The Nokia N810 Internet Tablet is the third model in this companies series of traditional handhelds, and the best so far. It is the first with integrated GPS capabilities and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard.
This Linux-based device lets you connect to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot with 802.11b/g, and if that isn’t enough, it can connect via Bluetooth to a mobile phone. You can then access the Web with the best mobile browser currently available, watch streaming video, make VoIP calls, and much more.
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The best way to think of the N810 is that it’s a handheld web browser. In fact the the best I’ve ever used. It can do about 90% of what Internet Explorer or Firefox on your desktop can do, and leaves rivals like Blazer and even Opera Mobile in the dust.
It’s the browser that makes this a very powerful device, as the tasks you can perform on the Web have expanded tremendously in recent years. For example, I’m writing this review almost entirely on the N810 in Google Docs & Sheets. It also lets you watch YouTube videos, work with your email, and a whole raft of other functions.
This is good, as the applications that actually come with the N810 are fairly limited. Also limited is the supply of third-party applications, but I’m hoping this will change as people realize what a brilliant device this is.
In addition, out of the box it lacks many of the features a lot of you are accustomed to in a handheld. It doesn’t come with a calendar, for example, and the N810’s address book is there to let you send people email or instant messages. You can’t put a street address into it. Also, despite being made by Nokia, this isn’t a smartphone. It has Wi-Fi, and you can use a Bluetooth-enabled phone as a wireless modem, but I know for some people this is a significant drawback.
It isn’t to me, as I’m OK with a two-piece solution. I have a very small smartphone that goes with me everywhere, but because it has such a small screen it’s a bit limited. The Internet Tablet goes with me when I want more functionality and a bit of extra bulk doesn’t matter.
A Good Device Needs Good Hardware
The Nokia N810 uses a landscape-oriented design, and its QWERTY keyboard can be hidden behind its display, which takes up most of the front. The 4.13-inch touchscreen has a WVGA (800 x 480) resolution, higher than the best Windows Mobile devices, and more than twice the resolution of the iPhone or models running the Palm OS.
It is up to the task of displaying most web sites in their standard format, and if the text is a bit small, you can zoom in steps up to 300%. About the only nitpick I have with the display is that it’s permanently in landscape mode. It doesn’t offer portrait mode (though a few third-party applications do).
With a screen this large, it shouldn’t surprise you that this isn’t a small device. It’s not huge, though: 5-inches wide, 2.8-inches high, and 0.55-inches thick. It weighs in at 7.9 ounces. If you want a comparison, it’s fairly close to the size of the Palm TX.
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One of my favorite features is the stand. This is so simple yet so useful. It lets you prop the N810 up so you can easily see it when you’re watching a video or typing with an external keyboard.
Keyboard and Buttons
The N810 may be about the size of a Palm TX, but it includes something the TX doesn’t: a keyboard. Because of its generous size this is one of the easiest portable keyboards I’ve typed on.
It’s still a thumb-keyboard, of course, so typing on it is much slower than a full-size one, but it’s good enough that I don’t mind writing emails that are a couple of paragraphs long, which is something I won’t do if I have to peck out the letters with a tiny on-screen keyboard, or write them with something like Graffiti.
In addition to a physical keyboard, this device has two on-screen ones. One of these is small and designed to let you tap out letters with the stylus, and the other lets you type with your fingertips. Both of these are nice and do what they are supposed to do, but the hardware keyboard is so good I see little need for them.
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Next to the keyboard is the Directional Pad (D-pad). This allows you to control the N810 without touching the screen. There are other buttons too. One of the most important of these is the "Full Screen" button on the top. By default, applications do not take up the whole screen, leaving a space on the left side to make it easy for you switch to another app, and a space at the top to display the status icons. As its name suggests, pushing the Full Screen button expands all the running applications to take up the whole screen, which is very nice for things like web pages.
