A while back I replaced my computer's worn-out CRT with a modern 20" LCD. And when I did, I picked the one I did (the Hyvision MV190T) specifically because it had enough ports on the back to replace both my computer display and my tiny, crappy old TV set. And the resulting work space is very cool, indeed. But a couple of times a week it bites me, because I have no way to access any two of the following at the same time: whatever game I'm playing, anything else on the computer, the DVD player, and/or anything on TV. So for example if I'm watching a TV show and want to take notes on something I see, I have to switch inputs over to the computer, take my notes, and switch back. And I already had the problem that if I'm running anything that takes over the whole screen on the computer or that's heavily processor intensive then it's a pain in the neck to use the web browser or notepad. So I've come within an inch or so of buying a cheapo laptop and installing kUbuntu on it at least twice just in the last month. I figured I could get a good deal since all I really need it to do is run a simple text editor, a web browser, and if I want to be fancy, Pidgin or some similar chat client. My only real source of nervousness was over the idea of sinking a few hundred bucks into reconditioned hardware without anyway of knowing how it'd been taken care of.
Instead, I ended up getting myself a rather fancy birthday present, a really good deal on an actual brand-new Linux laptop. (I can afford it; since I've given up on getting a hotel room for NASFiC, that frees up the Archon hotel money in the year's budget, and I've been living super-cheap for the last several months anyway, so I'm way ahead of my budget on the savings account.) The specs really aren't much to write home about: 330 MHz processor, 128 MB RAM, 16 GB hard disk. They trimmed out the ethernet port, it only supports 802.11b and 802.11g, or cell-phone Internet over Bluetooth if I ever get desperate enough to pay the per-kilobyte fees since I don't have a data plan on my cellphone. Built-in web cam, but it's grainy as all heck. Oh, and the display resolution is only 800 by 480 pixels. But other than the perfectly reasonable price for a new laptop (sticker price $360 on Amazon, but it came to a bit under $700 with all the extras I larded it up with), it had one serious selling point that tipped me over the edge. It's slightly under 3" x 6" x 0.5" and only weighs a couple of ounces.
Yeah, I got a Nokia N800 Wireless Internet Tablet. And a folding Bluetooth keyboard about the size of a medium-sized keychain that hasn't gotten here yet, a fairly cheap Linksys wireless router to replace the cheapo ethernet hub I'd been borrowing, and 2 8GB SDHC cards so I could fit my whole music and video and picture and e-book libraries onto it with room for future expansion. (Note: No, there isn't a real hard disk. The "16 GB hard disk" thing was intentionally misleading. But the two 8 GB SDHC flash memory cards are implemented in Linux as hot-swappable hard disks, and 16 GB feels to me like sneaking up on hard-disk size for a cheap laptop. That's where an awful lot of the price came from, since those cards are still awfully expensive. In hindsight, I might have actually been better served by breaking my data up across a stack of cheaper 2 GB cards.)
When I'm at the computer, it sits next to the keyboard, usually playing some Internet radio station off of Live365.com or di.fm over its perfectly serviceable stereo speakers. I bookmarked City of Data for when I'm playing City of Heroes, bookmarked the embedded version of Google Calendar (cleaner user interface) and a simplified interface into my LiveJournal friends list and the mobile version of Weather Underground and the Titan TV guide (among other things) for when I'm not. The version of Pidgin that's been recompiled for the n800's UI is only 2.0.0, so it's still got that old Yahoo bug that keeps me from being able to use it. So right now the only chat client that I'm running full-time is the built-in one, which only supports Google Talk and Jabber. I don't use Google Talk, though if I were to find out a bunch of my friends do I assume my default Google login would work if I bothered to try. I do use my LJ Talk user address, the Jabber (aka XMPP) chat account that every LiveJournaler gets. Yeah, it means if you want to chat with me more often that you can't use your AIM or ICQ or Yahoo Messenger IDs until Pidgin for the n800 catches up with Pidgin for Windows, that you need to figure out how to add your LiveJournal Jabber/XMPP login to whatever chat client you're using. But hey, I hardly ever ran any chat client before. And of course, the beauty of this is that it does all of these things any time I'm somewhere with open WiFi. Other than a few grumbles about the user interface, I'm happier than a pig in congress. You couldn't pay me to use an iPhone, or to lug around a full-sized laptop. For me, this thing is perfect, or will be after a few minor software upgrades that are in the pipeline and once I get my keyboard for it.
