Dear Nokia, I hate you. Love, Me.

I guess the title sums things up pretty well. Remember two years ago when I first found out about the N900 and I was like “OMG THIS PHONE IS AWESOME”? And then remember back in November 2009 when I finally got the N900 that I had pre-ordered and I was like “OMG THIS PHONE IS AWESOME”? And then remember how I’ve really liked my phone for the past 19 months? Well that all came to a screeching halt earlier a few weeks ago when the micro USB port (which is used to charge the phone) came loose and I could not charge the battery.

This is a widely-known and oft-complained about fact of N900 life, so I figured it’d be no big deal. Nokia knows how to handle this little defect in their design. So I dash off a quick note through their website and two days later I get a call back. The answer “well your phone is more than a year old, so we won’t do anything for you.” I understand that a warranty can only last so long, but it’s a design flaw, you assholes. It’s your problem, you fix it. I’m pretty ticked off that I’ve spent all this time telling everyone what a great phone the N900 is, that I paid full price for it, and now I have to go pay another $70 to get the damn thing fixed.

Look, I understand that I’m a nobody. A whiny nobody at the moment. But in case you haven’t noticed, Nokia, your smartphone strategy mostly consists of running around going “Oh sweet cellphone Jesus! What do we do? What do we doooooo?” First it was “hey check out this N900. Maemo is so cool!” Then it was “oh forget this N900 that we just told you was awesome. We’ll be coming out with a Meego handset, soon.” Then nothing happened for a while. Then the plan was “Meego? Lame. Check out this Windows Phone 7 that we’re totally going to use.” Then it was “oh hey, check out this N9 which runs Meego except it’s really Maemo 6 just API-compatible with Meego. But don’t worry about buying this because we’ll be abandoning it this fall for Windows Phone 7.” Are you guys stoned?

At least the company that fixed my phone was easy to deal with. Thank you OnSite Cellular Repair of Houston, Texas for your responsiveness. And an extra thank you for replacing the broken left arrow key, apparently for free?

N900: a year later

It’s been a little over a year since I first got my Nokia N900.  When I first wrote about this phone, I was pretty excited.  After a year — and several firmware updates — am I still excited?  The answer is mixed.  I still find my phone incredibly useful, but there are a lot of things I find disappointing. recently listed the N900 as the most gifted phone of 2010, but it appears that it will remain a niche device. Continue reading

My phone, my calendar

I’d like to preface this post by saying I have no qualms with Microsoft Exchange per se. It’s actually a pretty amazing tool, especially when it’s integrated with Sharepoint. The problem is that it doesn’t work so well with third-party clients (or indeed, Microsoft’s own Entourage client). I have an Exchange account at work, and I’d love to be able to use it.

Here’s the problem: I can’t. There are plenty of clients that will handle the e-mail with an IMAP connection, but nothing that could properly be called an Exchange client. (Evolution used to work, until Exchange 2007 came out. Since then, I’ve had no luck with either the old-style (via OWA) or the MAPI plugin.) Fortunately, Google also has a pretty slick service, so I finally just set my e-mail to forward to my GMail account.

GMail worked great. Almost any device can connect to both e-mail and calendar because it uses standard standards. Most of my incoming mail goes straight there, and the rest gets POPed off once an hour (I’m not sure if it’s an Exchange “feature” or just the way our servers are configured, but mail sent from the Exchange server goes to my Exchange account, even when sent to, not

Only one problem remained: sometime people would want to schedule meetings with me, and they’d look at my Exchange calendar thinking it was accurate. I wasn’t about try to maintain my calendar twice, but my Google calendar was far more accessible. Enter my phone.

The N900 has support for Exchange accounts via its Mail for Exchange (MfE) settings. I simply set MfE to sync my Exchange calendar to my phone’s calendar (I don’t have it sync e-mail because GMail already handles that). That’s step 1. When last I checked, Google did not have a native calendar app for Maemo, but there is this nifty little program called Erminig. I also set Erminig to sync with my phone’s calendar. That’s step 2.

With these two steps completed, my calendars stay in sync. Now I can continue using my Google calendar, but my Exchange calendar remains accurate. The sync is bi-directional, too — if I schedule a meeting in Exchange, it’ll show up on my Google calendar, which means I’ll see the notification. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well this has worked.

Playing Sopwith on the N900

Despite my involvement with Mario Marathon, I’m not much of a gamer.  I have more toes than I do games for my Wii, and only a few more (purchased) titles for my computers.  However, I’ve found that my phone gets the most gaming time simply because it is portable and I can play while I’m on the bus, waiting in line, etc.  The game that has been receiving the bulk of my attention these days is Sopwith.

Sopwith is a simple 2-D game where you must fly your biplane and destroy enemy buildings.  It has been ported to the Maemo platform by Mikko Vartiainen and can be installed from the Maemo Extras repository.  I had never played Sopwith before discovering this version, but my understanding is that it is very true to the original (it helps that the code was re-licensed under the GPL a few years ago) with the exception of a lack of sound.  The presence of missiles seems to be a relatively new and anachronistic feature that I can’t help but use. I never claimed to be good at the game.

Gameplay itself is quite addictive, and fortunately very simple — there are a total of 10 keys you might need to use, and I find myself only using six with any regularity.  The one disadvantage is that all of the keys are on the bottom row of the N900 keyboard, and I’ve found myself hitting the wrong key in the heat of battle. That usually ends up with a dead me.

Since Sopwith was originally written as a showcase for the “imaginet” network system, it makes sense that the Maemo version of Sopwith also has support for network games.  Unfortunately, since I’m the only person I know with an N900, I can’t test that aspect of it.  I imagine it would be fun, especially if you’re in the same room and and trade sharply-pointed barbs.

