Eb is doodling on one of those little computers that uses a stylus so that you can write on the screen. In general, hackers don't use them, but Eb [...] wrote the software for this model and so he has a lot of them lying around....which stuck in my head as it described my situation at the time. Apart from the bit where Eb is an über-hacker and I was a junior Perl mangler, obviously. Screen-wise the Palm V was just low-res black on a sort of olive green, and getting data on to them usually required a precariously-balanced IR-capable mobile phone and a lot of patience (or the foresight to sync everything before leaving home), but a small, omni-present device that responded to the touch always seemed so much more satisfying than the mouse or the glidepoint.
Fast forward a few years, and along comes the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet: a small device with a touchscreen, but updated for the 21st century with wifi Internet access, a widescreen, full colour display, a proper Web browser and bluetooth connectivity. I'd looked at the proliferation of Windows-based PDAs over the years and they'd never appealed. Where the Palm and Psion devices felt like they'd been designed from the start with mobile computing in mind, WinCE always seemed like a big OS shoehorned into a little device, and wifi an afterthought if available at all. And don't get me started on small keyboards after the disaster that was the Psion Revo. Maybe this Linux-based device could put the fun back in to computing?
Then, notice the price tag and fast forward some more until we get to the part where I buy one off eBay.
What's in the box?
Opening the box, the device looks tiny. The word "tablet" and the 800x480 resolution (and my inability to read metric specs properly) meant I was expecting something more, well, tablet-y. Maybe the size of those 7" picture frames, which have a similar resolution. Turned 90 degrees it's about as tall as your average PDA, but maybe a bit slimmer across. The Nokia site still lists the N770 RRP as £245, which seems a bit much for what it is, but on eBay they usually go for around £90, and I got mine for eighty quid plus postage. Amazon have just brought their price down to £129.99 "with Navigation Kit" if the thought of eBay-ing puts you off. Around £100 seems like a sweet spot, as it compares favourably with other boys toys of a similar size and complexity such as a mobile phone or MP3 player. Anyway, the size was a slight shock, but given that it'll be spending most of its time in my hands or pockets, not a particularly unpleasant one.
Only glancing at the manual long enough to get the battery compartment open and occupied, I switched the device on, and... well, there were three things going in that I decided the device would live or die on: connectivity, browser, and the quality of the screen. The latter seemed a tough one now that the device was smaller than I'd expected, but... wow. Some of the lettering can be tiny, but it's never less than readable thanks to a combination of a very sharp screen and good anti aliasing. Obviously if you squint to read the newspaper then this device won't do you any favours, and like all LCD displays direct sunlight can be a problem, but sitting on the sofa it's actually... pleasant. That's not usually a word I associate with computers.
Set-up was similarly un-troublesome, consisting of a couple of general questions and brushing aside a request to pair with a mobile phone, then I'm straight into the desktop. Status icons at the top, program shortcuts down the left, and a big space in the middle for some built-in widgets - I kept the RSS feed reader, clock, and Internet radio player, but swapped the Web search for weather reports.
Continuing a trend, getting the device connected to the Internet is done just right. If you're not connected and try to make a request for, say, a web page, the device will just connect to one of your saved network connections in the background, then get on with downloading your content. Contrast this with my Windows laptop, when the connection drops: a browser error page and a minute or two to reflect on how bad Windows is at figuring out whether it's on the network or not, usually followed by my having to do a manual connection repair and uttering a few choice words. On the N770 if you bring up the list of available access points, it'll keep refreshing the list so you can see any changes (or can use it to sniff for open networks as you wander around) - on Windows, it generally just tells me there aren't any for the first couple of times I press the refresh button.
It's not perfect: it has a tendency to crash when it runs out of memory, and some badly-designed sites - the naff-textured, advert-heavy Ain't It Cool News for instance - can push it over the edge. Empire's website (to continue the movie theme) has some minor alignment issues with some images, but at least it doesn't cause the browser to barf. Some Flash sites require a later version without backward compatibility, so no Weebl and Bob. On the whole though it handled pretty much everything else with some style, including AJAX-based sites.
So far, so good
The important bits out of the way, time to look at some of the secondary considerations, like battery life and other software. The battery is supposed to last 3 hours, okay compared to a laptop, maybe less so compared to a mobile phone or MP3 player. However, I find I only have to recharge it once a day, partly because I usually turn it on and off as I need it, and partly because when I leave it lying around switched on it has a fairly aggressive power saving mode. Put the protective metal half-shell back in place and the power saving is even better - I've regularly left it switched on in my pocket for 24 hours, and up to 36 or 48. It was weeks until I heard this strange noise coming from my pocket, which puzzled me for a while because I honestly didn't know what the low battery sound was.
