Nokia N900 - The Revenge of the Review

by Tina Holmboe 13th of March 2010 (archive)

Laying one’s sticky fingers on an N900 in Stockholm the spring of 2010 is proving very, very difficult. Delivery dates are being postponed, stores are empty, and there are no good reasons given.

On a whim I asked my local Blu–ray, DVD, and electronics goods pusher when, or perchance if, they’d get it. «We’ve got it. Two — no, one left».

The first three they got in left again in less than half an hour. Today they had a second delivery, two units. One they use to show off, but they don’t dare display it — so one has to ask.

Second: they are out again :)

So, finally, after reading review ’pon review and opinion ’pon weary opinion I got to hold it, feel it, and see if it’d fit both ideals and hands. Short story: it did.

The question now is whether I’ll tell the long story: shall I review it? Write the mother of all reviews? :)

Or shall I just play around with the unit and make it do what I want it to do?

Well. Ok. Here goes. I’ll start with the basics, and move up through subsequent postings. Note: there will be fire and brimstone served up.

Unwrapping

You’ve all seen the pictures before, and now you’ll see them once again. These are the only photos I’ll make of the actual unit, for very good reasons — one of them being my absolute inability to take good ones.

The packaging is, in one word, somber. Black with black highlights; stylish, some would say, and black does go so very well with everything. All required information, save whether or not a MicroSDHC card is included in the box, is printed on the outside. With a common, if certainly not required, practise being to include storage cards it might be an idea for Nokia to clearly print whether or not one is present.

As a side–note: the salesman claimed the maximum upper card size was 16Gb. As the unit supports MicroSDHC, and uses FAT32 (with VFAT for long file names), it should be quite possible to use up to 32Gb cards. At the time of writing I can’t find any such card for sale, so we’re «limited» to 16Gb — a mere 70 or so CDs encoded as FLAC, in other words, or 270 CDs encoded as 320kbps MP3.

What is in the box, however, is practical enough — a very thin quick–start guide, a 3.7V, Nokia BL–5J L–ion 1320mAh battery, a Nokia CA–148C 3.5/2.0mm–to–microUSB charger adaptor, a Nokia AC–10 charger, a CA–75U video out cable, a Nokia WH–205 in–ear headset with extra rubber–like earplugs, and an almost completely useless cleaning cloth.

The unit itself has a pleasantly coarse back, making it easily held with little chance of slippage. The material is plastic, but feels solid; yet minor marks can be made with fingernails. This surface continue around the edges of the lower part of the device, ie. where the keyboard is. The screen, which slides up, is glossy black – smudges are very easily seen, yet the material once more feel solid and of higher quality than one might expect.

When the keyboard is opened and closed it is accompanied by a reassuring «thunk» — each time so far. Whether this will change is difficult to say. The back side of the screen appears to be a metal plate with grooves on each edge used, presumably, by the sliding mechanism. There’s some resistance to the slider when closing, which also feels appropriate to avoid «accidental» opening of the keyboard.

On the back of the unit is the lens cover which also sport some resistance, this time to opening, but otherwise slides smoothly. Around the lens cover is a kickstand — or more appropriately a joke. It’s plastic, thin, and wobbly but does aid in keeping the screen angled when, for example, keeping the device on and showing a calendar or clock. It doesn’t, however, take much for it to snap close again. It makes me yearn for the full–metal, full–size, three–position stand of the N810 …

The keyboard is «full» QWERTY, with three rows. Each key represents two or three functions — the ‹v› key, for example, gives ‹v› , ‹V› (caps on), and ‹/› (fn on). Both the caps and the fn keys can be locked by double–tapping them. The space bar is placed to the right, as opposed to «traditional» keyboards. This makes it easily accessed using the right thumb — a good solution in a cramped space. All the keys are concave, and surprisingly comfortable, even for large male fingers (thanks, J!).

Some critique has been aimed at the short distance between the upper row of keys and the edge of the screen. I can’t reproduce the problem, neither with my smaller fingers nor J’s larger ones. The keyboard does require a somewhat nontraditional way of typing, but I would hope this is accepted beforehand by anyone purchasing a device this size.

