Nokia’s N9: An Unexpected Owner’s Review

source: conversations.nokia.com

I didn’t expect to be able to say anything first-hand about the Nokia N9.  I really thought my semi-facetious post a while back would be pretty much it unless I came up with some other abstract commentary to inflict on you all.  And I really haven’t used this meandering blog for device reviews, unless you count one admittedly unusual attempt for the slightly-less-cool N8.

So I was genuinely surprised to receive a sleek black N9 in London last month the day before Nokia World 2011, at a special Champions Day event.  And I’ve used it enough to share some juicy details.

First, however, a disclaimer:

The following review is from a drooling, starry-eyed device nut who is contemplating super-gluing an N9 to his hand.  Don’t expect much objectivity.

So let’s do this. 

Design

There’s been enough mentioned on this aspect, but I have to say it myself nonetheless: this is the Ferrari of phones.  In fact I even suggested on Twitter that Nokia co-brand a red one with the Italian king of cars.  I cannot overstate the sexy elegance.  Yes I have overused that word “sexy”.  Yes the N9 deserves it.  No other cell phone has been designed better.  Most don’t even come close.

Your gaze is immediately hooked by that seductive ebony screen.  The one bordered by an almost non-existent bezel.  The only one that gently arches above the front surface of a cell phone.  Double-tap that gloss black Gorilla glass beauty and be dazzled by the display’s brilliance.

This device is such a work of art that I find myself treating it with much more reverence than its predecessors.  I am using the included slip case religiously, and finally contemplating placing a screen cover on a cell phone… for the first time.  Just hope I find one that does it justice.

The single-body case is almost stunning enough to make me forgive Nokia for the sealed battery.  Almost… but given my discouraging experiences with Nokia batteries, I’m really concerned about the possibility that this one could go bad.  So there’s a risk.

I’m also disgusted with myself for somehow letting the chrome camera trim get a little scuffed.  Probably from riding in my pocket.  Note to self: buy a damned hip case.

Oh, and I really like the robust SIM slot and usb cover mechanisms.  Nokia finally got those right!

UI/UX

I came to this conclusion with the N950, but the N9 just cemented it: MeeGo Harmattan provides the ultimate mobile device experience.  Period.  Yes, I have a fondness for the various Maemo iterations (and a tolerance for Symbian Anna) but this user experience is state of the art.  Swiping is so intuitive, so expected, that I now find myself futilely flicking my finger across the screens of lesser devices.  Other than some oddities with settings drilldowns, I’m completely satisfied.

Notifications and messaging integrations go a long way toward making this a must-have product.  I’m a forgetful sort who gave up on watches when I started using cell phones, and the N9 does a great job of alerting me to what I’ve scheduled and what is going on in my virtual world.  The sleep screen shows the time and icons for alert types– very handy.

Power/Performance

At first the N9 irked me with its sluggishness on waking from sleep.  No such thing as a coffee app, unfortunately, so I had to wait for the recent PR 1.1 update to see an improvement.  Sure enough, it now wakes up and goes straight to work.  Nicely done, Nokia!  Especially getting the update out so quickly.

Battery life is… tolerable.  I’m a demanding user of mobile internet so I know to keep expectations low… but I would not have complained if a larger capacity battery had added some size and weight.  My ultimate dream device will go at least a day of heavy use without needing a recharge.  The N9 isn’t there, but it tends to last long enough between recharge opportunities.  I occasionally have issues charging from usb (“not enough power…”) but without some troubleshooting I don’t know if it’s the phone, my power sources or both.

Apps

You know me: I’m not really an app guy.  Allergic to Apple-sized content stores, I’m usually content with what the manufacturer includes.  Nokia has done a great job here, preloading the N9 with the usual useful utilities like Maps, Music, Facebook & Twitter clients, a nice integrated Accuweather app and much more.  That even includes Nokia Drive, contrary to some misleading press.

So what have I installed?

  • Solitaire
  • PhoneTorch
  • Recorder
  • File Manager (beta)
  • Radio FM4

…and a really pretty fish wallpaper.  All recommended.

Etcetera

I love the tiny usb-style wall charger.  It’s about time Nokia got on board with that.

Kudos also to Nokia for its environmentally-responsible quest to reduce packaging.  The N9’s product box is very close to zero wasted space.  Other manufacturers, take note: you should be ashamed of your excess.

