The Nokia N900 – Not just an iToy, but a lot more fun October 9, 2009Posted by rm42 in Computers, Gadgets, Linux.
I think all Linux users appreciate freedom to some extent or another and we are willing to compromise certain features or conveniences in order to have it in our devices. Yes, there is probably a whole lot of Linux users that like to use it because it means lower cost, but that is not the main attraction. In fact, some believe that Linux users may sometimes be willing to spend more money than others in order to have that coveted feature: Freedom!
If you haven’t seen it before, let me introduce to you the most amazing portable Linux computer ever to reach the consumer market.
Obviously the N900 is a competitor in the smart phone market with the iPhone, Android devices, and the Palm Pre. But, even when there is going to be some overlap in the type of customer they attract, I think that, overall, this device is going to attract a somewhat different type of user than the above mentioned phones. In other words, some people who would have never been interested in an iPhone, or an Android device, or a Pre, are going to want this device, badly. At the same time, a lot of existing smart phone users are going to look at this and yawn. That is to be expected and should be understood by all. There is no point in comparing these devices in order to proclaim which one is the absolute best device. Comparisons are useful only to determine which device, if any, is good for you in particular. So, let me run you trough some of the facts that distinguish these devices to see why I think the N900 should be the right device for a lot of people. Note that I will not discuss the Palm Pre since I am very biased against it due to my previous experiences with Palm products. (I guess I can say the same thing about WinMo devices, in case you are wondering.)
Many people agree that the iPhone’s greatest asset is convenience. The people buying iPhones -enjoy- having apple do all the work. These people value convenience so much, that they are willing to pay for it, whatever it costs. And as a result, a huge app store has built around that device with a nice symbiotic ecosystem of developers and customers, closely overseen and controlled by Apple.
Google is following a very similar strategy, with the difference that Google is trying to make its OS ubiquitous by licensing it to third parties, something Apple is not doing with the iPhone OS. So, we are starting to see an explosion of Android devices in the market, all of them able to access the Android Market.
The N900’s greatest asset is different. It seems to me that the N900’s greatest feature is its dynamic potential. The N900 is able to do a lot of things that the iPhone and Android devices can’t and maybe never will. And I am not only talking of things that are physical limitations of the device. I am talking about things that the iPhone and Android devices can’t do simply because Apple or Google restricts some things things from being done with the device, whereas Nokia has set the N900 free for us to use it as we please. We’ll get into some examples below.
The iPhone, Android devices, and the N900 have similarly powerful OSs with a Unix heritage. So, there is no difference in capabilities except for those that the developers themselves decide to incorporate. Therefore, in practice, more important than the OS itself will be the philosophy of the respective companies and its developers that count. And this can only be discerned by the choices that the two groups decide to make. Lets look at some examples.
The iPhone developers chose to make their device a single task OS. What that means is that if the user is working on a program and wants to briefly go to another program, the first program needs to quit. The N900 on the other hand uses multitasking very effectively as can be seen on the videos above. Again, this is a deliberate choice from the developers. In fact, Apple did include a bit of multitasking for its own applications. But you can not, for example, open Skype and leave it running in the background for a call that you are expecting, while you go about your business in other apps.
Now, why did Apple do that? Well, I have heard some people say that it is because they thought it would make the interface too complex for the users. Another reason I have heard is that Apple was concerned about increase battery and memory drainage from having active applications in the background. In either case, it seems to me that Apple made the choice that would reduce complexity for its users at the expense of flexibility and power.
Android devices like the HTC Hero as well as the Nokia N900 went with the more powerful option believing that its users will be able to handle the complexity and be able to manage their battery use on their own. Which choice is better? Well, it depends who you ask and for what target user. But it seems to me that the N900 developers did a very nice job with the interface and made multitasking not only simple, but even natural.
There is however an important difference between the N900 and the currently available Android devices that will affect multitasking performance – available application memory. The N900 has 256 MB RAM plus 768 MB virtual memory, for a grand total of 1GB of application memory! That is a lot of memory for a small factor portable device. Android devices, as well as the iPhone, are much more limited as far as application memory is concerned. To alleviate this shortcoming, there is an application available for Android devices called Swapper, but this is unfortunately nothing more than a crutch.
Developers are not your typical users (if you are not a developer you can safely skip this section). But, they are users non the less. They have to be enticed as well. Further more, there are different types of developers, just as there are different types of regular users. So, device makers have to decide what type of developer to target. Lets see if we can figure out what type of developer each of these devices is geared to by what they and the companies behind them offer.
