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Nokia N9 review

The fulfilment of Nokia's promise of a thoroughly modern MeeGo smartphone is upon us

The Nokia N9 is, without doubt, one of the most fascinating phones of the last few years. The tale of its development and launch interweaves almost all the multivariate strands of the Nokia narrative. It is simultaneously the last big hurrah for the Nokia of old and the first showing of what the new Nokia, steered by Stephen Elop, is capable of. Much like the N8 and E7 that came before it, the N9 features an industrial design that sets it apart from the carbon copy smartphone crowd and marks it out as an unmistakeable Nokia product. Unlike its predecessors, however, the N9 shrugs off the aging, touchscreen-antagonistic Symbian operating system and moves to the long-awaited MeeGo Harmattan software.

As the first new Nokia smartphone to operate without the chains of legacy software, the N9 finally demonstrates some of that dormant software innovation from the labs in Espoo. I first saw it at Nokia’s introductory event in June of this year and, though my expectations were low, was blown away by how intuitive, responsive, and fluid the whole interface was. I wasn’t alone, either. Just about everyone who got a chance to play with the N9 remarked upon its superlative design and wondered aloud why Nokia was abandoning such a promising platform. Because, oh yes, Nokia had decided a few months earlier to transition its entire smartphone strategy to Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS and consign MeeGo to the status of a one-hit (i.e. the N9) wonder.

Today, the humble smartphone that made an unintentionally spectacular first impression is shipping in a limited release around the world and doing its level best not to disrupt Nokia’s big WP7 launch plans later in the month. That makes the N9 a niche product if you’re just after phone buying advice, but if you care about real advances in smartphone UI concepts and perhaps a hint of what we can expect in Nokia’s Windows Phones, you’ll want to read this review.

Hardware

Hardware / design

You've never seen polycarbonate look this good


I say this without any qualification: the Nokia N9 is beautiful. Everything about this phone’s design exudes elegance and harmony. Lines flow seamlessly into one another, fit and finish is perfect, and the feel in the hand is sublime. Aside from the intentionally squared off top and bottom, there are no straight edges on the N9. It’s evocative of supercar design in the way it simply transitions from one curve to another, albeit in the pursuit of a cohesive, unified look rather than aerodynamic excellence.

Nokia achieves its goal of a cohesive appearance by encasing the N9′s display and electronic parts into a single-piece polycarbonate shell. Polycarbonate may be just a fancy word for "plastic," but don’t underestimate its usefulness or quality. Even Lamborghini’s been happy to use the material in its lightweight Gallardo Superleggera and in the case of the N9 it really goes a long way to upholding the company’s reputation for durable and reliable construction. All three color options on the N9 are built out of a polymer that matches the external color, meaning that even as the phone picks up scratches and scuffs, you won’t see some superficial paint job peeling away, you’ll just expose more of the same blue, or pink, or black material. As Marko Ahtisaari, Nokia’s head of design, puts it, the N9 will "age elegantly."

It's evocative of supercar design in the way it transitions from one curve to another

I’ve used the N9 alongside an iPhone 4S and an HTC Radar over the last few days and would say it has the best ergonomics of the three. The aluminum-clad Radar often feels cold to the touch (because of its inherent thermal conductivity), while the iPhone’s glass surfaces and straight edges can’t match the N9′s smooth curvature and grippy texture. The N9′s Gorilla Glass screen slopes off at the sides, making it feel as if it were melted onto the phone’s body. The sensation of using it is exactly as divine as that analogy makes it sound. I would advise ignoring this smartphone’s relatively uncompetitive 12.1mm thickness — in day-to-day use, that just translates into an excellent user experience — and if you absolutely must have a spec to tout to others, the N9 is 5 grams lighter than the iPhone 4S at 135g (4.76 ounces).

There’s one solitary complaint that I must level at the N9′s external design and it relates to the two physical buttons located on its right side. The volume rocker and power / lock button are placed too close together and it’s oftentimes difficult to distinguish between them by touch alone. Neither offers much travel, which exacerbates the issue, though at least Nokia bundles in a nice silicone case that delineates between them by literally running a thin line of material between the two keys. That case is the only one in recent memory that I’d actually consider using on a regular basis — it’s extremely thin and doesn’t impede use of the phone in any tangible way. Yes, Nokia has even built the optional extra to a superb standard.

