Nokia N900 review

2 Jan 2010

I have to say the Nokia N900 is probably the first and only Linux-based mobile device I have ever reviewed and I certainly hope won’t be the last.

Reviewing mobile phones is a straightforward enough affair. You know if you like it or not pretty instantly and usually that impression remains with you. You know what you like, how easy it is to access contacts, send messages, make calls, how good is the camera and you can quibble about the size and shape of the phone.

But that’s a rash way to behave. Usually phones that get a rave review turn out to be not so brill weeks later when it’s too late to change your point of view. The iPhone is a case in point. Everybody loves it, yes it reinvented the mould of phones for the decade ahead, yada yada yada. But the battery life is, let’s face it, crap.

When it came to the Nokia N900, my first impression was … huh? And I’ll tell you why. I’ll also tell you why my impression changed, thankfully before I penned this review.

There was a great buzz about the phone because it came with features like Nokia’s Maemo 5 Linux-based operating system. A great buzz why? Well, apparently the Nokia N900 empowers users to have dozens of application windows open and running simultaneously while taking full advantage of the cellular features, touchscreen and QWERTY keyboard. That’s according to the press release.

What really had punters more excited was the fact that it promised to recreate the desktop computing experience in your hand.

OK, first impression and the “huh?” thing. The Maemo 5 operating system allows you to tap in and out of applications and web screens by just tipping the black background. This initially creates a kind of minimalistic experience that dislocates you from the traditional Nokia experience and that of other mobile devices. It doesn’t even feel like a phone.

I quietly shelved the device for a couple of days, swearing I’d get back to it. True to my promise I decided some mid-morning surfing was called for and approached the N900 for the second time.

Something changed. Nothing changed with the device but as I started delving into applications, I realised I actually was getting the full web-page experience, not some watered-down mobilised version of a page but the real HTML deal.

Shifting in and out of screens was easy. Zooming in and out can be done in number of ways: you can tap twice on the screen, you can worry your finger in a circular fashion or you could just use the zoom slider on the side of the device. Nice.

I then tried to download apps from the Ovi Store to get a handle on things. Considering I was a virgin in terms of the video streaming service Qik and since the screen resolution and the 5-megapixel camera were the perfect opportunity, I decided to delve into this amazing app.

Qik was duly downloaded in seconds and my video capturing debut on Facebook and Twitter occurred minutes later as my luxury-loving-cat-named-after-my-favourite-beer ‘Erdinger’ preened and snoozed and acted like he didn’t give a hoot.

The Maemo 5 OS experience to me is no longer a minimalist thing, but is rather a clear canvas to paint your entire digital lifestyle.

Actually, this new OS makes all existing Nokia operating systems seem kind of dated and my suggestion to the Finnish manufacturer is to roll this out on more devices with this operating system on it and drive a Napoleonic-style wedge between opposing players in the smart-phone space.

Someone at Intel said to me recently that in terms of technology we are only really still in the Dark Ages when it comes to what’s possible. Well, this Enlightened approach by Nokia could make a world of difference.

The N900 will be available this month from Vodafone SIM-free for €599.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years