Opera Mobile 10.1 Beta on the persistent Nokia n810 tablet

I know it is strange to be reviewing software put out for a tablet computer made in 2007, but the Nokia n810 is an amazing bit of kit that has an incredible degree of stickiness. I had no trouble getting rid of previous gadgets on eBay including my precious Psion series 5mx and netbook (the original), when obsolescence greeted them. The n810 is clad in brush aluminum and has the build qualities one associates with Apple. It runs a tiny variant of Linux, and if you don’t mind taxing your eyes, there are ways of running full blown X11 applications on it just like you can on your Mac.

As I was toying with the idea of parting with this, I did two things. I plugged it into a speakers to play the BBC World service, and got a wonderful earful of the Queen’s English. A moment later, Radio Free Asia Korea is streaming in clear 96kb. The other thing was I discovered Opera Mobile 10.1 in the free app store where open source applications seem to pop up despite the apparent obsolescence of the platform. It is a wonder -it’s touch optimized and allows browsing the full web, but the mobile web is where it sings. The mobile sites of Gizmodo, NYTimes, and others just pop on this browser. The icons are all fat, allowing for finger navigation despite the resistive screen. Scrolling has an iOS Safari like inertia and in full screen, the browser turns the 4 year old tablet into a modern window on the web.

It speaks to this one thing in our disposable lifestyles -with appropriate care and the right software, there is no reason why technology has to be abandoned every two years. If done right, even the 4 year old technology can sing. Apple understands this ultimately adds value to your line when people can count on being able to use their device beyond its shelf life -that is why my iPod Touch 2nd generation can still run most of the games and apps that show up on the App store. Before you toss that plastic Dell laptop in the dustbin of history, try loading Ubuntu Linux on it or Chrome OS when it’s available again (and it will be).

The tech companies that survive and thrive offer a perfect alignment of form, function, hardware, and software, but also have the market awareness to adapt their offerings to what people can actually use in a meaningful way in their lives, and in this aspect, the n810 is a failure because it’s really a geek hobbyists niche toy. It never played nice with Microsoft Exchange Server, and its screen is too small to comfortably read a full web page. Pinch to zoom is not possible with a resistive screen. It offers a front facing camera, but the video calling feature was never allowed to bear fruit. The Skype client is voice only, and the Gizmo app no longer allows new accounts since their acquisition by Google. Even so, the n810 is keeping its value because of the perfection of form and function. The n810 has taken on the status of a beloved shortwave radio and bespoke web reader. I even bought a new battery for it. Do you feel the same about that plastic Dell box from 2006?

Top 12 features not yet found on any one netbook


1. Instant on/off

2. 8-12 hours battery life

3. Touch typable keyboard yet pocketable (in coat pocket of doctor’s labcoat)

4. Wifi 802.11n and 3G, GPS, bluetooth

5. SSD storage 64-128GB

6. Touchscreen, high resolution

7. Stable, multitasking, multithreading OS -some Linux flavor with OpenOffice and Mozilla with Flash

8. Convertible from tablet to clamshell

9. Multimedia capability

10. 1.3mP videoconferencing camera, runs various chat programs, Skype

11. Can boot into alternative OS’s (including Windows, MAC OS)

12. Memory expansion through SD, CF (for cameras)

As I have been saying in prior posts, when you load Windows XP onto a netbook, it is just a small, cheaply outfitted laptop. When you load Vista on a device like the Fujitsu 810 pictured above, you take a beautiful design concept and turn it into a paperweight. The beauty of the Psion series of proto-netbooks (the Series 5, 5mx, 7, the netbook, and the Revo (pictured right), psionrevois that they were rock stable and had instant on/off capabilities. By rock stable, I mean you could open as many programs as the RAM would allow, and they would all run without crashing the whole thing. Psion is currently in a lawsuit defending the netbook trademark.

The convertibility to tablet is a useful concept for people who walk and compute at the same time -like doctors. The Sony Clie UX50 was a palm based PDA with wireless capabilities and showed the bleeding edge of useful design, but was again hampered by the OS, this time Palm.

