Noah's Nokia N810 Silver review

Published: April 20, 2008

What's Good: Stylish, compact design with large touchscreen and full QWERTY keyboard; Excellent build quality; Extendable Linux-based operating system backed by Nokia-supported developer community; Ships with Skype and Rhapsody clients installed; Excellent Web browser supports Web 2.0 technologies; WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity; Great for mobile bloggers, early adopters/would-be hackers, and Linux fans

What's Not Good: Touchscreen isn't responsive enough and can be hard to use even with stylus; Top row of QWERTY board is cramped, and all keys are mushy to type on; No Stereo Bluetooth support; Overall experience isn't ready for mainstream consumers; Pricey

Bottom Line: Nokia's making steps to evolve the N-Series tablets from 'strictly for geeks? to ?consumer friendly gadgets.?  The N810 - and newly launched N810 WiMax Edition - represent another step in that evolution, but this is still an Internet device for geeks and not mainstream consumers.  To be fair, it's those geeky early adopters who comprise Nokia's intended audience for the N810.

Specs:
Make/Model: Nokia N810 Internet Tablet
Network: None (WiMax Edition will be compatible with Sprint's forthcoming XOHM service)
Data: WiFi 802.11b/g, Bluetooth connectivity for use with cell phone as modem
Carrier: Unlocked
Size: 72 x 128 x 14 mm
Weight: 226 g
Form Factor: Candy bar with Horizontal Slide-Out QWERTY Board
Display: 4.13? Color LCD display: 800 x 480 (WVGA) resolution, 65,000 Colors
Memory:  128 MB RAM, 2GB built-in storage, miniSD card slot
Notable Features: Linux-Based Internet Tablet OS is extendable and customizable; Web browser supports Web 2.0 functionality including AJAX and Flash 9; GPS with maps and navigation support; Front camera with video calling support; Skype and Rhapsody support; Audio and Video player supports local and streaming media

Nokia N810 Internet Tablet


Introduction

When Nokia launched their N810 Internet Tablet at the Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco last Fall, they made no bones about its intended audience.  Nokia execs laid out a five step plan for the N-Series tablets that began with launching the N770 in late 2005 to the geekiest of early adopters and will eventually progress to a fully mainstream, consumer-friendly mobile Internet device a few years down the line from now.  N810 is a step along that path that features significant upgrades and refinements over the N770 and N800 that preceded it, but it's in no way a device for the mainstream consumer - at least not by American consumer standards.

What the N810 is is a sleek, pocketable Linux-based computer with a lean, developer-friendly operating system ? Internet Tablet 2008 OS is backed by a Nokia-supported community of enthusiasts creating all sorts of applications for it.  N810 is a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled computer, and not a cell phone, though it comes with Skype pre-installed for VoIP calling.  The newly minted WiMax Edition also carries with it the promise of mobile broadband and low-cost Internet-based phone calls on the go.  N810 is a thin, attractive, and very well built device that adds a hardware keyboard and upgraded OS to the otherwise similar N800. 

Nokia N810 Internet Tablet

While the tablet's operating system and pre-installed applications work well and won't be confusing to Nokia's intended audience (early adopters), they don't provide a consumer-ready out of box experience.  As such, there are really two ways to look at the N810: 

- First, from the perspective of what it is right now: a gadget for gadget hounds.  N810 is a really well-made pocket Linux device that offers a lot to the tinkerer excited by the prospect of customizing the heck out of it and then carrying it around town in his pocket.

- Second, from the perspective of what it is relative to Nokia's roadmap for tablet devices and in comparison to competitors? products currently on the market.  N810 offers a combination of price point, hardware (display size, QWERTY keyboard), and functionality that's unmatched in the marketplace right now.  But its overall out-of-box experience pales in comparison to the one offered by what might be its most direct competitor, Apple's iPod Touch.  N810 does more than Touch, but Apple's handheld Web and media device does what it does at higher level than N810, and is far more consumer-friendly overall. 


Before you cry foul at that second assessment, remember that it's made in light of Nokia's overall consumer roadmap for their line of tablets - they've got a long way to go to hit their stated final goal of mainstream adoption.  But they know that and publicly acknowledge that N810 is still aimed at early adopters, not consumers looking for a portable Web tablet/media player.  So in a way it's not fair to compare Apples and oranges - or, rather, Nokias - here.


Design & Features

N810 is fashioned primarily from metal, finished in a smooth two-tone grey color scheme, and is a sharp looking piece of hardware an understated, luxurious sort of way.  By way of comparison, the device measures up at 72 x 128 x 14 mm and 190g, or slightly larger and considerably heavier than an AT&T Tilt, which is just about the bulkiest smartphone currently offered by a US carrier.  But N810 has a 4-plus inch screen and remarkably slim profile, and so the overall effect is that of a device that packs a lot into a small space, and carries with it the heft of a well-built machine.  The tablet exhibited no creaks, loose joints, or flimsy parts of any sort in my testing.  Kudos to Nokia's industrial designers in that regard.

