Having come from a Nokia N900, I know what it is like to fully appreciate a full landscape qwerty keyboard, while being immersed in the wonderful and unique Maemo 5. Moving onto the next iteration of Maemo with the Nokia N9, I was suddenly troubled with an odd sense of pleasure from the souped-up OS in MeeGo-Harmattan, while having to deal with the not-so-intuitive N9 onscreen keyboard.
The N9’s keyboard isn’t terrible; compared with any iteration of Symbian, including the 808 PureView’s Feature Pack 2 keyboard, the N9’s is pretty decent, with excellent haptic feedback and smoothness while typing at speed. The trouble though is that it feels 80% finished. It is now left in its current state, which, while not bad at all, leaves the user feeling a little frustrated when they accidentally type ‘yoi’ instead of ‘you’ and the rather bizarre word-suggestion pop up gives you ‘yogurt’? I mean, really? There isn’t any excuse for that in my view. But then again, if Elop barged into the MeeGo development rooms and swept everyone out with his multi-coloured Lumia broom before they had a chance to tighten things up, well, you can’t say it’s the fault of a shoddy OS.
The OS is actually what brings me back to my N9 every time I switch my main simcard into something else, be it the 808 PureView for some hardcore photo sessions, or even into my ancient N95 8GB or E75 for some moments of S60 nostalgia. The sim goes back into the N9 when I need some sanity and I need to be able to switch between apps quickly, effortlessly and without much thought, and certainly with zero frustration. So it does make you wonder then, if the OS is so compelling, what if you could have that without the need for the part-baked onscreen keyboard? How about the awesomeness of MeeGo-Harmattan with the awesomeness of a wonderful Nokia E7-like landscape qwerty? Enter the, the totally unavailable but amazing, Nokia N950.
I believe the “N950” was first mentioned by Maemo-supporter but now ex-Nokia CTO Rich Green during one of the mop-up sessions following Elop’s now infamous announcement on February 11th 2011. There, Green described the N950 as coming along well with some “very elegant hardware”. Of course, N900 fans like myself began drooling over what would be coming later that year, imagining an E7-like design running Maemo 6 – it was almost too much! Then Green left the company for “personal reasons” (which we all guessed was really because he loved MeeGo-Harmattan too much and couldn’t stand to promote Microsoft’s Windows Phone, a non-Nokia OS) and suddenly things started to fall apart a bit over on Talk.Maemo.org. The forum was almost boiling over with months’ worth of speculative posts from those who thought they knew something, those that were merely hoping and wishing, and others who were bashing those that thought they knew something! It was a bit of a mess over there for a while, mainly because some more informed than others knew that the next iteration of Maemo, the “5th device of 5” may not actually have a, *cough* physical qwerty keyboard. WHAT??! No!! How on earth could we be expected to go from the N900 to the N950 and NOT have a physical qwerty?? For some, myself included, the thought was almost nauseating. To think that Nokia had really sold out to the iPhone craze of onscreen keyboard only, to imagine entering code in Terminal without those precious chiclet-style keys… things got very heated on TMO. But it was as entertaining as it was worrying!
Then, not long before the official unveiling of the N9 in Singapore that June, it transpired that there would actually be two devices, one with a hardware keyboard (rejoice!) and one without. So we would be able to choose! Oh what a relief. I was worried there for a second. Huh? Excuse me? What did I just read? That the hardware qwerty one would not be released? That it would be given to developers only? What in God’s name is going here?!!
And… the rest is history. Now the N950 remains part of mobile phone legend, in the hands of the gifted, or (as in my case) in the hands of the lucky moocher! Those who genuinely own the N950 most likely do so because of their contribution to the Maemo community and are/were/still are contributing tweaks, apps, mods for the N9 and N950 (and even N900) community. Others, like me, are only lucky to hold one and experience it because of the generosity of owners such as Arie and Jimmy who were nice enough to lend me their’s for a while. It remains a rare beast, although they do occasionally pop up on eBay for $2000 sometimes. Not exactly something you can stick in your basket along with the Star Wars trilogy.
