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A Mobile Phone for Sysadmin Use

My telco Three have just offered me a deal on getting a new phone a couple of months earlier than my contract was supposed to expire, presumably they have some competition and want to get me locked into another 2 year contract a couple of months before anyone else has the chance.

My current phone is a LG U990 Viewty [1] which I am reasonably happy with for the regular phone and camera functionality (apart from it being too slow to take a photo), it’s on a $29 per month plan. I also have a 3G modem which is on a $15 per month plan for 1G of data per month for a total cost of $44 per month. As new phones have advanced client functionality (ssh, IMAP, etc) and have Wifi support for providing net access to a laptop there seems to be less need to have a separate phone and modem. So I am considering getting a high-end phone to replace the phone and modem, so while I don’t want to pay a lot more than I currently pay, a $49 contract would be quite affordable and a $59 contract is something I can consider.

What I need is a system with a good ssh client implementation, a high resolution screen (800*480 or better), preferably a slide out keyboard and an option to use a Bluetooth keyboard.

The best option for the OS seems to be Android as it’s based on Linux, it’s moderately open, and it has a good range of applications. The Nokia N900 has been recommended based on features but a friend had a bad experience with a N900 that broke and didn’t get good warranty support. Also the N900 doesn’t have a digital compass (so can’t do augmented reality). While I’m primarily buying a phone for making phone calls, using the net, and being a ssh client I want to be able to do cool things like do Google searches on things that I photograph and have an annotated star map when I point my phone at the sky. Also as I’m not using Windows or Apple phones for obvious reasons that leaves Android phones as the only suitable phones that are on offer from my Telco.

I have checked some options for buying a grey-market phone, given that I need to get a more expensive phone contract to have the voice and data access I need the cost of buying a grey-market phone and having a no-phone contract would be unreasonable. So selecting a phone that’s on offer by Three/Vodaphone seems to be the best option. Moving to another telco would be inconvenient as I would have to convince the relatives that I call often to switch as well (I get free calls to other Three/Vodaphone customers).

I previously listed some phones that seemed good without regard as to where I could buy them [2] and some people wrote some really interesting and informative comments (thanks a lot!). But after considering all the options it seems that the costs of the various options force me to choose something that Three offers.

Currently the best option from Three for an Android phone seems to be the HTC Desire HD [3]. It has a 800*480 screen, an 8MP camera with face-detection and geo-tagging, wifi, an accelerometer, GPS, and a digital compass. It also runs Android 2.2 (the latest release). Generally it has everything I want apart from a slide-out keyboard. It seems that Bluetooth keyboards are about $100 each, so I could buy such a keyboard and have options of taking just the phone, the phone and keyboard, or phone and laptop depending on how much I can carry and what I expect to be doing.

Three Prices

The Desire HD is free on a $59 plan, or costs $15 per month on the $29 plan. So for $44 per month (the same as what I spend now) I can get a Desire HD! The down-side is that the $29 plan only allows 200MB of data per month and has an excess data fee of $0.50 per meg. My average usage has been about 300MB per month, I could reduce this a bit but I do occasionally have a month where I need a lot of data transfer. For an extra $8 per month I can get an additional 500MB of data transfer. That would give me a total cost of $52 per month for my phone, and I could get the same phone for my wife for $44 per month (I doubt that she would use the 200MB of data included). That would take a typical Three bill from $73 to $96.

I might just wait a few months. The Viewty and 3G modem combination is working reasonably well, presumably there will be some better deals if I wait a while. At least now after considering all the options I could find and determining that a Desire HD from Three is the best option for me I can now evaluate any new options by comparing them to that.

21 comments to A Mobile Phone for Sysadmin Use

  • You may want to wait for the N9 from Nokia (http://www.gsmarena.com/nokia_n9-3398.php), which will be using Meego.

  • Paul Hedderly

    Dont rule out the N900 too quickly – It’s a superb sysadmin console with the benefit of using X so all sorts of stuff that you normally run… just works. It’s also very very hackable, the keyboard is brilliant… the resistive touchscreen is very accurate… being able to use vpnc, openvpn, iptables and even ebtables for all sorts of fun hacks is amazing. NX, vnc and rdesktop with ease.

