May 10

Can the Nokia N900 replace a netbook?

One of the things I wanted to see with the N900 was whether or not it could replace the laptop or a netbook when travelling. In general when I’m travelling, my computer needs fall into one of three categories: real work (ie. coding); communications (generally video skype calls); and entertainment (generally podcasts and videos). For most weekends away, it’ll be communications and entertainment; on longer trips (like the training courses in kuortane) it’s mostly been those two with either real work or reviewing video footage added in.

So first off, how much kit do you have to carry with the N900? Well, basicly, the phone itself and the power charger, and maybe the tv-out cable. Very little weight, the power charger takes up about a third of the space of the phone (and is about as thick). So in terms of convenience, top marks. I don’t need to bring a speaker because (a) the speakers in the N900 are pretty decent; and (b) the FM transmitter lets me use any nearby radio as a speaker (and it works pretty well). And if there’s a TV around, the tv-out cable turns it into a large monitor, useful for reviewing video or entertainment.

Next, what’s the battery life like? Once at the destination, it’s not so big a deal, but if you’re not actually driving there (and until Ryanair introduce their reduced rates for self-piloted flights, you won’t be for most business trips), you do rather rely on sufficient battery life to get to wherever you’re going so you don’t wind up missing the last half of Foyle’s War because the battery ran flat. Nokia claim 5 hours talk time for the N900; I certainly didn’t manage to drain the battery that way (even I can’t talk for five hours), but a full charge certainly lasted through a three-hour train trip playing mp4 and avi video over headphones, with about another hour left in it according to the BatteryEye app.

So how about email? Well, the email app isn’t as polished as even the e71’s S60 gmail app, but it’s certainly usable. However, the keyboard does take getting used to. After a fortnight, I was still only at half to three-quarters the speed on the N900 as I was at on the e71. But the keyboard hasn’t any really serious flaws (though the ctrl-shift-p sequence to take a screenshot was a bit awkward and the lack of a tab key does tend to crop up a lot). So by the time the reboxing day arrived, I was happily able to tweet on the keyboard. In another week or two, I think I’d have been happy enough to write reasonably-sized emails, if more slowly than on the laptop. But for on-the-go communications, it would certainly have sufficed.

So, can it replace a netbook? Well, basicly, yes. It’s an excellent communications device, though bug 6063 quite soundly kicked my evaluation unit in the head. Email, IM, twitter, phone, skype; it converges all of those communication channels into one portable device and I do love it for that. It is more comfortable to consume content than create it on the N900, to be sure; but I’ve gotten used to mostly operating that way when on the go because of smaller screens and keyboards being a wee bit awkward anyway, and catching up on arrival somewhere. And one bluetooth fold-up keyboard and a hotel TV screen and the N900 tv-out cable and you have a larger screen and more comfortable keyboard to use.

Can it do real work like coding? Well, I’d love to say yes, but frankly, I doubt it. But that’s okay for me – there’s no point in pretending that if you just had a bigger battery or faster CPU that it’d be easier – the problem isn’t the device but where we are using it. On the go on a train or a plane is just not a great work environment for coding.

I think that that points out why the N900 pricetag is actually less insane than it first appears. The problem is that the N900 looks like a phone. It isn’t one. So you’re not paying €500 for a phone. You’re paying €500 for a very small netbook that can do phone calls, has a built-in FM radio and transmitter and GPS (btw, bloody handy when looking for your hotel in a strange town, Ovi maps is quite good for that kind of thing), and so on. Looked at that way, it’s actually not a bad price, it’s in fact right in the mid-range for netbooks in Ireland these days.

So yeah, it’s getting harder to not buy one 😀