First of all, lets take a look at the market leader, the iPhone. One big advantage for Apple was that of being first to market with a phone that finally offered a decent web experience combined with strong multimedia and PDA capabilities. That combined with good marketing made the iPhone an immediate success. Those who bough an iPhone were generally tied to it with a 2 year plan. Can we call that a captive audience for iPhone developers? Understandably, commercial developers flocked to develop applications for the iPhone. Apple gives developers a clear path to do so, which includes among other things, buying an Apple computer, learning to program using the Objective C language, agreeing to a NDA (Non discussion agreement) for the SDK, and paying $99 for a standard developer program or $299 for an enterprise one.
There are however some restrictions as to what applications can be made for the iPhone. Of course, some of these restrictions are due to the restrictions that the OS and the device’s hardware impose, such as lack of multitasking and the lack of removable storage. But other restrictions are imposed by Apple’s vision of what it wants the device to be able to do. For example, Apple unabashedly restricts applications that compete with their own offerings. That is why there is no application available in the app store for purchasing MP3 songs from Amazon. That is not to say that that application can not be written, only that Apple does not approve of it. Not approved apps can not be run on the device. There is, of course, a way around that limitation; it is called “jailbraking“. However, it is apparently illegal under current US law. But, that still leaves room for a lot of applications to be made, a lot of hip customers to be catered to, and a lot of commercial developers to oblige them, as long as they do not want a feature that Apple disapproves of.
What about Android? Well, as I said before, in a lot of ways, Google seems to be trying to follow the same market strategy that Apple is. For example, they have a similarly easy and convenient consumer purchasing system called the Android Market. Google also restricts development to a single programming language, in its case, its own proprietary version of Java. Java is a fine language to program with, but it does impose a speed penalty on applications written on it. This is especially problematic for game developers. However, compared to the iPhone OS, Android is less restrictive in what an application can achieve due to its more open nature and its ability to multitask.
But, there are several important differences in what Google offers for developers than what Apple does. First and foremost is the fact that Google is a lot less restrictive about what kind of applications can be sold through the Android Market. Developers do have to follow the Developer Distribution Agreement, but just about anything goes. Well, almost. You see, in order to gain the favor of telecom operators, Android device makers have had to agree to imposing some restrictions on its users. The same goes for the iPhone. Interestingly, just like iPhone devices can be jailbroken, Android devices can be “rooted” in order to get around this type of restrictions. But again, there are moral and legal implications with doing that. For example, if one obtains an Android device subsidized through one of the cellular networks operators there are likely contracts that one has to agree to in order to get it. Usually those contracts have language that forbid actions like jailbraking or rooting the device. So, at the very least, rooting an Android device is likely to make you a delinquent for breach of contract.
However, the reality is that Android has filled a large demand for powerful, inexpensive, smart phone devices. Even non phone devices, like the Archos 5 tablet, are proving to be very popular. All of these devices have users willing to pay for some applications. So, there is a good market for Android developers as well.
Now, what does the N900 offer for developers? Freedom! Yes, the N900 is a heaven for coding artists. For example, with the N900 developers have open access to device hardware, and you can talk about it (as opposed to the iPhone developers). This means that, as with desktop Linux, you can expect lots of deep coding information for Maemo (the N900’s Debian Linux derived OS) freely available trough the web. The N900 out of the box has support for more programming languages than any other mobile platform, and there are surely more to come. Already, you can write applications in C, C++, Python, etc. For the GUI layer you can use either GTK or Qt, the two most popular GUI tool-kits in Linux.
With the N900 developers can easily install home-brewed software without need for approval from the device vendor. There is currently no unified store application for the N900, but this is likely to appear in not too distant future. In the mean time, application developers can sell their N900 targeted applications through their own web pages, sending CDs through snail mail, or whatever other way they can think of. The question is will the N900 users buy applications? I think they will. I know I will if some packages I am interested in become available for it, such as Documents to Go and iSilo. But, an even more interesting question is, how many Maemo developers even care to sell their applications? A lot of them, I believe, are going to be developing their creations for free, just as they do in the Linux desktop, for a variety of reasons. And that should make the N900 and other future Maemo devices increasingly appealing and powerful over time.
But what about restrictions imposed by cellular network operators? Well, Nokia has decided to side with the users and developers instead of caving to the telecoms. That means of course that, at least in the U.S., you likely won’t be able to get the N900 as a subsidized part of a 2 year deal, for example. In other words, if you want the N900 you will have to pay full price for it. Fortunately, it seems that Nokia itself is subsidizing part of the cost. Because for what it offers, I think the current prices are not that bad. Also, besides the obvious advantages of the N900, there are several advantages in buying an unlocked device.
All three devices share more or less the same size screen, about 3.5 inch (diagonal). However, there are two very important differences between them. First of all, the iPhone’s and most Android device screens are what is called a capacitive screen, while the N900’s is a resistive screen. Capacitive screens are more sensitive to touch and therefore a bit easier to use with your bare finger. They are also harder and more resistant to scratches. However, they do have some disadvantages. For example, they cannot be used with anything except your bare finger, which can be a bit of a pain in the winter in colder climates. Another disadvantage of capacitive screens is that they are not as good for point accuracy. So, although the N900 is designed to be used with one’s fingers, it can also be used with a stylus for some operations that require more accuracy.
