The first few weeks with the N900, part 2

This is part 2 of my review of the N900.  Part 1 includes “Unboxing”, “The screen”, “Connectivity”, “Web browsing”, and “The camera and other multimedia goodness.”  Part 2 includes “E-mail, calendar, contacts, and instant messaging”, “Other applications”, and “The phone.”

E-mail, calendar, contacts, and instant messaging

The N900 supports POP3, IMAP, and Exchange e-mail accounts, which are all fairly easy to set up.  The e-mail interface is simple and easy-to-use, in exchange for lacking some more advanced features (multiple identities/signatures/etc).  Both rich-text and plain composition is available, and from what I can tell, formatted e-mails render well.   When more advanced features are needed, the web browser is handy, and is sufficiently useful for GMail’s web interface.

Contacts are a bit of a sticky issue.  They can be imported from SIM cards, external files, or IM accounts.  The difficulty is that they do not continue to be synchronized after import.  In other words, if I change one of my Google account contacts, I’ll have to replicate the change on the phone as well.  For Exchange accounts, synchronization appears to be supported.  Some people have had luck synchronizing Google contacts by having Google masquerade as an Exchange server, but it failed when I tried.

The calendar is also a bit rough at the moment.  Using the same “Google is an Exchange server” trick above, you can synchronize your main calendar to the phone, but not any other calendars.  For me, this means the shared calendar I use at work, and the shared calendar my wife and I use are unavailable except through the Google Calendar web interface.  From a usability standpoint, the calendar application works well, providing all the features necessary to help keep me on time (so long as what I’m doing is on my main Google calendar or on a separate local calendar).

Instant messaging accounts are well-supported on the N900.  Google Talk, Skype, and SIP accounts can be used for voice calls, and Jabber and Ovi protocols are supported for text-only messaging.  While the supported accounts meet most of my needs, users of other common protocols like AIM, Yahoo!, MSN, and Facebook might be displeased that they are not supported.  My only beef is that Skype does not currently support voice calls, despite the presence of a video conference camera on the front of the unit and a nifty kickstand on the back.

Other applications (or: there’s not an app for that)

The single largest problem with the N900 as it stands today is the lack of applications available.  This is not a shortcoming of the phone, nor of the Maemo platform, but it will be what determines how successful the N900 and it’s offspring are.  Although Maemo has been used by Nokia on several tablets before, the N900 is the first phone to run on it, so I expect that applications will be forthcoming soon.  Some applications that I’d specifically like to see are clients for Twitter and Google Apps.  Since Maemo is based on Debian, it is theoretically possible to install arbitrary applications using dpkg.  I tried installing Skype manually, but it has too many missing dependencies. Less-complicated software might work more easily.

The N900 ships with a Facebook app that is really just a desktop widget.  It shows status updates and a count of friend requests, messages, etc.  Clicking on it launches Facebook in a web browser instead of providing functionality.  On a fast connection, that’s fine as it allows access to all of the features on Facebook. However, on slow connections, more time is spent loading parts of the page that might not be necessary.

Applications also exist for posting pictures and video to online services (Maemo refers to them as “Sharing accounts”).  Currently, only Facebook, Flicker, and Ovi are supported.  I would be not surprised to see support for TwitPic and YouTube available soon, either officially or from a third-party developer.

One default application that I’ve been impressed with is Ovi Maps.  Ovi Maps supports turn-by-turn directions (but will not read them to you) and makes good use of the accurate GPS receiver.  The map can be re-oriented if you don’t want north to be up, which can be very helpful when trying to find your way around somewhere new.  The main drawback is that the maps can sometimes be slow to load (especially at application launch) over a slow connection, but the program itself is very responsive.

Several other useful programs are already available via the Application Manager.  After I installed the VNCviewer application, I was able to tunnel a VNC connection over SSH and remotely control my work desktop from my phone.  You can also get root access to the shell without having to crack your phone: just install the rootsh application.  Other applications include stock tickers, weather applications, games, graphing calculators, and a mostly-useless-but-kind-of-fun-to-play-with artificial horizon program.

The phone

I saved this area for last, because this is the least-important aspect of the N900.  From the beginning Nokia has referred to this as a tablet, and it’s usefulness shows that it really is a tablet-that-happens-to-be-GSM-capable.  Phone calls are of good quality, and the speaker phone mode is loud enough to be useful, which isn’t the case with some phones I’ve had previously.  The phone application is the only one that can (currently) be run in portrait mode — in fact, you can even set the phone to launch automatically if the device is held vertically.  What’s missing is voice dialing, and one-button speed-dialing (you can put contacts on your home screen, but it takes two clicks to dial once you get there).  It is also currently impossible to set different ringtones for different contacts, or to have more than two profiles (“General” and “Silent”).  Of course, as I mentioned above, making a phone call also prevents cellular data connections.

In summary

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve seen that there’s a lot to love about the N900, and a lot that isn’t so lovable.  Fortunately, it seems that all of the shortcomings are software-based, so hopefully future OS updates and new applications will address the issues.  The N900 sits a bit heavy in the pocket, but it has a solid feel to it, has excellent performance, and it is easy to use.  It may never have the widespread adoption or cultural implications of the iPhone, but if applications become available then the N900 will be a successful phone.

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