Considering it's using wifi constantly when in use, and bluetooth too at times, battery life is more than adequate. My laptop needs charging after two hours no matter what. Being an eBay purchase obviously the charger isn't a UK one, but the ickle tiny dual voltage power adapter came with an equally diddy converter. It does point sideways when plugged in, but at the end of a four-way block it's not going to trouble any other power bricks. Your mileage may, of course, vary.
If the device had to live or die on just the Nokia software, however, I don't think I'd have been quite so happy. It has some useful, if not exactly spectacular apps - email and messaging, the rather dull-looking media player and RSS feed reader, a PDF viewer, three worthy but uninspiring games (I like the well-featured Mahjong, but Chess on a mobile device?) and so on. There's no real business software (e.g. a Word compatible word processor), so it's unlikely to please the Road Warrior crowd. Going into the application manager to check for new or updated software is similarly unlikely to light your fire either - a few themes, a simple media streamer, and not a great deal else.
However, this is a Linux-based machine, so there's a happy end to this story. The browser home page (again, slightly dull and grey) has a link to the "Tableteer" site, and a little hunting around gives a link to Maemo.org... or, like me, you can just Google for "N770 software" before you buy the thing and go in well informed. Maemo.org's downloads section is similar to the Firefox extension website, in that you'll probably spend hours scrolling through thinking "ooh - want that. And that. And that...". I've installed tons of useful stuff, only to find that I've still only used up two thirds of the main "drive" - app sizes here are measured in kilobytes, not megs or gigs.
Killer apps include Maemo Mapper, which is a GPS mapping program. eBay had also furnished me with a solar-powered bluetooth GPS unit for under thirty quid, so I was eager to give this a try. At first I just got a blue dot in the middle of a blank page, but on reading the forums that's because for copyright reasons it's not provided with any maps. What you do is give it a cunningly-modified URL to your favourite mapping service - e.g. Google Maps - and it downloads the images you need. Similarly you can "download" driving routes, and even a speech system. Obviously it's unlikely that you'll have decent Internet access in your car (unless your 'phone is better than mine), so you can pre-cache the bits you need, or just download a whole square between two coordinates. When you're done, Topografix-format XML files of your tracks can be downloaded for use in other software, handy for outdoors types.
If that's not your thing, then the more advanced media players might take your fancy - UKMP (Urho Konttori Media Player) is a swish iPhone-style music player; album covers on a black background can be navigated using "kinetic scrolling", where a flick of the finger will set the screen scrolling until it hits the top (or bottom) of the list, or it runs out of steam. Kagu does a similar kind of thing, but with a different layout. Canola goes even further, presenting a media centre-style interface to music, video and pictures, although you'll need some software installed on a "proper" computer to stream the content.
For most people picking from the myriad Shoutcast streams available will probably be enough (who knew there was an entire radio station devoted to just Beatles songs and cover versions?), but I wanted my own music. TVersity is a free media steamer for Windows, and *nix types can probably work something out with gstreamer, but in the end I plumped for installing GNUMP3d on my Linux file server to handle audio streaming. If you just want to play MP3s from the device itself, the N770 only comes with a 64MB MMC Mobile card which won't hold a great deal, but you can buy one up to 1GB for about a tenner these days - or 2GB if you install a third-party kernel.
Ports of AbiWord and the GPE suite of programs will take care of most office software requirements, but that was of little interest to me personally - getting VNC and SSH working mattered much more. I will say that the PDF viewer acquitted itself well, handling a large, graphically intensive magazine file from the Nottingham City Council website pretty flawlessly, if slowly at times.
Installation will be fairly familiar to anyone used to a Debian-style Linux distro such as Ubuntu - .deb packages can be downloaded and installed (or not, if you hit a dependency issue) or you can manually edit the repository list and grab them from the application manager. Properly packaged software usually comes with an install link that will take care of all of the above for you however.
Signs and portents
There are many clues that this device is not packaged in the usual corporate way: it's a hacker's toy, not a business tool. You don't need to purge the browser bookmarks to get rid of all the upsell "services" that usually get shovelled there - it's useful stuff like BBC world news, Lonely Planet travel guides, a Google directory with just search, mail and news, and links to the two main N770 sites. The example images are Discovery Channel shots of monkeys and sharks, instead of bland copyright-free landscapes. Even the example music features someone who can hold a tune, even if it's a bit Country for my tastes. OK, so it starts up with that jingle and a faintly vomit-inducing picture of a baby's hand reaching out to an adult, but all in all, not too bad.
Then there's Red Pill mode.
