It's not a Symbian OS device and not even a phone so you probably wouldn't expect us to review it here at My-Symbian, but considering that it is a great companion and enhancement for S60 (and UIQ) based phones with small screens and that it shares some history with Nokia Communicators and Series 90 devices, it's really worth introducing it to Symbian OS phones' enthusiasts.
This review was supposed to be made available long ago, along with lauching a separate website devoted to Nokia Internet Tablets, My-Maemo.com, but the launch of the site has been delayed until the Maemo 4.0 platform is out because it brings serious API compatibility break, i.e. incompatibility with existing software. In order not to delay the review (ready for a long time and waiting to be published) even more, I'm making it available here, at My-Symbian.com, also considering the N800 a great "accessory" and enhancement for S60 smartphones. Even though a new model, the N810 (which we will hopefully review shortly), has already been announced and will start shipping very shortly, I think that the N800 still remains a very powerful and useful device and will be a cheaper solution for those who won't need the additional features of the N810, hence I think it is not too late to introduce the N800 to My-Symbian.com readers.
Common roots, or what Communicators could have been
The N800 is the second Internet Tablet model, following the Nokia 770. They are powered with the Maemo platform based on Linux (Debian) and are the first Linux-based devices manufactured by Nokia. Even though the operating system is very different than what we know from Symbian OS-based phones, the user interface (called "Hildon") is derived from an UI originally made by Nokia several years ago for their Communicators and - SADLY - never used in any Communicator model. Instead, Nokia modified it a little bit, called it "Series 90" and used it in the (unreleased) 7700 and the 7710 (the first and the last publicly available Series 90-based device), the only Symbian OS based phones with touch-sensitive screens released by Nokia so far.
And this is where I have to complain a little bit about Nokia's decision to abandon the Hildon project for Symbian OS and never releasing a Hildon-based Communicator. It was early 2003 when I was shown information about two Communicator models based on the Hildon UI, almost ready for launch. Imagine a Communicator with as huge display as that of the 7710 (640x320) or the N800 (640x480), touch sensitive and pen-operated, with handwriting recognition and full QWERTY keyboard. YES, in spring 2003 it would have been a killer PDA-phone and finally a true successor to Psion organizers. Or maybe not just in spring 2003, but even NOW. That's certainly what former Psion users are still waiting for. Why Nokia decided to drop an almost finished project that could turn into the most successful PDA-phone on the market has always been completely beyond me. Instead they released the blind-alley 7710 that simply couldn't be successful considering that Nokia announced at the same time that it's the only Series 90 device and the platform will soon be "aligned" with S60... Fortunately, the recent announcement of touch sensitive UI coming to the S60 platform leaves hope that someday we will finally see a Communicator with touch operated UI... OK, let's get back to the N800.
This is where, again, one can find many similarities to the current high-end S60 smartphones, especially the E90 Communicator. Just like the E90 and the N95, the N800 is equipped with ARM11 (TI OMAP2420) processor running at 330 MHz. And this means that if at all there's anything to complain about then definitely not about performance. The only exception is that the current release of the Internet Tablet OS (2007) apparently doesn't make use of OMAP2420's hardware video acceleration which results in slightly worse video playback performance than on e.g. the E90 (fortunately, third party solutions like e.g. MPlayer provide much better video playback performance than the built-in player and support lots of additional codecs). But other than that, the device is very fast and the UI is very snappy.
Another similarity is the size of operating (RAM) memory - 128 MB. What's more, unlike on the current S60 phones, the operating memory can be further extended by up to another 128 MB using virtual memory. This takes up to 128 MB on the internal memory card (what is 128 MB with today's huge memcards anyway) but allows for opening more applications at the same time. With virtual memory enabled, I haven't experienced any low memory situations, even when running quite a lot of programs at the same time or having multiple WWW browser windows open.
