This is the 2nd part of Alvin’s Nokia N9 review.
So far, we’ve looked at the Nokia N9 purely in terms of hardware, but arguably more important than the gorgeous curved screen is what runs beneath it – MeeGo Harmattan 1.2. A platform that was supposed to replace Symbian and save the company has now been relegated to dead-on-arrival status to serve as a pure demonstration of what Nokia is capable of in terms of software development and innovation. Even so, there is a lot to like about MeeGo Harmattan, yet almost as much to dislike about it.
Honestly, it almost doesn’t matter what MeeGo Harmattan doesn’t do quite right, or what it lacks. If you’re considering picking up this device, you’ve already got an idea as to what you’re in for. You’d know that MeeGo Harmattan is a dead platform. You’d know that you won’t enjoy any sort of thriving ecosystem, nor get to try out innovative apps, nor spend your time playing games with your N9. The N9, if anything, is a device in its own little world. If you know what the N9 can offer you right out of the gate and you’re satisfied with it, this device might well be a perfect fit.
I will readily admit that the N9 doesn’t cover all of my needs. I’d even go so far to say it feels like a stunning feature phone instead of a full-fledged smartphone. I’d say that for the average user who doesn’t use too many online Web 2.0 services or depend on too many apps, the N9 offers enough functionality even without any add-ons. Still, MeeGo Harmattan genuinely surprised me because I feel like I almost can’t stop using the N9 despite everything it lacks for me and everything it doesn’t do. It’s testament to how well-thought-out the user experience is on MeeGo Harmattan – you could almost completely ignore all the flaws and simply enjoy the ride.
I suppose the thing that strikes me most about MeeGo Harmattan is how natural it feels to use. There’s something to be said about building an entire user interface around swipe gestures – jumping in and out of apps and moving between screens is a completely effortless experience and the buttonless approach to this UI helps MeeGo Harmattan feel a lot more fluid and far less jarring compared to Android and iOS – you never have to think about what the Back button will do nor repeatedly press a Home button just to get around. In fact, no device I’ve used so far has felt so easy to use and fuss-free.
Another thing about MeeGo Harmattan that has really stood out for me is how deeply consistent the entire platform is. Yes, I know, I use an Android device, and Android is often described as ‘a mess’ but the consistency present in the MeeGo Harmattan user interface, along with built-in and third-party apps, is nothing short of stunning. All of the gestures do the same thing, the visual layout of most apps remains exactly the same across the board, all of the buttons seem cut from the same cloth and I’d say that MeeGo Harmattan is right up there with Windows Phone’s Metro UI in terms of typography. Overall, the Harmattan UI is deeply pleasant and reflects an attention to detail that hasn’t been seen before from Nokia.
I mentioned in the hardware review that MeeGo Harmattan still runs perfectly well despite the N9 not packing the latest internal components; I’m absolutely not exaggerating when I say I have not encountered a single instance of lag, stutter or freezing in my week with the N9, even when having multiple apps running in the background and not really bothering to quit any of them. Bearing in mind that MeeGo Harmattan is effectively a version 1.0 product, there’s much that has been done really well. It’s the first smartphone platform that feels designed around the average consumer from the get-go; every aspect of the UI is clean and simple compared to the layers upon layers of complexity that Symbian gained over the years. In contrast, MeeGo Harmattan almost feels too simple – there isn’t much in the way of menus, options and customizations. In fact, the only aspects of MeeGo Harmattan that you can customize is the lockscreen wallpaper, ringtone and the Bluetooth name. The homescreen background remains perpetually black, theme support is absent, there’s no way to sort apps into folders and custom ringing profiles are not possible. This is definitely a far cry from Android and Symbian, both extremely customizable smartphone platforms, and it’s kind of disappointing.
I’m hesitant to say I’ve been wholly satisfied using the N9 as my daily driver. This is the very reason I wouldn’t actually buy one of these things even though I’m unabashedly a huge fan of the N9′s design and user experience and consider it to be my new favourite Nokia smartphone after the N8. MeeGo Harmattan adopts the sort of people-centric approach to communication that we’ve seen before in Maemo 5, Windows Phone and (to an extent) Android; different methods of communication (think voice calls, SMS, Gtalk, Facebook Chat, Skype, etc) are fully integrated into the built-in phone and messaging apps so you can focus on who you’re communicating with instead of having to think about how you’d like to communicate with a particular person and head into the appropriate app for that. That sounds all very well and good. Just like in Android, it also seems really easy to tie your various online accounts to your MeeGo Harmattan setup. Until you realize that this particular aspect of the platform hasn’t really been done all that well. For one, I’m a big Google user so I was pleasantly surprised to see that I could directly enter my Google account details into the Accounts app in MeeGo Harmattan, thinking that all my data would seamlessly sync down to the N9. But I was wrong – logging into your Google account in MeeGo Harmattan merely adds the people in your Gtalk list into the Contacts app and sets up the email client to access your Gmail. That’s really it. It turns out that in order for contact and calendar sync to work, one needs to use Mail for Exchange. And no matter what I did in Mail for Exchange or CalDAV, I couldn’t get the N9 to sync my Google Calendar properly (it wouldn’t recognize my non-default calendars), hence leaving me without my school schedule for the entire time that I used the N9. Too perfect.
