Review: Nokia N900 shows there's a web browser for that

I've written a couple of times here on the blog about the fact that I have been using an evaluation Nokia N900 since October with my loan period expiring in January. I have been focusing on writing up a TON of posts as I created the Definitive Nokia N900 Guide to give my Nokia Experts readers all the details on this extremely powerful device. As a Christmas present to you kind readers here on my ZDNet blog I decided to also post a full review of the Nokia N900 for you all to unwrap and enjoy. You may want to start with my image gallery, move down to my video, and then read the details about my experiences with the device. At the very end of this review you will find out exactly what I think of the device after using it quite heavily these past two months.

I've written a couple of times here on the blog about the fact that I have been using an evaluation Nokia N900 since October with my loan period expiring in January. I have been focusing on writing up a TON of posts as I created the Definitive Nokia N900 Guide to give my Nokia Experts readers all the details on this extremely powerful device. As a Christmas present to you kind readers here on my ZDNet blog I decided to also post a full review of the Nokia N900 for you all to unwrap and enjoy. You may want to start with my image gallery, move down to my video, and then read the details about my experiences with the device. At the very end of this review you will find out exactly what I think of the device after using it quite heavily these past two months.


Image Gallery:Check out product photos, screenshots, and capture images of the Nokia N900 after a couple months of use.
Image Gallery: Open N900 keyboard
Image Gallery: Browsing history

The Nokia N900 is marketed much more as a highly portable mobile computer rather than just another smartphone, but as you will read more below it is also an extremely capable phone that may set the standard for other smartphones in several areas. Check out the video walk through and demo of some of my most loved features of the N900.

The Nokia N900 comes in a now fairly typical Nokia Nseris black box that is actually quite compact and minimizes packaging. Inside you will find the following:

  • Nokia N900
  • Nokia Battery (BL-5J)
  • Nokia High Efficiency Charger (AC-10)
  • Nokia Stereo Headset (WH-205)
  • Video out cable (CA-75U)
  • Nokia charger adaptor (CA-146C)
  • Cleaning cloth

This is the first time I have seen the charger adapter, but think it is pretty cool since it allows you to use one of those standard Nokia chargers and connect via the microUSB port to charge up the Nokia N900. I have more standard Nokia chargers than I do microUSB chargers so this can be helpful.

We just saw an awesome unboxing of some kind of promotional packaging over on Tracy and Matt's Blog where you actually needed to enter a line of code to have the lid opened. Now that is a geeky unboxing.

Specifications

The Nokia N900 is the fourth Internet Tablet, following the Nokia 770, N800, and N810. There was a N810 WiMAX, but that wasn't widely available and was just the N810 with a WiMAX radio. The Nokia N900 is the first to run Maemo 5 and also the first to have integrated cellular technology and as you will see these two new aspects really take the device to the next level.

Here are some of the key specifications of the Nokia N900:

  • ARM TI OMAP3430 Cortex-A8 600 MHz processor
  • PowerVR SGX 3D graphics accelerator with OpenGL ES 2.0 support
  • Quad-band GSM/EDGE with 850/900/1800/1900 MHz support
  • Tri-band WCDMA with 900/1700/2100 MHz support
  • 3.5 inch 800×480 pixel resolution resistive touchscreen display
  • 256MB RAM and 768 MB virtual memory
  • Integrated 32GB flash drive
  • microSD card slot for expanded memory
  • Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP stereo support
  • Integrated 802.11 b/g WiFi
  • Integrated GPS with A-GPS
  • Integrated FM transmitter and FM radio
  • 5 megapixel camera with dual LED flash and Carl Zeiss optics
  • 3.5mm headset jack with TV out support
  • BL-5J 1320 mAh battery
  • Acceleromter
  • Dimensions: 4.33 x 2.35 x 0.71 inches and 6.38 ounces

As you can see the N900 supports T-Mobile's 3.5G 1700 MHz frequency. It actually supports the HSPA+ 21 Mbps service (up to 10 Mbps) as tested out by Kevin Tofel. I am regularly seeing 2 to 3 Mbps service here in the Puget Sound region and couldn't be happier.

It is clear just from the list above that the Nokia N900 is one of the most capable devices on the market and is available at a very reasonable price for a completely SIM-unlocked device requiring no contract.

Let's take a look at the external hardware features »

External Hardware

I have to admit when I pulled the N900 out of the box back in October my first initial thought was, "Wow, this is a rather chunky device that doesn't feel as dense as it should with these dimensions." After a bit more time though I came to actually like the feel and construction of the device (much like the original 30GB Zune), while I do think it would be great to have it a bit thinner. The device is focused on operations in landscape mode and rarely switches into portrait mode, as I will explain in the software section. From here on out when I talk about the sides, I will thus be referring to the device in landscape mode with the words Nokia and N900 along the top of the front.

