Linux on a smartphone? That's just the beginning of the weirdness
In many ways, Nokia’s oddball device matches every other phone in this story, feature for feature. It’s kind of like a Swiss Army Phone made by Finns. Front-facing camera? Check. Rear-facing camera with Carl Zeiss Tessar lens? Check. Touch screen and a physical QWERTY keyboard? Check and check. Stylus? Roger that. FM transmitter?
Wait, FM transmitter? WTF?
Yep, this phone can transmit audio to your car radio and home hi-fi.
Nokia released the N900—which the company officially calls a tablet—earlier in 2010, and the initial reaction from critics was decidedly meh-ish. We decided to catch up with the device now that it’s had time to mature. At the very least, its open-ended architecture makes it an interesting counterpoint to Android, BlackBerry, and iOS smartphones.
Similar to the BlackBerry Torch reviewed on page 65, the N900 features a 600MHz Texas Instruments OMAP 3430 system-on-chip, which is based on the ARM Cortex A8 microarchitecture. A full-sized QWERTY keyboard slides out from under the 3.5-inch, 800x480 touch screen, allowing you the luxury of both interfaces.
The screen boasts a pixel density of 267ppi. It looks great, and its touch-screen functionality, despite being based on resistive technology, works well, too. We found the keyboard comfortable and responsive, and in many ways close in quality to what you’d find on a BlackBerry, although the slightly awkward reach to the top keys slowed us down. It’s a fast, responsive keyboard, to be sure, and will please anyone who’s ever used a slider before. However, it lacks many of the shortcuts and accelerants that BlackBerry keyboards possess.
One of the N900’s biggest weaknesses is performance. In all regards, the 600MHz processor and 256MB of system memory feel inadequate when you compare the N900’s speed to that of other phones in our round-up. This isn’t surprising given the phone’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink design. We were consistently thwarted by processor stuttering when we switched between applications and our four email accounts. That said, the open-ended architecture did allow us to easily overclock the CPU with surprisingly minimal impact upon battery life. One nice touch is the standard 32GB of NAND eMMC storage memory.
Thanks to its slide-out physical keyboard, the N900 is the thickest phone in our roundup.
The N900’s OS is a Linux derivative named Maemo that offers a surprising amount of developer support online. As far as user interfaces go, the default package is a nice combination of power and flexibility. The closest comparison is Android. You swipe left or right to move between screens, and you can place all kinds of widgets and buttons on these desktops. Maemo’s open-source underpinnings allow for a wide variety of clever hacks, tweaks, and applications available for download from Maemo.org.
Besides the performance issues, this smartphone has two startling deficiencies that hobble it further. You’ll find no built-in MMS support (you have to download an app for this), and no 3G support on AT&T’s network. All that said, if you’re the kind of person who wants a device that will make people ask, “What is that thing?” then the N900 might be appealing. If it had a peppier processor, this would be the ideal device for nonconformists.
This review is part of a Maximum Tech smartphone roundup.