Get the Facts

In December 2007, Nokia released the N810, their third Linux-based internet tablet. It's a similar size to its predecessor, the N800, with a 4.13 inch, 800x480 touch-screen, but features a slide-out QWERTY thumb-board rather than relying on an on-screen keyboard. Under the hood, it's got an ARM CPU running at 400MHz, 128MB of RAM, 2GB of SD soldered onto the motherboard (with a mini-SD slot if you want more), 802.11g wireless, a Bluetooth adaptor and a GPS. It runs Nokia's ITOS2008 distribution — which is loosely Debian-derived, is based on the Maemo platform, and sports a bunch of irritatingly proprietary UI — on which you can install all kinds of other (mostly Free) software from community-supported apt repositories. Oh, and it's not a phone: there's no GSM here. Unless you have ubiquitous wireless and hence can use SIP everywhere, you'll have to carry a phone as well. Sorry.

Out of the box, you get:

  • a Gecko-based browser with Flash support;
  • an email client;
  • instant messaging software with support for SIP calls and XMPP audio and video chats (in a Google Talk-compatible way) based on the Telepathy framework;
  • a Skype client;
  • support for every common media format (but not Vorbis or Theora, sadly);
  • GPS-y map software;
  • Tetris and pals; and
  • a PDF reader, text editor (in which I am drafting this node), etc.

Support for other IM networks comes either from a port of Pidgin (which at the time of writing is the most popular download for Maemo) or with an rtcomm update containing Telepathy connection managers for IRC, link-local XMPP, and rudimentary support for Pidgin's protocols. Various calendar applications are floating around, as are ports of Abiword and Gnumeric; ScummVM runs well; and so on for lots of software you'd see on a Linux desktop.

Enough press release spiel. We want opinion, dammit!

Okay. The browser is excellent. It's a bit sluggish on JavaScript-heavy sites, like Google Reader; but then so is Epiphany on my laptop, so I can forgive it. I feared that the screen would be too small for many web sites to be usable, but it's mostly not a problem. There's a whole-page zooming feature, which even works for Flash: it can scale YouTube videos down in real time. SIP and XMPP work very well too — they integrate with your address book, so you can store someone's phone number alongside their Google Talk screen name and email address and URL, which is nice. Joining IRC channels takes about a month (the UI apparently looks up each nick in the channel in your address book, and blocks while it does so), and your MSN contact list doesn't show up (or at least mine doesn't, although apparently other people have more luck) takes a few minutes to show up (I guess I'm just impatient), but I can deal with that. It's great for Twittering or quickly pinging people in between lectures or drinking over-priced coffee, particularly as most of the places I spend time have free wireless networks now.

The astute among you will have noticed that I did not mention storing someone's home address in the previous paragraph. That would be because you can't. This is obviously asinine, but hey, it's okay: the contact manager uses Evolution Data Server to store your address book, so all you need to do is install another address book program, such as Contacts from the Pimlico project, right? Actually, no — it turns out that they interact really badly, so you get lots of spurious unnamed contacts appearing in both programs. This is quite annoying. I don't know what else to say. Presumably Contacts will be fixed up at some point soon, and then the situation will be better, although you'll still have to use two different programs to look at your address book depending on whether you want to IM them or get their postal address. Yay integration!

The lack of a calendar application is also a bit annoying. Sure, you can use Google Calendar (which is one of the default bookmarks), but you can't use that when you haven't got a wireless connection, and it doesn't quite fit on the screen and is sluggish due to the aforementioned JavaScript explosion. Or, you can install Dates from Pimlico — except you currently can't, but they're working on it. I use gpe-calendar, and the unusually-named erminig syncs it with Google Calendar, and thus it does what I need, albeit clunkily.

Oh, and the GPS seems to take ages to figure out where it is. I gave it fifteen minutes on the top of a hill, and it found one satellite.

Enough ranting!

I'm willing to forgive a lot of the above on the basis that it runs ScummVM, so I get to play Sam and Max Hit The Road on the way to lectures. Physically, it's a lovely object: the screen is crisp and responsive; the keyboard is surprisingly usable and feels sturdy despite the slide; it's light, compact, and feels less like a breakable toy than the iPhones I've played with. The supplied themes look attractive, and bits of the UI likely to be operated with a finger rather than a stylus are designed with that in mind (for example, the media player has really big buttons for play, pause, etc.). Installation of third-party applications is well thought out: Nokia invented a wrapper around apt wherein you download a very small .install file, which is automatically opened by the application manager and tells it to add apt repository foo and then install package bar from it. So you get all the benefits of package management — in particular, your software stays up to date — without having to faff around copy-pasting URLs into lists of repositories. I would like someone to glue this onto Debian and Ubuntu!

I wish that more of the software were open source. I hope that this will happen with time: releasing a major line of products running a ridiculous amount of free software is a big step for a company like Nokia (although a sensible one — they're a hardware company, after all), and they do produce and support free components, so the signs are promising.

It costs how much?

The list price in the UK is 330 of the Queen's pounds, which is quite a lot of money. The obvious comparable device on the market is the iPod Touch (which I guess compares better to the N800, given that it doesn't have a keyboard), which costs £200 and sports a web browser, email client, note-taking thing etc. out of the box, and for which third-party applications are currently available via some warranty-voiding hackery, and will soon be officially sanctioned. To be honest, if you just want to listen to music, peruse YouTube and occasionally read your email, there's no contest here; however, if you like tinkering, or want something closer to a proper computer that still fits into your pocket, the extra hundred-odd pounds might be worthwhile. After tweaking the applications a bit, it's an excellent PDA, and a very desirable shiny thing. I think it's telling that my biggest complaint is the address book not working properly. (Then again, I've only had it for three days, so maybe tomorrow I'll change my mind.)

Disclaimer: much of the Telepathy framework was developed by Collabora, for whom I work part time, and I'm the author of the Telepathy component for libpurple's protocols. But I'd like to think I've been objective about their qualities and faults. Also, I got mine for £69 courtesy of Nokia's developer discount programme, but I've tried to bear its true price in mind.

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