Will there be Maemo-related exhibits at the CeBIT this year?
I asked the same question on the maemo.org mailing lists, alas, no response. The CeBIT appears to be losing importance…

One of my favourite things on the Nokia 770 was watching TV recordings on the subway to work, transcoded using 770-encode. The 770’s pre-installed video player is quite limited in playback, but the Maemo port of mplayer is able to play files at higher resolution and bitrate.

Wes Carroll's Mouth Drumming on N800

I’m using the N800 to learn Vocal Percussion with Wes Carroll’s DVD: Too bad it looks stupid to practice beatboxing while watching it on the subway.

For the N800, the pre-installed video player has improved a lot and can handle larger files, although some new nasty bugs have shown up. mplayer on the N800 is still quite unstable compared to the 770 version. Thus right now, watching video has become a bit less enjoyable on the new device, but these bugs will most likely be fixed within short time.

It’s a bit disappointing that the video still needs to be transcoded to be suitable for the device, though. The following is a rather unfair comparison, but it shows the quality tradeoff between a transcoded video and the original DVD:

Video Quality Comparison

Click the preview to compare the transcoded video’s quality.

While I know little about embedded devices and may be naive about the hardware of the N800, the specs suggest that it might be able to decode DVD content at fullscreen resolution, and with SDHC coming up, it also brings the storage space to carry a full movie or two with you.

A very similar video format is used for DVB broadcasts. (Germany is switching to digital-only broadcast TV right now.) It is surprisingly easy to watch DVB TV through a multicast on a local TCP/IP network (we did that during the games of the last soccer world cup) and the N800 would be a perfect little portable receiver for digital TV or DVD streams.

But the software can’t handle DVD or DVB, yet. I hope that Nokia or 3rd party developers can overcome this limitation some time in the future.

Update (08/2007): Since I wrote this article a few months ago, Nokia has improved the video codec and the device can now play much higher bitrates than shown in the DVD comparison above. However, you still have to transcode video to a lower resolution and bitrate and you still cannot play a raw DVD-rip in fullscreen.

Years ago, I bought “Monkey Island 1-3” from the bargain bin of a local computer game store, but never finished the game.

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ScummVM is an emulator of the Lucasarts engine and it turns the Nokia into a great casual gaming device. I finished Monkey Island 1 on the 770 and now I’m playing part 2 on the N800.

(Disclaimer: I really like the N800! Yet, I’m going to collect a few minor nits about Maemo and the N800 in this little series…)

Maemo comes with a central account settings controlpanel, but it’s not that central, actually: It only contains the Jabber settings. The Mail client has its own account settings menu. Both account settings are found through completely different menu paths on the device and it’s not very obvious where to look when you want to create or change one of your accounts.

accounts.gif

It would be nicer if accounts for all online applications such as Jabber and Mail were stored in the control panel.

(Disclaimer: I really like the N800! Yet, I’m going to collect a few minor nits about Maemo and the N800 in this little series…)

While it’s wonderful that the N800 now supports BT keyboards out of the box, the BT settings are odd. You can easily make the BT icon disappear, and you have to dig deep into the control panel to make it reappear.

bt.gif

It would be nicer if the BT icon didn’t disappear, but just turned inactive/gray when bluetooth is off.

An UltraDNS marketing person called. He wants my company to switch to their services.

He cited these compelling reasons to switch:

  • Their solution is closed source and that makes it more secure than open source solutions such as bind!
    (“Just enter ‘bind’ and ‘bug’ in Google and see what you get!”)
  • Their solution uses Oracle instead of flat files and that makes it better than bind!
  • They have some really big customers.
    (“And those companies know that they do.”)
  • They offer five-nine SLAs.

What a great marketing pitch.

Free advice for UltraDNS: Before calling a company like mine, please try to find out first what our DNS infrastructure is (it’s easy! use dig!) and if we are actually unhappy with our DNS. Then offer us a better solution and explain the actual advantages. And please train your salesfolks about technology and tell them to avoid FUD tactics.

Otherwise, you end up with a few angry people.

After the first initial impressions about the new Nokia N800, here comes a full review.

Introduction

I used to own a Nokia 770, the predecessor to the N800, and was very happy with it. Of course, this review will compare the two devices every now and then, but I will try to keep it interesting for those who don’t already know either of the two devices.

n800.jpg

Hardware

The 770 had a very robust appearance, almost like a piece of industrial hardware, and I never lost a thought on that I might break it. The N800 looks far more fragile and delicate and I am quite afraid to snap it.

Sure enough, the N800’s case is made of high-quality material. This is not a toy, this is a high-end product. But will it survive when dropped on a floor? I wouldn’t want to try.

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This time, the stand comes attached to the device. And it’s very practical, too!

