Follow-up to Nokia N810 – initial impressions from Steve’s blog

I’ve had the device for a couple of weeks now. After the first week my main problems with the device were:

  • text input
  • the lack of offline PIM applications

I’ve specifically looked in more detail at both of those since then, and sadly not got great news.

Text input

There are four different methods of getting text into this device:

  • Handwriting
  • Small on-screen keyboard for use with the stylus
  • Large on-screen keyboard for use with thumbs (i.e. rest the device on the fingers of both hands and use two thumbs on the screen)
  • The slide-out keyboard

Handwriting is still unworkable for me, It is simply too slow. The slidey keyboard is much better, but still not as fast as I’d hoped. The small on-screen is no faster. The on-screen thumb keyboard is probably the fastest of the bunch, but is uses up a lot of the screen and so hides what you are typing into. Overall, I prefer the slide-out keyboard and use that most of the time.

I am disappointed, though. I guess I’ve been spoiled by a couple of previous devices. The keyboard on a Psion Series 3a I owned about 10 years ago was much better than this one. It was bigger, which helped, but that wasn’t the only reason it was better. The keys had a better feel. The keys on the N810 are a little too hard to press, and there just isn’t enough room above the top row.

And I’ve owned a couple of convertible laptop/tablet PCs and so used handwriting input in Windows XP Tablet edition and Windows Vista. I’m still astonished at how well that works. My handwriting is not great, but Windows seems to manage to make sense of it most of the time. Of course, it has more processor power to throw at the recognition task. But still, I find handwriting input under Windows very, very usable.

I’ve also used Palm devices and found Palm’s graffiti easy to learn and very quick. Ironically, one of the 3rd party apps you can install on the device is a PalmOS emulator. Naturally this supports graffiti text input which is for me faster than any of the native methods! I wonder if Nokia could manage to build graffiti into the standard product…:-)

So, I’m glad the N810 has the slide out keyboard. For me, that makes it a much more usable device than the N800. But I’m still disappointed.

Downloadable applications

There’s quite a nice application manager for installing 3rd party applications. I’ve had a lot of success putting games and a few other things on the machine. Just click on the download link from the relevant web page, open the file in Application Manager, and click “Install”. Quick and easy. And there seem to be quite a lot of applications out there.

I was specifically looking for PIM applications – calendar, ToDo list, address book. More specifically, applications that would work offline. Such things do exist for Linux systems. The GNU Palmtop Environment has these applications and more, and better still they can be synchronised with Outlook/Exchange. The main pieces of this suite have been ported to the Nokia platform, but sadly not the synchronisation components. So, GPE give me the offline functionality I need, but with no way of synchronising it with anything else. That’s a great shame. No doubt this will be ported in due course, but until then…

I was also looking for an app I could use for note-taking in meetings. The built-in notes application is pretty basic. It is essentially equivalent to Windows Notepad – i.e. just a text file editor. There’s no scope for hand-drawn content, nor any organisational functionality. There’s a 3rd party app that addresses both of these problems – maemopad+. Unfortunately, it didn’t come packed for an easy install, and I haven’t yet managed to find the right set of bits and pieces to install to make it all work. Disappointing again, because app sounds like exactly what I want. Maybe there’s be a properly packaged version of it soon?

So, mostly the support for 3rd party applications is pretty good, and there’s quite a variety of stuff out there. But, but everything I want is available yet, and not everything seems to be properly packaged yet. I guess these are relatively new devices and the development community hasn’t had enough chance to sort itself out. I’m sure these problems will resolve themselves over time, but until then the N810 doesn’t quite do it for me…

Summary

There’s a lot to like about this device. For casual web browsing it is hard to beat. Catching up with email or RSS feeds in odd 5-minute slots when you’re waiting for something else to happen saves me a lot of time, and this device does it well. It would be better with a bit more CPU grunt. I find Google Reader in particular to be a bit slow at times when popping up menus and similar. If I travelled a lot, being able to carry this device for checking email on the move and not have to bother with a laptop would be great. Despite the problems of text input, the N810 does this stuff very well. For sitting on the sofa & surfing during TV ad breaks, there’s nothing to beat it!

I have tried it with Google Documents and it coped very well with both documents and spreadsheets (didn’t try presentations).

It is less good at PIM-like tasks. To be fair, it isn’t designed for that, so maybe it is unfair to complain. But I don’t want to have to carry another device. That’s just silly! It is perfectly possible to put such functionality into the standard N810. Nokia take note… Or maybe I’m in the minority in wanting such functionality?

The media player works well enough, too. It isn’t an iPod, of course, but it plays music and video and makes it easy enough to find and manage. If my primary requirement was a music player I’d buy an iPod Touch, but as a secondary function of a PIM/browser device, I’m happy with what’s there.

