I must admit that I was truly taken by the Nokia N9 upon its announcement in Singapore a few months ago.

I was impressed by this device and I, like many tech enthusiasts was ready to put my hard earned cash to own the N9. I have read numerous commentaries viewed multiple unboxing videos of this device over the last few weeks. The impressions were overall, good.

There is nothing in the mobile phone world that resembles the N9 . The Swipe UI, in my mind, is a unique implementation of a true all- touch screen based user interface. I was proclaiming, many times over, that this UI marks an evolution of touch interface for touch screen mobile devices.

Malaysia is one of the countries which will receive shipments of the Nokia N9. I live in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and I thought “Lucky me, I will be able to own an N9!”.

It was the 1st of October and a chance trip to a nearby Nokia retail center led to chance encounter with the Nokia N9. The demonstration units were on display and Nokia was ready to take pre-orders. I ran through the various functions of the phone and decided to return 2 days later to do a further run through its features.

The following commentary reflects my general impression of the device based on two 20 minute sessions.

The design

The N9 is truly distinctive in person. The body may be made out of polycarbonate material but it had an all metal heft to it. It is reassuringly solid in the hand. The curved glass screen is a joy to behold. There is nothing out there like the Nokia N9. This is Nokia at its  best. That said, hardware design has always been Nokia’s strong-suit.

The software

The device runs on the MeeGo Harmattan version 1.2. MeeGo, as of last week, has been reincarnated into Tizen. MeeGo is essentially extinct. The version on the Nokia N9 is a variation of MeeGo and Nokia has pledged support for the Nokia N9 upto 2015. How extensive this support will be, seeing as this phone is the last of the MeeGo line, is questionable.

The User Interface(UI)

Swipe UI uses three homescreen, one for applications, one for notifications, and another for open applications ( task manager screen). The concept is overall interesting and there is a small learning curve to surmount when using the N9. It’s not difficult and once you get used to this UI, it is quite intuitive. It reminded me of the way one would swipe the screen on the current iPod Nano.

Applications

There are several applications on board including a customized Twitter and Facebook client for the N9. There is, of course,  Nokia Maps and Nokia Drive. The latter two applications are simply stellar and are the current aces in Nokia’s application suite.

My interaction with the device

NOTE: THIS IS NOT A FULL FLEDGED REVIEW. These are thoughts and opinions that I have formed based on two separate run usage times with the device.

Every aspect of this device, both software and hardware, reminded me of the iPhone. No, it is not a copycat device but a device that eschews the concept of the iPhone. The N9 is a closed shell ( no user replaceable batteries, no memory expansion) with a simple interface of applications and a limited set of customizations. The packaging of the device is very Apple-esque. It is not a blatant copy but more in keeping with the current device packaging trends.

Application iconography takes on the squircle design cue that Nokia has taken on board and is something that we will see in future Symbian and lower end S40 devices. Of note, the latter is probably being replaced by a Linux distro called Meltemi, perhaps something that we will see in the medium-term.

The inconsistencies began to show when I delved into the applications. Some applications chose to live resolutely in portrait mode. The music application is an example of this. Auto-rotation for a cover flow type interface or something uniquely intuitive was not there. The album art appears with a track progress bar. There is a link to the Nokia Music Store and that’s about it.

Messaging used the now popular word bubble UI. This works in both portrait and landscape modes. There is a nifty option of adding attachments. Emoticon insertion is included.

The Twitter app was simple enough was a doddle to set up. However, when I tried to log out, it did not allow me to do so. Instead, I had to go to the Accounts application and wipe the entire account off the phone. A simple logout option would have sufficed,I think. I did not delve into the native Facebook application.

I tried this again the second time around and I had discovered that there is a simple way of disabling a particular account by tapping the virtual toggle switch. Simple. Again, this point reiterates the  small learning curve.

The browser is decent and is on par with the best of them. No real issues here.

This is good time to comment on the typing speeds on the virtual keyboard. Its not bad at all. I could match speeds close enough to the iOS keyboard on the iPhone, which is the gold standard for virtual keyboards.There is haptic feedback. The cut, copy and paste UI is quite like in iOS but a little less polished.

I was reminded once again of iOS when all the settings of the device rests in a unified Settings application of the device. You can’t manage the settings of the application from the application itself.

