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With N900, Nokia Still Not Close to the iPhone

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.


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.


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. nice phone. like my n900. it’s easy to use and me and the wife love it. seems simple enough. my daughter hasn’t gotten of hers in ages! very practical unlocked phones. games and apps are fun and i havn’t gotten sick of the web browsing and fantasy football yet!! much better than our old unlocked verizon phones. i like that i bought 3 of them! speaker is loud enough to never have to hold up to my ear and it connects with my bluetooth really well. email, gps, wifi are great for the business side of things. picked up my last couple unlocked gsm phones at very happy

  2. good review. very to the point. i like my new unlocked world phones. easy to use, the n900 is very practical. processor is faster, email is nice for me and my business. gps is great to get around and the camera is crisp and recorder great for family moments. facebook is easy to get around and stocks are easy to check. second favorite unlocked phones this year. got our last couple at and we love them. my kid loves to play with it too because the games are fun. battery life is great too. it’s a little thick and texting can be hard but that’s ok. the slide out keyboard is great to use. i give this unlocked gsm phones a 7 out of 10.

  3. “With N900, Nokia Still Not Close to the iPhone” Dream on dude, The n900 matches everything the iphone has to offer and betters some of it too

  4. Thomas

    Well dud if the phone doesn’t mean to be compared to an iPhone, well than it shouldn’t be compared to an iPhone. The Nokia n900 isn’t aimed at the iPhone for many reasons because it is completely different from the iPhone alright simple as that you don’t truly know the awesomeness of the n900 until you truly learn how to use it ok. Anyways many great touchscreen phones yet they all end up compared to the iPhone alright not everything needs to be compared to the iPhone some phone I would say are aimed at the iPhone some are not example Htc Touch Pro 2 and Nokia n900 and some phones are example Palm Pre and Motorola Droid. Also why does every touchscreen phone have to be called a iPhone killer maybe did it ever occur to anyone that touchscreen phone just wants to be an awesome phone Jesus biased much.

  5. Man, to be honest iPhone suck! (in some forms)
    but when the Nokia N900 comes in hand, sure it takes some getting used to but when you know how to use it, it kill’s the iPhone.
    because the iPhone just misses most of the normal phone factors. And all the iPhone is just music ,calls ,internet, videos and apps.
    but the Nokia N900 is just more than that,
    the N900 can actually go up to 3.5G, not like the iPhone slow bulky only 3G.
    Just the Nokia N900 is just better in every way

  6. iphone?LOL!

    contrary to popular opinion, computers and smartphones require intelligence and not just a mindless consumer to operate, understand and appreciate… this is where apple fanboys fail>>EPIC FAIL.

  7. How about an updated review, now that we are in 2010?

    On a “complete” N900, with the full O/S installed.
    And then another review when Meego is available for the device.

    I chose the N900 because I was sick to death of hearing “iPhone, iPhone, iPhone, iPhone” I went against the advice of the sales assistant in the shop, and after doing my sums (on my N900), I realised if I’d have gone the other way I’d have been paying a hell of a lot more than what I’m doing now.
    When the iPhone was announced Apple came on like they’d saved the world from impending doom (much like Microsoft did with Vista).
    I’m enjoying the N900 and the freedom it offers. The freedom to install what I want, the freedom to get my music from wherever I like without being snooped on, the freedom to install a new battery if the original packs up, without calling down the wrath of the iGods.
    I got sick of the iPhones at work over the past months. When I introduced my N900 and the iPhones stayed in the pockets and handbags for a change.
    And I’ve just heard that Apple have been officially told they don’t “own” the letter “i”. Lots of things start with the letter “i”.
    ice-cream, icicle, iced finger, idiot.

  8. coolfx35

    I have been the proud owner of the N900 for nearly a month now. I also own an HTC Magic and think the N900 is a far superior phone. I am a Linux user (Linux Mint and Sabayon) on my computers and love how open this phone is.

    I am still playing with the phone and learning but am getting to grips with it. I have added the testing repo which has opened up a lot more to play with.

    Look forward to chatting to all the other N900 users at this really does feel like an enthusiasts phone, not just another run of the mill handset.

  9. Still think most people are missing the point here…..they arent really comparable at all.

    The iphone is exactlty that a phone with some bells and whistles thrown in. The N900 is pretty much a portable computer with a phone thrown in.

    People think because they both have phone functionality these two devices are comparable.

    The iphone will always have its place and always be a top selling phone world wide, the marketing campaign is great and the usability is so easy.

    The N900 is for people that want more than just a phone.

    So simply said, if your looking for a new phone to buy. Buy an iphone. If you looking for a mobile computer with a phone built in buy a N900.

  10. twigsterz

    Seems to me this a biased review by an iphone fan boi.

    I will get the nokia N900, I think it looks fantastic, unlike the iphone i probably will not want to give it back after 5 mins. Iphone is nothing more than an itouch with a bad phone.

    I do not pledge sypport to a particular brand in fact I have had so many brands of recent its hard to say which is best.

    But the N900 top me is a breath of fresh air, decent processor, decent RAM, Decent OS, decent camera and it multtasks 21 tasks at once.

