Nokia N900

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In a world full of powerful Android devices, is the Nokia N900 the best Linux computer you can fit in your pocket?

The first time I thought about the N900 was about a year and a half before it was ever released. I was at the Penguicon conference, and some friends and I had settled down at a table to continue the time-honored tradition of chatting with each other on IRC even though we were a few feet away from each other. I noticed a friend take out a Nokia N800 and a Bluetooth keyboard and proceed to chat and browse the Web as though it were a laptop. I was amazed someone had managed to put together a smaller computer than I had, which made me start to reconsider what an ultraportable computer really was.

I always have preferred my portable computers to be, well, portable. My very first laptop was a Toshiba Libretto 50CT, and it was about the size of a VHS tape if you are old enough to know what those are. Since then, all of my laptops have been in the ultraportable category. As I looked at my friend's N800, I concluded that the main things missing were a bit more speed and cellular connectivity. After all, when the wireless was spotty at the conference, many of us were tethered to our cell phones or air cards. I decided if Nokia's next version of the Nseries was fast enough and had a cellular connection, it would be the device for me.

It should come as no surprise that when Nokia announced the N900, I was immediately intrigued. Would this be the new portable Linux computer I was looking for? Also, as a sysadmin who shares on-call duties, did I still need to drag my laptop around when I was on call, or could I do everything from this device? I have been fortunate to be able to spend a few months with an N900 Nokia provided me, and in this article, I review the N900 from the perspective of a longtime Linux geek who wants to know whether it can give me a small and open Linux device that can replace a Netbook or even a laptop for portable computing.

Hardware

One of the things that could make or break the N900 as a Netbook/laptop replacement is its hardware. As you'll see, the N900's hardware is a hybrid between a Netbook and a smartphone. Here are some of the main technical specs:

  • 600MHz ARM Cortex-A8 (like in the iPhone 3GS, Palm Pre, Droid, Beagleboard and Open Pandora).

  • 256Mb RAM plus 768Mb swap on Flash.

  • 3.5" 800x480 resistive touchscreen.

  • 32Gb included storage + empty MicroSD slot for up to 16Gb more.

  • 802.11b/g, quad-band unlocked GSM cellular connection and FM transmitter.

  • Bluetooth and microUSB port with tethering support over both.

  • 5 megapixel camera, 3x digital zoom.

  • Integrated GPS with AGPS.

If you are in the US, although the N900 is unlocked and can be used on any GSM network, if you want 3G speeds, you will have to use T-Mobile, as the N900 doesn't support AT&T's 3G frequencies.

The box also includes headphones, power adapters and a TV-out cable, but unfortunately, it's only a composite cable so you won't get the full 800x480 resolution of the native screen. Although it tends to work okay for a movie or a video game, when I used it to show slides during a presentation, the text was a bit difficult to read.

Finally, like the N810 before it, the N900 includes a slide-out hardware keyboard suitable for thumb typing. The keyboard itself is a bit small and has only three rows of keys and an offset spacebar that can throw you until you get used to it. But, the keyboard feels pretty solid, and after using it for a few weeks, I can type fast enough to keep up in IRC. If you want to do extended typing on the N900, I recommend investing in a larger keyboard. Unlike the prior Nseries, there is no USB-host mode, so you'll need a Bluetooth keyboard.

The Maemo Linux Distribution

A number of portable devices have similar hardware specs to the N900, but what makes it different is the software. Like the Nseries devices that preceded it, the N900 runs Maemo—Nokia's Debian-based Linux distribution. Maemo really feels like any other Debian-based distribution only optimized for a small touchscreen. Although you have custom desktop widgets, panels and application management, behind the scenes, you'll find standard Linux systems like apt-get, X, pulseaudio, upstart, dbus, gconf and sudo. Also, it's simple to get root on Maemo without hacking firmware or voiding warranties. Simply install the rootsh package that's available in the default repositories, and type sudo gainroot to get a root shell.

Maemo's desktop environment feels a lot like a slimmed-down, touchscreen-friendly GNOME desktop. The desktop is one screen high and up to four screens wide, and you can touch the screen and drag left or right to switch between desktops. Figure 1 shows a somewhat tweaked version of a Maemo desktop featuring shortcuts to some favorite applications, but you also can put shortcuts to contacts, bookmarks or various widgets on the desktop as well. Widgets act much like plasmoids or other desktop widgets and let you manage the media player, check the weather, check news or Twitter feeds, or do other similar tasks.