To make certain changes on the N770, you sometimes need root access. To do this you simply go into the application manager, bring up the screen to enter a new repository, and for the web address just type matrix then click the Cancel button. You'll then get a choice - "Which pill?". Red grants access to the inner workings of the
MatrixN770; I used it to install SSH. Blue pill puts everything back to normal. SSH installed not only the client but also the server - so the addition of an xterm client means I can log into localhost as root (don't forget to change the password!), or even log in over the wireless network from my desktop machine. As the N770 is a Linux computer under the hood I could easily go into /etc, add a CIFS module and put in a couple of Samba shares in the fstab file. I have to run a small file once the device is on the network to activate these shares, but then I have access to several gigs of storage on the fileserver as if it's on the device itself.
If you're one of those people with a huge desktop replacement laptop, playing all the latest games or sitting in a coffee shop all day writing haiku, then obviously the N770 isn't a direct replacement for that - and you've probably got a tiny penis, as we've established on the forums.
But I've got a perfectly good desktop machine, thanks, and found I only used the laptop for occasional stuff: checking news from the sofa while an advert break is on; or sitting on something more rounded and with a base made of porcelain every morning. Even a small laptop is a bulky thing to carry around with you everywhere just in case, so having something pocket-sized means when you gotta go, you can just go.
Without a stopwatch on it, it's debatable whether it starts up any faster than bringing the Windows laptop out of hibernation, but there's a difference between Windows coming out of hibernation, and Windows deigning to allow me to access a web page. As the N770 has no moving parts and can safely be started up while I'm in transit to the smallest room in the house, it wins in the end anyway. Then if you leave it on in powersave mode, it comes back instantly.
To use a real world example of where a mobile device comes in handy, I recently noticed that the server was running under heavy load via one of my diagnostic webpage. As I was in bed at the time, I used the N770 to SSH into the server, used top to see that the spam filters were running a little hot, tailed the mail server logs, and found that someone was sending spam with one of our subdomains in the "from" address so we were getting all the bounces. I just changed the mail alias file for that subdomain to remove an errant wildcard address using vi, and all the bounces got rejected without troubling the spam filters.
I could have got up and used the desktop machine; I could drag the laptop to bed every night, but the N770 was just there, and handled all of the above just fine. I can also VNC into machines - to start (e.g.) the Bioshock demo downloading first thing in the morning, or shut down the desktop machine when it's finished doing a backup last thing at night - or just pull up the wiring diagram of the internal USB connector when fitting one of those Matrix Orbital LCD displays. While I doubt that these abilities are unique to this device, having properly integrated wifi and that widescreen display certainly make it an ideal tool for the job.
I carry a Leatherman multitool on my belt, which isn't going to replace a proper well-equipped toolbox - there's no power tools, and it's not heavy enough to hit things with - but it's good enough for most day-to-day jobs and it's always there when I need it, so it makes my life that bit easier. The N770 can be described in the same way.
It's not perfect, of course - but writing about the downsides of the device have taken me longer than the rest of the article put together. This could in part be due to the honeymoon period of first getting something new and shiny, but even after a few weeks it's hard to complain too much. There a few annoyances, but no real show-stopper I can really rip in to.
When you switch on the device, it needs to finish its boot sequence properly: if you jump in early and start trying to connect to your wireless network, there's a chance the device will think it's gone pear-shaped when it notices the extra load and just reboot itself. Similarly, if it runs out of memory - most notably websites heavy with graphics - it'll quit the program you're using, pointing to there being not quite enough memory under the hood. The N800 appears to have double the N770's (128MB over 64MB), which might add credence to this. These are problems that can't be completely cured as such, but with a bit of common sense can be avoided most of the time - especially as there are a number of programs available to add memory and load indicators to the top bar. In normal use however, having three or four programs running at once hasn't caused me problems.
I found the USB connectivity pretty useless - it only allows you to browse the mini SD card, if fitted. And if you're connected, you can't see the card from the device, so you have to keep disconnecting and reconnecting the cable to transfer (to take a random example) review screenshots. Uploading the images directly via the web browser is probably more sensible. It would have been better to remove the USB port, use the extra space to fit a proper-sized SD card port (so it can be taken out without having to clip the adapter in place, and coincidentally read my camera's card directly), and leave the USB cable out of the box. If you're really worried about it, perhaps use the savings in component costs to bundle a dirt cheap card reader: it'd be more convenient - at least this would show up as a removable drive, allowing the user to do the safe removal thing under Windows. Or hey, fit a USB input instead and allow me to access USB devices instead of just a few bluetooth ones, and I could really get rid of my old laptop (although I shudder to think what that would do to the battery life).
