Easy (and amazing) Debian for the N900.

By the time you read this my Nokia N900 will be packed up and on its way back to the kind folks who let me test it. As a last hurrah I spent my evening yesterday seeing how far I could push it; the results are fairly spectacular…

I had read previously about installing .deb files using something called “red pill mode“; this is no longer possible, but in its place is a fantastic app called Easy Debian which does exactly what its title would suggest .

Easy Debian Notice

Easy Debian is basically a virtual machine for your N900. It doesn’t require a dual-boot like Wubi, and is instead a full Debian desktop OS that runs as an app and won’t interfere with anything else on your device — except for available storage space.

LXDE Desktop

The installation process took upwards of an hour, most of it spent by my N900 extracting the Debian image file. At one point I thought I had bricked the phone, but as you can see above the installation was a success.


Here’s my favourite free alternative to Photoshop, the GIMP.

Those large, floating palettes are clearly a nuisance on an 800 pixel-wide screen, but everything seems to work. And it’s surprisingly responsive.

OpenOffice Writer

In an earlier post I lamented the lack of a FLOSS spreadsheet app for the N900… OpenOffice to the rescue!

The same printer drivers that you’d get on any desktop Linux distro are also available, but I didn’t get a chance to test that. It should work, depending on your particular printer.

Synaptic Package Manager

And like any other desktop Linux there’s a package manager included, with literally thousands of additional apps just a click away. Amazing.

Easy Debian System Files

Amazing and easy, actually… These are the GUI controls for starting up and shutting down Easy Debian. Note that you can jump straight to OpenOffice and Synaptic, but the whole show — including your LXDE desktop — has to load up first.

Note also that you have to shut down Easy Debian before plugging your N900 into a desktop computer — to transfer screen grabs, for example. If you don’t do this you won’t be able to acesss your mass memory drive (your N900 will let you know).

Parting Thoughts

Using the N900 has been an incredible experience. In the two weeks that I’ve had it I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it can do. Though it clearly trumps my N86 in so many ways I’m not sure if the N900 could replace because (1) it’s not the type of device you can whip out of a pocket and quickly interact with, and (2) the only available option for a compatible 3G network in Canada has been a colossal disappointment. More on that next week.

Also I’m maintain my concern that all the high-level geekery that’s possible with Maemo 5 will be forsaken for user friendliness in the forthcoming MeeGo. Let’s hope that the MeeGo OS has a “red pill” mode…


  1. “I had read previously about installing .deb files using something called “red pill mode“; this is no longer possible”

    Just to let you know: In the latest firmware you can install .debs, just by clicking on them. No red pill mode, or anything else, needed.

  2. Right, but isn’t installing Debian on a virtual machine a safer way to go for those who don’t know exactly what they’re doing?

    You know, like me? 😉

  3. I’m glad you liked Easy Debian!

    The secret to using the GIMP on the N900’s tiny screen is sending the canvas to Desktop #2 and keeping the palattes on Desktop #1. Then you can switch to the “tools desktop” to change tools and settings, and switch back to the “picture desktop” to work on your picture.

    GIMP is really great for white balancing and touching up photos taken with the N900’s camera.

  4. Just installed today. Went into Apt and installed R (statistical programming environment). Totally astonishing performance. qole has given us something really special here. Many thanks!

  5. The secret to using the GIMP on the N900?s tiny screen is sending the canvas to Desktop #2 and keeping the palattes on Desktop #1.

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