Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Nokia N9 Review: Swiping to the next level

Nokia is now at the process of reinventing itself as it embraces Windows Phone as its major platform moving forward. A new CEO and direction clearly signifies this much needed change. One of those initial changes was the development, release and subsequent termination of Nokia’s (final?) MeeGo device – the Nokia N9.

Read more for the full review (warning lotso’ images!)

Nokia’s dominant position as the leader in mobile phones is currently being challenged by new players like Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android and RIM’s Blackberry (which I don’t think I’ll ever get to review) iOS and BB threatens Nokia’s smartphone market which caters to enterprise and hard core users while the expansion of Android to lower tiered devices also puts Nokia’s foothold on low-cost devices, primarily composed of Series 40’s, in danger as many consumers are now shifting to smartphones.

Let’s go back to the Nokia N9 – Is this still a viable smartphone amidst larger ecosystems by iOS, Android and Windows Phone? Is this the phone that would dare “disrupt” the market sometime in the foreseeable future? Let’s find out.

Nokia N9 Specs

  • OS: MeeGo 1.2 Harmattan
  • CPU: 1 GHz Cortex A8, GPU: PowerVR SGX530
  • Display: 3.9” (480 x 854) ClearBlack AMOLED display. Curved Gorilla Glass
  • Internal memory: 16 GB or 64 GB
  • RAM: 1GB
  • 8 megapixel camera (Carl Zeiss) with 720p 16:9 HD video recording + VGA front camera
  • Dual LED flash, Accelerometer, Magnetometer
  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR and NFC.

Unboxing the N9

Nokia’s traditional blue adorns the box and the front shows the actual sizes of the phone. Inside you’ll find the USB connector, power adapter, headset, manuals and a complementary silicon case that matches the color of your device. It was a nice addition by Nokia because people really buy cases for their device so getting one included was one less step of enjoying the device out of the box. If may need a fancier case, check out Nokia N9 Hard Cover.

  

The fine print on the box was also cute. I thought about placing my Micro Machine collection inside to see how many toy cars would fit. Matchboxes? I don’t think it’ll even hold 5 toy cars :)

Beautiful Hardware and Hardcore Build

The hardware of the Nokia N9 is a beauty. I’ve held nothing that compares to the polycarbonate body of the N9 in terms of build quality and the overall feel of the device. In comparison with other phones which are comprised of plastic, aluminum and other materials, the N9 still stood out even with its plastic unibody construction, which by the way, is the same material that F-22 jetfighters are made from. The sophisticated design and large full front display sans hardware or capacitive buttons really stands out among what is out there.

   

The N9 has 3 openings on the top. One is the 3.5mm headphone jack, the USB connector slot and the Micro SIM card tray. Some would say that the absence of a user-replaceable battery and SD card slot is a disadvantage but for me, it’s really immaterial at this point in the decent battery life and solid state storage options (16GB and 64GB)

The polycarbonate body comes in black, cyan, magenta and the elusive white. Nokia tells us that any scratches or dings wouldn’t show up any different because color coating is infused within the plastic.

‘Blacks are Black’ ClearBlack Display

The N9 ClearBlack boasts the same quality of Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays. Its 3.9” has a resolution of 480 x 854 - 54 pixels more than the traditional 800px due to the all-screen look.

 
click to enlarge comparison shot

But what exactly is a ClearBlack display? According to Nokia Conversations Blog, ClearBlack technology is:

a method to reduce reflections on the screen and improve visual image quality, especially outdoors. ClearBlack ensures that the blacks you see really are just that – black – which in turn enhances the contrast of the display and makes the whole screen much easier to see. - Nokia Conversations

  
left to right (click to enlarge): N9 vs Focus, lock screen, black blacks on video

While it is not similar than Super AMOLEDs found on Samsung phones, the ClearBlack display does look at par with the Samsung Focus. One thing that I found missing was the option to turn off the auto brightness setting which is dependent with the ambient light sensor. So in case, you’d like to set a fix brightness you’re out of luck unless you do this hack.

