It's taken a long time for Nokia's MeeGo-packing N9 to make its way into our top secret labs (the N9 moniker was first applied to early E7 prototypes), but it's here in our dirty little hands, at last, and it's glorious -- well, as glorious as a stillborn product can be, anyway. The N9 is the latest and greatest in a long line of quirky, interesting, yet ultimately flawed touchscreen experiments from Nokia that includes the Hildon-sporting 7710, a series of Maemo-based "internet tablets" (770, N800, N810, N900) and most recently, the N950 MeeGo handset for developers. What makes the N9 special is that it represents Nokia's last flagship phone as an independent player. MeeGo is already dead, and future high-end devices from the manufacturer will run Windows Phone and use Microsoft's services.
Love at first sight -- this is possibly the most beautiful phone ever made. The N9 is in a class of its own in terms of design. You've never seen anything like it, and if you think it's attractive in pictures, wait until you see it in person -- it's completely and utterly irresistible. It manages to be elegant by virtue of its minimalism yet remains unmistakably Nokia. The impeccable proportions belie the handset's 12.1mm (0.48-inch) thickness thanks to tapered ends reminiscent of its more ornate predecessor, the N8.The finish looks matte and feels similar to anodized aluminum, but is significantly more durable. The back is slightly convex and features an oval chrome-finished (and scratch-prone) pod that's flush with the body and houses the slightly recessed eight megapixel autofocus camera. A dual-LED flash is offset to the left of the lens. The front is almost all screen with no buttons, and just a tiny slit for the earpiece on top. The 3.9-inch FWVGA (854x480) ClearBlack AMOLED display is phenomenal, rivaling Samsung's Super AMOLED -- text and graphics just appear to float on the panel, further refining the experience.
Eight megapixel sensor, Carl Zeiss F2.2 wide-angle autofocus lens, dual-LED flash and 720p HD video recording on a flagship Nokia phone? You know where this is going. While it's no match for the legendary N8, the N9 takes wonderful pictures. Color balance and exposure are spot-on, and shots always contain a huge amount of detail, thanks in great part to the superior optics. The sensor appears to be quite small, however, which somewhat affects dynamic range and low-light performance. Like the N8, the N9 tends to preserve detail at the expense of some noise, leaving a bit of headroom for post-processing. The flash doubles as an autofocus assist light, but we sometimes experienced problems focusing in low light, especially with distant subjects. It provides continuous autofocus, touch-to-focus and automatic face detection, but lacks features that are quickly becoming standard on other handsets, such as panorama, burst and HDR modes.
MeeGo 1.2 Harmattan is such a breath of fresh air it will leave you gasping -- that is, until you remember that you're dealing with a dead man walking. It's impossible to dismiss what's been achieved here -- a thoroughly modern, elegant, linux-based OS with inspired design that's simple and intuitive to use, all developed in house by Nokia. Sure, it's at least a year too late, and it lacks a strong ecosystem, but still, it gives Windows Phone a serious run for its money. For one, it ships out of the gate with copy / paste and card-based multitasking. Additionally, it integrates a plethora of on-line services right in the core of the OS.