Technology

Nokia's New and Novel N800


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Editor's Rating: star rating

This ultra-mobile PC has cool features, such as easy Web access and online calling, and is a snap to use, but it only works with certain handsets

Before embarking on a series of reviews of the family of electronics devices known as ultra-mobile PCs, it's worth noting that there's much debate over exactly what an ultra-mobile PC is. Nearly every device claiming to belong to the category is different. They range in size from as big as a laptop to as small as a large-sized Personal Digital Assistant. Processing power, memory, and the range of features are all over the map, too. Some boast Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows, while others feature the open-source Linux operating system.

None of that's stopping us from testing a gaggle of gadgets that fit the ultra-mobile PC bill, one way or another—from the Nokia N800 to almost full-sized tablet PCs like the TabletKiosk eo. Define them how you will, they share key characteristics, including wireless connectivity, touch screens, and a relatively small size.

I'm kicking off the series with a look at the N800, whose PDA-like size and $399 price tag leave it at the smaller and less expensive end of the spectrum. Unveiled by Nokia on Jan. 8, it's a follow-up on Nokia N770, released in 2005 and offers tons of enhancements over a system that was widely criticized for limited memory and slow performance due to a weak processor. The new N800 rectifies many of these problems, using a faster processor and more internal memory. It can also take several different external memory cards, including MultiMediaCard and SD cards.

Easy Web Access

Too bad some of the N770's drawbacks carried through. The new model is designed to access the Web via Wi-Fi connections or a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. But it only pairs up with certain handsets—it didn't work with my version of Motorola's RAZR, and while Nokia says it will work with other versions of the popular cell phone, the company wouldn't provide a full list of compatible devices. And its battery life remains low, at a little over two hours when in use. Another flaw: Its touch screen seemed to attract and keep smudges.

Anyone buying a mobile PC has to decide exactly what role they want it to play vis-à-vis computers on one end and a cell phone on the other. The Nokia N800 is pocket-sized and easy to carry, so it can come in handy if you want to check e-mail, skim a PDF file, send an Instant Message, or call a friend via Google Talk without firing up your laptop. It's also a good option if you don't want to squint at your phone's smaller screen. But cell phone screens are getting larger, so mobile devices, especially touch-screen models from Apple (AAPL) and LG, might soon wipe out the need for a device like N800.

For now, though, the N800 has one major advantage over many such rivals. Because it can use a Wi-Fi connection, the tablet allows for easy Web use and Web calling from public hotspots. And the viewing experience is better than that of most of today's phones. The device has many cool video capabilities. You can download video wirelessly, or by hooking up to your computer's USB port. Video looks very sharp and crisp, and it's easy to watch on the N800's landscape-oriented screen used with a pull-out stand that works like a picture frame. That certainly makes for more comfortable video viewing—though I'll concede my eyes got tired very quickly looking at the N800 screen, even with the device's great zoom-in functions.

Hunt and Peck

If you like video conference calling, you'll love the N800's Web camera—a tubelike eye that pops out when you press a button on the left side of the device. But though it looks very sci-fi, video quality was hazy and wore down the battery quickly. Pesky smudges didn't make video-viewing any better, either.

The N800 touch screen can be navigated with a stylus or finger, though I found the stylus to be more responsive. Still, I was disappointed that hardware buttons needed firm pressing and I often couldn't complete a task just with a touch of the stylus. That made certain functions hard to call up easily, or with one hand.

Other controls were much easier to use. Since the device is based on Linux, its interface doesn't look anything like the familiar Windows, and I was initially thrown off. But after tinkering for about an hour, I felt comfortable using a range of features, including listening to Web radio, performing Google searches, e-mailing friends, dashing off Instant Messages, and viewing PDF files.

Pop-Up Keyboard

Nokia did an outstanding job designing and choosing applications. All of the applications boast thoughtful details that make using them a pleasure, and a superior experience to what's available on mainstream computers. I found managing RSS feeds, often a cumbersome task, a breeze.

If you're reading a PDF file, you can hold the stylus to the screen to have a window pop up and inquire if you would like to send the file to someone via e-mail. And if you use N800's sketch program, you can easily send your squiggle to a friend. These helpful features were really nice to have.

Dim Recognition

I want to particularly dwell on the gadget's typing features. The keyboard seems to pop up, magically, just when you need it: I went into Google, tapped on the search box—and, voila, there it was. What I loved is that I could, if I wanted to, expand the keyboard to take up the whole screen, which made for very convenient typing.

One gripe, though: N800's handwriting recognition needs work. The device kept mistaking my "4" for a comma, for example. My writing isn't that bad. You can teach the N800 to learn to recognize your handwriting, though, but the process requires you to input each letter the way you write it and takes an awful lot of time. I doubt a lot of users would bother.

In all, the N800 is a feature-packed and mostly easy-to-use device.

Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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