The first thing that you'll notice about the Maemo OS is that unlike most other smartphone OSes out there it is only works in landscape mode. The telephony and the Blocks game are the only parts of the UI that can work in portrait mode. The good news is that Nokia are already working on a firmware upgrade that should enable portrait mode throughout the interface. It should be coming to the market before the end of the year and we'll do everything we can to update our review once it becomes available.
Now about the actual user experience. Maemo 5.0 is organized in three levels rather than two. The extra step added between the homescreen and the main menu is reserved for the task manager and it's skipped if there are no applications running in background. What that means is the only way to open the main menu from the homescreen is to open up the Task manager first and then hit the menu shortcut.
We certainly get the logic behind that solution as you always have your open applications at hand. And it's not only different applications that go there - the browser windows are listed there as well for easy tab switching. Perhaps the developers were afraid that the applications, which always stay open, will fill up the available memory quite soon so they preferred to remind you of them every time you reach for the main menu to start a new application. Yet somehow we feel that giving the user the options for opening the main menu and the task manager separately would have been quite wiser - it certainly makes more sense for the advanced user.
The homescreen consists of four side-scrollable screens that are at your disposal to be filled with widgets. Tapping at the top right corner brings up the set-up key and upon pressing it you get to rearrange the widgets and add new ones as you please. You can even disable some of the screens to make the rotation quicker.
The task switcher displays thumbnails of your running apps so you can reopen one at the expense of a single click. Additionally you can close an application by simply pressing the top right corner of its thumbnail.
The main menu has two-tier structure unlike the flat menus that seem to be the trend nowadays. That means that you need to make an extra step to reach for the applications that Nokia deemed not important enough to sit on the main screen. Those sit in a scrollable list under the "More…" icon. That's another thing we found to be a bugger at times. We couldn't find an option for manual rearranging of the menu items either.
If you have been keeping track you would find many of the icons familiar - they are the same as in Nokia's latest S60 smartphones. The Nokia N900 also packs the kinetic scrolling that has been making its way to those devices (admittedly at a slower pace than what we users would have liked).
Exiting the main menu or going back a step is done by clicking somewhere outside the icons. This gets most people pretty confused at first but it's actually pretty comfortable once you get the hang of it. No need to reach for this or that corner - just press next to an icon and you are out.
On the downside if you didn't aim accurately for an icon the unpleasant result might be exiting the menu altogether.
Finally, we would like to mention a few things about the graphics and the performance. The Nokia N900 offers a decent amount of eye-candy with the apps getting blurry when a dialog pops-up and the wallpaper goes out of focus much the same way when you open the menu.
Also the homescreen behaves in a way similar to the Android handsets where the icons and the wallpaper move at different speeds to simulate great distance between them. It's not as flashy and shiny ala Samsung Jet but it's not too bad either.
The best part is that the Nokia N900 runs pretty smoothly with no lags or hold-ups. There is some waiting when opening data-intensive applications like Ovi Maps but the rest open in an instant. We'll have to see if that good first impression stands when we are done with the in-depth review, of course.