One of my personal disappointments was with text area input in a web browser, but I've been in two minds whether to mention it. As well as the usual hunt-and-peck small on-screen keyboard for use with the pen, the application of a meaty thumb in the right place brings up a keyboard that covers most of the screen, allowing me to jab away with my fingers - or holding the device in both hands, type using both thumbs. This works a treat for entering commands over SSH or even typing up notes on a bus, but failed dismally in the text area box in the web browser when replying to comments on our forums. It would either result in small comments vanishing, or large comments repeating lines at random, plus formatting quoted text to a fixed number of columns. The latter could be solved by some pre-posting edits, but it was annoying, as this is my preferred method of text entry. I eventually got around it by installing the latest Gecko engine. However, installing an alpha copy of the latest Mozilla code means a slower, more memory hungry and crash prone browser, so it's not ideal for normal browsing and I find myself switching back and forth between this and the original Opera code. OK, this can be done fairly easily from the browser itself, but it's extra hassle. The reason I'm not sure whether to mention a potential show-stopper? It worked fine on my own "contact me" web page, so although the browser shouldn't have this problem, we might be doing something to contribute to it - possibly some CSS in the text area definition that caused it to go screwy. It's certainly something I'll be looking in to.
The only other problems I had are trivial. For instance, the onscreen keyboard suggests words from the dictionary, and learns as it goes along; this leads to the nice, massive space bar getting much shorter, and I have occasionally ended up with sentences like "I america not happy" until I learned to use the far right of the space bar at all times. Oh, and as it doesn't know SSH passwords from any other text, it's memorized my root password and happily suggests it to me all the time (lucky I have heavy firewall rules to lock SSH down, so I should be OK even if the device is stolen).
Moving the desktop plug-ins around can be painful, as they can't overlap - but you can't, for instance, change the number of columns on the weather app to make it fit better until it's been placed on the desktop, which is a chicken and egg situation. However, once in place I never have to touch them again, and you don't really, truly need anything on the desktop. It does point to some apps being so simple that, for instance, between sessions the screenshot hack didn't notice that there were already screenshots in the images folder and overwrote some of my killer illustrations for this review. I had to remind myself that it was free, third party, and takes up about 1K of space, so just maybe it's a bit much to expect more.
And as many third party apps aren't specifically designed for the device, it can be slightly hit-and-miss figuring out what hard button does what - for instance, the volume rocker is used as the zoom controls in certain apps. Having casually thrown the manual aside from the beginning, I had a bit of an ID-10-T moment when I couldn't find any on-screen cursor keys, which means I couldn't use the shell history function when SSH'd into the server. I'd become so used to doing everything on-screen that I had completely ignored the large D-pad on the left side of the device, which is the bloody obvious cursor key combination. I'm still not sure what the button in the middle is used for though; the button that does "back" in the browser looks like a reload button; and I've never felt the need to use the home or menu buttons, if indeed that's what they are. The full-screen key, however, gets a lot of use, and is just in the right place for tapping with your left index finger when you're holding the device with both hands, so no complaints there.
What else? Clicking on the desktop RSS headlines and summaries opens up the same data in the RSS feed reader, where I'd prefer it to go straight to the web page. Oh, and when the metal half-shell protective case is in the storage position (on the back, rather than covering the screen), it covers the little hole that holds the pen, so you have to keep hiccuping the device out of the shell to store and remove the pen. Such a discreet, wifi and GPS enable device is crying out for a NetStumbler implementation, but I can't find one. Yes, I'm really struggling for negatives now. Does being able to reskin the entire device, including sound effects, as a Star Trek LCARS device count?
We debated in the staff forum why I bought this device in particular - some of the points made in this review might seem to be extolling virtues that might be present in many, if not all, mobile devices. Yes, I love the fact that, on visiting my parents' house, I don't have to get out of my chair to tell them the prices and availability of books on Amazon, and that I can pull this device out of a pocket and start taking notes even on a cramped bus, but we're probably not talking about unique selling points of the N770 only there. This is in part because I was looking for something more convenient than my laptop rather than looking for something to review, so I'm sharing some of these experiences to maybe whet a few appetites (and on seeing the web browser in action, I have at least one convert). I just found the makers of this particular device have made many sensible decisions, most notably with the screen quality, connectivity and battery life. Text entry too, apart from the hiccup with our forums. One option I haven't mentioned is the handwriting input, which uses proper letters rather than some obscure shorthand, and with enough examples that it probably doesn't need training - but if it does, you can do this on the fly without quitting and reloading your current program or document. Or that, when you connect to a wifi network, the RSS feed list on the desktop notices and automatically downloads the latest headlines in the background. It's touches like that which make this device so nice to use.
This is a device that takes a little effort to get just how you want it, but it amply rewards that effort. On one hand, it's a capable multimedia machine that has a solid, user-led software base if you just want to play. On the other hand it's a pretty straight Linux computer that's infinitely hackable, without the constant frustrations and work-arounds that you'd face with an iPhone or a PSP. Being a bit cheap I don't think I'd pay top whack for this, or the updated N800 (with built-in webcam - woo!). However, the price I paid is a bargain for the amount of use it now gets, and I wholeheartedly recommend picking one up.