Nokia Smartphones Review - Smartphone Round Robin

Talk about procrastination. My final Nokia review for the Smartphone Round Robin should have been up last Friday, but here it is a week late. Everytime I sat down to start writing it, I always managed to find a distraction compelling enough to pull me away. This one is definitely tough for me to write. For every other platform I've looked at over the past 6+ weeks that the Round Robin has been on, it has never been difficult for me to find something to say; in fact, I have had the problem of always having too much to say (apologies for some of those lonnnng articles). But writing is easy when you have strong opinions and I definitely had my viewpoints on the Droid, iPhone, Palm's WebOS and even Windows Phones - both for specific devices looked at and the platforms and where they fit into the Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs and the greater smartphone market.

Coming into the event, Nokia was the platform I knew least about. Though Nokia sells oodles of handsets around the globe, in the North American market their smartphone penetration is still pretty non-existent. Being unfamiliar with the devices, I had no preconceived notions. And after getting to know the devices and spend some time on them, I definitely leave the Round Robin with a better appreciation for what Nokia has done to date with their smartphones, but I'm still really sort of lost as to where they fit into the current landscape (especially in NA) and can't help but wonder what they're going to have to do in order to get some sort of piece of consumer mindshare and momentum. Read on for more Nokia thoughts!

A Little Background Work...

BlackBerry Smartphones and Nokias
BlackBerrys and Nokias...

When it comes to selling handsets, Nokia's approach is to try and blanket the market. They build handsets targeted at everybody in every segment. What do you want? You want a multimedia phone? A web phone? A crappy little feature phone? A smartphone? Something for fun? Something for work? Nokia builds a device that fits the bill. With so many phones out there, they've also found themselves in a position of having some fragmentation on the software side of things. For the Round Robin we checked out two of Nokia's smartphones -- the Nokia N97 Mini and Nokia N900 -- and sure enough even among these two devices there are two different software platforms present. The N97 Mini is using more of the Symbian legacy software (S60 5th edition as it's apparently called) while the N900 is actually using a Linux-based OS called Maemo that was really developed for tablets, and in the N900 has been greatly shrunk down into phone form. Maemo definitely has some gusto and is likely to be the future of Nokia's high-end devices, while the S60 software might be in for more of a struggle at this point.

Nokia definitely builds good phones. Over at a ton of great feedback was provided (thanks alls!) to questions I asked (some of it to be featured below) and one of the things that became apparent is that when it comes to telephony and building a device, Nokia has a good grasp of it. Everybody raves about the call quality on Nokia phones and the device's tend to be ahead of the competition in terms of some of the features included - like crazy cameras (one Nokia phone that Matt showed me has a 8 megapixel camera with Carl Zeis lens and dual LED flash that takes some crazy good pictures) and TV outputs. Nice stuff. On the other hand, the fact that Nokia hasn't made the leap to capacitive screens and still uses resistive ones on all their touchscreen phones seems a bit dated. In the end, it seemed to me that between the myriad of devices and different platforms at work within the Nokia lineup one of the things that was missing for me the whole way through was a polished user experience - comfortable to hold, intuitive to use and with snappy performance and execution of tasks.  

BlackBerry Smartphones and Nokias
The view from the other side....

Matt Miller, editor of and blogger for ZDnet, loves Nokia as much as I love BlackBerry. That said, if you really want to learn the ins and outs of what Nokia has to offer be sure to check out the NokiaExperts site and his full reviews of the devices mentioned in this article:

  • Nokia N97 Mini Review >>
  • Nokia N900 Review >>

If you missed my first encounter with the N97 Mini and Nokia N900, you can watch my initial impressions video below. 

OK... let's look at these devices in a bit more detail!

