Someday we’ll all be carrying around devices that deliver the full Web in the palms of our hands. No, not the crippled, crudely formatted Web you get with most smart phones. We’re talking about YouTube, Flickr, Skype, Facebook, and everything else you’re used to on your laptop. Nokia’s N810 Internet Tablet, now in its third iteration, makes a good case for leaving your notebook behind with a full keyboard, slimmer design, and GPS navigation.
While $479 isn’t cheap, this do-it-all gadget is much less expensive than bloated Windows-based UMPCs. The N810 isn’t easy enough for Mom to use—and we wish it were a better multitasker—but it’s an impressive piece of hardware that should appeal to more than just Linux geeks.
Measuring 0.6 inches thick and weighing 8 ounces, the sleek metal N810 (see photo gallery) feels solid and is pocket friendly. The most noticeable difference between the N810 and its predecessor is that the 4.1-inch touchscreen slides back to reveal the keyboard. The keys don’t have a lot of depth, but they’re nice and big (and backlit.) After a couple days we were typing pretty fast without any errors.
To the left of the N810's keyboard is a D-pad, and underneath that is a menu button. To the left of the display is the Swap key, for quickly switching applications, and an Escape key for closing menus or apps.
Navigating the N810’s interface was pretty easy with a finger, but there were times when we had to resort to the stylus, especially when digging through pull-down menu options. The fact that the N810 has a D-pad, stylus, and touchscreen tells you it isn’t nearly as intuitive as the iPhone or iPod Touch. Sometimes we had to click an option more than twice for it to register, and having to use dedicated zoom buttons is a buzkill compared to Apple’s simple double-screen tap. And it doesn’t help that sliding up the display makes those buttons harder to reach.
Those same zoom buttons also control the volume when you’re listening to music (although you can adjust that onscreen, as well). Also lining the top of the N810 is a Full-screen key (which comes in handy when Web surfing), the power button, and Lock key.
The N810’s interface is PC-like, with a task navigator area along the left side of the screen and a traditional desktop area in the center that you can populate with widgets. The widgets, which you can drag around the desktop, include a customizable RSS feed ticker, clock, Rhapsody player, and Google search.
The task navigator area provides quick access to the Mozilla-based Web browser and Contacts (for e-mail, making Internet calls, and instant messaging). The Application menu, analogous to Start in Windows, launches everything from Skype and the Media player to the Map program and utilities. There’s a little bit of a learning curve with the N810’s menu structure, but we like that you can customize the Application menu and the Status Bar along the top right of the screen.
N810 Web Experience
Because the N810’s browser supports technologies like Flash and Ajax, it can handle a much wider range of sites than most mobile devices. For instance, we set Netvibes as our homepage and enjoyed the ability to catch up on the headlines from all of our favorite sites in one place. We also had no problems loading and updating Facebook or Flickr. The new Yahoo Mail wouldn’t load properly, but that’s because it requires a higher resolution display.
In general, pages loaded fairly quickly over Wi-Fi. It took 20 seconds for the N810 to completely load NYTimes.com, but we could start scrolling in 12 seconds and reading the top headlines in seven seconds. It also took the same 20 seconds for our iPhone to completely load NYTimes.com, but we could start reading and panning within 7 seconds.
Those who own a 3G cell phone or smart phone will love how easy it is to use your cell as a modem for the N810. After pairing our Motorola Q9h Global via Bluetooth, the tablet walked us through the rest of the process. Results will vary, but over AT&T’s HSDPA network The New York Times homepage popped up in 12 seconds and finished loading in 42 seconds. Not bad at all.
The RSS reader worked well over Wi-Fi and 3G. Adding feeds is as easy as clicking on an RSS icon at the bottom of a web page. And we liked being able to scan the latest headlines right from the N810’s desktop.
Where the Nokia N810 fails to live up to its Web 2.0 potential is with multimedia-centric sites. YouTube was a fairly decent experience over Wi-Fi when we streamed the latest “Rambo” trailer, but an episode of “Family Guy” streamed from Hulu.com played like a slideshow. Worse, Pandora wouldn’t work and Slacker crashed the browser.