Clie UX50

Clie UX50

The gadget designers are limited by the OS they can offer on their kit. Psion was the last hardware maker aside from Apple to completely write an operating system from scratch, creating the inimitable EPOC OS which has since morphed into Symbian. Apple understands that a device’s soul is its OS and its user interface, and has created the near perfect iPhone/iPod Touch, but it won’t go beyond the multimedia player/game/phone space because of SJ’s distate for buttons and desire not to split the OS (but it has) and not draw market share from the crown jewels, the Macbooks.

Nokia, who still is part of the Symbian alliance, and makes Symbian smartphones and the direct descendant of the Series 5mx, the Nokia communicator line (below). nokiacommunicator2

It is pocketable, and typable, but limited in that Symbian evolved into a phone centric OS and not necessarily a work centric one. The keyboard is for thumbs, not actual touch typing, though people report doing so. I used to be able to touch type on the Revo without a problem. nokia8101The same goes for their internet appliance the Nokia 810, which I came close to buying, but held off because of the lack of built in touch typability. Make it a clamshell, and I’ll take it.

There are those who would recommend I get an NEC Mobilepro 790 or 800, which I used to own. These are completely handicapped by having Windows CE. The same with the netbook pro, made by Psion. It is wonderfully up to date, and quite a nice piece of hardware, but again having Windows CE.net handicaps it to the point it is undesirable to use. Believe me, you can hold your nose only so long before the thing crashes and you lose your file! The netbook Pro initially sold for over 1500 -now you can get one for cheaper than the older netbook which runs EPOC. Windows CE killed the clamshell portable notebook.

Why not EPOC running netbook -I used to own this, but running 802.11b with no multimedia addons to the browser, inability to run net 2.0, is a huge drag.

No, we’re all waiting for the next great thing, and unfortunately, even running Windows 7, the so-called netbooks are just small laptops, and not an internet appliance that facilitates your work.

addendum: A thought came to me as I ranted over on CNET. Psion is busy suing people for using netbook, but fact is,psion-netbook-pro-i1 if they merely updated their netbook pro (which they completely ruined after the successful first EPOC OS based netbook by using Windows CE), with a built in wireless card, and had it boot Linux, use a more modern but affordable processor, and use standard memory -and if they priced this 500-700 bucks, they would sell these hand over fist. The netbook form factor was beautiful, very nice to carry, the keyboard was the best I have ever typed on, and it was all covered in leather! The netbook Pro to the right can still be found used on the internet, and it always sells for about a hundred bucks less than the older but far more capable original netbook that ran EPOC

addenum #2: Like all things in this age, you think about it, and someone has already got there. Gizmodo reports on the Touchbook, a convertible netbook/tablet which uses Linux and runs 10-15 hours. Looks fabulous, and all for 300 bucks see link.


Addendum 12-14-2009

It looks like someone is thinking the same way I am: link

The protonetbook


Pictured above is the Psion Series 5mx. It was an upgrade of the original Psion Series 5, and no computing gadget has come close to matching its utility.

It had a touch typable keyboard and compact flash drive for additional memory. Its power laid in an amazing operating system EPOC OS that Psion built from scratch. It was rock stable -the kind of stable that you would hope satellites and medical life support equipment were based on. I could routinely run 10-20 programs simultaneously and it just would not crash. The Office suite fit in a space less than a meg of memory -I heard the word module was 22kB!. The elements from each -like graphs, tables, and text were hot linked and autoupdating. And you could convert it to word or rtf or xls.

It ran on 2 AA batteries and could print wireless via IR to HP printers with IR ports -I did this for three years during my residency -eventually creating a database of patient notes that I could look up and reprint for frequently seen patients.

When you wanted to use it, you turned it on. When you were done, you turned it off. No boot up, no worrying about viruses, no nothing. With a phone modem, you could check email and do some light browsing, particularly on WAP sites (the equivalent of todays mobile sites such as m.nytimes.com.

This all came to a sad end when Psion gave up the ghost after creating the inimitable netbook, for which it carries the copyright. Nobody can call anything else a netbook, although common usage is calling a whole class of crappy small laptops.