Also on the top are what I like to call the More and Less buttons. What these do depends on the application you’re running. If it’s the web browser they zoom in and out, but if it’s the Media Player they control the volume. Just to one side of these is the Power Key. Pushing this opens a menu of common tasks: lock the touchscreen and other keys, shut off wireless networking, lock the device, and shut it completely down. To save time, also on the top is a button dedicated to locking and unlocking the touchscreen and other keys. I go into this in more depth in the Battery Life section of this review.
Beside the touchscreen is the Back Button (also useful in Web browsing) and a Windows button. Pushing this displays a list of all the windows that are currently open, allowing you to quickly switch between them or close unwanted ones. Down below the D-Pad is the Menu Key, which opens the drop-down menu just about every application has to allow you to access additional functions, like Save, Settings, etc.
Enter the Penguin
This Internet Tablet runs Nokia’s Linux Maemo operating system, which is one of its strengths… and weaknesses.
In the strengths department, it is quite stable. My N810 has completely crashed on me, but only once. That’s pretty good considering how much time I’ve spent using it, and how many third-party applications I’ve loaded on it. It also offers robust multi-tasking, so I can run multiple applications at the same time, and it can be doing things in the background. I can, for example, have a web page downloading in one browser window while I’m reading another, and all the while listening to music. The operating system even loads quickly when you re-start the device.
Much of this good performance is courtesy of the N810’s 400MHz processor, which is enough to handle most of what I’ve thrown at it. Not everything, though. So far, the only times this device has choked has been when I’m asking it to display Flash videos intended for desktops. For example, the N810 can display the TV episodes that are available on CBS.com, but just barely. I have to turn the playback to low quality, which means the audio is fine, but the video is just a slideshow.
The primary disadvantage of the N810 running Linux is the lack of third-party software. There’s some, but if you’re a Palm OS or Windows Mobile user accustomed to thousands of titles you’re in for an adjustment period.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that all the applications written for the desktop versions of Linux will run on an Internet Tablet; these have to be modified for this specific version of the operating system, and in most cases scaled down to run on a smaller screen and slower processor. Someone has to be interested enough, and skilled enough, to port a desktop app to the N810, and it’s not a trivial task.
Even many of the applications that have been modified for the N800 have to be updated to run on the N810. But, like I said earlier, this handheld’s outstanding web browser and on-line services go a long way toward making up for any lack of third-party software.
If I haven’t made it clear enough already, the N810’s web browser is the absolute heart of this device, and it’s a good strong heart. It’s a Mozilla-based browser with Ajax and Adobe Flash 9. If you don’t know what that means, trust me, you should be impressed.
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In layman’s terms, the N810 is capable of giving you a web browsing experience that’s very close to what you’re accustomed to on your desktop. Closer than on any other mobile device I’ve used, even an iPhone. This includes, for example, YouTube. There’s no mucking around with alternate download sites that offer a scaled back selection of reformatted videos, like you have to do with the iPhone and other smartphones. You just go to YouTube and watch the videos.
I mentioned the ability to zoom into pages earlier, plus you can reformat them to fit in the browser window. Not that you’ll need to do that often on a window that’s 800 pixels wide. Naturally, there’s all the basic functionality you expect from a browser, like bookmarks and a history. This browser allows you to play many types of streaming audio and video, and this is covered this in the Multimedia section of this review.
A related piece of software that comes with this handheld is an RSS feed reader, which is a nice way to keep up with headlines from all kinds of news sources, including Brighthand and TabletPCReview.
What’s Up, DOC?
Many times, I’ve heard people say that they’d get an N810 if it only had a word processor and spreadsheet compatible with Microsoft Office. While it’s true, this handheld doesn’t come with an Office Suite, there is a solution: Google Docs.
This runs beautifully in the N810’s web browser, and has all the features most people need, including text formatting, spell checker, images, footnotes, and more.
