Is that Linux calling? Experiencing the N900 Smart Phone

My research involves emergency notifications on mobile devices, which, as you might guess, gives our team here the opportunity to try out the latest in mobile technology.  Yes, the iPhone is great, and so are most Android devices, but when it came time to pick my own new phone, I decided to have a look at the Nokia N900. Why the N900? Most intriguing to me was the fact that it has an open source operating system called Maemo, which is based on Linux.  And with the full physical QWERTY keyboard, this phone addresses some of the very few concerns I have had about the iPhone.

Screen of Nokia N900, showing app icons, weather widget.
Nokia N900 Phone

The N900 is typical Nokia with good, solid construction, though I don’t think it will be as durable as the e51 I’ve had (and dropped repeatedly) for two years.   The N900 screen is plastic, and uses a resistive touch screen technology. The screen is one of the many things that sets the N900 apart from the Apple products. Resistive technology has been, for the most part, only single touch, though multi touch support is becoming possible. The iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad products have glass screens and highly responsive, multi touch capacitive touch screen technology.  There is no comparison between the Apple and Nokia products… Apple wins on the basis of fluid, responsive, natural interaction with the on-screen user interface.

At times, on the N900, I will swipe my finger repeatedly in an attempt to scroll, selecting items I did not intend to select, and end up using the included stylus for more accurate selection. The stylus is included for reason, as the interface works more smoothly with it than the finger tip.

I do appear to be improving my touch skills with the N900 over time,  though some negative transfer of training occurs as I shift between it and my iPod Touch during the course of the day.  Where the N900 excels with touch technology is that when it is -26 degrees Celsius outside, as it is currently here in Jyväskylä, and I need to answer the phone, I can actually use my gloved finger on the resistive touch screen.  Capacitive touch screens, like on the iPhone, will require you to remove your glove.  Not sure that feature alone would entice the typical consumer south of the 60th parallel to choose an N900 over an iPhone, however.

Excellent Skype Integration

What is there to like about the N900? The number one feature for me is the seamless integration of Skype with the base cellular telephone functionality of the device. When you first set up your Skype account, all of your Skype contacts are imported in the phone book on the N900.  If your contacts have both Skype and regular phone numbers, you have the choice of making calls using Skype to Skype, Phone to Skype, Skype to Phone, or Phone to Phone. Great when roaming internationally, and in a Wifi zone.  Receiving calls, I can’t tell the difference between an incoming Skype call or a call directly to my phone number.  In the phone book, a small icon indicates whether your contacts are online or not.  If I used GoogleTalk, I would also have that option for calls, and for text messaging, I can set up AIM, Skype, SMS, Live Messenger, etc. No need for separate apps for each service. Unified messaging takes on new meaning on the N900. Wifi support has been good so far.

But let me not paint too rosy a picture of the N900. Nokia got some things right, but the overall user experience can be quite frustrating.    I found myself at a loss as to how to answer an incoming call when I was in the middle of writing email…. I heard the ringing and struggled to touch my way to the phone function (I missed the call, by the way).  I eventually learned how, but the overall lack of intuitiveness in the user interface is a big negative. Did the N900 user interface designers spend any time at all actually using an iPhone???

Limited App Availability

There are apps, most for free and the majority from the Maemo Developer Community. Are any of the apps really compelling? No, nothing new. If you’ve seen the Apple or Google apps stores, you would immediately be asking, “Where are the N900 apps I really need?”  Sure, there are some unique things, a Linux command shell and DOS emulator for example, but those will only appeal to the developers. The message is clear, this is not a consumer phone. The OVI Store, Nokia’s answer to the Apple App Store, has a long way to go.  By the way, ovi, in Finnish, means “door”… not sure I’d buy my apps from the Door Store.

No Caller Specific Ringtones?

I’m a big fan of using different ring tones for identifying callers, and setting multiple profiles (Outdoors, Silent, Meeting, etc).  Can I do this on the N900?    There are only two profiles, General and Silent and no apparent way to define new ones. You can select a ringtone for the General profile, a volume level, and whether or not the phone vibrates, but you have none of the other options normally found on Nokia phones.  Unique ringtones for your contacts? No!  I’m sure Nokia didn’t forget these features in such a high end phone, but do I really need to recompile my Linux kernel to enable them?  Seriously, there must be a way to do this, as it ships with multiple ringtone files in the phone’s ringtone directory. Maybe some kind reader will let me in on the secret.

User Interface Frustrations

The N900 desktop certainly offers more flexibility over that of the iPhone, closer to the Android model.  I have multiple pages, or views, in the desktop, and I can use a finger swipe to switch between views, and can place widgets and shortcuts to apps and functions on the different views. But, in my daily use, I find the touch screen interface behavior is inconsistent. Sometimes the transitions between views are smooth, and other times you feel like Sisyphus, sliding your finger forcefully to try and move to the next view, only to have the original view bounce back into place.

