n9

The Gist of It.

I charged both my Nokia N9 and and my iPhone 4 the night before my family holiday. It was a temptation to bring the N9 and use it as my main phone. What better and risk free timing?

I chickened out and left it at home. I brought my iPhone 4, it’s charger and left the N9 in my study. Granted I didn’t use data while out of the country (bar once in Starbucks) but after four, FOUR DAYS, I got home and my iPhone 4 still had a little less than half of it’s juice without needing a charge. The N9 was dead as a doornail on the table I left it. That’s your summary.

The PRETENDERS

I’ve been in mobile phones for a pretty long time. From Java devices to brew devices to the first S60 Symbian smartphones with 3G video calling to …the first iPhone. But that first iPhone was four years ago. I write so much about Apple but you’d be surprised to find out how tired I am of iOS.

I really am very, very tired…of pages and pages of icons..click in, click out; click in, click out. After four years, surely there should be a fresher way of doing things?

In truth, the “touchscreen” and response is amazing. Almost a miracle of technology. But the grid of icons are archaic. ALL phones had rows of icons, for as long as they’ve had a screen. And you exited out of the processes you were in, the same way you do now…by pressing a home button of some kind.

It’s this staleness that’s had me searching for a fresher phone UI for a while now…almost two years I think. I was a great cheerleader for Palm’s WebOS. It seemed like a very fresh OS with unique gestures; it had it’s own independent ecosystem; it came in a still pretty unique form factor of having a full touchscreen, yet slide out qwerty keyboard, and most importantly – it had an elegant looking OS. This is not trivial when you’re starting at it’s screen literally hundreds of times a day. The only problem with WebOS is that they refused to sell me a device and made sure it was near impossible to own one. It goes something like this…Forget the stupidity of Palm and HP and their CEohs. The initial setup of any WebOS device required that you were physically IN one the few approved countries (US, UK, DE…a few more); if you were not you would get a Palm ID that forever remembered you weren’t a citizen from one of the blessed countries…and you were locked out of the whatever feeble ecosystem of an app store they had to begin with…

This Microsoft Windows thing looks nice. It really does. I just can’t get into it. I wish I could but I can’t. Like Apple, I’m guessing that it’s a solid device today, and will be even way better tomorrow. But what would really make it rock is it’s ability to connect and leverage on your other devices to synergize (sorry HP) with. But I don’t have those other devices. I’ve never owned a PC. I don’t have an Xbox 360. I don’t even bloody well use my Hotmail or Windows Live account anymore. So it’s just too big of a jump for me right now.

And then this small Finnish company you’ve never heard of before goes and drops the N9 bomb.

Revolution Number 9

I have been working with Nokia for a very long time. Back when they had a members’ club. Back when they created and sold black and white graphics for their phones called operator logos and picture messages. They have always created forward thinking form factors. But very, very few have been as desirable as this finished product. It is beautiful, the N9. Of that there can be no doubt. I think the last Nokia that really had me pondering spending a thousand dollars was the 8800 Sirocco. This is in that class, maybe better.

A lot of design and thought must have gone into this and perhaps most importantly, a lot must have been thrown out. The chassis is minimalistic. A black, cold piece of technology. Like a sports car. Almost everything, like the charging point and SIM slot is hidden, in a stylish way. The screen glass is beautiful and as reported elsewhere, makes the display below seem almost to float right below it. There are no home buttons to review, because there are no buttons.

Mee Versus the iNemy

This section isn’t quite just an OS review because it’s impossible as a general user as myself to review Meego and the N9 in isolation without comparing it to my daily device. Plus it’s not just the software that’s important but the whole package one cares about.

I first saw the N9 and Meego in June. Before this, I hadn’t had a clue about Meego or the N900 and I couldn’t have cared less. As mentioned in the beginning, I was still trying to sneak a Pre from HP as stupid as that idea still sounds today. But the N9 and Meego took my breath away. It is / was SO DIFFERENT from anything I’ve seen so far, in terms of the OS design philosophy. Just 3 screens. Three. One for apps. One for alerts. One for open multi-tasking. Think about that for a moment. Look at everyone else with their pages (and pages) of icons; icons within icons (folders I guess); widgets, skins – this was such a bold, simplistic change. Why had no one else thought of it? Why didn’t Apple think of it?

