The Joy of Webpads

Update: Linux zealots, please read my follow-up piece as well. And do try to have a nice day.

Months ago, in an attempt at making better use of the increasingly limited free time I have, I took to carrying an N810 around in the hope that it would be a good device to jot down some notes, deal with some e-mail and keep track of industry news.

It’s been over three months now, and the results have been mixed at best. Especially since in the meantime my wife gifted me an 8GB iPod Touch, and all of a sudden I had something much smaller, lighter and with an almost infinitely better user experience – but that I couldn’t really use on the move.

I have had numerous interactions with the iPhone in the past (not that you need to know about that), but, still, the effect was immediate.

Overnight, and despite a few constraints, I completely ditched the N810 as my source for news. The iPod Touch is less than half its size, has an amazing screen (yes, it is roughly half the resolution of the N810’s, but the font rendering and fast graphics make physical resolution practically irrelevant), and it can be used single-handedly without any problems whatsoever.

And yet, the little black slab isn’t perfect. Although it is clearly the best device of the two (and has much wider mass-market appeal than the N810, which is doomed to be a niche – and maybe soon extinct – platform), there are a few things that keep it from being perfect.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. During the last few weeks, I’ve been doing more than just using the devices – which included drafting this piece on both of them.

First Touches

The N810 is sturdy (I like the build quality very much, even if the design isn’t very appealing) has a pretty decent battery life, and a capable, high-resolution (if rather hard to read in sunlight) touch screen.

But the day after I got my iPod, sometime during that first bowl of breakfast cereal as I thumbed and tapped my way through the news with the iPod Touch in my left hand while hunting tasty bits of muesli with the spoon on my right, it dawned on me that Nokia had the form factor completely wrong – webpads need to be usable with a single hand.

And the N810 isn’t. Many people have complained bitterly regarding the positioning of its cursor pad and the menu structure, so I won’t bore you with that.

Suffice it to say that these days I hardly ever use the touch screen – after prolonged exposure to the Apple devices, I find it frustrating and fiddly to use for anything but the simplest tap, and I prefer the (rather inconvenient, but responsive) hardware buttons and cursor pad to invoke and navigate menus.


I’m going to be brief regarding this bit, since it is one of the most hotly debated ones and I find that most people tend to get stuck on it and fail to discuss the other aspects.

In a nutshell, the N810’s killer application is Google Reader. It is not speedy by any means, but you get the full desktop browser UI, and the keyboard accelerators work almost perfectly.

Where the N810 is slow and pokey, the iPod Touch is lightning fast, and where the Nokia’s interaction is fiddly and hesitant (such as clicking and dragging), the iPod’s is natural and responsive.

Since the N810 browser shares Firefox’s core engine and has a few added features, you can go anywhere on the web without too much hassle – which includes being able to view some Flash content (a mixed blessing, to be sure).

But Mobile Safari is so intuitive and easy to use that you forget you’re using an iPod. There’s just you and the page. And, to top it off, Google’s new iPhone-optimized sites work so well (other than a few niggles) that they make the desktop version of Reader look bad.

Sure, you don’t have Flash. But I stopped caring about that a long time ago – after all, I have been up to my neck in mobile browsers for years.


One of the things I had to cope with was that both devices are, in practice, useless on the go by themselves.

Real world Wi-Fi coverage outside home and office is, of course, a joke, and has been for many years. So I used my E51 as an HSDPA Bluetooth modem for the N810, and had a go at running JoikuSpot on it to do the same for my iPod.

JoikuSpot works OK, but it can only do HTTP and HTTPS, and without better protocol support it is of very limited use to me. Plus my E51 would warm up considerably (and have a considerably shorter battery life) when acting as a Wi-Fi proxy when compared to a Bluetooth connection, even if I manually set its Wi-Fi output to 4mW.

Then there are practical considerations: Since Apple doesn’t put a standard mini-USB plug on their devices (they prefer to have the dock connector to break out audio and video), I have to carry around an extra cable to charge the iPod, whereas the N810 uses precisely the same charger as my E51 – a minuscule thing the size of a matchbox moulded straight into the power plug, that occupies nearly as much room as the iPod USB cable…

So the N810 is, despite being much larger and heavier than the iPod Touch, a lot more practical to have mobile connectivity anywhere.