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I’m going to walk you through a typical example so you can see how the Internet Tablet and Google Docs work together. Suppose you get an email that has a Microsoft Word document attached. You can download it to the device, then upload it to Gdocs. (If you’re a Gmail user you can transfer the file across with a tap.)
However it gets there, you open the document in Google Docs in your browser, and it looks essentially like it would if you were using Word. The embedded images are there, so is the text formatting, and even the footnotes. You make your changes and save the file. You can then go back through the process of downloading the file and saving it as a Word document (.doc) and it’s ready to be attached to an email message.
To me, Google Docs is at least as good as having a built-in word processor. It lets me keep a document online while I’m working on it, and I can easily switch back and forth between editing it with my PC and my N810, without having to worry that I’ll be editing an out-of-date version of a file.
If this isn’t what you’re looking for, third-party developers are hard at work on Office suites for the N810. For those of you who are just looking for a text editor, and aren’t worried about Microsoft Word compatibility, the N810 comes with an app called Notes. It can read and create unformatted TXT files, or you can format your documents and save them as HTML files. Your formatting options are fairly basic. You can change the font size, color, and alignment; use bold, italics, and underline; and create bulleted lists.
Email and Instant Messaging
The N810 comes with a basic application for handling email. This is probably the weakest software package on the device, though. You can set it to download your email on a schedule, and it supports POP3, so you can get messages from most of the consumer email services, like Google and Yahoo. It also offers IMAP support, but I found this to be so poorly implemented and painfully slow that I can’t recommend that you use it.
Another complaint with this application is its rudimentary scheduling capabilities. There’s no way to set "off" hours, so if you sleep near the N810, expect to be woken up multiple times during the night when new messages come in.
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All in all, this application is so lame that, unless you find a third-party replacement you prefer, you’d be better off with an email service that allows you to check your messages through a browser. A related application is the N810’s PDF Reader, which lets you view Adobe Acrobat documents that come in as email attachments. This worked well in my limited testing, and might even be good enough to do double duty an an ebook reader.
Beyond just email, this handheld offers strong support for Instant Messaging. It connects with a variety of services (Google Talk, Jabber, and SIP), and functions essentially like its desktop equivalents. Naturally, when you’re logged in, you can see who else among your friends is also on. You don’t have to set these up yourself, or at least you don’t with Google Talk; my friends list was uploaded to the N810 automatically.
The Chat application is designed by default to run in the background at all times, so you can get IMs whenever you have a Net connection. You can turn this off it you want, though.
PIM Is (Mostly) AWOL
Anyone thinking about switching to an Internet Tablet from a Palm or Pocket PC needs to be aware that there’s an area where it’s weak: Personal Information Management (PIM). It doesn’t come with a suite of applications for keeping track of your calendar and address book in the same way a Palm TX or iPAQ 110 does.
This is because Nokia has created the Internet Tablet series to be companion devices for smartphones, and a smartphone has its own calendar and address book. Duplicating this on a second device apparently was considered unnecessary. There’s a small exception; this devices does have a Contact app, but it’s focused on electronic communications. It automatically pulls in addresses and IM information from your emails and Google Talk accounts, and you can add phone numbers, but there’s no way to add a mailing address.
One option for some people is Microsoft Outlook Web Access, which works fine on the N810. You don’t get audible notifications of meetings and such, but you have access to everything stored on your Exchange Server: email, tasks, address book, etc. And it’s all immediately up to date.
Still, if you’re not planning on using the N810 in conjunction with a smartphone, and keeping track of PIM information is important to you, then you’re probably going to have to turn to third-party options.
Let’s Start the Show
There are few areas where I was a touch disappointed with this device, but one of them is multimedia. Don’t get me wrong, it does audio and video fairly well, but some of the advertised features don’t seem to work.
I mentioned earlier the ability to play Flash videos like you find on YouTube, and this can be a lot of fun. What I find more useful is the N810’s ability to play Real Video and Real Audio, as there’s an endless supply of good content in these formats online. Nokia touts this model’s ability to play Windows Media Audio and Video (WMA and WMV), but this doesn’t work for me. Sites where I can play the videos on a Pocket PC give me error messages on the N810. Not the end of the world, but still disappointing.