Why do I call them that. No matter how beautiful the gadget -like the Sony Vaio P series, it’s software determines how useful it is. If you got a Sony Vaio P, for example, you would turn it on, and wait 47 seconds while it booted up. What’s the point except to impress people with your stupid gadget purchase?

The Psion 5mx is so valued that you can still see them on ebay going for 150-200 dollars used. There is a site in England that will sell you pre-owned refurbished units or even NEW units (link). It is illustrative that a the netbook Pro, an “upgrade” that runs Windows CE 4.2 is priced way cheaper than a refurbished netbook running EPOC OS. 

As I have been unhappy with my iPhone as the sole portable device, I have been thinking about keyboarded solutions for blogging. The lack of wireless internet capability of the series 5mx keeps me from purchasing, as I have an Acer Aspire One which I use as a breakfast nook computer for updating Facebook. I am toying with the idea of a Nokia N810 with a bluetooth keyboard as a mobile blogging solution. 

If you needed to go to the unwired parts of the world with no wall outlets, but needed to write a journal of your journey, there is no gadget that I would take other than a Psion 5mx. This was exactly the reason why the fellow who purchased my Psion in Mexico bought it -he was a writer who made frequent trips to rural Mexico and needed a solid portable computer which recorded to a safe medium -nothing more safe than compact flash drive which I have laundered and used without a hitch. AA batteries can be found everywhere but wall outlets are dear, he told me, paying 250 dollars for a five year old unit with printer cables, modem, and other accessories.

The netbook


Acer One netbook

The netbook, the smart phone, and the future of personal computing


The netbook is a new category of laptop computer that is really a refreshing of an old category. Starting with the ASUS eeePC introduced in 2007, several major laptop manufacturers have joined the fray, and the category has exploded. The current set of netbooks are a re-entry into what is a very old category centered around mobility. What the current set includes is connectivity. 

The first ultraportable of note was the Radioshack TRS-80 Model 100.

Radio Shack TRS 80 Model 100

Radio Shack TRS 80 Model 100

It was portable and had a full keyboard. It featured a wordprocessor and Microsoft Basic. The Atari Portfolio and the HP95LX brought computing into the coat pocket, and the culmination of this was the Psion Series 5 which was tiny but touch typable. I used it to write my consult notes during residency and maintained a database of frequent fliers. The hospital had HP printers with infrared ports allowing me to print out my notes wirelessly. 



Atari Portfolio

Atari Portfolio

Psion went on to create the Psion netbook and holds copyright over the name. It is a shame that they gave up the personal computer business after developing the most stable portable operating system (EPOC) and software set ever created. For example, their spreadsheet program, part of an Office compatible suite, took up 22k of memory. My Psion could run over twenty programs concurrently without crashing. EPOC became Symbian which powers Nokia and Sony-Ericksson phones. Having given up the business, they are now chasing the netbook ghost by filing cease and desist letters to websites and businesses that use the word netbook.

HP 200LX

HP 200LX



I used to own a Psion netbook and it was fantastic to type on with incredible keyboard feel. It was fast, and had instant on -booting up was instantaneous like a cell phone, not like a computer with the minute of bootup time typical for a Windows computer. The EPOC office suite was integrated and allowed cutting and pasting of graphs into documents that would update with changes in the data -this was rock stable and again, took up only a few hundred kilobytes (not megabytes) of memory.

Psion Series 5

Psion Series 5

With AA batteries, the Series 5 would run up to 40 hours. The netbook had a PC card slot for a WiFi card giving it wireless internet back in 1999.



I believe Microsoft killed the portable computer industry for about ten years with their Windows CE operating system. Microsoft powered clamshell computers were popular for a while but were difficult to use and crashed frequently. I owned a fairly advanced PocketPC clamshell, the NEC 790, but was frustrated by its instability, it’s tendency to freeze and crash, and worst of all lose data, but the full keyboard and instant on capability were enough of a plus to keep me interested for a while. 


The salient features of portability, keyboard for human hands, instant on, long battery life, full resolution landscape screen, and wireless internet with full capability -Flash, Quicktime, WMV and other multimedia features, are the killer features of the modern netbook. None of the currently available netbooks (Acer, HP, Dell, MSI, ASUS, and now Sony) fit the bill.

