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.
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.
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.
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 VP of engineering operations at Final, Inc., the author of a number of books including DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and is a columnist for Linux Journal. Follow him @kylerankin.
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