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?
Day-to-Day Use

So after all this, what is it like to use the N900 every day as a portable computer? No matter what, a laptop with a faster processor, bigger screen, more RAM and larger keyboard probably is going to be nicer and easier to use than any portable counterpart. Of course, the majority of the things I use a computer for don't really need a large screen, fast processor or full keyboard. Ultimately, I'm talking about trade-offs and whether the limitations in the N900's size and hardware are made up by its features and portability.

The first thing you have to keep in mind is that even though hardware acceleration takes care of some things, CPU-intensive programs still are going to perform as though they are on a 600MHz processor. The N900 still handles multitasking in this circumstance better than other devices I've seen, but when the CPU is hammered (like when I update my podcasts or applications), GUI transitions stutter, and sometimes it takes a second or two to switch programs.

The browser itself works well, so if you spend a majority of your time on the Web, you'll probably find the N900 does a good job. The display still is a 3.5" 800x480 screen, so even though it's crisp and bright, it's not as nice as a 12" or 15" laptop display. Because each program shows up maximized and it's easy to switch between open windows, this is a manageable problem, but if you squint on smaller screens, you might want to check out an N900 in person first to make sure you can see the screen fine.

The keyboard is not too bad, but it does take some getting used to. I would have liked another row of keys, but honestly, when you are thumb typing, no matter how things are arranged, you aren't going to hit your touch-typing speeds. I can chat at decent speeds, and it works fine for other short-term typing, but I'm not going to write full articles on the N900 without a Bluetooth keyboard. Also, because you have to press Fn key combos to get to most symbols, working with vim or programming is a good deal slower.

In many ways, the N900 is like a laptop in that its battery life can vary widely depending on how you set it and what you do with it. If I take basic common-sense steps for power management, such as adjusting the brightness and turning off any vibration or sound notifications I don't want, I can get a full day's moderate use out of the N900 on a charge. That includes listening to a few hours' worth of podcasts, browsing the Web on and off, playing some games, connecting to a remote screen session over SSH and chatting with irssi, and other regular use. Obviously, if I play a lot of Quake III or do other tasks that peg the CPU or network for long periods, the battery takes a hit. As long as a portable device can last through the day with normal use, so I can charge it at night when I'm asleep, that's good enough for me.

One warning about battery life though. I've noticed that some IM plugins can have a dramatic effect on battery life. Also, one reason that some software is in the Testing or Devel repositories is that they haven't been optimized for the N900 yet and might cause significant drain on your battery.

Conclusion

So, does the N900 live up to my expectations? Before this device, I took my laptop to and from work every day, and it was with me wherever I went—especially if I was on call. Since I've been evaluating the N900, my laptop has stayed at home so far unless I'm giving a presentation. Even when I'm on call, I've found between the VPN support, SSH, VNC and rdesktop, I can manage all of my servers from anywhere. Even when I'm at home, half the time I just want to do basic tasks like browse the Web, check e-mail and chat, so I don't bother to open my laptop—I just use the N900. When I telecommute or write an article, the laptop is more comfortable, but I've found I use it much less otherwise. I also should note that when the time came to send back the review unit, I bought an N900 of my own. Having a real Linux computer in my pocket with always-on Internet access was just too hard to pass up.

Kyle Rankin is a Systems Architect in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of a number of books, including The Official Ubuntu Server Book, Knoppix Hacks and Ubuntu Hacks. He is currently the president of the North Bay Linux Users' Group.

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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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