Nokia N9 Review: Beautifully Frustrating

Nokia’s N9 is a smartphone chock full of contradictions. I love the design and the operating system, but I’m frustrated by it too. It’s enough to drive me to poetry. I’ve got to be honest. When Nokia first handed an N9 over to me to test, I wasn’t expecting much. The past dozen or so Symbian devices have been underwhelming creatures to put it nicely; often nice hardware designs crippled by an operating environment that was way behind the times.

Sorry, Symbian fans. You can start hating me now if it’s easier to do so.

The thing with the N9, though, is that, much to my surprise, I really do rather like it. I’ve been struggling with how to write it up for the past couple of days, simply because it’s a phone that’s chock full of all sorts of interesting contradictions. I did, for a while, wrestle with poetry:

Nokia’s N9 is quite sublime Its design ideas are mighty fine It’s a genuinely nice smartphone But sadly one I’ll never own.

I think we can all agree that poetry, and the course of modern English literature was the loser in that battle.

Bad as that poem is, it does highlight the core problem with the N9. It’s a very well made smartphone that feels great in the hand, responds with a surprising turn of speed and covers the majority of smartphone basics very well indeed.

The multitasking window has a Playbook-style ease of use to it. When multitasking the N9flies along and the no-buttons approach is easy to use once you get the timing for swipes down pat. If you want a phone that impresses people just by showing it to them, this is it.

I was sent the black N9, which is easily the least visually impressive N9 model, although it is the only one that comes in a 64GB variant. If you want the vibrant magenta model or the really very nice looking blue unit, you’ll have to make do with a maximum of 16GB onboard.

The MicroSIM slides out. Even the engineering here is excellent If you happened to be switching away from an iPhone 4 to the N9, you won’t have to change SIM, as it’s a Micro-SIM using handset. It’s NFC-enabled; while there’s a serious lack of NFC applications in Australia at the moment, that tickles my gadget fancy-bone in just the right place anyway. I should point out that the stand in these photos isn't included in the box; it's just there so you don't have to stare at my hands all the time.

The N9 does a solid job of delivering the core smartphone experience. The browser is slick and the keyboard is responsive, although it’s worth noting there’s no flash support. Nokia Maps responds well, and you can download entire maps for offline access.

The social networking apps work well, and integrate with a sideways notification screen that updates regularly.

A quick shot taken while out walking

The camera is great; just taking some sample shots shows good colour reproduction, fast focus and a simple shooting mechanism that just plain works. No, it’s not yet a DSLR, but it’s easily in the top echelon of smartphone cameras.

Battery life is very solid. Like most smartphones, if you run it hard — and especially if you use the hotspot function — it’ll conk out within a day, but with moderate use I’ve managed multiple days without it plaintively complaining of low power.

All this sounds excellent; a solid smartphone with a clever operating system, good response, great camera and eye catching design. But I’m still not buying one.

NFC-enabled Angry Birds is cute, but it's just not enough. Why won’t I own one? Simple. It’s a phone with (at best) a very limited future. MeeGo runs like a greased weasel on the hardware, but the app offering is meagre, and with Nokia’s focus rather solidly being on Windows Phone 7, it’s a handset with a limited shelf life if you want a smartphone that’ll go beyond that core smartphone experience. If your wants are limited and you’re after an excellent looking phone it’s a fair buy, although clearly Nokia’s going to have an uphill battle convincing the mass market to buy the N9 rather than the equally consumer-friendly iPhone 4S.

On the plus side for the N9’s design, it looks like the Nokia Sea Ray (or whatever they’ll end up calling it) will essentially be the N9 running Windows Phone 7. Presuming they can keep the responsiveness of the N9, that should be a great phone — and Windows Phone 7 could do with one of those.


Comments

    Nice review. I've never found any useful 3rd party apps which are a must have, so I'll get this phone as it includes pretty much the things I'd need in a phone.

      Dear Nokia, Just imagine what your balance sheet would look like today and what your former employees (who found themselves with out jobs not so long ago) would otherwise be doing if you had not been so bloody minded and adopted android as another product line at the time HTC and Samsung did. Given your recognised ability to produce great hardware just imagine if you had combined that with Android. Just imagine.....

        Yeah, that's why Samsung going for Tizen...

    Basically my thoughts on the N9 right there, from a consumer standpoint. Like the N900 before it this is basically a phone for hackers and enthusiasts, not the general public.

