Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Nokia N800 -- a computer for nomads

I always loved the Jetsons cartoon. George Jetson had the floating house, the robot maid, the treadmill for walking his dog Astro. And while all these techno time-savers might not have made his cartoon life any easier, they did make things interesting and funny. As a little kid in 1960s America, I wanted to live in the future floating world. At that time I'd never heard of J.B. Preistley and even if I had I wouldn't have believed his judgement that "we cannot get grace from gadgets." I didn't care about such things. I wanted a flying car that would fold up into a briefcase.

I never got my flying car and real cars, the ones that are spend much of their time stuck in the traffic of the non-cartoon world, hold little interest for me. But my fascination with things that fold and minimize themselves in clever ways continues to this day. Over the years I've owned several Bike Fridays, a Dahon and a very nifty little Bridgestone Picnica. And if I ever find a deal on one, I'll probably get one of those super elegant little Bromptons someday. But for now my current crop of bicycles are full-sized non-folding machines.

My preference for human powered mobility and my semi-nomadic tendencies leads me to favor things that are light over those that are heavy and small items over bulky ones. The latest example of this is my new computer. I'm not talking about a cycle computer here, as in a device to record my speed and distance, I'm talking about my general purpose computer, the thing I use to browse the web, send email,read electronic books, listen to podcasts and internet radio, write stories and post entries to my blog. I'm talking about the computer I'm using right now to write this blog entry.

It weighs 7.26 ounces and it fits in my pocket. It's a Nokia N800 and even though it looks a lot like Apple's new iPhone, it's not a phone. It's a computer. It's got Linux running under the hood. The iPhone will only run apps blessed by Apple and that machine is tied by a two year contract to AT&T. My Nokia connect to the internet anyplace I can grab an open wifi signal and a small army of geeks are busy porting pretty much any application I can think of to the device. So far I haven't found a good photo editor for the Nokia, but that's about the only thing I'm missing. (In the interest of full disclosure I should note that I cropped these photos using the Gimp on my old Toshiba laptop running Ubuntu Linux.)

The Nokia N800's tiny screen is amazingly clear and the software handles zooming and scrolling in a really clever manner. I haven't messed with the handwriting recognition but the machine has pops up a smart virtual keyboard that can tell the difference between my fingers and a stylus. The virtual keyboard works surprisingly well for tapping out small notes, Google searches and things like that but for real writing I prefer a real keyboard. And the keyboard is real piece of Jetson hardware.

A company called Think Outside makes the Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard. This 5.6 ounce keyboard folds into a package that's slightly larger than the N800. Unfolded, the keyboard basically feels like any laptop keyboard and it communicates flawlessly with the N800 via a wireless Bluetooth connection.

Even including the weight of the very compact N800 battery charger, my entire mobile computer kit weighs less than a pound. I've had the machine for more than a week now and I've been using it to keep up to date with the podcasts and blog entries being posted about the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race. Next month the machine will get it's real field test on my tour of Washington state.

William Gibson noted that "the future is already here -- it's just unevenly distributed." Now I feel like a bit of that future has distributed itself right into my pocket.

If you want to read more about the Nokia N800, there is a very extensive review of the device here:
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