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.
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.
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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