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Nokia N800 Internet Tablet: iPhone without the Phone?

[Updated 19-Oct-07 with significantly reduced pricing, a comparison picture with the iPhone, and information about the announced N810. -Adam]

Now the other shoe has dropped, and the introduction of the iPod touch has given people the “iPhone without the phone” Internet device that many have demanded. But is it what they really want? The iPhone itself, despite a third-party hacking community, is still an officially closed device, and the 1.1.1 firmware has locked out the existing hacks – without using a buffer overflow exploit – leaving it without support for some common Internet services like VNC for remote screen sharing/control, RSS (at least in the sense of a true RSS reader), and instant messaging. The iPod touch is just as securely locked as the iPhone, and in addition is missing some of the iPhone’s services like email, notes, and an editable calendar. Is it going to be
enough to satisfy people?

There is an alternative. Almost lost in all the iPhone excitement, another handheld device announced just a few days before the iPhone might be the answer for some people: Nokia’s N800 Internet Tablet. The N800 is a handheld device with built-in Wi-Fi (802.11b/g, but not 802.11n, just like the iPhone); Bluetooth for pairing with a cell phone, keyboard, or a computer; built-in media software; and, best of all, a screen that’s relatively large for a handheld, weighing in at 800 by 480 pixels. Nokia promises “true Internet browsing with an impressive high-resolution widescreen display.”

Full-fledged handheld computers like the OQO or the Sony VAIO UX180P normally cost $1,500 and up. The N800 lists for $400 on Nokia’s Web store, a relative bargain; even better, there appears to have been a recent drop in the wholesale price, as major online retailers are now selling it for between $250 and $280. At that price, it sounds very attractive – is it the general-purpose Internet device that people are looking for?

In a word… maybe.

Despite the apparent similarities, the iPhone/iPod touch and the N800 are very different devices that appeal for very different kinds of use. Apple’s products are highly targeted consumer electronics devices; they perform a fixed set of functions with an extraordinarily high degree of polish, and they’re a thorough re-thinking of the way you interact with a portable electronic device. So while their functions are limited, those functions are performed with distinction and in a unique way.

The N800, by contrast, is more akin to a traditional computer shrunk down to pocket size, crossed with a PDA. It runs a variant of Linux, and while it has some PDA-like interface adaptations for operating on a handheld device with no keyboard, by and large using it is like using a traditional computer – with all the advantages and warts this implies. So while it’s possible to do much more with a N800 than with an iPhone (and far more than with an iPod touch), it isn’t nearly as polished, and doesn’t perform most of its comparable functions nearly so well. Worse, you need to be a technical user to get the most out of it.

More Than a PDA, Not Quite a Computer — While in some respects the N800 reminds one of a PDA, like a Palm handheld, it is generally far more capable and more of a full-fledged computer. For example, network access over Wi-Fi works the way you’d expect with a full computer, available natively to all applications – not the kind of hacked-together application-specific access you get on a Palm. In addition to the built-in Web browser, email, and chat programs, you can install networking standbys like VNC; Unix gurus can install SSH and run remote text-driven terminal sessions to and from the N800. Software can be downloaded and installed over the network.

(To give you an example now nice this can be: Last year, while on the road, I was visiting a mall and found their Sam Goody store had closed after a liquidation sale. Fortunately, there was an open Wi-Fi hotspot nearby, and I had the N800’s predecessor – the 770 – with me. I used it to search the Web for a list of other Sam Goody stores closing; unfortunately, the list was available only in Excel format. However, I was then able to link to the main software clearinghouse for the 770, download and install a 770 version of the Linux spreadsheet application Gnumeric, read the list, and find a Sam Goody at another local mall that was still open and running the sale. I found that very impressive for a device I could fit in a large shirt
pocket; it wasn’t something I could have done with a Palm device.)

