Nokia N9 Review

73/100

WhistleOut
23 November 2011

The Nokia N9 is certainly an interesting device. Not only was it was Nokia’s first and only foray with the Meego operating system (OS), but also ended up being the physical template upon which the Nokia Lumia 800 – Nokia’s first Windows Phone handset – was based. The result is a definitely unique user experience that combines a new OS with a singular approach to manufacturing style.

Physical Design of the Nokia N9

Functionally, the Nokia N9 sports one of the more unique designs we’ve encountered as far as smartphones go. Its uni-form machined-polycarbonate body makes for an incredibly sturdy yet lightweight frame. The impressive material is smooth to the touch, yet somehow offers more than sufficient grip to create a feeling of surety when held.

The gently rounded edges on each side of the device give a level of comfort we find lacking in certain other handsets and the convexly curved screen bumps that comfort level up a notch when held against the ear.

Aesthetically speaking the Nokia N9 is just as impressive. Curved lines and sharp edges combine to create an image that is both sleekly stylish and visually simplistic. The only buttons are the Lock button and Volume Rocker, both located on the right side of the phone which offer up a shiny silver break in the monochrome casing that is echoed by a similarly coloured piece of plating on the back that runs vertically downwards from the centred camera.

Basically the N9’s first appearance is that of class, without echoing too strongly any of the devices that came before it. Available in multiple colours (ours was black), it’s also one of the few handsets that offers its users that small extra bit of personal customisation for their overall experience, which is a nice little touch.

Now that we’ve heaped enough praise on the N9’s fashion sense we would like to note a small piece of functionality that seems to have been sacrificed to enhance its aesthetic properties. At the very top of the device is located both the SIM card slot and the MicroUSB charging slot. Both of these are covered by some rather delicate little flaps. We have no problem with the SIM card cover, as it’s unlikely that users will be removing their SIMs too often. However, the flap covering the charging point can get a bit fiddly at times.

In order to access the charging port, one must open a little flap by pressing down at one end of it. The problem here is that it doesn’t work particularly well. Moreover once it is open and your device is charging there is the definite feel that this is a little bit of your phone that is going to be snapped off one day. It just doesn’t feel sturdy enough to last through any amount of mistreatment. We also prefer just being able to plug our phones in to charge, without having to fiddle around with tiny doors using only our large, clumsy fingers. Perhaps that’s just us though.

Speed and UI

Hardware-wise the Nokia N9 isn’t amazing, but it isn’t really lacking either. A single-core 1GHz processor has almost always been enough to get the job done with other phones we’ve used and the 1GB of RAM is definitely up to scratch. However, we did find there was a bit of sporadic lag when executing commands, which is possibly due at least in part to the way that Meego handles multitasking.

The Meego Operating system on the N9 was pretty much a first stab at a proper mobile OS. As such it definitely had a few issues that we’ll come to, but first we’ll tell you about some of the things we really enjoyed, or found intriguing about the layout of the user interface (UI).

Visually speaking the UI seems to have borrowed heavily from elements of iOS and Windows Phone (depending on what area of the phone you’re in) in terms of appearance, with a little Android thrown in there just to complete the party. The Home screen uses a very familiar tile layout with no widgets or funky visualisations. It’s definitely an attractive look, but it’s one we’ve seen before.

The Meego UI has 3 main screens: Home, Multitasking and Feed. The Home Screen scrolls vertically, reminding us of the Applications Menu in many Android Phones (which was already reminiscent of iOS in many respects). This isn’t so much to distinguish it from iOS as it is for functionality.

To the left of the Home screen is Feed, which is a conglomeration of whatever social media services you wish to sync with your N9. There is a small notifications section at the top of the Feed page, which we actually found to be the area of this page that we utilised most often.

To the right of Home (or the left of Feed) is Multitasking. Basically any time you are in any application you can return to the last of the 3 main screens you were on by swiping from the absolute outside of the screen inwards. This is one of the reasons for the convexly curved screen, as it allows the finger to easily feel the edges of the display to know when to start swiping. This action sends whatever application you were using to the Multitasking screen, which is laid out in a card-like formation. Any application can be easily closed in this view by holding down one finger. After a short press the applications can be shut down by tapping the x that appears in the top corner. Returning from management mode requires just one more quick tap anywhere but on one of the little x symbols.

The Multitasking screen can be zoomed out or in, allowing a view of either 3 or 2 applications per row. It’s a pretty unique way of representing multitasking and is definitely a heavier focus on it than we’ve seen on any other device. This is probably because managing your open apps can be pretty important on the Nokia N9. We found that once we started running too many programs concurrently performance was significantly hampered. This was especially noticeable when executing pinch-to-zoom commands or when switching between portrait and landscape modes.

The Lock screen could be unlocked by swiping from the very outside of the screen in any direction. We didn’t really see the point of forcing the user to swipe from the very outside, as a swipe beginning anywhere would have sufficed and we found ourselves occasionally swiping 2 or 3 times in order to unlock the device. We will credit the Lock Screen for providing shortcuts to just about any and all notifications. A simple swipe to the right of left on any of the messages takes the user right to where they need to be.

