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With N900, Nokia Still Not Close to the iPhone

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n900.jpgThe biggest challenge for any touchscreen smartphone, no matter how good or great it is, is that it will almost always be compared to the iPhone. Some of them, like Verizon’s Droid and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Storm, seek that comparison. Others are just going to have to deal with it. Nokia’s new N900 device is in the second camp.

I’ve been a harsh critic of Nokia’s inability to compete with Apple and Google’s Android-based smartphones. No one can accuse me of not making it clear that I think Nokia is on a very slippery slope and unless it fields a competitive device, it will continue to see its share of the smartphone market erode. In particular, I’m not a big fan of the company’s multiple operating system strategy, but it is becoming clear: Nokia needs to move away from its aging smartphone platform, Symbian.

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Nokia apparently realizes that and has been spending a lot of time and energy building a modern, Internet-centric operating system, Maemo. The latest version of this Linux-based OS, Maemo 5, is the software that powers the N900, a $650 device likely to be released in the U.S. soon.

I’ve been playing around with an early version of this device for about three days and have some impressions. I’m breaking down the review into two components — hardware and software — because I think Nokia is getting a few things right!

Hardware: Why I wasn’t surprised

  1. The N900 resembles an old-fashioned cigarette pack; it’s not the prettiest device on the market. However, in comparison with its predecessors such as the N800 and N770 Internet tablets it is absolutely stunning.
  2. The 3.5-inch WVGA screen is actually pretty stunning as well; it’s easy to read documents on this phone.
  3. So how does it stack up against the iPhone 3GS? It’s heavier and thicker and is missing the sleekness of the Apple device.
  4. The keyboard on this device is cramped but still easy enough to use. I’ve always had problems with slider phones, so I’m not surprised that I find the keyboard on this device to be cramped. Despite the small keys, the keyboard is usable. I only wish Nokia made commonly used keys such as @ easy to access.
  5. I’m not a great fan of the resistive screen technologies and as such found interacting with the phone via touchscreen extremely painfully. Maybe it’s my brain, wired to look for an iPhone-like functionality, but N900’s touch features are extremely challenging.
  6. Nokia has a long tradition of providing the best mobile cameras in its phones and N900 is no different. The 5.8-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss lens is phenomenal.
  7. The device has all the modern hardware trappings: Wi-Fi, 3G, GPS and lots of storage. These are table stakes for any modern smartphone, so these features aren’t really much of a surprise.
  8. The battery power is adequate — better than any iPhone but much lower than classic Nokia phones.
  9. How does it function as a phone? It is unbelievably great and I experienced no dropped calls on the T-Mobile network. Not a single one. Furthermore, the N900 model I have is optimized for T-Mobile USA’s 3G network, which makes it far more reliable that the AT&T 3G network.

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Software: Why I was surprised

  1. I have been a long-time user of Nokia Internet Tablets and as a result I have been highly skeptical of Nokia’s claims that this phone could be turned into a nice modern Internet-centric smartphone OS. Well talk about being wrong!
  2. The Maemo OS used inside the test model of the Nokia N900 that I received was an incomplete version of the software, and despite being rough around the edges, it surprised me with its nimbleness and robustness. It didn’t at any point feel like a Linux-based device, and thanks to a hefty processor the N900 feels as crisp as the iPhone.
  3. The UI of Maemo is crisp and clear, though it does look dated in comparison to Apple’s iPhone. I’m going to go out on a limb here and claim that the UI is marginally better than that of Android. Both operating systems have one common fault, however: They look very much like a PC-inspired OS. That said, I think Nokia has still not mastered the art of “no.” Apple makes its things great by leaving features out; Nokia somehow believes that adding more makes its products great. Maemo suffers from that, but it isn’t something Nokia can’t fix — quickly.
  4. The biggest problem I had with the Maemo UI is that it isn’t unique enough. It’s coming late to the market, and as a result it looks somewhat like MotoBlur — a screen with a lot of widget-styled apps. It uses multiple desktops and also multiple screens, which makes the user experience a tad confusing. That’s one of the only knocks I have on the OS.
  5. Mameo’s most stunning aspect is the tight and seamless integration of the Firefox browser. As I wrote yesterday, Firefox is perhaps N900’s single biggest standout feature. It works just like it does on a desktop and, thanks to the seamless integration of AwesomeBar, a smarter version of a URL bar that uses Mozilla Weave, I can get access to all my bookmarks, my browsing history and other preferences. (Related Post: “Coming Soon: A Mozilla App for the iPhone“) You can’t overstate the importance of this feature, especially on a device with a cramped keyboard and a challenging touchscreen.
  6. Nokia is betting big on web-styled widgets. Some of the sample apps it’s included in the phone — Evernote, Twitter, Dopplr, and YouTube — all worked well. I’m sure more will follow. I’m also ambivalent about Nokia’s OVI services, which are pretty tightly integrated into the phone.
  7. It is the basic features on the N900 which are the most impressive: an easy way to get connected to Wi-Fi, an instant messaging app, a great SMS messaging application and built-in VoIP are among the good things about this device.

