Nokia N900 video, review and UX lessons

Allow me to paint two pictures for you.

In the first, you are 2 hours into an 8 hour flight. The menu of television repeats and Hollywood blockbusters served up by the airline entertainment system is even less appetising than the reheated meal you’ve just been offered.

Help, however, is at hand: you flip out the kick-stand on the back of your Nokia N900, open the media browser and select from one of the ten feature length films you downloaded to your device before you left. You plug in your headphones and settle back to enjoy your choice of video, on your device, your way.

The screen is tilted at just the right angle, the picture quality is quite stunning on the 800 x 480 pixel screen and, you know from experience, you’ve got several hours of viewing before you even come close to killing the battery.

Nokia N900 open and propped up on kickstand

Let us now consider another scenario.

It’s raining: you have a briefcase in one hand and your N900 in the other. You’re heading to an appointment and you need to look-up the time of the next train.

You try to use one hand to open the web browser, but every time you press on the icon with your thumb, the screen seems to think you’re clicking elsewhere and opens up another part of the display.

Finally you manage to get the browser open, only to realise the text on the screen is so tiny you can’t read the search form for train times. Reluctantly you stop in the middle of the street, put down your briefcase and hold the N900 with both hands, using the stylus to navigate and the zoom keys behind the screen to make the text a readable size.

However, just as you’re loading up the page with the timetable results, a call comes in. The screen tries to automatically rotate back to portrait mode and something goes very, very wrong – the animation freezes, the screen blanks and, with a final flash, it goes dark.

Nokia N900 in-hand to show scale

The N900 has reset itself. Again.

When does the N900 delight?

Welcome to the contradictory world of Nokia’s flagship handset. I’ve spent several weeks using it as my day-to-day phone and it has delighted and infuriated in equal measures.

I’ll start with the delights.

The display capabilities are impressive. I used an E71 with a 320 x 240 resolution prior to the N900 and there is a marked difference in what’s possible with the 800 x 480 pixels offered by the new handset. Photos, videos and games are engaging and vibrant with this increased pixel density.

Gaming is a particular beneficiary. Combined with the processing power at the heart of the N900 and 3D acceleration, the ‘Bounce’ game available as a free download from the Ovi Store is immersive, with smooth 3D graphics, lightening fast interactions and a level of sophistication I’ve not experienced outside of dedicated consoles.

With 32 Gb of storage (although strangely only around 25 Gb were available on my device), you stop thinking about capacity. I just kept transferring and downloading media from my PC and the web, never really worrying about whether I was going to run out of space. This makes a significant difference to the overall user experience, giving you a sense of freedom and a willingness to invest in building up the handset with a library of great content.

I frequently found myself connecting the N900 to the home TV system with the supplied TV-out cable, using it to show web pages, photos and videos, as well as playing music and games in the lounge. It is perfectly viable to use it as a way of sharing media content with family and friends.

The N900 impressed with its unified communications capabilities, allowing me to see presence status for my key contacts from Skype and Google Talk, as well as get in touch with them via their traditional mobile numbers. I found myself using it interchangeably with my PC throughout the day to have IM conversations. It is a nice user experience touch to see your Skype chat and SMS with the same person integrated into the same flow.

Battery life was also surprisingly robust. Despite heavy usage I never managed to kill the N900 when I was away from a power outlet. Even with a few hours of GPS tracking on a bike ride, taking photos, web browsing and the usual text and voice calls, it still lasted a full day.

Nokia N900 with stylus

Strangely, battery performance was better when connected over Wi-Fi and was noticeably less impressive when I was on cellular coverage – I can remember when Wi-Fi was first being integrated into handsets and everyone thought it would never take off because it was too power hungry. How times have changed.

When does the N900 disappoint?

All, however, is not well in the world of the N900. I enjoyed its delights, but ultimately I will remember it for its flaws – for they are many, serious and indicative of the wider user experience challenges faced by Nokia with its Maemo platform.

First and foremost is stability. The N900 and the Maemo platform as a whole is some way from commercial readiness. I’ve heard numerous justifications about its market positioning (e.g. ‘the N900 is an experimental model for early adopters’) but in reality it is not yet stable enough to be out of the labs.

I was using the latest firmware and, despite this, I experienced numerous application crashes and around once or twice a week it would randomly reset itself.

Quite apart from this, there was a sluggishness to specific actions (like making and receiving voice calls) which can only be attributed to poor software design. The N900 has sufficient processing power to handle very demanding tasks and, indeed, it does so impressively in some other areas. Users will be left wondering why the good performance in applications like the media gallery is not a consistent theme throughout.

This variable quality is evident in two other crucial areas: user interface design and hardware build quality.

The keyboard, for instance, has reassuring solidity to it. Likewise, the metal surround and the embossed Nokia logo speak of high quality materials and attention to detail.