The Nokia N900 - Tablety Goodness in a Phone

Nokia Review
BlackBerry Storm2 and the Nokia N900

Of the N97 Mini and N900, the N900 was the device that most-impressed me. The device features some very solid specs and with the Maemo operating system once you learn the device you can really accomplish a lot. Here's a quick look at the specs:

  • ARM TI OMAP3430 Cortex-A8 600 MHz processor
  • PowerVR SGX 3D graphics accelerator with OpenGL ES 2.0 support
  • Quad-band GSM/EDGE with 850/900/1800/1900 MHz support
  • Tri-band WCDMA with 900/1700/2100 MHz support
  • 3.5 inch 800×480 pixel resolution resistive touchscreen display
  • 256MB RAM and 768 MB virtual memory
  • Integrated 32GB flash drive
  • microSD card slot for expanded memory
  • Bluetooth 2.1 with A2DP stereo support
  • Integrated 802.11 b/g WiFi
  • Integrated GPS with A-GPS
  • Integrated FM transmitter and FM radio
  • 5 megapixel camera with dual LED flash and Carl Zeiss optics
  • 3.5mm headset jack with TV out support
  • BL-5J 1320 mAh battery
  • Acceleromter
  • Dimensions: 4.33 x 2.35 x 0.71 inches and 6.38 ounces

Like I said, solid specs. It's interesting to note that the device supports T-Mobile's unique 1700 MHz band, so for T-Mo users this is a device worth checking out. Of course, another REALLY STRANGE and sad thing about Nokia smartphones in the USA is that they literally have no carrier adoption. That means you have to buy the devices unlocked at full retail price and then hook them up to your carrier plan. If you have money to burn that's not a big deal, but most people still look to save money up front on their new device by agreeing to contract terms. And now that Apple has announced their base iPad at the relatively low pricepoint of $499 it definitely makes the cost of a lot of off-contract smartphones seem like a bit of a rip off.

For a more in-depth look at the device, be sure to watch our pal Matt Miller's two video walk through below:

Some of the highlights: FULL WEB BROWSING. We're talking full flash support and a computer like browsing experience. You can even go to game sites and play flash games. This is definitely the big highlight of the device for me. Contrary to the BlackBerry operating system, Nokia's homescreen experience is very widgety these days and highly customizable. The experience is a bit of a mess when you first pick it up as there is so much going on -- there's literally four different homescreens you can scroll through -- but once you configure it the way it makes sense for you personally pretty much everything you need is at your fingertips.

Nokia Review
The N900's spacebar location is a little off center, but for a wide slider keyboard the experience was ok

Nokia Review
Nokia Review

I've said a few times this year in the Round Robin that you could literally pick up any of the devices this year and with some time invested (configuring stuff and hunting down apps you need) can make any of the phones do what you you need them to do. This is definitely true of the N900 and I'm guessing that if you used it long enough, it's once of those devices you'd miss if you had to leave it. The N900's hardware is a bit bulky and lacks a little bit of personality in my opinion, but the high resolution display is nice, the camera is great and while I'm not a huge fan of big wide slider keyboards, I didn't horribly mind the N900's. The offset spacebar is a little strange at first, but I did get used to it. As a BlackBerry speed demon whe it comes to executing tasks, I wasn't a huge fan of the Maemo OS. While the BlackBerry experience is tailored for mobile on the go use, in my opinion the Nokia is more of a stop and use phone. You really need to stop what you're doing, hold it both hands and get into it. The device comes with a stylus, which thankfully you don't really need to use, though the finger technique is a little different than capactive touchscreens (you need to use a bit more fingernail than the flat of your finger). 

The N97 Mini.....

Nokia Review
N97 Mini and the BlackBerry Bold 9700

While the N900 is more of a computer than a smarpthone, the N97 Mini offers up more of Nokia's traditional smartphone experience. The specs aren't quite as impressive, but are not too bad as you read through them:

  • Intel ARM 11 434 MHz processor
  • 3.2 inch 640×360 pixel resolution touchscreen display
  • 5 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics
  • 8GB integrated memory with microSD card slot
  • 802.11 b/g WiFi
  • Bluetooth 2.0
  • A-GPS
  • FM radio
  • 3.5 mm headset jack
  • microUSB port for syncing and charging
  • QWERTY keyboard
  • Proximity sensor
  • Available in Cherry Black, Garnet, and White color schemes.
  • Dimensions of 4.45 x 2.07 x 0.56 inches and 4.87 ounces

Gotta love how they worked in the FM radio, a front facing camera and make it available in multiple colors right from the start. I wish RIM would offer all of their devices in a bunch of colors right from the get go. For a much more detailed look of what the N97 Mini is all about, check out Matt's hands-on video below: 

So the N97 Mini is also a slider form factor, and is a bit nicer to hold than the N900. It also has a widgety homescreen experience, but this particular device appears to suffer from the issue of not enough horsepower and memory. I found the user-experience to turn from fun to frustrating fairly quick with a lot of lag showing up at times when I did not want to see any lag. Browsing around Nokia Experts and the web and in talking to Matt, the lack of RAM is the big sticking point on this device. It just doesn't have enough of it.

