Beautifully simple. That's the marketing tag-line for Nokia's promotion of the N9 smartphone, the first and last Nokia phone to run the MeeGo operating system. The N9 is the best looking and slickest device the company has released in a number of years. Although it can't compete with Android's flexibility, or iOS's number and quality of third-party apps, the Nokia N9's great design, superb display and ease of use makes it a valid alternative if you're looking for something different. It's just a shame it's so late to market and is essentially running a dead operating system.
Nokia N9: Design and display
Nokia is no stranger to excellent design and construction: despite many of its recent smartphones bring plagued by poor software, we've always admired Nokia's build quality, craftsmanship and industrial design. The N9 is no different — it's a candybar handset constructed from solid polymer. According to Nokia the N9 is manufactured from the same material often found in ice hockey helmets. The company says the phone's polycarbonate casing is coloured all the way through in the manufacturing process, so scratches, dents or marks from everyday use will not show up. The N9 is available in black, cyan and magenta colours in Australia: the cyan colour in particular is a real head turner and will definitely stand out in a store.
The N9 is Nokia's first-ever "pure touch" smartphone. It has no keypad or home button on the front — the only physical controls are on the right side in the form of volume buttons and a lock key. The bottom houses a speaker while a standard headphone jack, micro-USB port and SIM card slot are aligned on the top. A flap covers the micro-USB port but it's awkward to open: you need to dig your fingertip into the left side of the cover for it to flip up and you need to do this every time you want to charge the phone. The N9 doesn't have a removable battery and uses a micro-SIM card rather than a full-sized one.
The entire front of the Nokia N9 is taken up by a 3.9in, super AMOLED, edge-to-edge display. The screen uses gorilla glass technology that Nokia says prevents scratches and cracks and the glass is curved outwards in order to achieve a more natural swiping motion. This curve makes content on the N9 appear as if it's floating underneath the screen. Viewing angles are excellent and the display is very bright, though it has a yellow tinge when compared directly to the iPhone 4 on full brightness and lacks an automatic brightness setting. Text is both crisp and clear.
Nokia N9: User interface
The MeeGo operating system running the N9 is focussed on simplicity: Nokia says it intended to "cut through the clutter associated with traditional smartphone design." Although it has a learning curve if you’re coming from an iPhone or Android smartphone, the user experience of the N9 feels natural. Swiping from edge-to-edge to unlock the screen, go back to the default home screen or see important notifications is effortless and easy.
The idea around navigating the N9 is that whenever you are in an application you simply swipe from the edge of the screen (either side) to go back to the home screens. At times we were left longing for a back button but after a few days use the swipe gestures become second nature. You can also set the N9 to close apps by swiping down when in an app — a similar action in parts to the webOS platform that powered HP's now-defunct TouchPad tablet.
The N9 interface is based around three "home views" — an applications screen that lists all your apps, a notifications screen for calls, messages, calendar events and social networking feeds and a currently open applications screen. Nokia says there is no limit to the amount of apps you have open and you won't see a message or error if the memory becomes full: we managed to open 15 apps without a direct affect on performance, but there are times when we wish the N9 had a faster, dual-core processor. Apps sometimes take a few seconds to open and more taxing tasks like playing back video files does result in a little slowdown.
Unfortunately, the Nokia N9 does not support the ability to create folders for app sorting, so the app list screen does become cluttered if you download a lot of apps. You can press and hold an app icon to move it where you want on the app screen, but this is the only method of sorting: you can't sort by alphabetical order or most used, for example.
The Nokia N9 is the best looking and slickest smartphone Nokia has ever built. It's a combination of superbly built hardware and slick, easy to use, elegant software. However, it's priced too high to compete with iOS and Android alternatives and we can't help but feel it's about 18 months too late.