Nokia N8 vs N900 or Symbian vs Maemo Pt1

Back in November 2009, I purchased a Nokia N900. Today Amazon.com still thinks it’s a good device and is listing it at $549, $150 more than the Nokia N8 and $60 more than the Nokia E7. Even the cheapest new one in the market place is $499.

In many ways it’s a shame that Nokia didn’t release more Maemo devices, and to use an Elop phrase, Nokia made a big bet on Symbian. So today, in 2011, could I in honesty, recommend someone pays $499 or more on a one off device like the N900 over an N8 or an E7?

This is the first of a few posts on this and to start with I’ll be comparing the software, with the hardware coming in another post so lets look at this through a few categories and see what we have.

Software (Symbian vs Maemo)

Home screens

The Symbian home screen can take 6 widgets all of which are of fixed size and has status icons at the top in portrait mode and the bottom in landscape. It has 2 large soft-key buttons at the bottom. You can change widgets by long-pressing a widget or empty space and choosing to add one, picking from a list which one to add. To add shortcuts you need to add them to a shortcut widget. There are 3 home screens and they can be themed and have animated backgrounds. In the current iteration of Symbian 3, swiping across a home scree moves the home screen after the swipe, not with it. You can change profiles or open the main menu from the home screens and when you exit an app it takes you to the first home screen.

Maemo 5 has variable size widgets and can take as many of them as you want on any of the 4 home screens/ desktops. However, the desktops only work in landscape and don’t switch to portrait on rotation. You can add widgets, shortcuts and bookmarks directly to the desktop by long pressing in a space on the screen, then opening the desktop menu and choosing to add an object. You can also change themes and wallpaper from there. It supports widgets that go to a setting directly (i.e they turn on and off Bluetooth) rather than go through a menu. The top left has a clock and various bits of status info.

Verdict – Despite lacking rotation, the Maemo 5 homescreen is more capable. One thing I love about it is how easy it can e to set up a home screen for a scenario, like driving, where you need everything to be only a touch away.

Driving desktopMy driving homescreen, with shortcut to call someone, a shortcut to Maps, and widgets for the Music player, Location widget, Bluetooth and the FM Transmitter-yes those last 2 are widgets, not shortcuts, and act as toggle buttons to turn Bluetooth and the FM transmitter On and Off – One touch to do this is great when I’m driving.

Menu’s

Symbian has a folder based menu structure and all menu areas are set out similarly. You can move apps between folder or get rid of them and have a single wall of apps if you want.

Maemo has a “Wall of apps” type menu and the settings app or other apps with menu’s in are all a bit different. You can install an app to put apps into categories if you want (catorize), although this is automated and you can’t move the apps around. Native organization is limited to changing the order. To close the menu, click on empty space – it’s simple, but not intuitive at first.

Maemo MenuSymbian Menu

Verdict: This really is personal preference and probably I’m somewhere in between, I like some form of organization and ability to customize my menu’s so Symbian get’s this one, though with the higher resolution, it does look better on Maemo.

Multitasking

Both systems handle multitasking very well, an allow you to close your open apps from the task view. In Symbian, that is a card view and you scroll through the list. In Maemo, there is a grid layout with cards resizing depending on the number of open apps. After 12 apps it will start scrolling.

Verdict: Maemo has an excellent task switcher and so takes the biscuit on this occasion

Phone and Communications

Symbian covers this pretty well and the phone book, dialer, email and text solutions are pretty good, plus there are a variety of VOIP apps like Fring, Skype and Nimbuzz to choose from. The Conversations view for texts in Symbian 3 is a welcome edition.

Maemo was called a mobile computer rather than a phone by both Nokia and reviewers everywhere, but it still had a few tricks up it’s sleeve on this. Just start typing from any home screen to get contacts, deep integration of Skype and IM services such that Skype calls show up like normal calls and IM’s show in the conversations view along with texts. Worth noting you can do video chat using Skype with Maemo. The Email solution isn’t as good here as in Symbian 3 though and MMS is available through a community provided app.

Verdict: Tie

Music and Media

Maemo 5 and Symbian both have extensive media format support and a easy to use media player. They both support DLNA access too, as well as Internet radio (the Symbian version is 100 times better than in Maemo) and an FM Transmitter, although Symbian adds built in FM radio support as well, but there is an FM Radio app available for Maemo. TV out is also available in both platforms. All in all, things look pretty good for both platforms media capabilities. So it’s really about the interface now.

Symbian has a clean and basic interface, with only play/pause, forward and back buttons on screen with other options in a menu. There are a variety of ways to browse your collection, playlist support and equalizer settings available there. I like that you can flick through the list, or grab the scroll bar to quickly move through the tracks to one with a given letter. Lastly, the lock screen can display your currently playing track.

