It arrived in a puff of smoke: The Nokia N900

The mysterious black boxJust before Christmas I had a delivery of a large mysterious black box. There was no obvious way to open it, on the top was engraved “Nokia – connecting people” and on the front a mini usb socket. Also packaged was a USB lead and a card telling me that this was a Nokia “hackerbox” and telling me a web site to visit for clues on how to open it. I managed to connect up the box to my computer and got a terminal session going to “log in” to the box, admittedly I used Google to find out how to get in (as I am not very good at puzzles!). Dramatically, when the right command was issued, the top of the box popped open and a puff of smoke emerged. Inside was a the Nokia N900, a Linux powered mobile phone, accessories, a plastic fox and a nice bit of cake.

Browsing greenhughes.com on the N900When you first see the N900 you might be forgiven for thinking it is a bit of a chunky mobile phone. It is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand but not as slim as many other smart phones out there. My advice would be to forget about this, why? The N900 represents a further erosion of the distinction between our traditional idea of a computer and a mobile phone. Sure, it makes phone calls, but this device is almost like someone took a netbook and shrunk it. This is a device where few compromises have been made and functionality has been packed in. You might notice this when using the web browser for example. No need to view a simplified “mobile” version of a website, go for the full version. The powerful Mozilla-based browser with support for Adobe Flash will cope, and it will all fit on the screen as the resolution is 800x480 pixels – yes the same as the original Asus EEE PC 701! You won't lose any of this resolution when you come to type something in either as the device comes with a slide out physical keyboard.

The N900 is feature packed. On board is a five megapixel camera and flash, GPS, 32GB of memory (expandable with a MicroSD card), an ARM CPU, a combined headphone/microphone socket (that can take standard headphones), video-out and an FM transmitter. I have found the camera pretty easy to use so far though I have not experimented much with it yet. The GPS seems pretty accurate and integrates with Ovi Maps, again I have not experimented with this much yet. The video out could be pretty handy, when you plug in the special lead the display and sound appears on your TV set, which could be handy if you are stuck in a hotel room somewhere and want to enjoy your own music and videos. The quality for video playback seemed pretty good, the video out shows everything displayed on the device so you could use with the applications on the phone too.

The FM transmitter is a very useful feature, particularly if you want to listen to music in the car. If your radio has RDS functionality you will see the station name appear as “Nokia” when you tune it into the device, but it is also possible to get more useful information such as the name of the currently playing track, current caller or latest SMS text message using an application called FM RDS Notify which is currently in development. You also get an Internet Radio on the device too, so you could use the device to listen to a radio station from the other side of the world as you drive along!

The Nokia N900The operating system used on the N900 is called Maemo and it is a Debian derivative. This is gives it a great stable foundation to build on. When you use the device you will see elements of this heritage. The application management is based on APT and when using the custom graphical front end you will see that applications live in repositories (or catalogues as they are called here) and can keep up to date just like a Debian based system. Eventually there will be a now obligatory “app store” through Nokia's Ovi Store. There is a touch screen on the device as well as the physical keyboard and you can operate a lot of it with finger touch, but a stylus is supplied, which is possibly a bit old fashioned sounding now but it seems to work well.

The device starts up with a home screen which can host widgets. You get several home screens and you can switch between them by swiping the stylus on the screen. An icon in the top left lets you navigate to different running applications and the program menu. Like all good smartphones it has full support for multitasking and switching between applications is very easy. Maemo has an advantage over other new mobile phone operating systems, because it is based on Debian Linux a lot of software can be ported to it, and some of the applications becoming available would be familiar to many Linux users. There is no need to develop everything from scratch and the platform can benefit from the wider open source development scene. A community website exists for people interested in Maemo and can be found at: http://maemo.org/.

As the device has not yet widely launched only a small number of applications are available, but you can enable extra repositories to give you more options. One called “Extras” is disabled by default but is easily enabled, software from here can be used with low risk. Another called “Extras-devel” is full of applications being tested for inclusion to “Extras” but have not made it yet. There is a lot of interesting stuff in here, but these add ons come with a health warning that they may not be fully stable yet and may cause problems on your N900, so be careful! I found a handy guide to enabling the extra repositories at: http://maemocentral.com/2009/12/29/how-to-enable-extras-extras-testing-extras-devel-repositories-on-the-n900-with-one-click/. You can also install applications by going to http://maemo.org/downloads/Maemo5/ and browsing to the application you want and clicking the big green “Install” button, the N900 will take care of adding the repository entry automatically if it is missing and getting the application. A notable new application for the N900 is Firefox Mobile (codenamed Fennec).

