Nokia review from Windows Mobile - Smartphone Round Robin

Nokia? We're doing a Nokia week in the Round Robin? OK, but I thought Nokia was just for Europeans. And maybe it is, at least in terms of popularity. As far as Nokia goes in the United States, well, it just doesn't go very far. There's very little carrier support (the N71 got some love on AT&T), we're mostly used to considering Nokia the leader in cheap dumbphones.

But after a long weekend with Nokia Experts' Matt Miller showing us the N900 and N97 Mini, whoa, Nellie, were we ever wrong.

Huh? Doesn't Nokia make dumbphones?

We like to think of our Windows phones as mini computers. And in most ways, they are. They're e-mail powerhouses, excel at multimedia playback and with the likes of Skyfire and Opera Mobile 10, can browse with the best of them, for the most part.

And when I think of Nokia, I think of old brick dumbphones, and that ever-so-catchy ringtone that we couldn't escape back in the day. That's really not so much the case anymore. Sure, Nokia still makes more than its share of throwaway phones, and those certainly have their part in the world. But with its newest smartphones, it really does shine.

So what's keeping Nokia down? The plain and simple fact that U.S. carrier support is just about nil. That's not to say that you can't buy Nokia smartphones in the U.S. You can do so without paying the import penalties. But you're going to buy them outright and unlocked, which save for the very early days of the iPhone is still pretty unheard of here. We love our carrier subsidies, and so the Nokia lines get little love in these here parts.

Looking at the N900 and N97 Mini

So for the third annual Smartphone Round Robin (and Nokia's first showing therein), Matt Miller brought us the N900 (read his Definitive Guide here) and N97 Mini, two of Nokia's newest smartphones. Don't know about you, but I knew very little about either of these phones going into things. So, as a quick refresher, here's our hands-on video, with Matt showing me the ins and outs of the N97 Mini and N900.

Need more reference? Here are the quick specs on both phones.

Swipe to scroll horizontally
 N900N97 Mini
Operating SystemMaemo 5S60 Fifth Edition
KeyboardHorizontal sliderHorizontal slider/tilt
ProcessorTI OMAP 3430
@ 600 MHz
ARM 1136
@ 434 MHz
@ 800x480
@ 360x640
Camera5MP/autofocus/LED flash5MP/autofocus/LED flash
Battery1320 mAh1200 mAh
Storage29.8GB7.5 GB

Now that we know what we're dealing with ... Hardware-wise, these are both very solid phones.

The Nokia N900

The N900 really is more like a MID than a smartphone. Not in size -- it's plenty pocketable -- but in overall feel. The keyboard is a horizontal slider, and the keys have the same feel as the original HTC Touch Pro, though they're bigger and spaced a little better. Don't freak out about the space bar not being in the middle of the layout. It looks funky, but it works just fine. You're typing with your thumbs, after all, and at least for me it fell in exactly the right place. Probably the biggest concern, however, is that the keyboard only has three rows. Type a lot of numbers and you're going to be wishing for that extra row real quick.

The screen is large and crisp. But as you can see in the video, I had a hard time getting swipes to register. That probably partially due to my unfamiliarity with the N900, and partially due to the fact that it's a resistive screen. But so is the Touch Pro 2, and its screen was much easier to activate. So that's not a full knock on the device, but it is something to be a little concerned about.

Even more odd is that the N900 doesn't support portrait (vertical) orientation, except for in the phone applications (which makes since, because that's how you'll be holding it to your face). Again, that's not a deal-breaker, but it is odd. It does, however, make things a little easier when you only have to code apps to run in that one resolution. As for running apps, you start with a basic launcher, with the usual icon grid that I'm used to (and quickly growing tired of). The N900 also has four "desktops" which really are unlike anything we have in Windows Mobile.

(Here's a shot at a visual: Remember that TouchFLO 3D and even the stock WinMo "Titanium" home screens are just plug-ins. Turn them off, and you're left with just a blank screen. Now imagine four of them, filled with widgets. Those are the four desktops on the N900. And Matt's own customized N900 desktops did a good job of showing them off.)

