Now, I don't intend to keep the stock UI on there for very long. This device will be traveling with me to Tokamak IV to get a make over, but I wanted to have a good feel for what it was already capable of and how things worked. I've been working on bug fixes, mostly for Plasma Desktop and scripting, for the upcoming 4.4.0 (sometimes into the wee hours of the morning) so having something to play with in between debugging sessions has been nice. What follows below are my impressions of the device to date, all which is just my personal experience and personal opinions. Don't take them as gospel or even as a proper review.
The thing is a bit of a brick, but that seems to be the Nokia aesthetic. It's small enough to fit in my pocket and while it weighs significantly more than my LG phone it's not off-puttingly heavy.
The heavy bevel of the N800 series is gone and the screen is much more attractive as a result. Playing movies on the device is actually very enjoyable: video playback is smooth (as is pausing, seeking and audio controls) and the picture is crisp and rich in color. The various graphical transitions between applications is very smooth for a phone. P. noted early on that it is a lot nicer than the iPhone his mom has due to these things.
The camera and speakers are similarly nice. They certainly aren't going to replace a proper camera, still or video, quite yet but they are better than the ones we have in our various phones around the house here.
I still have 26.5 GB of storage available on the device and once plugged into my laptop with the included USB capable, not only does it start charging but I can mount it and start chucking media and other files onto it painlessly.
The keyboard is well done and works nicely for thumb typing. The kick stand in the back is a little too small to keep it stable on a table top while pocking at images or web pages, though.
Software: The Good Bits
Being able to multitask is a god-send. Having a phone that you can easily add software to with a nice point and click interface is tremendous. (Hello, apt-get! :) The included media player looks good and works well, even if it isn't jumping up and spinning around the room with bells and whistles. Details like having media that is playing pause when you switch to a phone call or some other similar "I'm now busy, no audio please / I can't watch something right now" context, and then have it resume when the context is left, is great.
There really are a large number of details that it gets "right". Swiping to move between widget layouts on the desktop is smooth enough and works nicely. The application task management is rather nice, such as the transitions that happen when you close an app while others are running.
Nice prompts to import contacts, and that the contact book seems to be pervasively shared by apps on the phone show nice attention to software integration. The notification bar that pops down onto the screen is noticeable without being annoying, easy to read and easy to dismiss; bonus points to whoever got that oh-so-right.
These are all great things. Up to this point, I could really feel the potential of this phone platform. Excitement flowing through my veins and all that jazz.
Software: The Flip Side Of Good
Unfortunately, there are so many warts on this otherwise amazing bit of kit that I'm not sure I'd actually recommend it to others who "just wanted a good smart phone". Why? Most of the software, well .. sucks. I'm really hoping that the updates that will be arriving before the N900 is more widely available will plug most of the holes I stumbled across, but for now the N900 simply could not replace my current S60 phone. Let's look at some of the things I ran into.
I managed to lock up the device while setting the time in the setup app that is available when the device is first turned on. The only way to set the clock is to rotate the hands using touch. That's cool, but there's also a little label that shows the time right there and it's completely non-touchable. I could live with that ... if the analog clock wasn't prone to locking up the input on the device. :/ (Insult to injury for me: no Canadian cities, regions or timezones on the device.)
The email application looks reasonable, except I can't use it because it can't authenticate against my IMAP4 server which uses the "plain" login method over TLS.
The WiFi plays well with some AP's but not others. At the coffeeshop here I can download and browse like a mofo on the thing, but here at home it's so bad I can't download software or updates for it and the web browsing is a bit of a pain.
UPDATE!: Armijn told me that Sebas told him (small worlds!) that this is a known issue and can be dealt with by turning off power management when connected to troublesome APs. The way to do this is to go into the settings app, go to internet connections, press Connections, select the problem AP, click Edit then Next, Next, Next to the end where it offers an Advanced setting button, press that, click on the Other tab, select "Off" for "Power saving", dismiss the scary warning about it taking lots more power from your battery and voila ... intarwebs come a-streamin' down the tubes that were once cloggedy. ;) Thanks Sebas (who needs to go pick up stuff at Ade's place! ;)
The GPS doesn't seem to want to pick up satellites and the included mapping software doesn't let me bookmark locations (e.g. where my home is); or if it does, it's very cleverly hidden. The download-maps-over-whatever-connection-you-have-for-the-are-you-are-viewing is a nice step up from the N810, though.
The "app store" is anemic and too often I have to try to download an app more than once because it "can't connect to the server", even when I'm connected to a "good" AP for Internet.
The idea of tracing a spiral to zoom in/out of the web browser just doesn't do it for me, and web pages don't automatically scale to anything resembling a useful size in too many cases meaning that I'm starting to actually get good at that spiral motion. Stumbling upon a website with an unsigned SSL certificate sent me through the obnoxious Firefox "obstacle course of certificate exception approval"; worst of all it is exactly the same one as on the desktop. That means it doesn't fit on the screen and all the buttons are rendered using the default themed Gtk+ widgets. Compared to the rest of the slick chrome on the device, these web browser dialogs stand out like ugly ducklings with no hope of ever becoming swans. The thumbnails for browser history navigation is really neat, though.
Then there are the Mystery Zones on the screen: when a prompt with information and confirmation buttons (essentially the Maemo version of an informational or yes/no dialog) appears there is no immediately obvious way to dismiss it. You just have to press somewhere outside of the area to cancel the action or dismiss the information. That means there is a button saying "Yes, do this!" right there, but the "Get me out of here!" isn't obvious at all. When you are in the application launcher (a grid of icons, essentially) if you press just outside one of the icons (and with a finger that's really easy to do) it also triggers this "cancel the operation" Mystery Zone and the application launcher goes away. To get to the "desktop menu" stuff (for things like internet connections or setting your theme and background) you have to know where to touch (the top of the screen) and when (when the "desktop" is visible).
