It’s Alive!

Many years ago,I found myself in possession of a Nokia N810 internet tablet. With it’s smaller screen and pull-out keyboard, this is what tablets looked like before tablets were a thing, and I spent many a happy (or frustrating) hour trying to connect to a WiFi hotspot long enough to send a email.

Of course, everyone uses Android now and, after Nokia crashed and burned back in 2011, my phone could increasingly do everything the N810 could do, and then some, and I found myself using it less and less. Eventually, the battery started dying on me and the device ended up in a drawer.

More recently, I discovered Battery Champion, a site that sells batteries. Batteries for everything, including the N810, so I thought I would see if I could revive the device.

I now have the tablet up and running and, in many ways, it feels like looking back at a future that never was. Nokia devices have always been well engineered and they were certainly well placed to dominate the emerging smartphone and tablet spaces. It was only through management incompetence that they managed to lose their lead.

The world has moved on, of course, and it is probably inevitable that a device built in 2008 will feel a bit clunky now. The keyboard certainly proved to be a big surprise. It’s a physical keyboard that slides out which sounded like a great idea back in the day, but I found myself really struggling to use it. The keys are too small and painfully unresponsive. In fact I was intending to write this post on the N810 but after two paragraphs, the keyboard got the better of me.

It’s slow, too, compared to modern devices. This, I think, is more a reflection on the way in which websites have become so much more bloated over the years rather than on the device itself. Indeed, watching any page load is a revelation in terms of just how many calls to external sites and services are made.

The battery life, on the other hand, is still impressive. It can go up to ten days between charges which, combined with the fact that it is compact enough to fit into a pocket, gives the N810 a level of portability that the manufacturers of more modern tablets can only dream of.

Of course, all of the software on the tablet is about a decade out of date. And, with this device being no longer supported, many of the repositories are no longer available so upgrading it — if possible at all — will be something of a challenge.

And if I do manage to find some reasonably current software, I will then need to figure out a use for it.

Digital dufferdom

I have to admit that, when I heard that Nokia was planning to re-enter the smartphone market I was more than a little interested. And the Nokia 8 does sound very appealing — stock Android, frequent updates and all from a company that, for all its managerial missteps, has always been very good at engineering.

And then I saw this quote from Pekka Rantala who has the job of reviving the brand:

The phones resonate well with older generations – we’re not excluding them.

I have the horrible feeling that they know me too well.

Rediscovering Symbian

My Android phone died on me last week.

More accurately, it has been randomly deciding that the battery must be discharged by now and turning itself off. Having played around with the settings a bit, and even resorting to a factory reset, I have come to conclusion that the problem is probably a faulty battery.

Since I have a new phone on order, I am not particularly inclined to rush out and replace the battery for the current phone. So, as a stopgap, I have dug out my old Nokia N72.

Not having used a Symbian phone for a while, it took me a few moments to find where everything was but it was surprisingly easy to get used to the interface again. Part of this may be related to the that I moved some of the applications around to better fit my quirks when I was last using this phone. Configurability is good as good, though, and it’s also rather nice to find that I have a file manager by default rather than having to go and look for one.

The form-factor has also proved to be remarkably resilient. The N72 is a candy-bar phone with a sliding cover to protect the camera. Four years ago, this cover struck me as being a bit flimsy but, compared to the not-quite-tablet experience that the typical Android phone gives you, the N72 does feel remarkably well constructed. It’s not heavy, but it is solid, compact and lets you know that this is a phone that can take a bit of a battering without too much trouble.

And then there’s the battery life. I have been playing around with this phone for the best part of a week and am still nowhere near needing to plug it back into a charger. Not only is it quite relaxing to not have to be constantly monitoring the battery status but this also brings home just how much of a resource hog Android can be.

I have no plans to permanently abandon Android, but I will certainly be keeping this phone around in case of emergency. Having a phone that you can charge up after completely ignoring it for almost half a decade, and rely on it just working is really rather reassuring.

In their time, Nokia made some very good phones. Symbian is not perfect but I can’t help but feel that if the company’s management had put more resources into developing phones and less effort into Dilbertesque organisational silliness the smartphone landscape today would be both very different and a lot healthier.

Farewell Nokia

It was nice knowing you.

