Monday, March 10, 2008

Nokia 770

Nokia 770 = Love

The Linux enthusiasts out there may remember a few years ago that Nokia released an Internet Tablet called the 770. It isn’t quite a cell phone, and isn’t quite a laptop, but something in the middle. The big knock against it at the time was the price tag, often somewhere in the $350-400 range. For a device that isn’t quite anything, that is a decent amount of bank.

Well, times have changed.

Nokia released the followup device, the N800, earlier this year and as a result many internet retailers have been flooded with 770s. They can now be had for as little as $130.

So I bought one, and I have to say that I love it. As a longtime Linux enthusiast I am probably a little biased; I routinely spend entire weekends trying to get servers up and running, so the ability to hack a device that fits in my pocket is a long-awaited delight. It has a beautiful 4` screen with a semiludicrous 800 by 480 widescreen resolution. It connects flawlessly to WiFi and many bluetooth cellphones. It runs a Debian variant and can be updated via apt-get. What more can you really ask for?

I have even found some uses for the thing!

I installed a streaming media server called SlimServer on one of my Linux boxen and can now use its web interface to stream music to the Nokia’s media player. It’s like a radio where I can pick the music! There is a version of mplayer available that lets users watch movies and TV shows on the device, and a handy desktop application that helps encode your movies for optimal performance. The web browser is AJAX-capable, and I am using it right now to edit this blog article in Wordpress. The Bluetooth keyboard compatibility makes it much more palatable to use the Nokia as a laptop replacement since it gets around the one-finger, hunt-and-peck onscreen keyboard. Did I mention it has a terminal with most Unix utilities built-in? I installed subversion and the vim text editor for some of my light development work. I am also pretty sure that ssh is available for server management tasks. Also, it has a VNC client and server. I can connect to my Macbook and click around OS X pretty seemlessly. Depending on your resolution the amount of scrolling can be awkward, though, so your mileage may vary.

Despite all of these positives, it isn’t really for everyone. I bought one for my girlfriend in the hope she could use it as a web browser, pocket word processor, and ebook reader. She was frustrated by the flakiness of the oldish Opera browser which randomly crashes on sites she happens to frequent. She found text input to be a chore with the tiny onscreen keyboard and stylus. The default Acrobat reader doesn’t allow for vertical orientation, forcing the user to scroll more often then she would like. Finally, the software available for the device is difficult to install for the uninitiated. Unlike Palm, with a huge installed base of regular users, the Nokia community seems to be largely computer geeks like myself who think nothing of setting up apt sources and manually tweaking text files until everything works right. The main website to get software ( contains a handful of one-click install applications, but most require you to set up repositories in the package manager for almost each and every app you want to install. This is a dealbreaker for the casual point-and-click user.

The Nokia 770 is difficult to pin down. The included software is generally solid while not being robust enough (in my opinion) for casual users. It shows some signs of being a version 1.0 product. For me, this is offset by the fact that there is really nothing else like it out there. I have had a fair amount of experience trying to use a smartphone for web browsing and the Nokia redefines what the portable web can be. It’s an inch or so longer than my Blackberry and has about three times the pixels to work with, letting me see the pages as they were meant to be seen. Given a good portable keyboard, the device can be a serviceable laptop replacement; it can use Abiword for word processing and GNumeric for spreadsheets, and has plenty of Unix development tools. While no PIM software is included, it is easy enough to download. And it still fits in your back pocket.

If you have some time and a spare $140, you just may fall in love.

Til next time.

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