Nokia N900, the cell phone we've been waiting for

I borrowed a Nokia N900 some days ago, and fell in love instantly.

I must say that's the cell phone we've been waiting for. It runs Linux, it's open source, it's beautiful, it's fast, it's got a nice UI. Even if my N85 hadn't broken, it would have been banned to the drawer anyway. It is hard to believe that both came from the same manufacturer.

As someone said, it is not a phone for everybody. The UI is fast and well-polished, and with almost none of that "Linux looks" (meaning ugly, buggy, confusing, full of meaningless configuration options, rough-around-the edges). But still is a bit difficult to use. I had a hard time finding how to make a simple phone call the first time I tried it.

The IM and contacts integration is almost perfect. I never liked the IM integration in any Linux distribution or desktop; I always preferred to use Pidgin. After all, Mac OS X does not have this, everybody uses Adium in it. If Apple didn't integrate IM, it is not a good idea, right? But in N900, the integrated IM really felt like "integrated".

Even Skype is now yet another IM account in Settings, and when you open a phone contact, you have the option to call using Skype (besides the regular phone call option). I had installed Pidgin thinking that I would abandon integrated IM in single time, but now I have even removed it. I think that Google Talk plug-in can make VoIP calls too.

The IM and phone contacts are unified under a single list. This is nice, provided you organize well your contacts, a thing that I never did. Still, I liked the approach.

The bundled E-mail app was another positive surprise. After so many sub-optimal default mail applications in every operating system and platform I can remember of (save for Mac), N900 came up with a very nice e-mail client which is very well integrated with the rest of the system. New e-mail, a blue LED blinks and a non-intrusive message window appears.

Fortunately I don't have to deal with Microsoft Messenger, but a friend of mine says that N900 plays well with it. That's quite a feat, even considered in isolation.

Being accustomed with the horrible performance of N85's GPS, it was a big surprise to see that N900 has a "real" GPS. It solves location in 5 seconds when A-GPS is available.

Another water-to-wine change is the network management, completely different from the horrible and annoying Series 60 access point interface. The thing really changes intelligently from WLAN to 3G to WLAN again as God intended it to work. The only thing I missed is a "master off-switch": I would like to keep e-mail configured to auto-update, IM switched on, *and* have a system tray (or some one-stop) option to block any connections.

The UI uses the 3D hardware acceleration, with Exposé-like exhibition of all open windows/applications (yes, multitasking!). It is a truly 3D, OpenGL machine. The beast runs TuxRacer, the best game ever :) BTW TuxRacer was properly ported to N900, including phone-tilt + screen touching control. It is sooooo nice to play with.

The browser is very nice too. It is a version of Mozilla. In general, the interface is completely designed to be controlled by the finger. The touchscreen is resistive, not capacitive, which means no multitouch, and initially feels a bit strange after Apple accustomed us with capacitive mouses and trackpads. But it is easy to get used to it. The N900 comes with a stylus hidden in the body, but you will seldom need it.

I hoped the camera would be better than N85's, because of the large lid, but the actual sensor/lens is the same size, and performance is no better. The only way to have a decent photo is to look at weather forecast and choose a perfectly sunny day (and wait until noon). The N95 is still king when you want a phone that doubles as a camera (N82 has a xenon flash; I never tried it but it might be even better).

After so many years working at INDT, it was so good to see that our efforts delivered a Linux phone which is so nice. It is the proof that a cell phone can be good AND open.

I just don't understand why Nokia a) didn't have the guts to put a Maemo cell phone in the street before; b) is still so timid about Maemo/Meego platform, and keeps investing time, money and other resources in Symbian. They don't need to, having something so good in hand. N900 may not be better than, say, iPhone, but it certainly *ages* ahead any other Symbian phone.

N900 has exactly one big issue: battery life. If you disable networking and Bluetooth, and leave it alone as any other cell phone, the battery has a normal life (2 days or so). But, if you begin to play with it, enabling every feature (WLAN, GPS), you can almost see the battery charge falling. As a colleague said (and I didn't believe him at first), "when you have a N900 you learn to carry the charger with you". Playing TuxRacer is, for example, a sure way to dry the battery within minutes.

At least it charges via USB, so any USB port is fair game to refill the charge. I already had bought cigarette lighter/USB adapter for the car, but seldom used it. Suddenly this converter became much more important.

Honestly I don't know whether this N900 battery life is on par with other smartphones. I have heard from iPhone users that it does not go very far too, and my N85 needed a daily charge if WLAN was enabled (and a 8-hour charge if Fring was on -- I missed wake-up time several times, just because I had started Fring inadvertently and it dried the battery by dawn).

People reported a lot of problems with earlier versions of N900 software. I guess I was just lucky to begin using it some months after release, because I still didn't manage to freeze it (while my *updated* N85 froze/restarted every other day).

One "big" thing that N900 currently lacks, is a built-in Twitter plug-in for the IM. Maybe most people don't feel that Twitter belongs to IM, but Adium convinced me that Twitter can fit as a "kind of IM". Using a standalone Twitter client after getting used with Adium's convenience is out of question. Anyway, I killed my Twitter account, so the issue is solved the hard way :)

Perhaps IRC should have a plug-in too. Actually there is a plugin for IRC, but it is just to login to a server with your nickname, it does not have any channel join logic. It is enough to be reachable, but not to e.g. follow a channel on the go. [1]

The MSN plug-in that comes with N900 does not work well, but there is an alternative in repository (pecan) that works perfectly.

What about the future?

The N900 is the first in Tablet series that I felt really compelling to buy, despite the high price (US$ 500). The thing I fear is: what about Maemo and Meego?

AFAIK there was no clear assertment that N900 would have a Meego-based OS. So, there is some risk of ending up with a pre-Meego, unsupported gadget (to make pair with the N85 in the drawer). If it cost US$ 100 I wouldn't mind, but it is US$ 500.

Besides, another thing that bothers me is: now that Maemo achieved a milestone, things begin to change again.

Meego will be very different from Maemo; it will use RPM package format, for starters. I didn't like that at all. I acknowledge that RPM is a better format than DEB, but DEB is more of a standard (in the sense that a package for Debian will install in Ubuntu), and well, there is a reason why people eat McDonald's. Instead of GTK+, it will be based on Qt (though this change was already expected). I like Qt, the API is much better than GTK+, but I never bought the idea of having interoperability with Symbian. How much does Qt sacrifice in terms of speed/flexibility to deliver portability?

In principle I am totally for unifying free software efforts, and Meego is the result of such a merge. But, what's the actual level of commitment that, say, Intel has with Meego? I may be mistaken, but Moblin never was anything but an ugly buzzword to me. (On the other hand, Intel plays well with free software, e.g. releasing specifications for Intel video chips etc., so the surprises may well have a positive sign).

For now, I will continue to use my N900 without having spent a dime, and watch the show.

[1] IRC is a sui generis kind of communication, or at least I see it differently. I don't see it integrated with IM -- Adium has IRC integration (actually the nicest IRC integration into an IM application I've seen) and still I prefer X-Chat.

But in case of N900, since I only enable IM when I am not in front of a computer, it is better to hammer IRC into IM integration, because you are probably not looking at screen al the time, and would like to be notified with sound, vibration etc. when something moves.

Perhaps you want to follow some Freenode channels without being disturbed, but if someone cites your nickname, you would like to be notified on the go. Those who follow/participate in some free software project tend to do this with XChat.