The N800 has the best display I have ever seen on a mobile device of this size. Honestly! Its resolution is 800x480 pixels and the physical size is 90x55 mm or 10,5 cm (4.1") diagonally. At this size and resolution, pixels (and spaces between them) are really small resulting in extremely smooth text and superb image and video quality. The aspect ratio of the 800x480 resolution is 1.66:1 which is one of the popular aspect ratios used in movies and is also very close to the 16:9 aspect ratio of TV broadcast and HDTV resolutions (both 1.77:1). This makes the screen of the N800 a really good video playback device. And being 800 pixels wide, it is also perfect for WWW browsing as most of properly designed websites fit on it without having to be reformatted or rescaled to fit the screen as it's usually the case with smaller displays. The same applies to documents: 800 pixels is enough to display documents at their full width without breaking text into additional lines, which allows for true WYSIWYG experience. On the other hand, being also 480 pixels tall, the screen nicely fits any content prepared with VGA screens (e.g. those of Windows Mobile devices) in mind. So there's really nothing to complain about when it comes to picture quality, resolution and size of the screen. 16-bit color resolution (65535 colors) is also just what one could expect.
The only concern I have regarding the display is a technical issue developed by both units I had contact with. After using the device for a week or two, the touch sensitive layer becomes slightly less sensitive in the border areas of the screen requiring stronger stylus taps. Both units I've used belonged to the first manufacturing batch so maybe it has already been corrected in newer units, but you should check this when buying the N800, especially a used one.
The housing of the device is very elegant and quite sturdy, but be aware that the screen of this size is extremely sensitive to any drops or hits. And you will have many opportunities to drop the device, "thanks" to its nicely looking but hopelessly designed protective (?) pouch. The inner side of the pouch is very slippery and there is no way to lock it, so it is enough that you grab it by the wrong side when taking the device out of your pocket and it'll slip out of its pouch and hit the floor. The previous model (the 770) had an extremely useful and very solid case (hard frame protecting and automatically switching off the screen) and it's completely beyond me how Nokia could have "downgraded" it to such a piece of cloth in the N800...Put a new, better case (either one of many available 3rd party cases or Nokia's own N800 Protective case available as an accessory) on your shopping list ALONG with the N800 and do not wait until you have a chance to become convinced that the original case really needs an immediate replacement. I was lucky enough to manage to catch it WHILE it was nose-diving down to the concrete and before it reached it but you may not be that quick...
The front side of the casing is mostly occupied by the huge touchscreen (covered by default with a protective foil), with matt silver plastic around the display and a shiny silver frame surrounding it. The bottom half of the front casing is perforated as it covers stereo loudspeakers, providing high quality and very loud audio playback. On the left side of the screen there's a 5-way navigation button and a tripple function button (or actually three buttons in one) providing quick access to Menu, letting you instantly switch to the Home screen or open the application switcher, and also serving as a Back/Cancel key.
The back side of the device is matt black. On top there are four silver buttons: +/- zoom keys, "Full screen" key switching applications between full screen and "windowed" view, and the Power key letting you turn the device on and off or open the Power menu containing options to power off, suspend or restart the device. Right in the centre, there is a microphone for Internet calls and recording voice notes.
On the left side there is a camera. Normally it's hidden inside the casing; press its visible end inwards in its slot and it'll pop out like a periscope and the "Internet call" application will be launched automatically. The camera can be rotated 180 degrees providing high flexibility in placing the device. So far so good. What's slightly disappointing is the quality and resolution of the camera (VGA, i.e. 640x480 pixels). I mean, I know it's only supposed to work as a web camera for Internet calls, but the question is WHY? The N800 is classified as an Nseries device so it's probably not too much to expect a decent camera taking nice stills and usable videos, epecially that there's more than enough processing power for even 3 MPix images and VGA video, as you can see on the E90 or N95 equipped with the same processor.
OK, let's move on. The right side of the device contains all connection ports: 3.5 mm audio jack connector, charger connector and mini-USB port. Right above them there's a hole to store the stylus. The device has an integrated desk-stand (a metal frame) that simply surrounds the bottom half of the device when closed and can be set at two angles when opened. I also tend to use it as kind of "hand strap" when using the tablet on the move.