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Display

Display and internals

The blacks are so deep that you’ll be unable to recognize the boundaries of the display panel under the glass
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The aforementioned Gorilla Glass should reassure you that the N9′s screen will endure for quite a while. I’ve yet to discover a way to do any permanent damage to a Gorilla Glass screen and the one Nokia’s using here is no different. Sitting beneath that protective sheath and an anti-reflective polarizer is an 854 x 480 AMOLED display. At 3.9 inches, that gives the N9 a pixel density of around 251ppi, which is very similar to what you’d get from the 3.7-inch Nexus One / Desire by HTC and marks a significant upgrade over Nokia’s previous slab-shaped smartphones. Another similarity between the Nexus One and N9 is that both use a PenTile Matrix subpixel arrangement. In simple terms, that means you’re not getting as many subpixels as you would on a more conventionally arranged 854 x 480 screen, which in turn means you won’t be seeing quite as much detail as the resolution initially suggests. In my testing, however, I found this to be just a technical point with little practical impact. There’s no way to perceive the pixel layout with the naked eye (I had to zoom way in on some macro photos to verify the PenTile grid) and the N9 offers consistently bright, punchy color reproduction and typically wide viewing angles. Moreover, it lives up to Nokia’s ClearBlack Display branding by providing blacks so deep that you’ll often be unable to recognize the boundaries of the display panel under the glass. That seamless appearance plays a big role in making the N9 look and feel effortlessly graceful.

Where the N9′s AMOLED screen does falter is in its handling of white and light grey shades; they start to take on a blue hue when looked at from the side. Admittedly, I don’t make a habit of reading the web with the phone tilted away from me, but it’s a noticeable degradation in color fidelity that definitely knocks the N9 back a couple of steps from the superlative IPS display in the iPhone 4 and 4S or the equally impressive Super AMOLED Plus on offer in Samsung’s Android phone line. Another discernible issue is color fringing — the appearance of color at the very edge of white onscreen items — which is most apparent when looking at the standby clock (white numbers on a pure black background). These are things that you’ll inevitably spot over the course of owning an N9, but will they make you regret buying it? Probably not. There’s still a whole lot more good than bad about the N9′s display.

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One thing undermining the N9′s imaging performance is the phone’s inconsistent ambient light sensor. All too often it takes the shadow of your hovering finger as indication that the handset has moved to a darker setting and aggressively dials down the brightness of the display. The resulting and annoying fluctuation in brightness marks a jarring departure from the N9′s overall theme of harmonious excellence.

In moving to its polycarbonate unibody design, Nokia has had to make some tradeoffs with the N9′s internals. The most obvious and easily forgivable is the omission of the 12-megapixel camera from its predecessor, the N8. Not because that wasn’t a wonderful camera — it’s still the best picture-taking equipment that’s been attached to a phone yet — but the sheer size of its imaging and lens compartment would’ve broken up the N9′s gorgeous curves and led to a fundamentally different phone. Second on the list of understandable exclusions is a microSD card slot. Nokia offers a version of the N9 with 64GB of storage, so if you’re really after ample room in your phone, the missing expandability shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Only Apple’s iPhone 4S offers as much built-in memory and it also matches the N9 in another significant way: neither phone will accept a full-sized SIM card, with Nokia moving to a MicroSIM for the N9.

The final and most regrettable sacrifice Nokia has made with the N9 is a user-replaceable battery. Considering the loudspeaker occupies the bottom and the MicroUSB port and SIM door take up the top, there isn’t exactly a great deal of room to insert a battery door as well, but it’s still preferable to be able to swap a dead cell instead of the entire phone.

