Nokia N800

I bought a Nokia N800. It’s an Internet tablet, about the size of a large PDA or a small thin paperback book; almost exactly the same size as a Nintendo DS Lite, in fact. It runs Linux. It connects via WiFi or Bluetooth.

I bought it because I spend a lot of time reading web pages, PDFs and other electronic documents. In particular, my “killer app” was to be able to read the electronic edition of The Guardian with my morning coffee—ideally, in bed.

Yes, there are laptops. However, if you’ve ever tried to casually read the newspaper in bed using a laptop, you’ll probably agree with me that a kilo or so of hardware gets tiring on the arms, and trackpads aren’t conveniently located for use when the computer is propped up.

The N800 is the first portable device I’ve used that has a decent web browser. It’s Opera, in fact. The Guardian’s web site works on it. So do Google Mail, Flickr, Slashdot, Google Maps, and Wikipedia. While the text starts off small in order to squeeze a whole web page on the screen, it’s crisp and readable, and buttons on the top of the device make it easy to zoom in and out. For web browsing it easily beats a Palm handheld, Sony Ericsson P9xx Smartphone, Windows Mobile device, or Blackberry. (I’ve tried ’em all.)

Note that the N800 is’s not a phone. The assumption is that you already have a mobile phone with Bluetooth; if you want to use expensive mobile data plans, you just pair your phone with the N800. This is an assumption I agree with; in general I want my mobile phone to be small enough to fit in the pocket of a pair of jeans, which precludes giving it a screen big enough to browse the web on.

Here are some other high points:

  • XMPP/Jabber chat client.
  • Google talk for voice and video chat.
  • Streaming MP3 support.
  • It’s Linux. If Nokia lose interest, you won’t be totally stuck; the community can continue to fix bugs and improve the OS.
  • Want to run Nethack, SCUMMVM, or SSH into it and explore via the shell? You can.
  • Assuming you switch it off entirely, it still only takes 10 seconds to boot. Mostly, though, you’ll just let it sleep, in which case waking up is instant.
  • Flash works, mostly. It’s not the latest version, however. (Threadless seems to work, doesn’t.)

And in the interest of balance, the low points:

  • The built in camera is terrible. It makes the camera in my cell phone look good. Forget about using it for anything except video chat.
  • PDA basics like address book and calendar are totally absent. I guess the assumption is that you use online services for such things. However, this does mean the device’s usefulness is totally crippled without an active network connection.
  • The Maemo platform is currently in the early stages of its life. This means that OS updates often break existing applications, and the selection of applications isn’t great to start with.
  • The handwriting recognition is horrible, at least compared to Palm OS or the Apple Newton.
  • No Java. WTF? Even my mobile phone has Java. Maybe this will change once Sun finishes making Java available under the GPL.

So the executive summary is: if you want something you can keep in your satchel and use to browse the web at the café, this is currently your best bet. If you like the idea of the iPhone but don’t fancy paying about $2k and being locked out of running your choice of applications, the N800 plus a tiny GSM phone in your pocket is a good alternative, and has more than double the pixels.

(And yes, LiveJournal works on it. If you must.)