A reviewer no doubt should judge products strictly on their own merits and not on how well they meet his own personal needs and expectations. But in the case of the Nokia N800 Internet Tablet, that was almost impossible for me. The N800, a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled handheld, pen-based computer, is a very cool, if flawed, product in its own right. It also comes this close to being the answer to my prayers.
I’ve been hoping for a long time that some clever vendor would come out with a tablet computer that connects wirelessly to the Internet through a local network or hotspot and is small and light enough to carry easily, but with a screen that allows you to view full-size, standard Web pages. It can’t be too expensive – not as expensive as a laptop or tablet PC, for example – since I’ll be using it mainly around the house to collect e-mail, browse the Web and maybe stream media.
The N800, successor to Nokia’s first-generation Internet tablet, the N770 – and like the 770, a Linux device – meets all my basic requirements, including, at $400, price. It even adds some features I hadn’t thought too much about, like Internet phone calling and the nifty pop-out VGA video camera which can be used for video calling. But in the end it falls just short.
The problem is the screen. It’s excellent in most respects – wide aspect ratio, touch screen, high-resolution (800×480 pixels, up to 65,536 colors) – but it’s too small. It measures 4.1 inches diagonally, same as the N770.
Given that the N800 is an Internet Tablet, Web browsing is the most important application. The browsing experience had better be good. In many ways, it is. With a solid Wi-Fi connection, the unit’s processor pops Web pages up fairly quickly in the built-in Opera browser – not as fast as a good PC, but quicker than many PDAs. (Nokia doesn’t say what the processor is, but it’s rumored to be Texas Instruments’ OMAP 2420 SoC with a clock speed of 320MHz – significantly faster than the 770’s 220 MHz processor.)
On most pages, though, the body copy – the text in an article or a product description, for example – is too small to read easily without zooming in. And once you start zooming in, you’re back to the browsing problems experienced by PDA and smartphone users when they venture away from pages formatted especially for tiny screens – having to scroll horizontally and vertically to find the information you want on the page.
Nokia has deliberately sacrificed screen size for portability and price. And maybe, given current economics – the manufacturing cost of LCDs is still high – and the market’s taste for impossibly tiny devices, it was the only way to go. But I think a seven-inch or even eight-inch screen would be better for this kind of product. It would make the Web browsing and video viewing experiences infinitely better.
It would add cost and size, however. The N800 is a svelte 2.95 x 5.7 x 0.5 inches and weighs just 7.27 ounces – it fits in a shirt pocket. A device with a seven-inch screen and a similar size bezel and similar thickness would barely fit in a man’s jacket pocket.
The N800 improves on the 770 in a few areas. It adds the webcam and faster processor, positions the microphone better for Web phone calling, replaces a single MMC slot with two SD card slots, replaces the N770’s single speaker with integrated stereo speakers, adds a directional keypad for scrolling Web pages, and comes with a built-in stand. Nokia also increased RAM to 128MB from 64MB and internal flash memory to 256MB from 64MB.
On the software side, the N800, like the N770, is not quite a PDA. It does have a suite of tools and utilities that includes a calculator, clock, basic contact manager, sketch pad and note taker. (You input text either by handwriting with the stylus on the touchscreen and letting the handwriting recognition software convert it to text, or by typing on the whole-screen soft keyboard.) And more applications, including games, can be downloaded.
But the unit’s real purpose and strengths are as an Internet device. You can browse the Web more or less as you would on a PC – albeit with the noted differences arising from screen size. The N800 includes an adequate RSS feed reader. You can use Internet phone calling services, including GoogleTalk and GizmoProject (but not Skype at this point).
I tested the Internet phone functionality with GoogleTalk. It worked well, but the downloadable beta application from Nokia that lets a PC do video calls with an N800 is confusing and possibly buggy – I couldn’t get it to work. The included stereo earbuds are for listening to audio, not talking on the phone, so you can use the N800 as a speaker phone – and it works surprisingly well in this mode – or add a wired or Bluetooth headset (as I did) to improve Internet calling performance.
Using the browser and included Media Player application, you can stream audio and video from the Web, including a decent array of Web radio formats. The Media Player also plays audio and video and displays digital images stored in internal flash memory or on an SD card. You can load files on an SD card and stick it in the N800, or load files from a PC over the included USB cable.
The N800 will also supposedly play files stored on a UPnP (Universal Plug ‘n’ Play) media server on the same network. I was unable to test this. (My experience with other UPnP devices is that they do not all work together perfectly – the “universal” part is still a bit of a misnomer.)
Audio formats supported: AAC, AMR, MP2, MP3, RA (Real Audio), WAV, WMA. Web radio playlists formats: M3U, PLS (also MP3 stations such as ShoutCast). Video formats: 3GP, AVI, H.263, MPEG-1, MPEG-4, RV (Real Video). Image: BMP, GIF, ICO, JPEG, PNG, TIFF, SVG-tiny. (Not all variations on each of these, however – it wouldn’t play my WMA Lossless audio files, for example.)
As a media player, the N800 is pretty decent. The included earbuds are no help, but when I listened on a set of good Grado Labs hi-fi head phones, even audio streamed from a ShoutCast radio station at 128 Kbps sounded surprisingly good. I experienced no skipping or delays for rebuffering with streamed audio. Video stored on the device also looked very good – although, again, a bigger screen would improve the experience.
Video streamed from the Web was another story. Despite the seemingly generous array of formats supported, I tried several sites that would not work, either because the format was not supported by the N800 or, in at least one case, because the N800 operating system and browser were not supported by the site. With sites that did work, video was more apt to be choppy and blurred than when watching on a PC, presumably an indication that the device is a little underpowered for video.
The N800 improves the Nokia Internet Tablet platform on the software side with an updated Opera browser, better support for podcasts and improved connectivity software that remembers how you connected last time and connects automatically. Otherwise, the software bundle is similar to the N770’s.
Wi-Fi connectivity is obviously a vital function on this device. Once I remembered to add the N800’s IP address to the table of allowed MAC addresses in my router, it worked flawlessly every time. Bluetooth connectivity, which I tested with a Logitech Bluetooth headset, worked perfectly as well. It’s also possible to connect to a Bluetooth phone to get an Internet connection over the cellular network.
The interface is attractive and reasonably intuitive. I had some difficulty getting used to the handwriting recognition technology, however. It’s the only practical way of inputting Web addresses. I’m assuming my difficulties were largely because the Nokia technology is different from the Palm and Windows Mobile technologies with which I’m more familiar, and not necessarily because it’s inferior.
Bottom line: I like many things about the N800. It’s a nicely designed, very sleek and handsome device. But the Internet experience, largely because of screen size, is not quite good enough. Or, perhaps more to the point, it’s not sufficiently better than what you’d get with a PDA phone to warrant buying a device like this plus a phone.