an iPhone? No it wasn’t, but after a few hours, I was flying through the phone like I had been using it for years. It takes some time getting used to and a small shift in the way we have used mobile interfaces, but once you get a hang of it, the possibilities are endless.
So, now for the meat of this article. The N900 is truly everything the iPhone is not. What do I mean? Well, at the end of the day, I, and many millions of people like me, do not use an iPhone. I find that for the way I use my mobile device, the iPhone wouldn’t be able to keep up. So where do I start? Here is a list of ten things the N900 and the Maemo OS do incredibly well and are sadly missing from the iPhone OS.
- Text Input: I know this is a heated topic and there are many iPhone users (or should I call them fanboys?) who will swear to you that they type faster on the iPhone with its virtual keyboard and corrective software than any BlackBerry or other QWERTY device. I agree that the iPhone has done virtually everything it can do to make typing on a screen possible and plausible, but at the end of the day, two choices are better than one. The N900 has an incredible virtual keyboard, one that I might go as far as to say is as good if not better than the iPhone’s. The corrective software is not as good, but the layout is great and the letters are gigantic. Not a fan of the virtual keyboards? No problem, just slide out the N900’s beautifully built QWERTY hardware keyboard. The hardware keyboard only has three rows, which I thought would make it difficult to type on, but I could not have been more wrong, and I can safely say it is the closest keyboard to my BlackBerry Bold I have come across in terms of comfort and convenience.
- Storage: When it comes to data storage on the two phones, neither one is too shabby. However, there is one primary difference between the N900 and the iPhone when it comes to storage. This is such a basic difference that it actually applies across the board and can be said to be the main difference between the two platforms and the thought process behind them. I am referring to flexibility. With the iPhone, you get what it comes with, which is either 16 or 32 GBs of on board storage. No expanding possible, whereas the N900 comes with 32GB and has a MicroSD slot, which means you can add another 16GB, and very soon 32GB of storage. Besides the numbers advantage that the N900 supports 48GB of storage, while the iPhone only 32GB, the N900 gives you the freedom to decide, unlike the iPhone… Which leads me to my next point.
- Battery: This is one of the biggest complaints people have about the iPhone, the inability to replace the battery. Let’s be honest here, with the exception of one or two smartphones I can think of, no mobile phone has a battery life of more than a single day of heavy use. They don’t make em like they used to with the Nokia phones that had to be charged once a week. Well to be more accurate, it is not the phone that has changed, it is the way we use it. With all the advanced features incorporated in modern smartphones, and their continuous connection to the Web, you cannot expect them to last more than a day. So with the iPhone, you are stuck with a dead phone, while the N900 allows you to pop out the battery and replace it with a fully charged one. This is of course a huge advantage, and I have not even addressed the issue of the battery’s end of life and the need to have Apple replace your iPhone’s battery…
- Web Browsing: This is where the N900 truly shines. You think the iPhone’s browser shows you the Web like it is supposed to be seen? You think the iPhone’s surfing capabilities are the closest to a computer’s on a mobile device? You aint seen nothin yet. The N900’s built in browser is absolutely phenomenal, and is not close to a computer when it comes to the way you view the Web, it is identical. You surf the Web on the N900 the same way you would on a computer with the addition of double click zooming of course. The browser is fast, accurate, and renders perfectly, something I could not say for the iPhone’s browser. I do not mean to sound too harsh, the iPhone has a revolutionary browser, or at least it did when it was announced, and compared to let’s say the BlackBerry browser, is another world. However, the N900’s browser? Well, I would say it is to the iPhone browser what the iPhone browser is to the BlackBerry browser? Confused? Bottom line is, it is by far the best mobile browser on the planet. Oh, did I mention is has Flash? The N900 has browsing capabilities that are unprecedented, and don’t even get me started on Firefox on the N900, which includes extensions and many other awesome features.
