The Inquirer-Home

Nokia's cheap UMPC alternative is future-proof

First INQpressions Linux-powered N800 tablet, the perfect "pocket browser"
Sun Apr 01 2007, 20:28
I HAVE RECENTLY carried my heavy Athlon 64 notebook with me to a conference 400+ miles from home. I also had Nokia's new N800 "Internet Tablet" in my pocket. Next year, the notebook will stay at home.

Nokia released its first Linux-based pocket tablet a couple years ago. The 770 was a good proof of concept but failed to ignite the public imagination. Recently, the firm released the N800, the 770's successor, and with it, the expensive UMPC vendor camp and the PDA vendors both have something to worry about. At the same time, road warriors needing web browsing and e-mail on the go can finally consider leaving notebooks at home, only using them as desktop replacements.

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The INQ loaded in Mozilla Minimo

At an average sale price of $369, it hits a sweet spot, being just the same price as a regular PDA, about only $100 more than an average 2MP GSM mobile with camera, and "only" $2000 greenbacks cheaper than Sony's state of the art UMPCs.

alt='n800-slot'
Two SD slots, one below, another in behind the battery cover

The hardware
The unit resembles a large PDA, and is very lightweight. By comparison, it's about half an inch larger than a Sony Clie NX80V PDA -one of the largest PalmOS PDAs ever built. It has the right size and a good feel and grip. Internally, it's powered by a multimedia-optimized OMAP 2420 from Texas Instruments, running at 330MHz, and comes with 128 MB of RAM and 256MB of flash memory. The N800 can use the same micro-pin AC-4 charger used by all N-Series and 6101 Nokia mobiles.

It sports built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, a gorgeous, big colour touch screen which operates at a 800x480 resolution, one camera for Google Talk video chatting, microphone of course, stereo sound, and not one but two SD memory slots. One easily accessible from the lower side, and an "internal" one, hidden below the battery cover.

alt='n800-virtual-keyboard'
Top: entering text with virtual keyboard
Bottom: INQ article on the device's default web browser

Future-proof
I only had a chance to play with the N800 for a few days, but that was more than enough to convince me of the power of both Nokia's hardware design, and - most importantly - its underlying software platform, Nokia's Linux-based "Internet Tablet OS 2007".

alt='n800-web-2'
Top: the full GMail AJAX experience using default browser
Bottom: Google Docs loaded into Mozilla "Minimo", editing a Word (.doc) file

But first things first: what does the N800 give you?. It gives you a desktop or notebook/like browsing experience in your pocket, and on top of that you get chatting and multimedia. For instance, I was able to use its Media Player to watch a BBC news webcast streamed using RealVideo over the Wi-Fi link while sitting at my favourite sofa at home, without a problem. Also, the device is a handy MP3 player, playing any music you can get into a SD - I tested it with a 4GB PQI SD card. Finally, the included PDF reader allows you to read e-books and technical documents downloaded from the web. That is just scratching the surface, and without installing additional software, either from Nokia's on-line catalogue or from third party repositories.

The Software
Nokia's OS is Linux, and uses the GTK graphics toolkit, the same one used by the very popular Gnome desktop and the Gimp -a Photoshop like graphics editor in case you have been living under a rock or inside a Vole and you're not OSS-savvy. This means in a nutshell that porting applications from desktop Linux to the PDA is suddenly a lot easier than it is for instance to code something for a closed sauce OS like PalmOS or Symbian.

The best example of the power of the OSS approach is this: a 22-yr old student from Brazil ported Mozilla's "Minimo" web browser -think of it like Firefox but trimmed down to fit mobile devices- from its original WinMob roots to the N800 Linux OS all by himself. Which makes me think.. what is the Mozzarella Foundation thinking? They should be the ones promoting a device like Nokia's N800 and supporting an official N800 development team for "Minimo", in my opinion.

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Reading the INQ on the move is a reality

The N800's "desktop" can be easily customized, and you can add, resize, and move around applets. An RSS reader is included, along with still-rudimentary PDA functionality like an Address Book. The screen customization is the best I've seen, and text entry is also very well done. When you load a web page which requires a login or other entry, the text entry field is highlighted and tapping text into the "virtual keyboard" drawn on the screen is a pleasure. According to forum posts, you can also use a Bluetooth keyboard like this one from Stowaway which reportedly works. I plan to get one soon, since it looks like a killer combo. Stay tuned.

