The N900 from a Community Perspective

2009-09-02 09:13 UTC by alan bruce

As part of the official launch of Maemo 5 and the N900 at Nokia World 2009, I have been given a brief hands-on time on the N900, and now I can relate some of my impressions of the device and operating system as a tablet owner and community member.

The first thing you notice as a tablet owner is how small the new device is. The whole N900 doesn't seem much larger than the just the screen of my N800. My initial worry as a tablet user was that it it is too small. The general aesthetic, as I'm sure most of you have seen, is much different from the existing tablets. The surface of the device is smooth, shiny and black. The keyboard snaps out with a satisfactory “cluk” and then, the screen lights up.

When the screen lights up, it is an almost holy moment. The resolution is astonishing. It makes an iPhone look like a GameBoy. I thought the N800's screen was amazing, but the N900's screen has the same resolution, all packed into a much smaller space, making it look as sharp as a chef's knife and as crisp as fresh iceberg lettuce. Like the N810, it is transflective, so I could read the screen easily in direct sunlight, too. I didn't try e-book reading, but the bright, clear text in the browser suggests that it won't be a huge problem.

The next thing you notice about the N900 is the beautiful, efficient interface. There's a learning curve, but once you learn the basics of sweeping through the four desktops filled with your choice of widgets and shortcuts and zooming in and out of the open applications, you get fast at moving around the interface. As you sweep between desktops, the widgets and icons move slightly slower than the background, giving the impression that they are floating over the background. When a dialog pops up, and the application behind it loses focus, it blurs and looks like you're viewing it through frosted glass. A very nice effect. One humourous note; opening and closing apps is accompanied by such human-sounding “whshhht” and “fshhhht” sounds that people look at you, wondering why you're making those funny noises with your mouth.

The keyboard is nice and “clicky”, and I found it fairly easy to use. In low light, the keyboard becomes attractively backlit. I know this will sound like sacrilege to some, but I actually like the chunky, tactile arrow keys on the keyboard better than the awkward, squishy D-Pad of my N800.

The N900 comes with a stylus, but most “normal” users will never take it out of the socket, unless they are using something like Xournal or Liqbase to take handwritten notes, or maybe sketching something. The lack of hardware buttons when the keyboard is retracted means that everything is done with your fingers. If you are picky about fingerprints, you will be doing a lot of wiping with the cleaning cloth.

The most convincing demo of the new device's capabilities is the included game, “Bounce Evolution”. The player rolls and hops a ball around a rich 3D world (with shining, rippling water, trees, butterflies, etc) by tilting and shaking the device. It is amazing to see the gaming potential of OpenGL ES 2 coupled with the accelerometer. I predict some groundbreaking games are going to come out for the N900.

The N900 seems to be a competent media player, especially when it comes to video. There are some sample videos included that show the playback capabilities of the device. There are a couple of high bitrate 720p DVD-quality movie trailers that convincingly demonstrate that transcoding won't be necessary for non-HD sources (note: edited due to Felipe's comments below). The built-in FM transmitter is excellent, too, allowing you to turn any “boombox” or car radio into an amplifier for your music. The built-in speakers are good, nice and loud, but they are, not surprisingly, lacking in bass.

As a camera, the N900 seems very capable for a pinhole-phone-style camera. The pictures are decent and the video is surprisingly good, recording in very high bitrate (approx 3000 kb/s) 848x480. The camera probably won't be replacing your SLR, but it could probably replace your camcorder.

I really didn't have an opportunity for testing video streaming on the tablet. I downloaded the gstreamer tools and took a look at the sources and the sinks available. It looks like it should be fairly straightforward to stream video from the mic or either the front or back cameras (v4l2 devices /dev/video0 and /dev/video1) to all sorts of places, including the interestingly-named “skypesink.” I noticed that the N900 has the well known S60 video streaming app, “Qik,” available in the repositories, but I didn't have a chance to try it out. I think we might see some very interesting video streaming apps become available in the future. Perhaps news reporters will stream video live from their N900s as events happen?

Under the hood, the Linux is more up-to-date and even more fully-featured than previous versions of Maemo. As before, I could install sshfs and mount shares from my home server on the N900, but everything feels more “desktop” now. For example, inserting a kernel module is made easier by the inclusion of modprobe. The keyboard is missing some important command line characters, but you can access them by pressing the function key then the Ctrl key. This pops up an on-screen pallete that lets you choose from four rows of less-used characters, including the pipe, angle brackets, and tilde. The on-screen keyboard also has lots of extra characters.

The faster processor seems to dramatically improve the networking speed of the device, as compared to the tablets. It seems to me that download speeds are only limited by the bandwidth of the wireless connection now. That should improve streaming video and other network-intensive apps.

I also didn't have much opportunity to test out the phone side of the N900. But one of the things that really struck me about the phone setup is how Cellular, Skype, Google Talk, and SIP are all on the same dialpad, and your call history has a mixture of all the different kinds of calls you've made. Your contacts have all the different ways of contacting them listed, and it lets you choose how you want to contact them (IM, phone, skype, GT, SIP). It was a bit disconcerting, but very cool, to have the device ring just like any “normal” Nokia phone for a Skype call! While on WiFi, I made a Google Talk call to another N900 that was on 3G, and it sounded like any other mobile call.

I e-mailed myself a basic MS Word document, and then I opened it in DataViz's Word To Go. I could view the document well, but there was no editing ability. So we will probably still need some way to edit office documents. I really hope Fremantle Abiword will appear in the repositories soon.

The discussion of productivity software leads into my final test. And if you know me, you know I had to try it. I had a chance to try out my Easy Debian on the N900. I can report that OpenOffice, Gimp and even LXDE in a Xephyr nested X server do start, but they are quite slow. I looked at “top” and the processor wasn't being strained at all, so it isn't an issue with the CPU speed. Obviously, I still have some work to do tracking down where the speed loss is coming from, but I have hope for seeing these apps on the new device. The size of the screen also poses a problem; the otherwise neglected stylus had to come out for some precision tapping to hit some of the buttons on the Debian apps. I think some experiments with font sizes will be in order.

This article is getting very long, so I will stop here and try to answer questions along with Andrew and Tim on and on the wiki page.