The stylus slides in from the right hand side, and is nearly the length of the unit. Again plastic has been used, but with some weight to it — as it bends very little I am tempted to suspect a thin metal rod inside for support. All in all an acceptable solution regardless. Note that there are no extra styli in the box.

Side–note no. 2: there are a number of anti–stylus rants on the ’web these days. A writing method that has worked for several thousand years and is still working perfectly well today fits nicely into the engineering ideal of «If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it». You don’t have to use the stylus with the N900. But you can, and some times that’s a minor miracle all on its own. Then again, perhaps, I’m the only one who occasionally check my mail even when eating fried chicken :)

Next to the stylus slot, still on the right hand side of the device, is the 3.5mm audio/video port.

Further up is the keyboard lock slider, which is approximately the same size as on the N810. Above this, on the very corner, is the right–hand speaker.

Following the edge counter–clockwise we have the IR port, the camera trigger, on/off button, and volume up/down «rocker».

Just around the corner is the left–hand speaker, then the microUSB port and a small opening for a lanyard (not supplied).

The SIM– and MicroSDHC–card slots are on the inside of the machine; the former actually underneath the battery; the latter more accessible next to the camera. The back cover is the tear–off type found on the Nokia 5800 and others.

Let’s backtrack a little. The 3.5mm port is, as you likely know, standard on Nokia phones — and its a boon. Personally I’ve been a Sony–Ericsson fan for a long time, but the adaptor required to plug in a proper headset drove me slightly spare.

This port take standard headphones, hands–free headsets and Nokia’s special TV–out cable, included in the box. The position, as illustrated, is awkward, but not impossible even if one might think the upper edge would be a better place for it. I’ll be kind, and assume that the reason why it isn’t there has to do with internal organisation and the balance of the unit when set on its regrettably flimsy stand.

Side–note: cables drive me spare regardless when on the move.

The lock slider has proved curiously awkward in practise, making it a somewhat tricky proposition to unlock the unit when on the move. It has proved easier to just slide the keyboard down — but I’ve found that two hands to hold–and–lock is still required. This may be a matter of habit … and there are at least three different ways of unlocking/locking this device. More on that later.

And, finally, I am forced to ask why on the IR port. Not «why is it there?», for this I not only understand but applaud, but «why is it not irDA compatible?».

Summary: All required ports and switches can be found around the edges, although some of them are a little awkward.

The screen

More importantly to my decision not to take more pictures, however, is the inability of the N900 to not attract fingerprints. It’s a magnet; I swear. Of course, this can be avoided by using the quite excellent stylus on the even more excellent resistive touch–screen.

Let’s start there. People still fight over which touch–screen technology is the «best»: capacitive or resistive. A sensible approach is to agree to disagree, and use whatever one find the most agreeable. For me that is resistive — I like styli, and I much prefer being able to answer the phone with gloves. Comes from living in Sweden.

As resistive touch–screens go, the N900 one is a minor miracle. It’s sensitive, some times too much so, and precise. Navigating by «sweeping» a finger — or the stylus — across the screen is smooth, and with no noticeable lag. There’s no multi–touch, but neither is there a need. To zoom an image, for example, you can double–tap, use the volume up/down keys on the side of the device, or move your finger in a clock– or counterclockwise motion across the screen.

The 800x480 pixels packed into 3.5 inches give roughly 266 dpi, resulting in an amazingly crisp and clear image. Graphics are provided by a PowerVR SGX GPU with OpenGL ES 2.0 support.

Summary: The screen is a fingerprint magnet of seldom seen calibre, resistive, and very, very smooth verging on overly sensitive.

The Operating System

The OS running on Nokia’s N900 «Internet tablet» is Maemo 5 «Fremantle», a Linux distribution based on the 2.6–series kernel and BusyBox 1.10.2. On top of this — very much simplified — we find the X11 windowing system represented by Xorg 1.6.99.1, and the Hildon framework, using the Clutter canvas library and the OpenGL ES 2.0 API.

