Thursday, October 27, 2011

N9 in shiny white and getting smarter

I seldom like gadgets in white, but the latest update to the N9 could be an exception. 
The sharp contrast between the screen and the casing is beautiful. Provided it doesn't yellow over time. 

Of course the bigger news is actually the upcoming software update though woefully short on details. Interestingly Nokia soliciting ideas from users in a dedicated website for improving the N9, not just simply part of some online support forum. They are actually giving away N9s as rewards for the best ideas.

Monday, October 24, 2011

N9 Swipe Swipe

The N9, ladies and gentlemen, is here.

The packaging is minimalist and decidedly similar to the other popular phone company's. Even the charger is almost a replica. The included Micro-USB cable is not a generic design but rather given a classier touch to it. Nokia threw in a silicone casing in a matching colour, not to prevent users from "holding it wrong" but just to protect the nice polycarbonate back. There is no screen protector available so far, but the screen is quite easy to clean and seems tough enough to resist minor scratching.

Here are some reviews from more competent sources.
Note: For Engadget review, do watch the software review video, I actually found out a few new things. 

Ok here is my few cents worth of opinion.

The Screen
It is beautiful, or as someone described as touching liquid glass. In normal indoor lighting, the black of the screen is deep and pure which makes colors pop. Only in bright sunlight can you see where the AMOLED display ends and the true bezel starts. The very gentle curve of the screen does seem to make it more natural to swipe, but only a little. Although it is very glossy, it is surprisingly easy to view without too much distracting reflections unless in bright sunny areas. Apparently it has a polarizer in place (the phone wears sunglasses!), which also explains why there is a slight colour shift when viewing off angle.

The Swipe interface is actually more versatile than I thought. With the built in option, you can swipe left and right to switch between the three home screen and close an app by swiping from top down. This works relative to orientation, top is always the top of the view, either portrait or landscape. With free apps from the Nokia store, you can enhance it with multi-touch swipe or control the 4 direction screen swipe.

The main problem with N9's touch implementation is it is overly sensitive. Now I can appreciate how difficult it must be to program for it. The flick scroll has this annoying habit of interpreting it as a click selection. Example is scrolling through contacts, instead of breezing through, it ended up selecting the unwanted contact and a hassle to switch back. Now I have to hold it a few microsecond longer to prevent the screen from thinking it as a "click". iOS is a lot better in this department, more natural from the get go, N9 needs a little more conditioning for me. Also overly enthusiastic swiping, like while playing Angry Birds, I end up switching home screen. Minor annoyances which can be avoided with practice.

It must be mentioned especially in view of iOS 5 trumpeting of their notification system, the N9 is far more elegant. It begins even while the phone is in stand-by mode, the screen will display the current time constantly unless you keep it covered. (The same sensor works to turn off the screen when you take a call.) Notification of e-mail or missed call will be displayed as a single simple symbol like @ below the clock. All very subtle.

Wake up the phone with a double tap or press the power button, the next level of notification is seen on the lock screen with enough information for you to decide to ignore or respond. Swipe the lock screen to the home page or swipe the notification direct to the app concern. The Events home page will show all your notification as well. Finally, the status bar at the top will display a small green flag that something needs your attention. Very subtle visual reminders coupled with an audible beep and short vibration.

The one complaint I have about the keyboard and this applies to all other operating systems. I wish they actually put the numbers on the top of the alphabets. Only WebOS does it correctly. It becomes more ridiculously apparent in tablets with their larger screen space.
Apps and such

As a phone, the key applications of Calls, Contacts and Messaging are pretty standard, but as some one who is still on a "dumb" phone, buttons still feel more natural to use. The problem is no desktop syncing of contacts and messages.

Email accounts are quite easy to set up along with Flickr, Picasa and Twitter. You can set how often they are updated to help reduce power consumption. It is interesting you can set peak hours in your life.

Facebook is bare minimum and far less developed compared to the current iOS App. All the new pages and groups are not visible. Just sufficient to know that your friend is dining at some fancy place while you are working your butt off.

Skype does not support video as yet and the voice volume seems limited.

Camera is working quite nicely except no focusing in Macro mode. This flaw is weird as when using Auto mode, the camera can focus quite close to the subject. In the photo gallery there is built in basic photo editing, hidden in a menu option, which was a bit of surprise for me.

