Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Nokia N900

Nokia N900

Product summary

The good: The Nokia N900 offers a powerful mobile Web browser, plenty of storage, a 5-megapixel camera, and an ultrasharp display. It's also fast, multitasks well, and has excellent call quality. Wi-Fi, 3G, Bluetooth, and GPS are all onboard.

The bad: The user interface isn't very intuitive. Ovi Store for the N900 isn't live yet, limiting the number of available apps, and it doesn't sync with Exchanger Server 2003. The phone is a bit bulky and not all apps work in portrait mode.

The bottom line: While it has yet to reach its full potential, the Nokia N900 is a powerful mobile device with excellent browsing capabilities and vast customization options. However, its unintuitive interface and other limitations make this a smartphone for tech enthusiasts and early adopters only.

The Nokia N900 is the next evolution of the company's Internet Table, and don't let its smaller size fool you. It delivers more power, adds phone capabilities, and has one of most robust mobile Web browsers on the market today. It also runs on the Linux-based Maemo platform, which offers great customization options and multitasking abilities but has yet to live up to its full possibilities. The N900 feels incomplete with its limited Exchange support and an app store that has yet to go live. Also, the user interface is incredibly unintuitive, making it frustrating to use at times. Like we said, there's plenty of potential there, but for now, the N900 is probably best for tech enthusiasts or early adopters, while those after an everyday, more mainstream smartphone should stick with the current crop of favorites. The Nokia N900 is available unlocked for $569, though you may be able to find it for less online.

Aside from the slider design, the Nokia N900 bears very little resemblance to its predecessors. Instead of a tablet form factor, the N900 looks more like one of the N series smartphones, such as the N96, but is on the bulkier side at 4.37 inches wide by 2.35 inches tall by 0.77 inch thick and 6.38 ounces. In hand, the N900 feels like a very solid phone but the extra weight is noticeable when you're on a phone call and it'll make for a bit of a tight fit in a pants pocket.

There are a couple of quirks about the smartphone. First, most apps only work in landscape mode and there are very few that work in portrait mode. In fact, the only one we could find was the phone app. It's not a deal-breaker but we'd definitely like to have the option of using more apps in portrait mode. Also, there are no Talk and End keys (or any other of the standard navigation buttons), so a simple task of making a phone call requires a couple of extra steps. This wouldn't be such a huge deal if the user interface was a bit more intuitive (more on this later), but if you're using the device for the first time and trying to make a call or simply trying to return to the previous menu, it can be slightly confusing.

Without physical navigation buttons, you'll mostly use the N900's 3.5-inch resistive touch screen to get around the phone, and it is quite a beauty. The WVGA display (800x480 pixels) is amazingly sharp and bright and has an ambient light sensor and brightness controls. Also, although it's a resistive touch screen, which requires that you use a little more pressure than capacitive screens, we found it to be very responsive to our touches, whether we were opening an app, scrolling through lists, or switching between home screens.

For text entry, you get a full QWERTY keyboard, which you can access by pushing the screen upward. There isn't much space between the keys, but the buttons are a good size and have a nonslippery texture and a slight bump to them, so most users should have no problem with the N900's keyboard. Our only complaint is that Nokia has, once again, placed the space bar off center, which interrupts the flow of typing, particularly for left-handers since it's located on the right side. We don't really understand why the company keeps doing this.

While you don't get the standard navigation array, there are some physical controls on the exterior of the smartphone. On top of the device, you'll find a volume rocker, a power button, and a camera activation/capture key. The right side holds a lock switch, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a stylus, while there's a Micro-USB port on the left. The camera and dual LED flash are located on back, both of which are protected by a sliding cover, and like the Nokia N86, there is a kickstand so you can prop up the device to watch movies or view a photo slideshow.

User interface
As we mentioned earlier, the Nokia N900's UI isn't very easy to use right out of the box, but with time and customization, it can offer a lot. Running on the Linux-based Maemo platform, the smartphone offers four home-screen panes that you can rotate through by swiping from left to right and vice versa. You can personalize each pane with various widgets and shortcuts. To do so, just press on a part of the home screen (outside of any widgets or shortcuts), and you'll see a little tab menu with a settings wheel icon drop down from the top of the screen. Pressing that will bring up another Desktop menu in which you can choose to add a shortcut, contact, bookmark, widget and also change your background or theme. There's also a Manage View option, and you can remove any of the home screens if you think four is too many. To remove any items from a pane, press the X on the right-hand corner of the widget or shortcut.

You may see one of two icons in the upper-left-hand corner on each of the home panes. When you don't have any apps open, you'll see a grid icon, which when pressed, will take a main menu of apps. If you're running other programs, you will see an icon with multiple windows and this takes you to a page that shows all your running apps. From there you can switch to a different program or exit out of one, making multitasking on the N900 quite easy.

Figuring out how all the menus work and what each icon is takes time and in our experience, requires a lot of trial and error. For example, once you get deeper into a task, it's not always clear how to return to the previous page (you just tap outside the window, by the way), and a simple task like this shouldn't be so confusing. However, you learn with more use and with more time; we customized the user interface to our liking and found it quite useful, especially the multitasking window.

