Once the unequalled leader among mobile phone manufacturers, Nokia still returns impressive sales, but ceded its dominance of the smartphone market with the arrival of the iPhone. It's been playing catch-up ever since, sticking rigidly to a Symbian OS that only seemed to grow older looking with each new device.
Now, with the N900, Nokia is trying something new, with a brand new OS in Maemo 5 - a slimmed down version of Debian Linux - plus a host of top-end features, including a sizeable 3.5in touch screen, slide-out Qwerty keyboard, 5Mp camera with Carl Zeiss optics, Wi-Fi, A-GPS, quad-band and much more besides.
We were torn on the appearance of the N900. We like its glossy black minimalism, with no hard buttons on the face to break up its smooth lines. But it's a chunky chappy and a very solid pocketful at 111x60x20mm and 181g - svelte it is not.
Around the sides are a volume rocker, power key, shutter button and a rare example of an infrared port. Top and bottom features a brace of stereo speakers, micro USB power/sync port, a lock switch, 3.5mm headphone jack and a plastic stylus. The back hides the camera lens behind a sturdy sliding cover, which is surrounded by a fold-down kickstand for viewing video.
The slide-out Qwerty keyboard alarmed us at first, since it only has three lines of keys. A quick comparison with the Nokia E75's four-line keyboard, however, confirmed that it only appears to have lost one key. There are 38 keys in all and, although they're very small, they're actually surprisingly easy to use.
The rubberised plastic keys have raised bumps that are easy to distinguish under the thumbs and the amount of feedback they deliver is just right to help you with fast, reasonably accurate typing. There's a control key too that delivers access to standard keyboard shortcuts, like cut and paste.
The 3.5in resistive touchscreen was also a bit of a surprise, since we'd rather been expecting iPod-style capacitive version. Again though, it worked surprisingly well, proving itself to be nicely sensitive to the distinction between our brushes and presses. It doesn't do multitouch, but we didn't really miss it for reasons that will become clear later. As for the stylus, we only really fell back on it when we were browsing, as the Maemo 5 menus feature nice, big, thumb-friendly icons.
And speaking of Maemo 5, it looks like Nokia has made a very promising move here. Based on the open source Linux platform, it manages the trick of looking similar enough to Nokia's Symbian phones - so as not to frighten its core customers - but adds additional usability and style. Even so, there's a bit of a learning curve involved in getting the hang of it.
The menu button, for instance, is in the top left-hand corner, but once you're in the menu, there's no obvious way to get back to your home page, until you realise you need to press the power button on the side - or top, if you're using it in landscape mode. Similarly, there are Windows-style 'X' markings in the top right-hand corner to exit each app, but they're not always clearly visible, although we discovered they always seemed to be respond when we pressed in that spot.
The Maemo 5 OS is no doubt helped by the powerful ARM Cortex-A8 processor and OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics acceleration, since the N900 always performed in a sprightly fashion whether skipping through the menus or viewing videos. No modern smart phone is complete without its App Store equivalent, and with the N900 it's the still thinly populated Ovi Store, which has only a few dozen apps to choose from at present, though we'd expect to see a lot more soon.
The Facebook widget caught our eye though, since it amends your updates in real time on your home screen, allowing you to see your latest Facebook action as it happens. Unfortunately there's no equivalent app yet for Twitter, though you can set a link to your Twitter page as an icon on one of your four customisable your home pages.
Messaging is easy to set up with most of the big providers catered for, including Microsoft Exchange. The Qwerty keyboard makes writing e-mails second nature and, usefully, you can send HTML versions as well as plain text, with a variety of fonts and colours available. Instant Messaging is well supported too, with Google Talk, Skype and Jabber all available.
The browser uses technology based on Firefox and it's a good one, with Maemo 5 getting around the lack of pinch-to-zoom by allowing you to zoom by twirling your finger on the screen - clockwise to zoom in, anticlockwise to zoom out, though you can also use the volume rocker. It can handle multiple pages and you can look at them all in a single window, which keeps them running in real time, so you can see a video playing on YouTube while you're checking your other open pages.
There's support for Flash video but we did encounter a bit of a problem with streaming video, which often seemed to go slow and occasionally break up. This may be due to our using an early model with unfinalised software, but we'd recommend you check this aspect before you buy.
The camera isn't as full-featured as some we've seen from Nokia, but it takes surprisingly good pictures. The Carl Zeiss lens is likely to make the difference here, but our pics looked sharp, with good colour balance and a minimum of purple fringing.
It opens quickly in just under two seconds and while it doesn't have a huge arrange of settings, it does offer macro, action and portrait modes, plus a dual LED flash, though there's no smile detection, timer or multi-shot options.
There are some fairly basic picture editing features allowing you to flip, crop or resize your pics as well as touch up any red eye. You can also geotag your pics using the onboard A-GPS, which can come in handy. Unfortunately, however, there's no Google Maps app, and for location features you're stuck with Nokia's own Ovi Maps, which isn't bad, but lacks Google's extended features.
Watching video on the N900 is a delight, with the 800 x 480 screen rendering crisply detailed visuals, and never any hint of a slow-down. It will play H.264, MPEG 4, Xvid, WMV and H.263 formats, plus it comes with a TV lead so you can show off your pics or vids on the bigger screen.
The music player is a fine one too, with an attractive interface and better-than-average headphones, which come with little noise-isolating grommets, and offer a muscular low end, though they lack refinement in the upper registers. There's a basic FM radio which doesn't appear to do autotune and there's access to a seemingly random array of Internet radio stations too, plus an FM transmitter so you can stream your sounds to your car radio.
It will play MP3, .WMA, .AAC and WAV audio files and there's a hefty 32GB of onboard memory to keep them on, though this can be increased by an extra 16GB with a microSD card. Call quality is very good too, with a full, well-rounded tone to speech from the speaker.
With all these good things going on, the battery on the N900 was a bit of a disappointment, since it barely lasted through a day of fairly heavy use. There are options to dim the screen and extend the screensaver time, but we'd still have preferred something a bit more potent.
Some may find the size a concern, but it's mainly a consequence of accommodating slide-out keyboard. In use, the keyboard, despite its compact layout, works very well and the camera is head and shoulders above what you'll find on the iPhone. Overall, the Nokia N900 is a joy to use and full of good things that we liked very much, though it still feels like something of a work in progress. The Maemo 5 OS is very promising on this evidence - fast and useable, once we'd got our heads around the basic set-up, and bound to be much more versatile in a few months' time as more apps and features are added.
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