Help my find a Smartphone for my Linux addicted dad?
December 2, 2010 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Can you help me find a smartphone to give my dad for Christmas? All his colleagues seem to have gotten iPhones. He is somewhat of a Linux geek tough, so I'm thinking a phone more in that spirit.

My dad is really a hard person to find Christmas/Birthday gifts for.
Mainly, when he wants something, he buys it right away, and his interests are pretty much only tech/gadgets and music (which he also gets himself when he wants something).

But, lately, I've heard him talk about how all his colleagues at work all got themselves iPhones and how they keep talking about their iPhones....

I think I can definitely sense a good measure of interest/jealousy (lol) and he didn't go ahead and buy one which means it give me the window of opportunity to get him one for Christmas before he decides to buy one for himself.

I'm not thinking about an iPhone tough, and my dad pretty much never touched and never wanted anything to do with Mac, iPods and the such. (I suspect that's why he hasn't got an iPhone yet)
Maybe another, similar-ish smartphone?
Mainly, my dad is a fervent Linux user and by his own accounts he loves to tinker around and give himself an hard time with complicated open source programs he got to figure out by himself.


I'm not too bad at tech (heck studied in 3d art for videogames) but I'm really not versed into either smartphones, Android, Linux and other community-made OS, and all that stuff.
So I don't really know which model would hold the most appeal/ be the smartest (oh oh oh I pun'ed sorry) choice.

Amongst criteria I'd be looking for:

-possibility to work with Linux (d'huh)

-apps. Seems it's a huge part of the appeal of the iPhone and they seem to strike my father's interests. He talked to us about the medical apps on the iPhone a few times, clearly with interest.

-good battery life. My dad got a cellphone but he never lets it open (to everyone's total infuriation) because the battery drains easily. I hope to find him something that hopefully doesn't die in 3 hours (like the first models smartphones).

-Not too small keys/screen/adjustable font size maybe? His vision isn't the best due to age, and he got big fingers. :)

-Not TOO deep in the dark side of the geeky, open-source, program-yourself realm? MY dad loves to tinker with Linux and stuff but he is not a pro. He's self-taught and he's enthusiastic and likes to make his own life complicated but he's got his limits. I'm not looking for suggestions of hacked phones with custom firmware and whatnot that he won't be able to get help for if trouble arises.

Maybe my expectations are too harsh/unrealistic but as I said, I have no idea on how these work.

So far, I've typed "Linux smartphone" and got stuff like or but I don't really know up from down in there.

So, please fellow mefites, help!

Thanks in advance!

P.S: Anyone knows if "setting up" your smartphone with Bell Mobility Canada is any complicated?
posted by CelebrenIthil to Technology (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Addendum: My dad still got himself Windows (I think it's Vista (yes yes we both know, bad OS)) on one of his computers so he'd be able to manage a smartphone that works with windows and not Linux.
posted by CelebrenIthil at 12:27 PM on December 2, 2010

The Android OS is based on Linux. Functionally, for most users, this doesn't make much difference, and doesn't even mean that it'll be easier to sync with a Linux computer. It does mean that if you got him an Android phone and he felt like taking on a minor challenge in the furure, he could root it and get a much more "Linuxy" experience probing around under the hood. It's really hard to screw up a phone permanently with such tinkering, if you manage to break the OS you can always flash it back to the official version.

I'm not experienced with all smartphone OS's, but I've got an original Motorola Droid that I love, and that I never really "sync" with any computer. It can present the contents of its memory card as if it were a generic USB flash drive to allow me to move music and pictures back and forth (this should work with any OS,) and otherwise everything is kept up to date through the cloud. The iPhone is designed to sync through iTunes and iTunes alone, but it sounds like you can also get it going under Linux (with some tinkering and swearing, as usual.)
posted by contraption at 12:43 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hi CelebrenIthil,

A few questions:
What carrier is he on? Are you looking to stay there or move?
Would he be okay with just a touch screen keyboard, or do you think a hardware keyboard would be better?

