Nokia N900: First Look

The Nokia N900 has just started shipping and there are already a number of reviews of the device out on the net. I've had the opportunity evaluate a pre-release N900 for a few weeks now, and while you can expect a full review in an upcoming issue of Linux Journal, I wanted to give you a quick look into what the N900 is like from the perspective of your average Linux geek. If you've read any of my previous articles in Linux Journal, you'll know that I'm a vim-using, mutt-loving sysadmin who spends a lot of time on the command line, so hopefully I can provide a unique perspective on this device.

The N900 isn't Nokia's first pocketable Linux computer. The N770, N800, and N810 are all previous models of their "Internet Tablet" all running Nokia's Debian-based Maemo Linux distribution. The N900 is the latest device in the series and what makes it special apart from updated hardware is the fact that it adds cellular connectivity. This means that not only do you have a Linux device in your pocket with an always-on Internet connection (if you have a data plan), you no longer have to carry a separate cellphone. Plus, like the N810 before it, it provides a hardware keyboard, which I think is crucial for an interactive shell.

I have always been a fan of small laptops (see my Point / Counterpoint column on the subject to get a more complete perspective) because even if they were sometimes less powerful than their desktop or large laptop counterparts, their increased portability far outweighed any other limitations. As I mentioned before, the N900 is not the first Linux computer you can fit in your pocket, but the hardware has finally gotten to the point that you can legitimately do many laptop-like tasks on it. It sports a 600Mhz ARM Cortex-A8 processor, 256Mb RAM (plus 768Mb swap), 32Gb of storage, wifi, bluetooth, TV-out, FM transmitter, and an 800x480 resistive touchscreen. If you combine that with hardware-accelerated graphics you find that there are more and more things you can do without pulling out your regular computer.

As I mentioned, I've carried around and tried out the N900 for a few weeks now, and here's a short list of the sorts of things I've been doing from the device:

  • Browsing the web like a normal browser including non-mobile versions of Google Reader and Calendar
  • IMing and making Skype and VOIP calls
  • SSHing into my main server and running mutt
  • Connecting to the main screen instance on the same server for IRC with irssi (Figure 1)
  • Editing files with vim
  • Tunneling into Cisco VPN and OpenVPN networks
  • Connecting to remote desktops with VNC
  • Running apt-get to install extra software
  • Playing podcasts, videos, and my complete music collection from local storage
  • A quick Quake III skirmish
  • SNES and NES emulation
#linuxjournal IRC on N900

Figure 1: Just another evening in #linuxjournal

If you look at the above list, it's essentially the same sorts of things I do on my regular laptop. What surprised me the most about the device is just how much it /feels/ like a regular Debian Linux machine, especially on the command line. I mean it uses upstart, pulseaudio, apt-get, GTK and QT libraries, and when I want root I don't have to use hacked firmware, I just install the gainroot package and type sudo gainroot.

Now many of the above features aren't available out of the box. The N900 has a graphical package manager that you can use to install extra programs and upgrade the system but like with most other Linux distributions if you want the extra fun programs you do need to add extra software repositories. Even though the N900 is brand new, there are already a number of extra packages available for it--many ported from previous Maemo releases.

Of course don't go thinking you can throw away your laptop just yet. You are still dealing with a machine with a 600Mhz processor and a thumb-sized keyboard. While I did edit files with vim and can even tunnel into work and manage production emergencies, it's still faster and more comfortable to work and chat on a large screen with a full keyboard.

If you want more information about the overall desktop environment and features and can't wait for my full review, there are a number of other written and video reviews already out there on the web. Since this is a pre-release unit with beta software on it, I'm going to hold off discussing things like battery life, release software, overall performance, and how it compares with Android until I can evaluate the final software. My full review will also cover the overall "desktop environment" and software community in more detail. I have to say though, after using the device for only a couple of weeks, I'm pretty impressed with its capabilities out of the box and am looking forward to see what software the community comes up with to extend the device further.

AttachmentSize
screenshot01.png83.79 KB
______________________

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

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Using N900 with pre-paid cards from $RANDOM supplier?

Anonymous's picture

I am in Oz. I don't think you can get the N900 here. But if I buy one from the USA, can I simply stick any Aussie telco's pre-paid 3G SIM in it and go on-line? And when I get to, say, Hong Kong (ignoring that I'll probably be on WiFi anyway), can I just go to the convenience store, as one does in HK, buy a voice/data SIM and start making calls? This thing is 100% unlocked, right?

