The un-iPhone: A Review of Nokia N810 -an iPhone User’s View

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Moore’s Law, the observation that processor speeds double every few years, has hit the other principle, the law of dimishing returns. Once computers can reliably do the following, list below, any increase in processor speed or other tech spec is frivolous:

1. Connect to the web
2. Get and send email, photos, and video
3. Process text, spreadsheets, and presentations
4. Keep track of schedules and tasks
5. View documents, pictures, and video
6. Communicate by voice and video
7. Play music, movies and television
8. Play games
9. Blog

There is really no great need for the latest processors or gizmos once a device can do the above reliably. To make money, you have to innovate or you sell upgrades of broken software. This is why Apple has triumphed by creating a device that does all of the above with panache in a pocketable package. But in getting there it created compromises (12 things I hate about iPhone), which made me try out the N810.

It was after a great deal of research that I finally broke down and purchased the Nokia N810. I had been complaining about the iPhone and its deficiencies, and even with iPhone 3.0 which came out yesterday. Apple has been determinedly avoiding creating a competitor to its MacBook, iMac, and PowerMac’s. This means keeping everything aside from the making of simple emails, playing songs, and launching apps completely hidden.

The N810 is an internet tablet which in many ways is the un-iPhone. It runs a flavor of Linux designed for ARM processors, and potentially the iPod Touch could run it. It has a physical keyboard. I wrote this review on it using LeafPad, an open source project available for free download. Nokia appears to have built the N810 for geeks, because I see no obvious business use. It only connects via wifi 802.11g, although they offer a Wimax version. But it has several things going for it that trump iPhone: the keyboard, bluetooth keyboard capability, and communications via Skype and Google.

First Impressions
The device out of the box is gorgeous. All brushed aluminum in grays and blues that are dressy and corporate. It has none of the tacky garishness of some of the Windows Mobile phones. The slideout keyboard works nicely and there are just enough buttons.I think iPhone doesn’t have enough -particularly a keyboard. There is a forward facing videocamera for chatting and a popout easel stand -perfect for using with a bluetooth keyboard.

Turning On
This is one dislike -the device requires a bootup but the device behaves like a smartphone in that it quickly spools into standby mode which the battery meter will tell you is good for almost a week. Bootup takes less than a minute. I would much prefer instant on. After some use, I realized that you aren’t meant to turn off the machine after bootup. It goes into a sleep mode and you can keep it in standby for days. A tap on the screen brings it back to life. With average use, I’m getting about 7 hours of battery life. This far exceeds the iPhone, which frankly is under-batteried for the ways that I was using it.

Software
The device needed to be upgraded to the current OS version which I had to do via a Windows computer. Not a big deal, and it enhanced stability.

It comes with a very capable web browser that renders full pages quite well. It has a dedicated zoom rocker switch that lets you adjust to comfort level. Also, there is a dedicated full screen button. It has Flash, which empowers this device for web 2.0. Unfortunately, it is an older Flash and some web sites, including Hulu won’t run, but Youtube and videoclips off NYTimes ran okay, if a bit choppy.

Multitasking is smooth and it has copy paste. Pressing the x cleanly ends the program, unlike Windows Mobile which has muddled way of dealing with multiple processes -namely it doesn’t and Windows Mobile devices get easily gummed up.

It works perfectly as a communicator -it notifies you of incoming text messages via skype, google, and aol and presumably msn via a number of programs. Unfortunately, skype’s client doesn’t have video chat yet.

Email is functional and straightforward. The client that comes with the N810 is spare and straightforward, but has a limited feature set. A more feature rich client, Claws Email is available for free download from Maemo.org.

The un-App Store – the Apps are open source and free. What isn’t available are PIM and Office software -I don’t think anything matches the utility of Documents to Go for the Palm OS. Everyone is waiting for someone to port OpenOffice, but I know it will run very slowly. There are some who have hacked Debian or Ubuntu Linux to run on this device but it slows down when programs meant for laptops and desktops run on what is a smartphone.

I have paired an Apple Bluetooth keyboard to it and it is now a very useful netbook replacement.