Unfortunately, a traditional desktop GUI doesn’t always scale well to a handheld device. For instance, scroll bars are hard to operate with a stylus when shrunk to fit a handheld screen. While Nokia made some mostly successful attempts to adapt the traditional GUI for a small touchscreen, it still requires a fair amount of precision tapping with the stylus to navigate. Dedicated hardware keys simplify some common operations, like scrolling, zooming in and out, and switching applications, but they aren’t always used as intelligently as they could be. Likewise, the interface makes some attempt to recognize and allow for finger-tip use – detecting the wider press-area of a finger compared with a stylus, and using larger interface elements
to compensate – but this is not done consistently even in Nokia’s own applications, let alone third-party software. Apple did a much more consistent and successful job of designing a touch-based interface with the iPhone and iPod touch.

The Open Source Handheld — While the ability to install and run third-party software is very nice, software is also the N800’s Achilles heel. The Web browser (currently a version of Opera, though a Mozilla-based browser engine is in development) is the only first-class software included with the device; the other included applications are decent but not spectacular (GoogleTalk client, audio streaming, a few simple games); very basic (clock, calculator, simple text editor); or seriously limited, flawed, or missing (email, contacts, media player, no calendar application). For more capable software, you have to turn to independent developers, a choice which brings its own problems.

When developing the original Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, Nokia decided to base the platform on a Linux variant; in this case, a development platform called Maemo, based on Debian and GTK+/GNOME, with an interface/application development framework known as Hildon.

Thus, any hobbyist who has or is willing to acquire the appropriate Linux experience can develop for the 770 and N800. Unfortunately, hobbyists have been the only ones outside of Nokia to do so; the only commercial software I’m aware of for the N800 is a GPS navigation package sold by Nokia itself.

As a result, the N800’s software library is mixed at best; there are many applications available, but many of them are unpolished with rough edges. For example, when navigating the N800’s storage media, some applications force you to follow the cryptic Unix directory tree, instead of the more human-readable file browser Nokia developed. As another example, some applications display menus that highlight keyboard shortcuts on a device that doesn’t have a built-in keyboard. Performance is inconsistent, and selection is spotty and oriented more towards technical users.

A sample description from the downloads section reads: “A tool that uses the GPE Contact Database and libgnokii to dial numbers from the IT to your mobile phone via bluetooth you have to create a valid .gnokiirc file in /home/user”. Doesn’t that just make you want to install it?

In other words, the N800 is not a product for someone who wants the kind of broad, refined software base the Palm handhelds still have, nor is it for someone who wants to pick it up and start working with a minimum of fuss. Unless you are interested in using only the Web browsing features, you’ll have to put some work into exploring the online software libraries and into getting software up and running.

The “standard” installation procedure uses online package repositories that in theory contain all the software parts necessary; you need to find the URL for a repository and enter it into the N800’s Application Manager, which then downloads the current repository catalog and presents a list of available software for installation. Unfortunately, these repositories do not always account for all the component packages needed to get an application running; more than once I’ve had to spend a considerable amount of time tracking down the proper repository for an obscure package. A new simplified installation system enables you to do a one-click download of an install script, which automatically adds the repository to the Application Manager
and starts the install process; unfortunately, few applications use it yet.

As a final caution, the Maemo platform has gone through two major revisions so far, each one causing major disruption for owners of Nokia’s older 770 and current N800. IT 2006 was completely incompatible with IT 2005, forcing revision of every software package just to run. IT 2007 was somewhat more compatible in that many IT 2006 applications run fine in IT 2007 – but IT 2007 doesn’t run on the 770, and officially it never will, leading to a break in compatibility between the older model and the new. After a number of heated protests from unhappy 770 users, the head of Nokia IT development announced an unofficial “Hacker’s Edition” port of IT 2007 to the 770 by some Nokia engineers; while this was a welcome step, the end result is
acknowledged to be kludgy and incomplete, and the lack of a Nokia imprimatur left the 770 without official continuing software support less than a year and a half after release. Some users are still bitter about this, and for that reason are wary about future support for the N800. Nokia has announced a roadmap for the next couple of major Internet Tablet OS releases; they confirm that the next two versions will run on the N800, but compatibility is not guaranteed for the version after that.

