Maemo Summit and N900

Maemo Summit 2009

The Maemo Summit was fun and very productive. The organization was excellent, obviously thanks to a generous budget and a dedicated hard-working maemo.org team. I met several interesting new people with whom I hope to work closely in future.

I’m very glad that this was timed with important public announcements from Nokia, so people were actually allowed to talk to each other. And the generous loan of 300 pre-release N900s made our conversations realistic.

Nokia N900 running Maemo 5 (Fremantle)

This is the first chance I’ve had to actually use an N900 in daily life. I’m not quite the target customer, because I like tiny phones and I don’t have a flat-rate data plan, but for the past couple of years I’ve been using a N95 and then a N85 (a newer model than the N95), both Symbian S60 phones, just so I can use their good cameras to snap Liam and easily upload the pictures to Flickr.

The N900 is already vastly better for my simple uses:

  • The Symbian UI is incredibly awkward, even when you discover the voodoo button presses to manage multi-tasking applications and remember all the hacks to make things work properly. The UI frequently stalls for a minute at at time.
  • My N85 camera crashes/hangs on every 3rd or 4th picture, or when switching between camera and video mode. So I frequently have to do a reboot to take a picture. 2 fumbling minutes is not a good camera reaction time when photographing a speeding child. My N900 camera never crashes.
  • The N85 lets me upload to Flickr easily, but then the uploads get stuck in an Outbox, that’s really hard to find. Repeated requested to “Upload Now” eventually get it onto Flickr, but it’s a tedious process and I often don’t notice that a photograph hasn’t really uploaded. My N900 uploads painlessly to Flickr, offering a quick way to tag the photos as I do so.
  • The N85 still refuses to upload videos to Flickr, though Flickr has supported this for a year and a half.  My N900 uploads videos to Flickr as easily as photographs.
  • Symbian doesn’t seem to have any general system-level concept of networks:
    Individual Symbian applications often have their own network settings, so, for instance, an application will often do one of the following:

    • Ask you to choose an internet connection, though you are already connected.
    • Just complain that it can’t connect at all, though you are already connected. In these cases it’s generally trying to connect to some wireless network that’s hundreds of miles away.
      This seems to be improving with each (infrequent) Symbian update – for instance the Flickr updater now seems to use the already-connected network, though it’s hard to know because of the Outbox problems mentioned above.

    My N900 and its applications don’t have these network problems.

As well as solving these daily frustrations, the N900 has an amazing address book, which ends up being the main starting point for all communication. It brings all my SIM/phone, GoogleTalk, Jabber, Skype, SIP, and ovi.com chat contacts together in one list, allowing me to merge them together. Its use of the Telepathy framework means that even more backends will be added later – you can add some now though you risk breaking your phone by using unstable software. I do miss syncing contacts to ovi.com, though I feel sure that the feature will be added. This allows me to communicate easily with my friends via several methods, without using multiple fragmented applications when jumping between SMS or IM.

And those conversations (even SMS) are actually presented as individual conversations, instead of just a jumble of messages in an inbox. It’s great to see the conversation’s history when writing a new message.

I generally find that the Symbian phones don’t warn you when they are using the expensive 3G data connection , though this is again dependent on the application rather than being a system-level thing. I have not yet allowed my N900 to use the 3G connection, so I can’t say if it’s better. I anticipate that the use of a real operating system (Linux) can make this manageable. Unfortunately, network operators don’t want to help users with this. At some point they might realize that cheating customers is not a good strategy.

Less buggy, and bugs can be reported

I’ve found a few bugs – after all, this is not the final stable software. But even this pre-release is far less buggy than my awful Symbian phones. As a developer, I believe that Linux and its commonly-used tools has made this possible, though software development remains incredibly difficult for even the best people on any platform.

Best of all, I can report the bugs at bugs.maemo.org and track their progress. For Symbian, all I can do is whine on my blog. People like companies that listen to their needs instead of hiding from their customers. André will be swamped by new feedback – don’t try this without a bugmaster.

