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Why I lo(ve)athe the n900

Written by JamieBennett on December 11th, 2009 at 11:16 pm in Linux,Maemo

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Edited to include some of my gripes, if you just want to see the list, scroll to the bottom

This is going to get an instant dismissal from the Nokia faithful, but bear with me and I guarantee you will see what I see in some capacity.

Lets get one thing straight first, I love what Nokia have done for Linux, from their first offerings pre-770 to what they do today, they do a great job. I know many of the current (and past) team that care so much about how Linux will someday become the default smart-phone choice that I somewhat feel a little sorry that they pioneered a route that may be occupied by others.

Nokia was there way before Google decided to bring Linux to a phone-sized device, Nokia was there long before Internet tablets were considered a cool technology, and Nokia continue to fund many of the projects that matter for Linux users so its with a heavy heart that I declare my dislike for the n900.

When Nokia had a Linux based tablet, it was consider unique and very cool for the geeks that used Linux. It was a great playground for developers and a marketing tool to inform people just what could be done with innovation and a lot of hard work. Fast forward to today and we have Google bringing a Linux based phone OS to the mass market, ARM challenging for supremacy using Linux, and even Palm resurrected their business based on Linux, so what is Nokia’s reply, the n900.

Lets not doubt that the device is a great attempt to bring a full operating system to a smart phone. But it fails so miserably on many occasions. Nokia had such a head start that the likes of Google and Palm should of gone to Nokia to license their stack because of their years of maturity, but no, they thought 9 to 12 months of in house R&D could better what Nokia had to offer and guess what, that turned out right.

So when Nokia bring out something resembling a phone that plays in the Google Android, Apple iPhone, Palm Pre and even other “dumb phone” eco-sphere you instantly compare them. I really want to like this phone but at every opportunity it does something that isn’t what I want. Email (modest) is terrible (bugs, slowness, imap headaches), the browser is fast but back navigation is form over function and zoom in/out tends to be random, the calendar app never syncs past my initial Google calendar sync, screen presses are hit and miss … I have a list longer than both my arms [1]. Software faults, hardware incumbency, complete failure in some cases leave this device not on a par with its predecessors but behind because of its lofty ambitions.

Some things are great, the keyboard is surprisingly good, the screen has a great resolution, media playback is excellent, the camera is second to none for a phone but I simply can’t use it as a day to day device, and believe me I’ve tried. I’ve put my sim in the the n900 more than a dozen times and kept it there for periods of time but I have to swap it back out every time. Coming from a professional Linux developer (an ARM developer at that) this isn’t good and on more than a few occasions people have asked me whether or not they should purchase a n900. I have had to say “not yet”.

I know what Nokia and Maemo are capable of but the n900 fall’s frustratingly short. Its a step too far for Nokia and I’m sure that the next iteration of devices will be great, but will that be too late?

[1] Some bugs/problems I’ve encountered:

  • imap folders not cached so each mail check takes *minutes*
  • modest email client capitalizes inbox to INBOX randomly on one of my accounts making the folder inaccessable
  • imap changes not registered sometimes, i.e. I read an email on the n900, its still unread when I check with another client.
  • n900 is practically impossible to use one-handed
  • lack of portrait mode really is a problem
  • maps application is near useless, often can’t find the current location and its really slow
  • some calls get routed straight to answer phone even though I have a signal
  • some calls don’t connect (i.e. I get network failure) and checking the number with another phone is fine
  • browser back button (not keyboard back button) brings up a UI history of your browsing which is form over function, makes going back a frustrating experience
  • device is heavy and sometimes cumbersome to use (try lying on your back and operating it with keyboard open)
  • screen touches sometimes don’t register even though you get the ‘click’ sound of a press being made
  • zoom on the browser (little circles with your finger) can be quite random
  • scroll bars are not shown by default meaning options that are off the screen can be difficult to spot (I have to always try to scroll just in case there are more option)
  • Google calendar can sync via the exchange setting, I find it sync’s once and never again

14 Responses to 'Why I lo(ve)athe the n900'

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  1. I, on the other hand, love the N900 despite having a list of shortcomings and pet peeves probably longer than yours. Maybe it’s because the previous incarnations were even worse (Modest on a N810? Utterly unusable. Modes on N900? I can finally use it to quickly check for new emails in my inbox — wouldn’t dare try replying or anything complicated like that, but for simple checking it’s fine).

    Should I get an Android phone and compare? 30 seconds with an iPhone failed to impress me once.

    Marius Gedminas

    12 Dec 09 at 12:06 am

  2. If you’re going to make a giant bold statement like “I loathe this device” You could at least do more than make a one off list of the line-items you don’t like. Some real explanation of why you think the N900 falls down would be nice.

    This is a 7 paragraph blog post which dedicates a single one sentence to explaining the main thrust of the article. Not so convincing in my opinion.

    Zach Goldberg

    12 Dec 09 at 12:42 am

  3. Hmm, I thought Google sync was not supported on the Nokia N900. http://talk.maemo.org/showthread.php?t=35136

    Jarle Osmund VĂ¥gen

    12 Dec 09 at 1:13 am

  4. I read your post and from the first part it sounded interesting and I hoped for an insight into someone elses experience – especially negative – because I haven’t explored the device fully, yet but really like what I have seen so far.

