My Experience with the Nokia N800 (or: How I Built My Own GPS)

Here we have the Nokia N800. This decidedly-ahead-of-its-time Internet Tablet was given to me by my best buddy among a pile of stuff he wanted me to eBay for him. It was released in 2005, and is basically the iPad’s misunderstood grandfather. It is a handheld web-browsing device that features built-in speakers, touchscreen keyboard, WiFi, Bluetooth, SD card readers (two!), widgets such as Internet Radio and weather forecasting, and *drum roll please* a built-in video camera for Skype! Unlike the iPod/Pad/Pud/Pid, it doesn’t DEPEND on a single piece of software running on a single computer either. An added bonus: It’s completely compatible with my wall and car charger for my Nokia cellphone. The best part? It runs PURE LINUX. No Microsoft to f*#% up on you, no Apple to demand you only use its products, no Google to spy on you. It has a full Linux console/terminal, runs a full version of OpenOffice, featured tons of games, and even had a Super NES emulator (something I would’ve killed for in high school). Highly capable, infinitely expandable, mountain-climber rugged, Scandinavian elegant and minimalist. It’s absolutely perfect to take on a vacation.

So what was the problem? In theory, nothing. It was everything I ever wanted in an… anything. It had tons of features, it respected the user, and it was a neat little gadget that wasn’t locked down by any juvenile tech executive. I… just didn’t have a use for it. I would’ve loved to keep it as a permanent attachment to my home stereo, but signing in to Sirius Internet Radio with it required much hacking and an awkward text-only interface. I always wanted a small device I could leave around the house for instant messaging, but alas its on-screen keyboard is not as conducive to typing as my cell phone’s physical keyboard.

I then tried to use it as a navigation device for my car. So, I purchased a Nokia GPS receiver and attached it via Bluetooth. The receiver is phenomenal: It can lock on to GPS satellites in under 3 seconds and can avail itself of my Nokia chargers as well as some old Nokia cellphone battery my brother gave me. Fair enough?

The N800 comes with the Wayfinder navigation software, which offered a 7-day trial and a fair purchase price if you liked it. The problem was, it was a DRM-dependent application, and Wayfinder was purchased by Vodafone and promptly entombed. They claim they’ve released it as open-source, but I couldn’t find any software or unlock codes. No customer support, nobody to take my money. I had three choices at this point:

  • Crack the registration code somehow (that may not have worked, as the DRM servers may still have denied me).
  • Crack the 7-day-free-trial feature (so as to create an “eternal free trial”) – this still would’ve required me to connect the unit to the Internet on a weekly basis to ask some closet-relegated server for another free trial.
  • Not use it.

I chose not to use Wayfinder, and moved on to the Open-Source MaemoMapper. It worked fine with my GPS receiver, displayed beautiful detailed maps, and offered free updates. Here again, I encountered an issue with Internet dependency. MaemoMapper still doesn’t have navigation logic built-in, so it has to download the turn-by-turn directions for each trip from the Internets before you leave the house. Fail.

As you can see, this quickly went from a curiosity to an obsession (though I probably need GPS only once or twice per year). How could I get GPS in my car? Surely there’s a way without having to go to the store to purchase a dedicated device!

I then gave up on the N800 altogether. Next I attempted to use OviMaps, the halfway-decent mapping software on my halfway-decent Nokia E63 cellphone. It also connected to the GPS receiver perfectly fine, but couldn’t even display a map without being connected to the Internet. What about a data plan? I refuse to pay $20 per month for data. That decision was made by my inner Luddite and I had no say in the matter.

What about the TomTom GPS cradle for iPod Touch? Not worth it at $79+$39 for the software, but we’re getting warmer. Oh wait! What’s this? An iPod touch… a GPS receiver… aha! Could it be? Nope. The Nokia LD-3W is not an Apple-authorized device – that’s right, you heard me. Apple doesn’t WANT me to use this device, though it is physically compatible.

3 hours of tedious jailbreak research and 8 Euros later, I got them talking together. No cradle purchase necessary. (The lack of a TomTom cradle frees me up to use the SkyDock so that I can also use my iPod Touch as a satellite radio in any non-SAT equipped cars I may buy.) Yes, I had to take a step back and reluctantly drop my Nokia in favor of a very narcissistic device, the iPod Touch. However, the N800 simply couldn’t cut it.

So here we are with the iPod Touch receiving raw GPS data thanks to the French software RoqyGPS. Looks pretty hot, doesn’t it? Well… as much as the early Conquistadores would appreciate knowing their coordinates, that’s not quite everything I need.

I now have to go to the iTunes Store and purchase either TomTom, Navigon, or some other navigation software that’s compatible with the iPod/iPhone Location Services – in other words one that doesn’t require a specific GPS receiver. My Nokia GPS receiver feeds the information to iPod Location Services and it tells the mapping software “What do you care where the information’s from? We’re at X and Y coordinates.” I’m still deciding on what brand of navigation software to use, but for around $50, I’ll have US/Canadian maps and navigation technology at my fingertips, no Internet connection required.

And thus I eluded the giant GPS device hanging from a suction cup on my windshield, and all of the battery recharges and break-ins that come with it. Even if someone stole my iPod Touch, I “simply” buy a new one and reinstall the navigation software from the iTunes Store. Besides, that Nokia receiver looks like some sort of spy device, all nondescript and blinky-like, so ain’t nobody gonna steal my car!

As much as I want to keep using the Nokia N800, I’m having a hard time finding a use for it. This is a very important lesson to me as I continue development on the Phoenix portable cable box – all self-righteousness and lack of functionality/expandability/sparkle spells bad news. Now, I don’t really have to sell the N800, but I want to so I can dump more money into my new project car!

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned next time for the Flakeslist Selling Guide!

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2 Responses to My Experience with the Nokia N800 (or: How I Built My Own GPS)

  1. Pingback: The Official Flakes-list Buying/Selling Guide | Teknosophy

  2. Pingback: The Post-Microsoft future and what it means for you | Teknosophy

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