Battery life

Battery life, reception, and audio

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I was impressed by the N9′s battery life, particularly since it runs an aged and not particularly efficient OMAP3630 processor. The phone makes a habit of lasting over 24 hours on a charge, with typical use involving push notifications for Gmail messages and regular updating of the Events homescreen with Twitter updates. Idle power consumption is commendably frugal and, thanks to the AMOLED screen, Nokia is able to keep a clock and a set of notification icons permanently displayed on the standby screen without impacting longevity. More intensive task loads than my routine web browsing, photography, music playback, and occasional calls will inevitably shorten the time you can rely on the N9, but from what I’ve seen it’s safe to say that Nokia’s MeeGo phone is at least equal to, if not better than, the latest handsets running Android and Windows Phone. It’s tantalizing to contemplate what the N9 would’ve been like had Nokia been more generous with the battery (a distinctly average 1,450mAh) and opted for a more modern SoC like Qualcomm’s second-generation Snapdragon. Then again, that precise chip will most likely appear in Nokia’s upcoming Windows Phone range, which we’ve already seen features an N9 lookalike, so perhaps we won’t have to wonder for too much longer.

Capable of pentaband heroics, the N9′s antenna is buried somewhere deep inside that polycarbonate body. Its performance was broadly satisfactory, I didn’t experience any dropped calls, though call quality did degrade on a couple of occasions and I lost signal entirely in an area where I am typically able to maintain one or two bars with other phones. The N9′s also capable of HSPA+ speeds (14.4Mbps down, 5.76Mbps up), so if you’re on a compatible carrier — it has the requisite bands for both AT&T and T-Mobile in the US — you can look forward to some faster downloads while on the move. The other wireless connectivity options come in the form of 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, and NFC. The latter two are used to great effect in communicating with Nokia’s set of compatible audio accessories. You tap the N9 on, for example, the Play 360 speaker and the two automatically negotiate an A2DP Bluetooth connection and your music starts playing through the speaker almost immediately. Tap the two devices again, they do another information exchange over NFC, and the music playback switches back to the phone. It’s effortless and resoundingly cool to do.

As to actual audio quality, the N9 ranks pretty highly. Its earpiece and microphone are very clear in conversation (helped by a second mic that assists with active noise cancelation) and its loudspeaker does an admirable job as well. It does distort the sound at the top end of the volume range, but what’s truly notable about it is that there’s almost no way to physically muffle it. Mounted behind a grille at the bottom of the handset, it seems almost entirely unaffected if you try to block its outlet and sound seems to be coming out of the entire lower portion of the phone. When you think of the number of phones that come with an unofficial mute function that’s triggered by simply placing a finger atop the speaker grille, this is quite the feat. Nokia also bundles in a headset that produces very reasonable sound output, however the ear buds sit very loosely in the ear and offer no sound insulation. If you’re comfortable with pressing them into your ears to actually hear the music, then you’ll love them; otherwise, plan on plugging in a set of your own.

Tantalizing to think how efficient the N9 would be with a more modern and efficient processor
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Camera

Camera

Closeup shots are an undoubted strength for the N9



A large f/2.2 aperture allows the N9 to show off some pretty radical depth of field in its photos. Image sensors inside smartphones — the stately N8 excepted — are notoriously tiny, so the ability to blur out the background while focusing on an object in the foreground has generally not been available to phone users. It’s arguable that it still isn’t, however the N9 moves things forward in that respect. Its 8-megapixel camera is suspiciously similar in specification to the unit used by HTC recently, which shares the same maximum aperture and also opts for a wider-than-usual 28mm (35mm equivalent) focal length. Of course, the HTC Sensation XL, Titan, and myTouch 4G Slide that feature that hardware don’t come with a Carl Zeiss sticker, and there’s also a difference in the way Nokia and HTC process images. Still, the easy similarity between all those phones is that they take pictures quickly and are capable of capturing astounding amounts of detail.

More skill is required to get the best out of the N9′s camera than the typical smartphone. It has a few areas of distinct weakness, which you’ll want to be aware of and try to avoid, though they’re certainly offset by excellent results in the right circumstances. Closeup shots are an undoubted strength for the N9, with the leaf in the gallery above being a particular highlight. You can distinguish all the little strands running through it and noise is barely detectable, even at full resolution. That’s a level of quality that easily surpasses ordinary smartphone performance, however the N9 dips below the average on occasions.

