Right now is an interesting time for smartphone buyers. While there's some undeniably excellent technology coming onto the market like the Samsung Galaxy S II, yet more big announcements are on the horizon.
Sometime later this year the iPhone 5 may or may not arrive, while Microsoft expects to release the "Mango" update to Windows Phone 7, which is getting better by the month.
Into this mix today comes something out of left field: a new phone sporting an OS you've likely never seen, on a handset with some design touches that truly set it apart from the crowded me-too Android market.
That phone is Nokia's N9, which Nokia is pitching as an "innovation piece" that "cuts through the clutter" of smartphone design.
The N9 lock screen: see calendar reminders and other alerts without unlocking phone
On the latter point, Nokia may have something: The N9 runs a simplified user interface that on first impressions looks like it wouldn't intimidate the less tech-savvy phone users. For example, home screens are reduced to three (one for apps, one for notifications, one for viewing which apps are open). Compare that to HTC's Desire, which was capable of 140 homescreens if you were really bored enough to set that many up.
The Nokia N9 also has no buttons. Well, it has volume switch and a lock button on the side, but the front is pure screen, which looks clean and Nokia claims is a world first. The 3.9in AMOLED screen has a curve and extends almost to the edge of the phone.
The worry with first generation phones that rely heavily on touch, especially when it's a first try with a new OS (we'll get to that in a second), is that it might look good, but the user experience is terrible.
On this note we have our fingers crossed. We only had a brief play with the N9 at today's media event - to switch between screens you swipe your finger from the edge of the screen, which seems like a logical way of getting around, but we just couldn't seem to get the phone to respond most of the time. It's important to note that we weren't using finished handsets, so we can't draw any conclusions until we get a non-production model to test.
The N9 lets some apps (music, web pages) run in the background.
Other noteable points include the fact that the phone is made from a special polymer (we're told it's the same thing ice hockey masks are made from) which has the colour running all the way through it. So in theory, scratches shouldn’t be as noticeable.
The N9 has an 8MP camera, and NFC so you can tap the phone against other NFC equipped devices like headsets to pair them, or other NFC phones to launch a multiplayer game (on supported games). There's no SD card slot though (the N9 comes with 16GB or 64GB storage).
The N9 has an OS different to everything else on the market. It's the first Nokia phone to run MeeGo, which sets it apart and also poses some big questions. On the upside, what we've seen of Meego on the N9 is reasonably logical. It mightn't be your cup of tea if you’re a power user who likes to treat your phone homescreen like a PC desktop. But from what we can tell so far, the interface is clean and easy to navigate.
You have to wonder though how often N9 owners will find themselves running into situations where they can't run popular apps. And with Nokia planning to bring out a phone running Windows Phone 7 (reportedly next year), how much of an ecosystem there will be for owners of MeeGo phones like the N9 to play with remains to be seen.