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28Dec/101

Android from an N900 user’s perspective

Nokia N900 and LG Optimus One Android 2.2 I recently got myself for Christmas an LG Optimus One Android 2.2 device and I must admit: this is my first real encounter with an Android device even though I've had many phones over the years. For the past year, since Maemo Conference 2009 in Amsterdam, I've been using the Nokia N900 Maemo5 phone which I have been pretty happy about. Since Maemo 5 and especially any upcoming MeeGo handset is considered to be an contender for current Android phones I want to give you my take on the Android OS from an N900 user's and Maemo5 perspective. I have divided this post into five areas in which I think the N900 is strong (or at least in which it wants to be strong) and compared those to Android.

Keyboard

The N900 obvisously has a physical keyboard which is also in my opinion very good. The LG Optimus One comes with Android's virtual keyboard so I guess it's no surprise that I prefer a physical keyboard over a virtual keyboard. However, I would say that the virtual keyboard works equally well compared to the one found on the N900, except that I hardly ever used it. There is a small lag when typing on the keyboard but the accuracy is pretty good and the tactile feedback from the vibra works nicely. Nokia N900 and LG Optimus One Android 2.2I must also point out that the default virtual keyboard that Android ships with also contains one of the biggest brain farts of the device. Namely, I live in Finland so I need a Scandinavian or Finnish keyboard layout. No - Android does not come with one! Really! The person who decided this should be fired from Google! Instead, if you want to type "ä" you first need to press and hold down the key "a" after which you will get a virtual popup with all the special characters associated with "a". What a stupid idea! You can download from the Android marketplace a Scandinavian keyboard app which will have a Finnish keyboard layout. Thank god for open source software on an open platform.

Phone functionality

It's a phone after all so the phone and SMS functionalities are naturally very important. Luckily there is nothing to complain about the phone functionality in the Android device! The contact list has a alphabetical list of letter to the right of the screen so  you can easily scroll to the correct name that you are interested in (I believe this is ripped from the iPhone?).
Nokia N900 and LG Optimus One Android 2.2

Same piece of the contact list. Notice how some contacts on Android have avatar image from Facebook.

The Contact application is really a contact list with four tabs on it; Phone, Call log, Contacts and Favorites. The N900's contacts application is really only the Contacts part of the Android's same phone experience. I think this is very nicely done so that you have all the phone functionalities in one place instead of spread out between different apps as done on the N900. The 'Phone' tab will open the dial pad and you can make calls to unsaved numbers. 'Call log' will show you all the calls you done, received or missed. 'Contacts' is the contact list. What I really like on the Android device is the 'Favorites' tab. You can mark contacts as favorites and see them separately in this tab. This tab will also show you the contacts that you call most frequently. This way all the important contacts are in one place. Sony Ericsson already had a similar kind of functionality in 2004 what comes to call history and frequent contacts that you call and I never understood why Nokia hasn't included this feature. It's very convenient. The N900 lacks similar kind of favorite and most frequent contacts functionality, which is a shame. Nokia N900 and LG Optimus One Android 2.2Tapping the contact in the list will open the contact's information from where you can dial or write an SMS with one tap. This is very similar to the N900 contact list, but the difference is the speed. The user experience is much more fluid and snappy compared to that on the N900. When you tap the SMS icon for example, you can literally start typing the message within a second. N900 feels sluggish to this since it opens a different application. You can include contact shortcuts on the home screen just as you can on the N900. But compared to the N900 you can also specify for a contact that you would like to add a shortcut directly to for example the call part of it (so you call it directly when tapping on it instead of opening a dialog to select "Now I want to call this person"). Same goes for SMS messages. This is handy for contacts that you call or text more frequently. The same snappiness goes for the call functionality. I never liked N900 only as a phone since the phone UI is really sluggish. On the N900 opening the phone UI and rotating it takes already some 2 seconds and then tapping the Call end button is not responsive when you try to end the call. The Android device is much more responsive compared to the N900 and remember that both of the devices are running on a 600 MHz CPU.

Service integration

The N900 has a very elegant integration to different instant messaging systems thanks to its generic Telepathy communication framework. When you import your friends from any of these IM services (including Skype for example), you can right from their contact information start a chat session or even a VoIP session if the remote party supports this. This is really well done in for example the Skype use case. But the same goes for GTalk or Facebook chat for example. This tight IM service integration is missing from Android. But frankly I don't personally miss this integration. I think it is more common to use some dedicated application to do the IM communication with and there are plenty of IM application for Android out there anyway.
Nokia N900 and LG Optimus One Android 2.2

Same contact on N900 and Android 2.2. Notice the rich content on Android.

