Nokia N900 - Down the Road

by Tina Holmboe 18th of May 2010 (archive)

It’s been a while, now, since my significant other and I invested in a pair of Nokia N900 mobile phones — a bit over two months of work, private life, travel and programming.

Not even Nokia has managed to settle on what to call these devices – Nokia UK calls them ‹mobile phones› ; Nokia Sweden ‹portable computers› , and the term ‹internet tablet› is tossed about hither and yon.

Personally I call them laptops, even tho I admittedly rarely keep one in my lap. Bad joke aside, the N900 has turned out to be the single best portable computer I have ever owned — or tried, for that matter.

It has replaced my mobile phone, my PDA, my media player, and my traditional laptop — not to mention the dedicated e–book reader I never had, and the camera I never carried. Never even bothered to look at a GPS for the car.

It’s not as small as my bronze–coloured Sony–Ericsson W890i, nor as steampunk–y or with the kind of insane battery times that SE are known and adored for. It makes and receives phone–calls equally well, however; sending SMS and MMS are far easier, and the Bluetooth stack support A2DP — not that a cable is a problem since there’s a bog–standard 3.5mm plug on it.

It’s not quite as good a PDA as my Palm T|X — but nothing on the market is that good. The PIMs are still lacking, severely, but at the same time it runs Linux which makes managing data much easier at a more fundamental level. And no. It doesn’t have the two–weeks–usage–between–charging time that made the T|X such a delight to carry.

It’s far better than any media–player I ever had — simply because of the 32gb internal and 16gb external disk onto which I stuff FLAC directly from our media archive without transcoding. It plays movies without conversion and I can copy files onto it by using sshfs or scp. It doesn’t get easier.

I’ve already raved about the screen. It’s excellent. Sorry. It’s still excellent after two months.

Show me a laptop with 8 hours work–time on it, and I’ll show you a couple of thousand quids. The N900 lets me work wherever I am – granted, the mail application needs work, lots of work, but I can both read and send mail.

But it’s the other tricks that makes it worth while. Gnuplot runs smoothly. Leafpad lets me edit, and save, text in UTF–8 which works on my desktop system. Not comfy with it? Use Vim or Emacs then.

I can browse and retrieve information; take your pick from Minib (Nokia), Opera Mobile and Fennec (Firefox). They all work beautifully.

Dictionary? Sure. Multi–dictionary MStarDict gives me results for all the dictionaries installed. Documents To Go let me view Word or Excel; but Abiword lets me edit — for free. Read PDF? Built–in reader or Evince; my choice.

Communicate? IRC, MSN, AIM, GoogleTalk, ICQ, Yahoo … if Pidgin can do it, the N900 can do it. If Pidgin can’t, xchat or irssi steps up. It’s even comfy, ’cause of the excellent keyboard. Mind, most times I simply ssh into my work terminal and connect to an existing «screen» virtual shell. Why make it complicated?

It’s a damned fine laptop on which I’ve even written Perl–scripts. I could write Python, but I’ve not yet lost my mind entirely.

E–book reader? Knocks the socks off everything out there. The screen is a backlit 266dpi. The reader is FBReader, which handles EPUB and MOBI — not perfectly, but very well indeed. The unit fits in the (left) hand, and you navigate with the volume rockers — no need to move any hands to change pages, no need to use both hands to hold it, no need to rest it on anything, and it can be read easily when laying on one’s side in bed.

The camera isn’t excellent, but it is more than good enough to replace most pocket cameras that I’d otherwise carry — but as opposed to those I do carry the N900. The movies it can capture are surprisingly good with the appropriate light.

And the GPS? It came in handy in Paris — even tho Ovi Maps needs, I repeat needs, an upgrade to v3. There are alternatives, specifically Sygic Mobile Maps. And then you buy a 10« in–car LCD monitor and plug the Nokia into that with the supplied phone–to–tv cable. Instant »big« screen car navigation. »

Speaking of Paris … since the hotel had wifi and the Nokia has ssh and openVPN there were no problems at all with accessing work. Never leave home without it.

Does it have problems? Oh, yeah. After two months the lack of a good todo–app is still driving me up the walls. The way it handles vCards is impossibly silly and you’d not believe me if I told you. There are many, many tiny, nagging details — but there are no more of them than what the phone/laptop/mp3player/pda/e–bookreader/camera/gps combination had together.

There’s also a perceived lack of applications. You can get 279 apps as of time of writing from Another 100 odd of different types can be found at And, of course, there’s a roughly 25,000 packages in the Debian repositories, of which a great many can run on the N900 through the Easy Debian framework. The question remains: how many of those do you want? How many do you need?

The pictures are not as good as the Canon 300D. The phone isn’t as unobtrusive as the SE W890i. The PDA isn’t as smooth as the Palm T|X. The battery–life could be better when watching movies. But it sure as hell makes an amazing replacement for all the above devices taken together … pardon my Klatchian :)

If someone would just patch Panucci to handle m4b files I even think I could sell it to my iPhone–wielding friend in the UK :)

After two months the saying remains true: «one size fits no–one». But this device fits me to a T.