Good to see continuous autofocus that works reliably

Most often, its struggles relate to light, either the overabundance or deficit of it. On a sunny day outdoors, the N9′s automatic settings (there’s no way to step down to a smaller aperture that I can see) can’t handle all the light coming through the lens, resulting in massively, almost artistically, blown-out highlights and, more worryingly, consistently overexposed photos. There’s a certain haze that’s apparent in quite a few of my sample photos and I did also notice the N9 getting its white balance wrong on occasion. The other side of the light coin is a lot more predictable: dim environments generate quite a bit of chromatic noise and Nokia, confident in the N9′s performance, opts not to blur it out with post-processing algorithms.

On the video front, the N9 outputs some very good 720p footage. As noted above, depth of field is a more relevant factor on the N9 than on most other phones, so it’s good to see that it features continuous autofocus and even better that it works with consistent reliability. It hunts around occasionally, but does so silently and only under low-light conditions or when tracking moving objects — areas where AF difficulties will occur even with professional cameras. Sound recording is done in stereo and the results are of a very high quality.

A couple of software foibles did become apparent while I was testing the N9′s camera. Firstly, it allows you to tap to select the area of focus, a good thing, but all its controls are overlayed on the screen and actually have rather small areas of touch sensitivity, a bad thing. What resulted for me was that all too often I’d relocate the camera focus to the top right corner when I was actually trying to open up the gallery. Moreover, in its effort to appear quick and responsive, the camera software will sometimes start recording even when the app itself doesn’t have enough resources or processor cycles available to do the job. That resulted in choppy video a couple of times, so multitasking your way straight into a video may not be the best idea in the N9 world.

Nokia also installs a very handy and surprisingly full-featured photo editor app. It does a lot of the basics that you’ll find in iPhoto: one-touch auto-correction, red-eye removal, rotation, flipping, straightening, cropping, and brightness and contrast adjustments. The aforementioned haze issues can therefore be addressed on the phone itself.

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Software

Software

Harmattan, Nokia’s own version of MeeGo, is built around three homescreens.

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The central one is equivalent to the app drawer in Android and unsurprisingly bears the name Applications; to the left of it you’ll find the Events screen, which prioritizes alerts like missed calls and unread messages at the top and then aggregates social networking updates below; and on the other side is the Open Applications overview where all your recently active apps are displayed in either a four- or nine-card grid. The cards themselves are just screenshots of the last view you had within each app and they’re continually sorted in the order of which they were accessed, with the most recent residing at the top left. This represents a refinement of the visual multitasking paradigm Nokia introduced in the N8 and works beautifully. A long press on any of the cards brings up little red boxes that can be used to shut down apps individually as well as the more drastic option to "Close All." Not that you’ll be spending much time closing down apps. The N9 is equipped with 1GB of RAM and happily ticked along even after I’d opened over 20 separate applications.

Though I described the Apps screen as central above, it’s only in the middle when you first access the phone. The three homescreens are arranged in a carousel and the whole UI is agnostic about which of the trio you choose to make your default landing page. Harmattan is intentionally designed to always, whether you’re exiting an app or unlocking the phone, take you to the last homescreen you were on. Marko Ahtisaari explains this decision on the basis that the last thing you did is actually the best predictor for what you are about to do. What this allows in practice is a superbly quick and easy multitasking experience. You’ll go through the Applications screen, open up the apps you want to use, then head over to the Open Apps screen and start jumping between them like the super-productive worker bee that you are.

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The N9′s onscreen keyboard is sublime. Every key is just about the perfect size, the comma and full stop sit either side of the space bar (where they belong), and there are three levels of haptic feedback. For the first time in my life, I didn’t switch off the haptic option, it actually contributes to the experience of typing exactly the way it was always meant to but never managed before this exceptional phone. I gave Nokia a hard time over its decision to offer a T9 layout when using the N8 in portrait mode, but the company has gone much further than simply adding a full QWERTY to the N9, it’s built one of the best software keyboards in the business. Bonus points are scored for the awesome mechanical typewriter sound effect that accompanies input. Retro-futurists in the crowd may take this moment to rejoice.