An internal «disk» of 32Gb is included, and an «external» one of additional 32Gb (theoretical) can be added in the form of a MicroSDHC card. The internal disk has four partitions: root, swap, «/home» and «/home/user/MyDocs» — 227.9Mb, 768Mb, 2Gb and 27Gb in size respectively. «/home/user/MyDocs» is fat32/vfat, and exposed when for example connecting the N900 in USB mass storage mode.

Root access is possible, but I’d recommend great care when handling these aspects — not only can you easily brick the unit, but the way it is set up makes for a security problem gaining root. Details on how can be found on the ’net.

Updating the operating system is done through the same mechanism as any other application — we’ll look at the details further on in the article. The unit reviewed here has version 3.2010.02–8, also known as «PR 1.1.1», released on the 16<sup>th</sup> of February 2010.

Summary: The choice of OS, whether for a desktop computer or a handheld device, is mostly a matter of taste. It is difficult to argue against specialised systems for mobile phones, such as for example Symbian. The N900, however, is in effect a mobile computer with a phone application installed and a GSM/3G radio. The choice of Linux for the unit is well–made.

The User Interface

Much has been said on this topic. The interface is certainly different from what Nokia has offered before — some of that translate into improvements, some into definitive drawbacks.

First of all: it’s fast. As mentioned in the previous posting there’s a PowerVR GPU inside, and it does an excellent job.

Secondly … it’s fully «finger friendly», which means both that it can be operated without the stylus, but also that many UI elements are large, and take up a lot of room.

It’s mostly noticeable in applications such as the built–in todo–list where one really, really want to have lots of data on screen at the same time, but where the «New task» button — for example — take up a good third of the screen in combination with the status–bar.

But it does work very well with fingers. This said the idea has been done somewhat to death. As an example, take the time setting interface which appear when you first boot the device. To set the clock you ‹grab› the hand of a timepiece and turn — by moving your finger or similar across the screen clock or counter–clockwise. It’s imprecise, and they could very well have avoided it.

The basic concept of the N900 user interface is the «desktop», a term familiar to users of most modern computers. On the desktop you can place shortcuts to applications, bookmarks to webpages, contacts, and widgets — the latter an application designed to run continuously and display information of some sort — for example a weather update, or an RSS feed. Each of these elements can be freely placed; there’s no grid they will snap to.

You have up to four desktops, and change between them by swiping a finger or stylus horizontally across the screen, left to right or right to left; the list of desktops will wrap. Each can have its own background, and you can turn off up to three of them.

In order to edit a desktop, tap the background — gently. This will bring up an icon in the top right hand corner. Tapping this icon opens the desktop menu.

In the upper left hand corner of each desktop is the menu field (six small rectangles in a three by two arrangement), followed by the time, the alarm status (on/off), the cell network currently selected — if a SIM card is installed — and the reception of same. Continuing to the right we have the battery charge indicator, followed by a multi–status field which, for example, contains the USB–, Bluetooth, and network connection status icons. To the right of this status field is the operator name, again if a SIM card is inserted.

Keep in mind: this isn’t as much a phone as a fully featured Linux «palmtop» computer which, by way of a suitable SIM card, can function as a mobile phone. The computer can be accessed and operated full well without a cellular connection.

Almost every feature is controlled via the upper left menu field. Press it, and up comes the list of installed applications as a 5 by 3 grid of icons. From this list you can select the lower–most right–hand icon to access further applications, including those you’ve installed yourself.

If you’ve got applications running, the desktop menu field will look like two overlapping rectangles. Pressing it will bring up the task manager, listing miniature views of apps currently active. With pending mail/sms/etc the menu field will also change to the overlapping rectangles, as well as render in a different colour.

When in the application manager, the upper–left menu field is again a 3 by 2 grid, and the list of applications can be accessed as described above. You can also tap a miniaturised window to return to the application, or tap anywhere on the background to return to the desktop. This function is important: outside of the desktop you can always tap the background to return one step; for example from the application list to the application manager, from the application manager in turn to the desktop.