And a few thoughts:
If you decide to go the Android route, there isn't really any "syncing" to happen. There is no official program that will sync your music/files with your phone. He would be able to plug the phone in and access the SD card to add music and files.

On Windows, you can sync music with WinAmp.
On Linux, you can sync music with Banshee

My personal suggestion would be with an Android phone, but I can follow up with some more specifics after you let me know about the carrier/keyboard.
posted by babble at 12:45 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If your dad is with Bell, either the Samsung Galaxy S or HTC Desire Z is your best bet. Both phones are Android phones with a large hacking community to support your dad. He'll be able to tweak his phone to his heart's desire, and the xda developers forums will help him with that.

I personally have the Galaxy S and think it's a better phone than the Desire, but lots of people have had issues with the GPS and others have issues with their phone breaking when they try to put hacks on the Canadian version of the phone. I have actually had the same issues, but I was persistent enough with hacking to find solutions and my phone now works exactly the way I want it. I now prefer it over the iPhone4 even though I really think the iPhone 4 is an incredibly good.

Battery life on the Galaxy S is excellent after hacking, was poor before hacking. But you can buy 2 spare batteries for like $12 online if you look around.
posted by ajackson at 12:51 PM on December 2, 2010

Palm phones (Palm Pre, Pre Plus, and Pixie - Verizon and Sprint) use the WebOS operating system which (I've heard) is a linux type dealie. I'm not a linux guy at all. But I have a Palm Pre and they are way customizable - almost ridiculously so.
posted by thatguyjeff at 12:55 PM on December 2, 2010

Best answer: Also to answer your other questions:

Setting up a smartphone on Bell is no problem. Just bring it to any store that sells Bell phones.

The Desire Z has a hardware keyboard, but the Galaxy S has a software program called Swype, which is extremely easy to use, even with large hands. It works by sliding your phone around the keyboard, only releasing your finger when you type in another word, and you don't even have to be that accurate. So I think both phones will work just fine.

All Android phones have the ability to increase the font size.

No other app market is better/bigger than Apple's (300,000+ apps), but Android is second place (100,000+ apps) and growing fast. No other company even comes close.
posted by ajackson at 1:11 PM on December 2, 2010

I'm loving my new Galaxy S phone - the Samsung Vibrant over t-mobile, decent battery life (unlike sprints two android phones) very hackable and a fantastic screen. Android so loads of apps.
posted by zeoslap at 1:17 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Nokia N900 is basically a small linux computer with phone capabilities. I have one of its precursors, the N800, and it definitely lives in get-your-hands-dirty-it's-so-geeky land. That will either be a pro, or a con, depending on your father's needs.
posted by malaprohibita at 1:34 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If he's a true Linux-addict geek, he wants the Nokia E7 when it launches early next year.

Android uses the Linux kernel, but none of the userspace stuff is there, only Dalvik. Maemo and MeeGo, on the other hand, actually run Linux in the traditional sense of the word.

A friend of mine ended up with the at&t version of the Galaxy S the other day. I was underwhelmed. It didn't really do anything software-wise my N900 didn't, it didn't seem faster, despite the higher CPU speed, and the UI wasn't really any better, just different.

The screen was really nice though. It did have that going for it. Supposedly the newer Nokia screens are competitive, though.

Anyway, all that is to say that Android is no better to a Linux geek than an iPhone or a Symbian phone or a Blackberry. That's not to say he might not prefer Android or even the iPhone to Maemo or MeeGo, but that's got nothing to do with Linux-geekiness.