Swipe ui and lock screen

The thing that ties everything together on the N9 is Nokia’s new concept of a Swipe UI. There are no physical or capacitive menu buttons on the N9 because of this one devastatingly simple and equally effective innovation. Swiping in from any edge of the screen drags the app you’re in out of the way and brings up your most recent homescreen. It’s so easy and natural that I honestly started doing edge-swipes on other phones, an experience that filled me with equal measures of disappointment and embarrassment. The lock screen can be dismissed in the same fashion, but it gets a few extra bells and whistles of its own on top of that. First is the wholly novel idea of double-tapping the sleeping N9 to activate the lock screen. It replaces having to hunt for the lock button and facilitates what Nokia calls "better sloppy interaction." We don’t always have two hands to operate a smartphone with, and it’s rare that it’d ever have our full attention, so tweaks like the double-tap-to-wake are moving the technology we use closer to the way we actually use it. It works perfectly on the N9 and, like the swipe interaction, is simply better than anything else out there. Though these may seem like superficial features, they’re anything but.

The only thing truly missing from the Harmattan arsenal is a set of integrated media playback controls

Nokia keeps up with current lock screen trends by adding notifications both to the lock screen itself and to the standby screen (when the phone’s display is off other than for a clock). Notifications on the lock screen can be swiped laterally, unlocking the N9 directly into the relevant app. Sense 3.0+ and the upcoming version of TouchWiz give Android users links on the lock screen that let them unlock straight to a particular app and the N9 matches them with a four-icon app launcher. It’s accessed by swiping up from the bottom edge of the screen — whether on the lock screen or within an app — and just lingering for a moment near the middle. The four links available lead to the phone, messaging, camera, and browser apps. The only thing truly missing from the Harmattan arsenal is a set of integrated media playback controls. Android phone manufacturers have taken to building music controls into the operating system’s drop-down menu and the lock screen, while similar options are available in WP7 and iOS, rendering the N9 a laggard when it comes to serving music lovers’ needs.

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Style

It’s hard to overstate how much of a departure the N9 is from Nokia’s old comfort zone. Whereas the company’s previous effort at building a new touchscreen OS, once known as Symbian^3, was all too timid and reluctant to move too far away from its roots, this new MeeGo stuff has no qualms about dispensing with the old. If the N8 represented an uncertain, faltering first step toward customizable homescreens and a touch-centric UI, the N9 is a bold and assured leap. Instead of all the static screens and unedifying item lists of Symbian, Harmattan treats users to elastic animations at the end of scrolling or zooming actions, which need no explanation or thought — you simply get the message. Instead of the silly "Unlock" button, you can now dismiss your lock screen in any direction your heart desires. Even setting the time has been turned into a stylish affair with two concentric circles representing hours and minutes. It’s both quicker to set an alarm than punching in the numbers and exponentially more gratifying.

Aside from being significantly more useful and intuitive, the Harmattan UI is also spectacularly consistent. The shape of the app icons — a squared circle or a rounded square, depending on your preference — is pervasive throughout the phone’s interface. You see it in your contacts’ profile pictures, around lock screen notifications, when you use the magnifying glass for precise cursor placement, and even when waiting for something to load. Hell, even the Nokia Pure typeface, default on the N9, evokes that shape with the curvature of its lettering. The only other company that has shown this kind of immaculate care with keeping design themes consistent is Apple. Ultimately, what Nokia has put together in the N9′s UI is nothing short of a triumph. It feels cohesive and, remarkably, lives up to the fantastic elegance of the phone’s physical design and construction.

PErformance

None of the foregoing would be worth much if the N9 didn’t offer a responsive user experience. The good news is that when the N9 works properly it is the very embodiment of quickness, though the bad news is that it doesn’t work properly all the time. Let’s start with the good. From the moment you unlock the N9, screen animations flow around your finger like gentle waves of awesomeness. Transitions between homescreens, scrolling, and pinch-to-zoom are all delectably smooth and fluid. That applies to the full range of preloaded native apps, like the browser, maps, gallery, and mail and messaging clients. Both recording and playback of 720p video work flawlessly, and though there’s no Flash support in the default browser, the YouTube app does a perfectly fine job of playing back web content. If you’re really keen on Flash, you may also be able to track down a compatible version of Fennec, Firefox’s mobile build, which offers a more desktop-like browsing experience.