Media
It will play movies converted to mpegs or wmv’s. It comes with a one month trial of Rhapsody’s music library which is wonderful. I installed a Mini-SD card which had a few albums from my former Treo. With the iTune’s store offering DRM free MP3′s, getting music onto this device is not too cumbersome. The included headphones have a built in microphone for phone calls which work fine as well.

Rationale
Why did I get this when iPhone did most of the things I needed? It has to do with the things iPhone left out: Bluetooth keyboard, copy-paste, multitasking, and builtin-keyboard. I got the N810 through Amazon -not from the mothership but one of the vendors who had it for $250. With Apple Bluetooth keyboard which is very portable and stable, and usable with my other Apple gear, it is a worthy replacement for the Acer Aspire One which I recently sold to a friend.

Why? The netbook phenomena is a giant failure because it has been hijacked by Windows. With Windows XP, these small laptops are just that -small Windows XP laptops with slow processors. Coupled with Vista, these netbooks are completely useless. Microsoft intends on loading these netbooks with Windows 7 that has been downgraded to run only 3 applications.

Right now, I can compose on a very comfortable keyboard or a usable thumbboard in a pinch with a total cost of $325, with all the communcation capabilities brought by Nokia. Very happy. This entire blog entry has been created on the N810, by the way.

The netbook replacement in action

The netbook replacement in action

Rhapsody on the N810 is pretty cool because you have access to a large number of tracks and radio stations centered around bands. This rental of music scheme is okay, but I don’t think I’ll keep it. Pandora works! It’s slow, but it works fine. Streaming Sting radio, it comes through with FM quality with occasional very short skips probably related to the processor groaning while I type away.

The media player does a fine job with files loaded onto the internal storage. External storage is in the form of Mini-SD cards. I don’t particularly mind as I have all the adapters, but would have preferred regular SD. I don’t plan on watching movies with it, as the iPod is just too easy to use -iTunes to iPhone trumps ripping DVD’s to the correct aspect ratio, then copying to a mini-SD card -it was okay ten years ago to geek away, but in this day, streamlined delivery of content is a given.

I wish they would update the Flash, as Flash 9 doesn’t work on all sites, particularly Hulu. Also, Netflix is run off Silverlight -and I doubt they’ll release a Linux version anytime soon.

The picture shows the minikeyboard opened -this elevates the display perfectly. The easel stand is a wonderful touch. The Apple Bluetooth keyboard is the same chiclet keyboard found on the new Macbooks and is wonderful to type on. It would be great if iPhone would do the same, but we will never ever see this. They want you to buy a Macbook.

Addendum 3/23/2009
After using it as my netbook replacement for a week, I have been only delighted with it. I use the open source program WordPy to update this blog. Google Documents, though a big laggy when it comes to saving and opening, works just fine and is the office solution that this device didn’t come with. The great thing is that I am now typing on a great keyboard and extremely portable.

I have totally gotten into the internet radio, which for now eliminates my desire to pick up a short wave radio. Hundreds of stations from Hong Kong to Zambia, from Lichtenstein to Kuala Lumpur are available.

I also get much better phone calls out via Skype indoors at my hospital over the guest web connection than I do through the AT&T connection which goes through a repeater. I have to figure out how to get my contacts on the thing though -simply taking outlook contacts and trying to get the N810 to recognize them isn’t working.

Addendum 4/17/2009

After a month of use, I am pleased with the portability of the setup. I do find that certain things run slowly -some web pages take a while to load up where in iPhone Safari -it’s pretty blistering fast. Also, typing on some Web 2.0 pages causes strange stutters in the text. It is much easier to live with than the Acer Aspire One primarily because I didn’t need a small Windows XP laptop in my life. This the N810 does everything that iPhone doesn’t do at all very well. The overlapping functional items -mostly I leave to iPhone because I don’t have too much in the way of non-iTunes related media. The whole idea of using the Acer One as a large video iPod really failed because the video output was laggy compared to the sound.

The N810 is a device to fill in the gap between iPhone and a small laptop. It does this function very well.