Oh, and is there any closed source in this thing? For example, to drive the WiFi hardware or the display? Or are there some proprietary bits which mean that you can't just build your own upgraded kernel at any future time you might feel a compulsion building, as a previous poster was nervous about?

more testing

Sebastian's picture

Hi Kyle,
for your full review (yes I'm still waiting... :D ), could you check for example:

* ssh works, but also sshfs? It uses the fuse kernel module. That's sometimes very, very handy! e.g. viewing a remote pdf or seamlessly expand your music collection with the music on your server (can you test if the installed music tool works with remote files?)
* you said you were editing with vim (I'd love to do that). how do you get along with a reduced keyboard? e.g. typing ':', '\', ':make', using markers or where the heck is 'Esc' in order to leave insert mode?
* you also mentioned connectiong to your main screen-session: Excellent! Does it work practially (e.g. switching terminal, C-a-n commands etc...).
* does the terminal support utf-8 encoding? i.e. is it a uxterm?
* pdf-reader. Not acroread (oh god), but please try xpdf or evince or whatever is built-in (has it got support for hyperlinks, smooth scrolling etc.).

thanks very, very much. Keep up the good work.
-Sebastian

Linux perspective

ArtInvent's picture

It is really nice to read about this phone from a real Linux user's perspective. So many reviews just compare it to Droid or iPhone and that's interesting but obviously not all there is to it. I don't however do a lot of command line or admin kind of functions. I'd be more interested to know how many more consumer oriented Linux programs will run on this phone. Like can a simple music app like Audacity be ported to this, how man deb packages just work on it if any?

It's too bad

mikesd's picture

that they won't release an AT&T or Verizon compatible version. It's pretty much useless unless you're on T-mobile.

--
That which does not kill me only postpones the inevitable.

The N900 is unlocked and

Kyle Rankin's picture

The N900 is unlocked and uses GSM so it should work with any carrier in the world that uses GSM. In the US you are limited to T-mobile and AT&T as they are the only providers left that use GSM. The N900 does work with AT&T, although only up to EDGE speeds.

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.

Many people will be in need

techguru's picture

Many people will be in need of basic appliaciton like AlmostTI Graphing Calc Emulator, AdBlock Plus, Documents To Go Viewer Edition , Droid Fonts, Facebook, gPodder, Lybniz, OMweather forefront-client-security-definition-updates etc you can get this application from http://www.techarena.in/download/mobile-software/nokia-n900-application.htm

Nice hardware, bad company

John Morris's picture

The problem with the N900 isn't the hardware. It is Nokia. Let us look at the history of this product line.

In the beginning was the N770. And it had promise. It shipped with OS2005 and was updated to OS2006. Most apps needed modification for this upgrade before they would run.

Then development moved on to the new N800 and N810 leaving N770 owners behind. Plausible arguments were advanced that the N770's pitiful 64M ram would hold up progress. OS 2006(?), OS2007 and OS 2008 were all released for this series, all requiring at least a careful testing of existing apps and many requiring at least some work. Later OS2007 Hacker Edition was produced by the community to almost bring N770 owners back into the loop.

But here is where red flag #1 goes up. Nokia never allowed some of the closed bits to be made available for the N770 OS 2007 HE. Unimportant, minor things like Flash Player. Then flag #2 went up. Turns out the closed WiFi driver and/or closed firmware for the N770 has a fatal bug that renders the WiFi useless in the presence of an 802.11n AP in range. Reread that, not won't associate with an N AP, won't associate with ANY access point if an N unit is in range. Nokia closed that bug as WONTFIX and since the WiFi is all closed source it isn't likely to ever be fixed. In other words a forced retirement of the hardware.

So now we get to the N900. It runs a new OS version that isn't expected to officially be released for any previous hardware and isn't reported to be very binary compatible forward or backward. And it is already an orphan before it officially ships since it is still largely GTK based and a death march is already underway to have everything Qt based by the next release.

So if you have a Maemo app you need to support a lot of incompatible versions that require a minimum of three hardware platforms to test whether it actually works or abandon some or all users. In actual practice it means your choices as a user are to ride the hardware upgrade treadmill or find a different platform.

In the past that was expensive but possible, now the platform is also a phone and most carriers require long term contacts. An obvious problem presents itself.

