A blast from the past: Nokia N900

A blast from the past: Nokia N900
We dig deep into our mobile memories to discuss one of the gems of the past, the Nokia N900.

Nokia N900
It's not an easy task to explain why exactly we rank the Nokia N900 as one of our favourite phone ever. Perhaps, there are things in life that we grow too fond of, and soon enough we become so enamoured that separating reason from emotions becomes a nigh impossible task. What's certain, however, is that you have to view and measure the N900 in the context of time it was released, and what our preferences and needs were back then, back in the far distant year of 2009.
Back then the competition was slowly but steadily heating up for Nokia. Google’s Android OS, believe it or not, was still only warming up, but a few solid devices were already out in the market, like the HTC Hero. Nokia, on the other hand, was still very much entrenched with Symbian OS that allowed the Finnish phone manufacturer stay dominant in the smartphone segment for so many years. The shockwave that was Nokia N95 has long since passed, only to be replaced by the 'mild' disappointment that was Nokia N97. Truth to be told, Symbian simply wasn't ready for touchscreen devices, and the legacy smartphone OS felt clunky and unresponsive, made even worse by the underpowered hardware.
Nokia N900 - image1

But then, out of nowhere, came this 'phone'. Out of nowhere, because previously, only very few Nokia tablet users were familiar with Maemo 5 Operating System that Nokia N900 was wielding. The N900 was, in fact, a proper Linux-based computer, with a 'phone' component bolted on top of it, as an afterthought. From that point onward, it's easy to explain the shortcomings of N900, and also why we were so much in love with it.
Nokia N900 - image2
Nokia N900 - image3

The N900 just felt so radically different in comparison to other smartphones from Nokia. Maemo 5 OS was both complex and powerful, but it was also a dream to handle, because, unlike Symbian, it originated from devices that had touchscreens from the very start.
Nokia N900 - image4

The Nokia N900 quickly became the embodiment of all that we loved about smartphones, those sophisticated, powerful little machines that can serve as the mobile centre for communication, entertainment, creativity and so much more. Nokia N900 did all of that, but also brought quite a few new elements into the mix that we miss even today.

Even in the context of modern smartphones, the Nokia N900 was a true multi-tasking king. Perhaps the most striking was the way it was implemented - users would need to touch a dedicated icon in the top left corner of the screen, from where he or she would be presented with a grid of open applications. What was simply mind-blowing back then (and it still is), was that the windows of open apps would refresh to reflect what was currently happening inside the apps.
Nokia N900 - multi tasking

Think of running a native Youtube video inside the browser - one of those things that N900 did remarkably well in comparison to other phones - and then minimise the app to see the video continue to unfold inside the window in the task manager view. The effortless jumping in and out of the active apps was one of the definitive moments on N900, and it signalled to us early on that Maemo 5 was not a mobile OS to be taken lightly.

Homescreen view was another area that impressed us in Maemo 5. True, the homescreen on Symbian devices was pretty functional too - at least, as far as non-touch devices can really go. But even now, in terms of sheer flexibility, the homescreens on Nokia N900 can easily put to shame most current phones.
Nokia N900 - homescreens

You can populate the numerous screens with widgets of all sorts, drastically changing the way N900 looks and behaves. After some time with the N900, our homescreens stopped resembling anything a smartphone would do. It was the workspace of a true mobile computer, and it was every bit as functional as the name implies.
Nokia N900 - homescreens2

Apps - these tiny (and sometimes not so much) software packages that greatly extend the functionality and longevity of any smartphone were just as important then as they are now. It was the access to these apps that was a major stumbling point for most smartphones. While on Symbian most users were still side-loading apps, the N900 came with its own built-in App manager that gave access to tons of different content, from custom fonts to various productivity apps and classic game console emulators.
Nokia N900 - App manager

What's more, thanks to the open-source nature of these apps, most of them were completely free. Not a day would go by that we wouldn't find some new and exciting way to extend the basic functionality of N900. It was a never-ending source of exploration, and it was the place to unlock and witness Maemo 5's true, geeky prowess.

The outside world of Nokia N900 was equally impressive. It was a solid, sturdy built device that radiated the same awe-inspiring sense of wonder that surrounded the OS itself. And, just like Maemo 5, the exterior held the best things away from plain sight.
Nokia N900 - detail

A thick metallic band runs along the perimeter of the 3.5-inch display. By pushing the top half sideways, a compact yet highly usable QWERTY keyboard slides into the view. The top row appears a bit cramped at first, but after a short while we were typing away on social networks at a very reasonable rate. For fans of physical keys on mobile devices, the N900 was one of the last big hurrahs before touchscreen-only devices completely took over.
Nokia N900 - detail2

The Nokia N900's camera, in turn, invited a level of creativity that we simply hadn't experienced before. It surprised us, for imaging was clearly not the main focus of this sort of device.

But the built-in 5 Mpix Car Zeiss camera underlined what was proven to be true time after time. That a smartphone doesn't necessarily have to beat standalone cameras (they already come close enough for most consumers), and that it needs is to be a solid performer in a wide variety of situations. But above all, mobile cameras should match dedicated cameras in reliability and simplicity of use.
Nokia N900 - detail4

The Nokia N900 nailed down all of those points. We could trust it to get the job done - whenever and wherever. The decent all around performance of the camera meant that we kept returning to the N900 long after 8 Mpix cameras became the new standard for phones. We’ll now leave it up to the pictures to conclude this section of the story.
Nokia N900 - camera sample1
Nokia N900 - camera sample2

Nokia N900 - camera sample3

Nokia N900 - camera sample4
Of course, the N900 was far from being a universally perfect device. It was considered heavy and bulky even back then, and the battery life was such that you'd do well to bring along an extra battery to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Likewise, the underlying hardware to run the mighty OS was inadequate to say the least. Unlike other mobile OS of that day, Maemo 5 possessed that brutish strength to really push the hardware to its limits. Instead, the enormous potential of Maemo 5 was notably squandered by a single-core 600 mHz processor that cunning users nevertheless managed to overclock to more respectable speeds at the expense of the already poor battery life.

While considered to be among the best, the resistive touchscreen on Nokia N900 was, of course, nowhere as responsive as the capacitive screen phones that came en masse soon after. And, finally, the deep tablet roots that entwined Maemo 5 meant that most of the UI elements as well as apps on Nokia N900 ran in landscape orientation only, which meant that single-handed use of the handset was tricky at best.

Nokia N900 was one of the highlight devices not just for us, but also for many other mobile enthusiasts who went on to say that N900 was something of a revelation to them. That a smartphone can be so much more.

For us, the N900 brought back that special feeling when we first started using a smartphone. That exhilarating sense of freedom, and the growing, restless curiosity that drove us forward to find more, learn more and see just how far we could push the envelope. And boy did it go far.

What's your favourite phone?

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