It’s been a while since my last substantial review but I’m back with something a little different for you today. I’d like to talk about the Nokia N900 Linux-based phone I’ve been testing for the past 6 weeks. It’s the first Maemo powered device to feature phone functions. Does this move signal a new direction for Nokia? Nobody seems quite sure just yet, but the hardware and software are causing a lot of interest in the Linux community. Here’s my thoughts on the experience so far.
- Processor: ARM Cortex-A8 600mhz, PowerVR SGX graphics
- RAM: 256mb
- Storage: 32gb internal memory, 16gb MicroSD slot for expansion
- Camera: Carl Zeiss, Tessar 2.8/5.2, AF 5MP
- Operating System: Maemo 5 (based on Debian)
- Kernel: 2.6.28-omap1
- Connectivity: GRPS, EDGE, HSDPA, HSUPA, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g, DLNA, Infra red, microUSB v2.0
- Other Features: FM Radio transmitter, GPS, TV-out
In the interests of full disclosure I should start off by pointing out a couple of quick things. Firstly this handset was sent to me for trial by Nokia, I didn’t buy it and it has to be returned at some point. I’ve had it 6 weeks at the time of this writing. Secondly I’m no phone expert. I haven’t used a lot of smartphones, so I can’t compare this directly to Android devices or others. I’ve only used them in passing. I do know a thing or two about Linux though and hopefully that will balance this out.
With Google Android making weekly headlines at the moment it’s an interesting time for Nokia to bring out their first proper Linux-based phone device. Of course you’ll never hear them refer to it as a phone. They strictly only call it a mobile computer and they’re keen to differentiate between this and their Symbian smartphones. Exactly where a smartphone ends and a mobile computer begins I’ll let you decide, I’m not sure I know. Whether Nokia like it or not though people will compare the N900 to the iPhone, Palm Pre and various Android handsets on the market. I’m not convinced this attempt to brand it as a mould-breaking device will work for them. However, the thought of Debian on a proper working phone certainly excited the kilt wearing geek within me. I’d seen a lot of N900 reviews online and I was very keen to get my hands on one. They’re quite expensive handsets at £500 from Nokia Direct in the UK. The best deal I’ve seen on contract here was £35pm for 24 months on Vodafone (handset included), but it did come with a good amount of phone minutes, SMS and “unlimited” data. As much as any of these contracts are ever truly unlimited. Vodafone is the only network officially carrying the N900 here in the UK right now. There are rumours that it will be available on other networks in future. I guess we’ll find out.
Let’s begin by talking about the hardware you get for your money. The handset is heavier than most other similar devices I’ve tried but only slightly, and it does include a slide out hardware keyboard. It’s solid and well built. It feels very similar to the HTC G1 in form. You get a pretty impressive 32gb of internal storage and this can be expanded to 48gb with a MicroSD card slot. The card slot is located under the battery cover though, so you can’t swap cards easily which isn’t ideal. In practice this hasn’t been a problem because I tend to just put a card in and forget about it. With 48gb of memory to play with it’s not as if I’m going to run out any time soon. It’s a generous amount by any estimation. The processor is an ARM Cortex-A8 which runs at 600mhz and there’s also 256mb of RAM. Even when running 4 or 5 applications at once it doesn’t seem to struggle. You do get the occasional slowdown when a particular application hangs, but think is a software error in those applications rather than hardware. The experience has been very smooth and slick overall.
The main data connection is through a MicroUSB port on the top of the phone. If you’re on Windows you can install the Nokia PC Suite software for syncing your calendar and contacts, but I’m not keen on that. Besides I’m a Linux desktop user anyway and there’s no Linux version. Perhaps this is a blessing as much as a curse. I am pleased to say the device works perfectly as a mass storage drive on any platform via USB. You can also charge it from this port using the standalone wall charger or a computer. The 5 mega-pixel camera seems very good for a device of this kind. It’s a Carl Zeiss optic and while I know nothing about photography, I’ve been assured by friends that this is a good make. The way I take photos I need all the help I can get. There’s also a standard 3.5mm mini-jack connection which is a must for me. I hate proprietary headphone connections with a passion. Then there are the usual power, volume, camera and lock buttons you’d expect around the periphery of the handset. You also get a stylus tucked away at one end. At first I expected to hate using the stylus, but it’s actually quite grown on me. The touch screen is good enough to use with your fingers, which I do 90% of the time, but occasionally when doing something that requires more fine accuracy I pull out the stylus.