Let's start off with a walk around the hardware. On the front you will see the 3.5 inch 800x480 pixel resolution display. The display supports 16 million colors and looks fantastic. It is a resistive display that you can see is set back in from the front panel. Several people that I have had try the N900 though the display was capacitive since Nokia did a great job in making touch targets large enough to make it very useful. I have only pulled out the stylus a couple of times in the last 2 months and even then it probably wasn't that necessary. You will also find the words Nokia and N900 on the front. The headset speaker is centered on the left middle. Hidden in the area along the left side are the indicator light (charging, signal, message status, etc.), proximity sensor, and forward facing camera. Like the iPhone, and some other newer devices, the N900 display is turned off when you hold it up to your head so the display is not accidentally activated.

Along the top you will find the volume button (serves multiple purposes as I will talk about later), power button, camera capture button, and infrared port. The bottom is where you will find the long stylus and silo. The stylus is black plastic with a matte finish and has a good length to it, but I rarely used it.

There is a lanyard opening, microUSB port, and one stereo speaker on the left side. The other stereo speaker is found on the right side along with the phone mic, 3.5mm headset jack, and lock slider switch.

There is a 5 megapixel camera lens and dual LED hidden under the slider cover on the back of the N900. You will find a kickstand around the camera so you can flip it out and watch videos while the N900 sits on a table. I would like to have seen the kickstand flip out towards the middle though since the N900 does tend to wobble a bit with the offset kickstand. The entire back is matte black and after two months of pretty heavy usage it remains scratch free. The entire back also snaps off to reveal the battery, SIM card slot, and microSD card slot. You can leave the battery in place to replace the microSD card.

In addition to the display, the other major hardware feature of the N900 is the QWERTY keyboard that is revealed after you slide the display up. The keyboard is a 3-row variant with dedicated Ctrl, period, and comma buttons, offset space bar, and four directional arrows. I personally find the offset space bar to be very functional and useful when entering text. The keys have good travel and are decently sized. The matter finish helps you hit the proper keys and the only real issue I have is that I would have liked to have seen the display slide up another mm or two to give me more room to the top row. It is a much better keyboard than the N97, but not as good as the HTC Touch Pro2.

Now let's look inside the N900 »

Internal hardware

While there are a couple impressive external, visible pieces of the hardware, the internal hardware is much more impressive. The N900 is powered by an ARM-based Texas Instruments OMAP3430 Cortex-A8 600 MHz processor and PowerVR SGX 3D graphics accelerator with OpenGL ES 2.0 support. Multi-tasking is supported by the operating system and I have had 24 applications running at once with solid performance of the processor and noticeable lag only when trying to run the camera in conjunction with apps like the 3D Bounce game. We haven't seen a lot of apps yet that take advantage of the graphics accelerator, but that should change in 2010.

As I mentioned in the specifications section you will find this is a world WCDMA/HSPA phone with support for T-Mobile USA's 3.5G data network. I have found the N900 has typical Nokia performance with good RF reception and phone call quality.

At this time, all applications are loaded onto the device memory with no option for storage onto the integrated 32GB hard drive or microSD card. This could present an issue for you if you load up a TON of apps, but even with about 20 apps loaded I haven't had a problem or issue with running out of memory.

The WiFi radio is toggled on and off through the main wireless management control panel and I just keep it on most of the time and let it autoconnect when I am within access points I have defined in the past. I have only used Bluetooth with a headset a couple of times, but it has performed fine for me then.

The GPS receiver seems to pick up a signal fairly quickly, but the included Ovi Maps client is an older version and a bit weak so I rarely use GPS at the moment. When an updated client comes out on the N900 this could be huge since the device is well designed to serve as a primary in-car navigation system. I would also love to see Google Maps support for the N900, but am not too hopeful about that.

One hardware feature that has proven to be extremely useful for me is the integrated FM transmitter. I am a heavy podcast listener and with the FM transmitter I can easily listen to podcasts while in my car. With the media player open you simple tap the top menu bar, select FM transmitter, toggle it on, select a station and tap Save. I found a super clear station a few days ago and now my podcast and music collection play as clear as a CD in my car with the N900.

The N900 also has an FM radio inside, but you need to download a free utility to enable it. RDS is supported with this radio too and I have no idea why Nokia didn't include this utility out of the box.

