Nokia's N900 is a handful of tech wizardry

Product: Nokia N900
Price: £470

If you’re after the world’s greatest phone, this isn’t it, but for gadget hungry tech freaks, this feature heavy internet tablet has a lot going for it.

In the world of mobile phones the operating system is king. This is why Nokia, with its reliance on the dated Symbian 60 has seen its star put in the shade by the likes of the iPhone and Android devices. In today’s world of super slick smartphones, Nokia’s has struggled to compete. .

The N900 then goes in bold new direction, at least for Nokia, as it’s based on a custom version of Linux, that it’s been working on for a few years called Maemo and version 5 is showcased on the N900. Previous iterations appeared on Nokia N800 and N810 internet tablets, but this is the first time that it’s appeared in a device with phone functionality.

Whether you find the N900 attractive to look at will depend on your attitude to technology. It’s an assuredly big and bulky and masculine device and weighs a portly 181g with the battery, but its large button free fascia and rounded edges mean that it has a stylish side to it too. In other words, it’s fat, but well dressed.

Pick up the N900 and you’ll notice that the Nokia logo and N900 moniker and set horizontally rather than vertically. This is because most of the time you’ll be using the N900 is landscape rather than portrait mode most of the time and the interface is designed with that in mind.

Certainly this is encouraged by the keyboard that slides out from underneath the display. While those who abhor the on-screen keyboards on the iPhone and its ilk will shout with delight over this, in fact it will take some practice to build up faster speeds due to the small keys, the lack of a dedicated row for numbers and the shift key only appearing on the left.

The display though is a thing of loveliness with 800 x 480 pixels to play with on a 3.5in display and some may complain over the fact that it’s a resistive screen rather than a capacitance, so it simply isn’t as responsive as the iPhone. As such a stylus is still included, which does make it feel a bit old school.

There’s no denying that the display is great for video though and if you like the idea of not having to convert everything you want to watch then you’ll love the N900 – it played our test Divx, Xvid and H.264 videos we placed on the device flawlessly and you can rest the phone on its built in stand and watch away.

We also found that the Media player application had picked up our DNLA compliant NAS box on our network without us doing anything and we were able to browse its content straight away. Video files accessed this way gave audio only, but this could simply be down to the limitations of the 802.11b wireless as simple MP3 streamed without issue. Time for a Wireless-N upgrade in phones?

The N900 is a fully multi-tasking device, taking full advantage of a Linux OS running on ARM’s powerful Cortex A8 processor. Notifications when a text of email arrives happen seamlessly and you can switch to check them without shutting down what you’re doing.

However, this comes at the cost of complexity and there’s no getting away from the fact that for uninitiated the interface is a little baffling. The key is pressing the top left, which when pressed once will show a tile of each application that running. Press it again and you get icons for the main applications displayed a neat row. Oddly though, to view icons for all the apps in this way you have to press ‘More’ and you then scroll up and down. Alternatively, when the tiles are visible tap elsewhere on the screen and you’re taken to a virtual desktop on which widgets can be placed and scrolling left and right brings up other desktop so you can spread your widgets around, so to speak.

Some are useful and obvious such as a weather ticker, but others are more dubious. The Twitter one annoys for example as you can’t read entire Tweets and clicking on it just takes you to the web site – a native app would have been preferable.

You can place contacts directly on the desktop though, and from here communicate with them in a number of ways – via Skype, via Gmail chat, SMS or even a conventional phone call. The Skype integration is particularly impressive and I received one phone call without even realising it was via Skype.

In fact making a regular phone call is clearly low on the priority list of this device, and actually getting to the phone application requires a lot of button pressing in the OS – but there is a hardware switch on the top, or right if you’re holding it in portrait, that brings up a menu with a shortcut to the phone app.

The open nature of the OS means that many apps could be developed for the platform but there aren’t that many on the Ovi store at the moment. Firefox 1.0 for Maemo is probably the highest profile option at the moment though ironically the native browseris from Mozilla too and is pretty good as it is.

Full HTML is supported and though there not Facebook app yet, you could just use the desktop version of the site. Flash is supported on the N900 as long as it’s not too high bit rate. BBC news web site Flash content played nicely full screen, but the BBC iPlayer was too demanding and played back like a slideshow.

Ovi maps are present and while it’s not as good as Google Maps it’s still effective. Elsewhere the 5-megapixel camera impressed with detailed images, especially in macro mode, but the colours were a tad washed out.

The N900 is also OpenGL 2.0 compliant and while there’s not much software out there, in terms of graphical quality, it rivals the iPhone as demonstrated by games such as Bounce.

With all its trickery, battery life is an obvious issue, and if you’re going to put it to good use you’ll want a spare charger – one for work and one for home, as it’s unlikely to get through a working day otherwise.

With the N900 Nokia was clearly looking to bridge the gap between laptop and smartphone – and it’s certainly feels like having a mini laptop in your pocket. Aside from the text input issue, it’s more powerful than a basic netbook. It’s inevitably a little awkward to use a phone, but it can be done, and as technology exercise it’s impressive. As such we’d recommend it for geekier gadget hounds, but for the normal – an Android device is a more sensible way to go.

Good Feature laden, with a great screen, a decent camera, and a keyboard.

Bad Unintuitive interface, unresponsive touch screen at times, poor battery life and shortage of Maemo apps.

Overall A very impressive showcase for the power of the Maemo OS and the ARM Cortex A8 processor, but it’s a little rough around the edges. The next one could be incredible.

THINQMarks 70%

Specifications
Operating system: Linux Maemo
Processor: Cortex A8, Memory: 32GB internal (additional 16GB with microSD card)
Frequencies: Quad-band GSM, GPRS, EDGE, HSPA
Size: 110.9 x 59.8 x 19.55 mm
Weight: 181g
Battery: Li-Ion 1320 mAh (BL-5J), 5 hours talk-time 3G, 9 hours GSM
Display: 3.5in resistive with 800 x 480 (WVGA) resolution
Camera: 5-megapixel with Carl Zeiss autofocus lens with dual LED flash, front camera VGA
Video Recording - 848 × 480 pixels (WVGA), 25fps.
Video playback: mp4, .avi, .wmv, .3gp; codecs: H.264, MPEG-4, Xvid, WMV, H.263