Finally there’s the price. The N810 is too expensive for my tastes. The N800 is better, but without the slidey keyboard I wouldn’t buy it. Take the GPS functionality out of the N810 (I don’t want it, anyway) and call it an N805, reduce the price, and maybe I’d consider it. Assuming the PIM functionality was available, either built-in or from a 3rd party, of course.

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Follow-up to More handheld musings from Steve’s blog

I’ve had the N810 almost a week now, using it fairly intensively. To be honest, at the moment I can’t decide if I like it or not. I certainly have mixed feelings about it. Here are a few pros and cons:

Pros

The screen is very nice. Everything is of course quite small on an 800×480 screen with a 4” diagonal, but that doesn’t both me. I can cope with small text. And anything smaller would make some websites much harder to use. Google Reader is much less pleasant on a narrower screen.

The browser works really well. I’ve had a couple of unexplained crashes, where all browser windows would just disappear, but overall it works well and has coped with every site I’ve pointed it at. I’ve even let my daughter loose on it, playing some of her online games (dressing dolls, designing houses, etc.) and she’s not complained. Javascript, flash, etc. all present no problems. No Java though…

Battery life has been surprisingly good. I’ve left gmail and google reader open in background windows all day, both refreshing over WiFi every few minutes as usual, and the machine has still lasted all day and had plenty of power for a few hours of browsing in addition. But still, you should expect to charge once a day, and probably carry a charger with you just in case.

The media player works well, and the speakers are surprisingly loud and of fairly decent. Obviously they are small and so there’s not much bass, but they don’t sound tinny, and nor do they distort at high volumes. I was impressed.

The slidey keyboard is really nice. Easy to slide out and back in.

The front and back of the case are metal. Real metal, not shiny plastic. That makes it feel quite robust. Unfortunately, the metal does scratch (sorry, WOM World:-), and I’ve been quite careful with it.

This last week I’ve been trying to use the device as much as possible “out of the box”. I’ve installed a couple of apps, and the install process is pretty straightforward. There are a few web sites listing 3rd-party and Nokia-developed apps, and an application manager that makes installation and updating pretty simple. I plan to explore the available apps this week to see what’s out there – see a “con” below for one reason why…

Cons

Performance isn’t spectacular. Google sites can be quite hard on systems resources these days, Google Reader in particular. They can be quite slow on this device. That’s frustrating when part of the reason for having it is to use those odd 2- and 3-minute periods to catch up with stuff, or check email. And with a Reader window open for a few hours of catching up on RSS feeds, I’ve run out of memory occasionally and had to close down all browser windows to get going again.

The wasn’t quite enough CPU grunt to keep up with the BBC’s iPlayer, but I guess that’s not entirely surprising.

As with the N82, the USB cable doesn’t charge the device which is really, really annoying. Why not?

The device comes with a soft leather-like slip case. I’d prefer it to have a hard side to protect the screen, not just from damage but from unintended screen presses which in transit. You can lock the screen, but I haven’t always remembered and have occasionally taken it out of my pocket or bag to find it doing something unexpected…

Text input isn’t as good as I’d expected. I’m especially disappointed by the keyboard. A long, long time ago I used to own a Psion Series 3 and later a 3a, which looked like this:

It was very easy to thumb-type on that, and I suppose I was expecting the N810 keyboard to be similar. It just isn’t. I guess I’ll get better with practice but I find the keyboard slow to use. I’m especially frustrated by lack of space above the top row, before my thumbs knock against the screen.

But the keyboard is still a major advantage over the N800 and N770, though, because the other forms of input are worse! Handwriting recognition is painful and the onscreen keyboard isn’t much better. To be fair, you can train the handwriting recognition so it might get better with time, and I haven’t yet much used the onscreen “thumb keyboard”. I’ll have a better fell for both of those things by the end of the week.

Not having built-in offline PIM applications was more of a problem than I thought it would be. I have calendar information in my phone, but having to juggle multiple devices is just a pain. If I’ve got the N810 in my hands, I want my calendar there. Once the whole world is Wifi’d I can use Google Calendar, but right now that’s not an option. I could of course connect via my mobile phone, but that can get expensive very quickly. There are PIM apps out there that might do the job, and I’ll try them over the next few days, but it would be better if Nokia provided something…

GPS adds a lot to the cost, and I’m not interested in it. If Nokia produced an N800 with a slidey keyboard (an N805, perhaps!) that would be more interesting to me.

Summary

I’m actually impressed with how well the device works. What it does, it does well. It would benefit from a bit more CPU power, and a bit more RAM, but otherwise it does a good job. Unfortunately, at least out of the box, it isn’t quite the job I want doing! Built-in offline PIM applications, synch-able to Outlook, would make such a difference. Add that and I’d be sold…

So, now I’m off to see if they exist out there somewhere. One of the nice things about the device is that the openness of it means there’s a fair amount of software being developed for it, all/most available for free.

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