    Now that I finished reading your post I am a bit disappointed. You fail to explain or elaborate on your reasons or the bugs you found instead you put in a bit of google and palm without going into details what it is that keeps you from liking the product – and that was what I expected to read here.

    I give you an example on why I can’t follow your post:
    Modest – I simply don’t know what to not like about it. It’s fast, optimized for the tiny screen, does IMAP well and hasn’t failed me since I have the device.
    Browser back in history: just press backspace and your done, but I assume you are refering to the back button in the toolbar which brings you to a graphical history which isn’t fast acutally – right?

    At least there is one thing that I hope the gnome devs and you ubuntu guys are now seeing is that Nokia is way ahead of the Desktop Environment of Ubuntu (and any other Distribution of GNU/Linux for that matter) in one area: They got IM, Mail, SMS and VoIP together into Conversations and in partnership with Contacts and that is how it should be on the Desktop as well, IMHO. Not to speak of bluetooth headsets which still are a pain in the … and are so smooth to use on the n900 :-)

    Just dreaming here, but if you now could get that right on the Ubuntu desktop as well that would surely be very nice and probably appreciated by many users:
    - Split contact from evolution GUI
    - adapt nokias design for contacts and presence to the desktop
    - Loose the empathy roster stuff and use contacts for that
    - Integrated IM and Voip smoothly using telepathy, melt the UIs down to one communications tool that just does all kinds of voip and IM (possibly mail, too).
    - Split the calendar from evolution GUI
    - Make the calendar work right and behave nicely

    Finally allow contacts and calendar to sync with other pc’s and of course the n900 as well.

    On a side note – The main reason why I still could not test the N900 PIM functionality fully is because Ubuntu lacks the ability to sync contacts and calendar. – this is not only to the N900, also to other ubuntu boxes. I still have a single point for contacts and calendar which is evolution on my tablet pc running karmic because I haven’t found a reliable way to just sync to my desktop pc also running karmic.

    If that would finally work sync to the n900 should also be doable.

    Sorry, I got a bit off-topic here, but I hope you could update your post and make it a bit more informative, give some more examples, etc…

    And if you have a suggestion on how to get my evo to sync against google or calendar server or whatever and back to my pc (or directly pcpc would be even nicer) and possibly the n900 please let me know.

    — Mike


    12 Dec 09 at 2:56 am

  5. I wasn’t going to go into specifics because I didn’t want to get bogged down with the negatives but:

    * Email checking is impossible because a) one of my accounts gets its inbox capitalized to INBOX so when I click it, its not available and b) imap folders don’t get cached so it takes ages to look at an account.
    * The hardware is heavy and big, far more cumbersome that the competition (and yes I know it has a keyboard).
    * One handed operation is impossible due to no portrait mode.
    * Many occasions I’ve not been able to make a call (it doesn’t recognize a number) but picking up the iPhone and dialing the same number works.
    * Same for receiving calls. Nokia = some ‘straight to voice mail’ calls, iPhone = never happens in the same situation.
    * Web browsing is frustrating due to inconsistent zooming, back button UI, scrolling and clicking screen registration randomness.
    * Many, many other problems

    I like where Maemo is going but this device is aimed at the mass-market (you can get it free with a contract here in the UK) and I feel its far too early.


    12 Dec 09 at 8:37 am

  6. The Nokia 770 was flawed but beautiful, I loved it. It had promise even where it was limited or not very good. Every subsequent generation has failed to capitalize on that promise to the extent that was possible.

    I like the n800, my father still uses it.

    I was impatient with the n810.

    tired now…


    12 Dec 09 at 10:25 am

  7. I’ve had all of the Nokia tablet series so far and straight out of the box (for me at least) this one has been the best by far. The 770, 800 and 810 never got my IMAP email right. In fact I was quite upset when they switched to Modest as the old email offered certificate based encryption. The N810 would sometimes work, and sometimes not. Overall I’ve never been a fan of modest.

    I’ve had my hands all over the N900 for about 3 days now, and from the start most things have just simply worked. My IMAP email, which was never right? Simply flawless now. Google calendar sync? YES! Ok, the email doesn’t work, and it misses some of the calendar details. But its working, which is more that I’ve ever had before (yes, I used mcal but it never auto-updated for me).

    I’d almost recommend you get another N900 since it seems like maybe there’s something wrong with yours. But it does sound like your almost a bit biased. Even so, I’d highly recommend getting your hands on another one. All of my calls have been fine, my SIP works just great and so far I couldn’t be more pleased with the device. Sure, I’m a bit biased and maybe even a fan boy. But I’ve felt your pain, and therefore encourage you to give it another try (with a different piece of hardware of maybe reflashing the firmware).

