Reflashing A Dead N900

In my last Weekly Rewind I alluded to a dramatic episode I suffered with the Nokia N900 at the weekend. I wanted to tell that story in full and I figured it deserved it’s own post. I’ll also try to offer a little advice about flashing Maemo devices from a Linux desktop, based on my relatively limited but successful experience. There are already very good guides for this around though, so I don’t want to just duplicate them.

N900 - Keyboard Open

N900 - Keyboard Open

I was lucky enough to be sent an N900 for testing and review purposes by Nokia before Christmas, a lot of you reading this will know that already. Lately some software updates to Maemo 5 (the N900 operating system) have been rolled out, and of course I wanted the latest greatest versions. I received one update about a week ago over the air, which means there was no need to do anything more complex than press “yes” on the phone and let it do it’s thing. It all worked beautifully and I was very impressed. However, when I was prompted about another available update later in the week the process was anything but smooth. Little did I know it but my problems were just beginning. I tried to apply the second update on the phone in the same way but was told I needed to connect the “Nokia Software Updater” tool via a PC. It seems this happens if you have certain testing repositories enabled on your Maemo device like I did, it can cause package conflicts. I’m not averse to using the official software to perform an update if needed, but what I am averse to is the fact that this software is only available for Windows. I’m a full time Linux user as most of you will know and considering the the N900 is a Linux device you’d think they’d have a Linux updater too.

Nevertheless I managed to procure a machine running Windows XP and install the update software. I connected the phone and ran the process as instructed. At first all seemed well, it downloaded the new firmware image and rebooted the phone into what I believe is known as R&D mode. After a while though I noticed the progress bar had stopped moving and I became worried. I left it for over an hour and still no movement. Obviously I wasn’t about to pull the plug out and permanently kill the phone, not without a gun to me head anyway. I waited and waited, then I waited some more. It must have been 2 hours in the end but finally a message came up on the PC screen telling me the update had failed. I closed the program down and looked at the phone, it still seemed to be locked in R&D mode. An attempt to reboot it manually did nothing and I was starting to believe I’d royally screwed the thing for good. I removed and replaced the battery to see if this would reset the device. It didn’t, by this time I was pulling out the little hair I have left.

Figure 1

It seemed as though the Nokia update software had wiped the phone and then promptly crashed before copying over the new firmware. I was wondering how I could explain all this to the company when when sending the device back when I hopped on Identi.ca to talk to people about it. The wise and good friends I have there seemed to know a lot more about this and suggested I try to reflash the device and perhaps revive it. There’s a Linux tool for that I was relieved to discover. I was keen to try it ASAP but the Maemo dev website was actually down for server migration over the whole weekend. This was Saturday night and I was facing a long Sunday without knowing if I still had a phone or not, good timing on my part. I transferred the SIM to my old handset so I could still make calls and twiddled my thumbs. Actually I did do something useful as I read on this guide how to set the phone into R&D mode ready for flashing. It involves some pressing of keys and secret hand shakes which I’ll describe in more detail in a second. With this done I was able to see the device on my laptop by running an “lsusb” command in a terminal. To my huge relief it identified itself as “Nokia e61 (Firmware Update Mode)” and I was starting to believe I could pull this one out of the fire. Hopefully it would be receptive to reflashing.

The following day my good friend Andy (@oscillik) from LivLUG kindly offered to upload the latest N900 image and Flasher 3.5 tool (yes it’s really called Flasher, I had a giggle as well). Here’s the process I went through to flash the device.

  • Firstly I installed the Flasher-3.5.deb file Andy sent me on my Linux Mint desktop. You can download it here, now the server is running again.
  • Next I opened a bash terminal and tried running a “Flasher-3.5″ command to see if it had worked. I also checked in the Synaptic Package Manager (see figure 1)
  • In the terminal I ran “sudo flasher-3.5 -F imagefile.bin -f -R”. You need to replace imagefile.bin with the proper location and name of your image file obviously.
  • The terminal prints out “Suitable USB device not found, waiting”.
  • Next you need to unplug your phone from the computer if it’s connected and open up the internal keyboard. Hold down the U key on there while reconnecting the USB cable to the device. The phone should now enter R&D mode and the computer will see it.
  • The Flasher will now start doing it’s thing and copying the firmware to the N900. (see figure 2)
  • Wait a few minutes and the phone will eventually reboot into the newly installed firmware.