NEC Mobilpro 790

NEC Mobilpro 790


Psion netbook - the original

Psion netbook - the original




All are based on the Intel Atom processor. This is a low voltage processor that integrates graphics which translates into slow -how slow? About a hair faster than Centrino Mobile (laptops circa 2005) when running Windows XP. It definitely won’t be lighting up the specs compared to dual core laptops, but it is “good enough,” especially compared to how we used to access the internet via dialup. 

Most of the netbooks come with Windows XP. The whole netbook category along with resistence to upgrading from the coporate side has kept Windows XP alive despite the presence of Vista. A few of the netbooks are presented with a scaled down version of Vista. Having stayed away from Vista like the plague, I can’t say first hand if it’s good or bad, but the word from people using the first generation HP netbooks which ran Vista on the slower VIA processor is that it is slow. This goes against the concept of a fast-boot, efficient, fast running machine. 


Apple Newton eMate 300

Apple Newton eMate 300

Linux was offered on the first generation of netbooks, but as they became popular, Microsoft made Windows XP licenses available for these netbooks, essentially killing off Linux on netbooks. This is unfortunate, because Linux starts up quicker and runs more efficiently on netbooks. OpenOffice, an office suite that is available for free, runs very well on Linux. The only downside is there is no iTunes for Linux, but the bulk of the needs are met through open source and usually free software. The great thing about Linux is that the computer are customizing the operating system for their product. The new HP Mini 1000 just presented at CES with a highly customized interface. We are all use to this with the Macintosh, but also with cell phones. In fact, this is a bit of a return to the days of yore, when computer makers created the box and the software. 


What does this mean? The netbook is in evolution. It is somewhere between a laptop and a smartphone. The laptop offers the larger screen, USB ports, and a keyboard. The smartphone offers instant on, extreme portability, omnipresent connectivity, long battery life, and great integration between software and hardware. The netbook is slowly moving toward this end, becoming less a commodity, and more a finely honed tool. 


HP MiniNote 2133

HP MiniNote 2133

Do I recommend a netbook? Depends. They are easier to carry than a laptop and offer the ability to work anywhere. My Acer One netbook cost less than $400, and has a battery life of over 6 hours, has a 160gB hard drive, and has Wifi. It runs Windows XP which has its faults, but it runs iTunes, turning my netbook into a large screen iPod where I can watch movies and TV shows. With Skype, I can have video chats with family and friends wherever WiFi is available. What is really neat is cloud computing being embraced by Google, Apple, and others. It moves the work onto the browser, and makes it platform agnostic. The problem is the current generation of netbooks are still just small, slightly slower Windows laptops. 


The future is the next generation of netbooks which will feature more solid state memory, customized Linux operating systems, and 3G or WiMax high speed internet that is integrated. The solid state memory or SSD (solid state disks) have no moving parts, are fast, and more energy efficient getting you closer to instant on. The customized operating system means that your hardware is more tightly integrated with the software, much like a cellphone. The 3G or WiMax type high speed internet means you can go anywhere untethered from a WiFi network. You can buy netbooks that feature 20Gb SSD’s (solid state disks) with Linux, but these basically disappeared after some muscling in by Microsoft. Windows 7 promises a smaller footprint to be able to run on netbook-like gear, but it completely misses the point. You don’t buy a car from BMW and run it on an engine from GM. You want the software to run seamlessly with the hardware, and this is much more difficult under Windows.

Apple is still digesting this arena. The Newton eMate 300 was an effort by Apple to create an instant on clamshell laptop, but was quickly killed by Steve Jobs upon his return along with the Newton OS and the great Newton 2100. MacBook Air has some netbook features, but fails in it basic concept as another, albeit beautiful, laptop. Ideally, iPhone/iPod Touch would be the platform for it’s netbook, but I don’t see it going that way because of Steve Job’s aversion to buttons. No, this category will be populated by manufacturers looking to capitalize on Apple’s deafness and blindness to this category. BTW, this blog entry was written entirely on my netbook running OpenOffice and uploaded via the Google Chrome browser.