Nokia N900 browser demo & first-impressions [Video]

After our initial hands-on with the N900 – the video and gallery of which you can see here – we spent some more time playing with the Maemo 5 smartphone at Nokia World this week.  Our initial enthusiasm has been tempered a little by some of the real-world compromises that blending a smartphone and an Internet Tablet demand, though we're still looking forward to a full review unit; check out our hands-on impressions after the cut.Video demo after the cut

One thing we didn't have a chance to check for the first video – because the N900 couldn't grab a network connection – was the browser, and given this is being eyed up as a potential MID that was the first thing we tried this time around.  The N900's browser proved a mixed-bag, with pages loading quickly and rendering as on a desktop machine, even over a 3G cellular connection; however embedded video took much longer to show up, and then proved jerky in playback.  That's partly down to the crowded 3G of the expo but, as you can see in the video below, when we tried to hit the pause button or drag the transport button to back up and wait for more to download, actually grabbing the controls proved very difficult.  Having tried both YouTube video and our own streaming system, and having very mixed results on both, we're forced to hold off on declaring the N900 as any good for online video until we have a final production version and more typical testing conditions.

We're also not convinced by the circular-zoom, which is operated by tracing tiny circles on the resistive touchscreen with a fingertip.  Initially the browser starts to pan around the page, before recognizing the gesture; once it actually begins zooming, it can be tricky to get fine control over the level.  Since text doesn't seem to reflow, only get larger or smaller, that can prove frustrating; it's easier to double-tap on the text block and have the zoom automatically fit it to the page, but if it's a wide column you may have to zoom manually and then pan left to right in order to make out the text.  Like HTC's circular zoom control as in the TouchFLO 3D picture browser, changing the speed of your finger changes the speed of the zoom.

What seems an obvious way around the slightly tricky system would be to place a touch-sensitive zoom strip – again, like HTC have used on their recent WinMo handsets – in the blank plastic section to the right of the touchscreen (in landscape mode).  That could be easily controlled by the right thumb, with the left used to drag the page around.  We could also do without the overload of haptic feedback: yes, it's useful to tell you if you've clicked a link accurately, but the N900 buzzes every time you tap the screen.

As for the keyboard, the non-standard layout – particularly the offset spacebar – proved less of an impairment than the size.  Compared to the N810 Internet Tablet – comparison shots of which you can find in our first hands-on article – it's a very compact 'board, and given that the N900 is so obviously designed for two-handed landscape use we missed the larger keys of the earlier device.  We still like the tactile feel of the buttons, together with their slight doming, and there's reasonable travel, but pecking out longer text – such as for tweets or emails – was slow going.  We did improve over the two days we had access to the N900, but arguably were still not as quick as a touchscreen keyboard paired with the decent auto-correction you'll find on the iPhone or the HTC Hero.

Speaking of Twitter, given that the short-message service has become very popular among the tech community – and further abroad, of course – we tried out a couple of different ways of using the N900 as a mobile tweet device.  The standard site loaded okay, but an obvious issue was that the character counter only updated after a lengthy pause in typing; not much use when you're trying to stick within 160 characters.  Popular online client was more successful, though tweeting one-handed while walking was a no-go: the keyboard is simply too broad for that.

At several points during Nokia World, the executives we talked to described the N900 as a definite niche product and one they'd not be targeting to everyone.  It will, they say, be mostly sold online and SIM-free in "developed markets" - in fact it's already up for preorder in the US, priced at a smudge under $700 with a free Bluetooth headset – though it's more likely that European buyers will find it on sale subsidized with a contract.  Still, among that "developed market" the N900 is really aimed at an even smaller subset, they agreed, one which not only prioritizes the cutting-edge but has some interest in open-source flexibility too.  Maemo 5 – and the in-development Maemo 6, which should be released in around a year's time – is a distinctive and certainly powerful OS, but given the architecture issues (which you can read more about here) one of Nokia's key challenges will be drawing developers to yet another platform, or alternatively persuading them to make the investment in UI adaptation required to take desktop apps to a mobile device.

As we said initially, we're still enthusiastic about the N900, albeit tempered with some of our first-impressions.  There are still a few weeks before it hits shelves, and Nokia have confirmed that they're still tweaking the software, so it's not impossible that the platform might get faster and the browser video rendering slicker before production models go on sale.  We've been told to expect review units at some point in October, so we'll have a full review then; until that point, enjoy the gallery and video below, and check out our first hands-on with the N900 from earlier in the week.

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