In a world now dominated by Android and iOS smartphones, the much awaited challenge from Nokia in the form of Meego was sadly squashed once Nokia’s the ex-Microsoft took over and decided that they were going with Windows Mobile as their smartphone strategy and dumping years of exciting research with Meebo and then Meego.
The N9 in particular was highly awaited as it brought a whole line of innovations on technology and design for Nokia, and will be remembered now as the the design template for Nokia’s entry into the Windows Mobile market with the Lumia range (and if you look carefully it seems to have inspired the the generation Apple IPod Touch as well).
While I had decided against going for N9 knowing that it would be criminal waste on my cash for funding myself for phone changes, I got an royal opportunity of obtaining an N9 for a super price that allowed me to own this phone and see how it works out.
I had to start from this, as this was one of the areas that the N9 was true innovation (unlike the Iphone 5!). The unique design of the phone was that it had no buttons either hardware or software for navigation and was exclusively driven by swipes.
For anyone not used to this, it would be a daunting experience, and I can surely tell you that. However once you get the knack of it its quite catchy. However don’t try to have this phone along with say an Android or iOS device, as it can be frustrating. Purely use this you soon get used to this unique navigation approach that is also ultra cool.
The rounded curves of the phone and the glass, makes the design simple and very elegant. I had the black but from what I have seen the other colors, white in particular are even more stunning.
The exterior is made of an unique poly carbonate plastic, that has since become the hot feature of other leadings phones such as the S3 and HTC One X. It may not be aluminum like the N8 or the IPhone, but the plastic is really high quality and more importantly makes it very nice to hold, very nice. So if you see an IPhone 5 ads saying don’t settle for plastic, just try using a N9 or HTC One X, you may beg to differ strongly 🙂
I remember when reading through forums, one forum was warning buyers of the Chinese N9 clones, and one blogger had commented “Oh yeah, the clones are made by Nokia, and they are called Lumias!”
Positives: The N9 bundle is what you call truly comprehensive, as it includes not just a headset, charger and cable but also a perfect fit silicon (color coded to match your phone exterior) phone covers (which was copied by Nokia for their Lumia 800). The finish of the silicon cover is excellent, and it has a very good fit with the phone (= hard to put and remove, but no complains if the fit is good).
However the silicon cover also had some negative aspects, the second is common but the first baffled me.
- The silicon cover impacted the low volume from the earpiece and speakerphone., and the baffling aspect was that non of the openings (mic, speaker, ear piece) are closed by the cover, so the reason for the reduction in volume is very baffling.
- The cover also makes pressing the buttons hard, and you have to press with you finger nails to get them working.
Camera hardware, video and software
The N9 being a flagship of sorts (though the N8 still remains the king for camera’s as it has a very large sensor unlike the N9), the N9 in almost every other way from the screen resolution, to the processor and graphics was superior until the Lumia range came into being and hence came with a highly capable camera spec. A super large aperture of F 2.2 (one of the best, only ousted by the HTC One series which now have a F 2.0 aperture lenses), coupled to a Carl Zeis lens and a new sensor was designed to take on the best in the camera phone market.
One of the unique features in the sensor used that a Panasonic camera owner would be familiar is the sensor is actually not 8MP but 8.7MP to ensure regardless of the photo format you end up getting 8MP. Most phone camera sensors will reduce the image size when you change the format since they actually crop the photo when taking wide angle.
However the flash is weak for a dual LED unit, and though it touts branded F2.2 lens it sadly produces images that are lot more noisy than photos produced with camera phones with less technical specs such as the Galaxy SII, Xperia Arc/Arc S, Xperia P I used. While photos taken in daylight are good, photos taken in low light are rather disappointing.
The camera is also a no-nonsense version with no HDR, panorama effects. However you can get panorama using a third party camera app on the Nokia store.
The video shares the same issue of being very noisy, and the frames are not very smooth. However the camera did well under low light, and the ability to use the dual LEDs as a photo light is effective though it gives an unreal yellow tint to the video footage. The recorded audio is clear which is good news.
One feature that really really worked well was the touch focus that was very precise, compared to implementations I had seen on Android phones.
