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.
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.
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.
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.
Kyle Rankin is a systems architect; and the author of DevOps Troubleshooting, The Official Ubuntu Server Book, Knoppix Hacks, Knoppix Pocket Reference, Linux Multimedia Hacks, and Ubuntu Hacks.
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