I’ve heard many friends complaining about the battery life on their G1 or Hero and I wasn’t looking forward to charging my phone every 8 hours. This hasn’t been the case at all though. I don’t use the device heavily for phone calls but I am always using data for email and other things, playing music and even using the FM transmitter. Despite all this I get well over 24 hours out of one charge. I’ve been very happy with that. I get a solid and quick 3G connection with O2 UK. I downloaded a 52mb podcast file over 3G to test this. It came in at 600kbps all the way. That’s almost as fast as I get on wi-fi, impressive! You can also use WLAN, BlueTooth and even the Infra Red port for connectivity if you want.
The GPS seems pretty good but the mapping application is let down by the lack of decent maps for me. OVI maps don’t contain the same amount of data as Google Maps from what I’ve seen. You also don’t get turn by turn directions when using the GPS in the car. This may well be fixed by software updates in future. I’ve heard more 3rd party GPS apps for Maemo are in the pipeline.
Overall, the hardware is one of the most impressive things about the N900 for me. I love being able to jump in the car, start a podcast and then just press the FM transmitter button to play it back through the radio. You could of course use an external FM transmitter with any device, but having it built in just feels cool. Every time I switch it on I half expect Q to pop up and say “pay attention 007”. Nokia have always made good hardware and this is certainly true here. Most people’s issues with them over the years have been more with their software. So let’s discuss that next.
As I mentioned earlier, the N900 is the first Maemo device from Nokia with phone features. More precisely it comes with Maemo 5, the latest iteration of their Debian-based operating system that won many fans on Internet tablets like the N800 and N810. I’ve only used those devices in passing, but I’ve always heard good things about Maemo from friends. I’m a big Debian fan, and the ability to install a .deb package on your phone has always appealed to me. There are many Maemo repositories containing thousands of packages Linux fans will know well from their desktops. Gpodder, Pidgin, Firefox and Vim to name just a few. Ok, so maybe Vim is more for the hardcore geek I admit, but it is in the repos along with QEmacs, which made me laugh. You can get root access to the N900 any time by typing one command in the X terminal window. A handy feature which in turn means you can run “apt-get install <package>” to install things. A feature to make any Linux fan need a change of trousers if ever I’ve seen one. Of course the first thing I did when I got the N900 was jump into a terminal and install Nano with Apt-Get. That’s pretty damn cool on a phone.
The Maemo 5 interface works well with the touch screen and proper multi-tasking is a big bonus. A lot of other phones will run more than one app simultaneously these days (iPhone users look away now), but this is really well implemented. Switching apps is easy and the visual effects on the desktop are almost Compiz-like. The menu system is intuitive enough but I do have one slight problem with it. There’s no obvious way to close some things at first. You have to tap on the desktop outside a menu to go back a screen. It’s easy once you learn how but some clearer instructions would be nice.
The only really negative experience I’ve had so far with the N900 was updating to a new firmware using Nokia’s NSU software. I wrote about this at length on the blog, so I won’t go over all that again. For me the update process needs to be significantly improved if Nokia want ordinary users to buy into the N900, both literally and metaphorically. There are some other areas that could use a little polish. The built-in email client for example isn’t great, it needs to be improved. You can supplement it with other 3rd party apps but this isn’t a long term solution. The dialler on the other hand is very good and has pretty much all the features you would expect. It’s cool to have Skype and Google Talk integrated too. You can call people on Skype directly from your phone book if they’re online, or to a phone if you have Skype Out minutes. I don’t know many other phones that do that at the moment. The included web browser is also excellent. You get full flash support and the full web experience on the device. Nothing is missing. You can also install Mozilla Fennec and have a choice of browsers, which I’ve done.