    Just my .02


    12 Dec 09 at 6:28 pm

  8. Hi, I’m yet to receive my n900, it’s on it’s way though. And it strikes me as you not doing a lot of research about the phone before buying it. Alot of the problems that you have were well documented about the phone long before it came out, for instance portrait support, and the devices size. And in one area where you’re wrong you mention that Nokia are marketing it as a mainstream device, which is definitely not the case.
    The N900 was meant to be low key and for gadget users, the same sort of people who bought an internet tablet. That’s why the demand problems in Europe have been so prominent because Nokia weren’t intending for this device to be mainstream, if you go to http://nokia.co.uk the n900 isn’t even on the front page.


    12 Dec 09 at 11:07 pm

  9. hi,

    I have to admit that I am very happy to read some “negative” reviews on the N900. It sort of gives me the feeling that some else out there is thinking what I am thinking. So far, everybody i going crazy about this phone. I pre-ordered the phone and waited weeks to get it.
    The N900 is very promising but is not there yet !!! There are so many “basic” features that a phone is supposed to have, and believe I am not benchmarking against the iPhone here.

    * touch “clicks” about 30- 40% not registered, the device freezes for seconds
    * the yellow, notifications are very cool, click-touch 50% probability registered.
    * the device is very responsive within a set of applications that are “freshly” opened. e.g. opening email, photos, conversations, calendar and 2 other whatever apps, then switching between then is fast, but after a few minutes or one sleep state in between switching between one application to dash board view is not responsive any more.
    * you cannot search or filter the emails
    * showing your inbox takes at least 30-45 seconds, I tough that was an IMAP thing. accessing my mail through POP produced the very same results.
    * browser: you can successfully install add-ons like delicious,
    or evernote. Restart the browser, like nothing happened. No add on !
    * super frustrating is the next screen gesture !!! you need to swipe over the whole screen, a quick swipe is not interpreted as a gesture, it just bounces the screen back and forth
    * it is stupid to wake up the phone with one simple fast quick move. you need to hands to do that (toggle button next to the microphone) or press stand by button> swipe to unlock
    * accessing the most important features of the phone (part one): the phone !!!
    press stand by button > swipe to unlock > press stand by button > choose phone. then give the device at least 5 seconds to decide what orientation it will take, then make the call.
    * accessing the most important features of the phone (part two): the phone !!!
    press stand by button > swipe to unlock > swipe successfully (usually takes several attempts especially if you are in a hurry) until you reach the screen with the phone short cut
    * placing the widgets and short cuts on the screen could have had a nice snap to grid functionality (minor but nice to have)
    * adding extra storage with an SD card will simply cripple the phone.

    Finally … the phone could have been great. It just should have been as responsive as promised by the tech reviewers all over the web community. May be I should buy the Nokia N910 :) I have very high hopes on maemo.

    Cheers, Peter


    13 Dec 09 at 5:02 pm

  10. I agree with the missing touch clicks, sometimes annoying yes – but probably fixable with a firmware upgrade.

    How to call someone quickly: open keyboard, start typing name.

    Scroll bars ARE shown by default, but disappear after a (too’) short moment.

    Modest: No problems here (Gmail). IIRC, it DOES cache. You might want to research that.

    Hardware: Big and heavy, yes – but sturdy and functionally rich. If you compare, please compare to ANYTHING with the same featureset hardware wise and an equally well implemented keyboard.

    Google Sync is not officially supported, complain with Google about custom Non-Standards implementation…

    Call problems: problems of your provider/sim?


    14 Dec 09 at 4:59 pm

  11. Thanks for this, most of the annoyances is something I expect with it. The big win I see in N900 is the size, speed and platform. And the fact that if you are not a big phone user (like I am not), you can make do with only one device which doesn’t suck completely (like Nokia E71 does).

    FWIW, Access (company behind Palm’s webOS) has had a booth during GUADEC in Vilanova i la Geltru: that’s 2006 (Nokia has first shown up on GUADEC in Stuttgart, 2005). They’ve been working on it for years, and even though “web” in the “webOS” is definitely a more recent theme, it would be wrong to say that Nokia has worked on it much longer than competitors.

    Now, there is one huge difference: while Maemo has a big number of proprietary components, its development happens mostly in public compared to webOS or Android. And it uses the stack I am already familiar with (of course, there’s that changing stack debate).


    17 Dec 09 at 7:28 pm

  12. “modest email client capitalizes inbox to INBOX randomly on one of my accounts making the folder inaccessable”

    This is the one thing that is driving me crazy. It is doing this to only one of my accounts. I can access all of the other imap folders except the inbox. Is there a solution to this problem? Seems like it would be an easy fix.


    31 Dec 09 at 9:04 pm

  13. Nick

    Modest seems to have many bugs at the moment and the capitalisation doesn’t yet have a solution. For some reason a ‘modest -s’ on a terminal prompt works 9 times out of 10 but the answer is to start modest, check mail, if bug persists close modest and try again (many times usually).


    31 Dec 09 at 11:08 pm

  14. “Coming from a professional Linux developer (an ARM developer at that)…”

    You’re a carpenter, you see your house “needs some fixin”, what do you do?

    Qole your daddy…


    7 Feb 10 at 6:00 pm

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