Friday, 21 August 2009

Symbian is dead, long live Linux

I've always been a huge fan of mobile computing devices and thought that the Psion palmtop computers of the 1990's and early 2000's represented the best in practical design that could be achieved in this format.

Psion pioneered the Symbian operating system that was used on their Series 5 devices but was also popular on many high end smartphones from Nokia and Sony-Ericsson. One of my favourite devices was the Psion Revo as this was the perfect combination of small size but with a usuable keyboard and screen. Being launched in 1999, it was groundbreaking for the time but with only 8MB of storage, a 30MHz ARM processor and no connectivity, it is of limited use in today's media rich and connected world.

After the Psion my next device was a Sony-Ericsson P910i, this is a smartphone also running Symbian but this time with GPRS connectivity, bluetooth, 96MB internal memory and expandable upto 1GB using memory stick pro duo. This was a great piece of kit that offered media, a web browser (Opera) and the usual PDA type functions with great handwriting recognition. I also used this with a separate bluetooth GPS receiver and TomTom Mobile software as a SatNav for the car. The P910 did pretty much everything the iPhone does but 4 years earlier, it's clunky by comparison and is showing it's age now.

Alas, times move on and the P910i suffers from a dated browser that doesn't support Ajax, Flash and many other modern features and connectivity is limited to GPRS which is slow and expensive. So it was time to upgrade but to what ?

The obvious choice is the iPhone but at around £600 (£100 purchase + £30/month) this is a serious outlay on a toy. Also, the browser doesn't support Flash or Java and the development tools are all closed. Furthermore you can't develop on it unless you have a Mac (another £1000 outlay for a computer worth £400 !) and you can't distribute your software unless Apple approves it. There's the Ipod Touch as a cheaper alternative but this has no GPS and still suffers from the closed development environment. So this option is ruled out for me.

Next consideration are the Google Android phones like the HTC Hero which is a much better proposition. Under the covers they run a cut down Linux OS but with a Google Java based application environment on top. The browser supports Flash and Java. Development tools are freely available and there is no restriction on distributing software which is written in Java. Sounds a good option but, it's still expensive at £30/month (£540 for minimum 18 month contract).

So what did I go for, neither. It turns out that Expansys were flogging off the Nokia N810 cheap to make way for the new model which is due out imminently. The N810 is marketted is an 'Internet Tablet' by Nokia but it is closer in function to the original Psion palmtops than to modern smartphones but was perfect for my needs with :-

  • Linux OS,
  • 128MB RAM + 2GB internal storage + expandable upto 32GB through MiniSD,
  • Mozilla Browser with Ajax and Flash 9 support,
  • Slide-out keyboard or handwriting recognition,
  • Built in GPS and SatNav software with UK maps,
  • Wifi

All for £128 (30% cheaper than an Ipod Touch). It has the disadvantage that there is no GPRS or 3G support so the internet can only be used where there is Wifi available but it has what is probably the best browser on any mobile device which can be used to access virtually any site that a desktop browser can. Even the IG Index site which is highly Ajax oriented loads up and works fine albeit more slowly than on a desktop. The screen resolution is a respectable 800 x 480 so this is a genuinely usuable format packed into a small size. The Flash player works fine with YouTube and Magnatune although I've yet to get BBC iPlayer working.

The OS is a fairly standard Linux distribution but with a custom Windowing environment designed for touchscreen and even includes a terminal. There are plenty of applications available through the repository but porting any other open source Unix apps should be fairly trivial so long as the resource requirements aren't too great. There is also a development underway to replace the underlying Linux distro with Ubuntu so you get the benefits of Ubuntu with the touchscreen friendly window manager - perfect.

Physically the device is about the same size as an IPhone but slighter thicker at 14mm and noticeably heavier. It has a sturdy metal case that slides down to reveal the keyboard. It also has an integral kickstand wich mean that the device can stand up which is useful for watching videos, photo slideshows or Skype video calls. It's a well designed, solid, compact design but I still think that a traditional clamshell design like the Psion's would have been better or better still dispense with the physical keyboard and rely on the onscreen keyboard or handwriting recognition. Having said that, my attempts to use the handwriting recognition have so far been disappointing finding it very slow and practically unusable. This is a surprise considering how well it worked on the P910 which had a tenth of the processing power of this device. Perhaps it needs more practice on my part and maybe some tuning so I'll bear with it for the time being.

As an update, I'm loving this device and find that I'm using it more often than my laptop for casual browsing and certainly for media like watching vides on YouTube or listening to music on Magnatune. I've persevered with the handwriting recognition and get a high accuracy rate but it still remains too slow for entering anything more than a couple of words. Sometimes it won't respond at all, other times it lets you get a couple of letters ahead but then just forgets earlier letters so you have to rub out and start again. This is a bitter disappointment to me as the P910 was great, my ancient Compaq Ipaq with PocketPC was acceptable and even the humble Palm Pilot of a decade ago was better than this. So come on Nokia give us an update to this rubbish.

What I really like about this device is that it is a regular Linux machine with everything where you'd expect it. This means that porting software is trivially easy.

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