Portrait of Edd Dumbill, taken by Giles Turnbull

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Nokia N800, the second time around

Nokia's N800 internet tablet is an intriguing device. When I originally got one a few months back I tried to treat it purely as a consumer object, just using the installed apps and things available through the obvious point-and-click channels.

As a consequence it served mainly as a portable (and expensive) internet radio, streaming me the cricket commentary from the BBC. And when I upgraded my wireless network I somehow managed to make it WPA2 only, knocking the N800 offline. An offline N800 is an almost thoroughly useless device, so it went into the drawer and I forgot about it.

Ultimately you can't leave something that expensive unused, so I dragged it out again, fiddled the wi-fi router into compliance, and decided not to deny my hacker nature this time. The N800 is Linux underneath, so who could resist?

The result is two-edged, really: I'm a lot happier with the device, but on the other hand must conclude that the N800 is still a bit far from being consumer-ready.

Must-have software

So, what things did I install this time around that made the device happier?

Claws Mail is a nice email client that works well with my IMAP accounts, which all use SSL and TLS, have lots of messages and a deep folder hierarchy. I don't really want to write much mail on the N800, but an easy reading interface is a bonus.

The FM radio is something I can't believe I missed before. I had no idea this was in there, but plug some headphones into the N800 and they act as the antenna for an FM receiver. Desperately cute and old-world, a bit like when laptops still used to have parallel printer ports.

I had previously ignored Maemo Mapper, thinking it was useless without a GPS, but it turns out to work very nicely as a dedicated client for Google Maps, as well as several other mapping sources. 

Must-do geeky bits

Try as I might to like the touch screen, the first thing I had to do with the device was find a way of not using the stylus to do sysadmin type tasks on it.

So, first stop is to get a terminal up, figure out how to use the root account, install a SSH client and server, and get my pubkey onto the N800. Now I could shell into it and use a decent keyboard.

On my local network I hate maintaining DNS if I don't have to, so the next thing I wanted was Zeroconf support in the shape of avahi. One of the quickest ways to get this going is to install the Canola media application, which uses Zeroconf to find shared music.

With these basics in place, the N800 supports APT package repositories familiar to Debian and Ubuntu users, so the device becomes a lot less weird and much more manageable. I felt the same pleasant familiarity as I did with the NSLU2

Things to look forward to

The N800's video camera is neat, but nobody I know uses Google Talk for conferencing. Fortunately it seems that Skype for the N800 is just around the corner. Initially, video support is unlikely, but I imagine that if Skype on the N800 proves popular, it won't be far off.

The N800 is something I don't mind having kicking around the kitchen or nursery, so staying in touch with my family while I'm travelling will become a lot more fun.

Also, I'd like to get NFS running on the N800, but that requires the installation of a new kernel, which I've not quite yet had the time to do. Once that's done, all my media, photos and storage will be handily available. 

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