Get ready to geek out, phone fans. The Nokia N900 is the handset for anyone seeking a bleeding-edge gadget full of potential. If Android has gone too mainstream for you, the N900 will let you ride shotgun on the Maemo bandwagon. You can pick it up for around £470 SIM-free.
The N900 uses a new operating system, based on Linux, called Maemo 5. If this were a phone aimed at the average person, that wouldn't matter much -- so long as it works, all's well. But the N900 isn't aimed at the average user. In fact, it's not even really a phone. It's a little computer -- an Internet tablet, if you will. Sure, it lets you make phone calls, but not that easily. The N900 is all about Web surfing, multitasking and installing applications. If that sounds like good times to you, it's a slick, exciting device that will get you in early with a new operating system that promises to be full of fun.
On the other hand, if spending hours configuring your super-phone sounds like a fate worse than death, steer clear of the N900. You can use it straight out of the box, but it's not worth spending your hard-earned cash on this phone unless you fancy fiddling with its features. An iPhone, or an Android phone like the HTC Hero or Samsung Galaxy, will give you most of the top-end smart-phone features without the trouble of dealing with an operating system that has just got off the ground.
The N900 has an Internet browser based on the Firefox engine, and it does a fantastic job of rendering Web pages just as you'd see them on your desktop PC. In our tests, it proved fast and accurate, and, unlike with most other phones, including the iPhone, the N900's browser displays Flash on Web pages. Unfortunately, even over a Wi-Fi connection, Flash wasn't smooth enough for us to easily watch streaming videos or play Flash games, but it did mean that we never missed out on anything on the Web sites we visited, including ads.
The browser's 'interactive' mode lets you drag a pointy little cursor, just like on your PC, to do fiddly things like copy and paste, or open nested menus. We didn't feel the need to use it much, but it's good to have the option for an even more desktop-like browsing experience.
The Firefox Mobile browser is being built specifically for Maemo, too. Although it doesn't come pre-installed on the phone, you can download the beta version from the Mozilla Web site and make the N900 even better.
Paint a portrait
You'll have to learn to love the browser in landscape orientation though -- it doesn't work in portrait mode. In fact, very few apps on the N900 display in anything but landscape mode, so there's often no way to use the phone with only one hand.
One exception is the phone dialler, which displays in landscape orientation when the keyboard is open, and in portrait mode when it's closed. But this change doesn't happen automatically depending on how you're holding the handset, unlike with the iPhone, for example. With most other apps, if you close the phone, the touchscreen still functions, but everything is shown in landscape. Also, by default, there isn't an on-screen keyboard -- you'll have to turn on that option in the phone's settings.
Another quirk is the fact that, because there are no call and end buttons on the front of the phone, you open the phone dialler using a shortcut on one of the five home screens, so it's not accessible from everywhere. There are a couple of ways to make calls more quickly, however. You can find a contact by starting to type their name, from anywhere, and you can put shortcuts to your contacts on the home screen. Nokia also promises that rotating the phone will launch the dialler, unless you're in an application, but the sample phone that we tested didn't work that way. Our sample was a pre-production version, though, and it's possible that this kink will be ironed out in a last-minute firmware update before the phone hits the shops.