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The Evolution Of Maemo
A comparison of the N810 and N900 Maemo Tablets


Written by dannycamps, December 2010




As many of you know, I am a long time Nokia Communicator owner and user. My first smartphone was ‘the’ first smartphone – the Nokia 9000i. I have owned each subsequent communicator up to and including the Symbian S60-based E90.

In December of 2009, I purchased the N900 Nokia Internet Tablet/Phone. This device (primarily a landscape oriented slider) offers a QWERTY keyboard as well as kinetic resistive touch screen. Running Maemo 5, I researched my purchase very carefully before I made it so I was well aware of not only the capabilities but also of the short-comings of the N900 and its software. Needless to say, I am more than happy with my purchase and I can do everything I was able to do on my previous communicators (plus a whole lot more). The N900 truly is a one-of-a kind and remarkable device.

Owning the whole communicator line, I am very familiar with the history and lineage of the devices from the Geos beginnings to Series-80 and later to the S60 progression. I however was less familiar with the Maemo lineage (aside from seeing the N770 in the Fantastic Four sequel ) and wanted to learn more about where the wonderful N900 came from.

So one year later – in December of 2010, I purchased the Nokia N810 Internet Tablet. The N810 is the direct predecessor of the N900. Running Maemo 4, the N810 does not have a GSM radio and does not function as a cell phone.

This article is meant to show some of the differences between the N810 and the N900 and also highlight were improvements were made (and in some cases where some things were degraded). It is not meant as an in-depth review (there are far better ones available on the web – especially at the excellent My-Maemo.com run by Michal Jerz) – but rather a showcase of sorts.

So without further ado – let’s get started.

HARDWARE

The N810 is a landscape-oriented slider with a QWERTY keyboard. It is constructed with a brushed-metal finish. On the front-face, there are two buttons (task-switcher and back) as well as a camera and ambient light sensor. The coloring is silver with a blue-gray face and is fairly attractive.


The packaging is typical Nokia-fare for the device generation – before they switched to the boring “everything ships in what is essentially a plain black box” mantra. Based on the design of the package, I would put box styling in the same class as the E90 communicator.


Nokia always gives a nice assortment of accessories with their devices in the box, and the N810 is no different. In addition to the usual AC charger and data cable, the N810 includes a carrying case, cleaning cloth, car mount, and wired headset (standard Nokia issue). Pretty nice package. By comparison, the N900 does not include a case or car mount.

But I digress…

Getting back on topic, let’s take a quick look the N900 vs. N810 specs:

Category Nokia N900 Nokia N810
CPU ARM Cortex A8 600mhz (TI) ARM11 400mhz (TI)
Video PowerVR SGX 530 w/3D PowerVR MBX
Memory 256mb RAM / 768mb swap 128mb RAM / up to 128mb swap (user configurable via the control panel)
Internal Storage 256mb root / 32gb internal 256mb root / 2gb internal
External Storage MicroSD up to 32gb MiniSD up to 8gb
Screen 3.5-inch 800 x 480 WVGA w/65k colors 4.13-inch 800 x 480 WVGA w/65k colors
GPS Yes Yes
Accelerometer Yes No
Camera(s) 2 (front: 0.3mp / rear: 5mp) 1 (front: 0.3mp)
Connectivity Quad-band GSM , 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth WiFi / Bluetooth
Ports USB-Micro (Data+Charging), Headset/AV, Infrared USB-Micro, AC charging, headset

The N810 is larger than the N900 but it is thinner. Here are some shots of the devices side-by-side to show dimensions. BTW, my N900 is in an AWESOME firm-silicon case now.





I love the size of the N900 (perfect for a phone) but the larger display of the N810 is nice. The D-pad on the N810 keyboard is also a feature I wish the N900 had.

One thing I will say about the hardware of the N810 is that it is definitely NOT as solidly built as the N900. The slider mechanism feels imprecise and shaky and the keyboard backlight is not uniform across all keys. The backlight also shows some bleeding through the device seams.

SOFTWARE

As I stated earlier, the N810 runs Maemo 4 and the N900 runs Maemo 5. Nokia made significant enhancements between the two OS revisions. Maemo 5 is much more geared towards finger-touch and kinetic gestures. Maemo 4 expects a stylus and acts as such (i.e. scrollbars and no kinetic action outside of the web browser). Both OS versions have a main desktop where widgets can be freely placed – however the N900 provides four desktops (up to 9 with a software hack) whereas the N810 has just one. The N900 also allows contacts, shortcuts, and bookmarks to the desktop as well where the N810 does not.

N900 Desktop (1 of 4 – showing widgets and shortcuts):

N810 Desktop:

Status-bar icons have settings and properties available by clicking on them. The dialogs are displayed directly on the desktop much like an actual desktop operating system.



By comparison, tapping a status-bar icon on the N900 brings up the status area hildonized menu where you can find all available settings and/or properties.

The N900 uses a scrollable application launcher grid akin to Android to list installed apps on the device. This can be customized into categories or folders using third-party software.

On the N810, applications are grouped into specific menu categories not unlike the Series-80 communicators. In fact, one ‘annoyance’ about this is that when you install an app, you need to specify which group it should be placed in (i.e. Internet, Extras, etc.) – definitely reminiscent of the communicators.