    I just dont use my laptop for oncall work very much now.

  • Please don’t buy Nokia N900. Its software is too buggy and also has usability problems. The biggest problem is that you cannot replace the buggy software because of integration. I.e., you can, for example, install Opera as a faster web browser, but the built-in mail client will still call Microb for clicked links in your e-mails (well, there is a solution, but the way it works is by dpkg-diverting Microb).
    While you write that you need the phone as a sysadmin, I am 100% sure that you will at least attempt to use its advertised non-sysadmin features such as music playback and the digital camera.
    Here are some problems that I personally encountered:
    1) The camera application has a setting to force the built-in LED flash off. This setting doesn’t work.
    2) Pulseaudio skips and pops every now and then, even from such insignificant causes as starting the screensaver,
    3) No seeking in FLAC files. Fixable by installing a non-MAWF-based player (possible only from source, unless you want to use MPlayer – no debs available).
    4) No way to switch sound profiles automatically based on the time of day without installing third-party software. E.g., you want to be reachable via voice calls and SMS messages even at night, and want to hear sound alerts about incoming e-mail, except if that e-mail comes while you sleep. No way to do this.
    5) The built-in version of GTK+ is buggy enough to crash when you start certain pygtk-based applications (such as Decibel Audio Player installed from source).
    6) The package manager is too slow.
    7) Yesterday pulseaudio crashed for unknown reason, and I missed a lot of calls before noticing this.
    Because of (7), I even proposed to the CEO to explicitly ban all smartphones (defined as phones with installable software) as admin phones in my company. Are you 100% sure that something like this won’t happen on Android-based phones or iPhone?
    My point is that, while simple non-programmable phones (such as a good old Motorola C350) have less features, the remaining ones are more thoroughly tested, do work, and don’t have any chance to break due to upgrades. In other words, a combination of a dumb phone (used as a modem when necessary) and a netbook is more reliable, more customizeable, less buggy, and conforms more to the UNIX way.

  • Mark

    Bluetooth

    It’s kind of crazy, but Android doesn’t support bluetooth hid keyboards out of the box. There is a third party (paid) program called blueinput, but it used to be terrible (no punctuation!) They have a new version that is supposed to fix the problem, but I haven’t tried it yet.

    On the plus side, you can get bluetooth keyboards for a lot less than $100. My Palm 3245WW was around $40 plus shipping.

    Mark

  • trewas

    Why not HTC Desire Z? It is quite similar to Desire HD, but with a real keyboard. Nokia E7 also seems to have most of the features you want, but being a symbian phone it may not have all the apps.

    I have N900 and unlike the previous commenter I have been quite satisfied with it, although I agree the software is somewhat unfinished (and will not be improved anymore by Nokia).

  • Petteri

    Nokia N900 is sweet pocket Linux with nice communication apps. I know it is nowhere near perfect, but for Linux user (like me), it is way ahead competitors.

  • Eh, I can’t see the attraction of Android for Linux Sysadmins/Programmers. If I can’t download the source code for some random app from the Debian ARM repo or so and compile it and run it (maybe with a small patch), what’s the point? If I have to deal with Java, how is that that much different from dealing with .NET on Windows Phone (well, its OSS, but that’s about it)?

  • Lon

    “Android doesn’t support bluetooth hid keyboards out of the box”: This is related to HTC phones I think. Yesterday I tested Samsung Galaxy S i9000 and with stock upgrade to Android 2.2 from Samsung this phone seems to work out of the box with bluetooth keyboard (and mouse). Like shown in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21aVbYpgrRA
    Galaxy S i9000 has same resolution screen (but a little bit smaller in size), 1 GHz CPU as well, more internal memory, a battery placed in such a way that you could replace it with a 3000 mAh new one (not original and you have to live with a more bulky phone :). So is the 8 megapixel camera a good enough reason for buying the Desire HD instead of the Galaxy S? It has a little bit more RAM but still…

  • I bought my last phone via ebay (HTC Magic 32B, $200), but before that I got an HTC Magic 32A from Portagadgets.com.