Symbian Music PlayerMaemo also has a clean interface with a bit more interactivity on the main screen, adding in shuffle and repeat buttons, and by clicking the album art, you can toggle between showing the current track info and the current playlist with current track highlighted. You can browse by Genre, Artist or Album and there is also playlist support, though creating playlists is very messy and unintuitive. There are no other settings like equalizers or anything like that and browsing by touch is harder as you can’t use the scroll bar and see a letter to move quickly through – it’s either repeated flicking or using the keyboard to type in the letters on the artists name.

Maemo Music Player

Verdict: I prefer the main player interface on Maemo, but doing things away from that main player view is easier in Symbian, which also has a few more features. Symbian wins.

Web Browsing

A bit of a no-brainier. In Symbian today, you have to get Opera to get a decent browsing experience. Maemo has an excellent browser in it with full flash support. It’s easy to use and has no problem rendering complex pages. Firefox and Opera are available, but you don’t have to get them to have a great experience out of the box.

Verdict: Maemo wins – the native browser is simply better.

Maps

Ovi Maps on Symbian and Ovi Maps on Maemo are different applications and while they may use the same map and share some features, there is no contest here, the Symbian version is much more compete and functional. It’s one of Nokia’s unique selling points and flagship phone apps and deservedly so. The Maemo 5 version is OK, but has no voice navigation.

Verdict: Symbian – it’s just better

Games

This one is only going to go one way and it’s a bit harsh really. Perhaps it would be different if Maemo had been on a device with a capacitive screen which supported multi-touch. Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need multi-touch to write games and Angry Birds works well, but there are a lot of games where you need it and that hampers gaming on the device. The games I have played so far on Symbian look every bit as good as they do on Maemo, and it has more of them available.

Verdict: Symbian wins – it has more and despite lower resolution, the capacitive screen makes it better equipped for gaming.

App Stores

Symbian and Maemo both use the Ovi Store, though Symbian has a lot more support there. Maemo’s best source of apps is arguable the Maemo community via the Application Manager app. There are some really good apps in there to go along with some very nerdy apps as well and the community have done a great job in providing some very useful apps and widgets.

Symbian has thousands of great apps though there are gaps to be found in the list. I can’t find a free pedometer widget (without having to run wellness diary in the background), a good free data monitor, or a text editor (i.e one that will open any file as text and allow you to edit and save it) of which the Maemo community has plenty. However, it is clear Symbian has the more robust app catalog right now. With QtQuick, both platforms should be getting a boost.

Maemo Application Managerverdict: Symbian – Nice as the application manager and Maemo community are, Symbian has far more choice for mainstream apps.

App Development

It is as incredibly easy to write a Qt app and have it run on your device with Symbian – no usb networking required like Maemo needs. That is the major use case. It is worth stating though, that a secondary use case is ability to develop on the device and Maemo is great at that – open a text editor and write your QtQuick, and use QMLViewer to run the file right a way, no PC needed. Community support exists for python too so it makes Maemo a great developer tool.

verdict: tie

Uncertain Futures

Symbian is to be replaced by Windows Phone as Nokia’s major smartphone platform.  However, Stephen Elop said yesterday that it will be supported until 201, which also must mean a good few new devices.  So Nokia will support Symbian for a while longer yet and update and improve it, though the Windows Phone train is coming and so there is an expectation app developers will slow down in their development for the platform.

Maemo has seen it’s one and only device and has received it last official update already.  Support is provided by the Maemo community and the Community Supported Software Update is in the testing area and will bring some more features to the platform.  Beyond that is the next evolution with Nokia’s upcoming MeeGo supported device (supports MeeGo but may not have stock MeeGo), which will also be a one off, even though it’s undoubtedly an exciting one.

Ultimately, Windows Phone is where the long term future is likely to be.

Verdict: Symbian, we know it will continue to be updated and improved

Conclusions

So first off, here’s the count (1 each for ties): Symbian: 9  Maemo: 5

Ultimately Symbian is the more capable platform for most users, but for power users or perhaps users less in to gaming then perhaps blogging or something.  People who want a phone from which they can browse the internet , use VOIP or manage a server, the N900 is great. However both platforms have a limited life and Maemo is basically unsupported now.  Symbian will be better for most users and with the Anna and Bella updates known about and Anna coming soon, these devices will get better, even with Windows Phone looming.

However, although the scores don’t reflect this, I realized that in most key areas, I regarded the Maemo UI as being better or as good, but ultimately the extra functionality in Symbian made the difference.

Read Part 2 here

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About bluechrism

I am a software developer with most professional experience in the Windows .Net realm and I'm currently a WPF developer with Starkey Labs. However, I have wanted for some time to start the mobile developer journey properly and being an N900 owner, this was to be in the realm of QT. Job hunting, moving to Minnesota and changing jobs put my plans on hold 6-12 months but things are starting to settle now, just as I'm getting sorted to start some things, Microsoft and Nokia merge. This blog is about my novice mobile development experiences and hopefully will end up complete with links to download some apps on various platforms, but obviously by the name, Sybian, Maemo/Meego and Windows Mobile. In other stuff, I am English, I support Everton FC, I have visited Glastonbury music festival 5 times and recommend it to anyone. I am married and my wife and i have a dog called Friday.
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