Web Browsing on the N800 — With all that taken into account, how well does the N800 work as an Internet device?

As I mentioned above, the N800’s Web browser is the star attraction in its collection of Internet services. And on the whole, it’s pretty good, considering the compromises it has to make to work on a handheld – compromises different and far better than the ones a typical PDA Web browser makes, and also different from those Mobile Safari makes on the iPhone and iPod touch.

A typical PDA browser, like Blazer on the Palm or Opera on the Sharp Zaurus, usually tries to re-flow the text on a page to fit the PDA screen. While this lets you read the text most of the time, you lose most of the text formatting – to say nothing of the layout, which on layout-heavy sites can be a disaster. Some sites, like the New York Times, put up a simplified version for mobile devices. While the result is readable, it’s not very satisfying compared to the full thing. Mobile Safari takes a different tack; instead of trying to re-flow the page, it renders the page in the normal format, displays it at a reduced size, then provides interface optimizations for scrolling around and zooming in and out of the page. While generally very
successful at showing the page the way the designer intended, all the zooming and scrolling seemed somewhat tedious to me.

The N800 takes a third approach. With a resolution of 800 by 480, the N800’s screen is as wide as many desktop monitors were just a few years ago. So instead of playing tricks with the page formatting or scaling, it just renders the page for a screen 800 pixels wide. (It can do some page reformatting if you specify, but this is much more limited – and works much better – than what the PDA browsers do.) This approach works with the majority of Web sites out there. Even sites with complex formatting like Wikipedia or the New York Times render usably on the N800’s screen. The problem is that the N800’s 800 pixels are fitted into a screen only 3.5 inches (8.9 cm) wide; the result is text that usually shows at half normal size, so that a
typical Web page will be rendered in what looks like 6 point text. I still find the text readable – the display is very sharp – but it’s small enough to give me eyestrain after a few minutes. Hardware buttons make it easy to scale the text size, much like the Make Text Bigger and Make Text Smaller menu items in desktop Safari, but too much scaling ruins the layout that is the N800’s main advantage as a handheld Web browser.

In terms of supported content, the N800 browser does generally well; glaring layout errors are not common, it works with my online banking site (something even early desktop Safari versions failed to do), and Flash support means it will work with a number of pages that Mobile Safari won’t. However, Flash performance is notably slow and the N800’s Flash plug-in is a version behind the desktop plug-in, so it’s still not guaranteed to handle Flash pages without problems. It does not currently support Google Docs at all. While .Mac’s new webmail interface loads, the layout is a hash and the page doesn’t function correctly. Gmail, on the other hand, works fine. I would therefore be wary of using it with heavy-duty Web applications, but it
should work fine with simpler ones. Pages with other multimedia plug-ins are also questionable; trying to listen to the new Web-based live broadcast feature for my favorite local public radio station was a failure.

Overall, today’s Web is simply not designed for portable devices. To make it work on a handheld requires a set of compromises, and the end result will never be as satisfying as using it on a full-sized screen. The N800’s compromises are successful on the whole, making the Web usable. The direction it takes is different from Mobile Safari, so that some may legitimately prefer one method over the other depending on what Web sites you frequent. In the end, I’d say they’re both successful, though Mobile Safari is still a more-refined application. That said, I don’t find either browser all that pleasant for extensive browsing sessions; the N800 browser’s normal text size is just too small for comfortable reading, and Mobile Safari needs too
much zooming and scrolling. It’s a shame, because with a reader program rendering text at more normal sizes, the N800 makes an excellent ebook reader.