The second difference in the screens is the resolution. The iPhone’s resolution and the HTC Hero share the same respectable resolution of 480 x 320. But the N900 has a whooping resolution of 800 × 480. What that means is that N900 screen can present a lot more detailed information on the screen at any one time, being a web page, a video, or a spreadsheet.
The HTC Hero has no TV-Out port. The iPhone has part that you can buy that will give you TV-Out, but only for the gallery program (Apple restrictions at work). On the other hand, out of the box you can connect your N900 device to your TV and see exactly what you see on the device. Imagine being able to play games with the N900 accelerometer on your big screen. How about playing videos for your kids on a hotel TV while traveling. Again, the possibilities are what distinguishes the N900.
So far, Android devices seem to have been targeting the low end market, with somewhat underspecified devices. For example, the G1 came out with a mere 1gb or storage space available (yes expandable with an 8gb MicroSD card, but still). The HTC Hero doesn’t even have any user-accessible storage other than what you can add through an MicroSD card. The iPhone comes in either 16 GB or 32 GB editions, but with no access to removable memory. The N900 comes with a 32GB flash drive and an external memory MicroSD port for an additional 16 GB of storage which make a total of 48 GB of available storage.
Neither the iPhone or the HTC Hero have a hardware keyboard. However, because these devices have capacitive screens the feel and functionality of their on screen keyboard is not that bad. Also, not having a keyboard allows for those devices to be slimmer and lighter than the N900, and believe me, I know that this is a large advantage for many users. However, other users actually value more the advantages of having a proper keyboard than having a slightly thinner device. For example, having a real keyboard saves screen real estate, which on these small devices, and depending on the application, can be a big deal. Also, having a real keyboard is a big advantage for game developers which can configure some keys for certain functions. And of course, typing on an actual keyboard is a lot faster, more accurate, and more comfortable.
The web browser
All I am going to say here is that the browser on the N900 is a lot better than that of the other devices. It supports Adobe Flash™ 9.4, and java script, which means that you can access the normal versions of GMail, Youtube, etc., just as you would in your desktop machine. You can see for yourself here:
There are many other differences for which I find the N900 a better option in my case, but I don’t have time to go into detail with all of them. Let me just list some of them.
- Micro-USB connector – Charge the phone through USB or transfer data to/from it as a mass storage device.
- Integrated FM transmitter – Play music from your device on your car’s stereo system (or any other’s) without any cables.
- Carl Zeiss optics camera – With Dual LED flash, CMOS sensor, and 5 megapixel pictures I may finally start using my phone’s camera to take pictures. It can also do very nice 848 × 480 pixels video with sound.
- Codecs – Basically, it will play just about any video or music format there is without having to convert it first. Some of the codecs will not be on the machine out of the box but will be easily installed latter.
- Removable Battery – This is huge for me. I almost bought the Archos 5 until I realized it has no removable battery.
- Desktop Shortcuts – Place a contact on one of your desktops and with a single click you can call, email the contact, or initiate an internet call.
I wrote a previous entry explaining why I was looking for a replacement for my old Palm TX. Frankly, when I first saw the specs of the N900 I was speechless, it was all I could want. However, when I saw its price I was initially shocked and thought that it was just a bit too much to spend on a PDA. Since my last Palm device died I have spent a few months using a paper based PDA. Inspired by some do it yourself guides I found I made myself a nice custom planner. But, frankly I need more help than that. So, a PDA is definitely something I can use and benefit from.
I then took a closer look at the cost of the N900 compared to the other devices mentioned here. One thing that stands out when buying an iPhone is that you are required to enter a $30 a month data plan. Lots of people wish they could skip this part of the contract and simply use the iPhone as a phone/PDA and connect to the Internet occasionally through wi-fi. I understand that TMobile has allowed its customers to forgo the data plan for its Android device owners (although it is required for the initial setup of the device). But I am not sure if that is still the case for new subscribers. In any case, this is definitely an option for N900 users. And it is the way I am planing to use it, although I may, from time to time, buy a data plan for a month if I am going to be traveling or on vacation.
The N900 is well built and should last me a few years (I hope). So, considering the savings in data plan, the fact that I was spending almost $200 a year on the Palm for much less functionality, and the fact that I like this device so much, I decided to change my mind and ordered an N900. It basically costs what a low en laptop would. Now, I know this device is not for everyone. That is for sure. But, if you are interested in a smart phone/PDA, value freedom, and appreciate the possibilities that a device like this can offer, the Nokia N900 may be the device for you too.