[Updated Dec 7] — Neo900.org has begun production of its open source Neo900 phone, an update to the Nokia N900 that can run GTA04 (OpenMoko Debian), Maemo, and other distros.
Germany-based Neo900.org was announced in October, as a spinoff from OpenPhoenux, which itself was a spinoff from the splintered OpenMoko open source smartphone project.
The Neo900 project, which is backed by OpenPhoenux and hardware partner Golden Delicious Computers, has begun building prototypes for a build of 200 of the 1GHz, 3.5-inch Neo900 smartphones for early crowdfunders this fall. As reported by TheDroidGuy, now that an initial crowd-funding goal of 25,000 Euros has been reached, the project has moved on to Phase 5, which calls for new pre-orders and the production of 1,000 phones due in 2Q or 3Q 2014.
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A 100 Euro ($137) donation will act as a rebate for the phones, while those who pony up 1,500 Euros will jump to the head of the line to get one of the early prototypes. Current owners of Nokia N900 phones can also buy a replacement motherboard from Golden Delicious that offers new features like a faster CPU, more RAM, LTE support, USB OTG, and improved GPS.
The external design of the Neo900 phone was borrowed primarily from Nokia’s orphaned Nokia N900 smartphone, but internals and firmware more closely reflect the small-run OpenPhoenux GTA04, a variation on the earlier OpenMoko Neo FreeRunner. The N900 ran the Maemo-influenced Mer smartphone branch of MeeGo LInux. Once Nokia pivoted to Windows Phone, and it became clear that the Tizen project would borrow very little from MeeGo, N900 fans started looking around for a new project to continue the Maemo/Mer/MeeGo dream.
As is often the case in open source projects, they did not all agree on the same direction. The most visible spinoff from the N900 community is Jolla’s MeeGo/Mer-based Sailfish OS, available on its Jolla phones. The Jolla phones began shipping to pre-order contributors last week, and reviews have been mixed on the still beta stage, mostly open source devices, ranging from the fairly positive (PC Advisor) to the more negative (Engadget and The Verge).
The Neo900 appears to be at an earlier stage in its evolution, despite the long pedigree. The name is a play on both the N900 and the original OpenMoko Neo 1973 and later Neo FreeRunner phones. In 2009, OpenMoko, the company behind the project, began to build the faster, Cortex-A8-based GTA04 phone, with the help of Golden Delicious Computers. However, it gave up in mid-stream and turned toward other products, leaving the project adrift. The GTA04 design morphed into several projects, including an OpenMoko BeagleBoard based Hybrid and the OpenPhoenux GTA04.
Inside the Neo900
The new Neo900 incarnation looks more like the Nokia N900 than the oval-shaped OpenMoko phones, right down to its slide-out QWERTY keyboard and old-school 3.5-inch, 800 x 480 resistive touchscreen. In fact, Golden Delicious is currently using leftover Nokia N900 cases and screens, complete with QWERTY slider, but have altered them to be 2mm wider to make room for the new motherboard and other new components, such as the LTE modem. That would make it about 22mm at its thickest, compared to 7.9mm for a Galaxy S 4 smartphone.
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While Nokia sold the N900 as an open and unlocked developer device that could support a variety of Linux operating systems, the Neo900 extends customizability to the hardware level. Like the OpenMoko phones, the Neo900 will be supported will full documentation and schematics, and is designed to be modular and open to hardware tinkering (see internal image at right). It offers easy access to internal components, as well as extra contact pads and sockets for prototyping. Somewhat similar modularity is being planned by Motorola for its Phoneblok-inspired Project Ara.
The Neo900 offers a faster Cortex-A8 processor than the 600MHz Texas Instruments (TI) OMAP3430 found on the Nokia N900. Like the OpenPhoenux GTA04, it moves up to a TI DM3730 — also found on the BeagleBoard-xM — and it’s clocked to a higher 1GHz rate. Like the OMAP3430, the DM3730 supplies a 3D graphics accelerator, but it also provides a faster 800MHz C64x+ DSP core, which enables 720p video encoding.
Despite these improvements, you’d expect more than a Cortex-A8 processor and 3.5-inch resistive screen for your $600 to $850 smartphone. (On Phoronix, Michael Larabel calls the project “borderline insanity.”)
Yet, the developers are not the only ones to claim the N900′s resistive touch capability is superior to many capacitive displays. The Neo900 also offers better memory and storage support than the average Android phone, including up to 1GB of RAM, 1GB of NAND, up to 64GB of eMMC, and microSD expansion. In addition, it provides the full range of wireless and wired connections of the PC-like Nokia N900, plus much more. If you added ruggedization features, it would more closely resemble and industrial handheld computer than a smartphone.
The big wireless improvement over the N900 is the LTE support, but you also get HSPA/CDMA, WiFi, Bluetooth, FM, consumer IR, and even an RFID chip. The GPS capability has been upgraded with GLONASS support, and the already extensive sensor line-up has been expanded with a proximity sensor. Micro-USB 2.0 OTG, audio jacks, and video out are provided, along with an internal serial port and expansion connectors.
The phone is equipped with both a 5-megapixel camera and a front-facing VGA cam. No details were provided on the battery except that it comes with a new hot-swap capability.
On the software side, the default install is one of the Debian-based distributions available under the OpenMoko GTA04 spec, including QtMoko, SHR, and Replicant. However, it’s also designed to support Maemo 5, and the project invites developers to port Ubuntu, Firefox OS, and even Android.
Preliminary Neo900 specs
Preliminary specifications for the Neo900 smartphone include:
- Processor — TI DM3730 (1x Cortex-A8 @ 1GHz) with 3D graphics and video accelerator
- 512MB RAM, expandable to 1GB
- 1GB NAND flash
- 32GB eMMC flash, expandable to 64GB
- microSD slot
- Bluetooth 2.0
- LTE 100/50Mbps or UMTS HSPA 14.4/5.76Mbps with CDMA
- FM receiver and transmitter (RDS)
- Consumer IR (high-power, with learning)
- Display – 3.5-inch, 800 x 480 resistive touchscreen
- GPS with GLONASS
- 3-axis accelerometer
- Ambient light
- 3-axis compass
- 3-axis gyroscope
- Camera — 5-megapixel autofocus; front-facing VGA cam
- Other I/O:
- Micro-AB USB 2.0 OTG (with prototyping support in battery compartment)
- Stereo speakers
- 3.5mm stereo-out, stereo-in, mic-in
- Video out
- RS232 (internal, full)
- Expansion connectors (battery, I2C, USB)
- Battery — supports hot-swap
- Operating system — GTA04 Debian Linux; supports Maemo 5 and other Linux distros including Android
Pre-order rebate donations are available for 100 Euros ($137) to be applied against cost of the Neo900 or Neo900 motherboard when they ship in the second or third quarter of 2014. A donation of 1,500 Euros gives you an earlier prototype. The phones are initially expected to cost $600 to $850, with prices dropping as volume increases. Motherboards will cost $500 to $750. More information may be found at Neo900.org.