And Meego was in the N9 chassis I described earlier. When you have such a combination, when you’re so blown away with such a new idea…it’s easy to forgive the little glitches, the demos, the “we’re working on it…” phrases.

I couldn’t wait.

The N9 I have today is still beautiful.

It’s without doubt a head-turner. The OS runs as promised and it comes in a deluxe and generous hardware and software package. By that I mean the box is luxurious, Apple luxurious. They even threw in a decent handset silicon skin. The phone comes preloaded with Facebook, Skype baked into the OS and features Angry Birds, Need For Speed and a couple of other games. Full games. And they all work okay. Not stunning, but okay and livable for daily use.

But

If you’ve ordered the N9 and have read this far. Now’s a good time to stop reading. Especially if you’re an iPhone user.

The touch response is sluggish and unpredictable. I can spend up to 50% of the time accidentally opening apps when I intend to actually just scroll down the page. This comes because of the combination of the OS sometimes taking too long to register your action and the unpredictability of when / how it would act. Imagine trying to browse the web on a computer with a slow connection. Sometime you get frustrated and refresh the page or hit the back button and nothing happens…and all of a sudden a few things (all of them) happen at once…it’s like that. I never really appreciated how good and seamless the one to one touch screen experience is of iOS (how much research, code and testing must have gone into that…no wonder the patents), till I used the N9. This is so pronounced for me not because I’m a fanboy, it’s because iOS really responds the millisecond I use my finger for an action – and I’ve come to take that so much for granted.

I really like the alerts / notification screen. I just wish that there was some way to prioritize and organize them. Many people complain about how Facebook has taken the liberty of deciding which are the most important posts from your friends…well the exact opposite is here. All your alerts are listed, without prioritization. So any tweet you follow, to a close friend’s FB update, to an RSS update, it’s all listed chronologically. If you miss it, it’s gone – which kinda spoils it some of the time, because you never are going to check this screen every minute, and you really couldn’t – not on this battery.

Ah the battery.

Let’s put it this way. I’m a big Nintendo fan and though I can understand the stick people give Nintendo for the battery life of the 3DS (compared to the DS), I’m still pretty sympathetic. The 3DS IS USEABLE. You can get up to two to three hours easy on actual game time.

The N9?

Let’s talk iPhone again for a moment because this is a real world comparison. My iPhone 4 wakes me up at 7am. It goes through at least 3 hours of music / podcast listening. It syncs to both Exchange email and Yahoo email once every hour or when activated. It’s used for app / game usage maybe between an hour or two. And during a workday, it works for about two hours as a hotspot net connection for the MacBook Air. Maybe an hour or more of actual talk-time. Moderate amounts of alerts from work, eBay, Facebook, Viber etc. A minimum amount of text messages. And it gets me home every day with enough juice between 8 – 10pm.

The N9 is charged till I leave home after the iPhone wakes me up. It doesn’t play a single song or podcast because it is NOT COMPATIBLE to any of my iPhone headsets even though they fit into its standard headphone jack. It doesn’t take calls or messages because they’re all forwarded to the iPhone. It doesn’t do any hotspot sharing. About the only thing it does do is stay on and get notifications (on the notification / alert screen). On the way home, I play with it and try and make one or two downloads from the Ovi Store. Before I reach home, I get a low batt warning. By the time I get home, it is dead. Of course someone may suggest I turn off all the Facebook and other notifications, but for an OS that has only three screens and one of them is for updates; I kind of figure that would sort of miss the purpose of the whole design philosophy of Meego.

And in the N.

I hear that there is a major upgrade for Meego coming and I am eagerly awaiting it, though I’m not counting on it. To me it’ll be a bonus. Still I will persevere. Because the N9 is beautiful and Meego is elegant. And I guess unlike the majority of people out there, I really don’t need 200,000 apps. Just a couple of good games, a solid web browser, a great media player,  and the connection to all my professional and social networks and messages. In these things…the N9 can almost succeed.

Sigh, unfortunately so many things about this whole package is summarized in that one word.

Almost.

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