Friday, December 18, 2009

The N900 and the N97 - mobile computers?

Nokia's latest smartphone, the N900 is currently being marketed as a mobile computer. So is the predecessor of the N900, the N97 (and naturally the N97 Mini as well). Is it in place to call both phones mobile computers, or is the term used as means for creating a certain kind lf image?

In this entry I will ponder my views on the true nature of both devices with this simple question in mind: can they both be called 'mobile computers'?

The Nokia N97 was an anxhiously awaited smartphone that finally arrived in July 2009 to most consumers. Before its release it was marketed as a continuation to the line of mobile computers in the N-series of phones, albeit the device was supposed to "revolutionise mobile computing". The predecessors of the N97 were quite logically the N96 and N95, both of which were marketed with the catchphrase "What computers have become". Too radical (read: advanced) for most was the N95 to be classified as a smartphone, but comparing it to what is marketed today as a mobile computer, the N95 now falls into the category of a phone more than anything else.

The form factor of the N95 was very different to current 'mobile computers'. Missing a full QWERTY keyboard, it does indeed look more like a regular slide phone. Technology-wised it is still very much the same as current models: it has a 5Mpix camera, GPS, e-mail synchronisation, fast 3G and WLAN capabilitities and the possibility to expand the memory greatly by additional memory cards. Focusing on multimedia funtions made, in my opinion, the N95 (and N96) more multimedia phones.

It's really all about OS

So why am I going on about older models when I promised to compare the N900 and the N97s? Well, in my opinion, the N97 seems more like a continuation of the saga that the N95 started. Let's look at why. One thing that the N95 and N97 share is of course the Symbian based operating system. Looking very similar to the UI of S60 3rd edition, the S60 5th edition in the N97 differs really only in touchscreen support. Otherwise the devices' UIs look very much the same.

It's not only about the way the UIs look, but also about the way they work. Setting up your e-mail and reading it happens in a very similar fashion on both phones. Functional and powerful, there's not much to gripe about what you can do with the platform. Almost anything goes. There's just always that little something you always want a bit more of...

It's not so much about size...

... it's also the emphasis on how you can do what you want to do what makes the difference between the two devices. The N900 is famous for its wonderful web browser and it is not a praise just caught from the wind; The N900 delivers the most computer-like experience of web browsing than any other mobile device at the moment. With the possible exceptions of the previous tablet devices. You don't need an application for YouTube, you watch videos in your browser window and all other sites open up like they would on your PC as well. Tabbed browsing? You got it. Kind of, windows work just like tabs. Password manager that remembers even dual accounts to the same website? Check.

It is also the possibilities of the Maemo platform that sets the device a part from the N97. Sure, you can use the built-in e-mail client, or get Nokia Messaging and view your e-mail somewhat computer-like on your screen in the N97. The difference to the N900 lies in the possibility to view the same mails in an interface seamless with the rest of the UI, with such "advanced functions" as adding attachments and configuring other kinds of e-mail accounts, not just webmail accounts. All this straight out of the box. Everything and anything missing can and will be fixed in the future.

The open-box syndrome

Speaking more about the possibilities of the N900, already available for Maemo are applications that integrate themselves right into the OS smooth and simple. The S60 platform usually has support only for additional applications that you have to launch seperately in order to use them. If what I've understood is correct, every aspect of the Maemo interface is wide open for changing and optimizing.

Another thing worth mentioning, is the handling of internet connections in the N900. Changing from 3G to EDGE and from 3G to WiFi is almost seamless. It is also possible to disconnect the phone from the internet entirely. The point is that you get absolute control ie. the choice to decide what you want to do with the connection. In the S60 devices you aren't given this much control as some internal apps might connect you right back to the internet or a 3G connection might launch right after logging on to a secured WiFi.

To go back to the claim that the N97 is more a "limited" multimedia phone, I must take some of that back. Why? Well consider this: the N97 has playback support for tonnes of multimedia types and file extensions to get you viewing your stuff without hassle. The N900 packs everything the N97 does, with the exception of codec packs. As I write this, a codec package is already available for Maemo. You'll never have to figure out how to get
a video working, you'll just have to get the right codec. Again another feature of Maemo that proves it's capability to be used in true mobile computers.


The N97 has representations of things you are used to on your desktop, it shows you all the mobile websites - but only in mobile form. You get to add e-mail accounts to the system, but with limitations. You can download programs and applications, but they'll never integrate seamlessly into the system. All things on the N900 work like on a (Linux) PC. When programs crash, you'll be notified that it needs to be closed and will close.

Of course, the decision to allow the N900 to only work in portrait mode is a clear indication from the developers that its not a phone, but a device also capable of doing phonecalls over cellular networks. The N97 developed the other way around: first they wanted phones with a little extra, then with a little more extra and advanced features and eventually they came up with the N97. The only problem was (and is) that it was created from a platform that in its earliest forms was all about calling and sending textmessages. Also, when Symbian first emerged, software updates and 3rd party software were but dreams of the future.

Therefor, I think that claims of the N97 being a mobile computer are false. Everything stating this claim true about the N97, has actually come to reality in the N900, making it the only true mobile computer on the entire market.

(C) Christopher Peake
Written entirely with the MaStory client!

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