There are other limitations too; MeeGo Harmattan doesn’t support adding more than one Twitter account, which is rather inexplicable. I haven’t encountered the issues that some other reviewers have been reporting such as MeeGo Harmattan logging out all accounts upon switching connections or reporting that all the passwords are wrong and refusing to log in. Also, having background sync enabled means getting worse battery life with the N9 than an Android phone, at least in my experience. Still, once you’ve managed to set up all the services you’d like to use in MeeGo Harmattan and get them going, the entire system generally holds together and works well without much user intervention required.
I find the notifications pane on the homescreen rather strange; while it displays the current date, day and weather, incoming messages, email and missed calls, there’s also a massive feed of tweets and Facebook updates. I don’t really get the point of having that feed, especially when the built-in Twitter and Facebook apps are just a tap away on the app grid. Worse still, you don’t actually get notified of, say, Twitter mentions and direct messages in the notifications pane, nor would you know about any Facebook activity concerning you unless you actually headed into the full app. I’d prefer the notifications pane to be reserved solely for notifications, especially when it’s already kind of counter-intuitive to have an unread message icon appear in the status bar but be unable to deal with the notification from the status bar’s drop-down menu.
The built-in Facebook and Twitter apps are well-designed and generally work smoothly (which cannot be said about Nokia Social on Symbian Anna) but remain lacking in terms of functionality. I rely heavily on Facebook Groups these days (in fact, that’s just about the only aspect of Facebook that I still care about today) but the Facebook app in MeeGo Harmattan lacks support for groups. The app also isn’t very good at figuring out the order of comments under a post, often displaying a jumbled comment thread. As for the Twitter app, apart from lacking support for multiple accounts, there’s also no way to quote a tweet, native retweets take too long to happen and I rather missed username autocomplete. Both apps are fairly basic and won’t satisfy the power user, and alternative Facebook and Twitter clients on MeeGo Harmattan can be counted with the fingers on one hand.
In terms of media consumption and web browsing, I’d say that MeeGo Harmattan is capable of handling both tasks adequately. The web browser is slightly quirky. There’s no real bookmarking support; instead, you can pin webpages to the homescreen iOS-style so they look like apps. It’s possible to have multiple browser windows open at the same time, but you can only switch between them in the multitasking pane on the homescreen which can potentially confuse many. Otherwise, the browser performs acceptably over both WiFi and cellular data, and webpages are rendered correctly almost all the time, with smooth panning and zooming. The music player is rather pretty, although I found the buttons a tad too small and it failed to recognize a bog-standard .M3U playlist that I dragged over from my PC. I also found its needing to refresh its library very now and then rather irritating – I thought we’d left this sort of archaic behaviour behind in Symbian? The photo gallery and video player are both rather ordinary in terms of functionality, but they work well enough. Video playback is smooth, while viewing and manipulating photos is an entirely painless experience. Just like Android, MeeGo Harmattan has built-in sharing functionality; there are just less options here as compared to Android. Weirdly, there’s no way to tweet a photo straight from the gallery app; this can only be done from the Twitter app. Minor oversight, but it’s there. There’s not much else that’s noteworthy when it comes to media consumption on MeeGo Harmattan; there’s the Ovi Music Store which no one uses and a promising YouTube icon on the app grid that turns out to be a shortcut to the YouTube mobile site. Additionally there’s an official, Nokia-authored Internet Radio app that you can grab from the rather-sparse-but-well-designed Nokia Store but that never worked for me in my entire testing period.
I think MeeGo Harmattan can be summed up with the following statement: it is a beautiful platform that’s a real pleasure to use, but it ultimately fails to bring much in the way of real innovative features and functionality over Windows Phone and the competition, and when coupled with a third-party ecosystem that doesn’t exist for the most part, it couldn’t have stood a chance if it were meant to replace Symbian and rescue Nokia. Yes, it’s a really cohesive, well-sorted platform and the N9 is (for the most part) a good device. But so is iOS on the iPhone 4S. Yes, it offers more capabilities compared to Windows Phone, what with the full multitasking and USB mass storage mode, but so does Android. What, exactly, does MeeGo Harmattan bring that we haven’t already seen from the competition apart from Swipe UI and the Nokia Pure font? Is an excellent UI/UX enough to push a smartphone platform to success? Let’s take a moment and imagine this alternate reality. Nokia’s strategy shift has not taken place; MeeGo Harmattan and the N9 is the pride and joy of the company with Symbian sticking around for the mid to low-end segment and Qt allowing devs to code once and run on both platforms. If we were to pit MeeGo Harmattan and Windows Phone 7.5 against each other, which would you rather go with?
None of the above really matters today, because MeeGo no longer has to save Nokia, and that allows us to take a step back and fully appreciate what Nokia has created. For what it is, MeeGo Harmattan is a work of art. Without making comparisons to anything else, I can say with confidence that MeeGo Harmattan proves that Nokia had it in them to create a real iPhone-beating smartphone. The N9 is special. MeeGo Harmattan is special. I now understand why the Nokia Lumia 800 and 710 exist today. But at the same time, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been.
You can see more screenshots of MeeGo Harmattan by clicking here!