So what of the N950? This is my second time with one, the first was last summer after Arie kindly sent me his to play with for a week. Actually it was mainly so I could physically see and confirm that the thing did, in fact, exist! This one belongs to Nokia Innovation, so thanks again to Lenny and Jimmy for arranging this one for me to play with.
I’ve had this N950 for around two months now, and it has been such a great device to have at home locked on WiFi, but also with a sim out and about. Mainly because I get the familiarity and ease of using MeeGo-Harmattan, but with the option of sliding out the amazing qwerty keyboard for those emails, texts and tweets. But are there any other differences?
My N9 is well over a year old by now, and it has been through a few reflashes, and has had plenty of tweaks and apps installed. I’ve overclocked it to 1150MHz, but it does still feel a little slow at times, especially when opening apps. The N950 on the other hand is silky smooth and a great deal quicker than my N9. Now to be fair, the N950 has about 6 apps loaded on including Tweetian for Twitter, Meeshot for screenshots to name but a couple, so one might expect it to be fast just because it’s not full of bloat. Perhaps. But there are a few things that remain a niggle to the perfectionist like myself, and one of them is video playback.
I remember thinking, back in January 2011 after updating my N9 to PR1.1, wow, this phone is so amazing, and I love how it plays back videos, so smooth, so stutter-free. Then along came PR1.2 and ruined video playback, which remained unfixed with PR1.3. There will be no PR1.4 by the way. So what we’re left with is a greatly improved OS with hundreds of bugs fixed and new features in the camera UI and other areas of the OS, but the video playback remains stuttery and annoying. This is no different in my experience with the N950.
Another thing that urks me about the N950, and the one thing that kind of puts me off using it as a main device, is the fact that there is no (surprising really) proper baked-in support for landscape mode. In fact, when you flip the keyboard out, nothing on the screen changes! So, of course, you install Homescreen Settings from the Nokia Store and voila! The screen now rotates to landscape… but only sometimes. That’s because some built-in apps and screens don’t/won’t rotate to landscape, so it can be hit or miss. Settings, for example doesn’t rotate, and Facebook does but only when it feels like it. This can be rather off-putting, and one can’t help but wish for the kind of E7-style entire OS support for either portrait or landscape mode for everything, at any time. But then you remember you’re holding a phone that was never released to the public and that has “Not for resale” printed on the back of it, and you have to consider that you’re just damn lucky to be looking at one in the first place!
Those gripes aside, it is an remarkable piece of hardware. To be able to not only navigate through the swipiness of Harmattan, but to also type a long email out on a proper keyboard (avoiding ridiculous word suggestions because that seems to turn off when the keyboard is out) is the best of both worlds. It made me power up my E7 again after a long stint in the sock drawer, just to be able to tweet and email using real keys. It made me yearn for and ultimately buy an E6 for the same reason, even though it’s in a different form factor. It made typing on my N9 ever-so-slightly more annoying, because I know that there is an option out there which allows MeeGo and a real qwerty. Except that there’s not really. Which is a shame.
The Nokia N950 will remain the phone that never was. As 2013 marches on, and Nokia continue to improve their portfolio of Windows Phone devices, I’m sure the N9 and the N950 will continue to disappear out of the mindsets of the average phone geek. We have BlackBerry back in force (sort of), a Jolla phone to look forward to, and the specs of current Android phones seem to be catching up to those of the supercomputers at Nasa. But for the loyal fans of the Linux-based OS, those who knew (and know) what it’s like to multitask on an N900, I think the N9 and the N950 will stride on through the year doing just fine.
Because if you’ve got one, you just know.
Here are some simple comparison shots taken with the Nokia N9 and the N950. There’s not much difference as far as I can see, but maybe you can. Both phones were set to Auto and 7MP.