Nokia N800: Not really for the rest of us (yet)

In my quest to become totally platform agnostic and mobile, I decided to give the new Nokia N800 internet tablet a spin. The N800 is an interesting and hard to classify device manufactured by Nokia, purveyor of mobile phones. Dubbed an ‘internet tablet’, this second generation device is primarily aimed at the mobile user who is looking for a feature rich internet experience while on the go. The N800 is NOT a phone, it is also NOT (yet) a fully fledged PDA…but it has the potential to be both. Fitted with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities, the N800 can access the internet via Wi-Fi connections as well as through Bluetooth enabled phones. There have been several excellent reviews done on the device already (MoblieCrunch and Spicy Gadget Roll), instead of reiterating much of the same, I’ll suggest you read those posts to get a good perspective of the device’s strengths.

My Experience

I’ve had my N800 for three weeks now, and have used it in many locations, including at home, at my office, and on the road at airports, hotels, and nearly everywhere in between. Three weeks is not an awfully long time to run a comprehensive test of a new ‘category creator’ device, but I’m pretty comfortable in saying that the N800 is a wonderfully built device that isn’t really for the rest of us, yet. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that Nokia is on to something here. I just think that they are a generation, or two, away from achieving mass appeal for the internet tablet genre.

What works

Nokia has built a rock solid, elegant device in the N800. Having learned from its predecessor, the N770, Nokia polished not only the look of the N800, but also improved the usability of the form factor by adding touches like the integrated stand and a much improved stylus. The addition of a built in, rotating, camera has made possible to have a mobile video messaging tool right in your pocket. Speaking of pockets, the device is reasonably small, certainly bigger than my Treo 700p, but it can fit in a coat pocket or a pair of cargo pants with ease. Besides for improving the form factor, Nokia also integrated stereo speakers that are surprisingly good. After retracting the camera and stand, the only protrusions on the outer shell are four small buttons on the top of the unit. Three of these buttons are squarely focused on the browsing experience. While web surfing, you can expand the built-in Opera browser to full screen mode, and further zoom in or out on a page with these buttons. Other applications, like the music player, take advantage of these buttons for volume control. A fourth button is the power on-off switch. The N800 is an ‘instant on’ device, which makes it incredibly useful when you’re on the go.

The built in software, for the most part, works quite well. Being a connected device, the most important software elements are the ones that let you connect without hassle. The N800’s Wi-Fi connection software works very well, connecting you to trusted Wi-Fi locations almost the instant you turn the device on. Bluetooth connections to my cell phone also were quick. There are several core applications pre-loaded on the system that also are nicely designed. A simple RSS feed reader does the job, as does a media player that can stream music from the web. There is also an email client included that provides pop3 or IMAP access to email. Chat is another core function that Nokia delivers out of the box. Using either Google Talk or Jabber, you can chat with friends in a standard text mode, or with the feature rich video and sound mode. Both modes work as advertised. As I mentioned above, Nokia chose to go with the Opera browser for this unit. Opera is functional, however it doesn’t work with many popular websites (I’ll discuss that in the next section).

Along with the online applications mentioned above, Nokia also ships several offline utilities, a very basic contacts manager, a calculator, a world clock, a note taking application, a simple sketching tool, and a PDF document reader (there are several games as well). These applications are simple, arguably too simple, for extensive use.

What doesn’t work

While there is a lot to like about this device, there are enough frustrations with it that I can’t find myself using it all that often. First, and this is a problem for us left handed people, the control buttons are clearly positioned for right handed users. The natural way to interact with the tablet is to hold a stylus in your right hand (to type or point on the screen) and use your left hand to click the navigation buttons while holding the tablet. The device buttons are on the left side of the N800, which is a natural configuration for right handers…not so much for us lefties. Given the landscape style layout of the N800, I’m really not sure what Nokia could have done to remedy this problem, but it does make it difficult to use for an extended period of time. I suspect this design consideration would have forced Nokia into a portrait layout, much like the Palm or Microsoft PocketPC devices. By going to a portrait layout, Nokia would have compromised browsing usability – the key functionality of the device. I’m not sure how much of a hindrance this will be for wide user adoption, but it certainly makes it more difficult to use for left handers.

Second, Opera (or the current version of Opera on the N800) is awfully buggy. Ok, it may not be that Opera is buggy, rather many of the websites that I visit on a regular basis do not behave well with Opera. There are some sites, most notably Google Calendar (and Google Docs & Spreadsheets), that just do not work with Opera. There are other sites that cause unpredictable lockups and other behavior when accessed via Opera. When I first got the N800 I was particularly excited about being able to access my deployment of SugarCRM on the fly. Unfortunately, Sugar tends to gum-up the browser to the point that Opera locks up. Based on a recent interview with the head of Nokia’s N800 software effort, Opera compatibility issues will be addressed sometime this year. Let’s hope they expand compatibility to include the major Ajax/Lazlo centric websites that we’re becoming more reliant on. The real fix would be to move over to a Firefox (Mozilla) based browser.

