Hounded by critics and deserted by customers, Nokia has been forced to take a massive change of direction in 2011, with one of the obvious casualties of this new outlook being the Linux-based MeeGo operating system that Nokia has been developing with Intel. The N9 is the first and maybe the only smartphone to run on the MeeGo OS, and, in many ways, it will be a shame if this is true.
But then, Nokia is distancing itself from conversations about operating systems and specs, focusing instead on the usability of the N9 and on a few key features, like the camera and the web browser.
The CNET Australia team has published just over 50 smartphone reviews this year, and yet the N9 is a refreshingly unique device to see and hold. Nokia offered us a black review unit, and although it doesn't have the quirky charm of the fluoro pink and blue options, it is an extremely slick-looking number. The body of the N9 is constructed out of a unibody polycarbonate, which, while being undeniably plastic, has a top flight feel, and appears to be exceptionally sturdy.
We love the look and feel of the N9's unibody construction.
The first thing you'll notice is the absence of mechanical buttons on the handset. There are a couple — a volume rocker and a power switch — but there are no buttons for navigation on the device at all. Nokia also hides the SIM card slot and micro USB charging/data port under doors that sit flush against the surface of the handset, like tiny hidden trapdoors.
We go MeeGo?
Nokia goes way out on a limb in the design of the user experience in the N9 to create a mind-bogglingly simple interface in a time when the smartphone leaders are designing increasingly complex systems. When you turn the phone on, either for the first time or from sleep, you immediately enter the apps drawer, a vertically scrolling list of all installed tools, games and services. If you swipe from left to right, you'll come to the notifications pane, where all your latest messages are displayed, either those sent to the phone or to your email or social networks. Swipe from right to left from the apps screen, and you'll see thumbnails of all recently used applications.
The three faces of MeeGo — each is a swipe away from the others.
The swiping gesture is central to the way that you interact with apps on the phone, as well. Once you've finished using an app, you use a horizontal swiping gesture to "push" the app into the background, or swiping up from the bottom of the screen to close the app entirely.
The extremely low learning curve, and the intuitive implementation of this swiping navigation, is an outstanding achievement for the team at Nokia. It is really one of those systems that you miss immediately when you put it down and move on to a different device running a different system. It isn't absolutely perfect — we found it a little too easy to swipe in the browser or in a game, and exit an app by mistake — but it certainly feels like a huge step forward from the button-tapping metaphor used in all other smartphones.
Messaging and presence
It's pretty clear that while Nokia might concede that there is a range of smartphone tasks that the N9 can't do, there are a few core areas that it does really well. Messaging is one such area, with Nokia expanding on the basic SMS and email experience with an always-on system for communicating with friends on services like Skype and Google Talk.
You can find evidence of this approach in the Address Book, too, with your friends' various online aliases listed beneath phone numbers and email addresses, and the option to start a new chat is as prominent as the option to dial a number.
Nokia is really hanging its hat on the N9's fantastic physical design and the assumed quality of its 8-megapixel camera. As with Nokia's best cameras, the N9 incorporates a Carl Zeiss-brand lens in front of Nokia's imaging technology, a winning combination.
The focus in this image looks a little soft to us. You can also see a 100 per cent crop in the inset.
This time around, the camera is good, maybe very good, but the image quality isn't quite as good as some of the other smartphone cameras that we've seen recently from Samsung, Apple and HTC. Even with steady hands (as steady as we can make them), we still found that some of our best pics showed slightly soft focus, and the N9 really struggled with strong light sources. Overall colour reproduction was good, but tended towards being somewhat washed out.
The N9's camera struggles to compensate for strong light sources.
Media and the web
Also integral to the N9 is its enormous internal storage and the multimedia experience that supports this. When picking up an N9, you have the choice between a 16GB storage variant and a whopping 64GB option, placing the N9 alongside Apple's iPhone as the smartphones with the largest internal storage components. If you go with the 64GB model, you'll be pleased to know that you can make great use of this memory with the option to store and playback a wide assortment of media formats. The N9 could play all of our test videos, including DivX, XviD, WMV and MP4 files. Plus, audiophiles will love the option to play FLAC lossless music files alongside the standard array of MP3s and AACs.
The web browsing experience is vastly superior to previous Nokia handsets, but it still falls just short of the experience that you will have on an iPhone or a top-tier Android. Pages load quickly, especially without the burden of Flash elements to render, and scrolling and pinch-zooming is silky smooth.
The browser is, however, one of the few areas where the simplistic MeeGo design approach falls down. It's way too easy to close the browser when trying to horizontally realign a web page while reading text that runs off-screen, and for some unknown reason Nokia has forgotten to include a "Back" button or gesture, so once you move forward to a new webpage you can't really go back again. There are no History or Bookmark menus either, although you can pin pages to the Applications screen.
NFC: in brief
Nokia's N9 will be one of the first phones in Australia to include near-field communication (NFC) support, which is both extremely exciting and a non-event all at once. NFC allows the phone to communicate with other NFC-capable devices when in very close proximity (ie, touching) to perform tasks like creating connections with accessories or establishing data transfers. Seeing the N9's NFC in action was awesome — Nokia demoed this for us, using its new Nokia Play music speaker — but it is probably a while yet before we see too many NFC-enabled accessories to continue using this feature.
Nokia's new NFC-enabled Play speakers.
It's also worth noting that the NFC chip inside the N9 isn't the kind required for electronic payment systems, so don't buy an N9 thinking it will be your cashless wallet in the near future.
The pleasing simplicity of the N9's UI design translates into a mostly smooth and seamless user experience. Swiping between the three main panes of the UI is smooth, fast and as good as you'd expect from a phone in this price range. It's not just the design of the UI that fuels this performance; Nokia also packs a 1GHz Cortex-A8 OMAP 3630 processor with 1GB of RAM and a Power SGX530 graphics processor into this handset.
Battery life isn't outstanding, though, with the N9 struggling to get through to the end of a work day. Granted, this is with us remaining connected to our various online messaging services for the duration, but as a core part of this handset's offering we imagine that this sort of connectivity would resemble the everyday usage of those who choose an N9.
Despite a laundry list of missing features, the N9 is Nokia's best phone for a long time. The MeeGo OS feels lean and fast, and the messaging system is a winner. The web browser is limited in its features and controls, but is pleasingly zippy when loading pages. It is also one the best media-playing mobiles that we've come across in 2011, with a long list of supported codecs.
If you don't know the difference between an iPhone and an Android, and you're looking for a decent smartphone experience wrapped in some truly gorgeous hardware, then the N9 could be for you. Just make sure that you understand its various limitations before you dive in.