Once grasped this function works very well. Taps are «single click» at all times — and gentle does it. This may be somewhat confusing in situations where a double–click would make more sense, but overall it works. At times it is also possible to access a context–menu by «holding down» buttons and icons. In the photo viewer, for example, pressing down on a photograph and maintaining the pressure for a moment will bring up a «Share/Delete/Mark as favourite/Details» context menu. This feature does not apply to all graphical elements.

In most situations you’ll swipe up/down or left/right to scroll, and the UI uses «kinetic» scrolling. Some applications will provide a traditional right–hand scrollbar; most often for no other purpose than to indicate where your position on a long page is.

Summary: Functional, if at times too focused on finger–friendlyness and swiping. It is, first and foremost, easy to use and rarely gets in your way. As compared to other Nokia offerings, and indeed the UIs used by other comparable non–Nokia devices, it is a huge step up.

Built–in Applications

No surprise arise from the fact that the N900 come with a number of pre–installed applications. I do not intend to go through them all, but rather briefly look at what is done right, and what is done wrong.

Before these details, a word on application installation and maintenance. On the N900 this is normally done through the «Application Manager» program which provide access to a number of so–called «repositories», best compared to the «AppStore» of other platforms.

There are four such repositories pre–installed, and you can add others as you desire. Once configured, adding applications to the device is a matter of selecting one, tapping «Continue», and wait for the download and install to be finished. It’s smooth, and works well.

Once an application has been installed the Application Manager will periodically check for updates, and notify you of their existence. This makes keeping up with security fixes and new features very easy indeed.

It is also possible to install software through the «apt–get» and «dpkg» package management systems of Debian. The details of how is reserved for advanced users.

At the time of writing — early March 2010 — there are a few hundred programs available in the six repositories I’ve configured. For those not faint of heart there is also the «Easy Debian» package which gives access to OpenOffice, AbiWord, the GIMP, Firefox 3, and theoretically all the «thousands of applications» in Debian. The most important aspect of Easy Debian is possibly its ability to let you run CUPS – the Common Unix Printing System.

Summary: Installation and update functionality is solid and easy to manage. The number of applications is acceptable, but could be much better. Some areas in particular — such as the office sector — lack features, but overall what is there is also solid and useful. The system is flexible, and a minor rise in complexity gives you a large number of additional options and applications.

Application Details

While the N900 is a mobile computer first and foremost, the phone application is among the more important features, and as it turns out one of the best integrated.

From the desktop slide open the keyboard, press the blue «fn» key – symbolised by a large lower–left–to–upper–right diagonal arrow — and start typing a phone number. The dial–pad will appear as you type. Tap ‹Call› — defaulting to ‹Cellular› — and that’s it. For more advanced usage you can also change the call type to use, for example, VoIP ’net telephony.

The web browser included is, quote «powered by Mozilla technology». This translates, as far as I can tell, to Gecko 1.9 with a GTK and Hildon UI on top. Standards support is, subsequently, excellent. I am told that «even Google Docs work!», but cannot confirm it — although I can confirm that my own JS–heavy web apps work without a hitch.

As Flash — version 9.4 — is also supported, sites such as youtube work as one would expect. This aspect is done to death through other reviews.

There is a media player, handling music, video and Internet radio. Out of the box it handles audio in the MP3, WMA, AAC, M4A, and WAV formats; video in MP4, AVI, WMV, and 3GP. Video codecs supported at H.264, MPEG–4, Xvid, WMV and H.263. An excellent feature of the player is the option to add codecs — a quick download gives you not only OGG and FLAC on the audio side, but AC–3 in video files, Musepack, Flash video, RealMedia and MPEG–2 transport stream support.

Video quality is excellent — very little lag, very good colours and excellent DPI … but the best part? Plug in an USB cable, start the N900 in «mass storage mode», copy a video to the device, play. No conversion, no fuss, no trouble. My own experiments consisted of one XVID/mpga 624x352 23.97fps packaged in AVI, and one DIVX/mpga 576x432 29.97fps also packaged in AVI. Both played beautifully. A further test with a AVC–1 / A52 1280x720 23.97fps video packaged in MKV proved unsuccessful.

Side note: if you feel up to the extra work, installing the third–party «mplayer» application with, for example, the KMPlayer front–end, will give you even more options.