22 thoughts on “Maemo Summit and N900

  1. I’m with you on Symbian! I have an N95 8GB and it really is an awkward device to use. I’ve noticed a few comments around the web suggesting the N900 is really expensive, but it’s no more than my N95 would have cost offline. I haven’t actually seen an N900 yet but it seems like the difference is night and day.

  2. Gah, I love/hate reading posts like this. It just makes me want an n900 even more!

    I have an N82 and have just about got it to the point of being a ‘useful’ device with goosync and gmail eating most of the phones time. I’d love to have a device with a ‘proper’ keyboard and one that had a better developer ecosystem than symbian. Little things like charging over USB make a difference too!

  3. Thanks for the post. I have experienced the same problems with connection weirdness on S60 (as a end user).

    Managing connectivity on Maemo should be straightforward with libconic. I have just looked at the docs yesterday, but it seems like an easy way to decect connectivity. App devlopers just have to make sure to give their users the ability to choose internet usage based on the type of connectivity (i.e. pause downloads when going to 3G and resume downloads when going to Wi-Fi).

  4. The N85 crashes after taking 3-4 photos and they haven’t released a firmware update? WTF Nokia?

    Not sure if I want to buy more hardware from a company that ignores bugs on existing devices and just goes “hey buy this one instead!”

  5. @Nermal: but that’s not what Nokia says. That’s what you incorrectly made out of what Murray wrote. It’s also not what Murray wrote.

    btw. Very nice review Murray. Thanks!

  6. Connectivity on Maemo 5 is centralized (no wild west of apps doing what they want) and pretty nicely handled. There’s a connection list that shows all wifi access points and your cellular connection. There are options about connecting automatically (to wlans you’ve seen before and, if you allow, your 3g connection). There are options whether you want an extra confirmation prompt for establishing a data connection whenever you’re roaming (defaults to: always ask).

  7. Nice review…

    …but network operators ripping customers off? Where did that spring from when by your own admission you don’t have a fixed data cost?

    That written, I’m sure different countries and network operators have very different charging structures.

  8. I’ve really loved S60 since I first dicovered it with my original N-gage but lately, and especially with my N85, I’ve begun to grow tired of it. My wobbly, creaky N85 feels a bit like the child that was forgotten at the bus stop. I don’t have the camera issued but I do have others that Nokia doesn’t seem interested in addressing. Until the N900 got announced I was thinking of migrating to Android for a bit of change and to get away from all my Nokia frustrations. I must say though that this N900 changes everything. I’ve hardly read a bad word about it. I just wish SOMEBODY on the web would comment on battery performance. The 1320mAh surely can’t be enough to run all that power and huge screen.

  9. > but network operators ripping customers off? Where did that spring from when by your own admission you don’t have a fixed data cost?

    If network operators sell devices that don’t tell customers that they are using expensive services, that’s a rip off, I think. It’s even worse when you are roaming, though the EU’s new limits on roaming charges help slightly, so you have some idea of what it might cost, if you know you are even using the data connection.

    Network operators never used the facility in GSM (I don’t know if it’s in UMTS) to show customers how much money they were spending while making voice calls. Network operators have a history of concealing costs, obfuscating prices and contracts, and generally avoiding competition.

  10. Okay, I see your point and whilst I’m not unsympathetic, if a consumer wants a voice, text and data-capable handset, they need to also be aware enough to realise that these things must be paid for – the majority of personal-choice smartphone users should be covered here. Surely? Corporate BlackBerry users unable to remember to recharge their handset perhaps excluded. ;-)

    For roaming, yes I agree – it’s very expensive. Thank goodness for WLAN-equipped handsets.

    But you know, paying high prices for something without checking first is kinda subsidising those of us who check first.

    Maybe I’m being blunt-minded about it…

  11. Devy, there’s no fair reason that someone’s phone should silently use an expensive data connection when it could be using a free wireless connection, giving you no way to “check”, and unexpected bills just make customers unhappy. Those customers leave when they can. Increased competition would make that possible. Then we wouldn’t all hate our telecoms providers.