Nokia N810 Internet Tablet

The first thing N800 users will notice about the N810 is the slide-out QWERTY board.  For my money, this addition makes the N810 a much more usable - and marketable - device, especially considering the touchscreen's performance, which we?ll get to in a bit.  Typing on the QWERTY board isn't as great as it should be, though.  The device remains nicely balanced in hand with the board extended, and the buttons are large and nicely rounded, which makes them easy to find and move across with thumbs.  But actually using the keys to write an Email or blog post was less than satisfying thanks to rather mushy key action.  Also, Nokia arranged the keys in a grid instead of the offset pattern that people are more used to from computer keyboards (and typewriters, for you old-timers). Most smartphones default to this straight grid arrangement, but I personally find the few that use an offset layout to be noticeably easier to use over the long haul.

The QWERTY layout's buttons are almost all double or triple-mapped, which makes the most of limited space.  There's also a five-way D-Pad and dedicated Menu key located on the left-side of the sliding panel, which struck me as a bit odd considering that most people are righties and so might prefer to man the navigational controls with their right thumbs.

With the QWERTY board slid shut, N810 is basically a web tablet built around a 4.13? WVGA touchscreen display.  The screen's 800 x 480 resolution yields more pixels than all but the most exotic of smartphones - far more than iPod Touch's 480 x 320 display - and provides ample real estate for full-on Web browsing and video watching.  For some reason the panel tops out at 65,000 colors and not the 262k or 16 Million afforded by some of Nokia's phones.  The 65K limitation resulted in color banding across gradients, but only once in a great while.  Display brightness is regulated by an ambient light sensor located on front panel just above a VGA camera designated primarily for Web conferencing applications. 

There are two buttons on the front of the device and four more - along with a sliding lock switch, multi-function indicator light and stylus slot - along the top panel.  These six keys control volume, zoom/full screen image modes, power on/off, and some navigational features.  Most of what you?ll do with the N810 you can do via the touchscreen; the buttons are mainly there as hardware shortcuts for oft-used tasks, like switching between full screen mode and the application menu.  The full screen button, in particular, was super-responsive and handy for reading long blog posts and articles on the Web without any screen clutter from the OS's menus.

The bottom panel of the device houses a spring-loaded battery latch and a miniSD memory card slot protected by a tethered plastic cap.  On the N810's sides you?ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack, miniUSB and AC adapter ports, and side-firing stereo speakers, and there's an integrated microphone hidden in there somewhere.  Front-firing speakers would have provided a better stereo audio experience, but the side-mount design is a decent compromise between form and function.  An integrated kickstand props the tablet upright on a table at your choice of three viewing angles (great for watching videos) and folds flush against the back panel when not in use.

N810 comes pre-loaded with a suite of applications that make good use of its efficient hardware design.  The Mozilla-based Web browser can handle full Flash 9 and Web 2.0 content, so you can watch YouTube videos, check your Gmail, and otherwise do most of what you?re used to doing in a desktop-class browser.  A Skype client makes use of the Webcam, microphone, and speakers for Web-based voice and videoconferencing.  Nokia Maps utilizes the internal GPS chip, and a car mount is included so you can dock N810 on your dashboard and use it like a standalone GPS unit, which is a thoughtful touch (Wayfinder navigation works with the device but requires a paid subscription).  The preloaded media player can handle almost all varieties of audio and video tracks and streaming content, and if the 2GB of internal memory isn't enough for all of your multimedia content, you've got that miniSD port at your service.

Nokia N810 Internet Tablet

Really, the N810 packs an enormous amount of functionality into such a small device.  About the only thing missing here is a cellular radio, though Nokia makes it clear that the N810 was made to tether via Bluetooth to your 3G-enabled Nokia cell phone for Net access without a WiFi connection.  Again, geeky-cool but not necessarily for Joe Consumer.  The N810's $479 MSRP price tag slots it somewhere in the neighborhood of high-end smartphones and ultraportable notebook computers like the ASUS eePC.

 

 


Usability & Performance

I think it's worth it to look at usability and performance on the N810 from those two different perspectives I mentioned earlier - gadget hound early adopter and mainstream consumer.  The hardware side of things is actually the same for both groups: the tablet overall is slick and nice, but the QWERTY board and touchscreen could still benefit from a little work.  The touchscreen's big enough that I wanted to work it with a fingertip, but it plays much nicer with the included stylus.  Though the Internet Tablet 2008 OS is being marketed as ?finger friendly,? I think that's a bit of a stretch.  I found success tapping large icons with my finger, but quickly grew frustrated trying to scroll through Web pages or type on the virtual keyboard with my digits - fingertips worked with for sweeping click-and-drag style movements, but that's about it.  A switch to the stylus helped matters considerably.

But even with the stylus I found the device to be a bit less responsive overall than I?d expected.  Web page scrolling wasn't always smooth, and I encountered a lot of what I call the ?Fake TiVO? effect:  The Comcast DVR I have at home tends to get overtaxed and then won't respond when I press buttons on the remote.  I?ll then grow impatient and click a few more times even though I know I shouldn't.  The DVR eventually catches up to me and registers/executes all of my clicks at once, usually resulting in an unwanted fast forward through my TV show, or jump to a menu I didn't mean to jump to.  The N810 did a similar thing a little too often, not responding to my multiple stylus taps for a few moments only to then register them all at once, often landing me on a Web page - or part thereof - I really didn't mean to go to.