Nokia Review

BlackBerry Users on Nokia Smartphones

Over at Nokia Experts, I got some great feedback from Nokia users on the platform and what they felt BlackBerry users would like, not like about it. One comment in particular from interfasys I thought was extremely useful as it came from an individual who carries around both the BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Nokia N900. I thought I'd share his thoughts and answers to the questions I posed as they are pretty real world.

Q1. Why do you love your Nokia device? What sets it apart from the competition?

A1. The N900 truly is like having a tiny computer with you. Everything the Blackberry doesn't do very well (multiple calendars, high speed browsing on any website, etc.), the N900 does. The camera on it is great compared to many of the smartphones released by competitors.

Q2. How do you use your Nokia smartphone? Is it primarily a communication tool? A multimedia tool? Maybe both? Do you use it for business or more for personal use? What type of user is a good ‘fit' with a Nokia smartphone?

A2. I use it as a second phone. My BB is the main one and this one is for when I need to do a bit more than check my emails, tweet or check when's the next meeting. The N900 is for everything else. Movies, Internet, Project Management, etc. It gives me the big picture. It's not ready yet to manage all my communications need efficiently, but the Maemo 5 ecosystem is evolving very fast, unlike the Blackberry platform.

Q3. What's the app situation like?

A3. It's bad...check the stores and the repositories. There isn't much there, but it's getting better quite quickly. The favorite one has to be the browser :D .

Q4. What would you like to see Nokia do next or do differently?

A4. They're going to release a touchscreen only version and it will be interesting to see it go head to head with the new iPhone, The Nexus One, the Pré and the Storm 2 or 3, but what I'm really looking for is a Pré form factor with Maemo on it. The N900 is too much of a brick, doesn't have a good enough battery life and the keyboard can't compare to what you find on a Blackberry, especially since it's a landscape mode one.

Q5. What do you think a BlackBerry user would love about Nokia phones? Anything they might not like?

A5. They will like: The ability to do lots at the same time, the speed of the web browser, the high resolution screen that makes web apps actually usable without having to install an app that includes only a subset of what's available online. They won't like: The keyboard, the messaging application, the lack of applications and maybe the lack of security features like you can find on a BB. 

So there you have it. And it sums it up pretty well from my point of view as well. Going back to my Smartphone Hierarchy of Needs, when you have a device like BlackBerry that's Best of Class at the basics (communication, speed of use, long battery life, one handed ease of use, etc.) and your lifestyle demands that your primary phone excel at these things, a Nokia smartphone like the N900 makes a nice compliment to your BlackBerry, but not replacement. Though devices like the N97 Mini and N900 are fully featured, they miss the mark a little bit on the things BlackBerry users tend to do so routinely - I think it would a bit frustrating to use the device as your only phone. Oh, and no BlackBerry Messenger of course :p

Some Closing Thoughts - Where's Nokia Going?

As my time with Nokia comes to an end, I still don't know what to think of the devices and the platform as a whole as they relate to the North American smartphone space. I guess I sort of think of them like I do this years Windows Phones... a little lost and uncertain of their future. When I look out over the playing field, it's easy to see that Apple will keep running ahead full steam, and that Android is going to gain some speed as it floods the market with ok devices that run pretty compelling software. And while RIM is catching their breath for a little bit after sprinting for so long, they're not hitting the bench anytime soon - they've just got too many skills that matter and do them better than anyone else on the field... they're dependable and have some tricks up their sleeves. Then there's Nokia - they've got some speed and strength, but they don't quite seem to be able to translate it into scoring points. They're not on the starting line up, so the audience doesn't cheer for them, and when they do something impressive the audience doesn't even take notice as they're not allstars. It's kind of like they need some coaching to get them ready for the big leagues and to step into the game (which is funny since on a total handsets shipped level they're still huge). At the same time, it's like they're that player who's naturally talented but just doesn't have a love for the game... as in one of these days they need to work with carriers and get subsidized devices into people's hands - until then it's a bit like they don't even care.

It'll be interested to see where things are at for Nokia come next year's Round Robin. Stay tuned for that!

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