One of the main differences I noticed about the N900 vs. the N810 is that a lot of attention has been paid to in-application navigation. It is clear and consistent how to return to a previous window or area in the N900. This concept is far more primitive in the N810. Some apps (Media Player / Application Manager) do have relatively good navigation but it varies widely. Also, Maemo 4 appears to be more of a ‘desktop like’ OS where dialog boxes and confirmations require button press actions. In the N900, you dismiss a dialog box (i.e. “Application Successfully Installed”) by tapping outside of the dialog. In Maemo 4, there will be an ‘OK’ button that requires a press to dismiss the notice.

The N810 also makes use of a tiered menu system (again like the S80 communicators):

One nice thing I noticed in the N810 is that is does a relatively good job of telling you when programs are launching or something is happening. With the N900, when you launch a program, you will typically get a black screen with a circular loading indicator in the title bar. On the N810, you get a message on the desktop like this:

Control Panel / Settings

Functionally, the N810 ‘Control Panel’ and the N900 ‘Settings’ are fairly similar. The obvious difference is in the fact that the N900 supports kinetic/finger scrolling. The N810 version uses the stylus/scrollbar. Also – the N810 uses a double-tap approach to opening an item (single tap to select then single tap to open). Notice the small size of the scrollbar in the N810 screenshot – more on this later.


Vagalume (Last.fm client)

Vagalume works the same on the N810 and N900. The major UI difference is the N900 version uses the hildonized menu system whereas the N810 version uses the less finger-friendly tiered menus. BTW, Vagalume is a great program on both platforms.


Email

Much has been made about the N900 default email client Modest. While it is limited in functionality somewhat, it is not really that bad to use and has gotten better with newer firmware and patches. Oddly enough, the N810 email client (also Modest) appears to be better designed and more closely resembles the mail client of the Series-80 communicators (it even supports a wider array of IMAP options as well as ‘retrieve headers only’ functions). The N810 mail client does not support ‘Mail for Exchange’ though so functionally the N900 client is better for corporate use.

N900 Pics first this time:



Now the N810 email client:


One thing to note about the N810 email client (and this goes back to inconsistent navigation) – there is no clear way to return from an open message to the message list. In reality, each message opens in a new window that needs to be closed but it is not apparent or indicated in the UI. This confused me at first because I was hunting for a ‘back’ button that just is not there. Also – look at the scrollbar here in the N810 version. Clearly larger and designed for a finger. This is an example of some of the UI inconsistency present in Maemo 4 (compared to the smaller scroll bar of the ‘Control Panel’).

Web Browser

N810 Browser:



N900 Browser:


Both browsers are based on the Mozilla MicroB engine and both support Flash 9. The performance and page rendering in the N810 browser leaves a lot to be desired however. The N900 browser is really beyond reproach and is probably the best mobile browser ever designed to-date.

Media Player / Internet Radio

The Media Player is similar on both devices showing options for Music, Video, and Internet Radio. Both devices also support DLNA/U-PnP devices:


One area where the N810 CLEARLY excels in is the Internet Radio. The N900 Internet Radio comes with 48 streaming stations broken down by country.

Well, the N810 Internet Radio comes with literally THOUSANDS of streaming stations broken down by genre, country, category, etc… It appears to be the same database used in the excellent S60 Internet Radio app available on the N95 and E90. How Nokia could not include this functionality in the N900 is beyond my comprehension.






For each station, a variety of streams are available for selection:


Application Manager

The application manager (where you can install new applications) is similar on the N810 and N900. Design-wise it is more primitive on the N810.

N810 Version:





N900 Version:



Updates to applications are handled in the same fashion on both devices where you will see a flashing update indicator (kind of gaudy on the N810) in the status area.

Skype

Skype is fully integrated in the N900 and is probably the best implementation of it I have ever seen. The N900 version supports voice, chat, and video calls. I am showing the N810 version here because I imagine this is how Skype would have best looked on the Nokia communicator:


Handwriting Recognition / Virtual Keyboard

The N810 has built in handwriting recognition that works fairly well. The virtual keyboard is also similar to the keyboard that was originally included with the N900 pre PR1.2. In PR1.2, the N900 virtual keyboard was changed.

N810 Virtual Keyboard:

N900 Original Virtual Keyboard:

N900 Current Virtual Keyboard (German version):

There is also a stylus-friendly smaller virtual keyboard that shows all letters/numbers on screen available for the N810 where you can access the handwriting recognition component as well.



SUMMARY / CONCLUSION

The N810 is definitely an interesting piece of hardware. While it cannot match the excellent N900 in terms of quality or functionality, it is still a useful device and makes a good companion product. I have seen some stability problems with the N810 and have had to reboot it (sometimes several times a day). The N900 is of course rock-solid and can go for days and weeks at a time without a reboot.

One thing that is nice about the N810 is that it will pair via Bluetooth to a cell phone in order to utilize the phones internet access when not near a WiFi hotspot. The N810 paired effortlessly with my N900 and was able to see all of my N900 internet access points.

Nokia definitely moved in the right direction with the N900. It’s even more puzzling how they could just decide to not develop the Maemo OS anymore. Clearly the progression from Maemo 4 to Maemo 5 was huge. It would have been interesting to see how Maemo 5 to Maemo 6 would have looked as well. MeeGo (the base UI anyway) looks like it is a huge step backwards. I can only hope that Nokia creates a really nice UI for MeeGo that will continue the path paved by Maemo.

I want to hear your questions/comments/thoughts about this article. Keep the comments on-topic and as always – iFanboys need not apply.

That’s it for now.


Questions? Comments? Let us know what you think in THIS THREAD on our Maemo Discussion Forum.




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