My Time With The Nokia N900

N900, iPod Touch, SonyEricsson k800i Top View

The bubbles! There was an earthquake at the time... I swear!

For a while now, I have been shopping around for a new cell phone. In a recent discussion on the UDP forums, some random fool named Q brought up the Nokia N900. At this time, my sights were set around either an iPhone, Motorola Droid, HTC HD2 or Palm Pre.

My distaste for Nokia phones is known. I have always thought of them as toyish. The build qualities fell a little short and their designs were uninspired and Symbian felt like using Windows 95. Meanwhile, iPhones and Blackberries have been rocking the world. Now, Android OS based phones are flooding the market and people are saying some really good things about the Droid and Google’s Nexus One, to name a few. Needless to say, Nokia’s stagnation in phone design and usability has really hurt it.

I narrowed my choices and did some reading about the N900 (600MHz processor, 256MB RAM/768MB Virtual RAM, 32GB internal storage)  as well as the HTC HD2 (1GHz processor, 512MB (ROM)/448MB RAM). After some time thinking about it, I chose the N900.

What I got

Weight
Thickness comparison: N900, iPod Touch and SonyEricsson k800iThe N900 is a mini-brick. It’s not a light phone and it’s not a thin phone. One of the reasons why I liked the HTC HD2 because it was thin (but big). My wife has a N95 and that is also a brick. At the time she got it, I was not too impressed with it but it did way more than my SonyEricsson k800i. The phone is in two parts, the display and the slide-out keyboard/battery part. I can’t tell which part is heavier than the other.

Regardless of weight, this phone does not take up a lot of space. It’s as wide as my iPod Touch (2nd Generation 32GB) and as thick as my k800i. But now, at least I don’t have to carry both the iPod and the k800i every time I go out.

Display
Display magic: iPod Touch/N900The display is 3.5″ and a resolution of 800×480. The N900 has a ambient light sensor which will brighten or darken the screen depending on the light in the surrounding environment. The display is a Resistive touchscreen display meaning that you have to push a little harder/longer to execute functions on the screen. It’s not the wispy fairy magic touchscreen that devices like the iPod/iPhone provide. It’s a man’s touch screen.

Maemo 5 currently does not support multi-touch so, you cannot pinch to zoom in and out like you can with other devices. You can double tap to zoom. There are other gestures Maemo 5 supports. Another zoom technique is to twirl you finger on the screen. You can also use the volume controls to zoom.

UI/Programs
The N900 comes with the linux-based Maemo 5 operating system. Icons are well-designed. Animations are mostly fluid but not as fluid as the iPhone OS. The N900 is essentially a mini-computer with a phone so, using the N900 is just like using a computer. You have access to all of the functions and settings you have on regular phones. With the N900 you get four desktops. You can slide your finger across the screen to either the right or left to access one of the desktops. By tapping once on any part of the desktop you can add widgets and shortcuts. You can change where you place widgets and shortcuts by dragging them with your finger or the stylus that is provided with the N900.

N900 File ManagerYou also have access to files through the file manager. You can copy, paste, move, rename, delete and sort files. You can also create new folders.

The N900 comes with the Mozilla-based Maemo browser. I have been able to view full sites and I have not been redirected to “mobile versions” of some sites. Flash works out of the box and the browser follows web standards, for the most part. It handles loading JavaScript and AJAX rather well (I have noticed a problem with window.onresize). You can also scroll through pages as they load. I cannot do this with my iPod Touch as the page freezes while the page loads (I have read that this is no longer an issue with the newest iPhone). The browser UI is pretty basic. You can manually enter in a URL, scroll through or add bookmarks. You can browse through your history, download add-ons and extensions and do some other basic configuration.

While the Maemo browser does have Flash, this is where the browser becomes a little strained. In many cases, playing Flash videos works really well. I watched a couple of videos on YouTube. Videos were smooth and sounded great. I tried to watch a video on CNET and the video stuttered. I think that the quality of Flash video playback can depend on what else the N900 is doing, the size of the video file and the quality of the connection between the device and the server the video is based. My wife tried to play Farmville on the N900 and she said it was unplayable.

N900 X TerminalFor all of the Linux Command Line Interface junkies, the phone comes with X Terminal. This sets the N900 apart from other devices. From here, I believe you can obtain root access so you can get funky with Maemo’s system files and do all sorts of stuff with the N900. My experience with Linux CLI is basic. Before Ubuntu, I spent some time fooling around with SUSE (before openSUSE) and I had to use the CLI to do things like fail miserably at getting the WiFi to work on a laptop. I also have some experience with Windows CLI so, when it comes down to actually having to use the X Terminal on the N900, I won’t shy away. I have already used the CLI to create playlists for the media player based on which the folders certain genres of songs are housed. I doubt that this will be the last time I use the X Terminal.

