Cool Toy of the Day: Nokia N810

My shiny new Nokia N810 Internet Tablet arrived this week, and I like it!

(Bias alert: my friend Dirk-Jan works for Nokia in Finland as a project manager on the N810, so that made me a little more interested in this gadget than I would otherwise have been.)

With a 4.1” screen, the N810 is a little bigger than your average PDA or smartphone. From the negative side, that means it’s just too large to comfortably fit in my pants pockets (especially since it still requires a separate phone to make UMTS calls — the device does not have built-in UMTS capability) while not being large or powerful enough to be a laptop replacement. From the positive side, it’s a lot more pleasant to do webbrowsing or e-mail on than a regular PDA (after all, not so long ago many people would have considered an 800-pixels-wide screen perfectly adequate for a laptop or even a desktop) while still fitting easily in a pocket of my jacket. My Sony Vaio SZ is pretty lightweight for a laptop with a full-sized keyboard, but I expect to leave it home more and more often now that I have the N810.

Apart from the size, it’s a really cool-looking toy: sleek, with good “fit and finish” and no more bumps and frillies on the outside than necessary. And of course there’s the slide-out keyboard, the lack of which was what made me decide to pass on the N800. In several reviews, I had read some complaints that it takes a while to get used to the keyboard, because there’s no space between the keys so it’s easy to unintentionally hit multiple keys at once. However, I didn’t have much trouble with that. The trick, in true Zen style, is not to worry about hitting multiple keys: just hit the one you’re aiming for right-on, without consciously avoiding the eight keys around it, and the keyboard will usually register only the one in the middle. On the other hand, if you try to awkwardly avoid hitting multiple keys by touching them with the edge of a finger or with a fingernail, typing will be slow and frustrating.

But of course, the real reason why I went for this device instead of the hundreds of other PDAs on the market, is that it runs Linux — Maemo to be precise. By default, you get a shell, a bunch of standard Unix tools (from Busybox), Perl, and a minimalist version of vi, in addition to the stuff you would normally expect on a device like this, such as a webbrowser, e-mail client and media player. Needless to say, there is already a sizeable community around Maemo, which has ported all kinds of Linux software such as the SSH client and server, Vim, Python, Ruby, MPlayer, lots of games including LXDoom, rdesktop and many others. Except for a couple of toy scripts in Perl and Python, I haven’t tried building any software myself yet; from what I understand, Maemo has its own GUI framework so porting an X11 app may require some code changes, but porting a simple command-line tool should be a matter of just doing a cross-compile to the ARM platform, in many cases.

What’s a bit disappointing is the lack of tooling to synchronize e-mail and calendar entries with Outlook/Exchange. I guess when you specifically go out of your way to get a Linux-based device rather than the much more common Windows Mobile based ones, you don’t really have much standing to complain about that. Nevertheless, since this is one of the most obvious uses of such a device, and most businesses use Exchange, it would have been nice if something were included by default. But of course, there are various open-source options being worked on by third parties. Haven’t tried them yet, though.

Another thing I’m still looking for is the perfect media player for this device. The built-in player would be perfectly adequate for my needs, except for one snag. By default, it does not support Ogg Vorbis audio files. Fortunately, that’s easy enough to add. However, when you do that, suddenly hundreds if not thousands of .ogg files from the Navicore directory (which contains a demo version of the Wayfinder route planning software) are added to the library. There does not seem to be any way to tell the media player to ignore that directory. The alternative UKMP skips the Navicore directory by default, but it doesn’t seem very stable — it has already crashed on me several times. Then there’s Kagu, which is mostly written in Python so it’s very easy to modify the list of directories to be searched. However, while it looks nice, the user interface does not work well for me at all — you apparently need to add all your songs to the playlist individually before you can play anything. The ‘add all’ button only appears when you’re already at the list of songs for a particular album. Hmm, it’s written in Python — how hard could it be to modify that? In the meantime, I’m open to suggestions on either a different media player to use, or on how to solve the problems I’m having with the three ones mentioned.