Saturday, August 13

Ben NanoNote - a short review

The Ben NanoNote, as built by Qi Hardware, is billed as an ultra small form factor computing device - I guess that means it's not quite a palmtop, not quite a PC, not quite a smart phone and not quite a PDA. It is small though; when folded up it is roughly 10cm by 7.5cm (or about 4" by 3"). I've had mine for about a week and a half by now, and I'm very happy with my purchase. It is important to remember that the NanoNote is not a consumer device, and on the website great pains are taken to point this out: this is a toy / tool for geeks and fans of open source. Not only is all the software open source on the NanoNote, but the actual hardware is too; in other words if you should happen to have access to the needed equipment, you can just download the schematics and build your own - or improve on it.
For being aimed squarely at developers, the Ben NanoNote is surprisingly usable. Not straight out of the box; the OpenWrt software image mine shipped with was quite out of date and needed to be updated. Reflashing the on-board NAND was pretty straight forward with the scripts supplied on the Qi Hardware Wiki - well, easy once I installed a more up to date Linux Distro on one of my Eee's, that is. My old installation of Xandros didn't cut it, neither did my copy of PuppEee. However a copy of Ubuntu 10.04 Netbook Edition soon sorted that out. The actual update was done in less than ten minutes, and that includes the time it took me to sort out my typos.
It took me a bit longer to get used to the interface though; a desktop without a mouse or touch screen is a radical departure from what I'm used to. There is little to no built in help in the default software, but once again the wiki came to my aid. It says something about the size of the NanoNote when even the abbreviated list of commands for the applications takes up more space than the actual ultra small form factor computing device...
The software supplied in the default image is versatile, diverse and... well, lets say it shows that it has been put together by enthusiasts. In addition to the near obligatory address book, calender and notebook applet, there is a couple of different browsers, a handful of text editors, six (count them) programming languages and seven different terminals! Talk about being spoilt for choice... and off course you won't have any excuse for not finding one you like. I', pleased to see that such old standbys as GMU media player and MPlayer for video have been included, but if you want to turn a NanoNote into a portable music player you have to keep in mind that this is - with the supplied software - a completely open device; any music in a proprietary format is unlikely to play.
In addition to the OpenWrt operating system the Ben NanoNote ship with as default, I've also played around a bit with Jlime. I'm running it of a 2Gb Micro SDcard, but it feels as responsive and fast as the OpenWrt image on the onboard NAND. The selection of software that comes pre-installed with Jlime is somewhat smaller than what ships with OpenWrt, but it does include an free software copy of Doom; FreeDoom. All things said however, I do think I prefer OpenWrt - at least so far. On the other hand Jlime does come with a mostly preconfigured wikireader, so I will keep it to read Wikipedia while off line - if I can find a copy of the wiki dump that is. The link on the Qi Hardware Wiki is pushing up the daisies and pining for the fjords and I probably should go to the IRC-channel and ask for help.
Overall I'm very impressed with the little device so far. The only trick that has eluded me so far is setting up an Ethernet connection over the USB cable, which is needed since the NanoNote does not have WiFi (it is impossible to have a fully open WiFi - too many patents blocking that option). I have more or less tracked the problem down to the Eee side of things, since it seems like Ubuntu is just different enough to make trouble. I have found a potential solution, but further tinkering have to wait until I'm done with my UN Tour of Duty. For being a geeky toy aimed at developers, it is surprisingly usable once reflashed. For anyone wanting an ultra small form factor computing device I can strongly recommend the Ben NanoNote!
Yes, it really is that small. Photo© Qi Hardware, free use.