My Nokia N900 user experience

Published by Steve Litchfield at 12:10 UTC, December 28th 2009

Gavin Culverhouse guest writer for All About Maemo:

"About 5 months ago I was pondering my next move. I had an Nokia N82 which had lasted me some time and was beating away all pretenders to the throne. It had proved a very capable phone with its highly regarded camera and the stability of S60 3rd Edition.

That said I had wanted a change for a good while, only nothing that came along was managing to get my pulse racing. I had been thinking the iPhone 3GS was next on my list but, to be sure I liked an all touch screen device, I decided to test the water with a Nokia 5800.

I had mixed feelings about the device and whilst I knew the iPhone had a much slicker UI, I felt very unsure about having no hardware keys. So when the N900 was announced, I thought Nokia may have just pulled me back.

There was no way I was going to try the much maligned N97, and the HD2, whilst packing a punch, was a Windows Mobile device and I just cannot bring myself to go there. Like many commentators have said "If it had been an Android device" then it could have been a real contender. Overall though, Android still seems to be lacking a strong device - although I think the Motorola Droid/Milestone is a clear step in the right direction.

I didn't consider Blackberry at all.

Why did I choose the N900?

My needs were for a smartphone that has some wow factor, as I'm a bit of a gadget guy. I wanted something that will multitask (when you've used Symbian for a good few years it's pretty hard to go linear!)

Reading Ewan McLeod's Mobile Industry Review post recently about his frustrations over iPhone lack of multitasking vindicates some of my reason for not taking Apple too seriously.

I have recently purchased Bluetooth headphones in the form of the Nokia BH-504 and a key feature would be for any new phones to work with them so I was amazed when I read that, although the iPhone has A2DP, it would not allow me full functionality of Next/Previous buttons, since it does not implement AVRCP correctly.

Having Bluetooth headphones and then having to take my device out of my pocket, unlock, navigate to the media app and then choose next is a complete no-no. I cannot believe the inventor of the iPod has not got this licked.

I do a good bit of web browsing on my phone and so the lure of the fully functioning desktop-like browser on the N900 was a big attraction. Reading the blurb on Flash in smartphone browsers throughout 2010 and the fact that Apple are not on the radar was only another concern for the iPhone.

I'm sure I could live without it but it was just going to be another niggle that suggested the iPhone was no longer the cutting edge device I was after. For me Apple, will need to break some new ground again before I get really interested but I imagine that just isn't their bag so perhaps I'm just not in Apple's demographic, which I guess is understandable.

I wanted to be able to rip a DVD to divx (or whatever) codec and watch it on my N900. I was reading more and more about how flexible the N900 was in this regard which put even more feathers in its cap.

Finally, the price was a bit of a factor here as I got the N900 for £499 from the Nokia Store and that was with£50 cashback at Quidco, meaning £450.

The iPhone would have been pretty much £100 more, although I know I could get a discount again through Quidco. I couldn't see why I would pay more for the iPhone.

Had it been £100 cheaper than the N900 then it would have been a tougher decision.

What has been my experience so far?

On day one (Christmas Day), I was so chuffed to be let loose on my new toy that I went a bit mad and installed app after app from the repositories. I was seeing anything with a hint of usefulness and thinking "ohh cool" without a thought to whether:


  1. I would use it
  2. Where I got it from

I went all the way through Maemo Extras, Extras-Testing and Extras-Devel (the apps you really shouldn't be playing with!) stuffing my face full of plug-ins!

Eventually, the inevitable happened!

The browser crashed and, when I went to reboot the device and open web again, nothing. Not a peep. I went to the Application screen and started web, it opened and then waited 20 seconds before self closing.

I tried the cut down browser Midori, which was ok and then I had a brainwave. "I know, I'll install Firefox beta"! Now, given that it was almost certain that the reason my device had crashed in the first place was due to unfinished apps, perhaps I would have been warned off another Beta. But no, this was the answer to my problem, so I ploughed on and installed.

Now Firefox mobile or "Fennec" is supposed to be another world beater in the browser stakes from what I've been reading. However, one of the first sites I tried was

Admittedly, this is not the simplest of sites to chuck at a mobile browser, but I had been testing it out on my netbook and thought I'd go for it. Actually, I was disappointed. MicroB, the default browser on the N900, handled Brizzly very well. It was a touch slow but I can understand that.

However, Firefox was making a real mess of how it rendered the page and misplaced items. It's not as if you could criticise Brizzly's webmasters for their coding, given that MicroB had no real issues showing off the page as intended.

