Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Nokia N9 Review

With thanks once again to Steve and Tim from Phones Show Chat, I've been fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks in the company of the Nokia N9. This device is on loan from the owner as opposed to a PR company for example, and as such had to be treated with a little more care than the average phone I buy myself or a typical review unit. The first challenge came in the size of the SIM card, and having not used a device requiring a micro SIM before, a trip to my local Three store was in order to pick one up.

To set the scene a little history is useful. MeeGo, an operating system collaboration between Nokia and Intel, was announced at Mobile World Congress in February 2010. It was to be a mashup of Nokia's Maemo operating system and Intel's Moblin operating system. February 2011 and with Stephen Elop at the helm, Nokia famously ditched both MeeGo and Symbian from their long-term strategy, and instead choose to partner with Microsoft and Windows Phone became their platform of choice going forward. In a leaked memo to Nokia employees, Elop said: "We thought MeeGo would be a platform for winning high-end smartphones. However, at this rate, by the end of 2011, we might have only one MeeGo product in the market."

Despite MeeGo being dropped from the company's new smartphone strategy, on 21st June 2011 Nokia announced the N9, 16 months after the Nokia/Intel collaborative operating system was announced. Bringing Nokia and Intel's resources together to work on MeeGo was seemingly a complex operation, the fruits of which were taking too long for Elop to consider it as a viable contender going forward. It was therefore questioned why Nokia released the N9 at all, as the present incarnation of the operating system had no future, and rumour of the same physical chassis design being used for Nokia's Windows Phones turned out to be correct. The N9 started shipping in September 2011 to a select group of countries which did not include USA, UK or India, and Nokia's N9 availability page confirms that the device never officially made it to these countries.


The N9 press release referred to "hardware and software (that) were jointly designed to ensure that they fit together seamlessly", and they certainly did a good job here. A year after the device's launch and we know the same deign was successfully re-used in Nokia's Lumia line of Windows Phones and won a good share of design prizes. The phone's chassis is milled out from a single piece of polycarbonate, with curved glass across the front which flows nicely in to the curves of the handset. It feels very nice and surprisingly small in the hand, as the 3.9 inch screen is surrounded on the sides by very little in the way of bezel. There are no front facing buttons, and simply a power/lock button and volume rocker on the right hand side. The bottom edge is perfectly flat, such that the device stands upright with no support, and here you'll also find the speaker.

The top edge is also perfectly flat, meaning the N9 also does great headstands! Here you'll find the 3.5mm headphone socket along with an ingenious flap and slot mechanism, to hide first the micro USB port for charging and data, and second the micro SIM tray.

The glass front protects a front-facing camera in the bottom right and a white notification light in the bottom left corner. The screen is AMOLED and includes Nokia's ClearBlack Display technology, a pair of polarizing filters which combine to gives better viewing angles and greater visibility in sunlight. At the rear you'll find an 8 mega-pixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics and dual LED flash, and the camera glass is very slightly recessed, maybe half a millimetre or so, from the rest of the chassis, presumably to stop it getting scratched when the phone flat on its back.

The N9 weighs in at 135g, the same as a Galaxy Nexus but heavier than the iPhone 5, but feels very solid due to the single piece chassis design. I haven't dropped it (yet) but I'm very confident it would survive most day to day falls from tables, pockets and armchairs!

The usual hardware specs aren't going to mean a huge amount without lots of other MeeGo phones to compare against, but for completeness we have a Cortex A8 clocked at 1GHz, a dedicated GPU, and 1GB of RAM. The battery capacity is 1450 mAh, and I never ran out of juice during a full day, so clearly a lot more power efficient than your average Android device!

Operating System

The Nokia N9 is a MeeGo based device, but the user interface layer is referred to as part of the operating system itself, as the device's "About" screen states, this isn't just MeeGo, it is MeeGo Harmattan. Named after a West African trade wind, Harmattan refers to the swipe-based user interface on top of MeeGo, and is very different to most other mobile interfaces.

Three areas are presented in Harmattan: events, applications and open applications. Each is a whole-screen view which scrolls vertically to show more content. To move between each view a swipe from the left or right edge of the screen to the other is needed, similar to swiping horizontally between homescreens in Android for example. The swiping wraps around, so swiping continually from one side to the other will move you in a loop through the three views. As you'd expect, the events view gives you notifications like meetings, incoming messages, missed calls, and feeds from social networks. Applications view is a very colourful and visually pleasing grid of icons used for launching apps, and all currently running apps can be found in the third view called, you guessed it, open applications. In open applications view, apps are represented by live views of the apps themselves in a 4 by 4 grid view, and pressing and holding brings up the option to close one or all of your running apps.

Left to right: "Events" view, "Applications" view and "Open Applications" view

The swiping doesn't stop there though. From any app you can swipe edge to edge horizontally to take you back to where you came from. Sounds odd? Well, if you came into the app from the applications view, it will take you back there. If you came into the app from the events view, it will take you back there. After half an hour of using the N9 it becomes second nature and very intuitive, and I've since been doing the same swiping motion on my Nexus S somewhat amusingly. A full swipe upwards from the bottom edge does the same and returns you to where you were before you opened the app. 

Whilst in an app you can swipe from the top edge downwards to close the app altogether, which is even more amusing for previous Android users who are used to doing this motion to see the notification drawer, and I did initially close a few apps by mistake in the first hour or two! The final swiping gesture whilst in an app is upwards from the bottom edge, but instead of a full swipe, a small swipe/flick to anywhere around the half way mark dims the app and pops up a drawer of 4 icons for your most commonly used apps, which is very useful to quickly get to the camera for example.

