Nokia N9 Review: Beautifully Frustrating

Nokia’s N9 is a smartphone chock full of contradictions. I love the design and the operating system, but I’m frustrated by it too. It’s enough to drive me to poetry.

I’ve got to be honest. When Nokia first handed an N9 over to me to test, I wasn’t expecting much. The past dozen or so Symbian devices have been underwhelming creatures to put it nicely; often nice hardware designs crippled by an operating environment that was way behind the times.

Sorry, Symbian fans. You can start hating me now if it’s easier to do so.

The thing with the N9, though, is that, much to my surprise, I really do rather like it. I’ve been struggling with how to write it up for the past couple of days, simply because it’s a phone that’s chock full of all sorts of interesting contradictions. I did, for a while, wrestle with poetry:

Nokia’s N9 is quite sublime
Its design ideas are mighty fine
It’s a genuinely nice smartphone
But sadly one I’ll never own.

I think we can all agree that poetry, and the course of modern English literature was the loser in that battle.

Bad as that poem is, it does highlight the core problem with the N9. It’s a very well made smartphone that feels great in the hand, responds with a surprising turn of speed and covers the majority of smartphone basics very well indeed.

The multitasking window has a Playbook-style ease of use to it.

When multitasking the N9flies along and the no-buttons approach is easy to use once you get the timing for swipes down pat. If you want a phone that impresses people just by showing it to them, this is it.

I was sent the black N9, which is easily the least visually impressive N9 model, although it is the only one that comes in a 64GB variant. If you want the vibrant magenta model or the really very nice looking blue unit, you’ll have to make do with a maximum of 16GB onboard.

The MicroSIM slides out. Even the engineering here is excellent

If you happened to be switching away from an iPhone 4 to the N9, you won’t have to change SIM, as it’s a Micro-SIM using handset. It’s NFC-enabled; while there’s a serious lack of NFC applications in Australia at the moment, that tickles my gadget fancy-bone in just the right place anyway. I should point out that the stand in these photos isn’t included in the box; it’s just there so you don’t have to stare at my hands all the time.

The N9 does a solid job of delivering the core smartphone experience. The browser is slick and the keyboard is responsive, although it’s worth noting there’s no flash support. Nokia Maps responds well, and you can download entire maps for offline access.

The social networking apps work well, and integrate with a sideways notification screen that updates regularly.

A quick shot taken while out walking

The camera is great; just taking some sample shots shows good colour reproduction, fast focus and a simple shooting mechanism that just plain works. No, it’s not yet a DSLR, but it’s easily in the top echelon of smartphone cameras.

Battery life is very solid. Like most smartphones, if you run it hard — and especially if you use the hotspot function — it’ll conk out within a day, but with moderate use I’ve managed multiple days without it plaintively complaining of low power.

All this sounds excellent; a solid smartphone with a clever operating system, good response, great camera and eye catching design. But I’m still not buying one.

NFC-enabled Angry Birds is cute, but it’s just not enough.

Why won’t I own one? Simple. It’s a phone with (at best) a very limited future. MeeGo runs like a greased weasel on the hardware, but the app offering is meagre, and with Nokia’s focus rather solidly being on Windows Phone 7, it’s a handset with a limited shelf life if you want a smartphone that’ll go beyond that core smartphone experience. If your wants are limited and you’re after an excellent looking phone it’s a fair buy, although clearly Nokia’s going to have an uphill battle convincing the mass market to buy the N9 rather than the equally consumer-friendly iPhone 4S.

On the plus side for the N9’s design, it looks like the Nokia Sea Ray (or whatever they’ll end up calling it) will essentially be the N9 running Windows Phone 7. Presuming they can keep the responsiveness of the N9, that should be a great phone — and Windows Phone 7 could do with one of those.

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