      Interesting; I'd say the exact reverse; it's the kind of phone I could give my mother (because she's not going to care about detailed apps but could probably use a good browser), but if I gave it to my app-centric gadget friends, they'd admire the form but bemoan the lack of apps...

    I think this is a truly "open" phone and perfect for enthusiasts. It is trivial to gain root access and I can write in any language supported by meego/linux. However, the long term future for the N9 is bleak.

      People keep complaining about long term software support, but has anyone really got support after 1 year from any manufacturer? The only plausable reason would be apps availability, and again I would say I really want to see someone that realy uses extra software that much. I have some friends who use some basic corporate software, and most of them are compatible only with cell phones adopted by their companies. Aside from these guys all others just use e-mail, embeded security tools, pdf reader, datasheet application and, the most importante, the capability to store documents in the cellphone, wich is one device that you hardly looses, of if you loose and it's password protected, the data would be safe. N9 and other Nokia devices even provide the SMS blocking prossibility. So the only reason someone would not buy this cellphone is because it does not support enough "fart apps" or games, other than that very few give much care about long term support.

    My store just got them the other day, I've been pretty interested in them and we have one staff member drooling over it after a less than stellar iPhone experience. I'm sure all the big apps that find their way onto all major platforms will be available, and being pentaband, 3G on any network is pretty sexy. I still can't help but wonder what it would have been like if Nokia had just tried Android though.

      In a word, rubbish (like all Android phones). WinPhone 7.5 will make this baby sing!

        I don't know what you're talking about, my Desire is fine.

    I'll wait till it comes with symbian belle

    Whoa, wait. There are actually Symbian fans?!

    If it's not randomly crashing on me, wiping data from my SD card or simply not installing apps via the Nokia Store then it's dropping wifi connections and more than I can remember right now.

    You're right on target about hardware being let down by the software though. The hardware of my 5800 is great. Music playback is better than I ever expected - but that's no good when Symbian randomly wipes songs or duplicates them in the playlist even when only one file of the song exists.

    I may wait until Nokia give use WP7 but a SGS2 is looking better each day. Only 2 more months on my contract...

      Yes im a massive fan of the symbian and its robot duck ways (http://img.xatakamovil.com/2009/05/duckoverlord.jpg)

      The media is forgetting that there arnt alot of meego app in the app store but http://my-meego.com/index.php is full of open source projects.
      Personally i think vegetarians are nuts but its a life choice. in the same way that supporting a community effort like meego is.
      Now if only somebody will sell me a Cyan 16gig id be sooooo happy. they're sold out everywhere.

    I reckon this phone is gorgeous but I really like WP7 and can't see myself switching any time soon. If "Sea Ray" is just this hardware running WP7.5, then it will have plenty of appeal, although I think I'll wait for dual-core Mangoes to appear.

    This will be my next phone, as soon as Nokia sells it in my country that is. I love absolutely everything about it. I guess I'm not much of an app man, I only use about 5 often. I think it is a real dick move on Nokia's part not making more Meego phones. Fine if they want to use WP7 which I hate, but why not make Meego and Android phones too! I also find it quite odd that Stephen Elop said the reason they chose WP7 was because Meego wouldn't be ready until 2014, then they come out with 2 Meego Harmattan phones months before any Nokia WP7 phone.

    Its clear you dont want like. want happens to the review units when you done with them?

    what camera (or phone) did you use to take photos of N9 in this article?
    p.s. it is CRAP!

    So dark, lack of details and useless to actually see the N9, I can't see the beauty you speak of!

      iPhone 4. I bet it was iPhone 4.

        He probably tried to use it's teeny weeny single-LED flash! :D

        Iphone 4 is a source of endless amusement.
        I love it!

    Nokia N9 + MeeGo = HP TouchPad + WebOS
    Good, but no good enough.
    I was a big Nokia fan and now I'm a happy Android user.

    I waited and waited for this phone about a year ago when it was orginally due. like the N900 the device just took too long to get out of the factory!

    I thought one of the things about Meego that I saw people post everywhere was that it was compatible with all Android apps, or something like that?

    Also how does the camera compare with the N8? Especially the flash, this one only has an LED flash doesn't it? I've only seen a couple of pictures from my mum's N8, but it seems to be pretty awesome.