It really is a whole new paradigm for those of us who have used Windows Mobile for a long time. Sure, I loathe grid launchers now. But even TouchFLO 3D (and Sense) are just glorified launchers, for the most part. They point to programs, contacts and other screens. The widgets are live. Put a Twitter widget on your desktop, and the darn thing updates before your eyes.

The Nokia N97 Mini

Then there's the N97 Mini. It's not as tiny as the name suggests. (though it is pretty darn small.) And it's a vastly different phone than the N900. Again, a horizontal slider, and the screen tilts like the HTC Touch Pro 2's. But unlike the TP2, the N97 Mini's screen tilts up to one fixed angle. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Then I do tilt up my TP2's screen, I generally do so all the way. But I'm also a guy who likes options, and you lose out a little with the fixed angle.

The N97 has just one desktop screen on which to put customizable widgets. It can feel more than a little cramped. But again as you see in the video, Matt has made the most of the space available. Another folder-type launcher is available. As Matt points out, the biggest problem of the N97 Mini is its RAM, or rather the lack thereof. You only have about 30 megabytes left over to launch applications, and that can be used up pretty quickly.

Like the N900, the N97 mini does not have a capacitive screen, but it does have one of the best resistive touchscreens I've ever used. It flies. The keyboard was usable, but again it only has three rows. I like me some numbers without having to hit "function" buttons, so that's a bit of a niggle, but it's a "problem" we've seen on any number of Windows phones. Them's the breaks.

Probably where the N97 Mini shines the most (figuratively and literally) is with its camera. If you're serious taking quality pictures with a phone, look no further. We're expecting 5-megapixel camera to be standard soon enough, but it's the Carl Zeiss optics on the N97 that really stand out, not to mention the nuclear flash. In a word: Incredible.

There's browsing, and then there's browsing

Probably the most exciting part of the Nokia N900 is the browsing experience. Out of the box, it's running the Mozilla-based MicroB browser. And because it's Mozilla-based (Mozilla=Firefox, btw), it'll run Firefox plug-ins just fine. Even better is that the Firefox mobile browser (aka Fennec) just hit Release Candidate status for Maemo 5. (The Windows Mobile version is several months behind but still very much in development.)

The long and the short of it is that the N900 browser can handle just about anything you throw at it. Flash? No problem. Java? Sure thing. It renders things just as if it were a desktop browser. And that's because it is a desktop browser. That's something we can expect more of on the Windows Mobile side in the coming year.

The N97 Mini sports the Opera Mobile browser, which looks and feels just like Opera Mobile on WinMo.

Ovi Store versus Windows Marketplace for Mobile

One has the shortest name in the app store world, the other the longest. But the Ovi Store (despite early hiccups) has a full compliment of apps. (Matt's pretty proud of the Gravity Twitter application, and for good reason.) And like Windows Mobile, apps can be "side-loaded" outside of the Ovi Store environment. Not jailbreaking, no rooting. Just fire and forget.

So where the heck is Nokia?

That really is the big question. The Nokia devices were the ones that none of us (save for Matt, of course) involved in the Round Robin had ever really experienced. The N900 and N97 Mini are solid devices, and they can compete with the best of 'em. Remember the old days, when Nokia commercials were on TV every other minute, and you couldn't get that stupid ringtone out of your head? It's almost as if there's a wall erected on the U.S. coastlines, telling Nokia to keep out.

Fortunately that's not entirely the case, as there are U.S. version of several Nokia smartphones. But they're just not getting any love. But as we've said a number of times during this year's Round Robin (and we're only halfway done!), we could trade in our daily drivers for any one of the other platforms and be able to function just fine. And that's just as true for Nokia, the N97 with the S60 operating system, and the N900 with Maemo 5.

Phil Nickinson

Phil is the father of two beautiful girls and is the Dad behind Modern Dad. Before that he spent seven years at the helm of Android Central. Before that he spent a decade in a newsroom of a two-time Pulitzer Prize-finalist newspaper. Before that — well, we don't talk much about those days. Subscribe to the Modern Dad newsletter!