Though Nokia has removed "Internet Tablet" from the product name, the browsing experience still takes top billing and it's where the Nokia N900 really shines. The smartphone's browser is based on Mozilla technology and is one of the most powerful mobile browsers we've seen, displaying pages much like you would see on your desktop. It offers AJAX support and Adobe Flash Player 9.4, so you can view Flash content, such as videos or games, right from the browser. Other features of the browser include visual bookmarks, the capability to search within a page, downloads, and multiple windows, but again, finding these options isn't very intuitive. To zoom in and out of pages, you can simply use the volume rocker on top of the phone or double tap the screen. Alternatively, you can use your finger to create a little circular motion on the touch screen.

The N900 can connect over Wi-Fi and is compatible with T-Mobile's 3G network, since it supports the 900/1700/2100MHz HSDPA bands. Though the smartphone had no problem finding and connecting to our Wi-Fi network, we had some initial problems getting online using T-Mobile's 3G network. After a little research through some forums, we found that the N900 had the incorrect APN settings, so we had to go into the Connections menu and change it from to Then we were good to go.

Using T-Mobile's network here in New York, CNET's full site loaded in an impressive 15 seconds and displayed all Flash content, including CNET TV videos. Load times for video took a bit longer and the videos were a bit choppy, though still viewable, and the fact that we could even view it from the browser was amazing. That said, we had problems getting Flash games to play on the N900. Mozilla is also working on a mobile version of Firefox, which will be available first on the N900 in early 2010. A beta version is also expected by the end of 2009.

As a phone, the N900 has quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, conference calling, speed dial (via the contacts widgets), vibrate mode, and text and multimedia messaging. There is no support for voice dialing at this time. You can make VoIP calls, however, and the N900 offers wizards for setting up your Skype, Jabber, and SIP accounts. Bluetooth (supports hands-free kits, mono and stereo headsets, audio/video remote control, file transfer, and object push) and GPS are also onboard.

The Maemo platform offers the basic productivity tools and messaging capabilities, but there are limitations. For example, while the Nokia N900 can access multiple POP3 and IMAP accounts, it currently only syncs with Exchange Server 2007 and not Exchange 2003, so we couldn't hook up our work e-mail to the smartphone, which is almost a deal-breaker. Also, while there are a number of apps and personal information management tools preloaded on the device, including Documents to Go, Nokia Maps, a PDF reader, a calendar, a calculator, and a clock, the Ovi Store for the N900 isn't officially available yet, limiting the number of apps available for download to just about a dozen through the phone's Application Manager. That said, Nokia has said it will send out an update to resolve these issues soon.

As a multimedia device, the Nokia N900 can certainly hold its own. The built-in media player supports MP3, WMA, AAC, M4A, and WAV files and displays album art and ID3 tags. You get basic shuffle and repeat modes and you can create playlists on the fly. There's also support for Internet radio and an FM tuner. (Note that you need to use the included headset for the latter.) The N900 can also play back MP4, AVI, WMV, MPEG-4, Xvid, 3GP, H.264, and H.263 video files, and includes a dedicated 3D graphics accelerator. The Nokia N900 has a whopping 32GB of internal storage and a microSD expansion slot (up to 16GB), so space should not be an issue here.

Like a number of Nokia N series models, the N900 features a 5-megapixel camera with a Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens with dual-LED flash, autofocus, and video-recording capabilities. There are multiple camera options, including white balance adjustment, ISO sensitivity, exposure settings, and geotagging. Picture quality was quite good. Even in a darker lit room, the N900 delivered a sharp image with decent coloring. There's also an onboard photo editor if you want to touch up your photos afterwards.

We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; WCDMA 900/1700/2100) in New York using T-Mobile service and call quality was excellent. We were impressed at how crystal clear audio sounded on our end. There was absolutely no trace of background noise or voice distortion, and there was plenty of volume. Friends also had similar praises and said they couldn't tell we were calling from a cell phone. We had no problems using an airline's voice-automated system and didn't experience any dropped calls during our testing period.

Speakerphone quality was also good. Occasionally, the sound could be a bit muffled, but for the most part, we had no issues with speakerphone calls. We successfully paired the N900 with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.

Powered by a 600MHz TI OMAP3 3430 (Cortex A8) processor, the N900 performed beautifully during our testing period. The transition between home screens was smooth and the smartphone was very responsive with minimal delays even when working in multiple applications. We loaded up a couple of MPEG-4 videos on the device and playback was smooth with synchronized audio and images, and the picture quality was particularly amazing on the N900's sharp display. With the 3.5mm jack, we were also able to plug in our Bose On-Ear Headphones and enjoy rich-sounding music.

The Nokia N900 features a 1320mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 9 hours (GSM)/5 hours (3G). In our battery drain tests, the N900 fell an hour short of the promised 3G talk time, coming in at just 4 hours. According to FCC radiation tests, the N900 has a digital SAR rating of 0.92 watt per kilogram.