Overall: stunning hardware, fresh software
The design of the N9 was a major hit with reviewers, offering a sleek unibody exterior with no joins or seams to be found anywhere. The screen is slightly convex, providing improved viewing angles, and the Clear Back Display displays colours brilliantly even in direct sunlight.
The N9 is slightly more striking than the Lumia 800 because it lacks any buttons on the front at all, whereas the Lumia has the obligatory three Windows Phone buttons, albeit capacitive: back, home and search. The N9 also boasts a front facing camera and a charging light, both of which would be welcome on the Lumia 800.
Both devices could be heralded as the devices Nokia fans have long been wanting. The N9’s MeeGo is completely new and fresh, but still has hints of the N900’s Maemo 5. Boot-up time for the Lumia is mere seconds, and miles faster than the N9. Both Windows Phone and MeeGo are departures from Symbian, with streamlined and easy to understand menus and a noticeable lack of lag. In day-to-day usage, though, the Lumia 800 has the edge: in my time with it there has been no lag whatsoever, despite a populated home screen and lots of installed applications. In contrast, the N9 is prone to stutter when scrolling the list of apps even without having anything new installed. It’s still a very quick device, especially when playing games, but it isn’t the faultlessly smooth scrolling experience that is offered on iOS and Windows Phone.
SMS inbox now a communication hub
With Maemo 5, Nokia introduced a true communication hub by having online conversations (such as MSN Messenger and Facebook Chat) stored in the inbox alongside SMS conversations. The N9 continues this as does Windows Phone, but the latter takes it a step further by storing all communication with a particular contact in one thread. This means you can be talking to your friend Joe on Facebook and when he goes offline you can continue the conversation through text messaging, and it all shows up seamlessly in one thread.
It’s a simple touch, but it’s one that makes us wonder why it hasn’t been implemented before. As phones are communication devices, it’s a touch of brilliance to offer such a simple and obvious improvement over the competition.
Browsing and email
. The N9 isn’t quite so advanced, but it’s easily on par with others. It is quick, both to render and for navigation, streamlined and tapping the address bar will bring a list of your most-visited sites as well as letting you enter an address or search the web.
The Windows Phone keyboard is a joy to use, and the Lumia 800 is probably the first phone without a hardware keyboard that I enjoy typing on. As with the browser, credit for this must go to Microsoft and not Nokia. The keyboard is uniquely designed in that it predicts what letter you will type next and slightly enlarge it, making typing more accurate than it can be on other devices. It has an excellent auto-correct that is only rarely wrong, and unlike the iPhone it offers more than word when it makes suggestions – the bolded one is what it will correct to, while the others can be selected manually.
The N9 keyboard is comparatively weak. Oddly, it takes up a minor amount of screen estate, which is good for composing long messages in a text field but can make typing difficult. It has auto-correct off by default, and when first used out of the box is cumbersome and difficult. After a few seconds in the settings menu and a few tweaks, though, it becomes much more manageable and it becomes easier to type quickly. The main drawback, however, is that the space key is narrow, meaning the full-stop button is often pressed instead.
At the end of my time with it, my opinion is the N9 is the experience that all phones should have, as it is so intuitive. It’s not until using it that it can be realised how obvious it is that a swipe to exit an application is a better option than adjusting your hand position to hit a button. Similarly, swiping to see the open applications and even closing them by swiping from top to bottom of the screen. Swiping from bottom to top will show a dock similar to iOS, with phone, messaging, camera and web; in other words, the most commonly used applications so the user can access them quickly without swiping to the homescreen then swiping to find them. The N9 is unlocked by double tapping the screen, and having got used to this I found myself repeatedly tapping on the Lumia’s screen to unlock it – which isn’t implemented, but hopefully will be in the future.