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The Nokia 770 Revisited

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After carrying a Nokia 770 in his pocket for more than a year, David Chisnall looks back at how useful a small Linux machine has been. The firmware received a major upgrade in 2006; read on to find out how well it addressed existing issues.

A while ago, I wrote a review of my first impressions of the Nokia 770 after owning one for about a week. At the time, it was a brand new device; the first affordable handheld running a Free Software stack (Linux, X11, GTK). It was also a new market for Nokia: a mobile phone without the phone component.

The fact that it was not a phone gave Nokia a bit more freedom—it didn’t have to limit the features to ones that would encourage the networks to subsidize the cost of purchase. This did, however, increase the device cost for the end user. To help build an ecosystem around it, Nokia gave a heavy discount (around 60 percent) to Free Software developers.

Since that last review, the machine has lived in my jacket pocket and been carried with me wherever I go. It’s also had a major revision of the firmware.

Has the "Oooh, shiny!" feeling worn off? Read on to find out.

Text Input

One thing that really let down the original unit was text input. It came with two methods: handwriting recognition and an on-screen keyboard. The on-screen keyboard was very slow, its keys were too small to hit fast and reliably, and, for some reason, the Z key was larger than all the others. I can only imagine that Nokia engineers feel the need to use more Zs than the average person—in fact, more Zs than Es.

The second input method was optimistically termed handwriting recognition. Interestingly, this was one of the few closed-source components of the entire core stack. I don’t know how much money Nokia paid for it, but they were ripped off. I’ve seen a native handwriting recognition engine written in 20 lines of Smalltalk that did a better job.

The 2006 firmware improved this situation slightly by adding a thumb-pad. This took over most of the screen, turning the device into a keyboard. It misses the odd key press, but it’s now about the speed my old Psion Series 3 was for text entry. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of being able to see anything on the screen. As with the other methods, this comes with some quite nice word completion, which suggests words based on what you have already typed. As seems typical with Nokia, the user interface is almost there, but not quite. I can see the suggestions, and often they are correct, but I still haven’t worked out which button you press to insert them.

Since I deal with a lot of text, I bought a bluetooth keyboard. This was the Thinkoutside Stowaway Universal Bluetooth Keyboard, and works very well with the device. It is a similar size to the 770 when folded, and so both can comfortably fit in a jacket pocket.

Unfortunately, switching input method to the bluetooth keyboard can still cause applications to crash. I wouldn’t normally complain about instability caused by third-party applications, but I feel justified in doing so when they are implementing features that should have been in the original device.

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