OpenOffice Writer on the Nokia N900So you can tinker about with the operating system on the device and extend functionality through add on applications but what about something a bit more demanding... like running a full scale desktop application? Like I said, this device is blurring the boundaries between desktop and mobile. Amazingly for a device like this, it is possible to run an image of the desktop Debian Linux distribution and run software available in the Debian repositories such as OpenOffice or the GIMP! This is thanks to a project called Easy Debian which currently lives in the cutting edge Extras-devel repository. When launched you will see a desktop layout (which will still multitask with other applications on your N900) and you can launch desktop applications and install other applications with Synaptic or on the command line as you wish. I tried this out with OpenOffice Calc and it launched, but was too slow to use in practice. However I have not yet applied any performance optimisations to make the install of Debian work faster. The notes say that these applications will run slowly, but the fact they work at all on a device like this is impressive.

One aspect of the phone I did not like was the number of steps it took to get to the actual phone! If you do not have a short cut widget installed for the phone on the home screen it could take three or four taps with the stylus to get you to the dial pad. A bit annoying if you just want to quickly dial a taxi at the end of a night out! It would have been good to have a physical shortcut button (like the HTC Hero does) to get you straight to the phone function. It also does not like my 3UK SIM for some reason and rejects it, although apparently there is a firmware upgrade coming soon that might sort out some of these issues (it is worth doing a search on “N900” on Twitter to find out the latest developments).

I have found the Nokia N900 strangely addictive to use, curiosity keeps taking me in new directions when exploring what it can do. I am sure I have barely scratched the surface of what it is capable of. Fortunately I the kind folk at WomWorld/Nokia have lent me the device for six months (thank you!), so there is plenty of time to put this device through its paces and use my Linux skills on it! The N900 is available SIM free and unlocked. Later this month, Vodafone will become the first operator in the UK to offer it on a contract deal. I will be doing more blog posts during the next six months as I explore the device's capabilities further.

Comments

Liam,

I'm very seriously considering this device sim-free at the moment, am used to debian/ubuntu and from tests so far it's the best ssh shell experience (great for my work) and multitasking I've seen on a portable device that does phone calls.

One question I've not really seen any data on is how good the antenna is - our flat has limited signal so it matters to me (although skype/other voip applications over wifi would mean no probs in that area). People still call on the regular GSM network (maybe my bluetooth headset will help with that, leaving the phone in the best place)... Will look forward to seeing further thoughts, may well have one by end of January anyway. Your raised point about access to the phone app makes me slightly nervous. Could it be added into a button on the status bar for single-tap switching to (feels like a hack though)?

John
(jgbreezer on twitter)

I don't have mine yet so can't say for sure but I believe you can enable (if it is not enabled by default) an option which switches to phone mode, just by rotating the phone into portrait position. I've seen much mention of this elsewhere - unless it has been removed from final release it should provide a handy way to access the phone features for now :)

I was an avid user of the N800 for a while, as paired with a bluetooth keyboard it was an amazingly viable travel computer. However, I do find it worrying that so much of the software that Nokia provides for the N900 is "extra" or, even worse, requires dev-level nerdery. It makes me think that there will be a lot of rough edges for anybody trying to use the device in a day-to-day user mode, as you found with the phone call widget.

I'd really like to see your review of the device after a month, and how it compares to other smart phones that you've used.

@SToP GAP That worked! But, only if you rotate the phone in one direction. It then takes you to the phone and a list of recent calls rather than the dial pad, which is good enough. Thanks for letting me know, as I've always said, blogs are information magnets!

@John I'm looking forward to being able to use my 3UK SIM in the device then I will be able to use it for calls. I have a weak signal where I live too (although 3 are doing work in Milton Keynes soon to upgrade) so this is an issue for me too. As well as rotating the device, you can also add a button to the home screen that will take you to the phone. I'll have to gather up all of the points from the comments on this post and revisit them in a few weeks once I am used to the N900.

I do hope you will post regular updates on your experience with the N900, rough and smooth. I've noted similar interests in tech "toys" - eee PCs, Acer Revo with Ubuntu and Nokia Maemo based tech.

Having owned an N800 for over two years I have found it to be somewhat frustrating - it had promise but that was never brought to fruition. My N800 serves now as an FM & Internet radio plus a media/what's playing browser for Internet Radio & iTunes/Signal remote. It's a bit limited for the latter as the browser doesn't do implement certain HTML [meta http-equiv="refresh"] very well (I think it goes to sleep for power conservation before the refresh period expires).

I'd really like to see Nokia & the N900 do well but the N900 has to be near faultless at what it does & key to that is to decide what it must do. My experience with the N800 was that it tried to do everything but didn't get near even a 60:40 success rate on anything.

However, I am tempted to order one and give it the 10 days I'm allowed by distance selling regs, to test drive it. Maybe you'd consider some test cases to evaluate on behalf of your readers?

Rgds

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