An upcoming port of Skype is rumoured on N800 circles, and the flood of open source software shouldn't stop growing. For instance, there's already SSH clients, and a web server. I repeat, it's not a PDA, don't expect it to "sync" to your PC. It's an internet tablet, for mobile chatting and web browsing, and multimedia playback, with the ability to have third party software installed. For instance, there's a calendar, to-do list, you can even install into it the open source Gnumeric spreadsheet that comes with several Linux distributions. The MPlayer open source media player has been also ported to the device, which means that at least theoretically WMV playback and XVID/DivX MPEG4 playback should be possible -although I have not tested it.

Shortcomings
There are very little shortcomings, if what you want is to have mobile connectivity while on the go. The little limitations that can be seen in the browser -like the inability to load Google Documents- is solved by the device's openness and flexibility: you just install Mozilla Minimo and be done with it. In fact, the device is very "future proof", since any hobbyist programmer and Linux coder can easily recompile or port existing open source applications to run in the device, as long as the application fits in the device's memory. Another example: soon after its release earlier this year, users discovered that the device included a FM tuner, and finally an applet to drive the internal tuner was released.

Wish List
If I had to ask the Nokia hardware engineers for something, it would be two things: first the device is screaming for an IR port. Since Nokia engineers are used to building phones, it's natural for them to think that the Infrared world is dead. But the N800 is the ideal "smart universal remote control". It's insane to think that there are companies out there selling "smart remote controls" the same size of the N800, with a tenth of its functionality, and at a much higher price.

Second, I'd pay for an "extended battery" that can be attached to it as a "backpack". I don't care if it makes the device a bit thicker. Finally, Bluetooth is nice, but how about a good old-fashioned, analogue microphone input?. You know, so I can plug my Andrea noise-cancelling Headset into it.

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Watching BBC news stream with the N800's Media Player

The future: the non-Windows camp should be embracing this open platform

Google should be selling and promoting the N800. The device's GMail, Google News, and Google Talk integration is outstanding. Why not just get into a deal with Nokia and offer it as "Google Internet Tablet" with the Google logo on it?. Most people still associate Nokia with phones, not computers and the internet. Think about it. Hey, Nokia guys, think about it, too. I don't mean scrapping the current line, just offer the same device under different brands and different default configurations. "Sun Internet Tablet", "Google Internet Tablet", and the like, all "powered by Nokia". Of course, those companies would have to beat the "not invented here" syndrome.

The Good
Perfect size, shape, weight, and grip
Using the included stylus is not necessary for browsing around, as long as you don't need to enter text, you can use the 5-way navigation pad to scroll up/down and click on links.
A POP3/IMAP client is included - not tested by me, I use GMail
Can establish a Bluetooth data connection to a mobile phone, and get internet access over the mobile's GPRS, where there's no Wi-Fi
Uses common mobile phone, easy-to-find charger

Almost future-proof, due to open source OS.

The bad
Lacks IR port
There should be an external battery option. While using Wi-Fi and multimedia at full volume, battery life seems to be of about 2-4 hours.

The ugly
Lacks a hard screen protection cover for safe travelling with the N800.
Doesn't run the SeaMonkey internet suite, OpenOffice.org 2.1 -ok, I'm kidding on this one, OO.o is probably too big-, nor does it run Skype -yet-.
Nobody seems to have ported the POSE PalmOS emulator to the N800 yet. That would bring an awful lot of applications to the platform, and would help those moving from PalmOS PDAs to the N800. Hey Access/Palmsource... if you're in the business of selling software, how about selling a GarnetOS "compatibility kit" for the N800 allowing people to run GarnetOS applications on it as well?. It should be all about enlarging the non-Windows ecosystem.

Lacks an official Java build. Albeit with the recent release of Java as open source, I expect one could arrive soon. Earth to Sun Microsystems: how about giving a few hundreds of these to your Java code hackers? I bet their productivity would improve a lot. Can't wait to run Azureus while on the tube -Kidding about that, -maybe.

Bartender's report

I give Nokia's N800 nine beers out of ten. Very impressive device with lots of room for expansion due to its Open Source software foundation. ?

alt='beer09'

L'INQs:
Gizmo VOIP and Instant Messaging for the Nokia N800
List of third party applications at Maemo.org N800 developer's community
N800 users forum at InternetTabletTalk.com
Nokia adds FM radio applet to N800
YouTube: Google Talk with Nokia N800. Video chat demo

 

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