Bottom line:

I was conflicted about the N900. I don’t want to give Nokia a hard time about it: The company has made tremendous progress and with the N900, is on the right track. This phone gets a 6/10 from me: mostly because of the progress Nokia has made on the software front. If you’ve never used an iPhone, this is a pretty good device. In fact, a lot of folks in many parts of the world are going to find this device much more useful than, say, the N97.

Like a great home-run hitter who has lost his swing and is only one double away from getting it back, I think Nokia is a device or two from posing a strong challenge to its competitors.

209 Responses to “With N900, Nokia Still Not Close to the iPhone”

  1. The_M_Factor

    With no offense to anybody, I found out 2 things from this article:
    1) The reviewer totally is underrating the Pocket Dynamo (Yes thats the name I would refer N900 to as after reviewing many reviews and videos over the past 8-10 days).
    2) The reviewer is highly-overrated given the limited points he put forth (or rather due to many he missed), and also due to the interest he has generated given the replies here (OK…I am too a culprit)

    Why do comparisons always start with IPhone whenever Nokia or for that matter any other company comes out with a touchscreen phone. Atleast with respect to N900, there cant be any comparison at all. Both of these phones have totally different target audience. IPhone is for girls (and also for girlie boys), who really dont care what all features are there in their phone, but want a shiny pompous device to be seen in their hands. N900 is for real boys and men, people who really dont care if their phone is not the shiniest, not the lightest, or not really one which they can flaunt (though this cant be said for N900….It is a hella of a device to flaunt). It is for people who buy a phone (or rather I should say a mini computer) for the features, which Nokia have always been obliging nicely to providing in their devices.

    People talk about that IPhone has been since years with their Capacitive touchscreen, still why cant Nokia come out with one. Do such people ever think why is Iphone still not able to multitask?? Or why even Iphone 3GS still lacks behind quite a few sub-200$ phones in camera quality?? Simply because these are not required by people who buy cellphones for features (now my “Iphone is for girls” point may seem logical”.

    More than the release of N900, I am more interested in the thought of the devices which would come out subsequently on its line. N900 is only a beginning. I hope it doesnt disappoint me. Otherwise I will still have to wait before I upgrade my 5800.

  2. Mark Peters

    The N900 can do something that I personally have been waiting for for a long time (and I don’t think iPhone can do it): stream music over my home Wi-Fi network from my PC.

    Combine that with the 27GB usable storage in mass memory, and this means that I no longer need my iPod. When I’m home, I can access my entire music collection (not just 30GB of it as with my iPod) over Wi-Fi, and for away from home use I can store nearly 27GB of that collection in mass memory.

    This feature is also the source of my biggest complaints about the device. First, it can also stream video over Wi-Fi, but the feature is useless because the buffering never gets far enough ahead to provide smooth playback. If this worked, I could use the device to watch videos/movies stored on my PC while sitting in my backyard on a summer night.

    Second, the device is supposed to be able to retrieve images via Wi-Fi, but I can’t get that to work. It can see all my shared media directories, but no images ever show up in them.

    The only other significant complaints I have about the device: not enough apps switch orientation upon rotating the device, with the web browser being the most significant of those, and there is no feedback when sending a text message (and so I have sent messages twice, thinking that the first send failed).

    Oh, and I have found one bug: photos from the camera that are transferred to a PC cannot be edited (e.g., rotate via right-click menu) until they are read into a image editing program and saved. Vista complains about “invalid image properties”, so I suspect that the camera software doesn’t generate fully valid image files.

