Joachim Breitner

Giving up on the FreeRunner (again)

Published 2010-12-16 in sections English, Openmoko.

More than two years ago, I got the most proper free mobile phone ever created, the Openmoko FreeRunner. Unfortunately, things did not go very well. At first, the device was affected by the infamous buzzing hardware issue, making it unusable as a phone. This could be fixed, but even then the device was not reliable: At times, it lost, without any indication, the GSM connection and I’d start missing calls; and the audio quality was still an imposition for people trying to talk to me by telephone. I tried to stick to it for almost one year now, using it as my daily phone and hoping that things would get better, but my patience (and the patience of the people around me) have come to an end. So I’m finally reviving my old and trusty Siemens S35 phone.

I am eying the Nokia N900 phone, which is the most interesting phone for Free Software supporters at the time and, from what I hear, does not suffer from any of technical issues the FreeRunner had. But for now I’ll be content if people can reach and hear me reliably, and for that I don’t need a new, expensive phone.


I switched from the Freerunner to an n900 one year ago, and both myself and my wife have been very happy (since she can get ahold of me reliably now). It is quite hackable without breaking it's general usage as a phone.
#1 Brock (Homepage) am 2010-12-28
a fried of mine has the freerunner, after i saw it, my decision was not to buy it.
now i have a n900 and i am quite happy.

but keep in mind, nokia not going to release major updates to the maemo platform and moves to meego. the full support for meego and n900 is not guaranteed. i read in a developer blog, but cant find the link anymore :/, that nokia is working on getting the missing drivers in the mainline kernel, which would be awesome. but nothing happed jet.

but if you could wait till next year it would be better to wait for the first meego device.
#2 max am 2010-12-16
during the mini-debconf in Paris it was funny to see how many openmoko owners pulled an N900 out of their pockets :)
#3 gregoa am 2010-12-16
I have an N900 and whilst I love Maemo as a platform that is IMHO superior to iOS and Android in many ways it does have issues that will frustrate you and in some cases people phoning you.

The biggest issue for me is that the latency in its response to incoming calls is somewhat variable and apparently unbounded. The display backlight always comes on showing the N900 is responding to something, but frequently takes so long before a ringtone is audible or an "answer" button is visible and responsive that the caller has given up.

I've also found that typing into input boxes on webpages (web mail for example) can get so far behind that characters get dropped from the keyboard buffer.
#4 Rob Hart am 2010-12-16
Please forget about N900. It is just too buggy. The most annoying bug is that pulseaudio sometimes crashes for no obvious reason (happened to me twice so far since August). This also means that you'll lose incoming calls.

Other annoyances:

1) Bad codec support for audio and video files. For example, no seeking in FLAC files, and no ability to play DVDs ripped without reencoding (yes, the CPU is powerful enough to do that). Fixed by compiling mplayer from source, as the version available in the repository is too old.

2) Starting with PR1.3, they broke calling arbitrary numbers with SIP. You are supposed to be able to choose beetween "cellular" and "SIP" call types, but the "SIP" option is lost.

3) The interface for calling your contacts via SIP became counterintuitive in PR1.3. If you choose a contact from the address book that you called previously via cellular phone, you will see the options to call him and to send him an SMS. To be able to call him via SIP, click (guess what!) his avatar.

4) The audio tends to stutter even from a reason as small as the screensaver blanking the screen. "Fixed" by renicing Xorg and pulseaudio at the cost of somewhat sluggish interface.

5) The whole system is just too tightly integrated, with no real possibility to replace parts of it. E.g., you can install an alternative browser (e.g., Opera or Firefox), but the mail client will still call the original Microb browser when you click on links in your e-mail. It is hard-coded. The third-party package that fixes the problem and makes the default browser configurable works by dpkg-diverting the original browser binary.

6) The phone sends an SMS to Nokia without asking you! Install the "notmynokia" package to prevent this. Yes, the very windowsish approach to block unwanted actions of existing apps is at play, instead of the normal Free Software practice of not having such apps.

7) Most importantly, Nokia doesn't fix any bugs.
#5 Alexander E. Patrakov (Homepage) am 2010-12-16

btw. I'm working on getting Debian properly running on the N900:

About the drivers: Nokia is pushing them into the mainline code. Every kernel release since 2.6.28 added at least one driver for the N900 (and all of them are available as opensource code):

-- Sebastian
#6 Sebastian (Homepage) am 2010-12-16
Great! (both of your remarks)
#7 Joachim Breitner (Homepage) am 2010-12-16
I have a N900 and love it. Really nice hacker phone and a ok normal phone, but definitely something you might want to test before buying.

Nokia does not openly give any information about their updates, so there may or maybe more updates to the Maemo platform. Most people are interpreting this this as no future support. I think there is a lot of FUD floating around about Nokias support about the phone. All Nokias updates have fixed bugs, even some that I have personally reported, which I can't say about any other big tech company, so I am quite pleased with this side.

As for Meego, you can already install it on the phone and there is there is a team working on it as N900 is the reference platform for the Meego handset. N900 will probably get somewhat semiofficial working Meego.

Although Meego seems nice and all, I am happy with Maemo. There are a lot of applications and it is easy to develop software to it.
#8 Petteri am 2010-12-16
I love my N900, but I don't use it as a phone. The battery life is too short, and the user interface is not very responsive.

I blame the decision to use a swap partition on flash memory. Yes, this means you can run more apps, but the cost is an occasional 5-second wait before the UI lets you accept an incoming call, because all of that code was swapped out.

I could be wrong about the reason, but I've observed the effect numerous times. Pieces that you haven't used recently (e.g. camera) take a long while to start up.

In my book, N900 is a very slick netbook replacement that you can put in your pocket, and that's how I use it.
#9 Marius Gedminas (Homepage) am 2010-12-16
I love my N900. However, one warning if you decide to try one: don't expect any bug you report to *ever* get fixed at this point. In the very early stages they would fix reported bugs, but at this point the bugzilla just represents a list of issues that will never get addressed.

Here's hoping they do better with the first Meego device.
#10 Anonymous am 2010-12-17
You can use Freerunner as data terminal and use simple cellphone for voice ^)
#11 ASK am 2010-12-20
Fun: I'm experiencing the same feeling.

Currently, I'm unable to use my FreeRunner because: time is missing and (most of all) WiFi no more work (don't know why).

So, I looking for a new device with WiFi, keyboard, really embedable, able to use as phone (SIP and Cellular)...
N900 seems fine, but...
#12 Guyou (Homepage) am 2010-12-20
I'd been about to abandon my freerunner but suddenly managed to get Debian running almost to my satisfaction. I'll be even happier when I've either written a set of patches for Zhone or a replacement.
#13 Jeremy am 2010-12-22

Have something to say? You can post a comment by sending an e-Mail to me at <>, and I will include it here.