Sunday, July 02, 2006

Nokia 770 Internet Tablet OS 2006 Release Review

Nokia's Tablet OS 2006 update was released July 1st. I've been waiting for the final release since upgrading to the beta release. As with all other upgrades to the Nokia 770's software, you have to replace the executable image that's on the 770. This is everything; the operating system, applications, and default data. In the process any installed applications or downloaded data are wiped.

Upgrade

To start the tablet upgrade I downloaded and installed the latest Nokia Windows upgrade wizard. After going through the upgrade process twice, this upgrade was the best to date. Nokia has improved the process to the point where it's short, clear, and error-free.


The first screen of the wizard is a simple introduction.


The next step gives simple directions. Differences I made: my tablet was plugged into the charger, and I made no backup. I had nothing to save.


As noted above I did not have the charger disconnected. Never-the-less it found the tablet when connected and switched on.


Ready to perform the upgrade.


The first step in the upgrade is to download the new tablet image. This is a fundamental change from earlier upgrades, which required that you download and save the image first. This newer process makes the overall upgrade process easier. It took roughly three minutes to downgrade the 60MB image upgrade.


Once the image download was complete, the actual tablet upgrade began. Total time for the upgrade (image download + tablet update) was less than seven minutes, a good deal less than the 20 minutes stated in the second screen of the wizard.

Tooling Around the Update

The best 'feature' I discovered is that stability has returned to the 770. Where the beta was crashing (both OS and applications), this release is rock solid, even more solid than the April 2006 release. After 12 hours of hard testing I had nothing crash or lock up. Another feature that came back (thankfully) was the ability to connect the tablet to my Windows laptop and have Windows recognize the tablet's MMC chip. The beta broke that.

The first thing I did after restarting was to change the default look-and-feel. The tablet desktop defaults to the bright ugly orange pseudo-Aqua glossy theme. I changed it immediately to the far less garish gray theme 2, and changed the desktop background to match.

The tablet update wipes everything, including previously installed applications. So the first thing I re-installed was the Hildon status bar plugin, version 0.4.2. When installed it gives a simple view of memory and process usage and allows for screen captures on the tablet. I had the deb file already downloaded on the MMC. I had it installed on the beta. Re-installing it allowed me to try out the improved application manager.


The opening view of the application manager. You can invoke it from the side menu (Tools | Application manager) or you can tap on a deb file in the file viewer and start it that way.


A listing of everything I've installed to date. I have Maemo Blocks (Tetris by another name), the panel clock (more on that later), and the theme I currently use. You can use the application manager to check repositories for updates to existing applications or new applications to install.


My tablet with my first changes in place, coupled with my first installations. All the applets you see are the default selection. All of the desktop applets can be hidden with the 'Select applets' dialog available on the Home menu.


The problem is bringing them back if you make them disappear. They don't remember their last location on the desktop; you have to move them back into place. This time around, moving applets around the desktop is a little easier. It appears that there is a slight 'snap' to an invisible desktop grid, making it easier to line everything up when you drag it back into place. It would be easier if applets just remembered their last location.

The Browser

The browser is probably the one application I use the most. I've tried to use it in conjunction with the RSS feed applet and the RSS feed reader application (available from the side menu), but it's just easier to browse the front page of news sites. I've stopped using the RSS feed applet and the application because of the way the desktop applet works with the application. This is an annoyance I first noted with the beta. The way it works is you click on an applet RSS entry, it expands to show more information about the headline (which is nice), then you tap it again to open the RSS reader application (which is the annoyance). Then you have to tap the headline yet again in the application to open the full page in the browser. It would make reading far faster to go immediately from the desktop applet to the browser view. Yes, I know you can see all your feeds and every entry in the RSS reader application, which you can't in the desktop applet (why?). As a consequence of all the tapping, I use neither and work just with the browser.

The current browser is as fast as the beta's and the April release, and it uses far less memory than any release before it. Pages that would red-line memory usage in older releases stay in the green with this release. What's more, the browser is much more compliant with AJAX applications than any other release before this. For example I've opened Google Mail and Google Maps with this release and they both behave as they would on a regular PC, especially Google Maps.


My home town via Google Maps. One of two problems with Google Maps is that you can't drag the map around with the stylus. You can drag web pages up or down by holding the stylus down on the screen and then moving the stylus. I was looking for equivalent functionality on the map surface. Instead I had to double tap portions of the screen to re-center it if I wanted to move around in arbitrary directions and distances. Everything else worked fine.


The same map in hybrid view. The other problem with Google Maps is a lack of screen space, and that could be solved if I could get ride of the left side panel on the web page. That's a Google Maps problem, not a browser problem.

