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Touchy, Touchy

3devicesAlthough I tend to focus on social impacts in my discussions of the participatory panopticon, and the related Metaverse concepts of augmented reality and lifelogging, I'm not immune to the siren song of gadgets. If I'm going to argue that technology and culture co-evolve, I shouldn't focus entirely on only one side of that pairing. That said, I don't do the full-on gadget geek thing very often, but it's the end of the year, and I'm going to indulge.

It's not just an academic subject for me, of course. As I noted in May, I have a Nokia N800 Internet tablet, a Linux-based device that offers full computery goodness in a platform a bit bigger than a mobile phone. I'm no stranger to the field -- I still have my first-generation Newton. But as the picture to the right suggests, my menagerie of touch-screen toys has recently expanded.

Pocket Internet tablets represent a digital niche that has yet to reach its full potential. None of the current devices are anywhere close to perfect. But as the wireless Internet becomes more pervasive -- in terms of both its presence in our lives and its presence in the air around us -- the more that we'll start to depend on mobile tools to give us rich access to our networks and data. By checking out these tablets, I'm not just satisfying my gadget urges, I'm beta testing one scenario of the future. At least, that's my justification.

Let me note that none of these devices are phones. My misgivings about the iPhone have not abated (that's an iPod Touch in the photo), and the alternatives I've considered all have serious failings. For now, pairing a dedicated Internet tablet with a 3G phone gives me the greatest flexibility. Since May, that's meant the N800, and I've been fairly happy with it. But after doing a short bit of casual consulting for Nokia, they generously offered to send me a new N810, the follow-up to the N800.

It arrived yesterday. Hit the extended entry for some gadgetry observations:


  • A cleaned-up aesthetic in comparison to the N800.
  • Smaller than the N800 without losing any screen size.
  • Slide-out action on the keyboard is smooth and solid.
  • Maintains most of the benefits of the N800, and adds new features.
  • GPS takes forever to get a first lock, and the GPS applications aren't yet terribly reliable.
  • Unlike the N800, the N810 does not use standard SD/SDHC cards, now requiring MiniSD cards. Not MicroSD, like you might have in your phone, but MiniSD, something I've never actually seen available. I ended up buying a MicroSD card with MiniSD adapter.
  • The N810 no longer uses a standard mini-USB connection, and now uses a new-style micro-USB socket. Not the tiny micro-USB (the one that looks like a shrunken mini-USB port), but something so far unique in my experience.

Overall: I'll probably move to the N810 for my pocket wifi use, but I currently don't see the justification for the ~$200 premium over the N800.

I also picked up an iPod Touch (iPT) yesterday, partly out of irritation at some of the design choices for the N810, partly out of curiosity, and partly because I had a last-minute, unexpected gig that netted me enough to get a little treat.

The interface on the iPT just blows away that on the Nokia devices. The N800/N810 user interface sits in a middle ground between a desktop UI and a finger-top UI, completely satisfying neither. The Nokias are clearly more versatile and hackable (without having to downgrade firmware or the like), but the iPT is much more immediately usable. It's not just the big icons, it's little things like "kinetic scrolling," where a flick of the finger offers a bit of momentum to a scroll, or the way that a typed letter pops up to show you what you've actually hit.

The hardware isn't nearly so clearly in Apple's favor, however. The iPod Touch is much smaller than I thought -- the N810 is significantly fatter and has more surface area, although both are "pocketable" -- and while that's convenient, it does make the iPT feel a bit more fragile than the Nokias. The display on the iPT is crisp, but offers a much smaller overall area than the N800/N810 -- the Nokia screens are 800x400, and the iPT is less than half that. The accelerometer on the iPT is amusing, and the iPT defaults to a vertical mode that is more usable for a hand-held device in my experience than the horizontal-only mode of the N-series. The Nokias, conversely, offer expandable storage and swappable batteries.

It's in the connectivity arena that the N800/N810 shines. The iPT is a nice WiFi device, but that's its only means of connecting to the Internet. The N-series devices have bluetooth, meaning that they can tether to a bluetooth 2.5G/3G phone for Internet anywhere. That right there makes a big difference; as commonplace as WiFi is, it's still not as pervasive as cellular networks. Moreover, when the N-series device is plugged into your computer, the memory cards show up as mounted drives, for easy drag & drop file management. The N-series tablets use a normal file system, while the iPT requires all file connectivity to go through iTunes, and makes the file system on the device itself invisible to the user.

Mobile Safari is nice, but the fact that it can't do Flash and doesn't do Ajax (at least as far as I can tell) seems to have problems with some Ajax sites means that it's at a real disadvantage on the modern web. The Mozilla-based browser on the Nokia devices -- despite being occasionally unstable -- is far more broadly usable in my experience, and handles Ajax & Flash with ease. Google Maps work like Google Maps on the desktop, including grab & scroll. YouTube is the real YouTube, not a subset.

Overall, the iPT is more immediately useful than an N-series tablet, but is much shallower in terms of function. It is, after all, an iPod with a web add-on, rather than a web tablet that can play music. If the iPT could tether over bluetooth, it would be good enough that I'd probably end up using it over the N800/810; without that access, however, I will probably stick to the N810.


mobile Safari does Ajax much better than any mobile browser. it is at the same level as Opera mobile as far as Ajax is concerned. by the way I wrote this comment on the iPT browser :)

All "doing ajax" really requires is a conforming Javascript runtime in the browser. No idea if Safari has that or not, but I assume it would.

Flash, on the other hand...

I'll fix the post; I didn't find an Ajax site that seemed to work with the iPT, but I didn't look very hard.

Ajax is a useful tool, but its server-side implementation can be a bit flakey (there being two separately named client interfaces to provide support for!) The response stream also has to be 'clean' (no spurious whitespace etc.)

I suspect Apple deliberately crippled the iPT by leaving out bluetooth. If it had bluetooth, someone would figure out how to jailbreak it and do internet tethering via a 3G mobile phone, and suddenly it would start cannibalizing the market share of the Jesus Phone. And Apple think the future consists of smartphones, not PDAs with a bluetooth-tethered phone.

... Which means that unless Apple decide to bring out a UMPC-style tablet, the Nokia devices will remain ahead of the iPT on functionality for the forseeable future.

(A shame, really. I'd like to have replaced my Palm TX with an iPT -- but I've got a Nokia N810 in the mail right now, and once I've stuck the Garnet VM from Access on it, it's going to be my exit from PalmOS after nearly ten years.)

Correction: N800/N810 have 800x480, not 800x400 display.

Apple forces me to use their iTunes software to transfer to the nano. With the nokias, i just copy my media files.

To those who enjoy DRM, closed source and walled gardens I say, "May your chains rest lightly upon you."


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