Something new to learn my way around: Nokia N900 and Maemo

[Update: don’t take this as instructions for what to do. When I next turned the phone off and back on again, it came up with weird collections of little boxes that appear to be missing characters in a font. It’s hard to tell what’s going on, and I’m about to try to reflash it using the flasher. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad system, it means I dived in at the deep end and banged my head on the learning curve.]

To celebrate landing a new, and better-paid, job, I’ve bought myself an N900. Although it’s Linux-based — specifically a Debian base, which should suit me as Debian is my usual OS — there’s a lot of unfamiliar stuff I’m going to have to learn. I’ll blog about some of it as I learn my way around, in case it’s useful to anyone else getting one.

I’ve got some specific things I want it to do, that it doesn’t do as provided: I want it to run Emacs, and I want it to play Ogg Vorbis audio files, and I want it to run a spreadsheet program (I’ve been using the spreadsheet which came with my old phone, a Nokia 9500 Communicator, to record spending, record exercise, accumulate language vocabulary, and various other things).

[ Small negative: I’d taken Communicator-type facilities for granted, and was disappointed that not only is no spreadsheet pre-installed, but as far as I can tell there’s not even any kind of text editor. Come on Nokia, a small text editor shouldn’t take up that much space! ]

Fortunately, there’s quite a bit of information available on the web already; I’ll try to make clear some things which documents written by those who learnt their way around longer ago may now have left as assumptions.

My first step, other than powering up and gloating, was to load up a Micro-HDSC card with the directory trees that I normally carry from machine to machine on my main USB key. These contain most of my “world” that is not in the OS, and there’s enough there for me to have been working with no internet connection at home, for years.

I made my first mistake with it here, too; despite Wikipedia’s claim, it seems to insist on the card being FAT-formatted; I had just reformatted it as ext-2 before the slow process of copying lots of stuff onto it. (Other documentation seems to suggest it can be done; I’ll look into this later.) So I reformatted it back to FAT, filled it up again, and re-inserted it.

A while later, I set a “cp -rp” going, to copy one of my directory trees that rarely changes, onto the internal memory. Eventually the machine seemed to hang, and I took the battery out and back in when I gave up on it responding. Then I found I/O error in the internal memory copy of the tree I’d been copying. I don’t know whether the error came first and was connected with it hanging, or whether I caused it by power-cycling the device.

[Speaking of power, it’s a fairly power-hungry little thing. Twice I’ve worked in places that have had difficulty getting enough electrical power into the site from the substation(s); this hasn’t quite reached that level, of course, and I don’t see the house lights dimming when I connect it to recharge, but it looks like it wants to head that way. Perhaps a future model should come with a three-phase charger? 😉 ]

So now I have to reformat one of the internal partitions. Maemo has some of the usual sysadmin software in /sbin, but has no way of becoming root so you can use it. So next I had to learn about installing things, and using the Application Manager and the Repositories. Now I’m almost completely unfamiliar with wireless networking, and I don’t really want to get into it any more than I can help, but there’s no ethernet port on the N900 so, with some level of distrust, I had to try the campus wireless system, and guess whether it used the campus proxies (it does), and the Application Manager wanted to install a general update to Maemo, so I let it do that. Then I tried following the advice on the Repositories page linked above, but found that, contrary to that page, the Extras repository is already enabled.

Using these instructions, I installed the rootsh program. Extra piece of information: it’s in the “system” collection, of course. It seems a lot of fiddling around with slick-looking GUI stuff, compared with the simplicity of typing “apt-get install …” at a command-line like I do on my regular Debian systems… I expect it’s possible to install apt-get, I’ll look for it sometime… in fact, I soon found it’s already there.

Having installed rootsh, I tried “sudo umount /home/users/MyDocs“, but it asked for a password, which I didn’t know. So, failing all else, I tried following the instructions, which said to do “sudo gainroot“, and that didn’t ask for a password, but gave me a root shell. This seems to be a builtin in busybox.

Then I mucked around with partitions, using fragments from here to switch the big /home/users/MyDocs to ext2; unfortunately it doesn’t come back of its own accord after the system unmounts things when you put the USB cable in and select “mass storage mode”.

I wanted to do the advanced install from this page, but it involved unpacking new versions of tar from tarballs, so I went the more basic dpkg route on the same page.

Then the instructions went on to remapping the keyboard, which involved downloading something with wget, which needed to be apt-getted. As mentioned on at least one web page, it seems to be a faulty wget.

At some stage in the process (possibly when I got a new font as recommended for Emacs), the terminal window zoomed out to a font size too small even for me to read (and I like small fonts). I had to change up to a larger size, which I think was also scaled down from what it was meant to be.

At this point, I had a working Emacs, but its minibuffer was off the bottom of the screen, so I followed the instructions but they didn’t work. The toolbar is still there, which it shouldn’t be; that might throw the calculation out. Anyway, I can hack that at home later, I expect, and it’s getting late now. I’ll press on and do the other downloads that I want to, while I’m in range of wifi and the wifi is working.

Ogg Support was listed in the Application Manager, and downloaded quickly but paused a long while near the end of the “installing” progress bar. Then I tried it… but it’s not quite that simple and I’m going to leave it for tomorrow.

And, reluctantly, I’m going to go home now and leave installing gnumeric for another day too.

The remaining thing to do online today is to order a bluetooth keyboard, as the builtin one is really rather small. I think I’ll go for a roll-up keyboard; I might be able to drape it over a suitably-shaped object to make it a comfortable shape for my hands, to reduce RSI.



  1. Posted 2010/11/18 at 6:01 PM | Permalink

    I’ve just installed gnumeric; it went in much as described in various pages I found.

  2. Posted 2010/11/18 at 6:24 PM | Permalink

    And now I’ve installed ogg-support 🙂

    It took a couple of tries, I got some errors while downloading, and I had to do an “apt-get -f install” at some stage.

    The next thing to fix is to get the right filesystem type into /etc/fstab, to match the MyDocs that I re-formatted as ext2.

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