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Nokia N800
by Jon on Wednesday, April 25, 2007 file under: Technology
Nokia N800

A few weeks ago I purchased a Nokia N800 from a floundering Comp USA in the Phoenix Metro area (from my vantage point, it appears that all CompUSAs in Phoenix Metro are closing). I always liked the idea of the Nokia 770 when it came out, and the N800 seemed to be enough of an upgrade for me to consider it very compelling... compelling enough to take the leap.

I was looking for several things:

  • a short range laptop replacement
  • a personal organizer
  • an internet appliance

Let me expand on those three things. Currently, Kortney and I have a nearly 4 year old TiBook that's still kickin' it hardcore. Its a great laptop, with a nice rugged, metal frame, beautiful display, and it still has enough power for what we do day to day. My only complaint is that when I'm carrying two big text books for class, it adds quite a bit of weight to my bag. Plus, when I take it, that leaves Kortney without a Mac (but with a dual-screen Linux box!), and without the computer configured for her most efficient use.

I wanted a device which would allow me to leave the laptop at home when I went down to school, but wouldn't require me to a) carry a full size notebook computer with me, and b) give up any of the functionality of a "real" computer.

I also wanted a small device because I thought it would help me keep track of all the stuff I need to do for school and at home. Kortney and I both keep everything in iCal and subscribe to each other's calendars. I have a laundry list of to dos and all my contacts arranged (many with pictures), in Address Book. I wanted something that would let me take those repositories with me, and allow me to edit them remotely, and sync back up when I got home. My phone can already do that (sans to dos), but adding a calendar entry with a numeric keypad is an exercise in frustration.

Finally, I wanted something that would allow me to get on the internet. A device that would allow me to ssh into my home network, get and send email, browse through my RSS subscriptions, waste time on the internet. I liked the idea of being able to connect over WiFi or Bluetooth on my laptop, so a portable device should do that as well.

When the Palm TX was released, I thought that was the device that was going to do all those things for me, but it had one problem: it came with an aging version of Palm OS that I probably wouldn't be able to update when Palm decided they couldn't milk that cow any longer. When the 770 was released that replaced the TX as the device of interest, and when the N800 came out this past winter, I was ready to pull the trigger (well, the device release, and the fact that CompUSA had slashed the price).

So, does it live up what I was looking for?

With the addition of a Bluetooth keyboard, I think the N800 would work great as a short range laptop replacement. It already has a fairly large application library thanks to the 770. The screen is bright and crisp, for a Unix-geek, all of the standard utilities are there, and for a non-Unix geek you can get most everything you need, including word processors (AbiWord) and spreadsheet programs (Gnumeric). I'm a bigger KDE fan then Gnome, so its unfortunate that the majority of applications are Gnome ports, but there are several people who have full KDE stacks running on their N800's, so that may be a possibility down the line.

As a PDA, the N800 has some room to grow. If you are just using the N800 to keep track of appointments, contacts, and tasks, or if you are using Linux as your primary desktop, the GPE PIM suite will probably work for you. However, if you are looking for something that will sync with iSync and all of the Apple apps like I am, the N800 is like a little island. I have had success pushing calendars to to the device, but in a read only capacity, and have had no success getting modifications back from the device.

Like most open source apps there is also a divide in how things should be done. The N800 comes with an address book repository which other pre-installed apps use, but third party apps all seem to use their own contact database, providing no way to sync between them. I know the GPE PIM suite was developed tangentially to the Nokia Internet Tablets, but when they were ported, they should have used the Nokia address book. There way may have been infinitely better, but as a user, I don't care, I just want everything to use the same data. If anyone does work on creating an iSync plugin for the N800, I'm guessing they'll also have to choose a collection of applications to support. Which means it may not support the programs I'm using on the N800. As a PDA, the N800 may be useful to some, but has a way to go before it will be useful for me.

Fortunately, as an internet appliance it excels. I can get on the internet practically anywhere I get phone service (using my phone as a Bluetooth modem). My home screen has the weather forecast for the next 5 days and the latest RSS feed entries. I can stream internet radio to the device, including BBC. YouTube videos are shaky, but watchable. And the Opera browser is fantastic. I am surprised Nokia went with Opera when they have been using WebKit on their Symbian phones, but really, Opera does a great job.

The N800 still has a long way to go, but is a relatively young platform. The package manager is great at keeping apps up to date, but it seems that essentially every app has its own repository. Coming from a Gentoo, FreeBSD/MacPorts background, its really nice being able to install any application from a single repository.

The device also seems to have an identity crisis when it comes to being operated by stylus or fingers. Many of the buttons are much to small to accurately hit with even my tiny fingers, but there are other facilities that literally enlarge to facilitate thumb navigation. I would like to see finger navigation expanded in future releases of the platform software.

Overall, the N800 is a fun little device with a lot of potential. I have a fear that in June, however, any of its merits will be overshadowed by the iPhone. I've read that usability is high on Nokia's list for its next software release, but they are up against the kings of usability. On the open source front, developers need to start thinking like Apple: open source is a great foundation, usability is the ultimate goal.

Permanent link to Nokia N800

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