The Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia has had a bumpy couple of years as it struggles to come up with smartphones to match Apple's iPhone.

Last year's effort, the N8, didn't set the world on fire and Nokia's third quarter figures reflected this, with a 39 per cent drop in smartphones sales.

Nokia is however soldering... err, soldiering on under new CEO Stephen Elop, formerly of Microsoft. His three-pronged plan of attack means the Finnish company will pin its hopes mainly on Windows Phone devices while it continues to sell Symbian-based ones like the N8, and the odd man out, the beautiful N9.

Here's the funny thing: Windows Phone developers I've talked to love the N9 and tell me it's a "hero device". That means the N9 is the phone from Nokia, the one that'll wow and win the hearts of audiences who in turn will open up their wallets.

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That's great, except the N9 runs MeeGo, a Linux derivative, and not Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 operating system. This seemed a little strange until Nokia released its Lumia Windows Phones: the Lumia 800 looks identical on the outside to the N9, and shares some of features of the latter.

The Lumia 800 isn't yet available in New Zealand but the N9 is, through Vodafone, costing a dollar shy of a full grand.

For that money, you get a gorgeous looking device - my review N9 is black, with a smooth polycarbonate body and a slightly curved 3.9"screen. There are only two buttons, a volume rocker and the power one.

Apart from that and SIM slot plus USB connector covers, nothing sticks out or opens up. You can't get to the battery, and there's no way of adding more memory through an SD card, although the N9 has an ample 16GB of storage.

The touch screen is a standout, with 480 x 854 pixel resolution, scratch-resistant "gorilla glass" and ClearBlack display which is glued to the glass itself.

Although the resolution is slightly lower than for the iPhone 4 and 4S, the screen on the N9 compares well to Apple's offering. It's bright and viewable in sunny daylight, has great colours and is responsive too as you poke at it with your finger.

MeeGo and its associated components provide a clean, modern interface that's up there with Apple's efforts. The N9 is easy to use, simpler than the Symbian^3-based N8 with its multiple screens and convoluted text input.

A single-core 1GHz processor is only so and so in 2011, but the N9 operating system seems happy with that and 1GB memory. The phone doesn't lag as switch between apps and features by swiping up, down and sideways and the operating system multi-tasks effortlessly. Compared to most Android phones and the first-generation Windows Phone 7 ones, the N9 is heaps better (and, it does copy-and-paste too).

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Nokia loaded the N9 with many useful apps, including a full complement of social media ones. Twitter, Facebook, Google Chat, Nokia Maps, YouTube, document editing, are all on the phone as you buy it, and they work well too.

The browser on the N9 copes well with today's web, but the email client is only average, unfortunately. Yes, Angry Birds has been ported to the N9 too.

Cameras in phones are becoming very good indeed, and Nokia put an 8Mpixel device in the N9, with a fast, f/2.2 lens from German optics specialists Carl Zeiss. It takes great pictures and 720p high-definition video, but to be fair, the older Nokia N8 is slightly better.

Near Field Communications or NFC debuts with N9 too: this lets you turn Bluetooth devices on and off, and I tried it with the BH-505 wireless phones. It works fine, but until NFC becomes more common for things like tap-to-pay, info kiosks, and exchanging virtual business cards, it's more of a gimmick than a useful feature.

The N9 is indeed a "hero phone", the one that Nokia needed last year to show the world that it can design drool-worthy smartphones. Unfortunately, Nokia's switch to Microsoft's Windows Phone has hobbled the N9. It won't be sold in mega-markets such as the US, UK, Japan, and Germany which will get the Windows Phone devices instead.

Nokia says the N9 and MeeGo "will become part of our more longer-term exploratory research done in our labs" and promises to support the phone for the next few years with updates.

A peek in the app store shows not a great many programs. The synchronisation client for Windows is Spartan and buggy compared to Nokia's Ovi suite for the N8, making the N9 feel... not abandoned maybe, but in need of further attention.

As MeeGo is based on Open Source Software, it's possible that Linuxistas could step in, with existing apps. That however, might stick in the craw of Nokia's new business partner, Microsoft.

The N9 is a very nice device that offers a welcome alternative to Apple, Google and Microsoft phones. Shame then that Nokia is so ambiguous about it.

For more details:

http://www.nokia.co.nz/find-products/all-phones/nokia-n9?intc=ncomprod-fw-ilc-hero-n9heroonhp_756x252-na-nokiacom-nz-en-1todtmtfb86f8


Nokia N9
$999 (Vodafone, handset only)
Pros:
Great touch screen
Beautiful design
Responsive
Excellent camera
Full range of features
Useful suite of apps preloaded

Cons
Pricey
Poor support for desktop synchronisation
Uncertainty over future support