Nokia N800 “Internet Tablet” – finally retires!

So, what does one do with a blog? I’ve proposed that I’ll start writing posts – mainly technology related ones, or related to tinkering. I think that’s something which a few people might be interested in and or even find it helpful. I hope. But even if they don’t, it’s something I can enjoy doing – and gives me an opportunity to show some things which people may have never seen or heard about.

As such, I hope you find these posts “of interest”. First up, yes, I know the site is slow – of course it is when it’s served from a home ADSL2+ connection from a Raspberry Pi, which is dynamically building pages as you visit. But still, for the kind of “low key” site that I’m building, it’s not really a big issue.

In fact, there’s the RPi that’s serving right there. If you’ve looked at my previous posts, you would recognize that it is the element14 RPi, as I still haven’t gotten an answer from RS about my other one. It’s sitting in an RS Clear RPi case (catalog 764-4382) just for some added protection. It’s quite a nice design, but no ventilation – still not an issue though given the low heat generated. I’ll probably talk about the RPi more a bit later, but now, for the star of this post, the Nokia N800.

If I said to you “Hey, I’ve got a Nokia N800!” – I think you’d probably not think much of it. Given Nokia’s struggle in transitioning to the smartphone market, literally causing the company to bleed to death, along with its partnership with Microsoft for phone OS – it’s not a brand which comes to mind as being the market leader. The first thing you’d probably think is “Yeah, it’s an old fashioned Nokia phone. Big whoop.”

But it isn’t. For the few that know what it was, it was a glimmer of potential that went so badly wrong. Let me explain.

[Aside: In fact, I liked them so much, I bought two – just so that I wouldn’t be without it in case one broke! More on that later.]

These were different beasts. They were new to Nokia. In fact, they had only made one model that came before it to “set the precedent” (770). They called these “Internet Tablets” – compared to the tablet of today, it looks more like a phone-PDA like contraption. It had no telephone capabilities, as it had no GSM/3G radio on board. Released roughly around the time of the first iPhone, it featured the following (more information at Wikipedia as usual):

  • 400Mhz ARM CPU
  • 800×480 screen, 16-bits, around 4.1″
  • 128Mb RAM
  • 256Mb Flash
  • Wi-Fi b/g and Bluetooth 2.0
  • Dual SD Card Slots
  • USB OTG
  • Webcam (VGA from memory)
  • FM Radio (this was a “ooh, we found one” kinda present – it wasn’t on the spec sheets)

Hardware wise, for the time, it wasn’t anything special really. Compared to the iPhone, it could even be considered anemic! In fact, you might be wondering where that camera is – given that it’s not obvious on the front – it pops out the side. It also comes with a stylus that tucks away in the side of the unit since it was a resistive touch screen. No fancy multi-touch yet. It did feature an inbuilt kickstand, which was quite practical. I actually used it quite a bit at uni to connect to uniwide and surf the internet. It was capable of about 3-4 hours of heavy usage doing IM and web browsing, which was decent considering I purchased my N800’s second hand for $100 a piece.

So why am I harping on about this device? Well, it’s because this device was one to “test the waters”. It was one of the first few to really try to be open. In fact, you could even download the schematics for the N800 from Nokia themselves. It ran Nokia Maemo Linux (OS2008 after the upgrade, initially OS2007). It had a version of busybox, it has a command terminal. People who wanted to could code and build applications for it. There was a repository (like an app store, except everything was free, and almost everything was open source.) It was, Linux on the go. It even had a choice of browser, and even better, it had Flash! Granted with the hardware it had, it was truly slow … by modern standards, but back then, it was still faster than most of the things I had used and could afford. Better yet, as it had an X-windows system, I could ssh into CSE machines and run gfriends and get the graphical interface rendered locally over the network (albiet slowly). It had decent speakers, a TRRS (i.e. like Apple headset plug so you could have a Mic) jack, it has USB OTG (quite new for its time) which meant expandability. Two SD slots supporting SDHC made this quite capacious for media, however, apps generally installed into the small flash space onboard, which meant that you would fill up your flash from time to time. The home screen supported widgets, the side bar allowed multitasking and app switching, and there was a task-bar esque thing which you can put things like load-monitors, battery/brightness/volume changers. It was customizable, and it wasn’t half ugly – at least not to me. It had an on-screen keyboard with predictive input and some form of autocorrect (curse the autocorrect!) Right-clicking was accomplished with a tap-and-hold similar to the Windows Mobile of the era, left click with a single tap. WPA2 enterprise 802.11x was no problem with this device either – uniwide would connect without a pesky portal which you’d need if you were on uniwide_webauth. The Wi-Fi chipset was also exceptionally sensitive, and we’d get good connections much further than with other devices. Extensibility was great, we even got screenshot ability through add-ons, VNC server ability, etc.

