2010-01-26

Easy Debian Now in Maemo Extras

Easy Debian is now considered usable enough to be in the Extras-repository, which is activated by default in the newest release of Maemo 5. Now even the average user can discover Debian on their phone, which is a big deal indeed.

With all these software packages available, words can't describe how flexible the N900 becomes, so I'll start with a screenshot of the task switcher. Click on the images to see them at full resolution.




Running above are:
  1. Debian: chroot root shell in Maemo's terminal
  2. Debian: Wireshark
  3. Maemo: SMS Conversation
  4. Debian: LXDE under nested X11
    • The Gimp
    • Kate, editing a document over smb://
  5. Debian: Synaptic
  6. Maemo: Maemo's package manager
  7. Maemo: ssh -X
  8. Remote server: X11-forwarded OpenOffice
  9. Maemo: Maemo's browser

Now, obviously you don't actually want to be running all of these at once, but the system was surprisingly responsive as long as I didn't make the desktop apps do anything particularly CPU or I/O-intensive. If the filesystem was extremely busy, the display wouldn't even turn on from sleep. This happened to me at least once while running apt-get upgrade on Debian, and all I could do was wait until it finished. Just don't panic and pull out the battery.

If you want to read about why and how Easy Debian works as it does, or see a couple of more screenshots, check out my preview. Just keep in mind things have advanced since then, including an increase in the size of the image file to 2GB.




Day to Day Usability


While trying to figure out what I would actually use the desktop apps for in practice, one thing became immediately obvious: you're best off using mobile apps for simple tasks, and only moving up when getting to the advanced parts. For example, you would be best off recording an interview with a mobile app, but then saving it and editing it with Audacity.

Why, you ask. At this point it's not just because Maemo-optimized apps will launch faster, but there are still several lingering issues you might run into. I did try recording with Audacity, but the mic volume was really low by default and alsamixer was a mess. Why bother messing with weird settings when an N900-optimized app can do the actual recording.

This isn't the only tip you should remember to avoid unnecessary frustration. The Easy Debian/Maemo 5-integration is still in its infancy, so keep these in mind too:

  • If a Debian app doesn't see the keyboard, run it under LXDE. (Yes, this bug is still present.)
  • The same applies to any problem, including sound: try running the app under LXDE.
  • If a buggy Debian app won't let go of the keyboard and mouse, try pressing the power button.
  • If you do something weird that makes the display driver crash, long pressing the power button should still do a controlled shutdown.
  • Remember the stylus! Using desktop apps can be surprisingly pleasant. If the pointer is off, change the screen calibration in Maemo's settings.
  • Hey, at least you don't have to manually edit xorg.conf.

This list may sound terrible, but living with these bugs for a while is nothing compared to the power you have in your hands. I already found myself trying to start Wireshark on an N97 and feeling crippled when it wasn't there. After you've used Easy Debian, you can't go back.

You'll also quickly develop an understanding of which apps work best. For the first few days you might be randomly installing stuff, but soon enough you'll find the ones you want to use and stick with them.


Some Further Testing


So that's pretty much what I've learned since my preview. Skinning now works better, but I can't decide whether I prefer the skinned or unskinned look. For comparison, screenshots of OpenOffice running locally (in LXDE) and X11-forwarded (which was painful on a mobile connection, I must admit, but simpler programs should work better).





OpenOffice was generally too slow to be fun to use, but The Gimp was quite snappy on moderately sized images. I changed the hue on a background picture without getting annoyed one bit.

The following screenshots also show how you can get varying results by running programs either in LXDE or not. The first one is perfect, using the colorize tool. The second pushes the OK-button of the HSL tool off screen inside LXDE. The third shows the HSL tool getting squashed outside of LXDE.







Next, Konqueror and Kate inside LXDE. I noticed I had to manually install openssh-client in order to get ssh-dependent protocols working.






Conclusion About the First Release


Easy Debian gives you more power on your phone than you could ever have hoped for, but some things need to be fixed or further developed before it's 100% solid. Even now, it's pleasant enough, but it could be even better. I'd prioritize as follows:

  1. Get Nokia to fix the keyboard issues in the Maemo window manager instead of just nested X11, so we won't have to hope our favorite program isn't one that *has* to be run nested. I realize Nokia doesn't want to patch the window manager on a phone without extensive testing, but this needs to be done asap.
  2. Get some PulseAudio experts on board to make sound reliable. OK, the possibly most useful application, Audacity, works, but Phonon remained completely silent. Maybe trying to replace Maemo's own music player with Amarok would be stupid, but I wanted to try anyway.
  3. Write a Maemo GUI for arbitrarily remapping the keyboard so we can play games that don't like the limited layout.
  4. Write a nicer virtual keyboard for nested X11, for the same reason.

Asking for all of these at once is a bit harsh, so if you're a hot shot programmer, I'm sure they could use some help at maemo.org. Personally, there's no way I can help with the sound system, so I'll just take this opportunity to profusely thank Easy Debian for making my phone so much more awesome.

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