When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

08 April 2007

Review: Nokia N800 Internet Tablet

My dad, of blessed memory, always used to say "you can tell a man from a boy by the price of his toys."

This one's for you, Pop.

Let's say you've bought into the notion that "the Internet is the computer." Much of the information you use in your daily life is either online or is accessible from there; you're wired to the max at work and at home, you've got a Wi-Fi equipped laptop, maybe you've also got a BlackBerry or PDA, and in short you are, IP-wise at least, extremely well-connected.

You succumbed to an early case of iPhone lust, but then you started thinking about it: Do you really want your mobile telephone, your iPod, and a small-form Internet tablet all in the same device? What's the battery life going to be like on that bad boy if you're using it for all three purposes? Do you really want a single point of failure for all three functions?

I already have a nice, rugged, compact cellphone that pulls a great signal and, you know, makes and receives phone calls. That's truly all I want out of a cellphone. It does those things just fine.

I doubt that anyone is going to improve, any time soon, on the form factor, the ease of use, or the bang for the buck of Apple's 8GB iPod Nano. Even Apple.

And I certainly don't have a burning desire to get sucked into an expensive monthly data-rate plan on a two-year contract with AT&T as a precondition of spending $500-700 on an iPhone when it comes out.

But, you know, the "Internet device in the small-but-usable" form factor is still very attractive. Cellphone screens are just too small for extended Internet use, but there are times when you don't want to be lugging a laptop around with you.

The clever Finns at Nokia have an answer to this dilemma.

Meet the N800 Internet Tablet (retail price $399, street price $375 or so).

nokia n800 clipped
Meet the solution.

If you're usually near a WiFi hotspot (in New York City, I'm rarely more than a hundred yards from one, and my office and apartment building are thoroughly saturated) this might be the device of your dreams.

The specs (full details here): The N800 runs an embedded variant of Linux (really), gets its Internet access via WiFi (although it's also capable of matching up with your Bluetooth-enabled cellphone), weighs about seven ounces, is roughly three inches tall by six wide, and half an inch thick. and has a nice, bright wide screen for your webular activities, plus a built-in webcam for still pictures and videoconferencing.

Comparative sizes (an Altoids tin, an N800, and a 13" Macbook)

Comparative Sizes
Three geekly things.

It ships with the Opera web browser; a dedicated RSS reader; e-mail and chat clients; a media player (audio/video) and a host of similar tools; you can also download all kinds of third-party software for it already, including Gizmo (and soon, Skype) if you'd like to use the tablet as a Voice Over IP (VOIP) telephone.

The resolution on the wide, bright touchscreen is an astounding 800 x 480; if you have a pair of middle-aged eyes, rocker switches on the top of the device makes zooming in and out for easier reading a breeze.

Data entry is in three modes: handwriting recognition, which works okay, and two different sizes of virtual keyboard, one that works well with the included stylus, and one that works well with my fat fingertips.

Rated battery life is about four hours of constant use or ten days of standby; in practice, due to Nokia's excellent power management features, I can use the device on and off all day long without recharging, and that's all I really care about.

Some screenshots (click to enlarge them all)

Here's the "default" view when you turn the device on; you can select applets to be displayed on the main screen. I've got a Google search window, an RSS news feed, a streaming audio control with my favorite Internet radio stations, a clock/calendar and a media player ready to go.

Main screen
Basic view.

A web browser-view in full screen mode:

Web browser
Web browser.

And yes, it really is Linux under the hood. Shell window screengrab, showing virtual keyboard in stylus-size:


(Xterm not included in the base configuration, but geeks will quickly make their way to Maemo.org, where this and many other Linux-related goodies can be found.)

The only downside, so far: there are very competent text editors, and even a port of the GNU spreadsheet application, but there is currently not any way to edit (or even reliably read) Microsoft Office documents on the N800.

With improved browser support coming, however (a port of Mozilla Minimo is actively in the works) offering access to online applications like Zoho or Google Docs, this problem will soon be solved.

I've had my N800 for about a week now, and after putting it through its paces, it has earned itself a permanent place in the manbag.

And now that the FAA has given the greenlight to WiFi on airplanes (some US carriers may be rolling that out as soon as early 2008), this will be the device that I whip out if I want to get a little work done in my coach seat.

Related: Ecstatic review of the N800 in The Inquirer

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