Living with a Nokia N800 - the 2 week review

Internet tablets, pah, what's that all about? Toys for rich kids that don't have anything better to spend their money on.

This was my view of them, until a good friend of mine persuaded me to go and get a Nokia N800 and give it a whirl. I was already a major BlackBerry user and for my entertainment I have a 20GB Archos video unit. The two devices that I always travel with.

The Blackberry has Internet access, but let us be honest, it's an email device and any venturing into the world wide web should be done with extreme caution, boat load of patience and lots of gritty smiling. Even RSS reading on a Blackberry is a rather limited experience. Leave it as an email device and you will never find a device to come anywhere near it.

So with the N800 I was wondering what on earth I would do with it. Its main (well really only) connection to the interweb is via WiFi so taking it on the move would require careful planning on finding public WiFi spots (or basically hopping between McDonalds! Super WiFi me please!).

Getting it out of the box

I bought it on the strength of my friends recommendation, who in retrospect didn't talk up some of the real killer features in it. He undersold it if anything. My rational at the time was, that it would be a nice web browser for in and around the house - checking weather, background on movies etc, it would find a place in our families lives. How naive I was then!

From the moment you power on the device, you are blown away at the crisp and clear display. Sitting at 800x400 (65k colours), the N800 renders even the smallest of fonts with pin sharp clarity. And that is a very important feature as the N800 has a very clever zoom feature allowing you to quickly (using 2 external buttons) resize content. It hasn't stopped impressing me.

Connecting the device to the network is a breeze assuming you have a wireless unit somewhere and a DHCP server to allocate its IP settings. I couldn't find anyway to hard code network settings which is a shame. But I have 3 wireless zones in my house, and it moves seamlessly between them all. Finally, I don't have to think about wireless!

Bundled Software

The web browser is Opera 8 complete with Flash7 enabled. This pretty much gives you access to all the internet, including Google Maps and some of other more demanding Web2.0 based websites. There are some sites that it can't cope with, but on the whole that is minimal and no doubt as soon as Opera is upgraded those too will open up.

The email client however is a complete turkey. Why Nokia even authorized this piece of nonsense anywhere near the device is anyones guess. I can't really think of anything good to say about it. It claims to support IMAP, but restricts you to just the INBOX folder with no way to browse any other IMAP folder. The composing and replying is clunky and just not a nice experience. So leave that one for the moment, I'll come back to this.

Also bundled, is a 2nd rate RSS reader. It's not a complete dead donkey, but it is definitely struggling for life. It integrates well with Opera, allowing you to quickly subscribe to feeds, but thats where the usefulness ends. It attempts to only show you the items you haven't read but fails more times than not. It has no easy way to jump between posts and has no way to quickly pull a post and email it to someone. It is frustrating that this is so bad, as I have found the N800 a perfect device for keeping up to date with the latest RSS news -- never far from the kitchen table in the morning as I sip coffee.

As for other software there is a chat client, that only supports jabber (ie Google Chat), so that is of limited use. There is a very cool pop out camera that allows you to make video calls, again via Google Chat. The media player is again 3rd rate, another quick attempt to put a check box in a feature list I fear. It fails to play a lot of the movie files and isn't very good at streaming music via the network.

On the whole, the bundled software that comes with the N800 out of the box is a bit of a let down. With such beautiful hardware, you have to wonder Nokia's rational. But do not panic, the community has come to Nokia's rescue.

Community Software

So just before you pack up the N800 and begin to punt it on eBay, take a look at the community and what they are doing with it over at the maemo site. Be prepared, your N800 is about to become the most useful device you could ever think of.

First thing you must realize about this device, is that at its heart, its a Linux machine. This then opens up the world to lots of porting of well known applications to it. Nokia has made the installation of applications a complete breeze with their onboard Application Manager. So trying new stuff is just point and click.

The first application I spotted and installed was VNC. This was the application that had me beside myself. Installing this application has really changed my life. I am now permanently remote desked into my desktop. For example I can now play PartyPoker via the N800 and a poker table fits beautifully on the screen. There are a whole host of other things, but fundamentally, if you don't find the local application you want, then simply use VNC and get it remotely. For this reason the N800 is rarely out of my hands now.

The second 'must have' application is something to replace that awful inbuilt email client. Fortunately there is a major port project underway of the claws email client. This is what you want from an email client; full IMAP support complete with multiple personalities. The chaps maintaining this project are very helpful and quickly resolved my initial N800 setup (thanks to Jean-Luc Biord for quickly repackaging it for the N800 installation). But this is the email client that Nokia should have bundled with in the first place. I hope they take note and talk to the claws team and get it integrated for future N800 units.

The third 'must have' application is of course something to handle chat. Something to handle IRC, MSN, Yahoo and AIM. Gaim sits very well within the N800 environment, giving me access to all my buddies across all the major networks.

The final piece of 'work' software was XTerm+SSH that lets me remote into our servers. This was an easy step to install once I got advice about throwing the device into 'red pill' mode. For more information read this page (thanks to Marius Vollmer for pointing that out).

So lets recap, we have email sorted, we have our chat sorted and we can of course remote desktop into any desktop we want. What we are missing now is some music to hum along to.

Well, the N800 has an FM radio built in and you need to install a little piece of software to enable it. It uses the lead of the headphones as an aerial and works very well.

The real replacement for the onboard media player is Canola, a very slick video, mp3 and photo slide show client. It even supports UPnP for playing music from a remote server. Very handy for those with a large MP3 collection sitting elsewhere.

The only real thing I haven't found a suitable replacement for is the RSS reader, but I have no doubt that will pop up soon. Claws has an RSS plugin, but I haven't given that a whirl yet.

Skype is promised for sometime in the next few months, and I hope it supports video calls.

Other nice touches

Nokia has added some really subtle touches that makes the unit complete. For example, the inclusion of a kick stand that lets you sit the device up in a variety of angles makes it very handle for watching content say on a plane or on the kitchen table.

Expansion wise, it can accept up to 2GB mini cards which makes it ideal for taking MP3's and movies with you on the move should you be outside of a WiFi zone. Speaking of which, the onboard stereo speakers are not tinny and acceptable.

Sadly it doesn't charge from the USB port which would have been sweet, and the lack of a good thumbnail wheel (hark back to my Blackberry) makes scrolling a bit awkward at times with the cursor setup it has. But this is a minor issue.


The N800 is a fantastic piece of engineering, and once you get over the let down of the installed bundled software and install some 'real' software on it, the device will change your life.

With full Bluetooth support, it can also use my Blackberry as a wireless carrier (albeit at much reduced speeds) but more importantly you can use any bluetooth enabled keyboard. My wife and I are planning 2 weeks in the south of Spain in July, and we had our laptops ear marked to go with us. Plans have changed. Another N800 will be bought, and one bluetooth keyboard. It will have everything we need in one device.

If you haven't seen or played with one yet, then please, I urge you to get your hands on one to try it out. Once you are over the initial "wow" factor, you will soon be one of the first to be using the future of real mobile computing.


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