Just a quick example of low light photo without flash

The web browser is also a bare minimum implementation. Annoyingly there is no bookmark function, although you can add as app on the App screen. Performance is generally fast but a bit erratic on some sites. No flash capability, but not quite missed. Definitely adequate for the occasional surfing, but I still think tablet format is the minimum for more intensive browsing.

Video playing is quite sufficient and has built in decoder for DivX files. Update: Strangely it does not play WMV files, considering Nokia is already in bed with Microsoft

The music player has nice interface, very basic with one strange omission. It cannot repeat play a single song. Also no equalizer in any form. Nokia please add that and direct music control on the lock screen please. It is annoying to need to enter the phone lock code just to do that.

Virtual keyboard, is a bit of hit and miss for me especially with the phone lock code. More importantly is the lack of chinese input, which is strange since there was obviously a chinese version of the OS.

GPS. It always amuses me that people need this in the Tiny Red Dot, but I must say the turn by turn navigation is pretty accurate except for smaller roads where it insisted I keep right only to command a left turn ..across 2 lanes! I ignored the instructions and the program valiantly kept up with my defiance and adapted accordingly without hesitation. However I will not stress out the Voice any more in case it turns Hal on me. 

Battery Life
Coming from dumb phones and the Nokia E52, battery life sucks in comparison. I can carry the E52 around for at least 5 days before recharging, now I have to recharge it in 1.5 days. And I am not using the N9 for speech currently, mostly data. However considering the large gorgeous screen and the constant data connection, I guess it is acceptable. From what I can see, most iPhone users need to charge it quite often, I know that because they borrow my Sanyo Mobile Booster to charge them.

Final view
Overall, the phone feels a little incomplete in terms of the operating system, lacking a certain finish, but this is the first generation. Compared to the iPhone 3GS, it is pretty much on par or better in some aspects, which unfortunately means Nokia is a few years late to the game.

There are rumored firmware / software updates that would bring it up to par with current phones, almost. It is still however a single core CPU phone, so most would pooh pooh this phone. Nevertheless this phone is more than sufficient for the occasional browsing, keeping up with your social life or for the busy workaholic.

Judging from rumors, the upcoming Nokia Windows Phone is going to have the same form factor and visual as the N9, which means it is a trial run for future phones. The good news is that Nokia has promised to support their disowned operating system, hope they keep their word.

So why would I get this over the iPhone since I am already "entrenched" in iOS eco-system? Well I guess firstly, almost everyone else has an iPhone or Android, so I like to be different. Secondly I was first to get the phone from the Nokia store I pre-ordered at, no fanfare, no geniuses to cheer and absolutely no queue. Just as I like it, quiet and understated, both the phone and the experience of getting it.

Hell to the no if I have to queue like a refugee for something that I have to pay for dearly.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Nokia N9 Countdown

Oh yes. It is in.

The demo units are in Nokia retail stores for public fondling, resting irresistibly. Unfortunately they were tethered to the display table for security and power supply, but even so the N9 does not feel too heavy and sits quite comfortably in the hand.

The casing is polycarbonate has a solid look, not a cheap look, not glossy slippery, relatively fingerprint resistant except for KFC finger licking good situations. It looks exactly like the promotional images, colour is solid all around the beautiful deep black screen. Beneath the glass is a bright AMOLED display which maybe standard in premium smart phones, but Nokia glued it so closely to the glass that the images floats just below the surface.

The Swipe works as advertised, very responsive and accurate. App switching is much more natural than on iOS without having to press a home button and in easy reach of a thumb. One hiccup was the Angry Bird App which didn't show up in the Open App view despite opening and playing a game.

Taking photo is quite easy despite a lack of a dedicated button, the camera app is in the shortcut menu activated with a upward swipe from the bottom of the screen, though a few shots will probably be missed as it still takes time to activate. Focusing distance is pretty close, though not quite like a Ricoh compact.  The bad about it is the position of the lens which is a bit too close to the centre, my fingers kept getting in the way while holding it in a natural grip. Maybe it was because of the security cable, something to be confirmed with a real untethered phone.

Boot up time is a bit long for my patience, but I guess it will be left on most of the time. Something strange happened the second time I tried the phone, one of the unit was slow or non-responsive. It was possible to swipe between the home view, but somehow I could not open the phone app or message app, despite rebooting.

Currently none of the telcos are saying anything, and it is on pre-order only in the Nokia retail shop. For the 64 GB model, it is going for $899 and comes with a free bluetooth NFC enable headset.

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