Nokia fans, don't disappear! We know it's been a hard year; Nokia's Symbian v.5 upgrade was a fizzer, and the flagship N97 suffered as a result. We know the Ovi Store really hasn't taken hold like it should have and that its other services, like Music and Maps, still need refining. But the Finns have an ace up their sleeves, a little system called Maemo running on a not-so little handset called the N900.
They say that one in two people in Australia are obese, so maybe the N900's gut-busting waistline will go unnoticed when it's released in the land down under. At 16mm thick, the N900 feels like a PDA of days past, even though it looks like something considerably more modern. It also seems heavy, at 150g, but we seriously doubt this will upset too many users.
In terms of the hardware, the N900 is a home run. The 3.5-inch display is sharp and colourful, and is probably the most responsive screen we've used that works using resistive touchscreen technology. Push the screen up and you'll reveal a three-row full QWERTY keyboard. This keyboard isn't as roomy as some we've seen this year, but it does the trick for tapping out long emails and messages.
Around the edges of the phone you'll find volume keys, a 3.5mm headphone socket, a screen-lock switch, a resonable-sounding external speaker and a stylus. On the back is a 5-megapixel Carl Zeiss camera lens, with a software-activating sliding lens cover and a bright LED flash. Around the lens cover Nokia has chucked in an old favourite, a plastic kick-stand for sitting the phone on a flat surface and watching videos. Under the battery cover you'll find a microSD card slot, but it's likely you won't need it considering the N900 comes with 32GB of internal storage.
Maemo = multitasking
In truth Maemo means a lot more than just the ability to multitask, but it's this particular function that has left the strongest impression on us during our review. Without going into a complex description, Maemo is based on Linux and has been used by Nokia in the past to power its internet tablets, the N800 and N810, for example. Using Maemo is considerably different to using any other mobile OS, and it may take some users a few days to figure out how to best navigate the various menus.
In a way, this is a fault of Nokia's design. There is, for example, no "Home" key on the keyboard, but there is two ways to get to the desktop view by using the touchscreen, neither of which are properly sign-posted in the UI (either hit the "Task Switch" icon and then select the blurred out background, or press and hold the "Task Switch" icon for a few seconds). But once you get the hang of using the "Task Switch" icon you'll be zipping back and forth between active applications.
Aside from the learning curve, the one noticeable shortcoming of Maemo compared with the other smartphone systems is a distinct lack of apps to download. The N900 has software called "Application Manager" which guides you to a shortlist of some very good apps, but there are huge holes in this catalogue, noticeably social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter and some sort of streaming music service. There is ZouTube for (you guessed it) watching YouTube videos, and we found a cool app "gPodder" which we used for downloading our favourite podcasts.
Media and the web
Multitasking is great, but only if you have multiple tasks you want to perform. The N900 has exactly that. Whether it's watching videos, playing music, browsing the web or sending and receiving emails, the N900 covers all bases and the fact that you can do everything all at once is a major advantage. Web browsing in particular is fantastic, the pre-installed Mozilla browser is fast, easy to use and includes finger gestures to rival similar on the iPhone. And did we mention this Mozilla browser supports Flash? Well, it does, though watching a video in the browser can be a bit jittery.
The 5-megapixel is a minor let down, its Carl Zeiss optics don't seem to be able to compensate for less than perfect software and we have issues with both the auto-focus and the cold colour palette we've seen in the photos we've taken. With a little care the N900 is probably quite a capable camera, but we prefer our camera phones to shoot quickly and process accurately on the auto modes.
If its heavyweight specs haven't bowled you over already, the N900's stellar performance surely will. Whether you are swiping across its multiple desktop workspaces, using the task switcher or working within an app, the performance never lags. It's really quite amazing to watch an app download and a web page render simultaneously in the miniature thumbnail windows on the task switcher.
You'll be happy to know that the N900 also makes clear sounding voice calls, and includes threaded SMS (called Conversations) to help you keep track of the messages you send to friends. If you swipe your finger from left to right in the Conversations window you bring up a cursor which you can use to copy and paste text from a message to anywhere else in the phone.
For users who don't mind spending a little time getting to know a new system, the Nokia N900 is truly outstanding. We wouldn't dream of giving it to mum for Christmas, but it's definitely a phone we want to spend more time with ourselves. We've waited a long time to find a phone with the N900's capabilities matched with its stellar performance. The N900 is pushing smartphones to genius levels. If Nokia can convince software developers that Maemo is the next big thing this could be the system that both Apple and Google have to worry about.
Although it's not officially confirmed, the N900 should be officially released in Australia in 2010. If you can't wait till then, the N900 is available now through online vendor Mobicity.com.au.
In answer to your questions
In a first for CNET Australia we gave you the chance to ask us questions during the testing phase to make sure we covered everything in this review. Below we answer the questions we didn't cover in the review above.
Phone fanatic: Could you please advise as to the quality of sound from the music player — without using the headphones?
Compared to other mobile phones, the sound through the external speakers is good. It's quite loud, clearly audible, but still tinny sounding.
Jonny: Please answer whether the media features, specifically the music player, are good enough to replace my iPod Touch.
The media menus are cool-looking and easy to navigate, but one thing that did irk us was the lack of gapless playback. If you're a fan of mix electronic albums you'll probably be put off by brief pops of silence between tracks.
TonyL: Can you download/backup photos directly from your camera to the phone? With this capability the traveller with a smartphone could really leave the laptop behind.
Unfortunately not, but you're right, if they intend to make smartphones that are like tiny computers this sort of syncing feature really should be included.
i4u: Does the N900 have a DLNA server, renderer and composer functionality?
No DLNA here unfortunately. I have to agree, I love phones with DLNA. Hopefully we'll see plenty more next year.
doppelganger: Is it crashing like crazy? Did you buy the test unit from a store? How many apps are there? Can it send and receive MMS? Is it supported by the Ovi Store?
No, it didn't crash at all during the review process. We received the unit from an online store, so it's the same as you'd get if you bought it. The Maemo download site says there is currently 80 apps, and apparently the Ovi Store will hold Maemo apps soon. And no, it doesn't send and receive MMS, apparently it's something to do with Maemo.
joe355: How does Maemo/N900 stack up against the competition?
In our opinion it stacks up very well indeed. Out of the box it performs all of the same functions as well as or better, and once you start multitasking like you would on a PC you'll wonder how you ever did without it.