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.

Kyle Rankin is a Tech Editor and columnist at Linux Journal and the Chief Security Officer at Purism. He is the author of Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting, The Official Ubuntu Server Book, Knoppix Hacks, Knoppix Pocket Reference, Linux Multimedia Hacks and Ubuntu Hacks, and also a contributor to a number of other O'Reilly books. Rankin speaks frequently on security and open-source software including at BsidesLV, O'Reilly Security Conference, OSCON, SCALE, CactusCon, Linux World Expo and Penguicon. You can follow him at @kylerankin.

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