Dual Camera - 8 Megapixel & VGA camera

The 8 megapixel camera of the N9 delivers notable results. The camera boasts a lot of settings like ISO, Face detection, GPS tagging, Exposure and White balance (even auto-fix). It also has the option to shoot in 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, which is good for that extra wide panoramic shots.


left to right (click to enlarge): regular shot, max zoom, macro shot

The VGA front facing camera which weirdly sits at the bottom right of the front display seems to have few or no uses right now. It can’t be used for video chat or Skype but the impending PR1.2 update will support that as well as new improvement on the camera and gallery app.

MeeGo Harmattan 1.2 version PR1.1

I’ve had the privilege of having the chance to review a variety of mobile phone platforms on Techolo.com throughout the years. We’ve already had the opportunity to use different phones running Android, WebOS, iOS and Windows Phone.

I didn’t have a chance to review Symbian (if you don’t count my novice write-up on Nokia E61i) but I think most of us already had our experience on Symbian S40 and S60 sometime in our lives as Nokia users.

Among the newer platforms, I haven’t had a chance yet to review Nokia’s own operating system dubbed MeeGo – until now. MeeGo is a linux-based open-source system formed to merge Intel’s Moblin and Nokia’s Maemo initiatives into one core OS.

  
left to right (click to enlarge): app view, dropdown notification bar, open app view

With MeeGo and the N9, you won’t see any hardware or hardware capacitive buttons anywhere on the device. You will navigate the whole user interface using swiping gestures. Similar to Windows Phone when you think about it and how Windows 8 works on tablets.

It also kind of reminds me of WebOS. The swiping gestures on the gesture bar. The curved corners on the screen. the matte icons and nice typography. It makes me wish that Nokia just bought Palm instead of HP and then integrated all MeeGo and WebOS goodness into one package. I digress.

There are 3 windows to familiarize yourself with:

  1. Applications View - contains the grid of apps
  2. Event View – (swipe left) has any new posts from your Facebook and Twitter contacts as well as email notifications, and weather information
  3. Open Applications View – (swipe right) shows a thumbnail preview of your currently opened apps

    left to right (click to enlarge): lock screen, email keyboard, browser

Great Keyboard
One thing that I also like about the N9 is it’s virtual keyboard. I found it easy to use and the haptic feedback was one thing that made typing on it fun. The feedback it produced felt like a quick bump on a typewriter key. It didn’t vibrate just for the sake of vibrating but it felt like a genuine button. You've just got to try it yourself :)

  
left to right (click to enlarge): quick launch, gallery, app download

Hidden App Launcher
Another WebOS-que feature was the quick launch bar that could be access anywhere. Swiping up and stopping midway will show the 4-row icons similar to WebOS launcher pad. It was a hit or miss action and I think Nokia could make it more stable.


left to right (click to enlarge): Nokia Maps, calculator, clock

App and the Store
Common apps like Music, Maps, Calculator, Clock, Notes, Reader,  Browser and Calendar are present but in addition to the default apps, also included are those from 3rd-party sources like Facebook, Twitter and Skype. Games like Angry Birds, Real Golf and Need for Speed Shift also came out of the box.

There is also a ‘Store’ where you could download basic apps and other quite not-there-yet apps. If there is one Achilles heel on this platform, it’s the small app selection. Elop said it right, it now a battle of ecosystem hence the shift to Windows Phone.

Conclusion

Nokia has reiterated that moving forward, Windows Phone will be their main push on their smartphones and that Symbian and MeeGo are already a lost cause on the smartphone front. That will be the reasoning most people will have in not buying this phone, not because it’s not good, but because it’s already dead before it even boomed.

If you are a simple texter, email user and social networking fan, I don’t see why the Nokia N9 won’t work for you. It’s fast, it’s beautiful, it’s fresh. I personally would get one myself if only it had a feature or an app that supports reading and sending SMS using the computer (it already has my pet-peeve app – Wifi Hotspot)

There is an impending PR1.2 firmware update arriving in  a few weeks that will address issues with video calling, copy-paste, folder creation, and numerous tweaks and improvements. So don’t worry. MeeGo is not yet dead. I’m sure development will still continue and might probably make a comeback as Nokia’s disruptive device in the future.

If you like what you see, try it. On some instances, I find it even better than Windows Phone and Android. Really.

Now why can’t someone make a mash-up OS from bits and pieces of MeeGo, Android, iOS, WebOS, and Windows Phone? I don’t know.

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