I enabled Developer mode on mine because I’m trying to teach myself Qt.  I haven’t seen it interfere with any other functionality.  Now if only my code would work…

Summary

The most surprising thing about the N9?  The amazing reaction it’s garnered.  Quotes like:

You’ve never seen anything like it, and if you think it’s attractive in pictures, wait until you see it in person — it’s completely and utterly irresistible. -Engadget

The thing with the N9, though, is that, much to my surprise, I really do rather like it. -Gizmodo

After using the Lumia 800 for a day, I am happy to say that it makes my Nokia N9 purchase even more valid and justifiable -ZDNet

The sole complaints from reviewers?  The expected short shelf life of the MeeGo Harmattan OS and the scarcity of apps.

I must now remind the reader: I am really a computer person, not a phone person.  And when I have had to use a cell phone, my past preference has been Nokia sliders and E71-type form factors.  So when I tell you I can’t put this candy bar touchscreen phone down, that’s profound.  The user experience has no equal.

Well done, Nokia!  Now… if your CEO would only change his mind on the platform’s viability…

33 responses to “Nokia’s N9: An Unexpected Owner’s Review

  1. Awesome, just awesome. I find myself wanting those interactions that the N9 has. Many of them make sense (having had some play with the N950), and I’ve got a few that I keep inventing. Your delight in the device says a lot, a ton.

    I think the N9 speaks to a mobile that can live beyond some of the ecosystem challenges Nokia has had. And at the same time, you say it at the end of your review, learning to code on it has been opening for you. That kind of flex to grow with you is what I think sets this apart, even from Symbian devices. If the N9 can evolve, with and without official support, then maybe Nokia’s concepts of mobility can truly connect us to the kinds of experiences that should matter.

  2. This is the type of review that’s making my decision on which device to go with next extremely difficult.

    Like you, I’m opposite of an app whore, so I’m OK with the limited availability of applications as the ones I need are covered by Nokia and, even though Nokia may not support her for long, the MeeGo community will pop out a number of gems from time to time.

    That said, I’m sort of tired buying into a device the rest of the world perceives as dead on arrival. I mean, it doesn’t phase me in the slightest having owned an N900 for two years now, but sometimes it wears me down when I miss out on new and upcoming services such as Square(for credit card purchases) or seamless Google services integration that could be had with an Android powered device.

    What’s your advice to people in my position? I’m even OK with choosing the N8, as I can get by with its great camera and S^3, but is that still a good decision in this moment of mobile history when devices like the Nokia N9, Samsung Galaxy Note/Nexus/S II are leaps and bounds ahead of it in all categories except imaging?

    I truly wish I had the funds to be able to purchase two devices for concurrent usage and then the decision would just be between what awesome device in ADDITION to the N8 do I want, but I’m not that rich!

    Of course, the recent rumor about an N8 successor is not helping, at all. If it was confirmed, and a true successor (IE: specifications only improve upon the N8) I could patiently wait, but I don’t want to get trapped in the waiting game forever.

    Does the N9 have a mobile hotspot application?
    How would you rate e-mail integration compared to N900?

  3. Saving every penny.. not long now.

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  5. This just further cements everything I have ever read about the N9 – you are soo damn lucky to get one. They are as rare as hens teeth over here in the UK and way too expensive. Cannot spare £500+ to drop on one simfree!

    Not selling it in favour of the Lumia 800 is like forcing Usain Bolt to run with his laces tied together – I can understand why(just) but the N9 on wide general release would blow everythign else out of the water

  6. It’s just so sad that Nokia management aren’t committed to it :(

    I’ve got an N950 and whilst it is pretty nice, there are still a lot of rough spots in Harmattan and I’m concerned that Nokia probably won’t commit the resources to fix it (some very apps laggy, bad UX in places, weak handling of corner cases for contact management, and lots of other little annoyances).

    The lack of commitment will have also killed the motivation of third party developers. It’s such a shame. The platform could have really been something special.

    I’m thinking it’s best to just cut my losses and instead move to Android given the abandonment of both this and maemo (my poor old N900)..