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Of course, this handheld can do multimedia outside of the browser. Its stand-alone media player handles audio and video in a variety of formats. Not QuickTime or Windows Media, but many of the other top standards, like MP3 and MP4. In addition, the media player is specifically set up to make it easy for you to listen to Internet radio stations.
This application is a touch "bare bones" for my taste. There’s no easy way to skip forward or back a few seconds in a video, for example, but it works. And there are third-party options either available now, or coming soon.
The Nokia N810 has multiple different types of memory, but it all adds up to what I consider a good amount. First off, there’s 128MB of RAM for holding currently running programs. Then there’s 256MB of ROM for storing some files but mostly this should be reserved for holding applications that you install on the device.
There’s also 2GB of storage that acts like a built-in memory card. You can use this for files of all kinds, from multimedia to documents. In addition, you can convert up to 128MB of this into virtual RAM, which I recommend you do. More space for running applications is always good.
Last, but not at all least, is the miniSD card slot. This allows you to store many gigabytes of additional files. Nokia says the N810 supports up to 8GB cards, but it’s probably just being conservative, as 8GB is the highest capacity SDHC cards currently available. It’s likely this device will support cards up to 32GB when they come on the market.
I’ve been using this handheld with a Kingston 4GB microSDHC card with a miniSD adapter, and I’ve had no problems. The memory card slot is external, and cards can be switched out while the device is running. It’s accessible but not too accessible. The card slot is hidden behind a door, and it’s very unlikely you’ll ever accidentally eject the card.
Wireless and Wired Networking
As I’ve already said, the N810 isn’t a smartphone, but it can use many mobile phones as an external modem. If you have a phone with Bluetooth, and a data plan with a telecom that supports tethering, then you’re in business. This handheld comes with an easy-to-use wizard that walks you through the process of setting up the connection to your phone. It just takes a minute or two.
For the most part, though, you’ll probably be connecting to a Wi-Fi network. Fortunately, the N810 handles this brilliantly. You can easily connect to secure and insecure networks, and its range is impressive. I have a strong connection while sitting on my back deck, a hundred feet or so away — and on the opposite side of a brick wall — from my access point. I can also see wireless networks all up down my street.
If you have any shared drives on your network, they appear in this Internet Tablet’s file manager when it’s connected via Wi-Fi. This makes transferring files onto this device over the network an easy, if somewhat slow, process.
And the N810 is just getting warming up. Bluetooth is good for more than connecting to mobile phones. This device comes with the driver for standard Bluetooth keyboards, so you can easily use a full-size external one. I’m using the iGo Stowaway Bluetooth Keyboard with mine without a problem. You can also connect to a Bluetooth headset for listening to music or making VoIP phone calls.
But there’s more to life than wireless networking. The fastest way to have the N810 exchange files with your PC is hook the two together by USB 2.0. As soon as you do this, both the handheld’s memory cards appear as removable hard drives on the desktop or laptop, with no additional software needed. Incidentally, the device can not charge through a USB connection, so you can’t save on bulk by carrying a single charge/data cable.
Skype and VoIP
Just because the N810 isn’t a smartphone doesn’t mean you can’t make phone calls with it. It comes with several applications that let you talk with someone directly over the Internet, including a version of Skype.
This application lets you call someone who is also a Skype user and talk back and forth completely free of charge. The other person might also be talking on an N810, but they don’t have to be; there are versions of Skype for a wide variety of devices, from desktops and laptops to handhelds running Windows Mobile. These are available for free, so your friends, family, or co-workers can download one very easily. You can even use Skype to call regular phones, but this costs money.
