Gear Review: Nokia N800

I just got the tablet PC recommended by the Linux Journal. Although Nokia makes it, it’s not a phone. Also, it runs a different OS than Nokia phones. It’s been a while since I had such a phone, but I recall an excellent interface design and great reliability. They must have hired a different team to do the N800. Or maybe it’s the same team, but morale is low since management sent the tablet team to do a “fun” exercize in aligator wrestling and the team lead was tragically eaten. (It was a sad day for Nokia’s Elbonian devision. Most of the team stayed on, but they burn with silent resentment.)

I want to make a large, blanket statement right now. Computers are crap right now. All of them. The Mac is pretty good, but it keeps getting more and more closed. Want to hook up a bluetooth GPS to your shiny, new iphone? Too bad, Jobs says you can’t. The 21st century Henry Ford knows what you want to do and offers you only that, even if it’s not what you want to do. Also, you can get any color iphone you want as long as it’s black. All their devices get more and more closed. Their (consumer) tools are more and more closed. Want to make a web page? Hope you like the “made with a mac” look.
Windows? Don’t get me started. My jaw drops with fresh horror every time I hear what windows users are forced to put up with. I don’t understand why they use computers at all, given such provocation.
Fortunately, Linux is here to save the day! Well, maybe just Ubuntu linux, but anyway. Yay for saving the day. Too bad it won’t really run on my existing hardware.
The N800 runs a flavor of Debian linux. Did that sentence have any meaning for you? Then you’re a geek. Sorry. If it didn’t, don’t surf away yet! It shouldn’t have to make sense. This is a freaking consumer device. I just want a GPS thingee (via a seperate wireless little black platic thing) to help keep me from getting lost on bike trips and something that I can use to do some mobile blogging while on the road. I don’t want to risk my laptop being in another crash, so I got a little web device. It’s reasonable to expect a consumer to know they need software (and possibly extra hardware) for their device to do GPS stuff. It’s reasonable to expect a consumer buying a web device to have some familiarity with cruising around on the internet. I think that’s nearing the end of what’s reasonable.
It’s not reasonable that it ships with a broken operating system. Asking folks to flash a brand new device is not reasonable. (Sorry for the jargon. Notive how it’s confusing? Not reasonable! It means to use a different computer or a special program to change the device’s software to do an upgrade.) Not providing a CD with said flash program (for all common consumer OSes) is not reasonable. Requiring the use of another computer to flash it, is on the borderline of reasonability. And not having any kind of flasher for Mac users is not at all reasonable. They’re all linux-y, but they don’t release the source for the flasher. So they don’t have it, I can’t get it, I can’t build it myself.
The N800’s “killer app” for GPS map stuff looks really nice when it isn’t crashed, not working, or not talking to the GPS. Let’s be fair, it might be because I’m running a broken OS. The web browser is doing something wrong with cookies, so I cannot figure out how to update my blog. Err, since basically, I got it for blogging and map stuff, it’s 0 for 2 right now.
But it’s got mini usb, so at least I can plug in my camera, right? Hahahaha, no. The miniusb is useful for when you want to flash the device (don’t do that on the subway or you risk fines) and for when you want to use it as a memory card reader for your regular computer and for nothing else. It can’t charge the device. It can’t take a keyboard, a mouse, a joystick, my phone, my camera, nada. Ok, but the N800 takes memory cards. This strongly implies that I can take a picture, pop the card out of my camera, pop it into the N800 and post it to the internets. If my camera uses MiniSD cards. It doesn’t. It takes a sony memory stick.
Ok, so possible work arounds involve: 1. Buying a new camera (not a terrible idea since mine has not been so healthy since I dropped it a week or so ago). 2. Finding some sort of USB-> bluetooth converter. (Would be hot! want one anyway! Any usb keyboard becomes wireless! sexy! (Does this device even exist?)) 3. Inventing a sony memory stick -> miniSD converter. Notice that I used the word “invent.”
Yeah, so the N800 is pretty much useless to me unless I sink even more money into this or spend a bunch of time trying to find work-arounds. The whole point of it was to be cheaper than replacing a dead laptop after a crash. But it has to really be cheaper. I mean, I don’t want my laptop to die (ever, yikes. Live forever!) but a new laptop would be faster and better and I’ll probably buy one eventually anyway. So the maximum cost of the PDA thing needs to be based on a complicated equation involving the likelyhood of a fatal (to laptop, not me) crash, the cost or laptop replacement and the length of pre-upgrade life remaining in said laptop.
People really love these things. Fair enough. But it’s not a consumer device! I wanted a consumer device! I wanted something that I could turn on, double click something and see a pretty map of my neighborhood! I wanted something that would deal with my google logins the right way, so I could just post to my blog. I wanted something that could transfer data from my camera to flickr, that could copy data to and from my bluetooth phone and to and from my bluetooth computer without having to use wires. I wanted to plug in a home-brew keyboard. I wanted something that could just use the same USB-based charger as my phone and ipod and other devices. These are all things that consumer web device should be able to do. Right out of the box. Without requring google searches of forums dedicated to hacking the damn thing.
Sadly, my free software ideology and stubbornness is going to cause me to keep pounding on the damn thing until it WORKS damn it. I’m a hacker after all. These problems have solutions. Non-consumer-level solutions. If you’re not a hacker, don’t buy this tablet.