Voice calls, an area the phone excels
The phone is very clear but you have to be careful how you hold the phone as its very easy to block the mic (where it’s precisely located baffles me).
The loudspeaker was one of the few that really pleased me, its very loud, clear for voice calls in enclosed areas. However when used in a large open area, the sound quality drops as the design does not allow the sound to travel.
I also connected this to some speakers and found the audio quality is pretty good with very litter distortion, far superior to the quality put out by the Iphone Touch 4G!
For a phone put out in 2011, I feel Nokia might have purposefully toned down on the hardware of the device once they changed direction from Meego to WP, since the Lumia series that follow had far superior hardware. The Lumia’s Windows Mobile interface is also very smooth, and I believe that the N9 hardware was muted to make it feel like the Windows Phone was a good as Meego. However compared to Android both these operating systems are far more optimized in how they harness the hardware!
The phone featured an rather outdated Cortex A8 based processor coupled to an old generation PowerVR graphics. The memory too was nothing special at 512MB but with the optimization this is not an issue.
My personal opinion is that the same spec powering the Lumia 800/710 should have been featured in the N9 that would have made this phone break records in performance, because the Meego OS is truly super fast.
Interface and OS
The interface takes a bit of time to get familiar as its definitely very different to Symbian, iOS and Android in its full swipe based button-less operations.
Swipe from top of the phone to bottom kills the app, while tap at the top bar shows you the notification bar. Swipe from bottom of the phone to the top brings the quick launch (the hardest to do!), while left swipe takes you from the current app to the desktops.
The interface is very smooth and tells you what optimized code can do. It might be running ancient hardware even as it hits the shelves, but oh boy the interface is smooth and neat, and tells you why the Android phone hardware specs keep leaping in bounds to cover for the pathetic optimizations and efficiencies of the Android platform. The phone felt far smoother an dual-core Android running hardware that would be 4-5 times more powerful!
However be vary that if you don’t kill the apps the phone can start to lag and become irritatingly slow. A separate panel is available that shows all running apps/instances, and this screen can be pinch zoomed. You can kill an app by long pressing and closing it as well.
Meego has some similarity to iOS (yes iOS) in that you have settings for most of the native apps in the settings menu, and the actual apps are clean with very little buttons. Not sure if all will like this though as I find application context settings far easier to use than having to be going into the setting menu to find it!
First it has not tab support! That really shocked me, then I found that the N9 has a lot of “unique” behaviours that are very different to what we are used to. It has an option called open new window, which opens a new instance. If you want to find your tab window you have to go to the multi-tasking window and select the browser instance (=tab). I found this not very friendly and the different behavior not to my taste, though for some this may not be an issue.
I ran one benchmark on the browser, and the performance results were not thrilling.
Nokia N9 Stock – 28225
Galaxy Nexus – Stock – 90433
I also tried mobile Firefox, and found it to be heavy and offering no great benefit. The best browser for on this platform was good old Opera Mini 🙂
The audio is very good, and the speakers built in offer rich audio. The phone excels when used with a headset or connected to an external audio output. The music interface is also very nice.
Video playback on mobile devices are very important to most users. Manufacturers in most cases (Except Samsung, and in some ways Nokia) tend not to bundle all codecs since many codecs have associated licensing costs. The solution for most is to download and alternative media player from the app stores that come with the codecs to ensure you can play all format of video.
However with the N9 surprisingly for Nokia the stock Media player had trouble playing movie formats due to an encoding issues. This was a big let down for me, since Nokia always had good support for video formats in their Symbian range.
I then searched the ovi store and only found a player called VidXPlayer, which was horrible in interface and features, and also did not have the codec support for most formats. While it was able to open some files the stock player could not, the frame rate was HORRIBLE.
Seems media player options for the N9 are scarce and also not for the normal users! Other alternatives VLC and OpenPlayer come as deb packages and you need to first enable developer options as well as allow external sources to install these.
However the link to the VLC version for N9 is not available at the VLC site but from an external party and that sites seems to have gone down 😦 Installed OpenPlayer and found though the files that did not play on the stock player opened it was so slow and freezing the phone that it was good as useless.