For those worried about it growing stale, there are several levels.  In the novice mode, there are at least three levels that get progressively more difficult.  I’ve nearly made it past the third level, but not quite.  In expert mode there’s at least one level, and you don’t get unlimited ammunition or automatic throttling.  There’s also an option for playing against a computer opponent, which appears to play in expert mode as well.

Sopwith clearly isn’t a sufficient reason to buy a Maemo device (if it is, then please send me some of your vast amounts of disposable income), but it is a great game to have installed for times when you need to kill a few minutes (and enemies).

One danger of the N900’s flexibility

When I first heard about Nokia’s super-awesome Debian-based N900 amazingphone, my first two thoughts were “I want this phone” and “man, I hope I don’t break it.”  By offering access to the full OS, the N900 allows developers and users the freedom to make their phone into whatever they want.  That also means an unprecedented ability to turn the phone into a very expensive paperweight.  Just as with a full-sized computer, a user not paying attention to what’s going on could render the system inoperable in a heartbeat.  Even the relatively competent could find themselves in that situation.

The chief drawback of the N900 is the way the disk space is layed out.  The device has 32 gigabytes of storage, but most of that is on a separate partition for user data.  The system and application space is only 2 gigabytes.  This means that as the number of installed applications grows, the available space shrinks rather quickly.  It can get to the point where there’s not enough space to store repository data and some of the software repositories become unavailable in the Application Manager.

In order to work around this issue, I copied /var/apt/cache to the user space and made a symlink to point to the new location. After a while, the space became tight again, so I started moving more things out, and eventually nearly all of /usr/lib ended up on the user partition.  Everything seemed fine, so I wasn’t concerned.

Then one day, I couldn’t connect to the wireless network at work.  I figured I’d try rebooting the phone to see if that helped.  Instead, I got the boot screen with some not-so-friendly text: “Device error”.  Nothing I could do could get the phone to boot.  Presumably what happened is that some of the files that live in /usr/lib need to be accessed before the /home partition is mounted and since they lived on /home, things just went kablooie.

Regardless of why, I found myself stuck, and I knew I had to get it fixed quickly or my wife would never let me hear the end of it.  Fortunately, Nokia provides tools to re-flash the device firmware.  The process was quick and painless and in a few minutes, I had my phone back.  Because user data is kept separately, I still had my contacts, music, etc. I just needed to re-install the software packages I wanted.

One thing of note is that my SIM card wasn’t read initially. I needed to do a round of software updates before it would work.  Fortunately, I had the phone back to full use in about an hour.  It’s good to know that I can easily unbreak any software issues I cause, and I hope the application data space issue is resolved in one form or another in the future.

The first few weeks with the N900, part 2

This is part 2 of my review of the N900.  Part 1 includes “Unboxing”, “The screen”, “Connectivity”, “Web browsing”, and “The camera and other multimedia goodness.”  Part 2 includes “E-mail, calendar, contacts, and instant messaging”, “Other applications”, and “The phone.” Continue reading

The first few weeks with the N900, part 1

Three months to the day after I first wrote about the N900, Nokia’s newest smartphone ended up on my desk.  Since I’ve talked so much about it on Twitter (and since I had to lobby my wife aggressively to let me buy it), I think I owe the world my review.  I get the feeling that this review will end up focusing on a lot of the negatives, but don’t misunderstand me: I really like this phone.  The N900 is great phone with a lot of potential, but it is currently an early-adopter’s phone.  I’m generally not one to play the early adopter game, but this time around I couldn’t help myself. Continue reading

I may have found my next phone

I fully expect to be in the smartphone market in the not-so-distant future.  My BlackBerry 8700c has served most admirably these past few years, including untold drops onto various surfaces and a 9-hour nap in a snow bank.  Despite it’s faithfulness, it is not the phone it once was.  Aside from some cosmetic problems, it has a tendency to freeze up every so often, which requires me to remove the battery to shut it off.  Not to mention the lack of 3G capability.  That really hurts.

I’ve been eyeing the iPhone since it first came out, and the more I learned about the phone itself, the more I like it (especially the 3G S).  Unfortunately, the more I learn about the way Apple and AT&T rule the network, the more repulsed I am.  That, among other considerations, is a big reason why I still have yet to let the BlackBerry go.  Still, when I look at the features that I want out of a smartphone, the iPhone fares the best.  Until now.

There has been quite the buzz (or at least mild hum) on the Internets since did a preview of the Nokia N900.  Holy crap, this looks like my kind of phone.  From a hardware standpoint, it seems more like the G1, which is a solid-feeling phone.  What really sets it apart is the software side.  The phone runs Maemo, a Debian-derived Linux distro designed for mobiles and tablets.  My knowledge of Maemo is still pretty sketchy, but from the Slashdot discussion I’ve gathered that it is a full-featured Linux distro, capable of running just about anything you want.   Has freedom finally come to the cell phone market?

At the moment, it appears that most of the discussion on the Internet begins with the Mobile-review article, any other details are hard to find.  One site did suggest that it might be available in the US in September, and since Nokia World is scheduled for Sept 2-3, that’s not unreasonable.  The list price is supposed to be $780 (which compares well to the iPhone 3G S list price) and I expect the carrier (likely T-Mobile) will offer some nice subsidizing.

So for now I will wait and see what develops.  It looks like a great phone, the real deciding factors for me will be the release date, the price and the carrier.  For all the bad things that I’ve noted about AT&T, they’ve been my wireless carrier since back in the Cingular days and I’ve never had any problems.  Plus, they offer a discount because of my employer, which is always a nice incentive.  Will I end up switching carriers so that I can get the N900?  Will the price be such that I can just buy it and bring it onto my existing AT&T account?  Will I chicken out and just try to do everything on my Samsung Sync?  I guess we’ll find out soon.