Sure, I can always get an iPhone, but that’s not my point. I’m not the only one griping about lack of decent mobile connectivity on the N810 itself.


This one was a (very) short fight. Like many people before me, I found the N810’s built-in e-mail client to be completely unusable, and I use either Gmail or my corporate Exchange webmail, which renders in several degrees of ugliness but works well enough to keep track of things.

With the new firmware upgrade, the iPod runs rings around it without even trying – I found myself reading mailing-lists and drafting short replies on the native e-mail client without a second thought, and now have four different IMAP accounts configured on it.

And I can’t wait until ActiveSync“com/Microsoft/ActiveSync and PowerPoint attachment viewing arrive with firwmare 2.0 – from where I’m standing, the iPod is the Palm PDA replacement for the 00’s, and stands to become a much better personal device than just about anything else out there.


This is one field where things are changing pretty fast (what with the iPod SDK being launched only a couple of days ago), but where I think that Nokia never really had a chance to compete.

I’m not going to go into the completely insane and whacky iPhone “hackware” arena – to me, “jailbreaking” Apple’s devices has always been a dubious activity at best, and although I am aware of the insane amount of little applications that have popped up in the past few months, I openly regard them with something akin to bemused contempt, since they are merely a blip on Apple’s AppStore windshield and will soon be brushed aside.

In general, my user experience with the N810 when I tried using anything but the browser wasn’t stellar. In fact, it even prompted me to write my own definition of usability.

Yes, I can install a bunch of applications of rather dubious usefulness through the overly geeky and mostly unsuitable-for-real-life package manager, but the only ones I could put up with (and bothered reinstalling after the second firmware update) were Pidgin and vagalume.

You can do a lot of stuff with it, for sure, but I’m afraid you’ll achieve very little. For none of the built-in applications (RSS reader, e-mail client, media player, etc.) struck me as particularly good or usable, even though they were better than those on previous Nokia devices.

And yes, I should make it plain that I’ve upgraded the thing’s OS to the latest version. But the people who believe Maemo is “better” because it is open and Linux-based need to have their heads examined – the quality of any given platform’s environment and applications has nothing to do with openness.

And, of course, Nokia is acquiring Trolltech, which doesn’t bode well for this platform. From where I’m standing, it seems that Nokia misplaced their focus and doesn’t really know what to to with this device category – and have been treating it like a sort of experiment to see what the community could come up with.

So far, I’d have to say “nothing much”.

Text Input

This is a particularly dear topic for me, since I’ve been pining for a decent PDA for years now, and one of my basic requirements was decent text input.

After all, I write one hell of a lot, and anything that helps me capture short notes or draft part of an e-mail at a moments’ notice is much more important to me (and vastly more useful) than anything else.

In fact, one of my gripes with the all-in-one smartphone format (or “multimedia computer”, as Nokia likes to say) is that it very seldom allows for actual input.

Sure, people’s needs (or perception thereof) change over time, and if I were to re-write my Perfect PDA post again I would surely add a bit more emphasis on media, but the current trend of building devices for near-passive consumption of content and information is, in my opinion, a dead end – text input is a cardinal piece of the user experience (and usability) of any device these days.

As to the N810, the note taking application does the job, but barely so. I soon found out two things:

  • A normal keyboard isn’t very useful without good tactile feedback, and the N810’s, despite being backlit, is flat, with hardly any relief or key feedback.
  • After more than a screenful of text the keyboard stopped being the bottleneck – the software started taking entirely too long to register a key press, and I found myself waiting for it to finish entire words.

But it will do in a pinch – especially if, like me, you tend to type away bits and pieces of text on the back seat of a cab late at night, a situation where its backlit keyboard and predictive text input bar made it quite possible to take down a few sentences without too much hassle.

It is, however, an inordinate pain to get your text out of it. Whereas the iPod Touch will whisk away your notes as e-mails at a single tap, the easiest way I found to get text out of the N810 was to paste it into Google Docs (and even then, the browser crashed a couple of times).

As to the iPod Touch, my experience with it as an input device has been rather amusing, in the sense that its Notes application is more than merely infuriating – it is, rather, the subject of ongoing horrified fascination.

The utterly despicable Marker Felt font is readable, sure, and does an adequate job of fitting text within the ludicrously tight margins that Apple has seen fit to bestow upon us, but typing anything beyond a few sentences on what is essentially a third of the screen is a bit of a chore.