Unfortunately, I’ve been able to make the N9 freeze up for several minutes at a time on numerous occasions. This is down to a pair of causes. Firstly, the N9 tries to pull the old familiar trick of appearing ready for new instructions when it is in fact still loading things in the background. That’s an acceptable risk to take with a patient user, but I habitually clashed with short periods of unresponsiveness while that long-toothed OMAP3630 (the second cause) tried to figure out how to juggle the backlog of requests I was throwing at it. Fearing this mighty ability of mine to confuse and confound the N9, I began using it more slowly and deliberately — the diametric opposite of what Nokia is going after with its interface design. The point of the Harmattan UI is that it should allow you to use the phone effortlessly and without giving the interaction any thought, but the actual experience is hampered by imperfect software and inadequate hardware. Nokia is working hard on its first firmware update for the N9, one that reportedly totals over 3,500 fixes and feature additions, so perhaps the bumps I encountered may soon be ironed out.

Graphical performance, on the other hand, gave little reason for complaint. The PowerVR SGX530 graphics are more than good enough to play the preloaded games (Need For Speed: Shift, Galaxy On Fire 2, Real Golf 2011, and an NFC-enabled Angry Birds) at smooth, playable frame rates. None of those titles are exactly pushing the envelope the way Infinity Blade and Rage HD have done on iOS, but there’s enough pixel-pushing power to ensure that most current mobile games would be playable on the N9, if developers were actually willing and interested to port them over.

Apps

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The N9′s app ecosystem is the software equivalent of Chernobyl. It’s just not a place you (or any sane developers) will want to be in. Stephen Elop has personally shut the door on future consumer products running MeeGo Harmattan, which renders the N9 and its developer-focused sibling the N950 the only exhibitors of this essentially abandoned OS. Windows Phone is where Nokia is refocusing all its efforts and you can bet that the great customer loyalty the company engenders will be following suit. Ergo, if a developer wants an audience for his app, he’ll be studying up on how to make it work with "the third ecosystem" and ignoring the aborted MeeGo. What you get in the box with the N9 is likely to be as good as you’ll ever have it. That’s a shame not only because the N9 deserves a better fate than Nokia is saddling it with, but also because the Qt development framework held a lot of promise. Nokia made a big push last year to enlighten devs on its flexibility and the ease with which apps can be ported between MeeGo and Symbian devices, which is evidenced on the N9 by the presence of JoikuSpot, a longtime Symbian mainstay, as the preloaded Wi-Fi Hotspot app.

Aside from having a toxic future, the N9 is actually pretty well stocked in terms of the major functionality you’ll need from a smartphone. Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Flickr, and Picasa apps are already installed when you boot up the phone, and there’s a Google mail and chat client built in as well. Exchange support will let you sync mail, contacts, and your calendar, with the N9′s split calendar layout being one of the most functional out there. The N9 will also collect and merge the multiple contact details of your friends automatically, populating their contact cards with their Skype, Twitter and other social networking handles just as soon as you log into those services. The N9 is a feature-complete smartphone, make no mistake about it; I just wish its future was a little brighter than its pitch-black AMOLED display.

Video review

Video review

The N9 is flawed and doomed, but you have to understand, I don’t care. The overriding experience of using this phone is one of delight and desire. Yes, it can get bamboozled and freeze up, and no, you won’t be finding an avalanche of awesome new apps for it, but those downsides fade in comparison to the abundance of positives. The Harmattan UI is fresh, slick, and as natural as anything the smartphone world has yet introduced, while the physical design is unmatched. Not even the shiny new iPhone 4S feels as luxurious in the hand as the N9. I started off by comparing Nokia’s latest handset to a supercar and the parallels run deep. Like Italy’s finest mechanical produce, the N9 won’t be found in many shops, has a tendency to break down, and inspires an emotional rather than pragmatical response. There’s an added underdog charm in knowing it has been discarded by its maker and deemed unworthy to carry the Nokia crown. I’m unwilling to describe that decision as a mistake until I’ve seen Nokia’s Windows Phone range that will be introduced later this month, but one thing’s for sure: the N9 has delivered on Nokia’s promises of 2010. It’s just a shame that the Nokia of 2011 didn’t believe in itself enough to see them through.

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