    My current plan of choice is TPG’s PAYG plan; $25 per gig is more than Exetel’s $15, but call rates are far better. Since my phone latches onto my WiFi/ADSL at home, the call costs dominate.

    My only gripe: they insist on direct debit and pulling $20 a time out in advance, and sending me an SMS about it every time.

  • Brendan Scott

    My comments on the desire are here:
    http://brendanscott.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/desire-android/
    I’d add that the in-call display is annoying, in that the screen goes off and then you can’t hang up, and there is no obvious, consistent way to turn the screen back on.

    While you think you’ll use it for phone calls you will in fact use it for other things. Eg: listening to podcasts or reading ebooks.

    The cameras on these phones are sort of marginally acceptable for happy snaps but are otherwise useless. They have poor colour reproduction, are noisy and have minimal zoom (the Desire’s camera is useless photographing anything past about 2 or 3 metres – I can’t use it to photograph people in the backyard if I’m inside) and the UI to zoom is not easy. I wouldn’t buy any mobile based on the camera.

    Last time I looked bluetooth keyboards were not set up for Android, but times change. Some places assert that android drivers are available.

    All that said, I really like my Desire and I’d buy it again.

  • TK

    I also suggest to think Nokia E7 as an option. It isn’t in stores yet but should arrive soon. It has most of your specs apart from screen resolution (800*480 or better) having slightly smaller 4″ OLED screen at 640*360. It has psysical slide out keyboard. OS is Symbian^3 (same as Nokia N8). It’s said to get future Symbian updates for free. New 3rd party apps utilizing Symbian^3 are coming at increasing rate.

  • etbe

    Alexander: Regarding the crash that made the phone not ring, I’ve had that sort of thing happen with lots of phones. My memory of the ancient phones (~10 years ago) was that they were better in this regard, but maybe it was because I just used them less. Any phone has a significant amount of software that probably has bugs.

    trewas: The Desire Z sounds nice, but unfortunately my telco doesn’t offer it.

    Lon: In photography the amount of light that hits each CCD element (pixel) determines the minimum shutter time. So if you have more pixels with the same lens size then you need to have a slower shutter speed and/or just have pictures that suck when the lighting is poor. So more megapixels isn’t necessarily good. The 5MP camera in my Viewty is pretty good, 5MP is enough to show a lot of detail but it is still usable in adverse lighting. The big problem with the Viewty camera is that it’s really slow to start up and to take a picture. I’m not sure that 8MP is an advantage for a device with a small lens.

    Does anyone know of a good site that reviews phone cameras and NOTHING else about the phone? Reading through lengthy phone reviews to find the review of the camera (which is often done by someone who knows little about cameras) isn’t very productive.

    http://www.cyanogenmod.com/about
    http://xkcd.com/349/

    krc: There is Cyanogenmod for some Android phones, but I have no plans to use it. I can’t hack the software for every electronic device I own, sometimes I just need to have something work – even having some bugs that the manufacturer doesn’t care to fix can be better than having it in a permanent stage of tracking Debian/Unstable or something similar. I might buy a second hand Android phone as Rusty suggests and hack it. Maybe I can have a second Android running Cyanogenmod that talks via Wifi to my primary phone that runs something stable – not that Cyanogenmod is inherently unstable, it’s just that when I start fiddling with things the sharks attack.

    TK: Does Symbian have cool apps like the Google one that names stars?

  • Lon

    etbe: Not a good site, and only in Norwegian, but: http://www.amobil.no/artikler/norges_beste_kameramobil/79081 looks at phone cameras. Their rank: 1) Nokia N8, 2) Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 and Samsung Galaxy S, 4) Sony Ericsson Vivaz, 5) Apple Iphone 4 and 6) HTC Desire HD.

  • etbe

    I’ve just played with a HTC Desire HD at a store, the photos seem good, the geo-tagging feature is nice, and the UI seems OK (not great – but it might seem better with practice). The screen is really good and the on-screen keyboard is more usable than I’m used to, the feature that allows the screen contents to rotate when the phone is turned seems potentially very useful for ssh sessions.