See, the thing to remember about this thing is not to get distracted when Nokia refers to Internet Tablet OS 2007. Internet Tablet OS 2007 is just their hardware-specific compile of Linux 2.26. It includes a very nearly complete build of Gnome, except for making the Gnumeric spreadsheet an optional download and replacing Gnome's (in my opinion, ugly and unusuable) Evolution browser with Opera. Not Mobile Opera, real Opera. (The mobile version of Firefox, MiniMo, is also available as an optional download.) Other than those substitutions, the only real difference is that it substitutes a different set of user interface widgets optimized for touch screens that may or may not have a keyboard. The resulting build is called Maemo, and I'm not finding anything wrong with it. The developers who've looked into it all seem to be freaking out over how easy it is to recompile most programs for it. Which means that even more than the about to be extinct PalmOS, even more than Windows for Handhelds or whatever they're calling it this year, and way way more than on a closed platform like the iPhone, the sky is the limit on what this thing can be customized to do. Linux programmers have been trying to cobble together a commercially viable pocket-sized Linux box forever; I've seen prototypes myself as far back as about two years ago. This one's actually viable. (Oh, and speaking of optional downloaded applications, let me say that the Application Manager on this thing is the cleanest, easiest, sexiest implementation of the Debian APT protocol I've seen yet.)
You'd think that a full web browser on an 800 pixel wide screen that's only 4.1 inches wide would be unreadable. But I'm a 47 year old guy with increasingly severe presbyopia, and I manage it just fine; the 225 pixel/inch resolution, good brightness, and insanely good contrast on this screen make it perfectly readable at font sizes that I couldn't read even on paper without a magnifying glass. And if I'm too tired for that, there's a rocker-like switch on the top edge that bumps the font size up or down from 80% to 300%. Opera does an extremely good job of reorganizing the page under most circumstances, including shrinking the graphics if need be to fit the text in; otherwise you can just turn off the "fit width to view" option in the lower right corner and use horizontal scrolling. But I can count on the thumbs of one hand all of the web pages I've viewed that I actually needed that. It scrolls in either of three ways. There's a normal scroll bar on the right side of the screen. Like the iPhone, you can tap and drag any blank part of the web page, or of most windows. And there's a cluster of directional buttons under your left thumb. I've seen reviewers complain about how un-intuitive the up and down buttons on that are, but after playing with it for a day it snapped into place in my head what it was designed to do, and now I love them. See, if there are any links on the section of the page that's visible right now, the cursor buttons tab from link to link, so you can use the center button under your thumb to click them one-handed. If you run out of links in the section you're on, it scrolls to the next window's worth. I made that sound more complicated than it is, but trust me: once you get a feel for it, you wouldn't have it any other way.
Other than supporting optional Bluetooth keyboards, it's got three different text input methods, all of which rock. It doesn't default to turning it on, but one option is a natural handwriting recognizer that is astonishingly good, if just a little slow. It also supports two entirely different on-screen keyboards. Tap any text input field with the stylus, or with the tip of a fingernail or something else tiny, and it pops up a normal looking keyboard in the bottom hundred or so pixels of the screen. Tap with a whole fingertip and it does something even cooler, though: everything on screen but the text input field disappears, to make room for a huge and brilliantly laid out keyboard that is absolutely perfect for high-speed two-thumb typing. What you can't tell from that picture is that the "ABC" button toggles between upper and lower case, and that between the other two tabs are every other character in the ASCII character set and a good slice of Unicode, and that the text input field resizes the font to fit what you're typing. Sweet. Let's see a Blackberry do all of that.
The quality of the browser and its user interface really, really matters too because of one design decision that Nokia made: they deliberately designed it to give short shrift to any Personal Information Manager features. Linux programmers are busily porting the GPE Palmtop Environment to it, and it's almost done and there's no reason why most people wouldn't be perfectly happy with that when they get it done. But Nokia's take on it, I'm pretty sure, is that putting a lot of software other than a chat client and a web browser and a media player for streaming feeds and an RSS reader is increasingly pointless. Why? Because increasingly, as Scott Gage predicted back in 1984, the network is the computer. They could put a lot of engineering effort into writing a calendar package, but why bother when you can just use Google Calendar? They could put a lot of effort into coding a portable word processor and a portable spreadsheet, but why bother when there's Google Docs? And so forth, and so on. I think they're onto something here, and I say that as someone who doesn't actually use GMail.
And of course, other than deciding which of the optional and built-in applets to leave open on the desktop at all times, it took me all of 60 seconds or so with Irfanview to customize it to make it mine: