Nokia’s N97 wasn’t quite the smartphone masterclass we were hoping for. It has raw power in spades, but the combination of a resistive touchscreen and Series 60 left it feeling decidedly clunky next to its super-slick rivals.
Which is perhaps why the Finns have released the N900, the N97’s spiritual successor, so soon afterwards. Its spec sheet has the same highlights, including 32GB storage and a 5MP camera, but the N97’s Symbian engine has been stripped out in favour of a new Linux-based Maemo 5 operating system.
Resistive is futile
Things get off to a positive start – the N900 is well built with a reassuringly solid screen slide. Unfortunately, this doesn't extend to the kickstand used to angle the screen for video viewing, which is flimsy and lacks balance.
The touchscreen is also of the resistive variety, which means it’s pressure-sensitive and requires a firm finger press. Annoyingly there’s no multi-touch, but the screen is fast and responsive with a gentle, reassuring haptic response.
It’s also bright, colourful and pin-sharp thanks to its high-resolution of 800x480 pixels – way more than the iPhone’s same-sized screen.
The full QWERTY keypad has slightly domed keys, making them much easier to use, though the spacing between them could be a little more generous.
Eccentric web browser
The browser is good, once you’ve acclimatised to its idiosyncrasies. Tapping the bottom right corner will display your options, while zooming is achieved with a clockwise twirl of the finger – laborious but neat – or by pressing the volume key.
Strangely, the browser only works in landscape mode but it is capable of displaying Flash animation, unlike most smartphones. The downside is now there’s no avoiding the adverts.
The N900 has multiple home screens, which you change with a swipe of the finger. For example, you can keep nagging business concerns on one page, and then brush them to one side by moving onto your social networking page.
Unlike the iPhone, it’s easy to multitask with the N900. You can, for example, launch Facebook, then minimise it by tapping the icon showing two folders – Facebook will then shrink into a list view, allowing you to swipe over to, say, Ovi Maps.
Contacts can be imported from VOIP or instant messaging accounts, and you can add photos, Skype details and more to each entry. For speedy access to favourites it's also possible to set up a shortcut on the homescreen.
Sparse app store
Nokia’s Ovi Store is still sparse in comparison to Android Market and Apple’s App store, but a limited range of applications, wallpapers and ringtones let you sate your tweaking desires. With Nokia giving Maemo developers full access to the N900, though, the choice should start multiplying rapidly.
Current apps for the N900 include Foreca Weather, offering simple four-day weather forecasts for your chosen city, an Amazon widget, and – best of all – Skype.
Though most of the N900 works in landscape orientation, rotating the handset launches the phone (providing you've activated this option). Making a Skype call then happens automatically by selecting a Skype contact from your contacts list.
Nokia stays true to its reputation for high-quality snappers, with this 5MP number coming complete with a proficient autofocus to deliver decent shots. There's also a dual LED flash, so lower-light situations shouldn’t defeat you.
When you’re done, it’s pleasingly easy to upload the images. The built-in Ovi Share function is simplest, though you can choose Flickr or Facebook if you prefer.
Ultimately, though, the N900 is held back by the same issues that affected the N97. The touchscreen is at times unresponsive, the Maemo OS a little idiosyncratic and it’s a big lump to squeeze into your pocket.
But the Maemo community is beavering away on building applications to improve its functionality, and if you like a smartphone that you can probe and tweak at your whim, the N900 is certainly worth a spot on your shortlist.