It’s not only this review that’s “better late than never”, though, it’s the N9 itself. While in all fairness Nokia’s Symbian-powered smartphone offerings have been nothing if not decent and functional, the perception of many over the months prior to the N9’s introduction has been that the Finnish firm has fallen a bit behind Apple et. al., Symbian’s constant evolution notwithstanding. But the N9’s gone a long way towards rectifying this, showing the world that the company’s still ‘got it’. And by doing so, the N9’s also laid the groundwork for Nokia’s Windows Phone 7-running devices.
I spent a whirlwind two weeks putting Technoodling’s cyan N9 through its paces for this review. I wondered initially if all the hype was true, if this phone really was as good as other tech journalists and writers said it was. In a nutshell – yes indeed, it’s a terrific phone that’s THIS CLOSE to being perfect.
Let’s start with the hardware. I can’t say enough good things about the hardware. The N9’s body is composed of a soft-touch polycarbonate that strikes an excellent balance between good feel and durability, blowing most other non-metal-body smartphones into the weeds. It’s an ergonomic treat – solid without being too hefty, with nicely rounded-off edges and gentle curves that help it sit well in one’s hand and make it really nice to use. I was impressed by the fact that the N9 has only three physical buttons – volume up and down and power on/off – making this the least ‘buttony’ phone I’ve ever tested.
It isn’t scratch-resistant, but Nokia assures us that scratches will be well-nigh invisible thanks to the depth and solidity of said polycarbonate. The ports and SIM card holder (which is nowhere near as fiddly to slide out as that in Apple’s iPhone 4 and 4S) are concealed under hinged and sliding covers, only adding to this phone’s durability. The phone features a unibody construction that would make the likes of Apple proud and is put together to extremely high standards, and its Gorilla Glass front reinforces the impression that this is one solid, high-quality phone.
The overall effect is that of sturdiness and even ruggedness – I left off the included body-colored silicone case when I was using this phone, because it just didn’t feel like it needed the extra protection.
Plus that screen’s just gorgeous. Bright and brilliant without being overwhelming (or a battery hog, more on which later) and the blacks are so deep that it takes bright light to be able to determine where the display panel ends and where the edges of the screen begin.
Okay, so she’s got style, you might say, but how does she run? Really quite well, thank you very much. Critics pointed out quite early on that the N9 runs on a processor that’s a bit long in the tooth (the OMAP3630, if you must know), and I have to admit that if you’ve got a lot of apps running at the same time, the N9 can freeze up for a second or two. But in all fairness that only happened once or twice during the review period. During all other times the N9 went about its business with aplomb. Its aging processor notwithstanding, the N9 is one slick phone.
Wake it from sleep by tapping the screen twice; that’ll bring you to the home screen where all the apps are shown. A swipe left will take you to the Events screen for messaging, call-related and social-networking updates and notifications, whereas a swipe to the right will bring you to the Open Applications screen where all the open apps can be viewed and dealt with. An oft-repeated gimmick is that when a video is being played, the video screen can slowly be swiped to the right or the left – and the video will continue to play, stutter-free, until said screen has been swiped away. Not really useful, of course, but pretty impressive all the same.
The N9’s 8-megapixel snapper isn’t as impressive as the one in the iPhone 4S – but what phone-mounted camera is? The N9’s took rather good pictures with the flash off (as befits a Carl Zeiss-badged device) but somewhat iffier pictures with the flash on. (Take note that the front-facing camera’s located at the bottom of the device instead of up top – a major break from tradition.)
I have to mention the haptic feedback whenever one of the keys on the virtual keyboard is pressed or a setting is adjusted. It’s by far the best I’ve experienced – it clicks and clacks like a tiny retro keyboard, and the feedback is just minimal enough to be noticeable without being jarring or obtrusive.
The dealbreaker for many will be the N9’s app ecosystem. Given that MeeGo Harmattan has essentially been thrown over for WP7, don’t expect the N9 app party to be anywhere near as lively as that of iOS or Android. Developers will of course go to where the action is, and the sad truth is that MeeGo Harmattan isn’t where it’s at. The upshot is that the N9 already does come with a lot of apps out of the box – you get apps for Twitter, Picasa and Facebook, for instance, as well as Gmail and Gchat (but none for Google+) and even games like Angry Birds to boot. Plus you can also download some other good apps from the Nokia Store, like DropN9 for DropBox access, Spotify for music while out and about, 4squick for Foursquare, and so on.
The bottom line’s that the N9 is a REALLY compelling phone – even though it’s the first and last of its kind, and app fanatics (which means almost all smartphone users nowadays) might not be served. But I argue that its lack of a future notwithstanding, the N9 is good enough to be given a chance. If I hadn’t recently invested in an iPhone 4S, I’d have made a beeline for the N9. I think that says it all, don’t you?
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