Nokia N9 hands-on

Summary: The Nokia N9 is a good looking device that shows a lot of promise, but will probably be hamstrung by Nokia’s seemingly divided and somewhat cryptic stance on its platform plans.

Nokia formally announced the expected launch date and price of its new flagship smartphone, the Nokia N9, at an event in Cape Town recently, where we got an opportunity to spend some quality time with the device and bend the ear of Nokia’s head of design, Marko Ahtisaari.

The event began with a well-choreographed performance by a troupe of dancers, complete with hypnotic voice-over that explained how the dance reflected the design of the Nokia N9.

This provided the introduction for Ahtisaari’s presentation on what he called “smartphone patterns” and how they were introducing a brand new pattern for smartphone design in the Nokia N9.

“It all begins with a swipe,” Ahtisaari said.

Marko Ahtisaari
Marko Ahtisaari

All-screen and no buttons

The reason it needs to begin with a swipe is because the Nokia N9 is all screen. Well almost all screen. Certainly enough screen to not have space for a button on the front face, which qualifies it for the term in my book.

So instead of a home button the Nokia N9 uses a gesture. What about the rest of the interface?

Quite simply, it is simultaneously gorgeous and natural.

Nokia N9 hands-on
Nokia N9 hands-on

Three views, no widgets, yet still cool

From the home screen you can swipe between three views: app launcher (Apps view), history (Open Apps view), and notifications.

When you swipe from the edge of the N9’s display to return to the home screen, the app you were currently in becomes a tile that is shown on the top left of the history view.

By default the history view shows a 2×2 grid of scrollable tiles, but a pinch gesture “zooms” it out to a 3×3 grid with smaller tiles that is still scrollable.

Returning to the app you just left involves swiping to the history screen and selecting the top leftmost tile.

Apps can be killed by long pressing in the open apps view to bring up red crosses in the top right corner of every tile. Tapping the cross kills the app.

Scrolling through apps, the history, and notifications is fluid, as is the swiping between the different views.

Ahtisaari also showed what he described as “an easter egg in the gesture system” where a partial swipe-and-hold from the bottom edge of the screen brings up a four icon shortcut bar similar to the launchers users of other smartphones may be familiar with.

Nokia N9 hands-on top edge
Nokia N9 top edge

Minimalist design, trade-offs

One of the most beautiful things about the device is its minimalist design. However, stripping the exterior of a device to the bare essentials does have a cost.

Along the top edge you’ll find a SIM tray and micro USB connector, both neatly hidden by caps that can be flipped up to access them. Unlike the N8 there is no HDMI connector, no microSD slot, and the USB port can’t be used as a USB host. The headset jack is also located along the top edge.

The left edge is completely empty, while the right edge has three buttons: two for the volume rocker and one for the power button. No dedicated camera button.

Nokia N9 hands-on right edge
Nokia N9 right edge

On the bottom edge, you’ll only see what looks like a speaker.

Considering just these trade-offs, it is a little disappointing then that the Nokia N9’s recommended retail price (RRP) is slightly more than the RRP of the N8 at launch.

However, it is worth noting that while the N9 doesn’t have HDMI out or support for connecting USB devices to it, it does have near field communication (NFC). The N9 also has a bigger screen, larger capacity battery, and an HSPA modem capable of faster speeds than the N8.

The real con

How it stacks up against its older brother isn’t really the Nokia N9’s biggest concern – Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are.

While great debates can be had about the merits of one smartphone pattern over another, the bottom line is developer support, or more simply put: apps.

Nokia have made a big deal about the fact that the N9 supports the Qt framework, enabling apps built for Symbian smartphones to be ported easily to the MeeGo-based N9.

In addition, when confronted with people’s concerns the N9 will be Nokia’s first and last MeeGo device, the Finnish phone maker promised that the device won’t be orphaned.

Nokia N9 rear
Nokia N9 rear

These fears weren’t allayed when we learnt in our meeting with Ahtisaari that although Nokia worked to get the top 100 apps on the N9, programs such as WhatsApp weren’t among them, even though it has a Symbian version.

Nokia’s secrecy around the future of MeeGo also doesn’t inspire confidence in the N9. A hardware/software combination that may only constitute a single device doesn’t seem like it’ll draw much interest from developers.

There is talk of a kind of Android emulator for MeeGo called Alien Dalvik which has been slated for release this year, but it remains to be seen when this development will launch, and how well the larger body of Android apps will run in it.

Cautious optimism

That said, Nokia still offers one of the more complete ecosystems to the South African smartphone user when one considers its music store that functions without workarounds, and offline maps with voice navigation.

Its app store also features operator billing, which is great if it contains all the apps you need.

All things considered, the Nokia N9 seems like it’s going to be a great device and I can’t wait for one of our reviewers (please let it be me) to put one to the real test.

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Nokia N9 hands-on