Sound quality — again excellent. Granted, instead of the accompanying stuff–inside–the–ear plugs we’ve tested with full–size Koss, AKG and Sony headsets. Both MP3 (320kbps) and — after upgrading the default media player — FLAC sounded good, and played without problems. Audio testing courtesy of my musician SO :) A minor annoyance is the lack of support for folder art with FLAC files. It works perfectly with MP3, simply by having a «folder.jpg» included, so what gives?

As any good PDA, the N900 comes with a calendar, a todo list manager, and a contact application — and this is where things begin to get hairy. The calender has month–, week– and agenda views which are sufficient for most usage. All three are reasonably well laid out although the agenda — listing today’s events and tasks — are hampered by the finger–friendlyness of the UI. Only three items show at one time, and the «New event» button take the normal one third of the screen.

The same problem occur with the todo (task) list. Five items show at a time, which is not much at all in this context. I am an avid user of the Palm AgendusPro software, and find it vastly superior in functionality. I have yet, for example, to find a way of setting «Do not show completed items» — this isn’t good, Nokia; not good at all :( I strongly suggest upgrading the PIM suite.

Side note: much could be improved if there was a font–size setting to the built–in applications. Many among us would be happy to use the stylus for navigating todo–lists if it meant fitting more information onto one screen. Finger–friendlyness can be taken too far.

Side note II: it is possible to change the font sizes and/or font family; don’t think otherwise. However, the process involves editing theme files in «/usr/share/themes/…» and manually installing TTF files. This is beyond most users, and should be part of the UI settings.

There is not much to be said about the other pre–installed applications. We find a PDF reader, a notes application, RSS feed reader, several games, an X terminal, an evaluation version of Documents–To–Go, photo gallery, camera app, a clock, a calculator and so forth.

We also find OVI Maps 1.01, which is a far cry from the free OVI Maps 3, which is available on Symbian. The Maemo people have promised an upgrade, and we trust this’ll happen soon.

Before I finish this part of the review, there is one spectacular piece of brimstone to be handed out: the e–mail application.

Maemo 5 include the Modest 3.1 mail client; a severely limited program with little in the way of functionality. You can have multiple accounts, it supports POP3 and IMAP, as well as SMTP for sending; both plain text and HTML for reading and writing is supported … and that’s about it.

There is no way to specify an IMAP path, for example. Worse still, as the client gets the path from the server, all the folders in that path will be imported — I have a few hundred, including several archive folders. The «.subscription» file is not supported, and there is no way to limit the folders retrieved.

We ended up setting a specific path in our IMAP server to a dummy directory from which we symlinked the folders to be subscribed. This is a clumsy solution to say the least.

Once hacked into place, we attempted to achieve notification on our folders. This, again, proved near impossible. Only the «Inbox» folder, whatever it is specified as on the server, will be monitored.

At the end of the day we got it to work, but we are very disappointed in the way the Modest mail client works on the N900. This issue was a near deal–breaker for us.

A Note on Connections

The N900 is designed to be «always online». That works as long as you enjoy a flat–rate 3G connection — or are within reach of a Wifi hotspot. If not the charges can be rather juicy — but there is a solution: the «AutoDisconnect» application which does exactly what it says on the tin. You can specify the amount of time without network traffic before disconnect, or the minimum amount of traffic ditto. Highly recommended.

Further Applications

One of the main reasons for looking into the N900 and Maemo has to do with the age of our Palm T|X PDAs. Therefore it is natural for us to also look for software to replace applications we habitually use on PalmOS.

Here are some notes on what we’ve managed to do.

Calculator

The Palm calculator is quite basic, but with a solid set of conversion routines for weight, length, volume and so forth. These are functions we use quite a bit due to working in several countries around Europe. A number of alternatives exist for Maemo.

Free42 — a HP 42C emulator. The advantage is the reverse Polish notation functionality; the disadvantage is the lack of conversion routines.

Qualculate — a calculator, currency exchanger, and unit converter. It has everything and the kitchen sink, but the UI is off, and complex to use.

