Behold my new toy!

Much to my wife's chagrin, I've acquired a Nokia N800 Internet Tablet. It's been a long, long time since a piece of hardware interested me, so let me tell you about this one.

First, though, some background on why I got one. I got fed up of the huge boxes of books (mostly mine, and mostly old sci-fi or computer books) that take a lot of space in our closets. Also, I'm getting worried that my main bookshelf will buckle and fall under the load; the tablets have nearly 3/4 of an inch deflection at the center. Doubling up the number of books on them was probably not very smart...

So, I decided I'd get an e-book reader.

After a lot of research on the Kindle, the Sony PRS-500 and 505, the eBookwise 1100 and a few rare and too expensive other options (Cybook, etc), I settled on a previous-generation Sony. Unfortunately, it's not really a common device in Canada, so I went to eBay.

The price was rather high in my view, for a previous generation device, and all sellers were shipping by UPS (I really don't like getting packages by UPS, the distribution office is at the other end of the city and they never deliver the package at a decent hour). So, I started looking for other options, such as PDAs, with the philosophy that if I paid more than 200$ for something, it better do more than one thing.

Research on this took a lot of time. Did you guys know that PDAs are a disappearing species? Which is bizarre, in my view, because they are useful beasts, especially with WiFi. But smart phones are killing them. Unfortunately, for e-book reading, a smart phone is not an option... especially since I already have a cell phone (the cheapest I could find) and have no desire to change providers/pay a lot just for getting extra PDA functions.

But after a while, I found a site that mentioned the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. Being curious (what's an Internet Tablet? Since when did Nokia do something other than a phone?), I researched a bit, and here's a capsule version of what I found:

  • The Internet Tablet series of devices are 4-inch, 800x480 screen devices with WiFi and Bluetooth included;
  • The screen size/resolution yields a totally crazy 220 DPI screen;
  • The screen size means that you can browse web sites from the tablet with a minimum of scrolling;
  • The screen size also means you can read PDFs in landscape mode without too much trouble, which is a HUGE advantage compared to the Sony PRS 505, which doesn't render PDF too well. As much of what I intended to read on it were technical books that tend to be distributed in PDF, this was an excellent advantage;
  • And, the clincher: this thing runs a variant of GNU/Linux known as maemo, and hundreds of programs have been ported to it!

I originally thought of getting a 770, but in the end, I settled for an N800, which looked better, had a faster CPU, more RAM, and as an added bonus, is somewhat lighter.

So, what am I doing with this thing?

  • Reading e-books, of course, mainly David Weber stuff I got on the CD that came with the War of Honor hardcover I bought some time back;
  • Reading tech books, especially since I hacked evince to be a bit closer to my preferences (I wanted the paging buttons to scroll by screen size rather than go directly to the next page);
  • Browsing the internet. Instead of staying in our home office to browse 'til the wee hours of the morning, I can finish reading my favorite blogs elsewhere, the idea being that I don't need to stay in front of the PC 'til the wee hours. It's kinda hard putting this in practice, though;
  • Watching video. This was a surprise, since the tablet is not meant for that and apparently, Nokia sort of goofed the video hardware on that count. But when properly re-encoded, the screen is gorgeous enough and the speaker good enough quality that it's quite a pleasant experience, and doesn't tie up the TV screen. Great for watching smaller clips. My wife and I have been listening to a couple of episodes of La Linea every day when we feel like it;
  • Games. This was somewhat disappointing so far, because the d-pad isn't the best thing in the world, emulators run slow, and button placement is awkward. ScummVM was the best success so far, probably because it's already mouse-based.

But the most unexpected development of all: lately, I've stopped having much fun with my Xubuntu box, because, besides small, occasional sound card glitches I had when following Hardy, I've been having no problems at all... and no incentive to do a re-install. In fewer words, I was getting bored. But the N800 is a new environment. Even though it's GTK+ based, there's lots to do--it's still somewhat rough, and there's a lot of stuff to port to it.

I got the urge to hack on it just for fun.

The first thing I did was recompile evince (a PDF viewer, slightly more flexible than the one that's included by Nokia) to give it key assignments I like better. If anybody wants the patch, I'll be glad to provide it (it's quite trivial). Setting up the cross-compiling environment (known as scratchbox) wasn't the simplest environment setup I've ever done, but after a couple of tries, I got it to work right. I had to try a second time because somehow, I hosed the first version when switching targets.

The second is far more interesting. As I was complaining about the hand writing recognition on the tablet, somebody at the office pointed me to the QuikWriting system by Ken Perlin. That system lets you write without lifting your pen, and the overall mechanism is much less error-prone than hand-writing recognition. I looked and looked for an implementation and could only find an old one for Qtopia. I really wanted to try it out on the tablet to see if it was a viable option.

Finding no port, I ported it myself. The result is available in the maemo Garage. It's not quite finished--namely, I'm a bit annoyed at the current letter display, and international support would be nice. I'd also like to refactor the code and render the input areas using vector graphics instead of a stupid bitmap.

Still, it works right now, and I'm using it in production.

Doing this was the most fun I had in a long time.

As for my wife, she asked me to buy her her own N800.

A nice new toy, indeed! I'd recommend it to any GNU/Linux-head out there. It's pretty capable, the build quality feels solid, the battery life is good, and the screen is fantastic. I give this device 9/10, and I'll be sure to look out for the next version.

(Addendum: yes, I know of the N810, but the hardware is very similar, so I'll probably skip it. My dad got one, though, and he's also having fun with it.)