      • Mark A. Peters

        Yes it was. However, I have since realized that the video issue is probably of my own doing.

        When I stream a full length movie to the device, it plays back as smooth as silk. It is only when I stream tiny videos made from a digital camera that the choppy playback happens. I converted those videos from the camera’s native format (which the N900 doesn’t support) to .avi – I can probably fiddle with conversion parameters to eliminate the choppy playback.

        I still cannot get the N900 to see the images on my server, though. Those are normal .jpg images, so I can’t imagine what the problem is. Perhaps it is related to the apparent incorrect/non-standard format the phone’s camera generates? Maybe the file permissions are somehow not what they need to be?

        Anyway, at this point I much prefer the N900 to the European HTC Hero I was using (and the 5800 XM before that). I’m in a fortunate position, however, since I write software for smart phones, and hence my company gives me use of the latest and greatest devices. ;-)

  3. I think N900 is the Best device from nokia and what a browser it has that is capable to run “Google Wave
    ” . can a iphone browser run a google wave in it’s browser ? I think that From iPhone 2G to IPhone 3G and IPhone 3G to IPhone 3GS , Apple is only working on it’s UI but they can’t think about the basic requirement of a Smartphone is Multitasking . N900 hasthe great Multitasking ability i have seen the video on youtube in which it is capable to run about 25 appplication at a runtime and in it’s task manager if u r watchiing a video it is also running in task manager same as Vista an Win 7

  4. My opinion, N900 is real working tool for people that likes to have control of it’s life in a fun way, iPhone is the best toy so far, that does what Apple want you to do.

  5. fuck sake you iphone users piss me off this nokia n900 makes the iphone 3gs look silly get real man your just jelous get your facts right iphones are all the same there shit with no keyboard nokia n900 is the best phone made to day take a look at the videos of it the things it can do its a tv remote it can do anything and it gets better the more times you use it fuck u iphone users i really would love 2 meet you and slap u hahahahaaha lol

  6. Apple Iphone’s are for those users who don’t know much about technology and is inspired by its ease of use and popularity. Nokia’s are for those users who got brains to think what they can do with their device and modify them.

    Plus Apple has copied about more than 100 patents from Nokia and Palm, yet Apple refuses to pay for it as of now. Nokia was the leading phone seller based on technology and Nokia still stood against its competition.

    I have seen Apple Iphones not withstanding harsh temperatures and the screen breaking when dropped. I wonder if an Apple would survive if it was sunk for half an hour in water. Apple’s restriction on the user is greater than Nokia users.

    And of course every company will have a sales drop once in a while due to competition. Apple is so gonna get pwned this time. Nokia phones are usually user friendly than other phones. Even those users who don’t speak English much use the Nokia more. Apple as other users say is a status symbol more than a user-oriented device. Even in the case of signal strength nothing can beat Nokia. Nokia has been in the telecommunication field since ages. Only if Nokia has improved more in the visual department can it succeed as of todays market. I as a Nokia fan would stick to Nokia. Its more like AMD vs Intel. But Intel still did it.

    One advantage would be the price drop because of competition. Newer technology being bought is another advantage.

    And for those losers who says that Nokia will sink, ur wrong. Nokia will fight back and Apple users can just start wearing diapers then. I despise the reviewer for giving such a lame review. I wonder if he has even touched the Nokia N900. Copy paste? No pics of unboxing or using the device. It’s as if this review was written in a rush blaming the Nokia altogether without explaining the fine details. If u wanna write a review, write it in detail rather than judging a device without even trying to discover all the functions.

    • Hahahahahaha lol! That’s EPIC! So funny and so true, actually it was nearly the conversation I had with my friend over the time since he got his 3GS. He was “bullied” into getting an iPhone because he wasn’t cool anymore with his Nokia N95?!? Lol, like a kid. He is like a sheep: get what everybody thinks is the coolest/best otherwise you are out! LOL…

  7. @Jonas: 99% of the iPhone crowd would’ve had a brainfart at the mention of Vorbis.

    2 phones, 2 demographics.
    iPhone = ‘OOOH SHINY!!!111″ . It’s for people who are technology-illiterate, or basically don’t care about paying extra, being locked in etc etc (all the negative points that detractors have been saying). They don’t mind shelling out money to Apple for whatever benefit it offers them. This demographic is probably 99% of everyone who bought an iPhone anyway.