Figure 2

It’s not that hard to do but it does involve a few steps. To my huge, HUGE relief this actually worked and my dead N900 came back to life. Like a phoenix from the flames. I’ve never been so happy to hear that annoying Nokia tune in my life. My phone desktop came up pretty much as it had before but with some app icons missing and sporting the original blue N900 theme. I’d made some backups of the data on the phone and also used the internal backup application to store contacts, settings and other things. I restored the backup and it rebooted the phone once again. All of my music, videos and other data were still intact on the device. That was about 12gb of data that I didn’t really want to have to transfer over again. It seems the N900 has some fairly sensible partitioning going on internally. When you wipe the device firmware it only clears the OS partition and leaves the rest alone. That’s very cool. I still couldn’t restore all my applications from the backup though because the repository server was down, the same server it seems. The backup just stores the names of your installed packages and reinstalls them from the repos, like any good Debian system should I suppose.

As of today the repository server is back up and I restored all my applications in one go. The phone is exactly as it was before I broke it and I now have the latest firmware too. It was an emotional journey but I made it in the end. Thanks to the help of friends online, for which I thank them. I’m not sure what happened with the Nokia Software Updater (NSU) and I’m told this is not uncommon for NSU to break by people who’ve used Nokia devices a lot more. If that’s true then Nokia really need to sort this software out, I was convinced I’d bricked my phone and any novice user would be totally lost. I’m hoping the updates will be “over the air” in future, with a solid wifi connection there’s no reason for them not to be. I suppose it shows us one thing, that the N900 while being a lovely device still has some way to go on the software front. If it’s going to be used by Joe Bloggs in the street then the updating processed needs to be… well… updated. Excuse the awful pun.

I hope perhaps this information is useful to others who’ve suffered failed updates and broken phones too. I’ll be steering well clear of the NSU in future and as a bonus it means I don’t need to deal with Windows either. Result!

Dan

About Dan

Hi I'm Dan, I'm the nutter who creates the content here and oversees things. You can read more about me on the biog page if you like. Thanks :)
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49 Responses to Reflashing A Dead N900

  1. oscillik says:

    woo i got a mention in one of your blogs! :p

    glad i could be of some use, and glad that all turned out well in the end.

    NSU has had it’s issues in the past, and it is something Nokia need to sort out (there still isn’t a Windows 7 version for crying out loud). but i do agree that there should be a Linux version of the updater, although i do believe that this handset is targeted towards a particular niche market of tinkerers who would probably prefer the flasher way of doing things. if my expeience is anything to go by, the Over The Air updates (at least the major ones) need some work, as i had an issue with tinymail (the N900 mail client) not sending emails at all via Nokia Messaging. reflashing using flasher fixed that, but i don’t really wanna have to do that everytime a major update comes out

  2. Dan says:

    @oscillik – Of course you got a mention, you bailed me out there dude. I think as you say this device is aimed at purely at hackers, but I’d like to think it could go beyond that market in future. They need to be ambitious.

  3. bigbrovar says:

    glad to see there was a happy ending to your ordeal :)

  4. Dan says:

    @bigbrovar – Thanks, so was I :)

  5. Martin says:

    Ha! A Linux device that needs a W$ machine to run properly, c’mon!!!

    The mediocre people working at these greedy short-sightning corporations really stinks… and they even get paid.

    Day to day, I love more and more Dilbert xD

    • Dan says:

      @Martin – It is annoying that the Windows software was requested for a device update but it’s not uncommon. A lot of Android devices seem to work the same way. I flashed the device in the end from the Linux utility which I mentioned. I’m hoping we’ll see more over the air firmware updates from device manufacturers in future though.

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  7. jezra says:

    Dan, you wasted a perfectly good opportunity to take the device apart! As a side note, have you decided what to do with the box the n900 was shipped in? hint hint

  8. Dan says:

    @jezra – Well as far as I know Nokia want both the N900 and the box back in a couple of months. So I’m not doing anything with it for the moment. If they change their mind I’ll think of something to do with it for sure ;)

  9. Fab says:

    Jezra test! Jezra test!!

  10. Gerard Braad says:

    I also had issues during the upgrade. It complained I did not have enough and suggested to use NSU (Nokia Software Updater). Stubborn as I am… I just made sme space… moved the apt cache to the home and started an apt-get dist-upgrade. Halfway the update it had issues with space… and eventually the apt update broke. I just restarted the phone… it kept rebooting in a loop for about 5 times. that was about 1 minute of frustrations and a horrible feeling. to my surprise it just came up… it had cleared up more space and I could continue the upgrade. Phone is now up-to-date and working perfectly. That is what I call robust!