Other Internet Services — The N800 also comes with clients for email and GoogleTalk, as well as an RSS reader, Internet audio streaming and, most recently, a Skype client. About the best thing I can say about the email program is that it technically works; it’s slow, the interface is clunky and makes poor use of the limited screen area, and it has few features (the lack of any spam handling is particularly galling). I almost never use it. I’m not an IM user, but the GoogleTalk client seems decent; I created a test account and was able to message back and forth with my Gmail identity without trouble. (For fans of the multi-protocol instant messaging client Pidgin (previously known as GAIM), there’s a N800
port that seems pretty polished.) The RSS reader is workable but basic; users of NetNewsWire or NewsFire will be disappointed. Although I don’t use Skype and have no real interest in trying it, the Skype client seemed polished on the surface. Internet radio is something I want to like, but I have the same problem with it on the N800 as I do on my regular Mac – finding radio streams I actually want to listen to. The streams I tried worked well.

More services are available if you’re willing to take the plunge and explore third-party software. Third-party clients are available for VNC (cross-platform remote screen display and control) as well as RDesktop (Windows Terminal Services client), something I find useful on the road and at home controlling the Mac mini hooked to the TV set. Installing XTerminal and OpenSSH lets Unix command line fans join the party, although extensive typing with the onscreen keyboard is an exercise in frustration with any application; if you’re serious about using the N800 this way, an external Bluetooth keyboard is a wise investment. FTP and Bittorrent clients are also available.

The N800 has an interesting third-party Wi-Fi network addition available from Devicescape, a company that makes it easier for Wi-Fi-equipped devices – handhelds, laptops, and phones, among other products – to connect to home, office, and hotspot networks. Install the Devicescape software and set up an account on their server; the service and software are free., Once set up, you can access with a single click frequently used networks protected by Wi-Fi passwords, free networks that require clicking an “accept” button, and hotspot networks that require an account for which you have a subscription. (You can read TidBITS’s overview of Devicescape’s system, which works under Mac OS X
and Windows as well, in “Devicescape Aims to Ease Wi-Fi Hot Spot Connection Pain,” 2007-05-07; as well as about their currently unavailable iPhone connection software: “Connect More Easily to Wi-Fi Hotspots with the iPhone,” 2007-09-17.)

PIM Software — Some kind of personal information management software – address book, calendar, to-do, notes, etc. – is included by default on nearly all PDAs, and indeed on most computers, out of the box these days. Even the original iPod had a basic calendar and contacts list. So it was somewhat surprising to find that the N800 has essentially nothing along those lines. Forum posts by Nokia representatives have suggested that this is a deliberate decision by the Nokia team to focus on Internet and communications functions; their vision of the Internet Tablet platform is as a secondary or supplemental device, and PIM
functions are better served by a primary device like a mobile phone. I find this unconvincing; many users will want to use the N800 as a primary device, and even on a secondary device it can be very handy to view basic PIM information.

There are third-party PIM options available, the most notable one at this point being a port of the Linux GPE PIM suite. Unfortunately, like many N800 applications, I found it clunky and unsatisfying. I was unable to import a complete contact list exported in vCard format from either Address Book in Mac OS X 10.4 or Palm Desktop 4.2.1; the best I could do was exporting and importing one contact at a time, which is unworkable for more than a few contacts.

Multimedia — The front panel includes stereo speakers, which sound about as good as you’d expect from something that small; listenable, but no better than a cheap transistor radio and not very loud. You’re better off using the included headphone jack. Sadly, while the screen would appear to be ideal for video playback, the system performance isn’t quite up to the task; even the included promotional video doesn’t always play smoothly, showing occasional hesitations but thankfully no skipping. Video format support is also lacking: I tried both standard DiVX files and .mp4 files encoded for the iPod and Sony PSP, and neither would play with the standard codecs.

Audio support is somewhat better, as the included Media Player software supports iTunes-encoded AAC files as well as MP3; unfortunately, the player itself has a clunky interface that felt like the very earliest MP3 programs, more like a proof-of-concept than an end-user application.