    Everything else: People buy what suits their needs. I’d buy an N900 when the price reduces a bit more, because I value the flexibility, the extensibility and feature set. Also I have quite a few working brain cells to figure out a UI that isn’t made by Apple. The same goes for WinMo or HTC or whatever else.

    Oh and finally- I don’t live in the US. Hence I’ve been accustomed to multitasking, 3G, sharing content via Bluetooth/IR/MMS, copy-paste etc for over 5 years now.
    Hint: Before iPhone, what did people go for in the US? The Motorola Razr series, that debuted in 2002 and continued selling for the next 5 years till the iPhone came out. It isn’t even a smartphone, FFS.

  8. Jazzy_Bluesy

    This is ridiculous. The N900 has not been released yet and the guy wrote this review.
    We can not even realizing that Hi’s a big fan of the Iphone.
    When I buy something I am not just buying something. I am buying an idea.
    I do not like the idea of feeling in a jail. Even if I decide to “jailbreaking”, then I am really a outlaw.
    That is the feeling of having an Iphone.
    I’m hoping to get my N900 soon.

  9. I’m surprised none of you seem to get the real benefit of the maemo platform. The “linux” part.

    If you thought any previous cellphone ever had this great an opportunity for expansion or development then reconsider. This phone is capable of carrying and playing every single console game dated before SegaCD/Playstation1, it is probably capable of playing an extremely wide range of media formats as well.

    Seriously, what other phone can you find that has a realistic opportunity to be able to play Vorbis audio and Theora video?

  10. You are clearly too much of an Apple fanboy to be able to give someone looking for a phone a good idea of what to go for. Anything Ipod does will always for you be better. For example if it was Apple that came up with the ability to have four home screens you will be saying it is the greatest thing ever.

  11. if nokia n 900 gets 6/10 i phone 3gs is getting 0.01/10……………………how do i know ………i bought them both………..pls buy my i phone its a complete loss and save my computer from i tunes

  12. @ AW

    You stopped making sense on your first post…If you buy the iphone unlocked, it doesnt cost that much more than the iphone unlocked. Plus, what does it matter about price? The N900 will also get cheaper and better offers. The iPhone is just a fashion statement, as the N900 is technology and future.

    There`s no questioning that, whether you like it or not, sorry.

  13. I believe that there is truly no comparison between both the iPhone and the N900. These two devices are not even to be compared. I just wanted to know more about the N900. These phones are about convenience and everybody has a different opinion and that’s the bottom line. The comparison for the BEST touch-screen phone will be close to non-existent as more phones with different options are becoming available. At this rate, you might as well wait 10 years as the technology will be far more superior beating both the N900 and IPhone.

  14. 6 out of 10? I think he’s being generous. You sheeple whining about how the N900 is the greatest handset ever are either nuts or you’ve never even had a chance to touch/use the device… I have and it’s a disaster. The build quality is atrocious… I still have a Nokia 6310i that’s close to 10 years old and compared to that phone the N900 feels like a cheap piece of plastic junk. The vaunted multi-tasking that you love to point out should have never been allowed out of alpha builds… the idea of multi-tasking is great… the Nokia implementation is a horror show of slow-downs, lock-ups, and crashes. The whole OS is just a mess… doing things that should be dead simple end up making you want to pull your hair out after jumping thru hoop after hoop of ridiculously convoluted menu options.

    This is going to be another handset that all the Nokia fanboys will get their panties in a wad about but the rest of the world will ignore. Oh sure… they’ll descend on the comments section of any website that even mentions the N900 spouting off about how it’s the greatest thing ever and pointing out all the great “features” it has that the iPhone doesn’t… they’ll whine and cry about anyone who doesn’t agree with them being an iPhone fanboy or an Android fanboy but in the end this is just another in the long line of Nokia’s latest efforts that will just fade into the background once people actually get their hands on the thing… and in the meantime Nokia’s market share will continue to plummet as their fans continue to fill website comment sections with post after post about their precious Nokia being the only “true” smartphone. Sorry guys but based on the numbers the rest of the world has figured out that Nokia is dying a slow death… relegated to providing cheap, lowest denominator handsets that nobody really wants… and all the posts in the world ain’t gonna fix that.