Quick access to 4 of your most commonly used apps with a small swipe upwards

There's more swiping in the lock screen too: a full swipe vertically or horizontally from either direction will unlock the phone (or bring up the passcode screen if you have chosen to enable it), and the half swipe upwards to show the drawer with 4 app icons also works from the lock screen. Again, if you have passcode lock enabled these apps can only be launched once the passcode is entered. After a few seconds the lock screen times out to the standby screen, which by default shows the time and notification icons. I've also got the weather courtesy of the MeeCast app. Interestingly you can wake from standby with the expected press of the power/lock button, but also by double tapping the screen!

Lock screen

By now you're probably getting the message, lots of swiping! Writing all of these gestures, and subsequently reading them, or even explaining them to someone vocally seems long winded, but the reality of using the device day-to-day is that it all becomes second nature very quickly. Returning to other mobile operating systems such as my usual Android and employer-provided Blackberry seem very old and unintuitive in comparison, and flicking and swiping away at the screen to get things done in MeeGo Harmattan is genuinely a joy.

Delving further into the operating system we find there are references to other platforms: tapping the status bar at the top of the screen reveals controls to switch notification sound profiles, between ringing, quiet beeps and silent, along with a volume slider control and shortcuts to WiFi and Bluetooth settings, the like of which we've in some incarnations of Android-based devices. Pressing and holding an icon in applications view gives you the opportunity to move your icons, create folders and uninstall apps, reminiscent of iOS. There is an "accounts" area, where anything from Google, Dropbox, Twitter, Youtube, Facebook to name a few can be configured to feed the single events view (as well as feeding other things like contacts, sharing services, etc), similar to WebOS.

Left to right: Status bar drop-down, Accounts app, moving application icons

There is now certain amount of uncertainty over future development of MeeGo Harmattan though. There have been 4 releases since September 2011, and whilst N9 owners rejoiced when the latest version dropped, PR1.3 in July 2012, it was a bittersweet moment as the Maemo team also departed the same month.


Despite MeeGo Harmattan currently having no viable future at Nokia, the app situation isn't as bad as one might expect. Of the "core" apps I personally expect/need from a smartphone in 2012 I've only hit two big stumbling blocks so far. For the following there are good quality apps from either the service themselves or 3rd party developed apps:

Twitter, Dropbox, Sports Tracker (GPS tracking/stats for running/cycling), FotoShareN9 (to instantly upload photos to the cloud for safe keeping, Google Latitude, Podcatching, Last.FM Scrobbling, Weather, Barcode Scanner (barcodes and QR codes), Google Reader, Google Drive, LinkedIn, Kindle...

You also get Nokia's excellent maps and turn-by-turn satellite navigation, all free out of the box, with downloadable country/state maps. The two stumbling blocks for me were Evernote, where EverN9 exists but is broken and has been discontinued by the developer so a fix is unlikely, and Sonos. With apps for those two I could call it 100% for me, although everyone's mileage may vary, and you may find another app/service that isn't catered for. The chances may be slim though, as there is a very active and friendly community around the N9. Unsurprisingly there are a lot of people who tried/bought the device and loved it, and wanted to get the best experience possible. So you'll find loads of helpful forums, great contacts on Twitter, and lots of 3rd party developed apps for MeeGo Harmattan and the N9. With some caveats, you can even run Android apps thanks to some insanely clever folk! If you pick one of these up I'd recommend the following sites: Talk Maemo, Everything N9, My MeeGoAlso follow these guys on Twitter: @everythingn9, @MFaroTusino, @andyhagon, @stephenquin58.


As previously mentioned the N9 has an 8 mega-pixel camera, with Carl Zeiss optics (a wide 28mm lens with f/2.2 aperture) and dual LED flash. The video recording mode goes to 720p at 30fps, which has become a baseline standard to smartphones in 2012. Both performed very well; sample shots below.


Sadly, the N9 is ultimately a frustrating device. And its not even the N9's fault, it's Nokia's. What we have here is a new user interface paradigm which is graceful, intuitive, smart and different to pretty much everything else out there. Outside the operating system and user interface, we have beautiful award winning hardware, a terrific camera and a great screen. The curved glass and rounded edges of the device match perfectly with the swiping gestures in MeeGo Harmattan; it is obvious that it truly was "hardware and software (that) were jointly designed to ensure that they fit together seamlessly", to quote the N9 press release. The frustration is that Nokia jumped the MeeGo Harmattan ship, before the N9 had even been announced to the world. PR1.3 may be the last update to the operating system, and whilst the MeeGo and N9 community is incredibly strong, it is only a matter of time before it starts to diminish. Or is it?

Jolla is a company founded by the ex-MeeGo developers of Nokia, and aims to continue working on MeeGo from the state Nokia left it in when the Maemo team was disbanded. Codenamed Sailfish, Jolla's mobile operating system will have bases in Mer and Qt, and their plan is for the product to be used in smartphones, tablets and many other devices. Whilst this isn't MeeGo Harmattan by name, it is by its roots and by the people working to bring it to life. Fingers crossed we get another viable and long-term mobile platform from these guys.

Sources: Nokia, Taskumuro, Engadget, The Verge, My Nokia Blog