Which brings us to the desktop. It's separate from the application launcher and so I'm constantly feeling like I'm dealing with two paradigms that don't like each other much. One is the desktop with widgets, the other is a smart phone interface with icon grid launchers and app stores. As P. said, "This is really complicated." Yes, son, it is. Really annoying is that while you can set the background or theme from the "desktop menu", you can't launch the device's settings app. No, that's buried two different clicks away (three if an application is running). Networking, time, bluetooth and USB connectivity, audio volume and profile setting is in yet a different hidden menu on the destop (in the status area). At least this, however, shares the look of the "desktop menu", unlike the settings application.
I could go on as well about things like how the kinetic user interface elements like the flickable list boxes really don't work overly well, or how the 'rounded corner' widgets have bits of black squares in the corners (composition failure, no doubt) but .. well .. I think I've already said enough to give you an idea of the impression I've received.
Not Just Light, But Rainbows, At The End of the Tunnel
If this was a normal device, I'd be left with mixed feelings. I'd be really enthused about some things about the N900 but totally discourage about others. I'd probably discount it as a contender for now and wait to see how the software updates go over the next few months, fingers crossed.
Thankfully, this isn't a "normal" device, relative to other devices out there on the market. The N900 is an open software platform. I can work on it and replace the bits I don't like. I can fix things and improve things to my heart's content (and time budget).
This is why I see not just some light but full-on rainbows-in-technicolor-glory at the end of the tunnel. When Qt hits this device in all its glory, there will be a very powerful stack of software that works very well on these kinds of devices that we are very familiar with and already have a ton of software built on top of. At Tokamak 4 we will have a few N900s, all of which will be sporting Plasma interfaces before we leave I'm sure, along with 4 smartphone-ish devices from Intel to give similarly loving to.
Right now, as I type these words, I am imagining this device with a beautiful Plasma powered interface. Qt applications galore, a sensible melding between apps and widgets and a more unified UI experience that not only blends with but works seamlessly with my laptop and netbook with all of that wonderful, wonderful hardware pulsing and beating beneath it, driven by what looks like a rather nice kernel and userland.
The N900 (and other such devices) are ours to make in our own image. They can be, and as a result will indeed become, more than they have been originally designed to be. This is what happens when a shared commons is allowed to blossom with Free innovation and Free market concepts.
Others will have different ideas for it, I'm sure, and it will be very exciting to see what others imagine into life on these kinds of devices. Ultimately, none of us are locked in on these devices. We don't need to be happy to plod away on individual applications that play in someone else's jailhouse lock-in system, like some slave who's "allowed" to go into town on their own on Sundays. We aren't relegated to only creating Free software that rocks on our desktops (even if that is all I've been personally doing these last couple of weeks :), we can make stuff that rocks quite freely on almost any kind of device form factor we wish.
I remember dreaming about this part of the future as a young person. It's odd, in the most wonderful way, to be smack-dab in the middle of it playing out in reality.
A Word on Closed Device Platforms
I remember when BeOS R3 was released for the Intel platform and talking to some of my friends who were great fans of it . "Linux will never gain traction next to other niche operating systems that are so much more slick than it is," one of them said, hailing BeOS as a nail in the coffin of Linux outside the server room. "No chance," I said. "Yes, BeOS is far better than the Free systems. But it is a guaranteed dead end because it is closed. That can never compete with an open ecosystem. That only works for entrenched players and monopolies." (Irony in the story: BeOS lives on today, more or less, as a Free operating system called Haiku, to which the KDE Free software stack was recently ported to.)
I've seen this played out many times while I've knocked around the industry. To maintain a closed ecosystem in the face of an open one, you have to be insanely better (mostly at lock in techniques) or have a monopoly position. Open ecosystems far too easily generate a network effect that can quickly trump funding, partnership politics and even quality.
There is no successful, closed ecosystem monopoly in the devices world yet. There is Apple (who is growing, almost entirely due to there being a vacuum to fill), there is Android (which isn't open enough to avoid the pitfalls and pratfalls of competing against truly open ecosystems), there is Windows Mobile (but that's all a lark these days) .. but nobody has claimed title of Insurmountable King of the Hill (IKotH). Any of these players can tumble down, and likely will if they stick to their closed ways. This isn't to say they can't carve out a respectable and even sustainable niche, they just won't define the market long term unless the open up.
Open stacks based on Linux, Qt and similar tools are in a much better position simply because more people and companies can participate and therefore create a larger pool of shared resources that is hard to impossible for a closed platform to match without joining in. (Let's not forget that S60 is opening up, either, and bringing Qt along with it too.) I don't know what the ultimate role Maemo itself will play in all of this, but in an open ecosystem it doesn't need to be IKotH to be successful either, anymore than any of the Linux distributions need to be IKotH in the server space for server side Linux to flourish.
The only thing that could fail us now is for too many of us to consider open device platforms to be uninteresting and "somebody else's problem". This is one big reason why I've spent a good porition of the last few years of my life working on a software stack that I feel can be transported between the various kinds of devices I'd like to use. I want to be one small part of the huge success that can be, nay, will be the open mobile space.
Over the next few hours, though, I'll be working on a folderview bug that exhibits on multi-screen desktops. :)