Reviewlet: Nokia N810

I’ve had a few PalmOS PDAs, starting with a Handspring Visor (Handspring no longer exist, having been absorbed into Palm as part of the “hey, let’s split our hardware and software divisions and rebrand as palmOne… no, wait a minute, that’s a stupid name, let’s go back to Palm” exercise), then a Sony Clie (Sony have since stopped making PalmOS PDAs, though I believe they’ve achieved minor success in some other fields of consumer electronics) and finally a Tapwave Zodiac (a brilliant device that unfortunately pitched itself as a mobile entertainment system with a strong gaming element around the time the PSP came out, Tapwave going bankrupt less than a year after the Zodiac launched in the UK). Much as I love the Zodiac, and PalmOS in general, they’re getting rather long in the tooth and haven’t been updated much recently, so I started looking around for a handheld device that would do all the PDA-y stuff of a PalmOS device but with added WiFi and internet-y goodness.

This turned out to be a bit difficult. PDAs are all but dead, barring some last ditch resistance from a few aged Palm Tungstens and new HP iPAQs, but having committed to blind veneration of Palm back in the heydey of PalmOS vs PocketPC/Windows CE/Windows Mobile/whatever they’re calling it this week, I can never consider a Windows Mobile device on religious grounds. Smartphones are everywhere, but I prefer to have a small easily pocketable phone in addition to a larger pocketable-in-a-slightly-bigger-pocket device with a nice big screen and better input methods than going “7, 7, 7, 7, NO I MEANT R FOR CHRIST’S SAKE” (and in a perfect world the two talk to each other via bluetooth, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves). Then there’s… other stuff. Ultra Mobile PCs, Tablets, media players that happen to have a touch screen and WiFi, GPS units that happen to have a touch screen and WiFi. In the end I got the shortlist down to a Nokia N810 Internet Tablet or an iPod Touch, neither of which were quite perfect, but with the Touch being fairly limited in its initial form (though I’m waiting to see how Apple’s App Store turns out with keen interest) I went for the N810.

The N810 has a large 800×480 touch screen, a slide-down hardware keyboard, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, camera, coffee percolator and extending three speed chain driven rotavator (OK, not the last two. But the rest of the list is pretty impressive.) The screen is definitely one of its strongest features, being vibrant and with a high enough resolution to render most web pages as you’d see them on a regular PC. The keyboard is perfectly functional for something squeezed into such a small space, though you wouldn’t want to write a book with it; I was fairly adept with Grafitti (Palm’s character recognition input system), the keyboard is quicker and easier. WiFi connectivity is fine, easy to set up, and Bluetooth is handy for connecting to phones when outside WiFi coverage. On the not-quite-so-great side, the GPS takes a long time to lock on to satellites, though I don’t really use it much anyway, and the camera is a fairly standard VGA job on the face of the device, only really useful as a webcam (not that I’d want to inflict that on anyone). It has 2Gb of internal memory, a bit taken up with maps for the GPS software, and a single MiniSD card slot.

The standard software is a mixed bag. The Mozilla-based MicroB web browser has handled all the web pages I’ve chucked at it, even the full version of Google Reader, though it does slow down a lot for script-heavy stuff. It’s a bit clunky to use, especially when compared to Apple’s multi-touch navigation, but then the N810 supports Flash and RealMedia for services like the BBC’s Listen Again or YouTube/Google Video etc etc, and the 800×480 screen means zooming isn’t often needed. Skype is included, and works very well for chatting while wandering around the house, and there’s the usual set of notepad, sketch pad, calculator, world clock, couple of games etc. The original e-mail client is very rudimentary (but has just been overhauled), and the base unit is almost totally lacking in PIM functionality, barring a very online-centric contacts application (you can store phone numbers, but not addresses).

So it’s generally a nice device, albeit with a few frustrating rough edges. The lack of PIM functionality can be partially remedied by installing GPE, though getting that to talk to anything else is quite hard work; Erminig will sync GPE with Google Calendar, but I gave up trying to import contacts. A few other apps like FBReader for e-books and AisleRiot Solitaire round out the N810, particularly for when WiFi isn’t available. Installation is mostly straightforward when apps are published via, either browse to the web page and tap “Install” or use the application manager software, but things can get a bit more involved if you need to go further afield; before some kind soul packaged AisleRiot properly, it involved a lot of fiddling around with libraries, “red pill” mode and other hassles.

This past week there’s been a significant upgrade of the N810 operating system that I installed last night, in a fairly painless process (especially with this handy walkthrough) that’s greatly improved the e-mail client, and if it works as advertised also means that’s the last time I’ll have had to flash the device to upgrade it. While reinstalling applications after the upgrade, I remembered an e-mail about an updated version of the Garnet VM Palm emulation software; I’d downloaded an earlier beta when it was first available, but never spent much time with it, not least because it ran in Palm’s 320×480 resolution in the middle of the 800×480 screen. The new version now has full screen support and by all accounts an improved HotSync function, so I fired up the old Zodiac HotSync manager on the PC, enabled network synchronisation on it, tapped the PC’s IP into Garnet VM, hit HotSync, ate wallah, as the French seldom say. I hadn’t entirely been expecting it to work, and it hit a slight snag as I’d left Garnet VM set up with its default 16Mb of space and HotSync was merrily trying to restore 50Mb worth of stuff that had been on the Zodiac, but a swift bit of tinkering later, and Garnet VM is doing a very creditable impersonation of PalmOS with all the applications I had installed before. I haven’t tested it rigorously, but unless it explodes violently it looks like it really might be a best-of-both-worlds situation.

The only slight worry is that, if my past history of handheld devices is anything to go by, Nokia are due to totally withdraw from the Internet Tablet market any moment. Oh well, time to see how much the 3G iPhone will be on Pay & Go…