    • There’s definitely rough spots. Randall’s analogy with a Ferrari is quite apt in this regard. There’s always rough spots on a Ferarri too, but you kind of forgive them because they add character. ;-)

      There’s a couple of ‘characterful’ bits I’d love to see change though. eg. in Events view, instead of a Refresh button, having pull down to refresh or that the speed of scrolling in the Twitter/Facebook apps isn’t anywhere near as fast as Events view. These seem to just be minor ‘snagging’ jobs that the developers didn’t get around to sorting out and you can only hope they get the chance to tidy up in PR1.2.

      Randall, I’ve also had the ‘not enough power’ thing when trying to charge from anything other than the included Nokia charger. I’ve tried two iPad chargers (2.1A!), a car charger, a 1A emergency battery, various computers and a Nokia 2mm C7 charger via the Nokia CA146C we all love from the N900 days and each seems to only charge at the slower 500mA USB safe rate that causes the N9 to pop up that message.

  7. At first I was not going to get an N9 and call it a day with Nokia at the N900 but after seeing the videos and reading the reviews I was determined to get one on import – living in the USA was a considerable disadvantage for once… It did not help that I was put off first by the fact that Nokia decided against releasing the N950, secondly by nokia’s decision to not release the N9 globally and then thirdly by nokias decision to ditch meego for windows phone 7…

    I still think going it alone with windows phone 7 is such a bad decision for nokia, meego is an incredible game changing option and its a total shame they they dropped the OS. All you have to do now is look at the recent news from XDA and you realize quickly that nokia is rapidly losing the edge that differentiates their devices from their competition – the recent nokia apps which were supposed to be nokia only are now readily available to side load on any rooted wp7 device and MS themselves are now behind the chevron unlocker. So stupid Nokia as you are very behind on the mobile hardware not to mention that a comparison of the N9 and 800 shows the N9 out in the lead on all hardware (never mind the OS)… Meego is beautiful and very fast especially when you compare it to android and the hardware differences – android on a 1Ghz platform is painfully slow, meego is buttery smooth! Nokia did an amazing job on this so to just discard it is such a pity…

    That said the N9 is an amazing piece of hardware and software, I do not regret the purchase for one minute, its an wow device! Yes there are some applications I wish I had (amazon cloud player, shazam and some more good games to pass the time) but this is hardly a deal breaker. The N9 is a truely wonderful device and meego is a beautiful OS that really rounds out this incredible device. Too many people are hung up on app count however what they forget about is that most apps are junk or copies of other apps! Although if Nokia had been serious about this Device and OS applications would have followed easily – releasing a single device and killing the OS will never inspire any developer to build apps for the ecosystem – had the consumer been given an option of the N950 and the N9 and it had a global release with Nokia standing behind the platform as their top end platform then things might have been considerably different. It would have taken some time still but the apps counts would have gotten there!

    I can safely say that I love the N9 BUT with the direction nokia are taking it will definitely be the last nokia device I purchase…

  8. I have N8 transitioned from G1 can still use G1 with wifi .
    transitioned from t-mobile to at&t use N8 as hot spot but only as per to per and only when Clear is not available .
    Have you considered carrying a phone that is a phone, a tablet that a tablet, a hot spot that is a hockey puck,a camera that is a camera and a watch that is a watch

  9. Okay, a little follow-up.

    I found an irritating quirk in Nokia Drive yesterday. I had to go to an address I had never been to before. No problem: enter all the info into Drive, tell it to route, and bam! done.

    Off I went, dutifully following every turn. Until I reached my destination… or close to it, anyway. You see, I had forgotten the house address. And Nokia Drive didn’t show it to me. Nope, just the street name was displayed. There was a cute little icon for the destination, but clicking it produced no response. I had expected a popup with address details.

    Of course backing up to previous searches got me the info I wanted but… really?

  10. If only I had the artistic skill to draw satirical cartoons, for I have the following in my head: Stephen Elop leading a unicorn towards a slaughterhouse, while a donkey with an ice cream cone taped to it’s head stands on a podium. I’ll give you three guesses what labels are put on the unicorn and the donkey…

    • Awesome metaphor. And clearly you want the ice cream cone glued to the donkey’s head; guess where the glue comes from?

  11. Another follow-up:

    Well, I was taken to task today on Twitter for writing a “basic” review. I was unaware this was an offense.

    In all seriousness, I think I’ve made it clear this is NOT a device review blog… and if/when I do cover a device I’ll do so in my own fashion.

    This one was written from an owner’s perspective, not a nitpicking (which I can easily be) analyst’s. For that, I linked to other reviews with which I mostly agreed.

