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:


Anonymous said...

Hi Kent,
That's a really interesting device, I was not aware of it as I don't keep up with the latest technical stuff. That Nokia looks nice as a portable device for being connected to the web.

Like you, I'm also facinated by small/compact/folding devices. What really caught my eye though was the Snow Peak titanium spork. I've got one myself and I detected perhaps a bend in the handle of yours. I'm wondering if you fold yours. You can get fancy folding sporks now but did you know that you can take that Snow Peak spork and bend it to store neatly inside a small titanium cup? You can then unbend it straight for use. It's some curious property of titanium which allows you to repeatedly bend and unbend it without damaging it (It doesn't work harden like when you bend a paperclip to failure, or at least it work hardens at a very minimal rate). I do that with mine all the time and I've heard of folks doing the bending/unbending cycle hundreds of times with no damage.


Unknown said...

I've been obsessing over this device myself lately, thinking about getting one. I want to use it for a lot of the passive internet use I have: reading blogs, email, google searching, etc., and for reading e-books. I get tired of the weight, heat, and size of my real laptop for such tasks.

The Stowaway is just enough gravy on that package to make it really interesting: now you can, in principle, do Real Work™, including writing or even programming.

I look forward to hearing how this works out on your tour.

Kent Peterson said...

Hi Dan,

That's a cool bit of news about the spork. It makes sense when I think about it. Moots uses the flexiness of ti in their YBB bike, it's got a shock in the back but instead of hinges, the chainstays flex to provide travel.

Lawrence Fieman said...

Hi Kent,
Thanks for the Nokia N800 post. I'm the beneficiary of your good advice. Your suggestions for bike rainwear and tents work extremely well for me. I’m a linux fan -- for pragmatic and philosophical reasons -- and am now contemplating a Nokia N800. All the best.
Larry Fieman

Matt said...

I've used Handsprings and now an increasingly aged Sony Clie with Stowaway keyboards and they work great. I've never been much for hand-inputting stuff, but a functional keyboard makes all the difference. Mine are old enough that they had to have the right connection with the specific PDA, the Bluetooth thing is very cool. I may have to look at this unit.

Anonymous said... has the previous model (the N770) on sale today for $129. They only sell products for one day, so if you aren't reading this on 6/25 then you missed it.

I ordered one and then opened Kent's blog about 5 minutes later. Funny timing.

With wifi on the Seattle bus system I've been wanting a small and durable setup for browsing the web that also fits into my handlebar bag. This looks like it'll do the tricky nicely.

jim g said...

Never mind the computer -- OH MY GAWD YOU'VE GOT A SPORK! (but that computer's pretty nifty, too)

FixieDave said...

I have the same ti spork!

That computer looks like just the ticket for me and the adventures on bikes....


Thanks for the kind words and encougrement on the gdr this year!

Anonymous said...

What the Spork is doing and what the Moots chainstays are doing aren't the same. Just thought I'd toss in a note before everyone breaks all their titanium toys.

The chainstays are bending elastically. When you hit a bump the shape doesn't change. When you bend the Spork into a different shape it's bending plastically. If you bend it back to its original shape, that's another plastic bending. The chainstay isn't being bent plastically. (If it did it wouldn't work after the first bump because it would take a new shape.)

Final note. The titanium spork and titanium chainstay are almost certainly different materials. Most likely the spork is almost pure titanium and the chainstay has other elements (commonly aluminum and vanadium in amounts of a few percent) added. A more proper designation of the titanium in the chainstay would be "titanium alloy."

The "flexiness" is properly stiffness. Titanium and its alloys are about half as stiff as steel and its alloys (aluminum and its alloys are about 1/3 as stiff as steel). The spork has ductility and doesn't work harden.

Enough Metallurgy 101. More than you wanted to know.

Felkerino said...

I'm eyeing the Nokia 770, as the previous poster noted. It is about $140 all over the web these days. Kent did you look at the 770 before trying the 800? I gather the 800 has more apps installed?

Kent Peterson said...

Yeah, I thought about the 770 but the N800 has better media support (2 SD card slots) and pretty much all the current development is supporting the N800. Since I've had the device, Nokia has rolled out 2 OS updates (faster video playback and Skype are the two most visible things.) It was worth the extra bucks to me to get the N800.

James T said...

This an older post now, but I just found it. Thanks for pointing out that nice little folding keyboard. I also have an n800 that I carry around while I am riding and commuting. I love the device, but I don't like tapping out emails with the stylus using the on screen keyboard. If money was no object I would get an n810, but I am cheap so the stowaway keyboard looks like the perfect solution for me.