Nokia's N800 Internet Tablet is one of those devices that's fascinating and unique enough to make a mobile geek's heart go pitter-patter with excitement, but may not fit the needs of a lot of people.
More powerful and refined than its predecessor, Nokia's 770 Internet Tablet, the N800 is a reasonably small device that's finely tuned to give users access to the Web, POP3 and IMAP e-mail, RSS feeds and, to a limited extent, instant messaging and voice over IP. It also plays audio and video, and performs a handful of other tricks for tech-savvy mobile users.
However, while the N800 is a significant improvement over its predecessor and it performs many of its tasks quite well, it is as much defined by what it doesn't do as what it does. On the whole, most gadget lovers would do better with a more flexible, less expensive smart phone.
A major improvement over the 770 is the N800's faster speed. It loads applications and Web pages much more quickly than before. It also has a slicker look and feel, with a silver faceplate and slightly less heft (it weighs 7.2 ounces and is about 5.7 inches by 3 inches in size and a half-inch thick). The N800 also has two slots for SD cards, making it useful as a media player, although one of the slots is hidden behind the battery cover and is a bit clumsy to get to.
As with the 770, the main form of connectivity with the N800 is Wi-Fi. In our tests, connecting to a Wi-Fi network with the N800 was as simple as connecting with a Windows XP laptop. Once connected, the N800 will automatically connect to the same network the next time. The device supports WEP, WPA 1 and WPA 2 wireless security. In addition to Wi-Fi, Nokia added dial-up networking support, enabling the use of a 3G-connected Bluetooth phone as a modem.
Like its predecessor, the N800 sports an extraordinarily beautiful and crisp 800 by 480 pixel, 65,000 colour display. Combined with the highly competent Opera browser and the speedier performance, the display made surfing the Web a pleasure.
Besides browsing, we also found the built-in e-mail client easy to set up and use. It was about as simple to use as Outlook Express or Mozilla Thunderbird. In short, this little handheld provides the best Internet experience we've had with a small mobile device. True, it's bigger and slightly thicker than the newest generation of smart phones, but it still is highly portable and supports most - though unfortunately not all - of the tasks users would want to accomplish while they're mobile.
Lots of input, good media
Part of the pleasure of using the N800 is its handy, interrelated forms of input. In particular, it provides two different types of on-screen keyboards as well as handwriting recognition.
Cleverly, the type of on-screen keyboard that appears depends on how you summon it. If you tap a text-entry box with the included stylus, a small on-screen keyboard appears that is appropriate for use with the stylus. If you touch the text-entry area with your finger, a larger keyboard appears on-screen that is more appropriate for digital use.
Or if you prefer, you can use handwriting recognition, which once was popular with PDAs. As has always been the case, the Nokia's handwriting recognition requires patience at first but becomes easier to use and more accurate over time. What's missing is the small thumb keyboard that has become so common with smart phones these days. But even without that keyboard, entering information, whether it's Web URLs or e-mail, is simple on the N800.
Beyond input, navigation is straightforward with two self-evident buttons to the left of the display. The top button is a standard five-way navigation button, while the bottom is a three-way button for returning to the previous screen, going to the home screen and viewing menus. Combined with on-screen navigation capabilities that often provide the same options, you can quickly learn to navigate the N800's interface.
Particularly with its two storage slots, which can have a total capacity of 4 Gbyte, the N800 also is a competent media player. You transfer files to the device simply by plugging the N800 into a USB port and dragging and dropping. We found its MP3 music playback in particular to be beautifully crisp, and the display shows still images quite nicely. Its video playback on clips stored on the machine was adequate - the faster processor helps a lot, although the image still occasionally stuttered.
But don't expect to use the N800 for streaming video. Our attempts to watch video clips streaming from YouTube, for instance, were a disaster, with broken, pixelated images the norm. Apparently, the faster processor is powerful enough to improve Web browsing and many other functions but still isn't robust enough to support both Wi-Fi and streaming video at the same time.
Although the N800 does a lovely job for a small mobile device of accessing the Web and personal e-mail, and provides excellent playback of media stored on the device, it is missing or has incomplete implementations of some other capabilities. Perhaps the most glaring omission is the inability to sync personal information - contacts, appointments and to-do lists - with a desktop PC.
It does have a built-in application for contacts, but you'll have to enter those contacts directly onto the device. Most mobile users will still need to carry their contacts and other personal information on a separate device.
And while VOIP would be a killer app on the N800, it is available only via Google Talk and Jabber. Nokia has publicly said a Skype client is under development for the N800, but it isn't available yet, so most users will still need to tote their cell phones for making and receiving phone calls. The same shortcoming is true with instant messaging: There's no AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger or Windows Live Messenger support.
Battery life is fair but not exceptional. It's rated at 3.5 hours of continual Web browsing over a Wi-Fi connection. A small but curious omission is that, while the built-in Bluetooth capabilities support a variety of profiles, the N800 does not support the A2DP profile for Bluetooth stereo headphones.
Does it add up?
At the core of the N800 is a conundrum: This device does a number of mobile tasks quite well, but it is missing other key capabilities. That means it won't replace your smart phone or laptop, yet at around £300, it is an expensive purchase given its limited functionality.
Nokia could easily bridge much of its functionality gap by including the ability to sync with desktop personal information applications such as Microsoft Outlook. Since the device is based on Linux, there certainly is the potential for additional applications to be available. In fact, a list of currently available add-on applications is available at Maemo.org. But Nokia should include key applications and not expect them to be available separately.
Given its lack of built-in functionality and the fact that the N800 is at least twice as expensive as many leading-edge smart phones, such as Samsung's Blackjack or even Nokia's own E62, the N800 is a tough sell. It is one of those devices that is genuinely fun to use but difficult to justify buying.
Although it's great to use, the Nokia N800 is difficult to cost-justify. There are too many things missing for it to replace existing devices, and its £300 price makes it a serious rather than frivolous purchase.