Worse, the N800 comes with a soft fabric sleeve that offers no protection to the screen. While this sleeve looks a lot better than the ugly sock that was supplied with the 770, I miss an equivalent to the 770’s slide-on hard cover. Let’s hope that PDAir will come up with another bag that will take care of that, since my 770 PDAir bag was a perfect fit that offered good protection to the device.

sleeve.jpg
This is meant to protect a 400 € device?

You may have read elsewhere that the 770 and N800 screen is gorgeous and I can confirm that it is. High resolution of 800×480, small size – perfect to read a normal web page or a PDF document. This is the best screen on a portable device of this size I have seen so far, and I can’t understand why other PDAs, phones or video iPods still use the typical 320×240 QVGA format.

The 770 and the N800 both use bluetooth and wireless lan to connect to the internet. So you either need a bluetooth-enabled phone or an access point. The N800 comes with full BT keyboard support and it works excellent (much better than the third party BT plugin for the 770).

bt-keyboard.jpg
Much better than with the 770: Bluetooth keyboard support comes pre-installed for the N800. Perfect!

The N800 comes with a lot of very welcome upgrades. The 770 was fast enough for my browsing needs, yet the N800 comes with more CPU power and twice the RAM (128 MB plus an optional swap area of the same size on the internal memory card). The 770 used to have only one memory card slot for the not-so-common RS-MMC format, the N800 upgraded this to two slots for standard-format SD-cards.

These are the most common memory cards on the market right now, so you can buy a lot of memory cheap. My N800 now runs on 2 x 2 GB of additional memory.

At the moment, the N800 is bound to the SD size limit of 2 GB per slot, but some people are reporting that a non-SDHC 4 GB card works already and that SDHC cards larger than 2 GB might work in the near future.

sdslot.jpg
The external SD slot cover feels more fragile than the 770. I hope I won’t snap it one day.

The N800 uses the same charger and battery as the 770, which Nokia also uses for many of their phones.

This pragmatic approach is what I like most about this device: Nokia uses a standard USB cable, standard batteries and chargers, standard memory cards, standard headphone plugs and I guess that the headset microphone connector is non-proprietary enough, as well. (Ok, so the batteries are Nokia’s own standard, but still:) You can buy parts very cheaply once you need to replace them. And you have a choice among third party suppliers. (Don’t get me started on laptop battery formats, and pricing. Or non-replaceable iPod and Palm batteries soldered into the gadget!)

3chargers.jpg
Three Nokia devices, three different charger plugs. Why can’t they agree to use just one within the company?

The most obvious change is that it now comes with a small webcam for video conferencing. I would have preferred a built-in GPS receiver over the camera.

It’s a pity that the USB connector still cannot be used to charge the N800 (while more and more gadgets allow this).

usbcable.jpg
USB: Too bad it doesn’t charge.

Software

The N800 runs its own flavour of Linux called Maemo Internet Tablet OS 2007, which is based on Debian. Being a Debian/Ubuntu Linux user, I felt right at home and was happy to find many third party applications written by other developers, ready to install using the tools I was familiar with. The User Interface based on the popular Gnome desktop is called Hildon, and Nokia claims that porting existing Gnome applications to Hildon is relatively straightforward.

I found the Hildon user interface a bit clunky. Anyone familiar to the typical Windows-desktop user interface will have no problem using it. But still it is a weird mixture of icons, buttons and nested menus where UI design choices are inconsistent even within the applications pre-installed by Nokia. (Am I just nostalgic or is the Palm UI still the most straightforward pen-based user interface so far?) I never really liked the 770 UI graphic design, yet the N800 looks even stranger: Of the four pre-installed N800 UI themes, two are rather wacky, using babyblue or bright purple widgets. I guess that’s a matter of taste, but it didn’t meet mine.

The original firmware comes with a browser based on Opera and several internet applications such as an RSS reader, a mail client, a streaming MP3 player etc.

I find myself mostly using the browser. People have complained that the browser supports “only Flash 7”, but I disabled the Flash player, anyway, as I don’t do a lot of Youtube browsing. To me, it’s surprising that a non-Intel Linux device has such good Flash player support, at all.

The mail client should be nice enough if you get few messages, but my business email address gets way too many messages to handle them with Maemo’s mail client, so I use webmail on the N800’s browser, again.

camera.jpg
The camera. I wonder how to use it with desktop Jabber clients? Hopefully, the Skype client will support video – once it is released.

Another nice application is the Jabber client while on the road. Its addressbook is not very practical if you have many people in your contact list, though. (Or is there a way to hide offline users? I didn’t find that.) I don’t know what to think about the camera and its use for video conferencing, since I didn’t find out how to connect to a desktop client with video, yet.

videoplayer.jpg
Ich glotz TV: Watching TV recordings on the go.

The wonderful hi-res screen should make the device a killer mobile video player, so it’s a pity that the device cannot play video in full 800×480 at 30 fps. The pre-installed video player software is rather limited and while mplayer was able to play higher resolutions and bitrates on the 770 (mplayer is not yet available for N800), it didn’t reach the full resolution of the screen, either. While I wish it would support better video playing, it’s certainly enough to watch a TV recording on the go.