Third, and has been extensively written about, many flash enabled sites – including YouTube – grind the N800 to a halt. From what I gather this may just be an issue of optimizing Flash for the N800, so this may be fixed in short order.

Fourth, I know that the N800 is not really a PDA/Smartphone, but the inability to synchronize my key contacts, calendar, and task information makes this device much less useful that I expected. Dr. Ari Jaaski heads up the Nokia software effort and is quick to point out that the core concept of an internet tablet is to have access to online applications, and not necessarily for extensive offline use. In a totally connected world, I would agree to this premise. We are however, not yet in a totally connected world. Given the modest battery life, 3-4 hours while connected, total online dependence on this device is anyway impractical. Also, with limited pocket space and a need to have access to key information, the device needs to have solid PIM capabilities if I’m going to carry it around all day.

Finally, the lack of a built-in keyboard really makes extended text entry difficult on the N800. Like others, I have had success using my Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard to craft lengthy emails on the device, but trying to thumb in more than an sentence or two on the on-screen keyboard is not easy, nor is it accurate. I think this is inherently a problem of keyboards that lack tactile feel. To be sure, the touch screen itself is not to blame here, it is as responsive as you’d want it to be on a device like this. It is just awkward to use on a regular basis. By the way, I think will be the biggest issue with Apple’s iPhone too. Nokia may have built a better device if they had incorporated a slide down keyboard. Given the ‘bump’ on the backside that accommodates the camera and stylus, adding incremental depth to the unit by adding a slide down keyboard would have made it much more useful.

Open standards will transform this device

Arguably the best decision that Nokia made while designing the internet tablet platform was to build it on open standards, not on some locked (Apple iPhone) or proprietary system. Nokia could have crippled adoption of this device had it chosen its own Symbian platform. By choosing Linux, Nokia has tapped into a strong developer base that already is cranking out some great software. Nokia has clearly made a commitment to this platform, and I’m sure that the developer base will take the platform’s functionality far beyond what Nokia has envisioned. As I mentioned before, I hope this means that we’ll see a solid PIM and Firefox sometime soon for the device.

Final thoughts

The N800 reminds me of two other devices I’ve used in the past. The first was the original PalmPilot. I bought one of those within a month of its release and could immediately tell that it would be a transformational device. Palm, in all of its incarnations, nurtured a developer base that helped Palm change the future of mobile computing. Palm’s hardware was simple, and operating system easy to design for. Both of those factors made for a killer combination. It has gotten stale of late, but the PalmOS still remains a juggernaut in the Smartphone world. The N800 has the ingredients of being a truly transformational device, too.

The other device I’m reminded of is the Sharp Zaurus. Like this Nokia, the Zaurus platform was designed with a Linux core. Like the N800, the Zaurus had a solid group of early-adopter developers designing useful applications. Hopefully, unlike Sharp with the Zaurus, Nokia’s internet tablet platform will continue to grow and prosper in a manner that resembles Palm’s trajectory, not the now-discontinued Zaurus.

In the end, I’m not sure that the N800 will be a ‘runaway’ success. I don’t even think that Nokia expects it to be a runaway success. All that Nokia needs to do is to nurture the developer community, much like Palm, and continue to update the hardware with things like better battery life and a real keyboard option. Until the Microsoft UMPC based systems shrink in size, Nokia will have the internet tablet space to itself. With the rapid expansion of ubiquitous internet connectivity, the internet tablet, or computer, concept is here to stay.

6 thoughts on “Nokia N800: Not really for the rest of us (yet)

  1. Just a note that the device appears compatible with ‘foldaway’ blue tooth keyboards. Nokia even offer one of their own brand for sale as an n800 accessory.

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  2. The UMPC seems to be an answer to a question nobody asked… I’m not sure how they’re supposed to fit in… Especially now with devices like the iPhone pointing the way to truly mobile computing. I can’t agree more that the closed platform of the iPhone was a bad decision. I think Nokia can perfect the mobile phone/computer if anyone can – but the N800 seems like a bit of a waste of time.

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  3. Hotel Guy – I think the N800 is a good attempt at moving to true mobile connectivity. The evolution is clearly underway with iPhone. The problem with both, in my opinion, is that they are still early stage solutions and lack the necessary ingredients (a real keyboard for example) to assure mass market success.

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