Nokia's N900: Potential Unrealized
January 17, 2010
From the first time we saw Nokia's N900 handheld computer we thought that it would be the ultimate communications device. With a large screen, fast processor, open OS and Firefox based browser, it seemed destined to become one of Nokia's major success stories. This was early September 2009, Nokia was showing off the device at their NokiaWorld conference, along with a new version of their N97 Symbian smartphone, and it looked like the N900 was the flagship product the the N97 SHOULD have been when it came out a few months earlier. We jumped on the bandwagon and were early supporters of the device.
Fast forward to the end of 2009 and it seems like the N97, now with it's 2.0 firmware, is the better device despite all the power user advantages that the N900 should be enjoying. Meanwhile Nokia can't seem to get the N900 software stable enough for executives and power users to depend upon.
Now, please try to understand, we REALLY want to like the N900. We also really like the way that Nokia has opened up the Maemo OS platform to developers. But it's just impossible to ignore the fact that Nokia isn't able to put enough power behind Maemo to compete with Google and their Android OS. In the same time that Nokia has managed to soft launch one Maemo device, there have been a dozen Android devices from multiple vendors, and 40 or 50 more scheduled for 2010. Additionally, there are over 20,000 applications available from third parties already for Android. There's a few quality applications for Maemo, but honestly you can count them on your fingers and toes, and none of them are really mission critical.
The softwareNearly all of our disappointments, with the exception of battery life which we'll address separately, are software related - although Nokia is putting out updates regularly. While the core applications are good, they show a general lack of maturity, and left us thinking that two thirds of the things that you'd like to be able to configure and change just weren't configurable.
In a recent example that it is being proactive on the software front, Nokia released a firmware update the adds support for the still widely used Exchange 2003 E-mail/calendar/address book (previously there was only support for Exchange 2007).
Advanced messaging including Skype, Google Talk, and SIP (VoIP) has been beautifully integrated into the native address book, dialer, and SMS/IM client, BUT isn't polished or configurable enough. For example, Skype is fully integrated as a core service for the N900. It works wonderfully for making Skype calls via WiFi, and offers Skype "chat" as well. This integration is so complete that the Skype status of you Skype contact shows up in the address book and on desktop icons.
It's impressive and powerful, but it also comes with address book integration problems that cause multiple entries for your contacts, and while these can be "merged" together using a feature of the N900 address book, these merged entries don't sync back to Exchange correctly. And good luck trying on "un-merge" two entries if you make a mistake during the merging process.
There's also the issue that any instant messaging "conversation" you have (including Skype chat) sets off your N900's alarms with every line of text received. In a more mature product there would be some way to have it "beep" when the conversation was started, but keep quiet after for subsequent messages. There's a general lack of font selectability in e-mail and chat applications, which is something that would add to usability but just isn't configurable. We could make an exhaustive list, but there's little point; the platform needs more time to mature.
Impressive browsingDespite its shortcomings, there is potential with the N900, and it shines as a mobile browsing device. Nokia based the native browser on Mozilla's Firefox and it's the closest thing to a desktop browser we've ever seen before in a mobile device. In fact many of the add-ons built for the desktop version of Firefox will work with minimal changes on the N900. Multi-tasking support allows multiple applications to be running at once, and multiple browser sessions to be running at the same time. Switching between windows is fast and simple, and it's easy to launch new tasks without disturbing your existing ones.
Battery lifeThe N900 is approximately 20% bigger than Nokia's N97 flagship Symbian device, has a larger screen (800x600 vs. 640x360), and a faster processor, yet for some inexplicable reason Nokia chose to equip it with a smaller battery. While using the N900 configured for exchange syncing and with moderate calling and browsing, we found that we couldn't last a full day on a charge. It's almost as bad as an iPhone in this respect, but at least with the N900 you can swap in a second battery, the iPhone gives you no such option.
Overall, we'd have to say we're frustrated with the N900. We had high hopes for the device, and it seems that there's a lot of work still needed to bring the Maemo platform to maturity. The key to this will be to have core applications that are rock solid and to attract third party developers that will write applications for the platform. Nokia really isn't there yet with either of these, and frankly we're not sure how they can win the hearts and minds of the developers with the lead the Apple and Google have with their platforms. For now we're just going to wait and see how quickly Nokia can shave off the sharp corners on Maemo, improve the core applications on the N900, and generally make the device more usable. Until then, Nokia's N900's potential remains, for the most part, unrealized.