LONDON, United Kingdom – I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last two weeks using a prototype version of the new Nokia N9 as my main phone. It’s now time to hand it over to Adam for his turn, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to record my impressions of actually using the phone, beyond stats, specs and feature lists. As tech fans we often get over-obsessed with these things when what really counts is the user experience. Here’s what it’s like.
On a physical level, the phone is delightful to hold and operate. The polycarbonate body feels solid, despite the thin form factor. I guess that’s down to the uni-body construction: it means there’s no cracks or seams, or creaks when you squeeze it. It’s just solid and ‘right’.
Something you can’t tell from the pictures, but which is a big part of what makes the phone feel special, is that the screen is extremely bright and utterly black where it’s supposed to be [the picture above is a little deceptive on this point]. I don’t know the full specifications, but I actually had the screen’s brightness setting turned down to the halfway point almost all the time – not to save battery, but because that was perfectly bright enough for all purposes except those rare occasions when it was in direct sunlight.
Another thing about the screen that owners will appreciate on an aesthetic level is its curvature. The glass is rounded at the corners, as you may have noticed, but it’s also convex on top, bevelled down towards the edges, after the display finishes. This makes the phone seem thinner in the hand, but it also gives the screen a gem-like character. Like it is set upon the body of the device. You may have read elsewhere that there’s no air-gap between the glass and the AMOLED display, and this, together with the curvature, really does give the impression that the lustrous icons are sitting on the surface, inviting you to touch them.
When we interviewed the industrial designer of the device, Anton Fahlgren, he said that it seems “old-fashioned” to go back to a phone with physical buttons once you’ve used the Nokia N9. That’s entirely true, even after two weeks. Hand on heart, I’m not entirely sure a pure touch interface would win in a speed race against one with buttons, but that’s almost beside the point. Doing everything through screen interactions feels more fluid and organic; more natural compared to the clunkiness of leaving the screen to press buttons. As you’ll be aware, there are volume and power buttons on the side of the device, but I only used them a couple of times in the whole fortnight, and you don’t miss them.
The ‘swipe’ interface action that you use to move between screens very quickly seems like the natural way to navigate a phone, too. I now find myself trying to swipe my way through apps on my Nokia N8 and wonder why it doesn’t work that way. It takes a day or so to get into the idea, granted, but once you’ve started, it feels as though phone-designers have finally worked out the way things should work.
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There are subtle hints in the UI to guide you through, too: when you first arrive at the home screen, a razor-thin line appears on the right-hand edge for a couple of seconds. This is a reminder that you can swipe that way to get to the notifications and task-switcher screens.
It turns out that there’s more than one kind of swipe, too. There’s the swipe to change screens, smaller vertical swipes to scroll, and the quarter-swipe from the bottom to reveal the quick-launch bar. You can even set a downward swipe to close apps. You might imagine, reading this, that this would become confusing, but somehow it doesn’t: changing screens requires a decisive edge-to-edge swipe, while scrolling is done within the body of the screen. Sure, it takes a day or two to master, but it’s surprising how quickly it becomes second-nature.
The Store wasn’t working on the prototype I was using, so I didn’t get to try out any apps that weren’t already installed. The core set of apps is strong enough that I wasn’t left at all frustrated, though. Having Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Skype, Maps and a solid email client built-in covers 99% of my app needs. The other one-per cent is the occasional game and the dev guys were kind enough to preinstall a handful of these. Problem solved.
One more feature I really loved was the accounts screen: here you input all your email, messaging and social media accounts and the device automatically uses these to set up your other apps. Your contacts get drawn down and merged from the Cloud and suddenly you can Skype, SMS, email and all the rest everywhere across the device. To give Facebook as an example. You enter your credentials on the accounts screen and all-of-a-sudden:
- Your friends are in your address book, including their profile image, correctly merged with any existing information you have for them;
- Your friends’ latest status updates appear on their address book entries;
- The bottom section of your notifications screen fills up with your news feed;
- You can post status messages direct from the home screen;
- You can Facebook chat through the Messaging app;
- You can post pictures to your wall direct from the camera;
- The built-in Facebook app lets you do everything else you might want from the service.
This sort of end-to-end integration also applies to your other accounts, too. This wasn’t quite finished on the prototype but you can see how easily this will lead to a better social media experience than you’re likely to have on any computer, for example.
The last thing I shall really miss is the speed of the device. This is a subjective matter, of course, but yes, it really is very fast. It seems to be the phone’s excellent multitasking that’s responsible for this. Once you’ve opened an app (including the camera) there’s no real need to close it down again. The device doesn’t run out of memory – I’ve read somewhere that you can multitask up to 100 apps – and there are only about ten that I realistically use. So going back to your email, or a map you left open, happens in milliseconds, not that there was ever time to count. That level of responsiveness is really very satisfying and, once again, difficult to go back from.
But my two weeks are up and it’s time for Adam to carry the torch for a little while until our cruel taskmasters at Nokia HQ inevitably ask for it back. Any questions about the day-to-day use of the phone that I can answer?