  11. becki says:

    i have the n900 and a similar thing happened to me except i was just updating my phone thru nsu only havin the phone 3 days just wanted a play and get used to the phone (well aint i learned my leason) neway after the bar stayed stuck in the same place for about half hour it finally popped saying update failed my phone had gone blank and wouldnt switch on (only reason i got phone was coz of linux thought it would be more compatable with my linux laptop) it would go far as saying nokia on the white but dark screen, vibrate and the light would be orange tryed charging it tryed everything then came across yr feed. my hub trying to flash it on windows vista but i think i might try my laptop if u could help would be really grteful

    • Dan says:

      @becki – That’s exactly what happened to my phone. It showed Nokia on the dimmed out screen and did the same vibrating thing. You should be fine. It’s just stuck in R&D mode waiting to be flashed with a new firmware. You should be able to do that from any system, it doesn’t need to be a Linux PC, you can do it on Windows. You need Flasher-3.5 and a new image, this is not the NSU or Nokia PC Suite software, it’s different. Follow the guide on the Maemo wiki. Remember to do as it says, starting the flasher and not connecting the phone until you’ve powered it on with the “u” key held down on the N900 keyboard to enable the update mode. It should then be detected by Flasher and copy the software over. I’m pretty confident it’s fixable from the sound of what you’ve said. It’s a scary thing to happen to a new phone and Nokia really need to sort out their NSU application. This is not acceptable. If you decide to use a Linux machine my steps will also work. If you need any more help let me know.

  12. becki says:

    it is really scary my problem at mo is the fact my battery is dead the phone wont charge it in the r&d mode and i dont know anyone with n900 i cant help but laugh at the matter

  13. becki says:

    i just been reading through your comments i really dont want to have flash my phone all the time (well i should say get my hub too) im refuse to use the nsu again as this has really got on nerves nokia really need to this phone out, it is a brilliant piece of machinary and could be even better if nokia just sorted out the glitches

    but neway thanks for the post if it werent for you the phone would be being replaced as that was what vodafone was going to do

  14. Dan says:

    @becki – I agree flashing is not a proper end user solution. Nokia need to fix NSU urgently. For what it’s worth all the other updates I’ve had on the N900 have been over the air. No plugging into a PC or anything, just click update on the phone. I’m told they’re aiming to do this with all future updates. I hope this is true. If it is you won’t need to flash you phone over and over. Fingers crossed.

  15. becki says:

    yes fingers crossed lol ay its a new phone im sure theyll iron out the creases or they will loose credability do u know of newere i can get a stand alone battery charger for cheap

  16. Dan says:

    @becki – I don’t sorry. I know it’s obvious but eBay or Amazon is probably your best bet. Amazon seem to have a few N900 accessories for sale already, even though the device is still very new.

  17. becki says:

    no tryed and looked never mind im sure i will sort it quite resorcfull me

  18. becki says:

    rite ok i flashed my phone all working fine except one thing my phone register any sim that is inserted do you know what i could do to sort this

    • Dan says:

      @becki – Not seen that before. Perhaps it’s because this was a Vodaphone handset and not an unlocked one. Maybe you need to get a code from them or something. Sorry I can’t help. If anyone else has one from Vodaphone maybe they can help. Good luck!

  19. becki says:

    thanks hun its ok someone from nokia is helping anyway im not too botheres at mo anyway everything else still works just not my sim so i cant use it as a phone but i still have my old phone so i can pull it out of storage for a while thanks anyway

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  21. Dan says:

    @becki – Hope you get it fixed, good luck :)

  22. becki26 says:

    hi i sorted my sim problem turns out i hadnt actually updated my phone from 1.2009.44-203.4 to the 2.2009.51-1.203.2
    how stupid do i feel anyway i have another problem im hoping you can help me fix my media player (well the video player part) when i try to play videos in there (not the ones i have recorded but the ones i have downloaded from ovi) it tells me media format not supported and also something to do with codec i have also tried pairing my phone with nokia video suite and the video suite just does not like my phone is there an upgrade if so were can i get it

    • Dan says:

      @becki – Not much of a video expert I’m afraid. Sounds like you might need to check you have the right codecs installed on the N900. That’s the only advice I can offer. Check the application manager and look through the video section for anything useful that’s not installed.

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  24. Evan says:

    Nice guide, N900 is working again after it was bricked. thnx!!

  25. ashirmir says:

    i just flashed my n900 and i saw the nokia boot screen and the pulsing lights, well thats all i am no seeing the home screen or anything. can anyone help me?

    • Dan says:

      @ashirmir – Can you give me any more information? Maybe the flash operation went wrong and you need to redo it. What exactly does the unit to? Fail to boot. Is there any error message? I’m not sure the answer but if I can help, I will.

  26. Rasmus Vistisen says:

    Hi All!

    Thanks for a great blog. I have a hard time getting this to work. The phone behaves like described above (when pluged into the computer the Nokia logo shows, the LED is yellow/orange and the vibrator makes a buzz every once in a while)

    But when I start Flasher, run the command and connect the phone while holding the U key (on the phone) I do not see the USB icon in the screen.