N900 Media PlayerSpeaking of the media player, the N900 comes with a media player. It’s hard to be really excited about the media player because it does not do a great deal. It plays audio files like MP3 and AAC and video files like MP4, MPEG and AVI with DivX/XviD encoding. You can create playlists but support for on-the-fly playlists and management of created playlists is crappy. As I stated in the previous paragraph, if you want to manually create your own playlists, you have to use the CLI. The iPod Touch has better support for on-the-fly but lousy support for manually playlist creation.

You can view your audio files by Genres, Albums and Artists. However, especially with Album view, the media player slows to a crawl because it’s trying to load all of the album art. To be fair, while viewing your audio file collection by Album in the iPod Touch works really well BUT [for me] using Cover Flow makes the iPod crash to the desktop. Eventually, I would need to reboot the iPod.

One of the deal breakers for me was that the N900 comes with an FM Transmitter. Before I got the N900, I used a FM transmitter attachment for my iPod that I bought from an Auto Zone while I was visiting my family in the States. This is one of the main reasons why I carried my iPod with me when I would go out. But using the transmitter attachment became a pain in the ass because I had to partially remove the iPod from it’s case because the case is too thick for the transmitter to stay attached to the iPod.

You can access the FM Transmitter in the N900 in two ways, by going to the settings window or through the media player (incredibly convenient). For the best sound quality, the N900 must be close to the radio .

N900 FM Transmitter SettingsN900 FM Transmitter Switch

You got mail
N900 Compose EmailThe N900 comes with “Mail For Exchange” and connection to your POP account(s) through whatever connection you use to get your email. You can change fonts, bold, italics and add attachments to your emails. You can also configure whether you want new emails to be sent in Plain Text or HTML, when you want to check your emails and the intervals your email should be checked.

If you have used SMS on the iPhone, the N900’s SMS is configured in the same fashion where your text messages between yourself and another person are arranged in a IM conversation way. On normal phones like my k800i, SMS is separated into, for example: “inbox”, “sent”, “saved”, etc. Using the “Conversations” widget, you can look at your SMS and IM messages. You can also add new IM accounts to your device. I have my Skype account added to my N900. Support for Windows Live Messenger is not included (maybe later?).

N900 New Message/Action GlowWhen you receive a SMS, email or IM message your phone will give the proper alert sound and it will display a gold bubble on your desktop. This notification bubble does not stay on your desktop for too long. Fortunately, you can see if you missed a call or a message by the glowing indicator next to your system tray on the desktop. You can see the notification bubble in the picture below.

N900 Message Bubble

GPS/Connectivity
N900 GPS On Map Route, Ovi mapsAnother feature I was looking for in a new phone was support for GPS, which the N900 has. GPS on the N900 works very well with a couple of exceptions. The first exception is sometimes it does not return your exact location correctly. This happened mostly when we were standing still in one position. While this did not happen all the time, it can be annoying when you are setting a driving route. Case in point, I had my wife test out the driving directions and on map route from a local grocery store to her parents’ house. We sat in the parking lot of the store (east of a local highway) while she set it up and the GPS did not return our correct location. The GPS had us sitting to the west of the highway. We took our chances and drove to her parents’ place. This is when the GPS shined. The GPS positioned us perfectly throughout the drive.

N900 GPS Route ConfigWhile driving along, my wife noticed that the GPS route had us going through a road that has not been built yet. This is somewhat disconcerting considering you might find yourself lost in the middle of nowhere and the GPS routes you through roads that do not exist. I think part of the problem is that the N900 uses Nokia’s Ovi Maps. Ovi Maps has a somewhat bad reputation for not being quite correct and it’s being destroyed by competition like Google Maps. But, at least it’s free!

The interface for the GPS is fairly easy to use. You can turn GPS on and off whenever you wish. You can find your current position on a map by pressing the red circle on the left side of the map display, zoom in and out of a map and switch between Satellite and Terrain views. You can also allow the GPS to use your current location as a starting point for configuring a trip.

The N900 comes with WiFi (IEEE 802.11 b/g), Bluetooth 2.1 and you can use the N900 in 2G, 3G or dual modes. I have a broadband data plan so I can access the internet and use GPS wherever.

