Beautifully simple. That's the marketing tag-line for Nokia's promotion of the N9 smartphone, the first and last Nokia phone to run the MeeGo operating system. The N9 is the best looking and slickest device the company has released in a number of years. Although it can't compete with Android's flexibility, or iOS's number and quality of third-party apps, the Nokia N9's great design, superb display and ease of use makes it a valid alternative if you're looking for something different. It's just a shame it's so late to market and is essentially running a dead operating system.
Nokia N9: Design and display
Nokia is no stranger to excellent design and construction: despite many of its recent smartphones bring plagued by poor software, we've always admired Nokia's build quality, craftsmanship and industrial design. The N9 is no different — it's a candybar handset constructed from solid polymer. According to Nokia the N9 is manufactured from the same material often found in ice hockey helmets. The company says the phone's polycarbonate casing is coloured all the way through in the manufacturing process, so scratches, dents or marks from everyday use will not show up. The N9 is available in black, cyan and magenta colours in: the cyan colour in particular is a real head turner and will definitely stand out in a store.
The N9 is the best looking and slickest device the company has released in a number of years.
The N9 is Nokia's first-ever "pure touch" smartphone. It has no keypad or home button on the front — the only physical controls are on the right side in the form of volume buttons and a lock key. The bottom houses a speaker while a standard headphone jack, micro-USB port and SIM card slot are aligned on the top. A flap covers the micro-USB port but it's awkward to open: you need to dig your fingertip into the left side of the cover for it to flip up and you need to do this every time you want to charge the phone. The N9 doesn't have a removable battery and uses a micro-SIM card rather than a full-sized one. The only other smartphones on the market to use a micro-SIM are Apple's iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S.
The entire front of the Nokia N9 is taken up by a 3.9in, super AMOLED, edge-to-edge display. The screen uses gorilla glass technology that Nokia says prevents scratches and cracks and the glass is curved outwards in order to achieve a more natural swiping motion. This curve makes content on the N9 appear as if it's floating underneath the screen. Viewing angles are excellent and the display is very bright, though it has a yellow tinge when compared directly to the iPhone 4 on full brightness and lacks an automatic brightness setting. Text is both crisp and clear.
Nokia N9: User interface
The MeeGo operating system running the N9 is focussed on simplicity: Nokia says it intended to "cut through the clutter associated with traditional smartphone design." Although it has a learning curve if you’re coming from an iPhone or Android smartphone, the user experience of the N9 feels natural. Swiping from edge-to-edge to unlock the screen, go back to the default home screen or see important notifications is effortless and easy.
The idea around navigating the N9 is that whenever you are in an application you simply swipe from the edge of the screen (either side) to go back to the home screens. At times we were left longing for a back button but after a few days use the swipe gestures become second nature. You can also set the N9 to close apps by swiping down when in an app — a similar action in parts to the webOS platform that powered HP's now-defunct TouchPad tablet.
The N9 interface is based around three "home views" — an applications screen that lists all your apps, a notifications screen for calls, messages, calendar events and social networking feeds and a currently open applications screen. Nokia says there is no limit to the amount of apps you have open and you won't see a message or error if the memory becomes full: we managed to open 15 apps without a direct affect on performance, but there are times when we wish the N9 had a faster, dual-core processor. Apps sometimes take a few seconds to open and more taxing tasks like playing back video files does result in a little slowdown.
Unfortunately, the Nokia N9 does not support the ability to create folders for app sorting, so the app list screen does become cluttered if you download a lot of apps. You can press and hold an app icon to move it where you want on the app screen, but this is the only method of sorting: you can't sort by alphabetical order or most used, for example.
Nokia N9: Features and performance
The Nokia N9 comes pre-loaded with dedicated Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Maps applications and a special NFC-enabled demo of Angry Birds (more on that later). The phone also comes with three games — Galaxy on Fire 2, Real Golf 2011 and Need for Speed Shift. The Nokia Maps application offers free lifetime navigation and you can download maps for 90 countries. Once a map is downloaded, this means the Maps application will not use your phone's data connection. This is a real advantage over apps like Google Maps that use mobile data.
The list of supported accounts makes for impressive reading: the N9 supports multiple Mail for Exchange, Google, CalDAV, Picasa and YouTube out of the box and also offers VoIP calling through the SIP protocol. Strangely, Google account support only comprises of e-mail through Gmail and chat through Google Chat — the N9 won't sync your Google Gmail contacts. You can get around this by configuring Mail for Exchange for your Google account, but it's a disappointing omission regardless.
Nokia's pre-loaded Facebook and Twitter apps look the part but both are missing key functionality — you can't check into Facebook Places, you can't attach an image to a tweet and neither app has push notifications. There's a few third-party options for both social networking services in the Nokia Store (formerly the Ovi Store), but selection is thin (around 500) compared to the well-populated Android and iOS alternatives. On a positive note, you can find plenty of apps from non-Nokia Store sources such as My MeeGo. Despite Nokia and Intel essentially abandoning the OS, the MeeGo platform that powers the N9 seems to be reasonably well supported by the developer community.
The N9's pre-loaded Skype app allows you to call Skype contacts through the regular phone and contacts applications but despite the presence of a front-facing camera, there is no video calling option through Skype. The Nokia N9's Web browser is slick and performs well, but it does not support Adobe Flash Web video or tabbed browsing: instead, new windows open separately. Selecting "add to apps" in the options menu on a Web site will add a shortcut to that site on the N9's app screen.
The Nokia N9 supports both individual and combined mailboxes. You can add multiple Gmail, e-mail and Mail for Exchange accounts and view them in "all messages" or view each account separately. Sliding your finger along the right of the screen when in an e-mail list allows you to view e-mail from different time periods such as yesterday, one week ago, two weeks ago and 10 months ago. E-mails are a part of the N9's universal search feature, as are both default and third-party apps, your contacts and calendar entries, text messages and Internet searching through Google. We were also impressed with the on-screen keyboard, which was easy to pick up and useable in both portrait and landscape orientations.
The Nokia N9's 8-megapixel camera won't match the quality of the unrivalled Nokia N8 but it performs reasonably well. Images captured with the N9's camera are sharp but do suffer from excess image noise and the dual-LED flash tends to over saturate images. The camera also doubles as a 720p HD video recorder and will record at 30 frames per second. The N9 also supports a wide range of video and music files. We tested a number of different file types and most played without issue. Conveniently, you can simply plug the N9 into a Mac or PC via a USB port and drag and drop files onto the device, or you can install the simple and effectiveNokia Link application that enables you synchronise music, photos and videos from a Windows or Mac computer to the N9 and vice-versa. The N9's external speaker is loud and clear and sound through the included headphones is also impressive.
Curiously, the Nokia N9 has built-in Near Field Communications (NFC) technology, but its not for wireless payments — the technology enables users to pair compatible Bluetooth devices by tapping them against the phone. Depending on the devices, it can also offer the ability to share content. Tapping two Nokia N9's together can initiate multiplayer games and unlock new levels in Angry Birds, for example.
The Nokia N9 does not have a microSD card slot for expandable memory. It comes in 16GB and 64GB models and is a pentaband 3G smartphone.
Unfortunately, the Nokia N9 has below average battery life. It should last a full day with moderate use, but we ran out of battery well before the end of the day with constant use.
The Nokia N9 is the best looking and slickest smartphone Nokia has ever built. It's a combination of superbly built hardware and slick, easy to use, elegant software. However, it's priced too high to compete with iOS and Android alternatives and we can't help but feel it's about 18 months too late.The phone is currently not available in India. You can pick it up from the grey market though.