    Windows (Vista) detect an USB device so there is connection. Also I do not use USB-hubs. I have also tried to intert the cable first and the connect the battery while holding down the U key…

    I really hope you can help!!!!

    Thanks!
    BR and summer greatings from Denmark
    Rasmus

  27. Dan says:

    @Rasmus – Sorry it took me a while to reply, I feel your pain and I hope you get this sorted. Holding down the U key before powering the device up is the only way I know to make it enter R&D mode. It seems weird that it’s not working for you, but I’m no expert. Perhaps there’s another way to get this working.

    I would suggest checking on http://talk.maemo.org/ and asking the experts there. You may have done this already so apologies if so. I wish I could help more but I’m a bit stuck for ideas. Hopefully someone else will see this and pitch in. Good luck!

  28. gpuchi says:

    Yo pude hacerlo ya que de tanto flashear lo bloquee por completo; entonces lo que se hace es retirar la bateria y colocarla dejando presionado al mismo tiempo la tecla u en el teclado (ya que ni el boton de encender me funcionaba) esto lo intenté por tres veces y pude montar la imagen original que descargué desde la página de Nokia la cual te solicita el imei de tu tablet.

    Espero te sirva este método

    • Dan says:

      I ran this through Babelfish translation from Spanish to English and here is the result

      “I could do it since of as much she blocks flashear it completely; then what one becomes it is to retire the battery and to place leaving it at the same time pressed the key or in the keyboard (since nor the button to ignite it worked to me) I tried it to this by three times and I could mount the original image that I unloaded from the page of Nokia which asks for imei to you of your tablet. I hope serves east method to you”.

      It’s probably not even close to right but this is a genuine comment so thank you. I wish I spoke Spanish.

  29. dao says:

    hi there
    i just got phone from us to do my 4th year project, im in ottawa canada
    but i got problem the phone can not boot without reason i didnt update or flash it. it just buzzz the screen display some dot and then become black. im so scare now can u help me out what happen and how can i take it back
    i really need this phone to test my program
    thanks

    • Dan says:

      @dao It sounds as though there might be a hardware fault if you haven’t flashed it or changed the software. You could try wiping it and reflashing with a fresh image from the Maemo site. The instructions in the article will work for that. Don’t know what else to suggest, sorry. Good luck!

  30. dao says:

    Thank you for fast response
    i did flash it works back thanks god
    i think it happens because i drain the battery
    Thank you alot

    • Dan says:

      @dao – Great news that you got it fixed :)

      • dao says:

        i still got the issue
        the phone suddenly can not boot again
        i did flash it and it comes back, but then after 1 hour not using it can not boot.
        i did the experiment, when ever i just flash it work perfect then after 1 hour not using or u take out battery it can not boot again.
        Any idea? thanks alot
        THis phone runing linux it should be good phone but it becomes nightmare for me

        • Dan says:

          @dao – It really sounds like a possible hardware issue to me. I don’t know what to suggest other than trying to contact the seller or perhaps Nokia about it. I’m really sorry I can’t help more, I’ve never seen this error before.

    • zariya says:

      what to u do

      • Dan says:

        Not quite sure what you’re asking for here. The details of everything I did with the N900 are in this post. It’s also 3 and a half years old so probably way out of date now. I haven’t had the N900 for about 3 years, Nokia took it back. If you follow the links at the top to other guides all the information is available. Good luck!

  31. Jason says:

    Hi Dan,

    I had a similar situation with my N900. After updating the Kernel for Power User, some functions – like the camera – stopped working :(

    Unfortunately, I resorted to uninstalling the Kernel and it’s settings. After rebooting the phone, it only shows the “NOKIA” words and then restarts itself again and again! In this case I can’t even connect the phone to the PC via USB because it keeps disconnecting every after few seconds when it restarts.

    Would you know how this can be fixed?

    • Dan says:

      @Jason Hi, if putting it into recovery mode (as described here) doesn’t stop it from rebooting all the time then I’m not sure. The device is obviously not getting far through the boot with no kernel, but hopefully you should still be able to put it into recovery before it reboots. Hold down the n key on power up. Not sure what else to recommend sorry, good luck!

  32. Michael says:

    I have an n900 too and I think it’s bricked… Tried flashing with the windows flasher-3.5 but now the phone just won’t come on or charge… The LED simply glows a steady amber light for like 15 seconds, goes off, vibrates then displays nokia and repeats the same process again! Any help pls? :-(

  33. zariya says:

    what is wiping

  34. Gambal Nadar says:

    Thanks buddy,
    Great post helped, to get back my dead n900 with complete data images and movies of 19gb

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