Nokia N900 Review: A Multi-Tasking Monster

Nokia's latest smartphone is also its most capable.
The Nokia N900 is the latest and greatest smartphone brought to you by the same folks that brought you the not-so-great N97. But the N900 isn’t cut from the same cloth: it has a snappy operating system, faster processor, and a nice collection of completely free apps. Will the N900 follow the same path as Nokia’s last smartphone? Or is it destined for something greater?
Full review inside.

At first glance, the N900 looks just like Nokia’s N97 smartphone. It’s big, heavy, and mostly plastic, but it’s also stylish and solid. No creaking here.
One potential issue lies with the N900’s landscape mode. The phone was meant to be (almost) exclusively used in landscape mode, and this is reflected in the N900’s button placements. The Power/On switch is located on the side of the phone, and the lock/unlock switch is on the bottom. It’s awkward, since most people (myself included) are used to one-handed phone operation.
The QWERTY keyboard is pretty much average, but it’s still a huge leap from the squishiness of the Nokia N97 keyboard. My main gripe is the button hardness – you have to push the keys harder than you’d expect. Because of this, it’s difficult to type quickly. The key placement isn’t horrible, but new users will have to get used to the space bar to the right of the M key, and the placement of the Symbol/Ctrl and Caps keys.
To be completely honest, the N900 phone hardware is really nothing amazing – there are other phones out there with better features. What really makes (or breaks) the N900 is the software.
The N900 runs Maemo 5, a Linux-based operating system. It’s the same OS that Nokia introduced with its line of internet tablets. This is good for two reasons: first, there’s a decent number of free apps available for Maemo (and potentially a lot more that can be ported over from other Linux-based OS’es). Second, it’s fast.
The flip side of things is that software for the N900 is limited only to the creativity of individual developers – developers who have no monetary incentives, because there’s no real app store at the current moment. But that also means that you won’t find fifty different (useless) fart apps for Maemo.
Maemo 5 has a slight learning curve, although nowhere near as complex as I originally thought in my N900 first impressions post. Give the phone a couple of hours, and you’ll be swiping through desktop views and flying through menus. It will, however, take you considerably longer to figure out the more advanced features (repositories, debian packages, X terminal, etc) of the OS.
Multi-tasking is where the N900 truly shines. At any given time, I’ll have 6-10 applications open – browser windows, IM/SMS boxes, notes app, games, etc – and the N900 handles everything flawlessly. Switching between different applications is as simple as hitting the icon in the top left corner, and then tapping on one of the application (real-time) snapshots. It’s quick enough and intuitive enough that I find myself naturally swapping back and forth when I find myself waiting for a web site to load, or downloading an app. Man, I love it.
And now I’d like to talk about some noteworthy (not necessarily for the better) applications:
I’d call the stock email client a mixed bag. While setting up accounts is easy as pie, grabbing emails from external accounts (Yahoo!, Gmail, etc) takes forever, and I still have never successfully managed to send any emails out – they remained stuck in the limbo known as the Outbox. Not really too robust.
I’d also like to see threaded emails a la Gmail.
Multiple Desktops
A little disappointing. Essentially, the multiple desktops/views feature allows you to put different shortcuts and widgets on each desktop, using finger swipes to navigate through each one. It’s like Mac OS X’s Spaces, but not as well-executed. Added shortcuts are missing text labels, icons do not snap to a grid (so lining up icons ends up being a bit of a chore for neat freaks), and there’s very few (useful) widgets. Case in point: the Google widget, which you’d assume to be a desktop search box, is actually just an oversized bookmark to Google Search.
Finally, threaded SMS and integration with Google Talk and other “popular” chat platforms! I was a little surprised that AIM wasn’t included in the list, but you can add that and several other platforms like Twitter, ICQ (does anyone even use ICQ anymore?) and MSN with a small addon from the repository. Very well done overall.
For the most part, I like the N900 browser. It’s based on Mozilla, renders pages perfectly fine, and is fast enough. The only thing that really bothers me are input textboxes, which sometimes require multiple taps in different spots to get working. Oh yeah, and you also can’t uninstall Nokia’s useless “Single sign-on for Ovi by Nokia” browser add-on.
Call Quality
As well as can be expected. I had no real problems hearing or being heard. I do wish the loudspeaker was a bit louder, though.
Prospective N900 buyers may want to note that there’s a microphone issue with a select number of N900s which pretty much cuts off all microphone recording (phone, video recording, etc) – so make sure you test this out first thing.
I’m happy to report that the speakers on the N900 are decent. And by decent, I mean closer on the scale to Nokia’s XpressMusic series than the Nseries line.
I also like the onboard media player. It played several DiVX videos right out of the box which was a welcome surprise. And if the stock player doesn’t float your boat, several alternatives such as Mplayer (and the Kmplayer GUI addon) are available in the repositories.
Battery Life
It’s hard to do a good battery test, and the best that I can say is that I barely made it through a day of battery life with heavy usage. With typical normal usage, however, you should not have a problem with the phone lasting the entire day.
One caveat, however: I’m on EDGE, which drains less battery than 3G. If you’re a heavy 3G user, I’d be willing to bet you’ll need to carry around a USB cable or charger.
Final Thoughts
The N900 is an impressive, well-thought out phone aimed at the power user crowd. What’s sad is that, with a couple of minor changes to the operating system, Nokia could’ve had a serious consumer hit on their hands. Instead, the N900 is destined to play second banana to the iPhone and the slew of new Android phones. It’s really too bad – for the price (roughly around $500 USD), you get a powerful smartphone that’s not only capable of everything (minus the fart apps), it’s capable of doing everything at the same time with ease. Multi-tasking at its best.
Random pet peeve: Nokia put a new kind of stock display protector on the N900, one that completely obscures everything beneath it. So if you’re buying a N900, make sure you get a screen protector too. I recommend Brando’s Ultra-Clear line.
Tags n900
Related PostsThe N900: A Game Changer for Nokia (First Impressions)
Something a little different: Google Nexus One Review
The N97