Awesome

Vlad Nistor's picture

I was considering buying the HTC G1 in the very near future (I have a SE P1i), but this totally kicks ass. Have you used the both, are they comparable?
Can't wait for this to hit the stores, I'd like to get my hands on one :P Waiting on that full review too.

interesting, yes, i am

Anonymous's picture

interesting, yes, i am interested with tethering too

N900s build quality

daz's picture

My biggest concern with the N900 is the build quality quite a lot of Noika phones are cheap plastic casing.... N96 etc...

The screen look good and so does the keyboard... but will it stand up to day to day life??

I think id prefer an all metal case (or near as).....

Its probably going to come down to Sony's X10 and Nokias N900 the Droid I am thinking maybe not..

The N770 that I had a couple of years ago only lasted a few weeks... screen died... (was gutted)....

N800 to netbook to n900

SwiftNet's picture

I have used the n800 for a couple of years, it is a great little device in need of more power. I use my 8.9" netbook more than the n800, mainly because it is faster (630Mhz Celeron, vs 400Mhz OMAP). The n900 looks fast enough and with the t-mobile unlimited phone plan will most likely supplant my eeepc for many tasks. The only downside is the price...knowing in 3 months it'll be $400 and in a year will be $299.

Screen size and copy/paste

Anonymous's picture

I've owned an N800 and traveled extensively with just this device, no laptop. The lack of screen real estate really did matter to me. I didn't realize how limiting that was. Since it was just $220 and netbooks didn't exist when I bought it, I don't feel bad.

Skype worked great - wouldn't change a thing.
Audio playback could be improved with more intuitive forward and back controls. There was never an issue with codec support, since mplayer is available.
Video playback worked well, provided the screen size is acceptable and really high bitrate videos were resized down from HiDef resolutions. The faster CPU should help with that. Normal 640x480 TV shows with xvid encoding were never an issue.

Thumbing emails wasn't a big deal. It really was amazing how useful that is. I can't talk about the keyboard, only used the N800 or Blackberry keyboards.

Sadly, most people will find a 9" netbook really is a better answer for remote admin tasks. You aren't going to touch up photo or edit audio on this device. The multiple windows and copy/paste between xterms is just too productive over a stylist copy/paste effort an internet tablet requires. Mutt use is excellent with remoted in to a server. Clam Email/IMAPS is also extremely useful.

I love my N800. The price for it wasn't too high and alternatives were more costly at the time. That isn't the case anymore. The best part of these Nokias is all the Linux software that runs under Maemo, for free. At $650, the N900 has a fairly steep price of entry, then add the $40/month data plan. If you don't want the monthly data cost get an N810.

How much does Maemo differ

Bruno.p's picture

How much does Maemo differ from a standard Linux?
Is it possible to run directly Linux applications (speedcrunch for example)? Or do we need to modify the applications? (I guess the applications made with Qt it works directly?)

I have an N810 and can tell

Anonymous's picture

I have an N810 and can tell you that normal Linux applications won't run out of the box. The N810 had special librarys for graphics and the processor is another architecture than Intel/AMD x86.

Furthermore the screen is really small and not intended for every application. If you want a certain application to run on the N900 you have to pay a software developer to do it.

I wanted to port terminatorX for music scratching to the N810 - but have not found the time yet.

So maybe you should better use a Netbook with Linux.

Possible review topics

Neil Watson's picture

How does one backup data on the phone? Can it be restored to a factory install?
Calendar and contact syncing?
Can the contacts app access an LDAP phone book?
Howto install third party applications.
Connecting to a local network via wifi, bluetooth and other.
Can one attach peripherals such as a keyboard, screen or USB key?
SSH/X forwarding to and from the N900.
Using third party calendar apps like Kalendar and Remind.
Security (e.g Iptables, snort, file and disk encryption).
Customizing desktops.

Astounded

jprone's picture

I've read a lot of posts on this phone around the internet, and this has to be one of the most compelling I've seen. That's AWESOME. I'm really close to just pre-ordering and enjoying T-Mobile 3g with no contract on this device (Even More Plus ftw)... I have good T-Mobile coverage so that's no issue... and I can't wait to run some emulators on this phone and what not! Looks awesome!

Terminal

DigitalYeti's picture

That terminal is absolutely boner-inducing. If the phone wasn't $600 or didn't require a $30/month data plan on top of my normal service, even if I only wanted to use wifi, I'd get it in a second! I wish some company would realize that this is what the masses want and produce something that was cost-effective for your average joe.

No data plan required

Kyle Rankin's picture

If you don't want to use the cellular data and only want to access the internet over wifi, you shouldn't need a data plan. Heck, you technically don't need a phone plan at all unless, obviously, you want to use it for phone calls.

