One month with the Nokia N800
Last month, I wrote on my latest handheld acquisition: the Nokia N800. I wrote a little on my initial experiences, and pondered its use in education. Now that I’ve had this for a month, it’s time for an update.
Unlike most electronics produced by Nokia, the N800 is not a phone. It is an Internet Tablet. It can connect to wifi networks, but it cannot connect directly to a 3G (UMTS) or EDGE network. Supposedly, a 3G version for Sprint is in the works, and should be released in 2008. For those who need telco network connectivity and cannot wait for the Sprint version, you can tether it to your cell phone via a Bluetooth link.
The N800 has a gorgeous display. At 800×480, the resolution is high enough for most applications. Because so much screen resolution is packed into a small space, smaller text on Web pages can be harder to read, but the devices contains well-placed zoom-in and zoom-out buttons to enlarge text and graphics.
The built-in Web browser (Opera) renders most pages beautifully. For those pages that do not render properly (or where certain features are missing), a Gecko-based (used in Mozilla and Firefox) engine is available through the MicroB project. The Gecko engine, however, is a little bit slower and more prone to crashes.
The device also contains a simple, but surprisingly capable RSS reader. Fresh content can be displayed on a home screen widget; and, the RSS application loads all needed graphics and properly renders all content in a highly-functional (and readable) interface.
The built-in email application is deficient on many levels, but it is possible to install Claws Mail through a couple clicks from the maemo.org repository list. Several Claws plugins are also readily available. For the uninitiated, however, configuring Claws can be quite painful.
The device can also be used for multimedia playback. Assuming you have the proper codec installed, video playback is good. MP3 playback is flawless. Again, by clicking through the repositories listed at maemo.org, installing additional codecs is quick and simple.
Finally, the hardware seems solid. With casual use, you can expect the battery to last a day. It can remain on standby for up to a week. The built-in wifi antenna is also superb, and does well at detecting and connecting to access points with weak signals. Whereas my laptop can only detect 12 wifi networks from my home, the N800 detects 23.
The device doesn’t boast full Java support. This means I cannot use Java-based applications such as Oracle Calendar (my university forces me to use it). Support for Java is a much-needed feature for a future OS release.
Although the device transfers data at a rapid rate, Web browsing is not as swift as I would hope it would be. As previously mentioned, the built-in Opera browser lacks compatibility with some Web sites. MicroB is more compatible, but still very buggy.
Although Skype released a client for the device, they haven’t provided support for the built-in Web cam. My guess is because, due to memory limitations, N800 code would need to be tight, meaning that Skype developers cannot get away with obfuscating their binaries with meaningless code. Failure to incorporate such a feature makes Skype look bad. Perhaps now is a good time for them to consider opening their standards? Video calls are still possible by using the built-in “Nokia Internet Call Invitation (Beta)” application, but you’re limited to calling other N800s.
As a traveling presenter, I would like a device smaller than my laptop to play PowerPoint (or OpenOffice.org) presentations. It would be great if a future edition of this device had a video-out solution. The onboard chipset already supports video output, but Nokia chose not to include the connecting hardware. Adding video-out support should be a small addition.
The device needs to ship with international character sets. Packaging Latin, Greek and Cyrillic characters are a good start, but Arabic and East Asian characters should be shipped in the base package, too.
Finally, upgrading the device’s firmware is a pain in the neck. Nokia and the development community periodically release new OS versions and fixes, requiring firmware flashing each time. Although most user data is retained, this causes most applications to disappear. It would be nice if Nokia provided an option to reinstall application and library packages (if available and compatible with the new kernel, etc.) after each update.
Does the N800 belong in schools?
Inspired by devices such as those built by Noah and Ozing (see also this EF article), I continue to evaluate if the N800 has a place in schools. In places with limited electrical or network connectivity, content and curricula can be distributed via SD cards and charged less frequently than laptops would need to be charged. The battery shipped with the device is sufficient to allow moderate use throughout a school day before needing a recharge.
The N800, however, is not designed for children. It is designed for hackers, technology mavens, and other nerds. Perhaps, then, it can find a home in higher education? Given the expanding developer community and (mostly) open platform, maybe successor products could become the OLPC-parallel, “$200 palmtop” for college students in developing and “developed” countries.
But wait! The N810 is coming…!
As my luck would have it, less than a month after my N800 arrived, Nokia announced a successor product, the N810. Apart from integrating a GPS receiver, a keyboard, and a swifter processor, there are not many differences from the N800. The built-in keyboard, however, should make it a much more attractive product to educators and other markets. More on that device once I get my hands on one…!