It’s difficult to be genuinely surprised by a facsimile — it is, by definition, unremarkable — but what is so fascinating about Nokia’s first Android tablet, the N1, is how surprisingly good it is.
Running a stock version of Android 5.0 Lollipop, the N1 looks and feels almost exactly what an iPad would look and feel like if it ran Android. And that’s a compliment. Nokia acknowledged this in my briefing with the company during Mobile World Congress, saying, “We think there is room for a premium Android tablet and that market is current unserved.”
Modelled on the iPad mini with Retina display, Nokia’s first post-Microsoft piece of hardware is built by Foxconn, the same company behind the real iPad, and feels nearly as premium. Its internals are moderately different, as it is optimized for Android — a 2.3Ghz quad-core 64-bit Intel Moorefield SoC, a high-2GB of RAM, and a high-speed PowerVR GPU, dual bottom-firing speakers, a 5,300mAh battery, and a high-resolution 7.9-inch 2048×1536 pixel display — but the intent is the same: to create a great Android tablet experience.
The interesting thing here is that, done well, a clone can be convincing — hence the name. Most iPad clones we’ve seen over the years have substituted metal for chrome-lacquered plastic, and high-quality components for the bottom of the barrel, but the N1 does not, and proves that there is a certain honesty in such a strategy.
The Lollipop UI is practically unblemished but for the addition of Nokia’s Z Launcher, a simple, gesture-based home screen replacement that feels spacious and natural on the larger tablet display. Nokia made Z Launcher available for free on the Play Store last year, but always intended to embed it on its own hardware.
What I took away from my brief time with the N1 is that, objectively, a 7.9-inch metal-framed tablet with a nice screen is just an objectively good experience; iOS has heretofore been the clincher, but stock Android 5.0.2 is a competent and sometimes superior substitute. With an increasing number of apps supporting larger screens, especially after the Nexus 9 introduced a high-quality 4:3 aspect ratio tablet to the Android world, the N1 could be a showcase for what Android tablets are capable of in 2015. That such a revelation is coming from Nokia — this Nokia — is even stranger.
There’s no word from Nokia about a North American release for the N1, but we’re holding out hope.