Nokia N800 for Geeks

by Phil Hughes

Yeah, I know, the N810 is the "modern" system and, well, the N800 is too "consumer" for us geeks. Well, hype aside, I am seriously impressed with the N800. Here's why.

I pretty much live on my desktop system. It is a system to write things, to deal with graphics, manage photos, do spreadsheets, design websites, do programming, ... No surprises there. When I travel, I have an ASUS Z3300 which I generally bring with me. It is a compromise but it works.

Compromise? Yeah, it is. It is not as fast as my desktop, the keyboard is too small, it has a disgusting touchpad, it doesn't fit in my pocket, it has limited battery life, ... But, it is small enough to lug around, WiFi "just works", I can plug it into a network if needed and, of course, it runs Linux.

I had an N800 on the way before my last trip (to Costa Rica) but it ended up stuck in aduanas (customs). The dumbos decided that as it was small, rectangular and made by Nokia it muct be a cellular phone which needs permission from TELCOR, the Nicaraguan equivalent of the FCC in the U.S. That meant getting the Z3300 ready for travel. Not a lot of work except getting some important data moved over there (I put it on an SD card) and getting Skype working. Plus, I needed to remember to lug along a microphone/headset meaning more storage.

Well, I'm back and have had my N800 for one day. (Note that my wife has an N770. While it doesn't do Skype, for example, we have used it with hotel WiFi before. Zero setup is the best description.) In that one day, I have learned enough to know that I don't need the Z3300 on my next trip—the N800 will be fine. Plus, unless I need some "real pictures" I can even leave my digital camera at home which, in volume, is as big as the N800.

The big win is you turn it on and it works. That means, while you will probably want to play, you can start off using it and playing later. It even outperformed my expectations. For example, I receive a daily message from The Real News Network which includes links to their news articles. The articles are actually videos on YouTube. Could a 400MHz processor deal with this? The answer is yes, it does just fine.

If you don't belive it is ready for geek use, just start looking in the menus. You will, for example, find a jabber client that is smart enough to use SSL. You also find a Xterm. That, along with a full-sized SD card slot, clearly can lead to anything else.

Now, for geeks, a good place to get inspiration is the Maemo garage site. This is where you find the interesting stuff. There is no Nokia guarantee that this stuff works but us geeks aren't concerned. What did I install first? openssh. Works great.

On the hardware end, the coolest thing I found was an USB OTG adpater. And it only costs $6. This is an adapter that allows the N800 to work in USB host mode (like a regular computer). This article explains this. Note that there is a manual way to do this but the adapter is a great buy and then requires no software changes.

I have an adapter on order but it isn't here yet. Once I have it, I can connect my 500GB USB-based external storage drive to the N800. Now, having 500GB of storage directly connected to something the size of a small stack of 3x5 cards is pretty cool.

The display is amazing. Yeah, it is tiny but the quality is great and the zoom in/out buttons on the top of the unit make it pretty easy to see what you need to see. The obvious question is what about the keyboard? Or, more accurately, the lack of one. Well, one of my major complaints with my ASUS is the smaller keyboard. (My favorite travel system if I have the space is still my ThinkPad because of its great keyboard.) While I haven't tried the N810 keyboard if I am unhappy with the ASUS I am clearly going to be very unhappy with the N810.

The N800 offers a good assortment of options.

  • The on-screen "tap keyboard" works well
  • You can switch from tap keyboard to handwriting analysis and even customize it
  • It will work with an external bluetooth keyboard if you want to lug something bigger around
  • With the little hardware gizmo I mentioned, you can use a regular USB keyboard

Thus, you have a choice of space vs. ease of use. But, beyond that, the "word guessing" software, the ability save URLs and passwords and even the command line editing capabilities in the shell give you a lot of ways to minimize what you need to type. No, I would not like to write this blog entry using the N800 without an external keyboard but, to me, it is more of a choice than a compromise. That is, the N800 does what it was designed to do well and its ability to be adaptable in both hardware and software means it can do more with the right additions.

For those who want to complain about the tap keyboard feature, here is something that is very cool. You can configure multiple keyboard layouts. For example, I configured English and Spanish. There is a tap button on the keyboard than then allows me to switch between the two keyboard layouts and, of course, the key labels change. Try that with your regular keyboard.

Do I want a relatively small but paint to use laptop when I am traveling. No. That is a compromise. I want something that does what it is supposed to do right and the N800 meets that criteria for me. All in all, I am very happy with it. Even if it wasn't a very useful computer it is a nice camera and FM radio that you can use to impress your friends. :-)

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