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?
Contact Integration

The contact list integration on the N900 is one of its most compelling features. From a user-interface perspective, there is little difference between sending an SMS, sending an instant message, making a cell-phone call or calling someone via Skype or VoIP. All of these communication methods can be integrated into each contact in your contact list and are managed from a central settings page. There also are packages to extend IM support to all the major IM protocols. Once you sign into an account for the first time, those contacts are added to your contact list, so you can merge them with any existing contacts.

For instance, if I set my Skype account to be on-line, people in my contact list who were currently on-line would have a little green dot next to their contact, and if I had a contact shortcut on my desktop, it would be there as well. If I want to IM or call people via the Skype network, all I have to do is open their contact and click that particular option. If any of my friends send me an SMS or an IM, it shows up in a standard IM window. If they call my cell phone or Gizmo number or make a Skype call, the N900 rings the same way in each case.

I've not mentioned the phone functionality much because, honestly, I rarely use a cell phone for actual phone calls. I hesitate to refer to the N900 as a phone at all, because although it certainly can make phone calls, it's really more of a portable computer than a phone. The phone feature seems to work fine for me, but if you come to the N900 primarily to make phone calls, you will discover that it's a portable computer first and a phone second or third.

Figure 3. An Example Contact Screen with a Few of My Contact Options

Browser

A good deal of my time on a computer involves a Web browser. Compared to many other portable devices, the browser on the N900 is among the best I've seen. Its MicroB browser is essentially a slimmed-down version of Firefox and renders pages like you'd expect in a regular full-sized browser without the need to load a “mobile” version of a page.

Of course, most non-optimized Web sites do appear a little small on the 3.5" screen. If you double-click on a section of a page, the browser zooms in so that section fills the width of the browser. I really liked this automatic zooming, especially for two- or three-column Web sites with content in one column and navigation bars on the sides. When you zoom in on an article, the rest of the navigation zooms out past the edges of the screen, so you can focus on what you want to read. You also can zoom with the hardware volume keys at the top of the device or make a clockwise or counter-clockwise gesture on the screen with your finger.

The browser currently supports Flash 9.4. I've been able to view regular streaming video fine, and full-screen mode works like you'd expect. Certain Firefox add-ons, such as Adblock and Greasemonkey, also have been ported to the MicroB browser already, but because of the differences between MicroB and standard Firefox, your favorite extension may or may not work out of the box.

For average sites, the CPU seems to provide adequate performance and even will render sites like Facebook, Google Calendar and Google Wave fine. I've noticed that some JavaScript-heavy sites, like the non-mobile version of Google Reader, do lag on the browser, and sites that use AJAX to provide their own scrollbars (like Google Reader) can be a bit of a pain to navigate. Overall though, I found I could browse the Web like on any other browser. To me, this is a great advantage to the N900 versus other mobile devices, as there has been a trend to write custom applications for various sites (like Facebook) to overcome poor performance on mobile browsers. On the N900, you don't really need a custom Facebook application, as the regular site works fine.

Terminal

When I'm not using a Web browser on a Linux machine, I'm in a terminal, so the N900's terminal capabilities were important to me. The terminal is installed by default, so that's one mark in Nokia's favor. Also, there's a somewhat hidden shortcut of Ctrl-Shift-x that launches a terminal automatically. Granted, it's a bit tough to press that keyboard combo, but the fact that one exists at all shows that this environment doesn't ignore people who like to get their hands dirty on the command line.

As you start to use the terminal, you'll notice that many of the common keys you might like to type in a terminal are not on the hardware keyboard. For instance, to get |, < or >, you have to press a special function key to bring up a list of special characters. The terminal does provide a shortcut bar along the bottom of the window with some common keys, so you can tap those on the touchscreen, but I just couldn't believe that | was left out. As with most things on the N900, you can tweak this shortcut bar. All of the settings for the terminal and many other applications are in gconf, so to add a pipe, I just needed to run two commands:

gconftool-2 --set --type list --list-type=string 
 ↪/apps/osso/xterm/keys '[Tab,Escape,Page_Up,Page_Down,bar]'
gconftool-2 --set --type list --list-type=string 
 ↪/apps/osso/xterm/key_labels '[Tab,Esc,PgUp,PgDn,|]'

If you want to switch out or add other keys, it's just a matter of changing those two gconf entries.

Figure 4. Default Terminal with Font and Shortcut Bar Tweaks

By default, the N900 terminal uses a BusyBox shell and vi, but if you want bash and vim, they are only an apt-get away. After the initial tweaks, I've been pretty satisfied with the terminal. I can ssh easily into a remote server and run mutt and connect to my irssi screen session. If you do this though, you'll find yourself looking for the missing Alt key to switch between irssi windows. It turns out that Esc works like Alt in standard terminals, so to switch to window 2 in irssi, just press Esc 2. In fact, that should work in your regular desktop terminal as well.

______________________

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.

Comments

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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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