Hounded by critics and deserted by customers, Nokia has been forced to take a massive change of direction in 2011, with one of the obvious casualties of this new outlook being the Linux-based MeeGo operating system that Nokia has been developing with Intel. The N9 is the first and maybe the only smartphone to run on the MeeGo OS, and, in many ways, it will be a shame if this is true.
But then, Nokia is distancing itself from conversations about operating systems and specs, focusing instead on the usability of the N9 and on a few key features, like the camera and the web browser.
The CNET Australia team has published just over 50 smartphone reviews this year, and yet the N9 is a refreshingly unique device to see and hold. Nokia offered us a black review unit, and although it doesn't have the quirky charm of the fluoro pink and blue options, it is an extremely slick-looking number. The body of the N9 is constructed out of a unibody polycarbonate, which, while being undeniably plastic, has a top flight feel, and appears to be exceptionally sturdy.
We love the look and feel of the N9's unibody construction.
The first thing you'll notice is the absence of mechanical buttons on the handset. There are a couple — a volume rocker and a power switch — but there are no buttons for navigation on the device at all. Nokia also hides the SIM card slot and micro USB charging/data port under doors that sit flush against the surface of the handset, like tiny hidden trapdoors.
We go MeeGo?
Nokia goes way out on a limb in the design of the user experience in the N9 to create a mind-bogglingly simple interface in a time when the smartphone leaders are designing increasingly complex systems. When you turn the phone on, either for the first time or from sleep, you immediately enter the apps drawer, a vertically scrolling list of all installed tools, games and services. If you swipe from left to right, you'll come to the notifications pane, where all your latest messages are displayed, either those sent to the phone or to your email or social networks. Swipe from right to left from the apps screen, and you'll see thumbnails of all recently used applications.
The three faces of MeeGo — each is a swipe away from the others.
The swiping gesture is central to the way that you interact with apps on the phone, as well. Once you've finished using an app, you use a horizontal swiping gesture to "push" the app into the background, or swiping up from the bottom of the screen to close the app entirely.
The extremely low learning curve, and the intuitive implementation of this swiping navigation, is an outstanding achievement for the team at Nokia. It is really one of those systems that you miss immediately when you put it down and move on to a different device running a different system. It isn't absolutely perfect — we found it a little too easy to swipe in the browser or in a game, and exit an app by mistake — but it certainly feels like a huge step forward from the button-tapping metaphor used in all other smartphones.
Messaging and presence
It's pretty clear that while Nokia might concede that there is a range of smartphone tasks that the N9 can't do, there are a few core areas that it does really well. Messaging is one such area, with Nokia expanding on the basic SMS and email experience with an always-on system for communicating with friends on services like Skype and Google Talk.
You can find evidence of this approach in the Address Book, too, with your friends' various online aliases listed beneath phone numbers and email addresses, and the option to start a new chat is as prominent as the option to dial a number.
Nokia is really hanging its hat on the N9's fantastic physical design and the assumed quality of its 8-megapixel camera. As with Nokia's best cameras, the N9 incorporates a Carl Zeiss-brand lens in front of Nokia's imaging technology, a winning combination.