    I've gone from having an N8, i still use it as a camera and FM transmitter for my music in the car (lets face it, 8MP with full focus and duel LED flash cant quite measure up to the N8's 12MP), i now have the N9, which I'm loving, it's smooth, fluid, responsive and easy to use, oh and it gets great coverage, i took it to where our local Telstra store takes there phones to check the coverage, and i had full signal. I know the their's a very good chance this will be the last MeeGo device, but none the less it's a great phone.

    Wow, actually very misinformed on the apps front.

    *MeeGo Harmattan apps
    *Maemo5 apps
    *Merging of Symbian/Harmattan QML/Qt components
    (read: Symbian apps & vice-versa)
    *WebOS apps (mostly games, but other compatibility)
    *Necessitas (read: Android Qt apps)
    http://sourceforge.net/p/necessitas/home/necessitas/
    *apps.formeego.org (read F/OSS userland)
    Potentially but unlikely:
    *ACL
    *Alien dalvik
    To mention some I can quickly recall OTTOMH.
    No doubt I've missed something...

    Somehow I think there's going to be enough.... apps.
    Surely a change of that conclusion's in order to something like:

    Apps seem to have huge 'potential', but are an evolving story at this time ;)

      I take your point, but there's an enormous danger in reviewing any product based on potential; I've lost track of the number of products I've reviewed that have had bugs or missing features that were promised to be fixed "in the next update". The next update never came.

      As such, I try (I don't always succeed -- and I'm more than happy to get constructive criticism such as yours) to judge purely based on what it can do right now. Which, compared to the App offerings on competing platforms, is limited.

    Nokia N9 is a good initiation of buttonless smart phones and has a stunning outlook unlike some other Nokia phones such as Nokia X7, Nokia E6 (some what acceptible).

    Nokia need to improve two things that the look and feel of the phone and Design pattern of menus like what iPhone and Android phones have, that not to mean copy their techniques, need to standout from the crowd.

    I Like Nokia N9 just because of its stunning look and thanks to the wonderful review.

    I'm also thinking to buy the phone. At the moment I have a iPhone 4, not willing to buy the 4s, but waiting for the iphone 5.
    For the meantime the Nokia is a very intersting option I think. The only thing Im concerned a little bit are the apps.. Specially that there is nothing like whatsapp, to communicate also with other devices for free... or video calls etc..

      Are you sure? This review says there is in-build app for that (read after headline "messaging impressively covered"). Also Skype is pre-installed into N9. http://www.gsmarena.com/nokia_n9-review-659p5.php

    This is the phone that Nokia is putting in the "hands of the community". So we haven't to expect too much support by Nokia!

    So we hope in the work of the developers (Like they did on N900).

    I agree with except for one thing. Most smart phones on the market today only last the average person what, twelve or twenty months at best? Nokia have committed to supporting the platform for well after that, so I dont see much of an issue there, other than in peoples perceptions. Other than that, great review.

    I will buy this phone in Switzerland next week !
    I am using the Iphone 4 and can say that its lousy antenna power and its lack of sending SMS to some of my friend and customers (to all others it works !) made me think of moving away from it. And now i saw this N9 two weeks ago. Powerful, fast, responsive and sooo good designed.
    And the Apps ? For me the story is clear - Nokia is testing the N9 and its acceptance in niche markets. If the response is good - we probably well not see "Sea ray" with WP7. Why ? Nokia knows very well that WP7 is awfull and not well accepted in the market. This is the only logical reason to bring a meego device upfront. Anyhow, well done Nokia.

    One of my work coligues has bought one of these and I came away with a similar view. Great buuild quality, the thing sits sweetly in the hand. The whole unit apears smaller than it really is. The OS is slick and smooth in it's operation; very easy and intuative. But.....I don't know if I would end up getting tiered of it real quick as there is nothing to play with once you have explored the standard features. My Nexus s is not as pretty but there is always another app to try out.

    amazing!!
    your review makes me want to buy one!!!! gzzzzzzzz if i could just get one in the US

      Amazon, Expansys.

    I think Nokia has produced an Android phone, it's called symbian Belle.

    Nokia told us in the beginning the N9 was just to be a phone for the tech heads to buy. I'm very glad that the N9 design may also be a Windows Mango( a OS that is light years ahead of Android and IOS). I like the black but if there is a RED, I like phones I can find in my sea of black tech devices on my desk.

    Can you get words with friends and other games liek that on it?

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