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.

Kyle, If I understand it

cheapster's picture

Kyle,

If I understand it right, I can use N900 in the following mode:

voice-calls: use a pre-paid card
internet: WiFi

is that correct?

By the way

Ryan Abel's picture

By the way, Kyle, Ctrl-Shift-P takes a screenshot, Ctrl-Shift-X opens XTerm and Ctrl-Backspace opens the dashboard.

I ended up using a special

Kyle Rankin's picture

I ended up using a special applet for the screenshot, but yeah there are a number of interesting key bindings already set up on the device. I will go into some of the more interesting ones in the full review, but as you mention, there's even one to launch an xterm. Of course I've found it's simpler to set up a shortcut on my desktop than contort my fingers to hit ctrl-shift-x...

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.

How do you chat on terminal?

Anonymous's picture

Sorry if it is a noob question but i have no linux experience. How did you use chat on terminal windows? is it irc? if it is how do you access it from terminal?

There are terminal IRC

Petru's picture

There are terminal IRC clients such as irssi (my favorite, see www.irssi.org), bitchx, ircii and so on.

release

Nokia N900 Maemo's picture

Nice review , now the main problem is the release date , 3 delays already :(

Actually, not.

Ryan Abel's picture

Actually, there has only been ONE delay. Nokia initially announced release for the end of October, then delayed that by a few weeks to the middle of November. The rest of your "delays" have been made up by bloggers.

Actually, you mean that

Anonymous's picture

Actually, you mean that there's only been one public delay.

Nokia have delayed more than once for shipping to European mobile phone companies.

The last issue related to uSIM compatibility in European markets.

In this instance the bloggers aren't enitely wrong.

well i just spoke to nokia

Anonymous's picture

well i just spoke to nokia direct sales departament 08003316021 and they confirmed the phones will be sold in shops simultaniously after stock up in 4 weeks time!!!! BUT if u buy directly from nokia on number above u have it next week!!!!!!!!!!!!!! FINALY SOME GOOD NEWS

Keep the questions coming

Kyle Rankin's picture

I'll do my best to cover any Linuxy questions you have about the N900 in my full review so please keep posting them here (or you can email me at lj@greenfly.net).

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.

Can you play sopcast or

CG's picture

Can you play sopcast or ninjavideo files???

Just tried one of the flash

Kyle Rankin's picture

Just tried one of the flash videos on ninjavideo.net and it seemed to full screen and play fine. Generally speaking it seems to do fine with Flash video I've tried so far.

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.

Screens and Keyboards

metalx2000's picture

I've seen videos of the N900 playing movies through the TV out on to a big flat screen TV and it looks good. How does text look on a larger screen through the TV out?
If you hook the N900 up to a TV and use a Bluetooth keyboard is does it work well as a portable computer?

http://filmsbykris.com/
Everything you ever need to know about Open-Source Software.

How do you access the GSM communication API ?

Anonymous's picture

Maybe somebody knows: Is the core network layer of this mobile accessible to programmers ?

I do

wzrd's picture

telepathy/dbus

tethering?

Anonymous's picture

In your full review, could you mention how well it works for tethering?

White Paper
Linux Management with Red Hat Satellite: Measuring Business Impact and ROI

Linux has become a key foundation for supporting today's rapidly growing IT environments. Linux is being used to deploy business applications and databases, trading on its reputation as a low-cost operating environment. For many IT organizations, Linux is a mainstay for deploying Web servers and has evolved from handling basic file, print, and utility workloads to running mission-critical applications and databases, physically, virtually, and in the cloud. As Linux grows in importance in terms of value to the business, managing Linux environments to high standards of service quality — availability, security, and performance — becomes an essential requirement for business success.

Learn More

Sponsored by Red Hat

White Paper
Private PaaS for the Agile Enterprise

If you already use virtualized infrastructure, you are well on your way to leveraging the power of the cloud. Virtualization offers the promise of limitless resources, but how do you manage that scalability when your DevOps team doesn’t scale? In today’s hypercompetitive markets, fast results can make a difference between leading the pack vs. obsolescence. Organizations need more benefits from cloud computing than just raw resources. They need agility, flexibility, convenience, ROI, and control.

Stackato private Platform-as-a-Service technology from ActiveState extends your private cloud infrastructure by creating a private PaaS to provide on-demand availability, flexibility, control, and ultimately, faster time-to-market for your enterprise.

Learn More

Sponsored by ActiveState