The iPod’s predictive text input helpers make it feasible to achieve a pretty good tapping speed (and I personally find it much easier going if I switch off the distracting piezo clicker), but be prepared for quite a bit of typos – for instance, the thing insisted in replacing “helpers” with “hellers” in this paragraph.

Where it concerns Portuguese input, however, it is dramatically frustrating – there is no input helper support to speak of, and whoever laid out the accented character palettes (which pop up when you hold down on a letter) clearly did not consider ordering accents according to frequency of use, with the result that common words like “não” (“no”, which has endless emphatic uses) are inordinately hard to type, because the “Ô requires you to slide your finger across the entire screen.

Still, the iPod is surprisingly useful for taking down short notes in Engish (which is what I spend most of the day writing and speaking anyway), and as such is “good enough” for casual writing – provided, of course, that you can wrap your head around its utter lack of cut and paste, which can be tremendously frustrating at times.

And yes, it also passed my trademark “typing on the back seat of a cab” test with flying colors – the auto-correction feature was crucial in that regard, but, again, that is only usable in English.

The only high point of the Notes application is the ease with which it allows you to share your writing – a single tap will turn your note into an e-mail, ready to send anywhere.

The Other Stuff

I won’t go on about the N810, other than my having considered trading in small but significant bits of my anatomy for a Citrix client (and no, the geeky and crashy rdesktop port doesn’t cut it for me, I need access to our server farm). With its screen and keyboard, it would be an excellent thin client for corporate use.

In its current form, it is of limited use and unpolished, and I carry it around solely because it lets me run Pidgin and a client in the background (something that Apple’s devices are not likely to be able to do for a while). I don’t even use the GPS (or most native apps besides the browser).

The iPod Touch is not without its own shortcomings, however. Besides its lack of Bluetooth, there are also a few software flaws. For instance, Mobile Safari has a newfound propensity for crashing every hour or so (one of the “features” of the recent 1.1.4 firmware update), and I still find it frustrating not to be able to sync with a Mac over Wi-Fi (something that becomes utterly ridiculous when you consider that ActiveSync support is now officially forthcoming).

Also, I found that (oddly) I seldom use it as a media player (just for the record, my four main apps are Mobile Safari, Mail, Notes and Settings).

In fact, I have probably used it to listen to music or watch videos for altogether less than an hour in the weeks I’ve had it, and wish there was something else besides the piezo clicker to let me watch video podcasts without fishing for the headphones.

There’s a chance, of course, that things will change with the SDK. I fully expect to get their act together and code an official client for the device, or for someone else to do a free unofficial one – although I’m curious as to what stance Apple will take regarding that, and to the device’s battery life when streaming music that way.

Final Thoughts

In the end, the iPod Touch is my favorite for pretty much everything, despite falling a bit short where it regards fitting my particular needs. It is supremely smooth and polished, and much easier to customize to my own needs: in less than a couple of days, I added around two screenfuls of webclip icons and enough JavaScript bookmarklets to do anything I wanted.

And here’s the clincher: nearly all the links posted on this site since the beginning of February were added from it – something that I never managed to find an easy way to do on the N810.

So yes, the iPod Touch is eminently usable as a web device in its own right. And I’m pretty sure I haven’t even scratched the surface of what I can accomplish with it.

In closing, and for those of you who care about rankings and suchlike trivia, here’s a sort of scorecard for both devices:

Item N810 iPod Touch Notes
Browsing !cid:4.png! !cid:5.png! The iPod wins in terms of raw speed and RSS viewing (either via Reader or natively)
Mail !cid:1.png! !cid:4.png! The N810 has very limited IMAP support, whereas the iPod only lacks offline viewing of attached images
Notes !cid:2.png! !cid:3.png! The iPod wins despite its ugly font and lack of syncing due to the neat e-mail integration
Text Input !cid:4.png! !cid:4.png! Lack of a Portuguese dictionary is the only thing keeping the iPod from winning this
Connectivity !cid:4.png! !cid:3.png! The iPod changes Wi-Fi networks seamlessly and a vastly better UI for settings, but the N810 has Bluetooth
Syncing !cid:1.png! !cid:4.png! The N810 doesn’t really sync with anything, but the iPod still doesn’t know how to sync with multiple music libraries or handle notes