A third-party multimedia application, Canola, has a much better interface reminiscent of Front Row on newer Macs, but it’s a hassle to set up and suffers from the same limited format support as the bundled application. The open source MPlayer is available for the N800, but is even more trouble to set up than Canola. Sadly, if multimedia is important to you, the N800 is not your best choice… at most, it’s something you can kludge together to avoid carrying another device, without even as much polish as you find on a Palm device, let alone the elegant iPod application on the iPhone and iPod touch.

Working with a Mac — The good news is that the N800 works just about as well with a Mac as a PC; the only thing you need a PC for is updating the firmware. The bad news is that this is because the firmware update application is the only computer software Nokia provides; everything else must be done by hand. As noted above, Nokia does not include PIM software for the N800, and syncing with the third-party PIM contact program is possible but not particularly practical. The news is somewhat better for multimedia, such as pictures or music; all you have to do is copy it to a folder on one of the N800’s storage media, and the N800’s applications can navigate to that folder and open them. The same holds true for
ebook files and the FBReader ebook software. Text files are a little trickier; line endings are in Unix format and you need to make sure they are properly translated. (Fortunately, TextEdit reads and saves files in Unix format, and the free TextWrangler from Bare Bones translates seamlessly between formats.)

Transferring files to the N800 is relatively straightforward. The N800 has two memory card slots, one in the battery compartment and one externally accessible; cards in these slots mount as standard USB Mass Storage devices when you connect the N800 to a Mac with a standard USB-to-mini USB cable, and you can copy files to and fro. Unfortunately, the N800 re-mounts the cards on the Mac Desktop as soon as you eject them; to eject them safely, you must either unplug the USB cable the instant they disappear from the Desktop, or eject them once to close files properly and then ignore the warning when you disconnect the cable after they re-mount. In addition, if you have a Bluetooth-equipped Mac, Bluetooth File Exchange makes it easy to send
files wirelessly to the N800 after you pair it with your Mac. I’ve not had much luck getting it to work the other direction, N800 to Mac.

The N800 Hardware — By saving the hardware for last, I may have given the impression that it is the least important or least attractive aspect of the device. Far from it; the hardware design is by far the best part of the N800. It’s simply hard to find much to dissect about it.

For a handheld device, the N800 is fairly large; 2.95 x 5.67 x 0.71 inches (75 x 144 x 18 mm), quite a bit larger than a typical Palm (3.08 x 4.76 x 0.61 inches, or 78.2 x 120.9 x 15.5 mm), and positively huge compared to an iPhone or iPod touch (2.4 x 4.5 x 0.46 inches, or 61 x 115 x 11.6 mm). However, it’s still small enough to fit in many shirt pockets, and it’s quite a bit smaller than Microsoft/Intel’s UMPC designs. Although the device is too large to fit completely in the hand, it’s well-shaped and feels comfortable to hold in either hand. The hardware controls are all mounted on the left side, so it feels designed to be held and operated with the left hand while using the stylus with your right. On the whole, I’d say it’s about
as large as you can get while still being convenient enough to have with you everywhere, and thus a good compromise – especially for the sake of the large screen.

If the hardware design is the best aspect of the N800, the screen is unquestionably the best aspect of the hardware. At a resolution of 800 by 480, it’s sharp, bright, and clear, with vibrant color. The only flaw I can find with it is that when the background is mostly white, as with an ebook reader, the rightmost edge of the screen is slightly dimmer and unevenly lit. For reading normal-sized text, it’s by far the best portable display I’ve used; letters are sharp and well-formed, and contrast is much better than the highly touted e-ink display on the Sony eReader. It makes an excellent display screen for pictures. The screen is recessed enough that cleaning to the very edges can be a bit tricky.

