The Ultimate Linux Handheld
Last year's winner in this category, the Nokia 770, has a younger sibling, and, as oft happens, the kid takes the cake. Nokia's N800, the follow-up to the 770, is smaller, lighter, better-looking, faster and has a larger brain.
Although the N800 bears a high resemblance to its older sibling and retains the overall layout, excellent 802.11 and Bluetooth radios and razor-sharp 4.1", 800x480, 225 pixel/inch color touchscreen of the 770, many things have changed, including:
Built-in stereo speakers, instead of a single speaker.
Better microphone positioning.
The addition of a 640x480 Webcam.
The addition of an FM receiver.
An upgrade to USB 2.0 connectivity.
Two full-size SD card slots with a supported capacity of 2GB each, (in testing, a 4GB card worked).
Instead of the 770's single RS-MMC slot, a faster CPU (TI OMAP 2420 at 330MHz vs. the 770's OMAP 1710 at 220MHz), yielding about twice the performance of the 770.
Twice the RAM (128MB).
Four times the internal Flash (256MB).
Overall, the appearance of the N800 is fantastic. It looks like a finished product, while the 770 had a “prototype” look. This attention to detail is obvious—from the newly designed aluminum front cover down to the built-in stand that locks at both 45 and 90 degrees. It even includes the little touches of chrome and lettering on the slide-out stylus.
Yet, even with all the additional functionality, the N800 is smaller (5.7" x 3.0" x 0.5") and lighter (7.3 ounces) than the 770 (5.5" x 3.1" x 0.7" and 8.1 ounces). The VGA resolution Webcam is accessed via a pop-out button on the left side of the screen.
One feature we miss is the reversible hard-shell cover, which served as a screen protector when closed. If Nokia (or someone else) offered one as an accessory, we would buy it. In addition, we found the smaller buttons on the top somewhat more difficult to manipulate.
The N880's software also is upgraded from the 770's. The company continues to ship a Debian-based distribution, with Hildon widgets, now updated as Internet Tablet Edition 2007. Improvements include:
Updated Opera 8 browser with Flash 7 support.
Jabber-based IM, including VoIP and video conferencing.
Improvements to the connectivity manager so it remembers your connectivity preferences.
The ability to use part of the internal SD card as swap, increasing virtual memory.
Nokia has announced (via the Maemo Project) a road map, including GTK 2.10, Samba, Bluetooth headset support, USB host support, Skype and improvements to the built-in e-mail client.
We continue to be impressed by the range of the N800's Wi-Fi chipset. It nearly always picks up APs (access points) that most notebook computers fail even to see. When a Wi-Fi connection is available, you can use the Bluetooth radio to gain access to the Internet via a cell phone. When we received the Nokia N800 to review, it included settings for connecting to Cingular. One of us (Doc) has a Nokia E62 mobile phone with a Cingular data plan, and his N800 review unit got on the Net with no trouble at all.
But, your mileage may vary. To perform the required setup manually, select Tools→Control Panel from the Application menu, navigate to Connectivity, double-tap it, edit the connection titled Cingular Internet, tap Next, and then enter the following connection information:
Access Point Name: wap.cingular.
Dial-up Number: *99***1# (this is unchanged).
User Name: WAP.CINGULARGPRS.COM.
Password: CINGULAR1 (also unchanged).
Finally, tap Finished.
If you're a US T-Mobile customer, the access point name is one of these: internet.voicestream.com, internet2.voicestream.com or internet3.voicestream.com, depending on your plan and region. The user name and password fields are blank for T-Mobile.
After you get this set up, power-cycle your phone, and you should be connected. Some phones (such as the E62) want you to approve making the connection. After clicking yes on the phone, you're on the Net. Although connectivity over GPRS isn't as fast as Wi-Fi, it's still a lot of fun to be able to pop up your favorite Web site at the beach. (And, both of your authors live by beaches—Jim in Hawaii and Doc in Santa Barbara. Your recreational options may vary.)