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When you’re talking, you can either use this handheld as a speakerphone, or you can use the included headset, which works like the the ones for mobile phones. There are other VoIP options for this handheld, but so far Skype is the best. Still, development on the others is ongoing.
The N810 includes a front-facing VGA camera clearly intended for video chatting, but at this point there are no applications that take advantage of it, not even the ones that come bundled with this device.
The N810 is the first Internet Tablet to have a built-in GPS receiver, allowing you to use it as a navigation device.
This is slow but accurate. Getting your initial fix can take several minutes, so try to get in the habit of turning on the GPS as soon as possible, even before you’re in your car. Also, it doesn’t perform very well in places where you don’t have a clear view of the sky, like when you’re surrounded by tall buildings.
This handheld comes bundled with a mapping application with a somewhat limited feature set. In a nice touch, this includes maps for the entire country where you bought the N810, and with the help of the receiver it can display your current location on a road map. You can also use this application to find the location of, say, a nearby gas station. But this free application can’t tell you the route to get between these two points.
If you want routing functionality, you can upgrade to Wayfinder Navigator. This service offers all the features you’d expect in a high-end navigation package, including turn-by-turn spoken directions, real-time traffic reports, millions of points of interest (POI), etc. It can even guide you to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot. A 3-year license for this service costs $130.
But this isn’t your only option. There’s a very good third-party application called Maemo Mapper that can do much of what Wayfinder Navigator can, and it’s free. Yet another nice touch, this handheld comes with a plastic holder that you can attach to the Nokia Easy Mount (~$50) to make a car cradle.
Nokia says the N810 has a battery life of 4 hours under "typical use," accessing the Web and watching video. I have to say this is way off; with my typical use I get much more than that, about 6 hours on a single charge.
Honestly, the battery life on this handheld is amazing. I dislike torture tests, but one night I turned the N810 on at 7 pm and proceeded to surf the Web via Wi-Fi for hours, and around midnight I switched to watching video. It wasn’t until just about 1 am that the low battery warning went off.
This is far, far better than I have seen on any comparable device. However, if you find yourself with a completely drained battery, you can easily switch to another one. This handheld uses a fairly standard Nokia battery, and just a few seconds of searching turned up loads of places selling replacement ones for about $20.
The N810 also uses a standard Nokia power socket, so finding a replacement charger is a breeze. Unfortunately, there is a complaint I have to make in this area. I know this is going to be hard to believe, but there’s no way to put the N810 into a sleep mode. You simply can’t tell the device "I’m done now, go to sleep."
What you do instead is flip a switch on the N810’s top that makes the device stop paying attention to the touchscreen and all the other buttons. This doesn’t turn off the screen or the backlight, or shut down any Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections.
This means that if you’re ready to go somewhere, you have to put the N810 in its case with the screen still on, which feels ridiculous and is a waste of power. After a time the N810 will decide its been idle long enough and will shut off the screen itself. It still doesn’t disconnect you from any network connections, though. It assumes you still want to be connected to the instant messaging clients. You have to manually disconnect these if you want them off.
To be clear, you can shut the N810 down. But then it’s O-F-F, and takes about 20 seconds to get going again. There’s apparently no "sleep" mode. I chalk this up to Nokia wanting this device to act like a smartphone, and you almost never shut off one of those. But this is a handheld, and I expect to be able to shut it down.
Like all handhelds, the N810 comes with a small collection of accessories. The stylus is basically a cheap plastic stick, but it’s long enough to be relatively comfortable to use. Keep a close eye on it, because I haven’t found anywhere selling replacements yet.
I already mentioned the headphones that are used for when you’re making VoIP calls, listening to music, and playing video. These are decent but not remarkable. The charging "brick" isn’t too large, so it would be relatively easy to carry with you on a trip. You also have the option of using a mobile recharger designed for newer Nokia phones.
When it comes time to put the N810 in your pocket, purse, or backpack, you can slip it into a soft, gray pouch that protects it from scratches. This provides minimal protection if you drop it, though.