FWIW, I want for no program on my N900, despite the absurdly low number of available applications in the Ovi Store.
posted by wierdo at 1:47 PM on December 2, 2010

On not preview: Drat, beaten by malaprohibita!
posted by wierdo at 1:48 PM on December 2, 2010

Samsung Galaxy S. Android & 4.0" screen.
HTC EVO. Android & 4.3" screen

Apps galore!
posted by blue_beetle at 2:40 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you can get him a G1 or G2 Developer Edition, that would be pretty geeky. Even more geek points if you can get one that Google gave out to their employees. They are unlocked and don't have any restrictions on them (and you technically aren't supposed to have one :p)
posted by darkgroove at 2:47 PM on December 2, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks people, all your answers are great and informative! I'll have to give multiple best answers and favorites all around!
That narrows my choices down: I'm still overwhelmed but you are all great help.

I'll try to answer/give precisions to a bunch of stuff I've seen asked/brought about in your comments, sorry I'll answer a bit haphazardly:

-I believe my dad will stay with Bell Mobility Canada, but I can't vow to anything.

-About the touch screen keyboard vs hardware keyboard, I guess wherever you think is the easiest to use for someone with big fingers and not the best sight up close?

-He'll have no problem accessing the SD card and stuff without any synching program, but I'm a bit worried about having to squarely hack the phone. But, I guess he can be up to some customizing.

-I don't know if he'd prefer a phone that is basically a mini linux computer or one with the droid OS thing. I think he'd manage with both well?

-He has a car GPS already so I guess if the phone one fails it's not the end of the world. :)

-Yes, battery life extremely important. That's his main issue with his current cell phone.
The Galaxy S sounds interesting but is it plenty complicated to perform the battery life enhancing hack?

-Android apps sounds plenty good!

-Nokia E7 launches when? My dad's birthday is in January... :)

-Hahahah darkgroove, that be way too geeky and probably over my means. ;)

That is all I can think of right now.
I'm still taking up comments/ info/ testimonies/ reviews if more people are up to!
Thanks everyone!
posted by CelebrenIthil at 4:08 PM on December 2, 2010

Gah, I mis-named the MeeGo device. They look the same, so I get confused sometimes. E7 is the new S^3 (symbian) Eseries. N9 is the one that will be running MeeGo. S^3 is pretty nice, but not at all what you're looking for.

E7 should be shipping in the next couple of weeks. N9, who knows? Originally it was supposed to be shipping nowish, but a couple of months ago they said it'll be sometime in Q1.
posted by wierdo at 5:13 PM on December 2, 2010

Best answer: I am a Linux nerd, and I own an n900. It runs Maemo Linux, and is very similar to Debian / Ubuntu under the hood. There are some very nice benefits from having a Linux phone closer to normal. Multitasking is pretty sweet, and I'm told among the best on smartphones. The Instant Messaging/texting app is very nice. And I don't have to hack it at all. And a lot of programs that run on Ubuntu build and work just fine on Maemo. That said, it's also a very expensive gift. I paid like 600 for mine. It's now like 350 USD.

And there are some problems with it. The camera does terrible in low (ie indoor) light. Music playback will stutter during file operations, like downloading software upgrades. Which it does daily in the background at like 5pm. And while it has plenty of apps that you'll find on Ubuntu netbooks and terminals, there's not as many apps using the sensors in imaginative but useful ways. For example, the barcode scanner is not great, and Ovi Maps is not very impressive.

But most importantly, it's GSM only, and Bell Mobility Canada is CDMA. And as far as I can tell, the N9 won't support Bell Mobility either. So Nokia's linux offering is not the right pick for your father, I'd say. Android is a plenty stable Linux smartphone pick for a guy who's willing to install Windows just to be sure.
posted by pwnguin at 5:18 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

pwnguin, Bell now has an HSPA network in addition to their old CDMA network. This is how they have the iPhone now.
posted by wierdo at 5:26 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

And I should also mention that the N900 only does 3G on wind in Canada and T-Mobile in the US. N9 will be penta-band like C7, E7, and N8, so it'll work on any GSM or UMTS/HSPA network.

(unless US carriers start putting it at 700MHz, but that looks like it'll be LTE-only..for now)
posted by wierdo at 5:32 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

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