Messaging and E-mail
Although we imagine most users will use a browser to grab their e-mail, the N810 does feature a basic POP3 e-mail client. Nokia also includes a barebones instant messaging app that supports only Google Talk, Jabber, and SIP. It's no wonder that Pidgin Instant Messenger is the most popular free download for this device. That program supports everything under the sun (including AIM, ICQ, Google Talk, MSN, MySpace, and Yahoo) and worked well in our tests.
N810: VoIP to Go
One of the best executed services on the N810 is Skype. The look and feel is very similar to the desktop version, and the call quality was solid. As long as you don’t stray too far from your router, this is a killer app.
The only disappointment is that you can’t videochat in Skype using the N810’s built-in camera. It only works with the included Gizmo client. Or at least it should; we could see ourselves on the device but not the other caller, and there was a terrible screeching sound in the background.
Multimedia and Rhapsody
The bundled media player is basic but gets the job done, as it handles MP3, WMA, and AAC audio, as well as AVI, WMV, and MP4 video. The N810 supports miniSD cards up to 8GB so you can tote around a vast number of tunes. Playback sounded good but not very loud through the included earbuds. You can listen through the speaker or included earbuds, but the N810 lacks stereo Bluetooth.
What Rhapsody brings to the table on this handheld is streaming music over Wi-Fi (or 3G). The split-screen interface is easy to navigate, and we like that the service downloads album art with each track. In this mode, the N810 becomes a compelling portable Internet radio, and we enjoyed a smooth stream while playing the Alternative Hits channel. Too bad you can’t use Rhapsody to play music transferred from your PC, which would make Rhapsody to Go subscribers happy. We’d also like to see the N810 download tracks over the air, as you can with the ibiza Rhapsody player.
N810 GPS Navigation
Nokia includes its free Map application for looking up addresses and points of interest, but if you sign up for the $129 three-year Wayfinder license, you’ll turn the N810 into a full-fledged GPS navigator.
In our tests, the device was able to keep up with a standalone Magellan 3210 in terms of accuracy, and we could easily hear the spoken turn-by-turn directions delivered by a British male voice. Acquisition times were initially slow but improved to less than a minute with continued use. The N810 told us to take one illegal left turn (there was a jughandle) but it re-routed quickly.
The comprehensive POI database found a nearby Walgreens and Hallmark while we were driving. Nokia includes a car holder with screws, but we would much prefer a full suction cup mount—if not in the box then at least as part of the $129 fee.
Some Apps Now, More to Come
One of the reasons why the N810 excites the enthusiast crowd is that it’s based on mameo OS2008, an open-source platform that makes it easy for developers to roll out new programs. Some of the more compelling apps include the aforementioned Pidgin Instant Messenger, Canola (similar to Windows Media Center), Vagulume (for accessing last.fm music streams), and Quiver Image Viewer. The maemo site (maemo.org/downloads/OS2008) currently lists 73 available applications, and Nokia expects that number to grow quickly as older programs get ported over from OS2007.
Many are particularly psyched about the fact that Access has made its Garnet VM available for the N810, which enables users to run the Palm OS on top of OS2008. Although having this app on board is nice for the PIM functionality Nokia left out—you can sync addresses, calendar, memos, etc.—the actual experience was a bit underwhelming, as the program window took up only a third of the screen. We were glad to see that the keyboard worked in this mode, however. And, of course, you should be able to add all sorts of Palm OS apps to the mix.
Performance and Battery Life
With a 400-MHz processor under the hood, the N810 performed reasonably well when we had Skype, Rhapsody, and Media Player open. Things got bogged down after that, and we were greeted with a pop-up window to close one or more programs when we tried to load the RSS reader. The N810 isn’t designed for hardcore multitasking, but having 2GB of onboard memory certainly helps.
Nokia rates the N810 for 4 hours of battery life with continuous usage and the Wi-Fi connection active. When we used the N810 intermittently for a day of surfing, streaming music, and GPS navigation, it lasted a little less than 24 hours. Occasional usage had us reaching for the charger after a day and a half.
Nokia N810 Verdict
It’s pretty remarkable that something so compact can do so much. The iPod touch puts the full Web in your pocket and does it so much more elegantly and cheaply. But only the N810 has a full keyboard, dial-up networking, and GPS. It’s more than worth the $479 for power users looking for something more versatile.