Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A review of the Nokia N800 Linux tablet

Last week I attended the Nokia Mobile Mashup event. The nice surprise was the gift of a N800 Linux tablet. That's definitely Mobile and Open Source, so I spent a Saturday morning playing around and here you have my review.

Let me start saying I do not understand this segment. I might be stupid, but I do not get why a consumer would need an Internet Tablet... It is a device with wi-fi but no cellular connectivity, no keyboard and a pen. Soooo... you can't make a call (yes, you could with VOIP but try to put it close to your ear and you look like a fool) and you can't write emails (no keyboard, c'mon...). What you can do is browse the Internet (clicking on links with the pen...), read RSS feeds and listen to music/video. In a nutshell, it is an entertaining device not meant for consumers ;-) Similar to an enterprise device not meant for enterprises (the iPhone). A niche.

That said, the device is absolutely great. The screen is gorgeous, so crisp it shocks you when you turn it on. The device feels nice in your hands. It has a few buttons on the left to navigate the functions, but I rarely found myself using them. The music sounds good, even when streamed over the Internet. It also has an extremely cool tiny retractable webcam, for videochats.
It supports wi-fi (although not my office network) and I was able to pair it with my Verizon Treo 650 via Bluetooth to navigate the Internet (it took me a few steps but it miraculously worked!). The virtual keyboard on the screen is small when your pen is out, big when it is in its pocket (so that you can use your fingers): nice touch! Browsing with Opera is pretty good and the RSS reader is fully featured: I sucked in my feeds in an OPML file from Netvibes (nice feature, BTW) and I got all my feeds instantaneously.

The Home interface is made with Applets. Sort of widgets, with the info you should need when turning the device on, for example your latest feeds, your speed contacts, a Google search and so on. Clearly, the hope is that the Linux community will create many more (weather and so on). The idea is good, but the feeling is that it lacks applications, yet.

As obvious, the first need for me was synchronization (ok, I am biased, but why did Nokia not add any way to sync the device? Where do Nokia people have their address book???). Luckily, there is an open source client called SyncEvolution, based on the Funambol sync client. I went on the site and tried to download the app. There is a debian package available, plus the source code.
Unfortunately, the N800 Application Manager did not like the debian package...

I am a stubborn geek so I did not give up. I started looking at the open source community at maemo.org (quite lively, I have to say. Good job by Nokia). I downloaded an Xterm application and in a second I was browsing the file system with a terminal. Using vi without a keyboard is a pain, so I thought "this thing is connected to my network, if I find a telnet server I could access it from my PC"... I had first to upgrade the firmware to the latest version (quite easy, with a USB cable), then I downloaded an ssh server from maemo. A second later, I was accessing the wireless device from my PC, with a real keyboard and a mouse. Very cool. It gave me the feeling of power, in particular when I found out how to become root (that's the ultimate feeling of being God for people that grew up with Unix).

I then installed the debian SyncEvolution package, configured the files to connect to a Funambol v6 server and boom, my address book was synched. It worked like a charm. Amazing. The power of freedom.

The beauty of the device is that it is open as in open source. They have a good community building lots of apps. For example, I needed an IM for Yahoo Messenger and I found Gaim was available. It works great. They need more apps, but I am sure they will come.

As I wrote before, the problem is really who would really use it, apart of a bunch of geeks. Maybe it could be used in hospitals or other specialized niches, but definitely I have no use for it in my life (I am a part-time geek ;-) If I am close to a PC, I use that for browsing or emails. If i am running around, I use my cell phone with 3G. If I want to listen to music, I use my iPod.

Since I did not have a use for it, I tried the ultimate consumer test: I asked my wife if she wanted it. She looked at it and said "cool, I'll take it!". I asked her what she was planning to use it for... She said "I'll browse the Internet when I am in the backyard" but a second later "or maybe not, I'll use my laptop there". Then "maybe in the kitchen"... "or I could print out the recipes so I do not fill it with flour". Then she said "I would definitely not go around with a thing that big in my purse". And the final "actually, you can keep it". End of story. The device is not for consumers. I really hope there is a segment somewhere for it, because it is really a beautiful device. But it is likely to be small. And if Nokia gave it to me as a gift, it is probably not selling that well ;-)