    I’ve just noticed that the iPhone 4 has a 960*640 screen which is 60% more pixels than the Desire HD. Presumably other companies such as HTC will now scramble to catch up in the pixel race so I may wait for a few months and see if something significantly better comes out.

    Lon: Thanks a lot for that reference! The article (when translated) says: “In the mobile industry is faced with the need for much extra processing for the images to look good, because there is no room for large optics and large image sensors that receive sufficient amount of light”.

    IMHO that’s overstating the case. I have yet to see a camera-phone that couldn’t be redesigned in a trivial way to give a better camera functionality. It appears that the limiting factor is the thickness of phone which limits the maximum focal length and therefore the maximum area (I presume it’s safe to assume that Fresnel lenses are not viable for cameras). My LG U990 Viewty is 14.8mm thick, I would be happy with something a bit thicker if it gave a better picture, 30mm wouldn’t be a problem (my first few mobile phones were thicker than that and had no camera). Maybe a design could have the camera stick out and have the main body of the phone be 15mm thick while the camera part was 30mm. Also having the camera in a central part of the phone (underneath the touch-screen) probably loses at least 1mm of focal length. It seems that the amount of light captured will be the square of the focal length, so an ideal (IMHO) camera design could have twice the depth of a Viewty, 4* the light captured, and therefore have an 8MP camera with a better response in adverse light than the Viewty (which is pretty good for a phone but crap for a camera).

  • etbe

    It would be nice if some camera phones offered RAW storage. The last time I bought a micro-SD card for a phone I got a 2G card for $10, there’s no reason why RAW images can’t be stored. Some people might consider it silly to use a lossless storage format for pictures that are already low quality due to the optics, but IMHO you already lose enough detail through the tiny lens and it’s best not to lose any more.

    Is this something that Cyanogenmod or similar could provide.

    Lon: It would be good if you could assist Google translation, I’m sure that “Childhood diseases” isn’t the best translation for part of the article, maybe “teething problems” would be better. ;)

  • Paul

    You can save RAW with the N900…

  • etbe

    http://www.amobil.no/artikler/flere_satser_paa_kameramobiler/79338

    The above article says that LG will make a phone with Pentax optics which includes optical zoom (AFAIK a first for a camera phone). If such a phone has a screen of equal resolution to the iPhone 4 or better then it would be very appealing. Also Olympus is apparently considering the purchase of a phone company, that has the potential for a good camera phone.

    Also in regard to camera size, the trend towards tiny batteries is a bad one IMHO. Having a thicker camera with a bigger battery would be a good thing.

  • Lon

    etbe: Don’t think I have the time and energy to translate the article :)
    The site is not exactly dpreview.com, but it is for example kind of interesting to see that they rate Desire HD so low compared to Galaxy S.

  • etbe

    Lon: Last time I looked at Google Translations you didn’t have to translate an entire article. You could translate a paragraph that you believed was translated incorrectly.

    As for the Desire HD being rated badly, they did note that they only selected the best of the camera-phones for testing. Being the “worst of the best” isn’t too bad. Also the main failing of the Desire HD was the processing that’s done in software, if it was possible to use Cyanogenmod or something to get RAW files out of it then it would probably score a lot better.

  • Lon

    etbe: When it comes to the paragraph about N8 the Norwegian word “barnesykdommer” is actually “childhood diseases”. :) It is often used when you talk about some problems that will hopefully disappear with later fixes. In this case they write that new version of the OS could mainly be the reason for the small things they complain about in the N8.

  • One comment – our mutual friend who had warranty problems with his N900 bought it as a grey import – my one direct from Amazon hasn’t had that USB connector of death issue (yet)..
    Also puzzled by Alex’s comment on not being able to turn the LED flash off when taking photos with the N900, I’ve never had a problem with that. As for PulseAudio, well in my experience that’s pretty broken whatever platform it’s on, unfortunately Ubuntu seems to want to tie KDE into it so I’m having a devil of a time trying to disable it to get my audio working again (ALSA works fine)..