Conclusion

Nokia again and again explained that the 770 and the N800 are not phones, but internet tablets. I have tried and used several PDAs and their pen-based operating systems in the past years, among them Palm, WinCE, Qtopia, Windows XP Tablet. Compared to those, despite Maemo’s occasional clunkiness, the 770 and N800 offer a great combination of brilliant hardware and a promising, hacker-friendly operating system.

The device is perfect for reading on- and offline and very nice for watching lo-res video while traveling. Thanks to cheap memory cards, it can handle a lot of data to carry around. I use it a lot and I am very happy with it. It’s a great all-purpose tool. It’s a full Linux computer with far more RAM and storage than the computer I used to run Windows 95 on just a few years ago! It is far cheaper and lighter than a laptop or a UMPC, uses cheap standard replacement parts, has a better UI than a UMPC, is less limited than a typical PDA or phone.

But it is meant as an internet tablet and so it’s too bad that internet via cellphone is quite expensive here in Germany. Also, more and more WLAN access points are secured, so that I don’t find access to the internet as often as I wish I could. (An Ogo may be a better choice in Germany and elsewhere if you need a cheap, totally mobile, yet limited gadget.)

I guess it’s not quite yet suitable for an end-user once you wish to add third-party applications to it. Third party software installation on Maemo is rather difficult and despite Nokia’s efforts, I miss a user-friendly “distribution” site that combines all tested applications at a central .deb-repository, similar to Debian’s and Ubuntu’s central package servers offering stable and bleeding-edge distributions for easy access.

Right now, one has to hunt several different sites for .deb-Packages, edit the sources.list, use a hidden “Red Pill” mode, sometimes switch to “R&D mode”… And yet, upgrades to the system, as far as I understood, are not distributed as incremental package updates through the official repository, but via full firmware blob releases. Quite impractical. Maemo needs a Release Manager!

Should you buy it? If you understood the previous two paragraphs, definitely. If you didn’t, probably not yet. While you might like the N800 it if you’re not familiar with Linux, you will like it a lot if you are.

size.jpg

Update: Here are some more thoughts on the N800 after a few weeks of using it.

It’s strange, but Maemo’s original activity indicator always seemed a bit clunky to me. Luckily, you can replace it. Based on a license-free animated GIF taken from the ajax activity indicator collection, here’s a replacement that feels a lot more soothing and makes you glad you have to wait for a tiny moment:

throbber2.png

Download this tar archive, uncompress and untar it on your Nokia 770 or N800 in the / directory. This will overwrite the original activity indicators.

throbber.gif

You need a root shell to do that, so it’s not suitable for beginners, yet. (I will try to put these files in a .deb Package to make installation easier.)

P.S.: If you copy the files to your device manually, make sure that the files have the correct read permissions, as the device will freeze if it cannot read these files and you end up having to reflash the system…

The N800 has arrived. Some quick first impressions, most of them in comparison to the previous 770:

It uses the same batteries and charger. Yay! It uses standard SD memory cards. Yay! It has two memory card slots. Yay! It has more built-in RAM. Yay! The CPU is faster. Yay!

The 770 felt rugged and I wasn’t afraid to break it. The N800 appears a lot more delicate. I really wouldn’t want to drop the N800.

The camera feels like a useless add-on, I would have preferred a built-in GPS receiver. Is there a desktop application that I can use to do video-calls from the N800 to a desktop? I hope that the recently announced Skype client will support video-calls.

The UI’s graphic design looks even stranger than on the 770. Still not quite to my taste.

I hope that PDAir will come up with a bag for this device, again. Their 770 leather bag was just perfect.

The N800 now supports Bluetooth keyboards by default and it just works. The 770 didn’t handle BT keyboards this well. Yay!

All in all, some very good improvements.

Yes, the Nokia 770 convinced me: Since Nokia announced the successor to it, I sold mine on ebay and ordered the Nokia N800 right away.

I liked the 770 very very much: A wonderful high-resolution screen, very light, near-perfect size (could be a bit smaller for me, though). It uses a Debian-like Linux, so I felt right at home. And which other 230 gramm computer is running full versions of Perl and Python?

It is fast enough for most activities and the recent OS upgrade (2006SE_2.2006.39-14) made it even snappier. I used it to watch DVB recordings so that I had my own portable video player on the subway to work.

Still, this thing is a weird device. The user interface is very different to previous PDAs I have tried, a strange mix of touchscreen use and GUI-menu environment with an unusual taste in graphics design. All taken together, the UI never really feels consistent. I guess that only people who used a MacOS/Windows-like UI before will understand how to use it. This is made worse that application developers all have their own ideas about the UI and a true styleguide appears to be ignored. Also, the UI wastes way too much screen estate for system information.

So now the 770 will find a new home. The N800 has arrived by now, as well, so I’m going to review that one here, shortly.