So I realised I had to get the main browser, Web, back. I tried a few reboots before resorting to Google for some answers on reverting to factory settings. The only real answer seemed to be to reflash the device with the firmware. I was not overly keen on this prospect but another side of me liked the tinkering aspect of it. It was late on Christmas Day and so I decided I'd look at it in the morning.

Boxing Day morning I brushed up on reflashing. Actually, it turned out to be pretty simple. I downloaded the firmware for the UK device and the command line flasher application and followed a few lines of simple instructions. The flashing took less than 5 minutes and, whilst it did knock out all the applications I'd installed, it kept all my user files in place on the 32GB mass storage.

I didn't exactly change the habit of a lifetime. Learning from the failings of day one, I headed back to the repositories and kicked off round 2 of the download world championships.

Not a real shocker then that when MicroB crashed in the evening it would not restart and I knew another reflash was on the cards. This time I was onto it like a flash (ho ho ho) and, by being a bit more worldly-wise about what apps I installed third time around, it was probably only an hour of tinkering before I was back in full flow.

At first this did put me off the N900, as I was worried I'd spent a wedge on a device that was going to crash all over the place and leave me frustrated. I even checked the returns policy at Nokia and looked at whether I was within the 14 day cooling off period.

I wasn't!

I reasoned I could sell it on eBay and not really lose out (a quick search of completed listings showed there are enough keen buyers out there to mean a good price would be had.) I thought "Maybe I should have got an iPhone 3GS after all. I'm sure the iPhone would not have been crashing like this!"

After I thought it all through though, I realised that actually the reasons I chose the N900 in the first place still hold true. The iPhone has a maturity out there that would give me good stability and performance. The trouble is that it would have been a bit safe, a bit boring and not at the cutting edge anymore. Not to mention the fact that the basic things the iPhone is crap at would have driven me crazy (multitasking, AVRCP, lack of flash support and inability to play back just about any video file). Equally, I like things that are ground breaking.

I'm sure I would have loved the iPhone 3GS had it been the first incarnation, but now whilst it has the power I'd want, it still lacks some features that are key to daily use for me.

For now then, I'm happy with my N900. I've noticed a few niggly bits, like the awkwardness of using the keyboard (but not as awkward as a touch-screen keyboard) and also the fact that the screen lock toggle switch feels like it's in the wrong place. For example, if I make a telephone call and want to lock the screen before replacing the device in my pocket, I cannot do that with one hand. I might manage it at a push but I would be highly likely to drop the device, as it requires more dexterity than my hands possess! That said, the main reason I have this device is not for making phone calls, so I can live with that.

I've now managed to take a few Christmas photos (camera did a decent job, similar to other Nokia 5mp cameras, a notable improvement over the 5800 3.2mp) and to share using Pixelpipe, which worked nicely (once I'd logged in correctly!)

I've set up gPodder to go and get my list of audio podcasts. I've streamed music over my home network from my main PC (can be done over the net too with Knots2), I've played video files streamed from the main PC to our TV via the TV-Out cable supplied. That worked really well and meant the family could enjoy old footage captured on previous Nokia devices that they had not seen for some time.

Whilst it is easily accessed by the geek of the family, the N900 is making some things more accessible! I've sideloaded a program downloaded from iPlayer. I used my netbook to download the WMV file and then copied it to the device and it plays flawlessly, listened to 5Live football commentary direct from the BBC Sport web page using the MicroB browser.

The N900's FM Transmitter was not a feature I considered important, as my experience of these in the past has been poor. However, here it worked perfectly and a few choice tunes in the car made a change from my wife's radio choices! I'll use it more for podcasts when driving to and from the station on my daily commute.

Another big plus point for me will be the integration of social media via the Conversations application which threads SMS, Tweets and IMs by user. Combining this with the hardware keyboard means I feel much more engaged and willing to pass comment and to share my thoughts. On a T9 device, it always seemed like too much hassle to navigate to the appropriate app or web page and then tap in a comment, whereas now it's so quick and easy that I think I'm going to be a lot more active.

The N900 is certainly not the mass market device that will kill the iPhone. I think iPhone competitors are far more likely to come in the shape of Nokia devices in late 2010, once Symbian rocks up with Qt and perhaps once Maemo 5 has a slimmer, more polished flagship device - or even Maemo 6. However, at this point in time the N900 is going to allow me to satisfy the majority of functions that my mobile life demands and gives me the feeling that I have something different to the crowd that can perform some impressive party tricks to boot. Maybe I will buy an iPhone one day. I certainly have to thank Apple for raising the bar on expectations of a mobile device user interface but for now it still comes just short of being my number one choice.

Gavin Culverhouse guest writer for All About Maemo, 28th Dec 2009

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