The N900 from a Community Perspective

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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 maemo.org 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 talk.maemo.org and on the wiki page.

Comments:

John Dickerson
Karma: 165

Excellent article!! I hope you do a follow up article.

2009-09-05 04:02 UTC
Silvio Sisto
Karma: 20

Great review! Very well written. Thank you.

2009-09-03 18:54 UTC
Teo Bartulovic
Karma: 804

This is the best article that I have ready about this cute device since its official release last week and I would like to 10Q 4 this perfectly written preview, informative, brief and straight to the point with lot of useful informations from the first hand!

I also find it very attractive for my readers and I would like to publish it on Symbian Freak so if possible please give me your mail or contact me or any other way.

Thanks again,

Teo

2009-09-03 15:26 UTC
Joe Finkeldey
Karma: 78

This is a much more informative review than any of the commercial sites have given. Of course I'm coming from an ITT perspective, but as of today there's more useful info here than in all of the commercial reviews combined.

Great job, qole, I'm glad to see you're there.

Joe

2009-09-03 12:37 UTC
Art Gi
Karma: 108

Thank you Qole.

The N900 really looks promising. If the easy debian started from beginning, I love Nokia compatibility on this device, and frankly speaking I was afraid that Nokia did not pay attention to compatibility, but YES, it does. Thank you Nokia, thank you guys (Tim, Andrew and Alan/Qole).

2009-09-03 03:55 UTC
alan bruce
Karma: 1339

Felipe: The video's truncated title is star_trek_720 and so I thought it was 720p. Upon closer inspection, I see that the title is actually star_trek_720_400_2100kbps which is only DVD resolution.

I will edit the article.

2009-09-02 22:03 UTC
Felipe Contreras
Karma: 447

The video is not 720p, the highest supported resolution is WVGA (848x480). And as part of the multimedia team... thanks :)

2009-09-02 21:14 UTC
alan bruce
Karma: 1339

Nilanjan: As I mentioned, I made a Google Talk call from my N900 on WiFi to another N900 on 3G, and it sounded good. Some 3G providers may block SIP ports, but hey, this is a Linux phone, I'm sure someone will find a way around that.

Sébastien: Yes, there was Jabber on the account type list, but I couldn't test it. I don't think Skype is easily uninstallable; it looks fairly deeply embedded.

Terence: I didn't test this. I'm hoping for Maemo Mapper anyway ;-)

By the way, the GPS seems ok. Not as good as my BT GPS, but not as poor as some have said the N810 GPS is.

Bobby: The software keyboard is almost identical to the onscreen thumb keyboard on the N8x0. The Application Manager is very similar too, with a few UI improvements.

Ernesto: I tried that. It seems that there's something else. Currently, I suspect the compositor or Clutter. But you can't just kill the desktop like on the tablets; you need to be able to receive phone calls now...

2009-09-02 16:44 UTC
Antonio Di Cello
Karma: 80

Let us know something more about ovi maps (distribution license )

2009-09-02 16:43 UTC
Nilanjan Chaks
Karma: 242

Great review and some good questions answered there. The VoIP integration in the N900 is really exciting thing for me - and for all those who call long distance over VoIP. One question - will the VoIP calls work over 3G ?

2009-09-02 13:57 UTC

Thank you for this test. Two quick questions: - Is it possible to uninstall Skype? - When you setting your IM account , is there an option Jabber? Or only Gtalk, SIP, OVI and Skype?

2009-09-02 12:51 UTC

This is a good review , thank you. Does the OVI maps have navigation free or is it a commercial service like on the N810?

2009-09-02 11:01 UTC
Bobby Adesuyan
Karma: 128

Wow great review. one question, How good is the software keyboard. and also what improvements have been made to the add and remove program .. is it still same ol, or its now even more user friendly

2009-09-02 10:23 UTC

Great, Qole, that's what I was longing to hear, I'm happy that easy debian starts without any hacking. I'm also sure that once we set the cpu frequency governor to performance the debian apps will fly - there's no reason for them to lag, apparently.

2009-09-02 10:10 UTC

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