  11. That just shows how much of an idiot you are, the n900 is in a totally different class to the iPhone. Please stop comparing the iPhone with everything else, it’s pathetic.

  12. David Santos

    Okay iPhone fans! I have a couple of things to say! And it doesn’t even
    matter what you think! I have both iPhone 3Gs and Nokia N900! And the sad part is, the iPhone doesn’t have a chance against the mighty N900! Seriously! The GPS was compared on both at the same time! And even the maps! iPhone was slow and acting stupid! While the Nokia was working like a charm! On the iPhone you get bored seeing always the same layout! Yeah the design is nice but what good is the design when you don’t have the speed amd functionality? for All of those searching for the best phone! Buy the N900! My vote Is 10/10 on everything! It’s not a pretty phone! But who cares? It’s fast! An the functionality is a blast! And! You can have more apps on the iPhone! But! You can’t use them all at the same time! And even if you could! Your battery would just go in a few hours! The iPhone gets a 6/10 it’s not the best phone! Maybe if you really don’t understand nothing! and I mean nothing about technology! Like my wife fir example! But wait! Even my wife that doesn’t even know what a OS is or how a computer works! Or even how to reboot it! But she absolutely LOVES the Nokia N900! And she had the iPhone before! She hated it when compared with the Nokia N900! so if you are considering a new phone! think about the Nokia! it’s without a doubt the best choice ever!

  13. Apple lost the game man. The Iphone never ever will have suport for other programming platform. For exemplo: Flash, Java, PHP C, C++, etc… Every body knows that the apps made what the Iphone is today. Apple don’t want allow PC programming make apps for Iphone. I can understand that because Apple will loose anyway. Apple was winning before, just because got a brilliant idea of turn the Ipod touch in a mobile phone(more then a half of the job was done) and a good programming environment. That pediod did have anything good enough to kill the Iphone. But now Nokia made the n900 with a Maemo that is just a child compared to Iphone OS and is already causing trouble. Now It is just a metter of time to see the Iphone fall.

  14. Peter Robertson

    Having been given a brand new N900 from Nokia to trial I can say the following:
    1) Part of my trial means that I agree to use the phone for at least three months and upload my usage data and thoughts/feelings about the device to Nokia.
    2) At the end of month three, I will be selling the N900 in order to buy an Iphone!!!! Any prospective purchasers out there ??!!

  15. Wow, theres alot of war between the two devices here.

    So i’m just going to add what i think,

    This review is definately biased, as The first poster “John” kindly put forward, again, this is another review trying to put phones next to the iphone.

    The whole resistive vs captive thing, i agree that captive will be always that little bit more responsive, but from what i can see, people are saying its a massive difference, well i’ll tell them, its not and the N900’s screen is definately of more responsive. I’ve used resistive all my life, and i’ve never experienced problems with delay or too much accuracy, but then thats what a stylus is for right?

    Next native browser plugins, from what i can see the N900 apserlutely F***s the IPhone right over here, i mean the N900 can go to youtube and play videos directly, i mean Wow, just wow, both the iphone and n900 are running roughly the same hardware (well i’ll focus on CPU and mGPU here) and i was very suprised to find the Iphone cannot play from the site directly, but prehaps that is to come.

    Now i’ve been on a nice brand spanking new IPhone3gs of my friends recently, and its been, ok…My first comment is “Oh, no multi tabbing of windows?” and he was like yep, but i have to go and download it from … (I believe his was also jailbroken.) but i never got to see that work.
    Also i was dissapointed with the Bluetooth support of the 3gs? His refused to start up full stop, no matter how many reboots we would try. And third, for a jailbroken product, i was astonished to find the majority of his apps were plain old basic versions, its alsmost as if jailbreaking the device had no real plus’, just reskinning which looked, quite frankly cool.

    Thirdly i want to talk about Maemo!, version 5 seems fantastic to me, the more users that get their hands on the device will effectively mean, more free/improved apps, new games! ports from other LINUX based OS’s in relatively small time, the freedon to do anything really, i mean sure its very immature at this point in time, but the maemo community will pull together to bring some of the best features out of the n900, its potential is huge. The IPhones is good, dont get me wrong, but even with the ability to change the odd bits here and there, it’s aging a fair bit.

    Camera on the N900, suprisingly good with the Karl Ziess optics, i’ve seen some pretty crystal clear pictures, with images taken at 5mp, a small downsize takes out any distortion, and this i’m very happy about at the moment.
    The IPhones is fairly good, but the resolution is just not there yet.

    Style of devices, IPhone hands down if you like to be stylish, but personally i dont, I’m a massive fan of keyboards (but more complete ones i must say,) i dont know how i will fair with the n900s, but change is nice!

    Both have their respective ports, 3.5mm jacks etc, im happy about that :) i hate propietary formats.

    Both are great, but i think over time the N900 may just edge out over the IPhone, i know people really can’t be bothered to buy apps and that these days, so we will either see some good price reductions on apples behalf, or more free apps shifted onto the market.

  16. Charles Munroe

    Bud, I’ve no idea which iPhone you’ve been using, and I’ve no interest in getting into a a debate on what matters opinionated, especially with cellphones, but wow, your ignorance is astounding.