Nokia S60 N97 mini and Maemo N900 Review -- Smartphone Round Robin
How does the iPhone compare to sibling site NokiaExperts.com's two platforms, trusty Symbian S60 OS as seen in the N97 mini and the next generation Maemo OS of the N900? That's the question I'm looking to answer in TiPb's first week of the 3rd annual Smartphone Round Robin
I’ll confess from the start that I wasn't terribly familiar with Nokia’s platforms coming into this review. They dominate the rest of the world, of course, but for a variety of reasons they haven’t made much of a dent here in North America yet. Lucky for me, the SPE network has reached across the pond to Seattle (hey, there must be ponds between Montreal and Seattle!) to bring Matthew Miller to the table this year. His tremendous knowledge and enthusiasm -- along with the incredible help I received from the NokiaExperts community -- are the only reason this review was able to happen. So to him and to them; thanks.
(Speaking of the NokiaExperts community, remember you can still jump on that thread and each day you reply, you're entered to win your choice of Nokia smartphones, including the two reviewed below!)
Now let's get it on... after the break!
Nokia is often -- and rightly -- praised for their hardware. Heck, any company that can make stainless steel smartphones and still get great radio reception knows the deep dark secrets of telephony. Let's not even mention the 8-megapixel camera model either. (I know I won't, I can't remember all the numbered names the way Matt can).
And that's one of the first thing to note about this year's Round Robin and our platform-centric, rather than device-centric mandate. Decidedly unlike the iPhone, Nokia (and every other entrant) fields multiple models and form factors every year. In Nokia's case specifically, maybe too many (though they'll reportedly be cutting back in 2010). Luckily for me, both the N97 mini and N900 (can I call it maxi?) are horizontal sliders.
Last year I had some misgivings about the sliders as they generally felt "squeaky" and unmistakably two parts even when closed together into one. Nokia's felt solid (so solid Matt had to help me open them up the first time). If physical keyboards are a must for you, and you love the landscape, this by itself gives both one huge advantage. (Big fat camera lens with blinding LED flashes gives both another.)
Where the Nokia devices differ is that the N97 mini is a slender candybar when its keyboard is stowed. Nokia really trimmed off the sides when they slapped on the mini, and while the d-pad was lost, the arrow keys and right-aligned space bar made the smallish physical keyboard perfectly fine to type on.
The N900, by comparison is a beast. It's exactly Nokia's internet tablets past with a phone thrown in just for the fun (and future) of it. It wasn't the biggest slab in this year's slobber-knocker (we'll get to the HD2 in coming weeks) but that's not for lack of trying. If the BlackBerry Bold 9000 remains the Cadillac of smartphones (and keyboards) this thing is the F150 truck -- pure power. If a netbook is still too big for you, here's an alternative. Seriously.
Neither, however, have the iconic singularity of feel or sheer solidity of the iPhone (not that any slider could). The N900 especially keeps design out of the way, but where the iPhone is the pure sex of glass and chrome and plastic so tough it really, truly, does not blend, Nokia's devices manage to be equally black and shiny, though undoubtedly less iconic. Also, having no slider makes the iPhone much slimmer and more pocketable than either Nokia device.
For a great reference look at the software on these Nokia devices, check out Matt's videos:
Back? Okay, here we go!
That Jailbreak Thing
I'll state this at the outset of every review -- for the Round Robin, we're dealing with a stock iPhone. Sure, if you do run a Jailbroken iPhone, it does change the equation considerably -- full background multitasking, robust notification systems, complete theming options, apps not approved by Apple, and so on. But fair is fair, and this review compares only the iPhone that Apple gave us.
The iPhone multitasks very well, thank you. But since the iPhone is the only entrant in the 2009 Round Robin that doesn't let 3rd party apps run in the background, we're going to start with this and likely concede the same ground for every week, and every platform that follows.
Nokia, by stark contrast, multitasks its apps off. They’re just all supposed to run in the background. On the N97 mini, however, this creates a bit of a problem as Nokia, for some unimaginable reason, decided to drastically starve the device of much-needed RAM. So, yes, you can run many apps at once and enjoy background refreshes and streaming music and whatever you want -- you’ll just run out of memory quite often when you do so. Heckuva job there, Nokia.
The N900 on the other hand does it with RAM to spare. 4 desktops to swipe through (or press, drag to be more exact), with multiple apps, widgets, and full, live, Mozilla browser windows open all at the same time. If I could drag and drop between them, I might forget I wasn’t using a desktop OS. In fact, not being able to drag and drop is the only thing making me less worried about the iPhone still not multitasking.
Right now, the only major advantage to multitasking is speed of app update and transition. On the iPhone, for example, when I launch my RSS app I have to wait for it to check and update, which feels like it takes a long time. Having that updating transparently in the background would be great. Likewise, the old cliche about not being able to stream Pandora still applies. Otherwise, 2 factors help mitigate the lack of 3rd party notification for much of my daily use -- 1) Push Notification handles a lot of deal-breakers that would otherwise come up (i.e. you are near-instantly alerted to a new IM) and 2) the iPhone 3GS is so fast, and developers are getting so good at saving state, that the app switching between closed apps becomes pretty much unnoticeable.
However, when we really start to see multiple apps become usable at the same time, when they can interact together as peers (rather than one being in the background while the other interacts with the user), the game will change again, and Apple better be ready. (And yes, I’ll come back to this when I get my shot at webOS in weeks to come).
In the meantime, Nokia is great at multitasking but in a way that makes it a nice-to-have for me, not a must-have. I wouldn't choose S60 over Maemo or either over iPhone just because of it (or rather, because the iPhone lacks it).
