The Nokia N9 is a device that needs no introduction. It stands out as one of only two devices (the other being the developer-oriented N950) running Nokia’s own MeeGo Harmattan OS, the platform Nokia would have bet its high-end portfolio on prior to the Windows Phone strategy shift. It’s also a device that I have wanted to own for a long time, influenced in part by MeeGo Harmattan enthusiasts like Arie of EverythingN9, Andy Hagon and our very own Michael. Imagine my excitement, then, when I found a brand new 16GB Nokia N9 in magenta being sold for a killer price – I simply had to get my hands on it. I’ve since spent a week using the N9 as my only smartphone, and these are my thoughts.
The N9 is nothing to shout about in terms of internal specifications. It has a 3.9-inch 854×480 Pentile AMOLED display, an aged single-core 1GHz TI CPU, 1GB of RAM, a 1450mah internal non-removable battery, an 8-megapixel autofocus camera and 8.8GB of user-accessible internal storage out of the box. Honestly, if this were an Android smartphone, it would be a rather disappointing bit of kit. I’ve always hated Pentile displays with a passion because the subpixel arrangement causes weird colour fringing on text and icons, a checkerboard effect on white backgrounds and generally means you end up with a less defined image than the raw display resolution otherwise suggests.
However, all your misgivings and criticism about the N9’s internal specifications really melt away the moment you pick it up and hold it in your hand. The N9 represents the purest form of Nokia’s Fabula design language, and the lack of buttons on the curved front really give it a streamlined and minimalist look. The bright pink polycarbonate body attracted looks from passers-by all week, and the entire device still looks fresh and futuristic one and a half years after it was first unveiled. That impression continues as you power the N9 on and watch the water-ripple animation seemingly appear out of nowhere on the pitch-black display as the device boots up. The Nokia N9 is something special.
I freely admit that I wouldn’t recommend the N9 to anyone because I wouldn’t be comfortable leaving this device in the hands of an average user expecting him/her to be able to use it without encountering problems very quickly. The N9 (and MeeGo Harmattan) is a device that is imperfect in a bunch of ways and requires time, care and attention on the part of the user to really perform to its fullest potential; Nokia only managed to take the N9 to 90% of where it needs to be in terms of stability and polish before it ran out of resources for MeeGo Harmattan. The browser tends to choke on desktop sites and sometimes freeze the entire device. The auto-correct on the virtual keyboard offers suggestions that can be downright weird. The N9 gets laggy each time an app is installed or uninstalled, and it tends to get bogged down when more than 10 apps are running in the background. The music player somehow thinks it’s necessary to refresh its library each time music is transferred to the device. Video codec support is very lacking. The built-in Twitter app, if left alone, slows down over time to the point where it triggers non-stop “This app is not responding” errors and is virtually unusable.
That sounds like a lot of flaws, but I would argue that anyone interested in an N9 today (myself included) should understand what he/she is getting into. I never expected the N9 to be a flawless and perfect device, and I can say with all honesty that if you are fairly tech-savvy, capable of following instructions and generally know what you’re doing, you can make the N9 work for you. And the reward for the effort invested in making the N9 work properly is an extremely unique and pleasant user experience along with an extremely dedicated community of users and developers that one can be a part of. Honestly, one week later, there are definitely things I would miss right away about the N9 if I were to switch back to my Android smartphone. MeeGo Harmattan, when combined with the N9’s physical form, is a stellar example of what is possible when smartphone hardware and software is developed alongside each other to form an integrated whole. The N9 is by no means perfect. The experience it provides is by no means perfect. But when it works, it is an absolute joy. I’ve used Symbian, Android, iOS and Windows Phone devices, and I can say with certainty that I have not enjoyed using a phone on a day-to-day basis more than I have enjoyed the N9.
The N9 offers a very natural, consistent and well thought out user experience that is noticeable from the get-go and incorporates all the user interface innovations that Nokia pioneered. The always-on standby clock, for instance, lets me check the time, ring mode, battery charge status and any outstanding notifications just by glancing at the device while it is sitting on my desk. It even works with the proximity sensor – when the device is in my pocket, the standby clock goes off in order to conserve power, but appears again when I retrieve it from my pocket, giving the impression that the device springs to life when needed. From there, all it takes is a quick double-tap on the display to bring up the lockscreen, that can be swiped away in any direction while whatever is underneath (an app or one of the three home screen views) zooms in to fill the space. From there, all it takes is a swipe from the edge of the display to navigate in and out of apps; it becomes second nature so quicky that I’ve found myself subconsciously swiping the display on my Xperia S when attempting to back out of an app. Once you have experienced the way the MeeGo Harmattan user interface works, tapping capacitive buttons really doesn’t feel quite so natural anymore.
The N9’s curved glass front makes these swiping actions very smooth, a trick LG and Google picked up on for the Nexus 4. The pink accents throughout the MeeGo Harmattan user interface make an attempt to correspond to the magenta colour of the device itself. The distinctive and easy-to-read Nokia Pure font, these days mostly limited to Nokia’s marketing materials, is present in its full glory on the N9. The level of consistency and tasteful aesthetic choices within MeeGo Harmattan is hardly synonymous with Nokia’s reputation for their lack of expertise in user interface design (just look at how the company fumbled with Symbian). Everything from the app icons to status bar icons to buttons to switches is clean, elegant and shares a squircle-dominated visual style. Even the layout and design of most apps (even third-party ones) is vibrant, beautiful and consistent. In many ways, MeeGo Harmattan demonstrates that Nokia eventually did begin caring about the way things looked and worked in the software department, but it was perhaps too late.
None of that matters. Every single person I have demonstrated my N9 to this past week went away amazed and stunned that Nokia, at one point in time, managed to build a device like this, and then turned around and decided to develop Windows Phone smartphones instead. They were drawn to the bright pink exterior, impressed by how effortless navigating around the UI is, amazed by how tactile the virtual keyboard feels and enthralled by the fact that you can view 9 running apps on a single screen.
Meanwhile, I love my N9. I love using it as I go about my everyday life, and it’s the sort of device that one has to try in person in order to really appreciate what Nokia managed to achieve. I suppose that must count for something, in spite of all its flaws and imperfections.