- Video: Back to the flexibility and openness issue of the mobile OS, the N900, unlike the iPhone can play any type of video. Well almost… Watching a video on the N900 is like nothing else I have ever seen. My wife summed it up pretty well when I showed her a video on the N900 and she said she feels like she is looking at a real object that she can touch. It is that good. It plays WMV/RealVideo/MP4/AVI/XviD/DivX files, and from my experience, it plays them smoothly without any choppiness. There is also the issue of transferring the files onto the phone, which in the case of the N900, like many other phones, is a simple drag and drop process, something sorely missing from the iPhone’s capabilities.
- Video Conferencing: Not much to say here. .. The N900 has a secondary VGA front facing camera to enable video calling. I have not tried it out, besides a mirror app that I downloaded, which uses the front camera to show you your own reflection, but the mere existence of the second camera leaves the iPhone way behind.
- Multitasking: OK Apple, here is where you go down! The N900 is an absolute monster when it comes to running more than one app at a time. In fact, we are not talking two, three, or even four apps at a time, which is what a jailbroken iPhone is capable of. I believe the record of most apps running simultaneously on the N900 stands on 30 (watch the video below to see its multitasking in action). For me, this is a no brainer, and multi tasking is by far the biggest problem with the iPhone OS, not to mention probably the main reason I do not use an iPhone and will not get an iPad. While the iPhone falls behind almost all smartphones on the market such as BlackBerrys and even Windows Mobile devices, the N900 significantly raised the bar when it comes to multi tasking. This is actually very interesting since the two devices have the same exact ARM Cortex A8 600 MHz processor. Having said that, to be completely honest, while the N900 can do so many things at once, even with only one app running, it is still not as zippy as the iPhone, but that might also be a result of the last generation screen and its lack of responsiveness.
- Camera: While the iPhone’s 3.2 megapixel auto focus camera is a significant improvement over the last generation iPhone, there really is no comparing the N900 camera to that on the iPhone. Not only is it 5 megapixels, but it has one of the world’s most advanced lenses, the Carl Zeiss Optics, as well as not one flash (which the iPhone doesn’t even have), but a dual LED flash, which in my tests resulted in extremely high quality photos even in low light conditions. While the iPhone’s pictures are usable and OK, the N900 can easily replace your standalone point and shoot camera.
- Bluetooth: This is a pretty basic but crucial point. While the iPhone supports Bluetooth and even A2DP, it has headset support only. The N900 has full Bluetooth capabilities including headset, file transfer, and even contacts syncing from any other phone, which turned out to be extremely helpful when it was time to add my contacts to my N900.
- VOIP Integration: While Apple is busy rejecting apps like Google Voice and making noise over allowing Skype calls over 3G, the N900 has complete VOIP integration. This was definitely one of the coolest parts of the N900 experience. When you select a contact from the phone book, you can call them on Skype, Gtalk, as well as many other IP services, straight from the phonebook without the need to download a 3rd party client. The voice quality when calling via Skype on the N900 blew me away, and neither I nor the person I was calling could believe I was calling from a mobile phone. The N900 integrates your various IM network contacts such as Gtalk straight into your address book, which enables you to see when they are online and contact them there. Just like the N900’s storage, Web browsing, and multitasking capabilities, I think this device leads the market when it comes to VOIP integration.
In conclusion, I will say that I am extremely impressed with the N900 on almost all fronts and I truly believe that Meamo should be the future of Nokia devices. I must emphasize though, that it is not a device for everyone due to its size and somewhat complex interface. Let’s just sum it up by saying that compared to Symbian, this phone is a revolution, and if Nokia takes this size step ahead with Maemo 6, the next iPhone better step up its game if Apple wants to even compete. Nokia, some people in the US might not know, is still the number one manufacturer in the world, and for a while there, I did not understand why or how they reached that level, but with the N900 and its endless potential, it all becomes very clear again that Nokia is here to stay for the long run.