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Why the Nokia N900 is No Better Than an HTC Mogul — Updated

The original stylus was a crude hunting and gathering tool used by Neanderthals. A million years later, little has changed.

OK, I know the Nokia N900 is a much better phone than the HTC Mogul. Obviously the hardware and the OS it runs are light-years ahead of it. So if you’ll excuse the link-bait headline, I will proceed to explain why the N900 is a phone from a bygone era. The sodding stylus. UPDATE: The point of this post is to rant about the stylus, the N900 is obviously not an archaic phone by any means, and to suggest it was no better than the HTC Mogul is laughable, which is precisely why I thought readers would catch onto the sarcasm, apologies for any coronaries I may have caused.

I know Ewan loves and adores the N900, but even he can back me up on this. Just as having a serious smartphone without a 3.55mm headphone jack is a joke (yes, I’m looking at you G1, various BlackBerrys), having a smartphone with a stylus is becoming unacceptable. To the early adopters/mobilegeeks like me, it is a deal-breaker, and it’s only a matter of time before the disgust with the stylus seeps down to the general public (normobs as Ewan says).

I know some business men and women must be used to the stylus, as they’ve been using them since the days of the PDA. The stylus is like a security blanket for these people. But if they could have back the hours they devoted to learning the Palm Graffiti 1 & 2 alphabets and instead spent that time to learn how to play guitar, they’d be Randy freaking Rhoads by now.

The point is, that styluses (styli?) had their day in the sun. As did the rotary phone. As did the phone before the rotary phone where you’d pick up the receiver and say “Operator, get me #12!” But we are living in the age of glorious, gorgeous touch screens: the iPhone, Palm Pre, the HTC Hero, and the BlackBerry Storm (OK, just kidding about that last one).

About half the time I’m using my phone, I do so one-handed. I don’t operate it when I drive if that’s what you’re thinking, but rather when I’m carrying a cup of coffee, my lunch etc., so using a stylus is just out of the question.

Even with two hands, I hate the stylus. The act of sliding the ugly plastic wand out of the side of the phone is always the last resort. You try to think, “OK, this webpage only has two links I want to click, maybe I can get away with using my fingernail.” Then, invariably, you try again and again until you are so frustrated that you resign yourself to removing the stylus from its plastic cocoon.

Then you get to a website with fields. It’s too much trouble to go into a field put the stylus back, use the slide out keyboard, then remove the stylus again. So you try to hold on to they stylus by pinching it between your pointer finger and the side of the phone, as you attempt to type with your thumbs. Then of course, the stylus, awkwardly held in place merely by friction, tumbles to the filthy ground, and then rolls into the gutter. You then go to the nearest bridge or tall building and hurl your body towards the sweet embrace of the afterlife, a world with no stylus.

So I know that the N900 is a serious smartphone, and I’m sure that Nokia engineers were loathe to include a stylus. They would probably say “We had no choice, how else are you going to navigate the parts that need a delicate and precise touch?”

To which I would say: figure it out. Just figure it out, you’re the high paid engineer. We can put a man on the moon, but we’re still in the dark ages of mobile devices with the stylus. Actually, a little known fact, the original stylus was a crude hunting and gathering tool used by Neanderthals. A million years later, little has changed.

38 replies on “Why the Nokia N900 is No Better Than an HTC Mogul — Updated”

I never needed to use the stylus once, even forget it existed. It's an option for those that do WANT it, as there is no actual NEED for it. If you actually use the N900 you'll see the handset has been optimized for finger use. Nokia can't control the internet – they don't have control of who puts tiny hyper-links and not.

Try zooming in and hitting the hyper-link next time? Just a thought.

This is just plain silly. I've been using the Nokia N900 as my primary device for at least a week and have yet to even wonder where the stylus is, much less actually use it (or need it). Saying the phone is lame simply because a stylus is included in the package is, in my opinion, more absurd than the stylus being there in the first place.

I'm usually a fan of the opinions on this site, but I have to say, you're off on this one. You forget or ignore certain use cases where a stylus would be welcome for the N900. Its never necessary for tasks designed for the N900's touch UI, but remember that Maemo is just Debian Linux. So apps designed for your PC can easily run on the N900, though without a touch optimized UI. This means sometimes using the stylus.

I doubt the average user will try running Ubuntu debs on their N900, but the uber geek will, and they are the reason the stylus is there. It isn't necessary for 99.9% of all tasks, but useful for the rare times you want to try some desktop app on the go. I suggest leaving the stylus at home or docked in its port for the week, and you'll see its not needed, and could've actually been left off the list were it not for the heritage of its geeky adopters.