Virtual Memory and File Systems

There is a new tab on the Memory applet on the Control Panel. It allows you to create the equivalent of a swap file, up to 64MB in size, on the MMC. The ability to create swap is tacit acknowledgement that applications running on this version of Linux, on this hardware, can overrun the 64MB of memory installed on the tablet. The really bad issue is that if you have swap in use and you plug in the USB cord to access the MMC card via the PC, then the annoying habit of disabling the card while plugged in on the tablet side also disables swap. And if you have something swapped out (or need to hit swap), then I guess the application(s) in question are going to crash. I haven't tested that theory yet, but I can't believe Nokia would allow a product out into the world with such a design flaw.


The Windows view of the MMC after creation of the 64MB swap (.swap) file on the MMC.

And it brings up another issue with the USB cord. Why can't I see any (or all) of the 128MB of internal flash? Is it because Nokia is afraid that the average Windows user will corrupt (and thus brick) the tablet? Such concerns are justified, but simply blocking access is not. Particularly when half of the 128MB is used strictly for data anyway.

Conclusions

The Good

The firmware update is the best I've ever experienced. The only other updates I've had to deal with are Palm's and Dell's Windows CE. The Dell in question is the old Axim X5. I had to spend $35 for a CD, and then install the Windows CE update off the CD. The whole Dell/Axim/Windows CE experience made me swear off Dell and its PDA line from that point forward. The Nokia support and experience is heaven by comparison. Nokia should be rightly proud of what they've accomplished with their updater. I sure hope they continue.

This release finally cleans up a lot of the problems I found with the initial tablet software releases. The two critical flaws I've always complained about, performance and memory usage, are now well under control; the overall system runs reasonably fast and the bigger memory hogs have been reined in. That means that I no longer have to hold my breath when I go to web sites with the browser. The browser no longer locks up, crashes, or consumes all the tablet's resources.

The browser is more tolerant of AJAX sites (or else Google worked to make sure that its sites are more tolerant of the 770's browser).

The 770 now has a decent application manager.

The desktop has some degree of snap, making the lineup of applets easier to accomplish.

The 770 now supports swap, but with some serious qualifications.

The wireless connection now stays on indefinitely when the tablet is connected to the charger. The screen still darkens after a certain period of inactivity, but I can live with that. I just wish I could have two sets of inactivity timer, one for on charger, one for just battery use. The fact that I can leave the tablet connected and it stays wirelessly connected is a very nice feature, one that should have been available since the initial release.

The Bad

The finger keyboard is still there. It no longer causes crashes like it did in the beta, but I find it useless because it's still not sensitive enough, and I've discovered that if you use it often enough you leave finger oil smudges on the screen that make it difficult to read text. And frankly it's annoying to have to keep wiping the screen clean. One of the more laughable design decisions was to give users a check box on the 'Control panel | Text input settings' that allowed the finger keyboard to be launched with the rocker key. The rocker key is supposed to be the control for increasing/decreasing text size. Why didn't they simply set up the selection such that tapping an input field would just bring up the finger keyboard? Right now tapping with the stylus brings up the smaller virtual keyboard, while tapping with the finger brings up the finger keyboard. If folks want to make sure that only the finger keyboard comes up of stylus or finger taps, then allow the user to select that mode of invocation.

Google Chat and Google Voice still connect to Google and Jabber only. I've been told that you can map to Yahoo and AIM, but why? Why can't Chat and Voice (Chat in particular) borrow a page from the Gaim playbook and just support them all explicitly? That's what I was expecting, a Gaim-like experience. Instead I get limited selections and flames from the peanut gallery for not knowing the arcana of using Google (or is it Jabber) to map to the other IM services.

And in answer to another comment from the peanut gallery: According to my Nokia booklet, I have no built-in microphone on my tablet, just a speaker and a stereo headset connector. Thus, for me to fully enjoy VoIP, I will need a Bluetooth headset, a requirement alluded to by the graphic on the Internet call application which shows two users wearing headphones and boom mikes.

The Strange

Yes, I looked at the "Tableteer". It's a very pretty site that helps the new user make better use of their shiny tablet. The truly odd feature is that the first thing you see is a link to Flikr. Folks who put images on Flikr do so with cameras; either camera phones or cameras through their PC. There is no built-in camera on the 770, and no convenient way to hook a digital camera into the 770 so you can upload digital images (if only there were!). I would have thought that Nokia would have pointed the new user to Maemo (the second entry on the 'Discover' tab) in order to launch the new user on to an adventure of discovery with regards to installing new stuff. Which makes me wonder even further why the 'Support' tab is the last tab to click, with the important 'How do I...' FAQ and a feed-back link. The whole thing is pretty, and pretty disorganized.

Finally

Am I finally happy? Am I going to shut up and quit bitching? The answers are sorta, and sorta. I'm sorta happy that the software is finally to the stage it should have been when I purchased the tablet in March of 2006. I was not happy to find out I'd paid my US$360 to become a captive beta tester. I find there's still a lot that needs to be cleaned up, enhanced, or just plain deleted. I suppose, over time, it will continue to advance and improve, and I'll upgrade (more carefully, after the Beta 2006 fiasco) as the enhancements emerge. But for personal as well as professional use I'm going to think long and hard before recommending Nokia.