Contacts and calendar management is something that imperative for me in a mobile device. My mobile phone(currently, the HTC Desire) is my all-in-one PDA and my mobile internet device. I was disappointed with the contacts entry fields. There was limited label customizations . The only mobile OS that does this very well is iOS. Android recently introduced label customizations in Gingerbread. You can launch onto to Nokia Maps from the address book which is a standard feature seen in all mobile OSs. Integration with social networks does not appear to be a feature.

The calendar application was pretty decent and combines a to-do list. The appearance of this application is somewhat similar to Symbian. Nothing groundbreaking here.

The video application is easy to use and the feature of swiping the screen with the video still running is something that has been seen in numerous demonstration videos. It’s nice but I see it as a novelty feature that could  wane with long term usage of the phone.

The gallery application is smooth but nothing out of this world.

The loudspeaker on the phone is placed at the bottom and sounds decent. It’s loud enough in a moderately crowded area but sounds somewhat tinny. I did not test this device with the headphones, and hence did not get to test with the Dolby Headphone feature. There are no equalizer customizations.

The camera is fine and the UI is very easy and intuitive. The camera is pretty sprightly and I could snap images in a relatively fast pace. There is no dedicated camera shutter button but the on-screen shutter button is very responsive.  Image quality is something that I could not  assess and it would be unfair to comment given my time with the device. Based on the samples I have seen on the internet, it is seems pretty good. Particularly good was the camera menu. The latter is extensive and allows multi aspect ratio options, geo-tagging, choice of modes and flash options.  It won’t be in the Nokia N8 territory but it is decent enough. This aspect of the phone is well executed indeed.

I did not try the Near Field Communications(NFC) feature on the phone which is a technology that Nokia is actively promoting.

The spin

Now, here is where I get cynical. Nokia decided to release this device in selected markets that was deemed conducive to achieve successful sales. This includes countries such as Saudi Arabia,Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

The US and UK will not be getting this device.

Basically, Nokia thinks that the customers in the said countries will willingly buy the Nokia N9.

Nokia Malaysia is focused on promoting this device for the month of October. I was told by an enthusiatic Nokia sales assistant that Nokia’s first Windows Phone device would be arriving roughly next month after the rumoured announcement at Nokia World at the end of October.

Nokia Malaysia, essentially, has one month to achieve solid sales of the N9.

It is not competitively priced. The 16GB model retails for RM1799 (419 euros) and the 64GB model retails for roughly RM2100 (494 euros). This is Samsung Galaxy S2(SGS2) territory. In fact, the S2 is now retailing for the same price as the 16GB model. The SGS2 offers more functionality at this price point.

That said, Samsung Galaxy S2’s hardware cannot hold a candle to the superlative build quality of the Nokia N9.

Verdict

It is difficult to simply sum up the Nokia N9 as being either recommended or non recommended. On one hand, you have the device hardware with an interesting software to match. The UI is unique and despite the learning curve- not a huge one- it is easy to get used to. I found myself swiping away with ease after a few minutes.

On the other, there is the inescapable fact that this device marks the end of the line for Nokia. It is all Windows Phone from here on for the high end devices. MeeGo’s demise is another factor. Though that said, the phone actually runs on Harmattan with a MeeGo layer compatibility which means the loss of MeeGo will not impact the OS. Nokia has pledged support for this device up to 2015.As to what kind of support this would be remains to be seen.

iOS users may not be tempted due to the lack of an extensive application catalogue. Android OS users may balk at the limited customizability of the N9.

The phone is not competitively priced which another issue that may affect its sales.

Ultimately, it depends on what you wish from a modern 2011 smartphone. For me, this phone has most of the core functionalities which I utilize in a mobile device. There are missing applications, such as an E-reader, a password encrypted notepad application to name a few.

What I fear most is the anaemic ecosystem for the Nokia N9 and the software update schedule from Nokia. Will Nokia address the major shortcomings of this phone?

The Nokia N9 should not be merely judged as a failure or triumph for Nokia. It is too simple to sum it up in this fashion.

The N9 is probably best summed up as  a PROOF OF CONCEPT. Think of it as a working concept car  which marks a sign of things to come. The design DNA,both hardware and software , marks a significant departure for the Finnish company.

So, whilst the N9 itself could be a hollow triumph for Nokia, it is merely the first salvo in its road to renewal.

But this still does not answer the question as to whether I would be buying one.

Let’s just say that the decision is still in its conceptual phase.

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