I find the access to the installed apps panel another less than intuitive feature. It is a mind boggling two step of sequential touches to the upper right of the screen, sometimes getting you to the app view, sometimes back to where you started. And the app view itself requires precision in touch selection.  If you don’t quite hit the desired icon, and instead hit the background, you sometimes end up going back a level, sometimes to an app you did not want to select.  In fact, the user interface’s mixed use of “cancel” and “close” methods is strange. Some dialogs (if that is the correct term) require you to press the “blurred” background of the overlaid app to cancel the action and close the dialog. Other times, there is a an X icon button in the top right corner, and other times a left pointing arrow to take you back.  I’ve been lost a number of times, which seems a good segue to the map and navigation features of the N900.

Ovi Maps, integrated, it seems with the N900’s GPS, is not ready for prime time. I tried to use it, and will have to say nothing more for now. I’ll wait for an update before I give it serious examination.

The N900 has a camera, 5 megapixel, with a Carl Zeiss lens and flash. I’m relatively pleased with the quality, compared to my prior Nokia phones. Even seems a little better than the N85’s camera I used briefly.

Firefox and Flash

Web browsing is via Firefox. Not a bad experience, but only landscape mode is enabled. However, you can activate portrait mode support, thanks to the great information found on the Maemo community forums. The accelerometer’s rotation detection is responsive.  Unfortunately,  the N900 user interface is designed primarily for landscape mode operation. Few functions actually take advantage of the accelerometer.

Another advantage for N900 over the iPhone is Adobe Flash support.  Works well, thus far. However, I like the overall user experience of Safari on the iPhone/iPod Touch.  By the way, zooming, is supported, but no pinching or squeezing, please, on the N900. There is an interesting single touch gesture, using clockwise/counterclockwise swirls. Unfortunately, I can only get it to reliably work with the stylus, and instead resort to using the physical volume control buttons that change mode to become zoom in and out controls when Web browsing or using the camera. This overloading of modes leads to confusion when one wants to use the physical volume buttons to turn down the sound of a playing YouTube video only to result in the screen zooming. Well, indirectly, those volume buttons do work, allowing you to zoom in to the tiny YouTube volume control icon, which you can then attempt to adjust with finger, and more effectively, with stylus. The overall experience is, how do you say, fail?

Physical Keyboard

Lower right corner of N900 keyboard showing cursor key arrangement.
N900 Cursor Key Arrangement

The Nokia N900 has a QWERTY keyboard, which slides out from the unit. Keyboard has a relatively good feel, and I found myself able to type as quickly as with the touch screen keyboard without much effort. I will likely improve over time. The keyboard requires use of a modifier key to get to numbers and symbols. I have the Finnish/Swedish keyboard, which has a disadvantage over the US keyboard: the cursor key arrangement.  The US keyboard has the now common 4 key inverted T arrangement at the lower right part of the keyboard. The Finnish/Swedish maps the four cursor arrow to two keys. Great if you only scroll left or right, but a challenge when you are trying to go up or down.

Battery Life

Battery life is not impressive, but not unexpected.  I managed a maximum of 14 hours of use before the phone died.  In practice, I would keep it plugged in and charging whenever at my desk, and overnight.  Once the battery indicator is below half, I know that I better get to a charger.  As the battery level gets well below half, I might assume I have enough for that last email or phone call, only to find my screen suddenly blank and phone dead. When travelling, and likely not able to charge regularly, I will be prepared with a backup phone, like my E51, which has great battery life.


And finally, for those expecting me to talk about N900 accessibility features. There isn’t much to say. The only published feature is “Hearing Aid Compatibilty Rating: M3.”  For such a capable device, shame on you, Nokia. I’ll wager Nokia is waiting for the open source community to get Orca running, or emacspeak.

Unlike other Nokia devices, there is no built in speech synthesis, no text to speech reading of text messages, or basic phone functions.  Apple’s VoiceOver, and Android’s accessibility features are where the mobile device manufacturers of the world need to be.

I did manage to locate a text to speech program, eSpeak, via the Maemo community and installed it successfully.  Being a command line utility, it has little immediate practical value other than demonstration. If Nokia is serious about Maemo, I hope, no, make that expect, that they will port their excellent set of multi-lingual text to speech engines to the N900.


In conclusion, I think the N900 is a device with lots of great potential. It should have been a great phone, and still can be.  I have this idea that my N900 is dreaming of being an iPhone when it grows up.  A first release of any product will have its short comings, but the N900 has far too many. Surely, Nokia sees this, and is working on software fixes and enhancements. The Maemo community will certainly be doing its part, too, but, historically, open source projects have given low priority to usability.

I think many of the usability problems can be corrected in software, and especially through enhancements to the touch interface processing and improvements in  consistency of the user interface.  But until Nokia releases a significant software upgrade, I would strongly urge you to stay away from the N900 unless you thrive on frustration or are interested in learning how to program for the Maemo platform. Personally, I will probably give the N900 another chance, and wait for that upgrade.  In the meantime, anyone see my copy of Understanding the Linux Kernel?

Oh, wait a second, what’s this I hear about Android running on the N900? Stay tuned.