One of the most common digs I hear from Android users is that the N900 is tied to the Ovi Store for new software. I certainly wouldn’t argue that the Android Market is a lot bigger and more popular, but the N900 is in no way tied to Ovi for getting software. There are 1000s of packages in the Maemo repositories and you can also run any Python software with a Gtk or Qt interface. Pretty much everything on the Linux desktop then. I was even able to run some Gtk applications I wrote myself just by copying the source code over to the device. The next stop is to look at packaging this into .debs for easy sharing with other N900 users. For hackers and Linux geeks alike I think this could make a very interesting prospect. The software is still evolving though and I’m keen to see what’s planned for Maemo 6, the odd rough edge is apparent at times. For the average person in the street the convenience and simplicity of the Android Market is probably a winner right now, I can’t argue against that. One of the big buzz phrases you hear from all these companies is “developer mind share”. Basically this means getting developers excited about coding on your platform. I suspect giving these devices to developers and sending them to bloggers like myself is intended to achieve that. For a developer wanting to make a living purely from selling mobile apps it’s hard to see the attraction of the N900 right now. Ovi doesn’t have the user base of the iPhone App Store or Android Market. With so many handsets already running Android and more in the pipeline, I think this is the place for mobile developers to be right now. I really like Maemo 5 and there are already plans for Maemo 6. It has the solid base you would expect from Debian and they’ve built well on this in adding polish. If Nokia put more weight behind it we may see it grow, but with only one device running Maemo 5 and only one more planned for 2010, it’s not going to be easy.
This has very much been a Linux users experience of the N900, rather than a phone expert or an average end user. But then I think this is precisely the core market for the device. In many ways it feels like what we all hoped the OpenMoko project would become before it petered out. A really good Open Source Linux-based phone with slick hardware, root access and the ability to run your own code without restrictions. It’s not quite as open as the Freerunner admittedly. You can’t get schematics for the hardware but this is as close as I think you can get right now. Lots of people tell me they can do the same things on their Android devices and this may well be true. I’d need to compare how much effort it is to jailbreak an Android phone.
The biggest barrier for the N900 at the moment my well be Nokia itself. Many people disagree with me on this point, but I think they should be pushing it more. It’s an exclusive hacker device right now both in price and visibility. It’s still new so perhaps it’s a bit early to judge their promotion efforts yet. Developers may get excited by the full Python implementation and ability to use familiar Linux toolkits. My advice to Nokia right now (not that I doubt they worry about my advice) would be to release a rapid application environment for Maemo. Something akin to Quickly on Ubuntu. You could even port Quickly over to the device. It would speed up the appearance of new apps and fuel demand for the handset. An easy to use virtual machine for testing your applications on any desktop would also be very handy. It all depends how much effort they want to put into it. Android developers can already target their apps at devices from within Eclipse. (EDIT: Apparently the Maemo 5 SDK includes a VM, I haven’t tried it yet though)
The question everyone is asking me now is “will you buy an N900 when you have to send that back”? I honestly don’t know for sure yet. I use a lot of Google applications and the integration offered by Android is appealing to a freedom hater like me. I’d like to try an Android device properly for a few weeks to really compare them. £500 is a lot of money for a handset, but then this no ordinary handset. I can almost see why Nokia insist on calling this a mobile computer now. It’s half netbook and half smartphone, whether there’s really a market for that we’ll have to see. If the next model (presumably the N910) makes as much forward progress I think Nokia may yet surprise a few people who’ve written them off. The hardware is excellent and the software feels 90% there, it just needs to cross that final hurdle.
If you’re looking for a consumer-ready, fashionable Linux-based phone platform with a big app store I’d direct you towards Android. However, if you’re a Linux user interested in trying something more like the desktop platform you know and love, the N900 is perfect. I’m really happy with the N900 and each day it moves a little closer to the centre of my heart, is there a doctor in the house? I hope we see many more devices running Maemo in the near future and much development. That’s what it’s going to take for the Android crazed public and media to notice it in the wake of things like the Nexus One.
I’ll continue to test and write about my experiences with the N900 of course, but I should really get back to distro hopping on my laptop. It’s been a busy start to 2010. I do have a few potential targets for the next hop in mind. If you have any suggestions or requests please feel free to send them to me or leave a comment. Also if someone wants to send me an Android phone to compare with the N900 feel free, it’s not likely but no harm in asking hehe…