However, the resistive touchscreen is weak and inaccurate. The plastic battery casing feels like it will snap every time you touch it. The kick-stand, which balances the N900 on a surface at a convenient angle for viewing video, is flimsy and poorly implemented.

The N900 is one of the most expensive mainstream mobile handsets you can buy at the moment. It is the flagship of Nokia’s new Maemo-based product line. I am surprised and disappointed they did not pay more attention to the industrial design and component quality.

The user interface is the weakest link in the N900’s chain of experience. It is plagued by inconsistencies and omissions which make it a battle to use.

For instance, there is no visible path to navigate back to the homescreen of the device.

If you are in an application – the web browser for instance – you must first tap a transient icon in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. This brings up the full set of UI controls for that particular app and reveals the ‘windowing’ key in the top left-hand corner of the display. If you tap on that, it will display a list of all the other windows which are open. Tap on it again and you will see a list of application icons.

However, if you want to get back to the homescreen itself, you must tap in an invisible bar area above the row of application icons. There are no visual, audible or other cues to indicate this to the user. It is, quite simply, an unfinished UI.

I might be able to understand this if the UI designers had taken a deliberate step to eliminate the concept of a ‘homescreen’ altogether, but they did not – the homescreen remains a key part of the interaction flow, customisable with widgets, shortcuts, connected contact profiles and apps. If so much functionality is going to be centred on this screen, why would you not provide users with a simple way of returning to it?

Everyone who used my N900 struggled with this.

The current interface version is confused and poorly implemented. It is neither brave enough to abandon the homescreen or capable of providing a clear path to make proper use of it.

The web browser on the N900 does an admirable job of rendering any site you can think of, but it is still not comparable with the full browser experience you’re familiar with on the desktop. I found myself deliberately searching out the mobile versions of sites I used frequently, not necessarily because the browser was incapable of displaying the ‘desktop’ versions, but simply because they did not make sense on the small but pixel-dense screen.

If you open something like Google Reader, which makes use of frames and sidebars, the N900 will render it just as you see in a desktop browser, but this creates some significant usability challenges. It would not let me scroll the text in individual frames and would instead move the whole page. Text was so small it could barely be read and the controls for zooming (either through a double tap on the screen to intelligently zoom into a particular area or through hardware keys located behind the screen) simply didn’t do a very good job.

I am impressed by how much the developers have managed to achieve with the browser, but there is a such a fine line between something which compels you to use it and something which ticks the right technology boxes and yet falls short of providing an engaging experience. The N900 browser falls into the latter category.

Another key application – the email client – has usability flaws. Even when the device is already set-up to download email in the background, it can take 20 seconds or more from clicking on the ‘Inbox’ menu item before your list of emails displays. The messages themselves have already downloaded and there is no reason why they shouldn’t display instantly, but I was frequently left waiting for the list to appear. It is one of several areas where inefficient coding has undermined the obvious speed of the N900’s processor.

I was also disappointed by the decision to implement a static position for the ‘send’ icon in emails. It remains permanently located at the top of your email message, so if you have written an email of any length, you then need to scroll back to the top before you can hit send.

None of these faults is insurmountable, but each detracts slightly from the overall usability of the device and adds to the tally of wasted seconds. As these seconds mount, so too does the user’s frustration.

The N900 offers two options for text input: the physical QWERTY and a virtual keyboard displayed on the screen. I personally found the hardware keyboard quite difficult to use. In several weeks of usage I never managed to achieve a satisfactory speed, primarily because I found the wide spread of keys tough to navigate after moving from the more compact E71. I suspect anyone migrating from a Blackberry will find this particularly challenging.

Nokia N900 keyboard detail

This could have been mitigated by easy access to the on-screen keyboard, but for some reason the device only allows you to use one input method at a time. For instance, if I am using the phone with the keyboard closed and click on an input box in a web page, the on-screen keyboard does not automatically pop-up like it does on virtually every other keyboard-equipped touchscreen device I’ve used. Instead, you have to slide open the keypad to make your entry. This is untenable in the mobile environment, when frequently only a single hand is available for input.

The only way to gain access to the on-screen keyboard is to go into the settings menu and specifically select it as your primary mode of access. Even Windows Mobile, that most ancient of mobile operating systems, managed to fix this some time ago!

Why am I parting ways with the N900?

During my time with the N900 there were scenarios where its multi-tasking interaction flow and the ‘windowing’ task switcher screen worked well. For instance, on a business trip I was able to keep a selection of Word, Powerpoint and Excel documents open, alongside my emails, PDFs showing maps of the city and web pages with the information I needed.

By allowing me to switch between all of these tasks and leave them open in the background, the N900 saved me a great deal of time and money on expensive and slow cellular data roaming. It also meant I could use a single device to achieve many objectives: keeping up with my email, staying informed for my meetings, exploring new parts of the city, capturing photos, navigating the metro and keeping myself entertained with video on train journeys.

However, after several weeks of trying and despite the obvious strengths of the N900 in some areas, I have returned to the E71 for day-to-day usage.