And likewise, for its time, it didn’t have the fancy accelerometers, GPS, magnetometers, gyros, etc. But it did have back buttons, menu buttons, and a home button. It had decent speakers – can’t stress that enough. It could run mplayer and watch DivX files (at varying levels of smoothness … hardware wasn’t quite up to it). But it’s CIFS filesharing was hopelessly broken (crashes as soon as you try to browse, never truly fixed), which was annoying as I quite liked to go and stream things via Wi-Fi. It did work nicely as a Wi-Fi Internet Radio, there was Realplayer. There was even Zenmap (graphical nmap) for network analysis which came in quite handy too. VNC viewer, handy; FTP client, lovely; Gnumeric Spreadsheet, WifiInfo, Transmission (BT Client), Pidgin, Skype, SIP-Phone, TI-85 emulator – it just gets better. Launcher categories and orders were customizable too, and resembled a “Start Menu” style of launching programs, with them “appearing on the dock” in case of them being run. Bringing up the apps list, and hitting the X killed the app, freeing memory (which was something it was quite short on!) It even had swap file on SD card to try and alleviate the lack of RAM but it only makes a slow device even slower.

It was really a powerhouse in the right hands. I cannot stress this enough. Gameboy emulators, Playstation emulators have been coded for this thing, and while it doesn’t “fly”, it does work adequately well. There’s a file system too. But unfortunately, for many of the people who brought it as a glorified oversized MP3 player, they were somewhat disappointed – which is why I managed to pick them up for $100 a piece barely a year or two after their release. And I’ve loved them since.

Some of the limitations of the ‘slimmed down’ unsupported distro is rather annoying, but for the capabilities it already had, it was worthy of my admiration. Some people have continued to keep the device going, by offering other distributions which run on top of the existing OS, but given a few hardware quirks, none have quite achieved the same battery life and refinement of Maemo. As such, my devices have stayed on the outdated OS2008.

Nokia had initially bet that this platform would be the one to take over the reins from Symbian. Unfortunately, as it turned out, Maemo was too heavy for “cheap” hardware to run … and I guess, that’s where things took a turn for the worse.

Five years on, we see the fallout from this – Nokia was probably onto something initially, but now is receding in market share. Android and iOS are more popular than ever, and while Android is based on a Linux kernel, applications run in a Dalvik VM. All in all, when it comes to no-compromise, Maemo might have been the closest we had been in the last five years. Maemo eventually became Meego when Nokia joined forces with Intel to build an open source mobile operating system, which ultimately didn’t work out. So it’s gone. Gone for good.

So why do I say my Nokia N800 finally “retires”? Well, even though it was too slow for general use, my N800’s remained productive by virtue of their abilities. In fact, one was serving the website at this address – which is why the RPi was originally at Port 88. The legacy website is now migrated to here – served from the same RPi, but be warned, lots of static hand-coded ugliness. It was my low-powered web-server (2.5w or less) serving a static site using lighttpd for years from a 2Gb SD Card. It was a Raspberry Pi even before we knew of it.

And now that I have my Raspberry Pi, and it’s serving up some dynamic goodness, it is time to retire the old webserver. So the N800 is now shut down, after 2 years of serving, and after several years of interactive work, and it’s not likely to see too much life from now on (but it can be used as a remote Wi-Fi camera … so maybe it will still see some work after all!) It’s a sad moment for me …

But it’s not all bad news. People have long been saying that Linux is too unfriendly, not ready for prime-time – in fact, being a complete Linux noob, after using it for a bit, I find it quite easy to use and powerful. The terminal has an elegance, simplicity and purposefulness to it that is unmatched by most GUIs. The power of su, the ease of setting up a LAMP server with a battery of sudo apt-get install commands is lovely. I grew up with MS-DOS, and that might be why I love it so much. In fact, I still use DOS today – but that’s another story altogether.

As such, I think this is a nascent time for Linux to capture the market. Indirectly, it’s powering Android – some have already gone as far as to unleash it. Ubuntu on the Nexus 7 looks like a very promising headway, and Ubuntu on ARM is set to provide a more desktop-like environment to “transformer” type tablet+keyboard devices to make it really productive and no-compromise.

In fact, Windows 8 RT looks poor compared to the potential offered by leveraging existing open source software, rebuilt for an ARM device. In some sense, commentators have been saying that we don’t need Windows 8 RT, and I am inclined to both agree and disagree. The emulation of Apple’s App Store as the only distribution channel, the insistence on full-screen apps, the lack of other avenues of installing apps and the loss of all legacy apps makes RT a bit of an OS looking for a purpose. The integration in the OS is fantastic for those who don’t mind to integrate accounts etc, however, if it isn’t part of the OS, it’s going to be a while. All the banter about Windows 8 RT being a no compromise OS is really bullocks. Maybe Windows 8 on an Ultrabook is more like it, but as yet, Intel haven’t been able to meet the low power draw from ARM CPUs, and so form factor and weight are a bit of an issue. Speaking of which, the Surface’s hardware is pretty much “nothing special” and a bit “ordinary” compared to the recent release of the Nexus 10 (with better than retina display) at a price which is exceptionally good value. The same cannot be said about the Surface. I hope the Nexus 10 gets some love from the Ubuntu guys.

I guess, through this, you can definitely see how the definition of tablet has changed somewhat. This was a “tablet” for its time, is now closer to something like a phone/phablet.

One last thing before I end this post – curiously, Nokia made a raft of miniSD cards (possibly for their old 770), which they included in the N800. In case you haven’t seen a miniSD, here’s a photo of it. They’re virtually “extinct” now – microSD and full size SD pretty much dominate the market. Pity if you have an old O2 phone that has only a miniSD slot (I did, and still do!)

I think that’s enough for today – until next time!

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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