Shortly before we went off to France, I came across a special offer from Expansys on the Nokia N770 Internet Tablet. When it was released, the device retailed for just under Â£250 – Expansys were selling it for Â£75.
The tablets seemed to be going like hot cakes, and it really was a bargain price. I e-mailed around to see if anyone had any experience of using the N770 – Howard replied by return that he’d ordered two already. Reading many of the initial reviews it was very much of a ‘nice idea but…’ – the Ars Technica review being a perfect example. The main criticisms are the lack of power in the hardware, which led to sluggish performance. Reading on apparently the latest units were shipping with an updated OS which addressed some of the shortcomings, but focus had now shifted to the machines successor, the N800. One of my colleagues had also purchased one of the original machines and confirmed that it was sluggish, and in his words a bit quirky – however the fact it ran Maemo, a version of Debian GNU/Linux meant that it was an interesting machine to mess around with.
On that basis I put my money down and ordered one – a good job I did, as within days they were all gone!
So why did I buy one? One of the things I least like about either a Pocket PC PDA or a smartphone is the internet experience. Pocket PC, as with most of the on board applications ships with a pretty poor excuse for a browser. On the smartphone you either have Opera Mini which granted does a pretty creditable job with limited resources, or solutions like the Symbian browser that while it can handle full web pages leaves you trying to scan around the pages with a pretty small view – sort of like trying to read a newspaper looking through a pinhole! The simple fact is that the form factor is wrong for web pages. The web is designed for people with regular or widescreen landscape monitors – aside from a couple of Nokia devices the entire market consists of portrait based screens. The concept for the N770 is to build a device that is ideal for browsing the internet on the move – not to build a PDA with internet features – this is very much a targeted device. Although the processor is underpowered and the memory limited, Nokia had ensured that they put a great screen into the unit. My figuring was that even if the internet was totally unusable, with the quality of the screen we could at least use it as some sort of electronic picture frame!
Anyway, having given it a work out for a couple of weeks, it’s really pretty good. Most web pages fit nicely on the screen width wise, and are perfectly readable thanks to the screen. The e-mail client is pretty basic – but since I can run webmail in the browser it’s not too much of an issue. The browser is Opera based, but has limitations, chief being that it doesn’t work with Google Reader. There are a couple of ways around this. Firstly there is a port of Minimo, a Mozilla based browser for devices such as PDA’s. Despite support from Nokia, for the N770 and N800 they looked elsewhere, and although I’ve got Minimo to run, the resources on the N770 are too limited and even though it opens more sites, it struggles with resources, and quite often the tablet locks up. Looking at other alternatives, I’ve discovered Reader Mini which is like a halfway house between the full scale Google Reader interface, and the existing Google Reader mobile interface. With that in place, the sites I look at most often all work on the N770.
It’s slightly too large to be really pocketable, but is definitely still portable, so as a device to browse the internet on the move it is great. The supplied software is pretty stable, and the OS is certainly no less stable than Pocket PC. There are various open source packages ported to the platform (take a look at the list at maemo.org) so if I wanted a PIM package I could install one – having said that if I really wanted to leave the PDA at home I have my calendar on my phone too. What the N770 does really well, is exactly what it says on the tin – surfs the internet. All in all it was a bit of a bargain!