I will miss the N900’s camera, its huge appetite for video and its high resolution display. I will also miss the games and the TV out-capabilities.

Nokia N900 camera detail showing Carl Zeiss lens and dual LED flash

These great features were ultimately spoiled by a flawed user interface, an illogical interaction flow and the myriad small quirks and inconsistencies which impaired the N900’s ability to keep you in touch, entertained and productive on the move.

What does the N900 teach the industry about good user experience practice?

I’ve been thinking about the lessons Nokia and the industry as a whole can learn from the N900:

  1. Interaction flows must stay true to a core concept. When you try to combine a number of pathways in a single platform, the result is a confused and inefficient flow for the user. The N900 has no central ‘home zone’ and it doesn’t offer a sufficiently compelling alternative to justify its hybrid approach.
  2. At a minimum, there must always be a consistent and persistent UI control available to take the user back a step or allow them to start their next interaction. The N900 lacks this in many of areas of its interface.
  3. Basic communications capabilities, such as reliable voice calls and messaging, should never be sacrificed, no matter how impressive the other features. Users will not persevere with the N900 if it crashes when voice calls are received or lags when displaying messages.
  4. Users now expect high-end devices to be expandable with new software and services. The success of the iPhone App Store and Android Market have made this a right not a privelege. The selection of applications available for the N900 in the Ovi Store remained virtually unchanged in the time I used the device: a handful of Nokia-developed add-ons, small utilities and games. With such a capable browser on the device, why is Nokia not pushing a web services development model which would allow developers to rapidly build this catalogue using popular web technologies?
  5. A truly integrated approach to hardware design and software UI is essential and should be grounded in a central vision for the overall nature of the user experience. This is a major challenge for any company to achieve, especially one such as Nokia where handsets and software have traditionally been developed by different parts of the organisation. The unfortunate results are in evidence through: the disconnections between on-screen input and the physical keyboard, the poor positioning of zooming keys, the unresponsive touchscreen and the list goes on…

What does the future hold?

Nokia N900 bezel detail with engraved Nokia logo

Nokia is already working on a new version of the Maemo platform, as well as a replacement for the N900 itself. Going forward Maemo is being positioned as the operating system for Nokia’s high-end devices, with Symbian-powered products in the mid-range.

The idea is to unify development for both with the Qt technology Nokia acquired from Trolltech. I remain unconvinced this will be an effective approach and attractive to developers. Too many times we have seen companies trying to mesh together numerous technologies in an attempt to fulfill the dream of ‘write once, run anywhere’ apps. I don’t see any evidence Nokia will be more successful than the numerous other companies which have failed in this area.

Instead, I could see a future where Maemo is used in a range of products designed primarily for the home environment and occasional mobility, while the Symbian platform increases in sophistication and remains at the core of Nokia’s communications devices.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the N900 and Maemo. Have you tried one yourself? What did you think? Are you waiting for future versions of the platform before taking the plunge? Where will these kind of products sit within Nokia’s range and versus the competition? Post your thoughts to the MEX blog below…

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  1. 1
    Marek Pawlowski

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the N900 and Maemo. Have you tried one yourself? What did you think? Are you waiting for future versions of the platform before taking the plunge? Where will these kind of products sit within Nokia’s range and versus the competition?

  2. 3

    having just ordered one of these phones I’m feeling a little apprehensive. I wonder if you had the latest firmware updates installed? Still, I was expecting and wanting a tablet for it’s internet capabilities and ability to install .deb packages. making calls is just an added bonus for me.

  3. 4

    I have been looking forward to using this device, but this review doesn’t bode well for the experience. It is sad to hear the number of fundamental user experience issues the N900 has in the face of serious and ever-advancing competition.

  4. 7
    Antoine RJ Wright

    Nice review; reminded me a good bit of my feelings when I too had one to review. On my end, I use an N97 as my daily device, and using the N900 displayed both the positives and negatives of both Symbian and Maemo. Nokia learned and put to practice a lot of lessons with Maemo 5 though, and it really does show. They just didn’t jump the shark in making it a totally immersive expereince. Ignoring the phone pieces for the moment, it just wasn’t as immersive a computing experience as the device and some of the UI would have you to believe is there. And at the same time, its getting tweaked all the time via apps, applets, and evne firmware updates. Will be interesting to see where Meego takes the lessons from this.

  5. 9

    Thanks for the detailed review. I had my mind on the N900 and good web page text display and readability is a priority for me. If the text is so small it could barely be read this makes it hard to use one-handed. I think I will go for the HTC HD2 and install Skyfire for flash browsing.

  6. 10

    That is a detailed review all right…and I totally agree with it! This Maemo 5 is very poor and incapacitive…and the processor, RAM and graphics are very powerful, but Maemo keeps them almost locked. We hope an update someday to fix this. I had an N97 before and it was more responsive and with more capabilities, even if Symbian! Hope goes to…updates!!!

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