Nokia has exposed itself (and its customers) to a development process that is, in my opinion, sloppy at best. The hard-core Linux lover and general hacker will have their ire raised over that comment, but I don't care. To me the tablet is just a tool, a means to an end, not an end unto itself. I don't care if it's a phone, a PC, or any other device with embedded processing. I expect to turn it on and to begin to do useful work. And I expect high quality for a device that costs as much as the 770 has cost. Especially high quality in the software, its defining attribute. And it has not been there. This is not to say that everything is bad. As I noted above the experience with the update was superlative. Nokia needs to work to extend that superlative experience throughout the 770 software suite.

I carry the 770 with me and use it to read my web-based mail and surf the web at locations that have good WiFi connections (some restaurants such as Panera Bread, work, and home). I do it because I refuse to let something that cost me that much just sit on the shelf and gather dust. I also do it because it's much smaller than an equivalent PC. Using the 770 for some tasks is indeed simpler than firing up full-blown Windows or Linux to just read mail or web pages. But that's just for reading. If I need to reply to mail, it easier for me to wait until I'm back in front of a full-blown PC with a real keyboard. I've noticed that streaming video has been de-emphasized over the past few months, and for good reasons. Video playback on the 770 is bad to worse. If you want decent video playback, buy an iPod or something similar to it. I only bring this up as that was one of the key features initially advertised on the Nokia 770 site. Now we're down to just audio (voice included), text, and still images.

For the reader considering a 770, be careful. If at all possible find someone who has one and try it out. If you can find a Nokia distributor who has one in their shop, pick it up and try it out there. But don't buy it on blind faith, especially on articles that sing its praises. You might wind up bitterly disappointed.

4 comments:

  1. The 770 has a microphone. It is the small little hole next to the charger. So no need to buy a headset.

    ReplyDelete
  2. And in answer to another comment from the peanut gallery: According to my Nokia booklet, I have no built-in microphone on my tablet, just a speaker and a stereo headset connector. Thus, for me to fully enjoy VoIP, I will need a Bluetooth headset, a requirement alluded to by the graphic on the Internet call application which shows two users wearing headphones and boom mikes.

    The manual with the current hardware probably doesn't mention the microphone because nothing in the OS used it. But if you really do want to insist that I've been imagining the VOIP conversations I've had without the aid of an extra microphone, feel free.

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  3. An interesting review; I appreciate the time you took. Great screenshots. I agree with some of what you've said, and disagree with some. What follows, alas, is mostly the disagreement.

    As others have said, the 770 does indeed have a microphone.

    If you are saying that your manual explicitly states one is not present (rather than simply doesn't mention it -- just like my manual) this is indeed news. I've never seen or heard of a 770 without one. Can you confirm your manual explicitly states one is not present and that your testing VOIP failed without a headset?

    Otherwise, this frankly seems a curious criticism on your part, and you add insult to injury by calling those who point this out the "peanut gallery".

    My 770, purchased months before yours did VOIP just fine. Acted just like a speakerphone, no headset required.

    On video playback -- I'm quite happy with it. Nothing else in the 770's price range comes close to the range of features I need and includes video playback. You're quite correct to say that if that's your prime desire, then you should indeed buy some kind of PMP.

    (I'm not sure the iPod would be the choice; it's a 2.5" 4x3 screen at 320x240. This compares somewhat unfavorably with the 4.1" ~15x9 352x208 max throughput you can get from video decoding on the 770 -- admittedly at a lower framerate).

    The iPod probably makes you THINK you've got much better quality -- thanks to the tiny (but very sharp) screen. I'm not sure that's sensible thinking.

    Have you tried the newest version of Urho Konttori's Nokia Media Converter? It's got some nice improvements that make playback look somewhat better.

    You are correct to complain that the 770 felt a bit like a beta product when you bought it, but I admit I find it a bit odd that you then decided to install an explicit beta, and complain heavily about its stability. (Kudos to you, mind you, for noting the relatively high stability in the full release).

    I definitely appreciate the time you've taken to review this, and while I disagree with some of your criticisms (headset, video), I largely agree with your views on the device (as is) in responding to emails etc.

    As you say, the 770 is not for everyone, and I too have felt that it was a bit of a beta release that only now is coming into its own.

    I do think you are overly negative on the device, but then I guess I'm just deluded ... I even believe that I'm having VOIP conversations without a headset! :)

    Cheers

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  4. I suspect he probably installed the beta thinking that it couldn't possibly be worse than the original release, much like myself.

    Anyway, a good review of the new OS. It's still not perfect (what is?) but it's certainly a big improvement.

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