Nokia caused a stir this week with the revelation that it would return to the consumer hardware business with an all-new 7.9-inch Android tablet called the N1 which, it has to be said, bears a striking resemblance to Apple’s iPad Mini – even down to the milled aluminium, rounded corners, and the appearance of the volume buttons, speakers and charging port. In fact it’s almost impossible to tell the two tablets apart; a canny move in a market flooded with cheap Android tablets which all look and function the same. The N1 is expected to launch in China by February 2015, priced at around $250.
Why has Nokia decided to get back into hardware now, and what are its chances of success?
Nokia teases with a mystery black box
The Finnish company may have sold off its struggling smartphone division to Microsoft in an effort to overcome its financial struggles, but it seems they are not content to sit back and let everyone else eat their once-very-profitable lunch.
The first clue that something was afoot was when the company tweeted “we’re up to something” accompanied with a picture of a small black box and a tantalising launch date. Would it be a mini PC or some kind of TV set top box?
It was ultimately revealed on Tuesday that the black slab was simply the packaging containing the Android-powered N1.
Rise from the ashes
You could be forgiven for thinking Nokia was dead and buried, at least as far as smartphones are concerned. The company sold its loss-making hardware division (and 25,000 employees) plus the Lumia brand to Microsoft this April for £4.6 billion, soon after which the Nokia brand was dropped entirely from Lumia smartphones. Nokia seemed destined to be relegated to mobile network equipment manufacturer (albeit a profitable one), so it was something of a bombshell when the N1 was announced this week.
Under the terms of the Microsoft deal Nokia was restricted from making smartphones only until the end of 2015. Since the N1 is a tablet the restrictions don’t apply, and Nokia is also free to give Windows Phone the cold shoulder and use Android instead. Judging by Nokia’s official N1 website the end result is an incredibly sleek-looking device, but one that can’t escape the obvious comparisons to the iPad Mini.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Nokia Technologies President Ramzi Haidamus said that Nokia plans to return to the smartphone business eventually:
We will go beyond tablets for sure….we will be looking at going into the cell phone licensing business post-Microsoft rights
The N1 will be manufactured and promoted by Taiwanese mega-corp Foxconn, who is also responsible for building most of Apple’s devices. Nokia doesn’t have suitable manufacturing capabilities anymore, so it plans to license the design and brand to Foxconn; presumably, this arrangement could extend to other companies in future too. There’s no word yet on whether the partnership will upset Apple, who has a tendency to penalise or switch production from suppliers who invade its turf (Samsung).
In an industry that’s estimated to be worth $80 billion by 2017 with 460 million tablets shipped worldwide, Nokia obviously believes it can make an impact despite a slowdown in tablet sales in the past year. With Foxconn’s huge manufacturing capabilities and Nokia’s expertise in mobile hardware and network technologies, the Finnish company still has enormous potential to create some brilliant new devices. Bring it on!
Is the N1 simply an iPad copy?
The last tablet made by Nokia was the plasticky but colourful Lumia 2520 which ran Windows RT 8.1, in December 2013. But with the N1, they have followed Apple’s successful philosophy by creating a tablet that is slim (at just 6.9 mm thick), attractive, and that uses high quality materials like aluminium. On first impressions it looks the business but reception by the tech press has been mixed – some have called it dull while others have praised it. Is it just a svelte iPad copy running Android or is there anything that will appeal to consumers when it’s available in 2015 (besides the price)?
The Nokia N1 has a 7.9-inch LCD screen with a decent 2048 x 1536 pixel resolution of 326 pixels per inch, all of which is powered by a 64-bit 2.3 GHz Intel Atom CPU with PowerVR graphics, 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage. Intel will be pleased that more tablets are starting to use its Atom chips, as it was caught off guard in the first wave of tablet growth (some analysts even think Intel could conquer the tablet market in 3 years).
The N1 is one of the first devices to sport the smaller USB Type-C connector – a new type of reversible USB port which is uncannily similar to Apple’s Lightning connector. Other notable features include stereo speakers, Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, an 8-megapixel rear camera and a 5-megapixel one on the front. The hardware specifications and features are up to scratch so it should be close to the iPad Mini 3’s performance (though it’s hard to compare based purely on specs like CPU and memory capacity because Apple’s chips are notoriously powerful despite slower clock speeds and less RAM).
Like many other tablets, the N1 runs Android and is said to use a customised skin atop Android 5. The most innovative feature is perhaps Nokia’s “Z Launcher” which constantly learns which apps and websites you use the most and arranges them onscreen accordingly. Essentially, it’s an attempt at an adaptive user interface that makes it easier to navigate and find relevant information more easily. Users can also just scribble a few letters on the screen to find relevant items.
Nokia believes that Z Launcher provides very real benefits, but is just one of the dozens of usability improvements the company is working on:
We’re constantly making small changes that add up to something bigger and better for all of our users. We look at obvious things; such as ways to minimize memory usage on specific handsets, especially ones with lower memory capacity so that those phones will perform better. We also look at more obscure things like “finger tracking latency”, or the time it takes between when you move your finger on the screen and when the item underneath responds. When you consider that you’re drawing letters with your finger to find apps many times a day, even hundreds of times a day, that one per cent increment really adds up.
Nokia has designed a tablet that looks appealing thanks to design cues borrowed from its closest rival, but there’s really only so much you can do to differentiate the appearance of essentially a flat slab of metal with a touchscreen.
Welcome back, Nokia
When the N1 arrives in the UK next year it’s expected to cost less than £200, putting it firmly in competition with dozens of other Android tablets and undercutting the iPad by a hefty margin (the iPad Mini 16 GB is £319 and the 64 GB version £399 in the UK). This helps Nokia’s tablet stand out as an affordable, premium device that might just put the company back on the map and in the minds of consumers.
The idea of Nokia returning to the smartphone and tablet business is a very welcome one. If it can differentiate with features like the Z Launcher and create well made, compelling new products, Nokia may be able to regain some of its former glory. It would be an ironic twist if Nokia one day manages to sell more smartphones and tablets than Microsoft…
You can view the official YouTube trailer for the N1 here.
Are you interested buying Nokia’s mini tablet? Is the design a blatant copy of the iPad and does it even matter? Let us know in the comments section below.