One of the first things Matt pointed out to me on the N97 mini was how easy it was to customize the experience. No, not just wallpaper though that’s certainly a snap. He could arrange his apps in folders, where and how he wanted them. More so, S60 supports widgets and supports them well. The iPhone doesn’t support them at all.
If you’re not familiar with widgets, think Dashboard on OS X or Sidebar/Gadgets in Windows Vista/Windows 7. If you’re not familiar with those, think small applets that run on the home screen and dedicate themselves to showing you easily glance-able bits of information. So, you could (and they do) have Twitter status widgets showing the most recent post or two in your @mentions, weather info for your city, breaking news headlines, and many others that you can create, enable, and slap up onto the screen.
But with the ability to manage your device to that degree comes with it the equal and opposite reality of a device that needs to be managed to that degree. If you don’t want to fuss with your phone or deal with folders or figure out what widget really should go where, Apple is more than happy to decide for you (or just decide you don’t need some of that stuff anyway). And that’s not me being obtuse (yet), that’s a very real segment of the iPhone’s user base -- people who just want something that works, not something that makes them have to work.
The Right to Remain Resistive
Plain and simple, Nokia won’t offer any capacitive multitouch screens until 2010. That means both the S60 N97 mini and the Maemo N900 come with resistive touch screens. In their favor, both work pretty well. They work well enough I never felt the need to reach for a stylus (and Matt later told me the N97 mini doesn’t even come with one -- how’s that for resistive confidence!)
Having gotten used to glass, capacitive screens over the last couple years of iPhone use, however, I’ve come to regard using a resistive device as a chore. Instead of light flicks and swipes with the finger, Nokia devices require firm presses and drags with the finger nail. Sure, resistive screens are more pixel-precise, but they’re far less immediate than capacitive ones, and that lack of immediacy results -- for me -- in a lack of connection to my device. The iPhone’s screen feels like it knows what you want it to do and just does it. Nokia’s screens feel like they do what you force them to.
If you absolutely need a stylus or want to put your long fingernails to work, you may be just fine with resistive, but especially for new users, I think capacitive is just a far more natural-feeling technology.
State of the Apps
It's tough for any platform to compete with the (as of this review) 116,000 plus iPhone and iPod touch apps in the iTunes App Store. Nokia is going to try with the Ovi Store, already launched for the S60 and coming soon for the N900. Then again, there will be no approval-style gatekeeping that I'm aware of on Nokia either. So, while there are less apps, there will also be less apps rejected or simply not allowed because the platform owner doesn't want them.
In fact, Symbian is in the process of going open source with the Symbian Foundation, which claims it will be even more open that Google's Android platform. So if that's your scene, it's certainly something to consider.
There are some inarguably excellent S60 apps as well, including the social-network powerhouse, Gravity, and two way video calling with Fring (the iPhone can only receive, not send, video calls via Fring). For the N900, you have to be a higher level geek and get into repositories if you want 3rd party apps, but come on, the thing runs a full Mozilla desktop-style browser. (That includes Flash, and Flash-ads, for good and ill).
For those contemplating making the switch, however, it's a mixed bag of hurt. You'll get more apps on the iPhone -- more variety of apps and variety of choices within each type of app, but only so far as Apple approves them. For new-to-smartphone users, Apple providing a managed (would that we could say well-managed) environment is likely more positive than negative. It's a dictatorship but a mostly benevolent one, easier and safer, and ultimately that's a comfortable way to start.
People get the iPhone because they want the iPhone. In North America I think it's fair to say people have to really want Nokia to get a Symbian S60 or Maemo device. While you can only get the iPhone on AT&T, that also means it's subsidized down to $199 or $299 ($99 for the 3G). Nokia hasn't been able to come to terms with US carriers for most of their devices, which means you'll have to pay full price on top of your monthly cel service (though perhaps absent a long term contract). Even then you'll be restricted to GSM carriers AT&T and T-Mobile, and if they don't have T-Mobile's unique 3G bands, restricted to EDGE speeds.
Likewise, all the power of Nokia's platforms demand greater responsibility from the user. The more you can manage, the more you typically have to manage. Again, that's what many Nokia fans love, but it's not something everyone will want to bother with, and its what makes me say you really have to want it want it.
The real crux of the two Nokia platforms, however, comes down to the fact that there are two Nokia platforms -- one struggling to remain relevant and the other working to become credible. That Nokia is the world leader in smartphones with a fortune in the bank means there's no real risk in adapting either -- Nokia isn't going anywhere. But it is a little disturbing that they're keeping both horses in the race. Pushing a smartphone platform into the forefront of consumer mindshare is tough. Pushing two, when North America has eluded them so in the past borders on the strategically unfathomable. Sure, S60 is transitioning to open source and theoretically won't be entirely Nokia's burden alone, but considering what (and who) else is happening in the space, it will still be almost entirely Nokia's burden alone.
These are the dichotomies that face Nokia and its platforms -- globally popular yet locally unknown, past its prime yet not ready for primetime, targeted at emerging markets yet embraced by high-order geeks. And given the strength of other options, I'm not sure it's one most consumers will be willing to investigate.
At the end of the day (and of this review) the best advice I can offer is this -- if you're trying to decide between Apple's iPhone and Nokia's N97 mini or N900, get the iPhone. If you know the iPhone is not enough for you, if it's too limited or you're just too much geek, then get Nokia, and seriously consider the N900. Better to brave the future than get stuck in the past. (Heck, if you want the world's tiniest Linux netbook with a phone bolted on, get the N900.)
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