The last piece of internal hardware is the 5 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics. Most of the Nseries devices have 3.2 or 5 megapixel cameras that take nice photos, but I have found the N900 to take even better than most. I love the ability to take both 5 megapixel 4:3 ratio, 2576 x 1936 resolution standard format photos and 3.5 megapixel widescreen 16:9 2576 x 1488 resolution photos. I actually have taken more lower res widescreen photos since I like the way they capture more information. You can shoot in macro, portrait, landscape, action, and automatic modes with controls for white balance, exposure, and ISO sensitivity. I don't understand why these Nseries don't all support panoramic modes though.

Video can be captured in 848 x 480 resolution (WVGA) at up to 25 fps. Qik is also loaded on the N900 so you can stream good quality video live to the Internet or share it with YouTube and other services.

What about that Maemo 5 operating system? »

Software

User interface design: I've used previous versions of Maemo on the Nokia N800 and N810 and find Maemo 5 on the N900 to be more user friendly and more powerful. When I show the N900 to folks many think it is a Google Android device because of the way the desktops look similar to the three Android screens and the way widgets and application shortcuts are placed on those desktops. To start using the Nokia N900, you should know how the three main areas of the user interface work:
  1. Desktop
  2. Task Manager
  3. Applications menu

You can have up to four desktops where you can place contacts, bookmarks, widgets, and application shortcuts anywhere you like. Scrolling right and left takes you through the different desktops in a continuous loop so you can go right the entire time to switch through the desktops. If you tap on the upper left of a desktop you will see the status area and status menu. There is quite a bit of information that can appear here, including connectivity options, software updates, status indicators, and more. This area can be changed by downloadable utilities too and can be quite functional.

The Task Manager is accessed by tapping the upper left icon on a desktop and may be considered a subset of the desktops. The Task Manager is a page that shows thumbnails of open apps, multiple web pages, and more. These thumbnails are actually live and you can see them changing right in front of you as the action occurs. Swiping across the top takes you back to the desktops. Tapping on the upper left of the Task Manager takes you to the Applications menu.

The Applications menu is broken up into two displays with the first one taking up a single display on the N900 with core applications. These icons cannot be moved around or filed in folders and are set by the OS. To get to the second display of applications you tap the More icon in the bottom right. You will see another set of application icons and then scroll up to view more apps at the bottom of the display. As you install apps they appear below the core apps on the device. Again, there is no way to move these around or file them in folders.

Once you get the hang of how these three main areas work together, then you will find the user interface is snappy and quite friendly too. Oh yeah, if a pop-up appears then you need to tap outside of the pop-up window to go back to the main window and continue navigation.

Applications: Speaking of applications, here is what you will find loaded on the N900 out of the box:

  • Maemo Browser
  • Media player
  • Calendar
  • Photos
  • Contacts
  • Phone
  • Ovi Maps
  • Camera
  • Email
  • Conversations
  • Clock
  • Calculator
  • Ovi Store (not yet live)
  • Settings
  • Notes
  • PDF reader
  • File manager
  • RSS reader
  • Sketch
  • Application manager for downloads
  • Games (Blocks, Chess, Mahjong, Marbles
  • Backup
  • X Terminal
  • Documents To Go Office viewers
  • Various widgets

You will find several applications available in the default Application catalogs and can load more catalogs to further enhance your experience on the N900. If you are interested in adding more of these catalogs perform a Google search for Maemo repository to find specifics. Some of these repositories are for testing so be aware you may be taking risks if you use some of these catalogs.

Web browser: The web browser is powered by Mozilla technology and includes Adobe Flash 9.4 support. Unlike every other mobile phone, I never found a website I couldn't load up on the N900. Now, some flash heavy ones didn't necessarily perform that well and actually cause the browser to freeze up, but anything you could think of throwing at it as your phone or ultra portable PC should work just fine. Plugins are even supported in this Mozilla-based browser, but I haven't found a need for them yet. The web browser is the shiny star of the Nokia N900 and the power of it makes up for areas where apps may not yet be available. For example, you can access and work with Google Docs in the browser.

Conversations: One thing were S60 falls down compared to just about every other smartphone platform is in the lack of threaded text messaging. That is NOT the case on the N900 as Nokia includes Conversations. This is a pretty good threaded SMS client with visual emoticon support too.

Phone & Contacts: Even though you may not think the phone is that great on the N900 it turns out to actually be one of my favorite parts of the device. After you setup access to your various VoIP account (Skype, Google Talk, and Ovi for me) then you can change your status to online and quickly see who is available for a call or to chat. I love that a status symbol (green for online) appears next to my contacts along with a symbol designating the service they are connected too. This reminds me again of what we see on Google Android device.

Photo application: The Photos application is good for viewing apps (zoom in using the volume button) and sharing them with family and friends. You will also find that there are some editing tools within the application so you can make photos look a bit better before you send them off to people.

