I remember my first Nokia. It was the 5110 — a chunky, awkward beast of a handset that I received as a birthday gift. My pockets bulged. It was just plain ugly. And the antenna eventually broke off.
More than 10 years later, Nokia’s phones look a hell of a lot better. The design of the company’s recently released N9 was two years in the making, and looks like it was lifted straight from a high-end industrial design magazine. We spent some time with an N9 this week, and dug deep into the entire N9 gestalt to see if the phone runs as smooth as it looks.
I dig the stripped-down, simplified aesthetics. Instead of the numerous ports and doodads you’ll find on many Android devices, Nokia offers a much more modern-looking package, complete with a button-less facade and a boxy chassis made of smooth polycarbonate. The N9 feels good in hand, if not a bit like an expensive toy. Besides traditional black, you can appoint your N9 in cyan or magenta, making the phone one of the cutesiest handsets you’ll ever see.
It’s all very nice to look at, but it seems lofty design goals may have preempted key features in Nokia’s quest for a less busy exterior. You won’t find a microSD card slot (so commonplace in today’s phones), nor can you replace the battery yourself (because you can’t crack open the case without breaking the phone).
If the lack of removable storage really cramps your style, you can always upgrade the baseline 16GB model to a 64GB version. But all models come with a 3.9-inch, 854×480 AMOLED screen, a 1GHz ARM Cortex A8-based processor (second-tier at best by today’s standards), and 1GB of RAM.
Getting past the lock screen is annoyingly difficult. As with Samsung’s new Galaxy S2, you must grab and drag a lock screen graphic in order to access the menu. Now, on the Galaxy S2, you can swipe the graphic in any direction for menu access, as long as it makes it off the screen. It’s the same with the N9, though far more difficult: The swiping motions weren’t intuitive, and dragging upward from the bottom of the screen took me three or four tries before getting it right.
The N9 runs on MeeGo, a Linux-based operating system that uses a similar app interface to Android, though with a bit of a webOS vibe thrown in for good measure. Swiping upward on an open MeeGo app moves it to a separate menu of open apps, almost like the deck of cards found in HP’s webOS. It’s a feature I’ve always enjoyed, and it’s nice to see it deployed in other OS environments. But be warned: Too many open apps does not a stable system make. The N9 started getting crashy as we broached four or five running apps.
Unfortunately, MeeGo is a dead OS walking, as it were. Nokia plans to make Microsoft’s Windows Phone software its “principle smartphone strategy” going forward, which makes for a very limited shelf life for the N9.
Which ultimately leads to Nokia’s other major problem: apps, or a lack thereof. iOS and Android app inventories number in the hundreds of thousands, while MeeGo’s weighs in at something less than a rounding error. You’ll find no direct app hooks into Gmail or Google Maps, and there’s no incentive for third-party developers to bring their wares to the MeeGo platform. To be fair, through, the N9 does come with a pre-installed version of Angry Birds.
Hands down, the most outstanding feature appears to be the phone’s back-facing camera. At 8 megapixels with an F2.2 aperture and Carl Zeiss Tessar optics, Nokia didn’t skimp on image-capture hardware. The N9 also snapped some of the fastest pics we’ve taken with a smartphone camera, period.
In total: It’s a nice phone with a fancy exterior and a killer camera. Unfortunately, though, MeeGo is on its way out, and this phone will probably be forgotten by the time Nokia’s Windows Phone handsets make their way to the States within the next year.
UPDATE 11:54 a.m. PST: Clarification on the lock screen swiping issue.