Android does something better. It can import your friends from Facebook or Twitter and it will merge these friends with existing contacts that you already have on your phone. You may choose if you want to import Facebook and Twitter contact information for contacts that you already have on your phone, or import all the contacts from the services. This is really cool! You will also see your friends latest messages from Facebook or Twitter right there in the contact list. And it will import the avatar image of your contact from any of these services too (actually this is what N900 also does for the IM part, but I think many people have more recent photos of themselves on Facebook). Since Android is a Google product, the integration with Google services is seamless. For example GMail Contacts. I had a real epiphany when I imported my contacts from the N900 via the GMail Contacts (you have to export them via vCards there first. Why didn't N900 store all my exported contacts into just one vCard but instead put them all in separate files?). What I did was that I exported all my contacts to GMail contacts and there I got suggestions on duplicate contacts that I can merge into one! You know, the N900 saves separate contacts of those that you send or receive email from - which is really annoying. Thanks to GMail Contacts I merged all of those contacts into their correct master contact and now I don't have duplicates anymore. I didn't even have to save separately and all of this contact information was synced to my phone! And not only that - on the phone, the contact's Facebook profiles were also already merged into one contact. It worked like magic - like Steve would say. The Calendar application is pretty standard from the UI point of view. But it too is integrated with Google Calendar. The web version of Google Calendar will sync in seconds to my phone and vice versa. And remember that I only once logged in to my Google account when first using the device and all this works out of the box. I really hope Nokia can achieve this kind of service integration with OVI, since there is a lot of potential in this kind of service when they are done right. Google GMail integration is a push email service; I sometimes get a notification to my phone about a new email before I get it on the web when the GMail page is open. On the N900 again, sadly the email experience is flawed by the client's slowness. Talking about services, I might as well mention (here it comes) the app store; Android Market place. I think the OVI Store on the N900 is a joke and it has never been intended for wide audience use. It's a pity since there is a huge potential of apps that could be distributed to the N900, but I guess Nokia is just not focusing on that hard enough. The app store experience on the Android is just fantastic. You get a responsive native app store app (not a browser. Sigh) with great working recommendations and search functionality. With just two clicks you can install any app without registering or signing in first (Sigh). Equally simply you can uninstall the apps from your phone by just selecting them from the application grid after selecting the uninstall functionality from the context menu; no slow and unresponsive app manager (sigh).

Home screen and widgets

The N900 does home screen widgets really nice. You can freely organize them as you please and there are quite a few of these. You also have four home screen to customize and you can swipe between the screen, which is really nice. Android does basically the same thing. Except that the widgets cannot be placed freely, but they have predefined boxed areas in which the widgets fit into. Actually, I don't even mind this since the layout becomes more clear this way - but I would still say the N900 does the home screen widget integration better. Nokia N900 and LG Optimus One Android 2.2You can add contact shortcuts, widgets and folders to the home screen. The widgets are more or less similar to the ones on the N900. You have the weather widget, Facebook widget, Twitter widget, calendar widget and so on. But somehow they look prettier. And their usability has been more thoroughly thought of. I don't think there is anything special about Android's widgets compared to those on N900, other than N900 widget's are harder to use as they are in general smaller and they look uglier by design. But the thing that strikes me and why I like Android's widget better is the snappiness of the widgets. When you tap on a widget on the N900 it will launch an external application, which will take time. And tapping for example on the Facebook or Twitter widgets will just launch the browser with the URL pointing to the service page in question. This will take time. On Android when you tap on any widget, you have the full application open in a second. And Facebook or Twitter widgets will launch the dedicated service application instead, like on the N900, of the clumsy browser approach. It's all in all a more enjoyable experience. I also must mention a few words about the notification system on the Android. It is this bar that you can swipe down from the status area, that has icons for indications of some new notification. When you swipe down this area from the status area, you can see all the new notifications (new SMS, missed call and so on, but also Twitter reply or direct message, new email...) and then tapping on the notification it will open the item in the dedicated application. N900 is trying to do something similar with the task switcher, but it's not really the same when you unlock the phone and see the home screen. On the N900 you will only see a flashing yellow rectangle in the top left corner indicating "something" new is there, but you don't know what. So it's an extra step to actually get the information what kind of notification it is and do I need to react to it right now. Also the snappiness is a factor here, since Android is launching the apps more quickly so this combined with the extra step on the N900 makes it feel really slow to use.

Internet usage

N900 is an Internet tablet. The browser on the N900 is really good in rendering content and it also has Flash. Android 2.2 also supports Flash, but not on 600 MHz processors, so my LG does not come with Flash. But that's fine; I'll use dedicated apps for watching the videos I normally would with Flash (Twit, YouTube. And the apps are anyway better with UX) and I don't play Farmville on Facebook... but this can be a factor for someone.
Nokia N900 and LG Optimus One Android 2.2

TWiT application on Android 2.2

LG comes with multi touch to zooming on the page is more convenient than that on the N900. I really never got the "screwing gesture". It was slow, awkward and didn't feel natural compared to pinching. So I used the volume rocker for zooming. This again was slow... Android renders the pages at least as fast as the browser on the N900. But! I have no idea why it takes so unbelievable long for the N900's browser to start loading the page even with ongoing WiFi connection! It takes several tens of seconds before it actually starts loading the page. The browser just sits there and renders it loading indicator back and forth for ages. I never understood this and it was driving me crazy. It was, in fact, one of the reasons to try the Android. And yes, Android will start loading the page as fast as you would expect with an ongoing connection - within seconds. Not even 5 seconds. Android also saves battery by disconnecting from the WiFi network when the phone is locked. I don't know if the N900 does a similar thing, since I really never had such batter issues with the N900.

Conclusion

I like Android. I like it a lot. It's not as restrictive as the iPhone, but still feels enjoyable to use even on this entry level hardware. From a N900 user's perspective this is really a shame, since technically I think that Maemo5 could have been as good as Android, but it just isn't. There are many small details, that extra piece of UX design here and there, smooth panning, the great service integration to Facebook, Twitter and Google's services that makes Android a clear winner over Maemo5. And for me, the unresponsive loading of pages with the browser was the thing that tipped me off the N900. That said, I don't think Nokia is stupid. I think they know all what I've said above. I think Nokia has all the potential in the world to come and strike back to compete with not only Android but also the iPhone. I had hoped that Maemo5 could have been this, but let's see how MeeGo will do it then.

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  • there are 3rd party browsers for the n900 .

    curious if have you tried Nitdroid?