Unannounced—but recently discovered by the Nokia N800 community—the device has a built-in FM stereo tuner. Enabling this is as simple as updating the apt-based application catalog and searching for the FM receiver tool. Download it, and you're set once you plug in the headphones for use as an antenna. (FM waves are much longer than cell-phone waves, so you need a conductor up to 30" long or so.) You can configure the FM widget to play through the speakers, though this setting is not retained in the version we tested. (It defaults to the earphones.) Reception is about the same as you'd expect from a Walkman-type radio. One obvious omission we would like to see corrected: the NXP (née, Philips) TEA5761 FM receiver could be upgraded to a TEA5764, which includes RDS (Radio Data Service). That's the data stream that runs in the background with many US FM stations as well as all stations in Europe and many others around the world. For the N800, it would allow the FM tuner to identify stations, programs and music information. (Right now, on the FM tuner widget, you have to enter call letters manually for all your presets.) More important, RDS support would allow applications to be built that make use of data on the RDS stream. These include song or program title (date and timestamped) and other identifying information. Through ProjectVRM (which Doc heads at Harvard's Berkman Center), discussions already have begun toward making the N800 an interactive FM/streaming/podcasting device—one that could include a “buy button” that allows listeners instantly to become contributors to (and members of) public radio stations playing programs that listeners like. This opt-in orientation toward paying for radio (and podcasting) has the potential to revolutionize the whole business.
We even could use opt-in payments to fix commercial music radio. The Copyright Royalty Board earlier this year came up with a ruling that said every station on the Web would have to pay a tiny per-person/per-song fee (which increases to $.0019 each by 2010). While the Royalty Board and its predecessors (going back to the DMCA in 1998) spoke about a “hypothetical” marketplace with a “willing buyer and willing seller”, the N800 actually makes such a marketplace possible, but on a completely voluntary, natural basis. Listeners pay only for what they like, in any amount they like, whenever they like. They can subscribe, escrow the data for use (including payment) at a later time or whatever. The key is providing a low-friction way of listening and paying without any coercion on the supply side—a way to blow up DRM by turning stations and podcasters into true intermediaries between performing artists and those who enjoy their work. And, wouldn't you rather pay directly for public radio than have to listen to pledge drives twice a year?
Even without that extra feature, the N800 is a big advance on radio-as-usual. For example, you can “time-shift” radio, like TiVo does for video.
The N800 also has both USB and line-in interfaces, allowing you to record (and perhaps even edit) as well as play back podcasts. Simply add software. That's a huge advantage of the N800's nature as a wide-open Linux device.
One more fun thing (among many) to do with your N800 is use it as a navigation device. Nokia sells a Navigation Kit that includes a Nokia LD-3W Bluetooth GPS, car charger, car mounting kit, 2GB memory card and Navicore software with maps. However, if you already have a Bluetooth GPS, you might investigate Mameo Mapper. After you get through the setup, you can end up with a set of maps that are based on Google Maps (street or satellite view) or any of several other on-line map sources, including Microsoft's excellent Virtual Earth (VE). If you enable auto-download, these can be downloaded as needed through your cellular-phone data connection. (For more on Navicore and Maemo Mapper, see Doc's Linux for Suits column in this issue.)
We found that we could get five hours of use on a single charge while doing typical Web browsing, over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, and listening to the FM radio. This is impressive for a device with this form factor and a Wi-Fi radio.
It's still early, but it's clear that Nokia is committed to the N-series (as it's now called) as a platform, and so are both vendors (such as Navicore) and developers. Be sure to visit both maemo.org and garage.maemo.org, where you can see what's developed and what's developing—and start rolling your own cool stuff for this excellent little device.
Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.
Jim Thompson has been noodling about with UNIX and Linux for far too long. He knows he started with BSD Unix Release 4.1a on a Vax 11/780 in 1980, and still thinks echo 'This is not a pipe.' | cat - > /dev/tty is funny.