    And designing phones or contracts purely for the top-end pay-anything customers is not wise.

  12. Well there is… profit.

    I understand your point and I’m playing Devil’s Advocate. The darker side of the coin is that it takes advantage of lesser experienced, lesser geeky if you like, users. For example, my UK T-Mobile provided Nokia E71 will tell me if I’m roaming. That’s great. I can disable lots of services when roaming. However, in California, when the handset uses the American T-Mobile service, it doesn’t flag the roaming signal. So either it isn’t roaming… which would be nice… or the operator is being sneaky.

    I was on holiday so didn’t need to use email and similar, so I screwed the data control access right down – but some people may be more trusting of their network operator.

    As for hating the operator – not everybody does. There’s the opinion that they’re all very much of a muchness and will try to do one over, but with a little precaution, high costs can easily be avoided. As I understand, your very valid point is that we shouldn’t *have* to use such precautions, as all charges are explained in black and white up front. And I agree!

  13. Murray, I fully understand that optimizations will come and everything will improve with time. I’ve had enough S60 handsets to have experienced that. But if you were to tell me that now, even with pre-release software, you are only getting two hours of use out of your battery then that would definitely be a deciding factor for me as to whether I would buy this device or not. Software updates will definitely improve it but not enough that I could make it through a whole day of relatively heavy use, even two years down the line when Nokia stop the updates. Do you see my point. I’m not really after predictions. I’d like to know how the battery fares now. Think you could let on?

  14. The battery life of a N900 is terrible: only about 6 hours of heavy usage. Heavy usage meaning: all radios on (online using 3g), all sorts of crappy widgets installed (cpu load meter, periodic email checking in the background, periodic facebook updates checking, periodic GPS location updates for the sole purpose of putting the name of the city I’m in in my setting my IM status line), web browsing on the bus/train, etc. No phone calls. Also, as Murray mentioned, this is not the final software, and Nokia is still working on optimising power usage (of the default apps at least).

    I’m charging my N900 twice a day (the USB cable for charging is brilliant). I charged my N810 once a day (overnight, to be specific), but I used it a lot less. It’s likely that I’ll use my N900 less when the initial “ooh shiny new toy” sugar rush subsides.

    So far the shiny things on the N900 increase my happiness by a greater amount than having to charge it twice a day decreases it.

  15. “The battery life of a N900 is terrible: only about 6 hours of heavy usage.”

    Yeah. Try that with other devices that have bluetooth, a FM sender, wifi (you didn’t ramp up power consumption there for better connectivity, did you?) and 3g. Here is an easy solution: switch off everything but 3g. Manually connecting to wifi instead of 10min/30min intervalls of checking for wifis becomes quite noticable over time.

  16. @Marius Gedminas. Thanks! THAT’S the info I was after! 6 hours is not bad for the heavy use you describe. I can imagine then that if you were to turn the lights down low and restrict some of the connectivity, a full day could be possible. Later, as the firmware evolves, things could really be looking acceptable

  17. I can’t think of many devices that manage six hours of continuous uptime like this.

    I’ve also seen eight hours of uptime in a preview of the N900.

    It’ll be interesting to see how things pan out… I’m a firm believer in relying on mAh rather than firmware updates for battery life, because I’ve yet to have an updated device with a meaningful improvement in battery life.

  18. @Dervy :
    You’re quite right and I agree 100%. My N85 also has a 1320mAh battery and supposedly the OLED screen and firmwares will keep it going for days, but I still find myself looking for a top-up by lunchtime. My work in the Film Ind. keeps me outdoors and away from power outlets for most of my time and so battery life is of monumental importance to me. Especially because I’m such a heavy user. I’ve had to carry a spare “dumb phone” in my pocket for making calls but its not a solution that I like. One day a phone manufacturer will get it and,either include a spare battery in the sales package, or make the phone with a huge battery in the first place. I can’t see the type of person who buys a N900 really minding too much if it’s a little bigger/heavier.

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