Camera
Picture comparison photo between the N900 and the Canon SX200 ISThe N900 comes with an integrated 5 Megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss lens and digital zoom. To be quite honest, I haven’t got a clue who Carl Zeiss is. With that said, taking pictures and video is quite easy. To activate the camera/video, just push the cover (which fits snug into the cover… very nice) to the left and the camera/video will activate. The picture to the right shows the difference between taking a close-up flash photo with N900 and my wife’s Canon SX200 IS. Not much of a difference. The N900 takes pretty good photos with flash. Below you can see how the camera takes pictures in a low light setting and of a monitor with a video playing.

N900 Picture Low lightN900 Picture, Monitor with moving video

You can also take a photo and share it to a social network site like Facebook.

It has a phone?
N900 Call typesYes, believe it or not, the N900 comes with a phone. And while it feels funny to be holding a mini-brick to your head, I don’t have any complaints about the call quality. I have not heard any complaints from my wife either. So, in a nutshell, the phone works! The phone is also Skype enabled for those who wish to use VoIP instead of cellular. While most calls can be initiated through your contact list, you can also manually dial by using either the on-screen number pad or by sliding out the keyboard and pressing the numbers.

Keyboard
N900 Slide Out KeyboardThe slide out keyboard is a “full” QWERTY keyboard. In low light situations, the keyboard will light up. The keyboard is fairly easy to use, but I don’t have big hands. It will be somewhat of a problem for those with big hands. The slide out “full” keyboard was a selling point for my wife. She doesn’t like the alphanumeric pads used with portrait type phones. You can access the number and special characters by using the function key (the blue arrow on the left side). You can also access the standard Windows/linux keyboard shortcuts like copy, cut, paste, select all and more using the Ctrl + <key> method. Ctrl + Shift (the white arrow) + P to take a screenshot.

Personalization
As I stated earlier, you can changes themes (the N900 comes with 2), backgrounds, add widgets and shortcuts to your four desktops (you can turn off any of the desktops). You can also add shortcuts to any contact you have. In the previous picture, I have a shortcut to my wife’s contact information. From there, I can call her cell or send her a message. You can enter addresses, email addresses, work numbers, home numbers and more to one contact. You can also tie pictures to your contacts.

Unfortunately, you cannot set a different ringtone for each contact. This is the only thing that my k800i beats the N900 on. You can, of course, choose your own ringtone for the phone but it will be the only ringtone.

N900 Status Bar WindowThrough either the Ovi Store or Maemo.org, you can download applications to use on the N900. This is one area where the N900 will fall behind. Since I am not much of an app downloader, this is not much of a problem for me. With that said, I did download a few useful apps:

  • Flashlight – Open the camera lens cover and the LED flash can be used as a flashlight.
  • 3G/2G/Dual Mode Selection Applet – One press phone mode activation.
  • Load Applet – Shows CPU and memory usage. One press screenshot and screencast.
  • Currency converter
  • Celluar Modem Control Buttons – Allows you to switch to a “tablet mode” which shuts off the phone capability but allows you to use WiFi.

In conclusion

After reading about the N900, I realized that this was the device for me. It has almost everything I wanted. The fact that the N900 can be pushed to do much more is just icing on the cake. After all, the N900 is more little computer than phone. The future of the N900 is a little murky at this time because it’s not really known if you can install Maemo 6 on it. The other reason is the annoucement of MeeGo. According to this post, once Maemo gets QT 4.6 support, it should be possible for the N900 to have MeeGo applications. This still doesn’t explain the future of the N900 but, at least it won’t be left in the dust. Right?

Some helpful information

  • The N900 was unable to find my Access Point’s WiFi signal until I changed the channel, on the AP,  from 13 to 6.
  • To access the special, special characters (ex. < or >) on-screen keyboard press the function key and then press the Ctrl key. You do not need to press these keys at the same time!
  • To show the open programs (multitasking window) press and hold ctrl and then press the back arrow key (backspace).
  • To create specific music playlists, first create specific folders for the music. Then, open X Terminal and do the following: 1. type cd MyDocs; cd NameOfMusicFolder 2. type cd SpecificFolder 3. type ls *.mp3 > playlistname.m3u
  • How I encoded/formatted a video to play on the N900(Tested with a 350mb, 624×352 XviD avi): 1. I downloaded and installed Handbrake. 2. Downloaded and installed this preset in Handbrake. The preset is called Baseline@3.0 (Imported). The preset converts the video into the m4v format but this would not work in the n900. I converted the video again and changed the format from m4v to mp4. This worked and plays the video beautifully.
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About gopha

Gopha is a web programmer, techie and heir to several Nigerian fortunes. In his spare time he likes to game, spend time with his wife, daughters and dogs. He eats [far too much], watches TV and lift weights. He also like to take moonlit walks on the beach and sing songs next to a roaring campfire, in a white sweater with his acoustic guitar. View all posts by gopha

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