Other pluses to the hardware include the convenient flip-out stand and the provision of two slots for standard SD/MMC flash memory cards (though a slight minus is the lack of a spring-loaded eject for memory cards, forcing you to pull them out carefully with a fingernail). Other slight minuses include the tiny zoom/fullscreen/power buttons, which are hard to push and not very responsive; the built-in webcam, which feels somewhat fragile, has low picture quality, and is usable only by the video chat program as far as I’ve been able to manage; and the lack of any kind of hard protective cover for the screen. (The 770 had a very nice hardshell cover, with a sensor that automatically slept the device when you put it on.) Build quality is
solid with the exception of the camera; the back cover feels a bit loose but has never popped off during months of use.

Battery life is decent but not spectacular when using Wi-Fi, and pretty good otherwise. I don’t have the setup to do more specific testing, but on average the battery lasts about 4 to 5 hours when making heavy use of Wi-Fi; when just using it as an ebook reader or to play games, the battery lasts at least 12 to 14 hours. The N800 uses the standard Nokia BP-5L battery, so finding a second battery shouldn’t be much trouble.

Conclusions — For some users, the N800 will be a worthwhile purchase. If you want to run third-party applications on a truly networked handheld device that is relatively powerful and relatively inexpensive – and especially if you want to run Linux on such a device, or you want a system that’s highly tweakable – the N800 can be an excellent choice. However, you have to be willing to put up with an unrefined interface and an immature software base, as well as the adventure of finding and installing applications. You also have to be technically inclined enough to handle the Linux implementation at the core of the device.

If you want an ebook reader and image viewer with occasional Web viewing use, you feel comfortable enough to deal with some Linux-isms (or have a friend who can set the device up for you), and the price doesn’t scare you, take a good look at the N800. It’s a very nice piece of equipment, the screen is excellent, the third-party FBReader software is very good, and the Web browser is quite good for a handheld device. But be aware that the Web browsing experience won’t be as satisfactory as a desktop machine or a true laptop.

If what you really want is an iPhone or an iPod touch that can run third-party applications… pay close attention to the disadvantages I note above. While the N800 can indeed run third-party applications and can perform most of the functions of an iPhone or iPod touch, the implementation is nowhere close to as elegant as Apple’s devices, and the experience will not be nearly as smooth or polished. It requires a fair amount of technical expertise to get the most out of it, the built-in music and video software borders on the pathetic, and third-party media applications are a hassle to get running. Included Internet software beyond the Web browser also ranges from mediocre to pathetic, and you’ll want third-party replacements for most of
it – which means dealing with the third-party application hassle I describe above.

Nokia Internet Table N810 — As it turns out, the price drop was to make room for a new model in the Internet Tablet lineup; the N810, announced 17-Oct-07 and listing for $480. The N810 adds an integrated GPS unit and a slide-out keyboard; the keyboard appears to be a membrane unit instead of having actual keys, but it’s a bit hard to tell from photos and the N810 is not supposed to ship until the middle of November. The N810 will ship with a new version of the OS, which this time is supposed to be available for the N800 as well. It replaces one of the memory card slots with 2 GB of internal flash storage, and changes the other one to a mini-SD
slot, but the processing hardware is otherwise similar to the N800, so the current belief is that they will perform about the same – making the choice between them more a matter of preferred form-factor and hardware features.

For now, at least, I think I’ll stick with my N800. The N810 is narrower than the N800, but at the cost of moving the directional pad to the hidden keyboard section. I use that control far more than I’m likely to use the keyboard, so hiding it out of the way is a serious flaw for me. The difference in price is enough to cover a folding Bluetooth keyboard and a Bluetooth GPS module, so I don’t feel like I’m losing on that front – though obviously neither option is as convenient as having them built-in. The real question for me is how improved the new version of the operating system will be; the N800’s major flaws are in the software, after all. A couple of screenshots I’ve found suggest that the new version will have better eye candy,
but that doesn’t say much about how it will actually work in practice.

[Travis Butler is currently between full-time jobs, working as a freelance FileMaker database designer after spending the last 14 years as the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Mac guy for a small Kansas City company. In between fighting FileMaker, pandering to PageMaker, illuminating Illustrator and getting excited by Excel, he has written fifteen articles for TidBITS over the last twelve years.]

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