N800 first thoughts…

In early December I ordered a Nokia N800 internet tablet from Play.com for the bargain price of £150 (it was later reduced to £139 – I got a £20 refund – but it’s currently listed at £169. Play.com seemed to have trouble getting hold of stock as it took about 5 weeks to arrive but after our first few weeks together, read on for my first impressions.

N800 and bluetooth keyboard

As a web browser…
…It’s very capable. The new 2008 Operating System has a full Mozilla based browser so it has no problems coping with css/javascript/ajax etc. It can also display flash, but video (e.g. Youtube) is choppy. The screen fits 800 pixels across its width which works well for most pages, and the device has hardware buttons for zooming in and out of the page when required. You can also drag anywhere on the page to scroll – it’s not quite responsive enough to impress Apple fans but it works well enough. The wi-fi signal strength is excellent. In fact whilst away over Christmas and “borrowing” a neighbour’s bandwidth the wireless reception outperformed my HP laptop.

As an email device…

…Again it scores highly. The preloaded email client handles plain text and html emails flawlessly. I’d liken it to Outlook Express in terms of functionality – okay it’s fairly basic and I wouldn’t want to use it as my primary email device but it’s certainly adequate for keeping me in touch when I’m away from home.

As a VOIP/IM client…
…I was impressed that the 2008 OS comes with a Skype client, which whilst I haven’t used it extensively it seemed to perform well enough. It doesn’t support video calls (yet) which is a shame as the N800 has a nifty pop out webcam on the side. I’ve also installed the Pidgin universal IM client which works with AIM/MSN/Yahoo messenger/ICQ and others and provides the basic text chat with support for smileys (at least on MSN). It also has a menu option for “File Transfers” although I’ve yet to try out that feature.

As an RSS reader…
…It works quite well. If I don’t sound convinced it’s probably because RSS has been my main use of the N800 so far and as a result I’m perhaps more critical. I initially imported an OPML file of all my feeds from my desktop reader but have since cut it down to only my most read feeds because although the performance at navigating between feeds was fine, it seems quite slow to update a large set: it first displays a progress bar saying “refreshing” which takes quite a while even over a decent wi-fi connection, but when that completes it then starts a new progress bar saying that it’s “loading” the updates. Perhaps it’s because I only update once every couple of days so there are a lot of updates to download, or perhaps it’s because it displays the progress so proiminently rather than just getting on with it in the background but I certainly think there’s room for improvement here.

As a media player…

…I’ve got a 4GB SD card in the internal memory slot so I figured I could load it up with MP3s and video podcasts to it as a media player. As a video player it’s pretty good because the screen is fantastic. I’ve converted a couple of chapters from a DVD and think I could watch a 30min to 1hour show quite comfortably. There are a couple of media player apps and it’s fair to say that none of these are finished products. Canola and UKMP look great but are lacking in terms of features to let you navigate the library easily. UKMP has a nice album art view with kinetic scrolling which is a lovely novelty but I can’t help thinking that it’s trying too hard to to copy the iPhone/touch shiny UI without getting the basics right.

As a gaming device…
…Okay so it’s not a gaming device – the hardware keys aren’t well positioned for games. But it does run MAME and Space Invaders is just as good as it ever was :-)

N800 running MAME

As a business tool…
I didn’t buy this to use for work, but a lot of people probably will and I’d have to say that for business use it really doesn’t make the grade. I haven’t found any way to sync my calendar or contacts with Outlook (which I’d like to be able to do even as a personal/entertainment device). As far as I can tell it doesn’t do Blackberry style exchange email either. The onscreen keyboard is pretty good – it can be shown at two different sizes and has a predictive mode that will suggest words before you finish typing them. I’m currently typing this blog entry on the N800 but using a folding iGo Bluetooth keyboard. The iGo works pretty well, there’s an ever so slight lag between hitting a key and it appearing on screen but you soon get used to it (at least I did, and I type at about 35 words/min). However, occasionally (about 4 times so far while typing this), it’s as if a key gets stuck and you end up with 3 full lines of the same character before you can figure out how to make it stop. That would soon get annoying if I were to do a lot of typing. I also haven’t seen any built in document viewer for word/excel/powerpoint (or even a decent text editor) although I haven’t checked for 3rd party apps yet either. I couldn’t use it if I was out of the office for long periods but I could probably manage without my laptop for the odd day.

In summary…

To be fair, Nokia pitch the N800 as an “Internet Tablet” so you’d expect it to be a good web browser, and it is. It’s capable at many of the other things it can do although certainly not best in class. Why didn’t I go down the apple route? Well, the iPhone is too expensive for the hardware spec and I don’t want to be tied into an 18month contract. I was tempted by the iPod Touch but think I’ll wait to see what the official SDK brings. For me the N800 is appealing because it’s open and hackable from the start and well supported by the community. The new N810 is an expensive alternative when a slide-out keyboard and GPS are the main extras but for around £130 the N800 is a great device if you can live with some of the shortcomings.

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