Ricky and Abul, I agree wholeheartedly.

The headline and the whole N900 was meant to be a joke to set up a rant about styli, and I thought the first paragraph explained that. I'll update the post to be more clear.

We have been using the wheel for millions of years too…
Should we stop, Mr. Selvidge?
Should Nokia engineers figure that out too?

It's not actually. It comes in handy, when you want to draw asian characters, drawings, or play certain games. It can be comfortable while browsing some websites, even if it is not required.

Designing a mobile UI that requires a stylus is ridiculous, but including a stylus in the package anyway does no harm whatsoever.

The iPhone, Palm Pre, or HTC Hero obviously do not include a stylus, but styli don't even work on their screens. The capability to use a stylus for precision or comfort when it would be useful is one of the few strengths of resistive screens, not a weakness.

For the far east marketplace, I definitely understand the requirement to be able to draw asian characters. For everywhere else, no: design a better UI.

I don't see what's wrong with including a stylus with a phone. If you don't want to use it then don't. People who want to use it can do so. It's not like it costs anything to include.

I mostly use my fingers on touch screens but now and again I like using the stylus. It's an advantage I look for when buying a new phone.

“Just figure it out, you’re the high paid engineer. We can put a man on the moon, but we’re still in the dark ages of mobile devices with the stylus.”

Sorry, all the hardware engineers are too busy sipping champagne in the back of their Maybach’s from all the crazy N900 stylus royalty cheques.

..If only fixing hardware design challenges were as easy as blogging about them.

I don’t get at all what you are saying. What has stuff like drawing programs to do with better UI? Sure you can do finger-painting, but sometimes you really want the accuracy of a pen. And just because I’m not from the far east, doesn’t mean that I would never want to input a Kanji. The point is, there are valid use-cases for a stylus. Having a stylus to enable these use cases is _not a bad thing_, however you twist it.

The important thing is, that the general UI never requires (or even suggests) the use of a stylus. And that’s a very separate issue from whether or not a stylus is included in the package.

Sensational headlines usually get the reader in, but usually end up with reader disgruntled, confused and leaving unless the article itself is crystal clear and there is a clear point being made.

Thanks for the update, this should help the others who were on the verge of a rant.

16 comments later, we're largely through with the anti-stylus backlash and have already hit the turning point. Clearly, from this point on, we're increasingly into the retro appeal of styli and it's unlikely that two weeks from now any self-respecting mobile device obsessive will want to be seen without one.

What a stupid rant. The screen is so high-res compared to other phones that you have the option of a stylus if you want to. Your finger or nail will still work fine though as you very well know.

If they left it out, you bet there will be people moaning about how inaccurate it is if you don't have a stylus.

What a stupid rant. The screen is so high-res compared to other phones that you have the option of a stylus if you want to. Your finger or nail will still work fine though as you very well know.

If they left it out, you bet there will be people moaning about how inaccurate it is if you don't have a stylus.

I really cant disagree more with this article. Just the fact that I cant run an application like liqbase without a stylus, or have to mess around with suedo pointer things, cause the majority of websites are built for high resolution inputs, means having the stylus there is a godsend. N900 is the ONLY device that has the foresight to offer a choice.

Ok, let me see… you say that N900 is lame because they had the option to INCLUDE a stylus? So, if they ship a N900 without the stylus, then… it's magic, the phone is great!

I really don't get it… give more options to the user, and they complain… I really don't get it…

I’ve had this debate with a friend and it’s insane. I’ve been using an Android phone for 5 months and just bought an N900 because having to zoom, zoom, zoom to click on anything on a website is just stupid. With the n900 and it’s stylus I’m effectively 5x faster. If I want to just play music or run finger friendly apps then fingers are fine however, I actually want to use my mobile device for more than play. I understand and agree that it’s fiddly to have to get the stylus out, put it away, get it out etc. but the usefulness far far outweighs this. Also I don’t think our absolutely wonderful web experience on the N900 would be possible if it weren’t for the stylus. Have you wondered why Android and iphone both have cut down web browsers that rely on pinch/zoom to survive? I think the N900 does a good job of not requiring you to use the stylus for most tasks (not like the n810 where the stylus was necessary) but I’m very thankful the stylus is there for everything else. Not having one is a deal breaker (see note above about moving from Android TO the N900).

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