Nokia N810 Internet Tablet

Early Adopter's Perspective:
N810's operating system is clean, functional, and easy to navigate if you?re used to fiddling with computers and gadgets.  The dedicated application menu button makes it quick to cycle between open apps, and I liked the ability to close background-running programs from this menu without having to call them to the fore.  Nokia's suite of pre-installed software works quite well, the Web browser in particular.  Between full Flash 9 and AJAX support and the 800 pixel-wide display, the N810 can do more on the Web than basically any device this side of an ultraportable laptop computer.  The slide-out QWERTY board makes it that much easier to interact with Web 2.0 sites like Google Docs, and no special URLs or workarounds are needed to watch YouTube videos or play online Flash games.

Beyond the pre-installed stuff, though, the real appeal of the N810 is the support Nokia is giving its developers? community.  At the risk of repeating it once too often, Nokia views the N810 as an early step on the road towards a consumer Web tablet.  So they?re making the platform as open as possible and nurturing a community to extend the OS and write applications for it.  They've made no bones about juxtaposing this ?Open is Good? strategy squarely against Apple's ?We Control Your Experience? stance.  The result is good for geeks as it encourages interaction with the device, with the folks at Nokia, and with a community of like-minded programmers and tinkerers. 

I tried out a few third party N810 apps, including a media player designed around large, finger-friendly icons.  Generally speaking I was impressed with the progress already being made by devs looking to play to the tablet's strengths and find ways around its limitations ? like building a media player with giant buttons to compensate for a touchscreen that isn't as good with fingertips as it could be.  I?m not a developer myself, but if I was I?d be very interested to apply some Linux chops to this emerging platform that Nokia clearly sees as the future of always with you connected computing.  There's serious potential here for VoIP calling, location-aware services and lots more once the WiMax dream becomes reality here in the U.S.

Nokia N810 Internet Tablet

Average Consumer's Perspective:
N810 isn't for the average consumer.  It's just too complicated to set up and use for anything beyond basic Web browsing and media playing, and any number of dedicated portable media players are easier to use, have more onboard storage, and are less expensive than N810.  The device's reliance on community development and open source software is great for its intended audience, but Nokia is banking on that community yielding a crop of slick, consumer-friendly apps before they go pushing this thing at Best Buy and Target. 

Compare N810 to iPod Touch.  N810 has the Apple device beat hands-down in terms of specs and functionality, save for Touch's internal storage capacity and the multitouch abilities of its display, which is actually key to its overall consumer-grade superiority.  Apple spent years refining both the best touch screen in the business and a custom user interface to go with it, and it shows.  The device is built around the experience of picking it up and touching it and it works very well.  While N810's touchscreen is bigger than Touch's, the experience of navigating a Web page or picking a song on Touch's display is better.  Touch responds instantly to finger flicks - N810 has a tendency to stutter in response to stylus pokes.  Yes, once you've got your content loaded up, N810 offers more pixels across a physically larger screen.  And it plays nicer with more kinds of Web pages and media files.  But I fear consumers would give up on N810 after a few moments with it on a store display, whereas the same time with iPod Touch would likely leave them considering an impulse purchase.

Nokia is all about open platforms and customizable, extendable devices run off of user interfaces that are clean and functional, if not full of elegance and eye candy.  This could well speak to why their mobile phones haven't yet achieved the sort of success in the U.S. that they have in Europe and elsewhere.  Nokia N-Series smartphones run on Symbian Series 60, a platform adored by devotees for its power and expandability.  The S60-powered N75 was something of a flop when Cingular/AT&T picked it up in the States last year.  Despite being one of the most capable, feature-packed handsets in the carrier's lineup, people found it confusing and unattractive.

Personally I've long been a Nokia fan and enjoy playing with their S60 phones.  Though it's built around an entirely different operating system, the N810 tablet has the same N-Series blood in it as those S60 handsets.  N810 is open, extendable, and capable of a lot more than it comes pre-configured to do.  Its operating system and menus are clean and logical, but they also require more of a learning curve to master than your average consumer device.  That makes sense - S60 devices are smartphones, and not just for voice calling; similarly, N810 is a computer, and not just an mp3 player, GPS unit, or dedicated Web browser. 

 


Conclusion

Nokia's N810 Internet Tablet is an interesting device that's more about the future than the present - though it's quite impressive in its current form.  Looking strictly at its hardware, N810 offers a Linux-based computer with wireless connectivity in an amazingly small, attractive package.  Though its responsiveness could stand a bit of tweaking, the combination of a full-WVGA touch display and hardware QWERTY keyboard offer access to everything from mobile blogging to videoconferencing and streaming media to on-the-go Linux development.  It's a potent package that's dressed up quite nicely; N810 isn't going to look out of place when you slip it from the breast pocket of your Armani jacket.

Nokia N810 Internet Tablet

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