Further reading helped me find the reason why the N9 struggles to play and part of the problem seems to be its GPU which sad to say is actually inferior to the N8 unit on video playback 😦 it also has a severe limitation on the method of encoding which is why most videos you download don’t play well on it. More information http://n9ok.blogspot.com/2012/07/how-to-make-nokia-n9-playback-720p-hd.html#more
The best way to guarantee video playback on an N9 is to go Iphone/Microsoft Windows phone mode, which is to convert the files and upload, not what you call very open and this is one area that Android really rules the roost since Windows Phone similar to Itunes expects you to convert and copy. Oh yeah Nokia Symbian actually is superior here, as it can play most formats without conversion.
Ovi store still crappy, need we say more
Things have not improved much on the OVI store for N9. Downloads are slow, and messy and the store is filled with garbage apps. Loads of apps that actually are very useful and vital for the N9 not being in the store will deter normal users, though with most users buying this for the open OS means they won’t mind treading the extra bit to get things done.
Challenges and quirks
Unable to sync contacts with Google, solution found
I had setup my phone to sync with my office Exchange server, and then setup another Exchange connection to sync with my Google.
The office Exchange was configured to sync Mail and Calender, while the google Exchange setup for Contacts, Mail and Calender.
However I found that that contact sync was not working, and the option for contact sync was missing in the configuration for synching with my Google.
I found that the N9 though it can support multiple exchange configurations, it will only allow contact sync with the first Exchange setup!
Solution, I deleted my office Exchange account and gmail, and then made the Exchange setup for Google first, and then the Exchange setup for connecting to MS Exchange. This imported my contacts and things were working fine.
No way to create a new APN, need a third party app not found in the OVI store
Now this was shocking, the interface does not allow to create a new APN. You can only create a new WIFI type internet connection! In order to do this you have to seek a third party not available in the OVI store to achieve this.
No way to disable WIFI
You only have an option for switch on Internet. This effectively enables the WIFI even if you choose a 3G connection as your Internet connection.
Poor sustained Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity, seems to be an over optimized killing of the net connection
The device keeps loosing connectivity with the Wi-Fi router and 3G network, making it extremely messy for any downloads.
However it does one optimization, the very moment something needs the internet based on the priority of connections it connects and downloads, but once it feels the download has been done it disconnects the connection. However I guess if a download stalls this optimization might be working against the N9!
Unbelievable time to reset to default
When i decided to resell the phone after getting familar with it, i selected the clean format option. the phone prompted me that it will take 15mins and to plug the phone to the charger. I thought this was just a warning to make sure you were careful not to brick the phone if you were doing it with low charge. But oh boy was it not the most slowest reset i have ever come across. The process took much more than 15mins, and I really cannot fathom why it takes so much time! So in case you select this option make sure you have the phone attached to a charger, it seems to be doing something crazily scary when it resets to factory.
The Meego platform shows how a highly optimized platform can make simple low end hardware run super smooth and efficient. The platform also shows the potential it had if it was matured into the true replacement for Symbian.
Sadly the platform development coincided with the entry of Elop and was doomed from the start, the release of the N9 I feel was done simply to keep everyone loyal to Nokia that Nokia still had it in them to put out great phones, as the Symbian platform was getting torn apart by Android and iOS, not due to the lack of features but the poor pace in development and lack of apps that the modern gen wanted.
The design of the N9 is totally outstanding compared to what’s out there in the market (only contenders would be the HTC One s and X), and the beauty of this design has since then been reflected in the Lumia 800/900 and it I am sure will shine with the Lumia 820/920 which seemingly will have the internal hardware and proper OS to help it grow.
Nokia definitely skimmed on the internal hardware, and the shutdown of its Meego development has impeded. The good news though is that most who left Nokia’s meego team have now formed a new company called Jolla and intend to continue to development on Meego. I do hope they will keep the N9 (and its old brother the N900) support so that even if Nokia does not do any updates Jolla will.
The Nokia N9 will remain a favorite development phone, just like the N900, and it already has Android 4.0 as a dual boot option, and many say it will have Android 4.1 running in dual boot before its available for most Android phones! However i am sure for most its not Android on the N9, but advancing Meego that will be the area of interest, and here there is doubt.