Weak apps on the N900: Not everything is wonderful and grand on the N900. The current version of Ovi Maps is pretty weak, especially compared to the latest client available on their high end devices. There are not yet any document editors or creators, but I imagine we will see Documents to Go work to get one in our hands since their viewer is quite nice. Games are OK on the N900, but there are lots of opportunities here. For a while I was frustrated by a lack of a good Twitter application, but Mauku has been updated and the latest version of Witter is getting closer and closer to being a very good application. Email is pretty good, but it seems a bit slow when I launch the application to refresh my account folders and status.

Settings: You will find a global area called Settings where you can manage most parts of program. At times there will be localized settings within applications too.

Usage experiences after two months »

Thoughts on using the N900 for two months

I usually get an evaluation device for a couple of weeks and am thankful for the 2 months I have spent with this particular unit so far. Here are some of the things I have done with the N900 over the past couple of months that I particularly enjoyed:
  • Web browser offers virtually unlimited browsing
  • Threaded text messaging keeps all my conversations in check
  • FM transmitter makes listening to content in my car a top notch experience
  • Movie watching and music playing have been awesome during my commute and business travel
  • Skype calling with MiFi sounds just like a regular Nokia cellular call
  • IM with Google Talk and Skype allows seamless conversations when I am available to participate.
  • Reject calls with text messaging is a feature I used on Windows Mobile and love this option
  • Twitter experiences (Mauku decent, but Witter more functional) We are getting close with Witter and I really hope to see Gravity on the N900 soon.
  • Maemo Wordpy lets me blog on Nokia Experts on the train with no PC attached

I find the camera to be quite good and do not feel limited or stranded when I have it along to shoot photos and video. I personally find the keyboard to be very functional and am quite fast at hammering away on it. The travel is very good and my only real beef is that the display should move up another 1 to 2 mm to let me hit these buttons a bit better. Music sounds good through the stereo speakers and excellent through the FM transmitter.

I would like the option to stay in portrait mode to send out text messages on a virtual keyboard without having to slide it out under the display.

The display is resistive, but it feels almost like capacitive and I personally haven't had trouble using it accurately. You can also toggle on a vibration level so you can feel when you touch the display.

I have read of battery life experiences varying wildly on the Nokia N900 and it is tough to pin down. I personally see my battery last in the 7 to 10 hour range with T-Mobile 3G access, push email via Exchange, 30 minute IMAP email updates, about 15 minutes of calling, about 30 minutes of web surfing, and about 10 text messages. I have read of others getting 2 days and some getting less. I have quite a few applications and utilities loaded on the N900 and some are in early alpha/beta stage so may not be optimized for battery savings. The great thing is you can always carry a spare to pop in or charge it up with a standard microUSB connector and after two months I have decided it is not as bad as my iPhone 3GS and meets my needs.

Price, availability, and closing thoughts »

Pricing and availability

The Nokia N900 is available now from various online retailers and at the Nokia Flagship stores. Pricing varies wildly at Amazon as different suppliers appear and it is all about timing. Here are the places and prices I am familiar with:

If you buy before 31 December there is a $50 Nokia Visa card rebate available if you sign up for an Ovi Store account.

If you compare the $500 to $550 price, after rebate, to just about every other smartphone on a carrier in the US at their unsubsidized price (you must compare apples to apples) you will find the N900 is one of the lower priced devices and is quite a deal considering how much raw computing power is contained in the device.

Closing thoughts

The Nokia N900 is clearly a device that you cannot try for a couple of days and make a judgement about since it really takes a bit of time to get comfortable with all of the power you have in your hand. The web browser is clearly the best of any mobile phone available and once you discover you can pretty much do anything you want within the browser (apps not always necessary) you will probably discover this is an amazing device. I am the kind of person who likes to push my devices to the limits and also likes to tinker with settings and more. If you want a basic smartphone, then the N900 is probably not for you. However, if you want a smartphone that can do just about everything and has huge potential for getting even better then the N900 is definitely something you may want to consider.

A real testament to whether or not I truly find a device to be worth the price is whether or not I buy one myself after spending time with one. I am happy to say I just ordered my own Nokia N900 the other day since this evaluation unit has to go back in a couple weeks and I can't stand the thought of not having the N900 with me.

I want to thank Nokia for providing the N900 evaluation unit for a 3 month period that has really given me time to discover what the device is capable of. A standard 14 or 30-day review period may not have helped me appreciate such a device and I hope that this review helps you with your decision about the N900 to.

Feel free to post questions in the Talkback section that I will answer since I now have my own N900 and will for quite some time.

Go back to the beginning »

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