      • WHy do some people have this idea of Nokia dying while Apple takes over as #1? I mean Nokia’s smartphone market share is 40%, RIM’s 20%, Apple’s 17%. But Apple’s 17% is a spike in the 3rd quarter when they release the new iPhone, otherwise they are around 9%. Nokia’s and RIM’s sales are stable throughout the year. And that’s only the smartphone segment, Nokia sells a huge amount of normal handsets too. I’m least a fan of Nokia just thought I try to clear this up since everybody is hyping Apple up.

    • Apple have had their fears come true with the launch of N900, and they are now paying reviewers to write crap about N900….whats more, they are even paying people to top up the review with similar comments, as was done here by Brian….He has given such an extensive review of N900 on 24th October…can he please explain how did he got hold of the device by that date???

  15. Magnus L

    “yet they fail to garner the following let alone revolutionize the industry as the iPhone”

    Garner the following, yes. Revolutionize the industry? Nah… There is only one word: Hype.

  16. It’s understandable that people would get so obsessed about specific features and just want more more more, but simply having a longer bullet list of features does not make something great. There have already been smartphones with more features and more of this and more of that than the iPhone, but they come out to great fanfare and then are just “another” phone with more features and higher this or that.

    It’s very easy for a company to just add features by bolting things on…that’s not the hard part. The hard part is streamlining the device by making tough decisions on what should be left out. Yea I know, “what? taking away options makes it better!?!?!!?!”…..newsflash, yes it does make it better in many respects, and not just in the phone/computing industry. Note I said many respects, I did not say take away ALL features. Of course there are things I wish the iPhone did, but getting the balance between feature set and user experience elevates tech to an artform. And yes, I did just imply the iPhone is a work of art.

    There are phones that can tether. There are phones that can multi-task. There are phones that can do alot more than the iPhone, yet they fail to garner the following let alone revolutionize the industry as the iPhone.

    For the groups of people out there who need specific features or bragging rights of higher specs and longer list of features, there are other phones out there that will do the job well. But for most people out there who want a supreme user experience, there’s the iPhone.

    • Nilanjan

      Its ot funny that when Apple takes away STANDARD features , it by itself is a feature.

      Or remember when Apple took away ability to line up songs sequentially (which every player could do) and called it shuffle mode – it became a feature …

      You guys CAN learn to live without standard features if its by Apple. Is that what is the definition of “Fanboy” ?

  17. Wow. What a completely schizophrenic review. Seriously. What was that, because that was a mess? I’m going to cut YOU a break — because it’s clear that everyone before me has already ripped you a new one — and simply say.

    If you hate Nokia products that’s fair enough, a lot of people do. But aren’t you supposed to review a product on it’s OWN merits? That’s what a “review” does? You take the product, you have a “STANDARD LIST” criterial. You make a judgment based on THOSE standards, and the standards of the company’s history, and their customers base. Not a completely DIFFERENT company and their customer base.

    When everything is said and done. That’s YOUR JOB. Your job as a reviewer is to have an unbiased view point, and stick to the standard criterial for reviewing. To make SO MANY unprofessional comparisons makes it really clear that you do not know what your job is. Which means you are NOT trust worthy, and not worth my time. Thank you good-bye.

  18. Magnus L

    On the subject of the cost of the iPhone vs. N900…

    In Singapore, the iPhone 3GS is available, whereas the N900 is not expected to be released anytime soon or ever. The iPhone is heavily subsidized by the only carrier that is currently allowed to sell it, but regulations here are such that it is illegal to lock a phone to a specific telco. I happen to be with the iPhone carrying telco. Thanks to the iPhone hype, lots of ppl on the other telcos want the iPhone but can’t get it. I don’t want it. What did I do? I recontracted and bought a subsidized iPhone. Immediately I sold it to someone on another telco. With the proceeds I can almost (I’m short of approx. USD100) finance my purchase of a N900 from the US, incl. shipping and taxes. I’m only trying to figure out the warranty side of things right now…

    Thanks to the hype surrounding the iPhone I can get the N900 almost free! Isn’t it great?

    • Actually, found it on Newegg.com for $559.00, pre-order till 11/14/09.

      I still think $300 is the most I’d shell out. Are you people getting bonuses monthly or something?

  19. Haakon Nilsen

    I’m looking forward to getting this device.

