The Nokia N9 is the most beautiful smartphone I’ve reviewed all year.
How wonderful it would be to leave it at that, to herald the N9 as Nokia’s return to relevance in the high-end smartphone market.
Unfortunately that’s not possible, mostly thanks to the fact that Nokia has said in so many words that Windows Phone is their future, but also because they’ve remained so guarded about their future plans for MeeGo.
This review is already getting ahead of itself, though. Let’s take it from the top: the N9’s design.
A thing of beauty
“Elegant” is the first word that comes to mind when considering the overall design of the Nokia N9.
It is minimalism manifest, from its simple rectangular shape with curves in all the right places, to its user interface.
This simplicity was premeditated, according to Nokia’s head of design, Marko Ahtisaari. They wanted to see what they could strip away from the device without affecting usability, rather than trying to cram in as much as possible.
Since the starting point of the Nokia N9’s design was figuring out what would happen if there were no buttons on its front face, it seems apt that they went on to experiment with what they could do away with.
What you will find on the outside of the N9 is a gorgeous piece of curved, polarised Gorilla glass, a standard 3.5mm headset jack, micro USB port, micro-SIM tray, volume rocker, and power button.
The USB port and SIM tray covers run flush along the top of the device. To connect the micro USB cable you have to push down on a slight bump in the cover which causes it to flip up. This is the flimsiest part of the device’s hardware – it feels like you could snap off the USB port cover easily.
On the back you’ll see the lens for an 8 megapixel camera, and on the front you might spot the small secondary camera awkwardly tucked away in the lower right corner.
Inside the N9 you’ll find a respectable set of components:
|Nokia N9 specs|
|Display||3.9” FWVGA (480×854) AMOLED|
|Processor||1GHz TI OMAP3630 (single core ARM Cortex-A8)|
|Cellular data||14.4Mbps HSPA|
Compared to what’s come before
If you’re thinking that it doesn’t sound like you’re giving up much for a device said to have an exterior stripped to the bare essentials, you’d be right. Yet the choice to keep the front face and two sides bare of buttons and connector ports gives the Nokia N9 a clean, minimalist feel.
However, for those familiar with the Nokia N8, the N9’s predecessor, there were some trade-offs. While the N9 trounces its predecessor thanks to its sleek design and overall user experience, a comparison to the Nokia N8 does highlight some disappointments.
Most visible was the lack of HDMI output and dedicated camera button on the Nokia N9.
It also doesn’t have USB host support, which means you can’t connect flash drives to it like you could with the N8.
This means that the Nokia N9 need not ship with all the adapter cables the N8 needed to connect to HDMI displays or USB devices. Combine this with the lack of car charger in the retail package and you need a far smaller box in which to fit the few basics (headset, charger, USB cable).
One major disappointment was the camera. As with the N8 before it, the Nokia N9 boasts Carl Zeiss optics so it’s not like the shots it takes are poor quality, but given Nokia’s legacy I was expecting better performance in low light conditions.
The flash on the N9 goes a long way to mitigate this, but as with similar types of flash it’s only effective for a limited distance. While low-light photos are quite grainy, the imperfections aren’t noticeable once you resize the image.
One might think that all this exclusion and minimalism might translate to a cost saving, but the Nokia N9 actually attracted a slightly higher recommended retail price than its parent device.
According to Nokia, the N9 should have been available at retail from the beginning of November (2011) for the recommended price of R5,999. By contrast, the Nokia N8 had an RRP of R5,500 when it launched.
That said, it must be taken into account that the Nokia N9 has Near Field Communication (NFC) support, a slightly faster 3G modem, higher resolution display, much more RAM, and a faster processor.
Compared to the competition from other smartphone platforms, the Nokia N9 doesn’t look poorly priced at all.
Software and user experience
While Nokia have put together an impressive piece of hardware in the N9, what it’s done with the software is even more impressive.
The Nokia N9 runs on the 1.2 Harmattan version of MeeGo, the mobile operating system (OS) that came from the merging of Nokia’s Maemo and Intel’s Moblin projects.
What’s more interesting than the operating system underneath, however, is the gesture-based user interface that Nokia built for the N9.
Without any navigation buttons, the Nokia N9 has to provide the user with other means of returning to the launcher or switching between applications.
This is done by swiping a finger from one edge of the screen to the other, similar to the way the BlackBerry PlayBook implemented gesture-based navigation controls.
Combined with the Nokia N9’s three home screens, this “home gesture” works really well. One screen contains the application launcher, another acts as the notification tray, and the last is essentially a task switcher.
For the most part switching between applications is quick and smooth, but I did manage to get the phone to chug (and even reboot) by opening a large number of apps and playing around with the task switcher constantly.
The N9’s touch response is great and typing and gesturing are buttery smooth. I did mistype a lot, but that’s something that would probably get better with practice.
The basic apps such as the calendar, clock, contacts list, call history, and mail reader all work as expected. One oddity that made its way from Symbian, however, is that you can’t sync your Gmail Contacts using the Google Account support of the Nokia N9.
There is a hack around this though, thanks to Google’s Microsoft Exchange support for Gmail.
An app that needs to be specially singled out is the browser. It’s really bad.
Not only did we see a lot of checker-boarding while scrolling sites, but trying to type something in a website is clunky. Instead of just bringing up the software keyboard, the N9 browser first zooms you in all the way. Rotating to landscape mode for more comfortable typing is also not smooth but requires the whole screen to refresh quite jarringly.
Though the browser gets these basics wrong, it did try to do a number of other interesting things too.
It doesn’t have tabs or windowed browsing accessible from within the app, for example. Browser windows are instead created in the task switcher and you can switch between them there.
Another interesting feature is a tag cloud that’s presented whenever you open a blank browser window. The cloud is populated based on the sites you visit most often, but rather than displaying URLs it cleverly extracts keywords.
One other glitch worth mentioning is an apparent compatibility issue with the Nokia N9’s headset jack. I tested it with a number of headsets (Logitech, BlackBerry, HTC), and nothing except the one that came with the device worked.
Strangely, a third-party line-in cable connecting the device to an auxiliary input of a radio did work.
Now with the device reviewed on its own, it’s time to look at it in the grander scheme of things, and from that perspective it’s difficult to ignore Windows Phone and the apparent splintering of MeeGo.
Nokia has already announced the Lumina and Asha range of Windows Phone devices, feeding doubts about the support MeeGo and the Nokia N9 will enjoy.
Intel has also abandoned the MeeGo project, opting to instead join forces with Samsung to build Tizen: a device OS they say will pick up where MeeGo left off.
It is also rumoured that Nokia is working on a new Linux-based mobile OS called Meltemi to use on its low-end feature phones.
On the other hand, it was recently reported that the Nokia N9 received a fairly large (218MB) update. According to Unwired View the update included music controls on the lock screen, better memory handling, NFC tag reading, filters in the camera, Swype is pre-installed, and Mail for Exchange sync is faster.
Whether this a sign that Nokia will be keeping its promise that they will continue to support the Nokia N9 remains to be seen.