Figure 1. A Maemo Desktop with the Matrix Theme

Along the top of the desktop is a bar that acts much like a panel on GNOME or KDE. On the top left-hand corner is a button you use to switch between desktops, an application launcher screen and an Expose-like application switcher that shows all of your currently running applications (Figure 2). This last feature is particularly well done and really makes the N900 stand out for its multitasking abilities. You also can press the Ctrl-Backspace shortcut keys to present the application switcher. It is very easy to switch between different programs.

Figure 2. The Application Switcher with a Few Favorite Programs Opened

______________________

Kyle Rankin is a director of engineering operations in the San Francisco Bay Area, the author of a number of books including DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and is a columnist for Linux Journal.

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Maemo in N900

Hobbyist's picture

Anyone tried the Maemo dualboot option this one?

great phone. a little thicker

logan's picture

great phone. a little thicker than i'd like. processor is faster though than my old unlocked blackberry phones. simple to use, texting and web browsing is good. my partner loves it for the gps and the wifi and my family loves their unlocked mobile phones for the facebook and games. speaker is really loud and it hooks up to my computer simply. also the camera and recorder are great. got our last couple unlocked mobile phones at gsmauthority.com 2 thumbs way up

Sygic GPS

Anonymous's picture

Unfortunately, although a few other third-party GPS programs are available for the N900, none available at the time of this writing seem to be able to provide a better set of features than the default.

Obviously you have not tried Sygic Mobile Maps. It is not free, though: $40 (US version) / 59 EUR (European version).

No Canadian 3G support :(

jamie dalgetty's picture

If this thing worked on the Canadian 3G networks I would have bought it instead of my iphone. I still think this is one of the coolest mobile devices on the market today.

GPS

Tony Green's picture

For a good replacement for the awful default OVI maps, try Mappero (http://www.mardy.it/mappero/) which is in the Extras repository.
Admittedly I've never felt the need for GPS before, so I can't compare it with other programs, but it works well for me and has shown me just how useful GPS can be, even when you don't need to rely on it for directions (though it has that functionality anyway).

Oh, and thanks for the pipe tip - very useful.

better workarounds

Viqsi's picture

My preferred method for adding the pipe character (among others) was to edit the xkb symbols file for the N900 - it's /usr/share/X11/xkb/symbols/nokia_vndr/rx-51 - and edit the entries for the arrow keys so that they have useful alternate characters with the Fn key. There's a tutorial at http://wiki.maemo.org/Remapping_keyboard - I've got tab, escape, |, and ~ associated with Fn+left, right, up, and down respectively.

The nice thing is that doing this lets you get rid of the toolbar (gconftool-2 -s /apps/osso/xterm/toolbar -t bool "false") and thus have more terminal real estate. Which is, of course, a Good Thing. :)

good n bad- no lonely

bills2north's picture

I agree it's an awesome phone but I fear it'll be short lived. A geek market? Whoa comeon. Real geeks can tweek anything into something awesome. Yes I like n900 but there are more downsides to note. Biggest being- loading beta when nothing else is out there. This tablet's been out a while now and I still need to trawl..and fMMS is great but slow like some beta. So I gotta great tablet running maemo 5 and MeeGo coming before x-mas and got no time to tweek or write code. But will I put this n900 down? No.. cos this is an investment. Like the bomb squad would say.. I gotta N900- and I'm gonna use it!!! -good review, thanks :) ps. typed on n900 on the couch ;)

Great you wrote about how to

Anonymous's picture

Great you wrote about how to add the pipe charater to the toolbar. That has frustrated me many times trying to do some quick on call work :-)

A bit ahead of its time.

Kent Crispin's picture

Thanks for the review -- I've owned one for quite some time now, and it's a sad that the device hasn't gotten more exposure. For a geek open-source purist, it's a much better device than an android phone. (Nothing against android -- just a different market niche :-)).

I think, though, that it's a product ahead of its time. I suspect (and hope) that in a couple of years there will be more devices that sit in a similar design space -- a bit bigger, and much,much more powerful...

Nice review Mr. Rankin

Linuxbass's picture

Yep. went out and bought one, on sale at one of our better online market places. Cheers! Never did get that email :-)

Thanks

Balaji 's picture

That was good article do you have a Blog or some ting i can subscribe to
would like to read more and more

Thanks

Thank you :)

Ernesto's picture

Your nice article removed all my hesitations on this beautiful device... I will get one :)

Excellent Review.

Sandeep's picture

I am a linux fan and currently own a N73. Seems I will end up buying one N900 soon..

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