    Good review, but I’m not sure what was meant by “It didn’t at any point feel like a Linux-based device”. What does a Linux-based device “feel like”? I think that shows some prejudice or ignorance regarding what Linux is.

  20. @ AW

    The iPhone also costs an arm and a leg, so what are you trying to say?

    The iPhone is a RIP-OFF. END OF.
    With the N900, you get MORE for LESS price. So why would you want a plastic-toy-device that looks like its made in a corner shop in China :S:S:S:S when you can get something that’s worth your money?

    lolit dont cry because you have no money left to buy the N900!!!+¨11+!!!111loool

    • Ummm… $650 is not less than $200. We can sit here an argue about contract length, jailbreaking, which carrier, and life cost all we want but the bottom line is that the N900 has a 3x higher initial investment. I could explain the time value of money to you and how an investment today of $650 and $50 every month thereafter is much worse than a $200 investment and $60 every month thereafter. Or we could talk about how the N900 will be “obsolete” to those that care in about a year or less and you will buy the next fancy phone to come out to be “ahead of the pack”. But the bottom line is that if you see the value in spending that amount of money on a phone that will *NOT* be the most feature laden in 1 year then do it, I could care less, just don’t bad mouth a phone that re-defined the industry and has an infinitely superior UI.

      • The N900 has a feature that will not be obsolete in a year, two, or however long the device lasts – freedom and openness. Besides, the interface of the N900 is much, much better than the iPhone’s.

      • AW,
        People around me who use iPhones for some reason seem to need to upgrade their iPhones just as often as you bash the Nokians here for. When the second-gen (i.e. “iPhone 3G”) was released they suddely just had to replace their first-gen units and interestingly enough the same thing happened when the iPhone 3GS came out. Just because Apple retains the iPhone name and general design it isn’t the same thing as nobody upgrading.

        I agree the iPhone in a way revolutionized the industry, but calling it “an infinitely superior UI” is just as pretentious as preposterous. The internet browsing experience for one thing is drastically handicapped compared to this one just for leaving out flash support.

        What most people here are upset by (and which spills over in what you see as iPhone-bashing) is that the iPhone/N900 comparison is faulty in the first place. Imagine a car magazine testing a new Ferrari with spectacular performance and dismissing it because it has poor visibility when parking and can’t fit enough luggage for an entire family. These two hones cater to different markets – so why do this direct comparison?

  21. Wow. All the iphone hate, for a device that REVOLUTIONIZED mobile computing. When the iphone was introduced it was a paradigm shift for smartphone users. All of a sudden it wasn’t okay to just be feature-laden you needed to have a GOOD user interface, not the crap most companies throw out the door. Talk all the smack you want but Apple changed the market, smartphones weren’t just for nerdy types that stayed home on friday and saturday nights multi-tasking away and tethering their phones to their laptops “just because I can”. ANY new phone will be compared with the iphone because no one has been able to displace it as the top seller and best user experience. I have yet to use a phone with anywhere near the user interface of the iphone. Yes it is simple, but guess what that is what is so brilliant about it. Yes the new feature laden supermobilecomputer 5000 is impressive but is SUCKS to use on a day to day basis unless you are the kind of person that gets a hard on configuring your phone for 8 hours a day. In summary the N900 is a feature laden new age mobile computing device that costs and arm and a leg. In 12 months something more feature laden with more memory and better resolution will be available, but do I care ? No I don’t. I want a phone that works well, that is easy and fun to use. I have a laptop if I want to use a computer. Can the N900 run octave ?

    • Maemo is easy to use and very user friendly, just because it can do nerdy hacker things too it doesn’t mean it has a command line interface only!?!
      Yeah but can you run octave on your laptop on the go? It’s about mobility. And just for example N900 runs the full desktop version of Quake III arena even in multiplayer mode @ 30 fps!!!

  22. Christ, even the Nokia N97 is better than the iPhone! The iPhone is a toy, its browser is no good, its camera is no good, its OS is brain dead (one app at a time, come on!)… I can’t wait to get my hands on the Nokia N900, I never even wanted an iPhone and I wouldn’t carry one if you gave it to me. The new Nokia phones (N97 and N900) should not even be compared with outdated junk like the iPhone, that’s like comparing a donkey to a thoroughbred racehorse.