    I may or may not ever do a typical run-through-the-wringer product review here. But I always reserve the right to write as I feel led, and readers of course have the right to criticize those choices. ;)

  12. I have to admit, at one point on a Nokia Conversations post I stated I was tired of being experimented on by Nokia (I’ve owned the 770, N800 and N900) and I wasn’t up for one more round – this was on Feb 11, 2011 when Meego was relegated to R&D status.

    But I own an N9, because the thing is gorgeous, responsive, a pleasure to work with. Expensive as all get out and I had to get it from Denmark for delivery here in California. But it’s worth it (to me) – and anyone I’ve shown it to drools (one said his iPhone 4 looked very dated next to it).

    There are a couple of apps I’d like to see available – MaStory and a QR code app. Otherwise, the few apps I’ve installed, when combined with the built-in ones, meet my needs.

    Good “review”, Sir – covering what you said you’d cover. With enough disclaimers in place that the reading public should have known what they were getting. :)

    • There is a QR app and on first impressions it works well. It was the first app I tried and it works better that a friends iPhone 4 app. It picked up a QR on a Schneider Circuit breaker which is about 6mmx6mm perfectly. Now I want an HP calculator app which I had on my N97. Anyone looking for a challenge? Either the new HP35s or even an old HP29C or similar would do.

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  16. Randall, I really liked your ‘review’ because you were super-honest but from an everyday user’s point-of-view, and not a tech-blog-geek-expert’s, which means more to me in my decision making, especially when the device is so expensive. I am thinking about getting Christmas out of the way and then taking the plunge. I’m tired of Symbian’s shortfalls, and Nokia’s delay with Belle, and I’m in favour of waiting until WP matures with Nokia, say to mid-2012. But the N9 is so compelling, and your write-up (with add-ons) was so well written, it’s becoming an easier decision to make. Cheers!

  17. Well, as somebody who is seriously thinking about getting one (checking each day on sites like simplyelectronics to see how much it’s gone down in price!) I am – obviously – quite interested/concerned with the current problems people are having with the N9. While I am sure it is *mainly* amazing, I would love to have a heads-up on what might not work so well, so that when I hit those bumps and potholes, I will be better prepared for them. Too many review sites either focus on MeeGo’s future or they compare the Nokia Store with the AppStore, and I’m like, yeah yeah yeah, but what about the N9, in this ‘N9 review’!! Even if your complaints are just annoyances, I’d like to know what they are, if you’re willing to share! Thanks, and keep up the great work. I’ve always taken your comments over on talk.maemo.org to be honest, thoughtful and often very useful. :)

    • Thanks Andy.

      Again, it’s difficult for me to be completely objective, because something I can’t quite quantify really pulls me to this device like none I’ve ever used. My issues have been minor, and the last update helped my major gripe (occasional sluggish response on waking) quite a bit. Offhand I can’t think of anything bothering me right now…

      Most of the complaints I see from others are ones revolving around personal use and not the device per se. Things like no Facebook alerts for built-in notifications (I don’t care) to Microsoft Exchange issues (I have not tried it yet). The N9 handles just about everything *I* expect of it, and it’s unfortunate that’s not universal… but nothing new or unusual. ;)

  18. Thanks for the reply, Randall. I guess everyone has their own preferences. I just listened to a podcast (Steve Litchfield’s Phone Show Chat) from last month, and somebody on there had a laundry list of N9 gripes, but none of them particularly would really get on *my* nerves. I think I’d be happy with one. Reviews abound give it 5 stars, and they can’t all be wrong! Thanks again! :)

  19. Thank you for sharing this :) It was a wonderful read. I’ve always considered trusting things that people don’t or wont even try to. I want this phone, and it will be the last Nokia I will buy… Unless of course Nokia change their mind to go with two operating systems. I want a free world – All of Nokia’s operating systems (symbian included) even with all their short comings were open source.

    The knowledge that this will be the last one that meets that criterion. I am sad.

    Why would it not be possible to develop more phones on this operating systems especially with all the positive reviews it has got? Why dump it entirely and move on? It seems rather tragic. And I do hate to say it, but it does seem like Nokia are at it again. Forgetting to see how the people are responding to their release and adapt. Instead going with what they “thought” was the best option, despite the fact that they produced a thing of beauty that every one is talking about.

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