REVIEW: Nokia N9

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After waiting for so long, and getting a little sneak peak in July, we get our hands on the Nokia N9. It has a glorious design and an intuitive way of navigating. However, it is the first (and now, only) phone that will run its MeeGo OS. Does MeeGo fix the problems of Symbian, or will it make Nokia still irrelevant in this age of the Android and iOS platforms? In addition, with a single-core processor, can it outperform the dual-core processors of its rivals?

Terence Huynh reviews the Nokia N9.

  • Score:

    8.5 / 10

  • The Good:

    Unibody design; mapping tools; simple, intuitive and usable OS

  • The Bad:

    Battery life; some improvements needed; it’s dead on arrival

  • Bottom Line:

    Finally, Nokia has picked up its game. One of the better Nokia smartphones for the past five years.

Editor’s Note: our First Look video was recorded before this review, in July.

Design & Hardware

The polycarbonate unibody is one of the most impressive things I have seen

You have to give it to Nokia., they know how to design a phone. The polycarbonate unibody is one of the most impressive things I have ever seen, and it does not feel cheap. Slim, lightweight, minimalist and looks beautiful in all of its simplicity. It is probably the reason why Nokia has decided to use this body for their new Lumia 800 phone. The phone is comfortable to hold, and fits perfectly on the palm of your hand. The phone comes in three colours – black, blue, and magenta.

The phone has very few buttons. There are only three: the power/screen-lock button, and the volume rocker; and these are on the side of the phone. It also features some basic essentials, like the headphone jack and the slots to access the microSIM card and microUSB slot, but they are also hidden from plain sight, located at the top of the phone.

The screen is a 3.9-inch Super AMOLED display that is also protected by Gorilla Glass. However, while we have seen screens go larger than 4-inches, this screen is perfect to use for a touchscreen. You can use it with a single thumb, and the screen’s colour reproduction is brilliant. Readability isn’t a problem, especially on a bright sunny day – which lasts like 5 minutes in Melbourne.

It has a 1GHz processor from ARM, the traditional Carl-Zeiss 8-megapixel camera at the rear with 720p HD video recording and a VGA front-facing camera. The phone also includes NFC, but it does not support cashless payment. The NFC chip is to make it easier for people to share or to pair devices via Bluetooth via a tap-and-go system. The phone comes with 16GB and 64GB capacities – though the 64GB is only in black, while the 16GB comes in all three.

MeeGo – is it any good?

MeeGo does away with the complexities with a simple user interface

I have said this before, and I’ll say it again. MeeGo is one of the better internally-designed OS by Nokia in recent years. While Symbian has a long history of having things buried in menu after menu after menu and a confusing navigation, MeeGo does away with the complexities with a simple user interface. Granted, it may take some use to especially when users from iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7 would expect some sort of, well, button to take you back go the menu. The learning curve, however, isn’t that steep and you would get it in a jiffy.

Let’s explain the gestures – just in case you may not get it. You can swipe up and down within the app to go up or down. There are no exit buttons, and the way to close the application is to simply go from the top edge of the screen and swipe down. Switching between applications is also easy when you swipe from the left-edge of the screen to the right-edge. It is not perfect, however. We found it sometimes not recognising the gestures because I put my thumb on the screen while swiping, or just exiting an application by mistake. But it is innovative.

The home screen is split into three screens – the first is simply the apps menu where you see your downloaded apps and core items such as phone calling, contacts and a calendar. Swipe to the right and you see the running applications, and a swipe to the left will let you see your social stream of Facebook and Twitter friends. And of course, Nokia has integrated its own Facebook and Twitter applications onto this phone, and it does work.

Nokia is also appearing to heavily focus more on the social features. In addition to supporting the traditional MMS and SMS, it also lets you communicate via Skype, Facebook, Google Talk and your SIP box if you have that in your company. In addition, the contacts listings will merge all the information of one person – such as Twitter and Facebook – so you have a one-stop shop of trying to access them.

The Web, the Camera and the Multimedia

Camera-wise, the photo quality is decent. We did test it in our recent coverage of Armageddon, because I forgot to recharge my actual camera. However, compared to some of the better cameras available on phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S II and the iPhone 4S, it does pale in comparison. The quality of the photos also are not going to serve as a replacement to a standard point-and-shoot, despite the amount of customisation, which you have to hand it to Nokia as it allows some degrees of control. You can change ISO settings, and do basic photo editing functions. It does suffer when encountering bright conditions and in low-light situations. Video recording quality is also decent.

The phone’s multimedia options are excellent. Easy to use navigation and the interface is pretty sleek. The phone supports a wide-variety of music, including AAC, MP3, WMA and FLAC files – the latter will make audiophiles happy since it’s one of the better file types to encode music. The speakers are alright, though we much prefer to use the headphones to listen to music.

One thing that you can say about MeeGo is that the web experience has definitely improved. Pages load faster and it is responsive to your gestures. Swiping and resizing are smoother than other Symbian phones, but the interface falls a bit short. There is no tabbed browsing, but Nokia has compensated this by allowing you to open a new window, then you’ll have to swipe left or right (from the corner of the screen) to go to the multitasking array then press another window. Yes, it’s a bit complex compared to other web browsers. The browser does hide the back and forward buttons, but only when it is at a new window, or at the very first page or the very last page visited. It does reduce the clutter on the screen, making more easier than before.

Mapping

One of Nokia’s strengths is its mapping tools, and it is no different here. What is different is that you have a map preloaded on the phone. It does not wait to get the map images from Google, unlike Android and iOS. All it sends out is your mobile tower location to find where you are on the map. What is also interesting is that it also shows you the transportation networks – and living in Melbourne, it shows the tram stops, which is pretty important when travelling around the CBD.

Nokia has also a free navigation system installed on the phone, again using preloaded maps, in order to get to your destination. The design is similar to how any other GPS system works and it is optimised for use in the car with large buttons and text.

Performance

The phone is definitely a huge improvement from Nokia’s other Symbian phones. Apps load faster and the system does not overall suffer from lag in the menu system. However, there is still some lag, but that is mainly due to the social stream from the Homepage, where it keeps constantly updating for new Twitter and Facebook status updates. While you can clean it, it would be nice if it would automatically perform this in order to make it a bit quicker.

Battery life isn’t good on this phone, and this could be because of the constant amount of data that is going through this phone. Always-on communication, and social streams are great, but it does drain the battery. I found that I was using half my battery life within a day, and that is just connecting it to my Twitter and Facebook profiles and light web browsing.

Conclusions

It is one of the better Nokia smartphones for the past five years.

The phone is a brilliant phone. But already, we saw at Nokia World the future of Nokia. It isn’t with MeeGo, but with Windows Phone 7. While both are perfectly designed mobile OS platforms, and both have their own flaws, it is a shame to see such a promising OS (MeeGo) killed in the process. But why Nokia is releasing this phone despite the Lumia 800, the Windows Phone 7 version, is coming soon next year? I don’t have an answer for you.

If we disregard the dead-on-arrival situation of this phone, it is one of the better Nokia smartphones for the past five years. The MeeGo OS solves many of the gripes of Symbian, which was one of the big let downs for Nokia’s smartphones, despite the pretty good hardware. With MeeGo, we finally saw a worthy competitor to the Android and iOS smartphones.

The Nokia N9 is available on Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.