Your editor recently decided to pick up a Nokia N800
tablet device. This
acquisition wasn't just another case of yielding to the lure of a new
gadget - your editor would never
do that. Instead, the hope was
that the N800 would be useful as a way of getting onto the net and dealing
with simple situations without having to haul the laptop everywhere.
Besides, such a device is always good for an article or two, at a cost that
isn't that much above buying an article from an outside author.
Besides, it's a cool new gadget.
The N800 is, naturally, a Linux-powered device. It has an 800x480 screen,
two speakers, and a pop-out camera. There's a headphone jack, a USB port,
and two SD memory slots. The device can communicate wirelessly via 802.11
or Bluetooth. Also provided is a stylus which is used for most interaction
with the device; there is a built-in storage slot for the stylus which
should help to prevent loss, but it's still nice that Nokia thought to
provide a spare as well.
On the connectivity side, the N800 developers have done some nice work. On
the first boot, the tablet offers to pair with a Bluetooth-capable
phone and set up a GPRS connection automatically. Anybody who has been
through the process of setting up a Bluetooth/GPRS link on a Linux system
knows that there can be a certain amount of pain involved - and that's
before trying to get any real work done over such a painfully slow
connection. Having GPRS Just Work is a nice bonus. The tablet also
handles WiFi connections easily.
After that, however, a new N800 user might well feel at a bit of a loss. The
startup screen includes a Google search bar (the usage of which is entirely
straightforward), an RSS reader window with no subscribed feeds, a contact
manager window (with no contacts, obviously), and a "Discover Tableteer"
window which, when "tapped," opens a web browser on a remarkably static and
unhelpful Nokia page. Digging through the menus yields a simple email
client. Anybody expecting something that feels like a normal
Linux system will be disappointed; there's not a whole lot else there.
That can be changed, of course; we'll get to application installation
The tablet comes packaged with a user's manual, in PDF format, in a large
number of languages. The user will not encounter this manual until he or
she happens to fire up the file manager and look in the right place,
however. The "Discover Tableteer" window does not do much to help a
beginning user find this useful document.
Text entry is done through a keyboard which appears at the bottom of the
screen; individual letters are approximately 2mm square. In practice, the
letters are not hard to hit, and, with a bit of practice, one gets good at
entering text quickly. Learning the simple gestures to minimize trips to the shift
keys helps a lot. There is another mode where the keyboard expands to fill
most of the screen; in this mode, the stylus can be put aside and text can
be typed directly with the fingers. It works, and can be nice for extended
text input, but your fat-fingered editor had a hard time using it as a real
QWERTY keyboard. Finally, the tablet does support handwriting recognition,
but your editor has not really had a chance to play with that mode yet.
The web browser is the proprietary Opera application. It works reasonably
well for the most part, making good use of the limited display space. Your
editor has found it to be not entirely stable; it occasionally hangs and
must be restarted. Dragging Google maps
around does not work. Pages generally render well, though; the browser is
good enough for the sort of work one would want to do on a small tablet
Your editor tried the Minimo
browser as well. It does not seem to render pages as nicely as Opera,
based on some quick tests. It is also far less stable; your editor managed
to crash it almost immediately. Still, Minimo will stay on the system in
the hope that it gets better; your editor would much prefer to run free
software on this system.
There is an application manager which can be used to install more software
onto the tablet. The bad news is that it has little to offer out of the
box. The good news is that one can go to maemo.org to look for a rather wider variety
of software goodies for the device. The bad news is that the majority of
those applications, as of this writing, say "missing install" and cannot
actually be installed onto a tablet. The good news is that there's still
quite a few useful tools available. In short order, your editor was able
to equip his tablet with essential utilities like xterm and an ssh client.
The really bad news showed up with some of the other interesting
packages, such as vim and gnumeric. The application manager will happily
download the packages before popping up a window which says:
install: some application packages required for the installation are
Such a message would perhaps have been acceptable ten years ago on some
distributions. One would not expect to see it on a Debian-based system in
2007. There is no excuse for an "application manager" which is unable to
handle dependencies anymore.
The N800 includes a (proprietary) Flash player and a media player as well.
As many others have noted, the tablet comes well equipped to handle
patent-encumbered formats like MP3 but it cannot play an Ogg file. One can
make an argument for minimizing the size of the base system on a
resource-limited tablet, but there's no easy way to fill in that gap
afterward either. It would appear that installing an Ogg player, at this
point in time, would involve downloading the development kit and building
the application from source.
In general, the N800 feels a little like an unfinished product. Nokia has
created a nice piece of hardware, based (mostly) on free software, and
appears to be hoping that the development community will help turn it into
a fully capable device. The company's practice of selling tablets to
developers at a sharply-reduced price is clearly intended to help make this
happen. One can only hope that Nokia succeeds here; the company has done
what we really need it to do: made a open, Linux-based device. We certainly have
the ability to make it do interesting things from here.
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