And yes, I do think it’s a shame. Nokia have been the great innovators in the mobile phone space – my N810 is still a useful device and, before anyone starts rewriting history, it is worth remembering that Nokia is the company that pioneered smart phones. For a long time, Nokia was a market leader and could still be one if inability of the company’s management to commit to a decision hadn’t completely flushed their chances.

Symbian. A solid, mobile operating system lumbered with an increasingly messy user interface. If Nokia had bet on Symbian and put some serious investment into cleaning up the UI, they would still be the dominant smart phone company today.

Then there was Maemo. This is a gorgeous OS, well designed, flexible and very easy to use. A smart phone and tablet strategy based around putting Maemo devices into people’s hands (long before either Apple or Google had thought about going mobile) would have allmost certainly maintained Nokia’s market lead.

Even a combined strategy – Symbian at the low end to squeeze every ounce of performance out of cheap hardware, and Maemo at the high end to justify high prices for high functionality – would have worked. In fact, this may well have been the most effective direction for Nokia to take.

Instead they flipped from one platform to the next, back again and on again until no-one – not even Nokia – knew what they were going to do next. It is the company’s indecision that killed Nokia.

eBooks on the move

Screenshot As someone who is unable to resist a freebie, I have acquired a number of novels in various electronic formats over the past few years. When offered these books, I download them with every intention of reading them but not a great deal of thought as to how or when.

Obviously, I could read any or all of these on my PC but the reality is that sitting in front of a screen is not a comfortable position for ploughing through 400 pages of fiction. So I have finally taken the plunge and installed FBReader on my N810. It’s lovely.

As you can see from the screen shot, the display is nice and clear and when you go to full-screen mode you get a decent sized page of text which can be conveniently navigated by way of the + and – buttons on the top of the device. FBReader supports a variety of formats including Fictionbooks (FB2), ePub and Mobi (excluding DRM’ed files). One format that it doesn’t support, however, is PDF. Guess what format most of my downloads are in?

Luckily there is Calibre.

Calibre is an eBook library manager but it also includes a stack of conversion options – including PDF to FB2. The conversion is not always perfect and odd bits of extraneous data can end up in the FB2 file although it looks like the issue is down to poorly structured PDFs rather than a problem with Calibre. Since FB2 is an XML format, imperfect conversions can be very easily fixed using the find and replace options in your text editor of choice.

And just to expand my ever-growing pile of unread books even more, I have found a few sites that distribute eBooks for free, including ManyBooks.net (who have an RSS feed) and Fictionbook-lib.org.

I’m still not entirely convinced how well a small, backlit screen will work as a replacement to reading a full-sized ink on paper novel but being able to fit a small library in my pocket is certainly convenient. The real test will come when we next go away which is very likely to turn into a test of comfort versus convenience.

In praise of doing something simple and doing it well

Nokia 6310i And now I am without a phone. That’s not strictly true, I have a phone but the SIM card belonged to my employer so I have had to return it, along with the (spare) phone with which it was supplied.

That phone was a Nokia 6310i and, while it’s easy to get excited about the more modern multi-functional gadgets to which we now have access, there is something to be said for a device that does only one or two things but does them exceptionally well. The 6310i is just such a device.

I know it has Bluetooth, infra-red and a few other bits and pieces, but fundamentally, if you have this phone you will be using it to make and receive phone calls and to send and receive text messages, and that’s all. And for this, the phone is superb.

The screen is monochrome, and you can read it anywhere. Even without the backlight you can clearly see if you’ve missed a call or if a SMS is waiting for you. The phone itself is on the large side, by current standards, but very comfortable to use and the menu is about as easy to navigate as it gets.

But where the phone really scores is with its battery life and reception. No matter where you are, you can simply pick this phone up, dial a number and be able to assume both that the battery and the signal will be strong enough to make your call.

There is no complexity to this phone and, of course, very few features. But for a phone that works as a phone and nothing else, this one really is hard to beat.

There was a point where I was quite keen on consolidating gadgets – having a phone that could also play music, access the web, act as a PDA, and any other function I could think of – and this, partly, is why I haven’t been using the 6310i in recent years. I am now, however, coming around to the opposite view because if using non-phone functionality leaves your battery too weak to take an important call, your device is pretty useless as a phone.