The N9 is the first device we can think of where we’ve had to mention its screen during standby mode. When inactive, the N9’s screen will still always display both the time and some small icons if and when any notifications are awaiting your attention. This was actually pretty great. It was also possible to go straight to the Lock Screen by double tapping the display, as well as pressing the Lock button on the right side of the device.

Display and Battery Life

The 3.9 inch 480 x 854 AMOLED display of the N9 was great. Colours were vibrant and pixel density allowed for crisp, clear images. Nokia’s Clear Black display technology also provided such a black screen that is was sometimes hard to tell where the frame ended and the screen began. This really lent itself well to the Meego UI, which implements a black background across most of its layers.

Battery life was more than adequate, usually lasting a bit more than one day at medium-to-heavy use. However, we still needed to recharge it every night because its battery management when in standby mode seemed to be a little inefficient. Though this wasn’t ever an issue because we wouldn’t get a full 2 days charge out of it, so nightly recharging would have been required anyway.

Media and Storage on the Nokia N9

The music player on the N9 continued the trend of stylish simplicity, with almost Windows Phone-esque overtones when it came to font and overall appearance. One thing we did appreciate about the music player’s visuals was that when no album picture was available, the N9 just took the name of the song, album or artist and made a neat little visualisation out of it. We actually really liked this approach and even preferred the visualisations to some of our albums’ coverworks.

As far as music player functionality went we found it to be pretty standard. It worked well as a music player and didn’t drain the battery particularly noticeably. We found the same to be true for the video player as well. Videos came out bright and clear due to the quality display, but also didn’t seem to impact battery life as much as on some other devices.

Keyboard, Browsing and Apps on the Nokia N9

The keyboard on the N9 was smooth and very responsive. It not only managed to keep up with our speedy fingers, but gave us the impression that it wasn’t even trying to do so. There was a bit of an issue when switching from portrait to landscape mode if the keyboard was already on screen; it caused a bit of lag and the screen tended to re-orient before the keyboard did. This detracted from the polished feel of the keypad and was a little disappointing. Overall functionality wasn’t too badly affected by this, but it was still a little annoying.

The browser was, unfortunately, a little slow for a modern smartphone. It wasn’t introduce-to-the-brick-wall-out-back slow, but it was certainly frustrating at times. We also found that pinch-to-zoom commands tended to lag a little, especially if multiple pages or apps were open.

Multiple pages were accessed not through the browser but through the multitasking page, which was a bit confusing at first. Once we were used to it, however, we actually found that we preferred this approach. It was a uniquely streamlined way of switching between various windows that we really appreciated.

App launching varied greatly depending on how many programs we were running concurrently. We would often exit an app, manage our Multitasking Screen and then return to the app again once we’d freed up a little more memory. It was a fast way of doing things, but we were surprised that we had to do it at all considering the 1GB of RAM which powered the N9.

App support was, expectedly, not too great. It’s not really the fault of the N9 or the Meego operating system, but there just isn’t a huge amount of support for the N9 when it comes to apps. App junkies should definitely take this in to consideration when looking at this phone. This is definitely a pretty big issue for the N9, but not a crippling one. There are still multiple games and fun little apps to play around with, just don’t expect the same kind of choice that you might see on iOS or Android.

Camera

The 8MP camera of the Nokia N9 was, surprisingly, a little disappointing. We’re well aware that Nokia has a well-deserved reputation for providing a great photo-taking experience, but we found that the N9 just didn’t ‘wow’ us.

Pictures taken in bright light came out passably, but not really within the ‘top-tier’ of phone cameras we’ve tested. Once you got in to low light things definitely took a turn for the worse. Photos taken without flash came out extremely grainy. Photos taken with flash had a similar problem, although it was obviously less severe. There was also a problem with movement-capture. Too many of our shots that were directed at moving targets came out blurry and ill-defined.

The same held true for video. We found the whole experience to be passable, but definitely less than we would have expected from Nokia and its renowned camera technology.

The WhistleOut Opinion

For a first attempt, the Nokia N9 is a pretty good foundation. Much like Windows Phone was when it was launched, the issues that the N9 face are not daunting when faced individually, but do tend to stack up as you encounter more and more.

Usually we would chalk this up to it being a first go and would trust that updates and fixes would be coming with time. However, since Nokia basically abandoned the Meego platform before the N9 was even released we have to remain doubtful in that department.

Don’t get us wrong, the N9 certainly isn’t a bad phone and it would probably do well for a lot of people out there. The UI, although derivative at times, was classy and efficiently laid-out. The form-factor was gorgeous and we can’t mention enough just how good this phone feels in your hand.

However, due to the impending proliferation of the Nokia Lumia 800 we can’t whole-heartedly endorse the N9 as we would like. Most of the physical elements that we fell in love with will still be available on the Lumia 800, but without the various little issues we had with the UI and OS. If you’re after something different that won’t break the bank or drive you insane then the Nokia N9 might be the device for you, otherwise we advise you wait and check out the Lumia 800 before making a decision.


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