August 29, 2006

Nokia 770: Portable fun, but still needs polish

Author: Joe Barr

The Nokia 770 Internet Tablet is a thin black handheld device with a Linux operating system and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, but, unlike most Nokia handhelds, it's not a cell phone. Instead, it's a fun way to connect to the Internet. The latest version shows promise, but it's still not quite ready for prime time.The 770 is powered by a 220MHz ARM chip, with 128MB of flash memory built in and a 64MB RS-MMC (Reduced Size Multimedia Card) included. The device is roughly 5 inches long, 3 inches tall, a little over half an inch thick, and weighs in at about half a pound. In other words, it's sized somewhere between a Pocket PC and a Tablet PC.

There are three buttons along the top of the unit: power, zoom, and full-screen mode. The stylus hides in a slot on the back side along the top until it's needed. Don't leave home without it! The touch screen -- 800x480 resolution and can display 64K colors -- takes up most of the front, but there is room for a microphone, scrolling device, and escape, menu, and home keys along the left side. Most of those keys do double duty, depending on how long you hold them down. The home key, for example, displays the home view with a short press or starts the application switcher with a long press.

Along the bottom edge are connections for the power supply, USB cable, and earphones. To the left of those connections is the slot where you slide in the supplied memory card, or one with a higher capacity, which you will certainly need if you're going to be toting music or videos.

We ran a review of Nokia 770 Internet Table applications several months ago, but with the release of a new version of the Linux-based operating system -- Nokia has dubbed it OS 2006 -- we've decided to take another look at this device.

Out of the box

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It takes 30 to 40 seconds to boot the Nokia 770. That's a long time if you're in a hurry. But once the boot process completes, you're presented with the default Home View, which provides easy access to just about all of the unit's functions. The 770 has two flavors of Internet connectivity: Wi-Fi for wireless LAN connections and Bluetooth for connection via a cell phone. I did all my testing via Wi-Fi.

Entering the WEP key for my home wireless access point gave me an ample introduction to the 770 keyboard. I was a little clumsy at first with the stylus, pressing down on the characters on the keyboard to select them as input, but I soon got the hang of it. I wouldn't want to write articles that way, but it is certainly usable for entering URLs and such -- easier than I thought it would be, in fact.

Once you have gotten past whatever it takes to establish your Internet connection, the 770 is ready to scoot you around the Internet via a Web browser, instant messenger, email, or voice over IP. The browser is a good place to start, because it allows you to become familiar with a lot of the device's usability features.

The touch screen is too small to hold a full Web page, but the 770 makes it easy to scroll up, down, and across the page. You can do it in three different ways: use the physical scroll wheel, use the scroll arrows beneath or alongside the page, or use the stylus. With the stylus, simply place it at any point on the page appearing in the screen, and move it the way you want the page to move. I've found that's the quickest way to get around a large or a long page.

To enter a URL, simply tap the text box at the bottom of the screen and the keyboard appears. Enter the URL, tap the Return arrow, and off you go.

After surfing a bit, I decided to try the free Gizmo service for VoIP. My first call was to a local POTS number. I could hear perfectly well, but the person I called reported background noise on her end. Not so with the second call, which was to another Gizmo account halfway across the country. Both ends of that call were crystal-clear, high-quality voice.

Next, I connected the 770 to my desktop PC via the USB cable and copied some music -- legally purchased music, just in case any of the RIAA's snarling legal beagles are sober enough to be reading NewsForge this morning -- to the 770's memory card. When I listened to the music with the earbuds, the sound was great -- even better, I think, than the sound quality of my iPod Nano. You can play music through the 770's speakers instead of the earbuds, if you like. It's decent sound that way, but not nearly as good. Remember, if you want to carry music around with you, you're probably going to want to buy a higher capacity memory card.

Of course, the 770 is an Internet Tablet, not an iPod clone, so you don't have to carry music with you -- you can listen to Internet radio. I tuned in to the MP3 audio stream to hear Austin's National Public Radio station. The station's RealAudio, WinAmp, iTunes, QuickTime, and Alt RealAudio streams also played without a hitch.

This Internet tablet comes with instant messaging capability -- Google Talk and Jabber -- and, of course, an email client. So right out of the box it is a fully functional device designed to keep you in touch while you're on the go. But, as the company once known as "Big Blue" was once so fond of saying, that's only the tip of the iceberg.

Maemo: The magic sauce?

Nokia's Maemo project allows interested developers to write applications for the Nokia 770. According to the Web site, Maemo components are distributed under a number of open source and Creative Commons licenses, and some Maemo extensions are closed source.

The new OS 2006 requires the use of Maemo 2.0, and apps written under Maemo 1.x need to be ported to run on it. In spite of that extra work, well over 100 open source applications are available today, running the gamut from a VNC viewer to Doom, with things like aircrack-ng, netcat, nethack, OpenSSH, and VIM along the way.

Still in the works are apps like Maemo Weather and MPlayer. Given my lack of success in playing any streaming video "out of the box," the addition of MPlayer to the catalog of 770-ready apps could be a big deal for the device.

I've installed Xterm, aircrack-ng, irssi, Doom, and a few applications on the 770 and have met with mixed success in running the apps. The bottom line is that while the 770 may be cutting-edge hardware, much of the free and open source software for it is more bleeding-edge. Think about where Linux was 10 years ago; that's where I see Maemo-developed open source apps for the 770 today. Some things work great, others not so much.

For some users, the "out-of-the-box" functionality is all they will need. If you fall into that category, have fun with your light and functional Internet appliance. But for those who want more, I would think twice before spending the $360 list price. Maemo may yet turn out to be the magic sauce that turns the 770 into a full-fledged, must-have device for the geek on the go, but it's not there yet.

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