AlmostTI — a Texas Instrument emulator, covering the functionality of the TI82, TI83, TI83+, TI85 and TI86. Runs in portrait mode, and makes the N900 look oddly like a TI — but you have to program it yourself, and end it by way of the on/off button and its «End current task» function.

CurrencyConverter — a currency converter with unit and simple calculator support. The UI has presets for units and currency, and is – once you get the hang of it — easy to use. This is what we are evaluating at the moment.

And of course gnuplot — which can do whatever we want it to do, but which will take three times as much time to get it set up for the job as anything else will take to finish it.

E–books

The Palm is an excellent platform for e–books, even tho the screen is a meagre 130dpi. In the past I’ve used both the eReader, Mobipocket and Plucker readers, but all of these can be replaced with the FBReader software.

Save a few nagging details, such as lack of style support in EPUB files, FBReader works very well indeed on the N900 high–dpi screen and allows for reading EPUB, MOBI, Plucker, and a host of other formats.

FBReader runs in landscape or portrait mode, and changing pages is done by way of the volume up/down buttons on the side of the device. This works very well.

Dictionaries

Here we have used the eminent MSDict from MobileSystems with the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, as well as DataViewer from TownCompass LLC and The Encyclopedia Britannica Concise edition.

As replacement the MStarDict and various on–line and free dictionaries in the DICT format does the job quite splendidly. With the espeak application installed, pronunciation of words and phrases is available. Note that the text–to–speech quality is reasonable but not precise.

Outliners

Bonsai is our tool of choice for creating hierarchical outlines; it is useful both for simple lists, complicated plans, and project management.

It has proved very, very difficult to find something similar for the N900. The closest so far is the somewhat oddly named «MæPad», a hierarchical memo/note application.

Todo

A todo application is an absolute necessity on a mobile device meant for business usage — although your mileage may vary. Sadly Nokia’s own «Tasks» isn’t up to the job.

We’ve looked a number of other applications, but the only one close to fulfilling our needs is GPE Todo, part of the GPE suite of Linux programs.

Some others, such as zToDo and doneIt install, but doesn’t run. This is perhaps not surprising, since they are still in development. We trust progress will be made on this topic!

Device Security

Security of the N900 is, perhaps by the nature of the device, somewhat lacking. Through the Settings menu — available by selecting the upper–left hand menu field — you can specify a lock code. This will allow you to lock out anyone not in possession of the code from your device. According to Nokia you can pick up to 10 digits for your code; the default is «12345» .

For keeping data safe there are a number of options. We are currently evaluating the PasswordSafe application for details such as passwords and pin codes.

Another option is the TrueCrypt disk encryption system, which allow you to create secure partitions or containers on the device disk. Highly recommended.

Accessories

At the end of the day the only really important accessories, at least to us, are the headsets. Since there’s been the occasional rumbling regarding difficulties using Bluetooth headsets, we’ve focused on these.

Our test subjects are the excellent Sennheiser VMX 100, as well as Nokia’s own BH–900 mono– and BH–503 stereo headsets. All of them pair easily. Sound is clear, at both ends, and volume can be adjusted on both phone and headset. Be careful — we were able to turn the volume so far up by adjusting both set of controls that it was quite unpleasant.

Disconnecting and connecting work without a glitch. The stereo headset, with its built–in controls, cooperated nicely with the media player and both track–, volume– and play/pause worked from the headset. The sound was somewhat muffled, but this has more to do with the BH–503 than with the N900.

All in all a satisfactory test; we have no complaints.

Conclusion?

After testing the Nokia N900 «Internet Tablet» extensively … we bought another one for the SO. At around 550 quid a pop that ought to sum up our views on it very well indeed.

Personally I consider it very close to the single best mobile communication and information device on the market today.

Can it be improved? Most certainly, in particular on the topic of PIMs. We are confident this will happen, either through Nokia’s own apps, or through third party developers.

And then there is MeeGo to look forward to …

Resources

  • www.maemo.org
  • maemo.nokia.com/maemo-select
  • n900wallpapers.com
  • wiki.maemo.org/N900_Shortcuts_and_Gestures