The N800 has two memory card slots. The internal memory card slot is located on the back, under the battery cover. The external memory card slot is located at the bottom and protected with a small plastic flip. Both memory card slots are Secure Digital (SD), but of course it is also possible to use miniSD and microSD cards with appropriate adapters. Both cards work as storage media for files and documents but - sadly - it is not possible to install software on them which means that users are limited to 128 MB of internal Flash memory (actually, it's Linux so it is possible to modify the system so that memory cards are mounted the way that makes it possible to install software on them, but it's not possible by default so less advanced users will not be able to do it). The internal memory card is also used for virtual memory (mentioned above). The N800 supports memory cards up to 8 GB. SD cards over 2 GB must be SDHC compatible.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the N800 is not a phone. It does not have a SIM card slot and you can't make phone calls. And it's OK for a device that is called an "Internet Tablet". What I miss, however, is possibility of inserting a SIM card for 3G/GPRS data transmission only, like in PCMCIA / ExpressCard data cards for notebooks. With native Skype client (described later) running wonderfully well on the N800, having direct GPRS/3G connection could let you (almost?) replace your mobile phone with the N800 and make/receive phone calls via SkypeIn and SkypeOut...
The N800 supports WiFi b/g and Bluetooth 2.0 connectivity. The former lets you connect to the Internet via wireless LANs / hotspots, the latter can use your mobile phone's 3G/GPRS. Both work seamlessly. N800's WiFi transciever is probably the best one I have ever seen. It's so sensitive that it discovers networks none of my computers or other mobile devices has ever reported. Once configured, the N800 connects to your wireless network instantly and automatically each time you turn it on or approach the area covered by the network. Move to area covered by another configured WLAN and the N800 will connect to it without you even knowing. Excellent.
Except for the simple camera, which is by default only supported to work as a web camera for internet calls, very simple (way too simple) software for taking still shots and recording video is available as an optional download, multimedia capabilities of the N800 are really good. As mentioned, it generates high quality stereo sound and its stereo speakers provide very loud and clear playback. 3.5 mm jack connector allows for using standard headphones. It even has FM radio receiver, which became known to users only after some time when Nokia released FM radio application (it's still not included in the system and only available for download). A2DP profile for wireless audio streaming is not supported by default, but there are instructions in the Internet how to enable it. The device is powerful enough to provide full screen video playback with very decent quality.
The N800 weighs 206 g and measures 144x75x13-18 mm. Its Lithium-Ion battery (BP-5L) lasts for up to two weeks of standby and about 3-4 hours of work. The latter is a rather poor "achievement" so better add a spare battery to your shopping list if you intend to use the N800 frequently.
I've seen different opinions about the user interface (called "Hildon") of the N800, but for me it's probably one of the best (if not the best) touch operated UI I have used. As any other, it takes some getting used to but it's really powerful, nice looking and convenient to use. And, thanks to the fast processor, it's quite snappy, too. As mentioned earlier, the resolution of the screen is 800x480 so it provides really A LOT of workspace.
After you turn on the tablet and the system finishes loading (which takes about 40 seconds) you are presented with a home screen. It's the main screen of the device and it's highly customizable and (as is the whole UI) fully skinable. The left pane (called "task navigator") contains two large icons (by default shortcuts to web browser / bookmarks and Contacts/Messaging related applications; they can be changed in the Control panel). Right below them there is a Menu icon providing access to all system software and installed applications in form of a Windows' Start like menu with folders and program icons. The lower half of the left pane works as an "application switcher", showing icons of all programs working in the background and letting you quickly switch between them.
On top of the screen there is a menu bar (showing the active application title and providing access to hierarchical drop-down menus) and a panel of icons (called "status indicator area"), similar to Windows' taskbar. The default icons show status of some functions (e.g. battery level) and provide quick access to frequently modified settings (e.g. screen brightness, loudness, Bluetooth and wireless connection). 3rd party applications can also place icons there and the icons can be active, like for example small analog clock, CPU/memory usage indicator, etc. Users may decide which icons to show and change their order.
The main part of the home screen is fully customizable, too. Besides the wallpaper / background image, this area can be used to display applets - applications that run on the home screen. Standard applets include RSS feed reader, Internet radio, clock, Internet search, Speed contacts, Web shortcut and "Tableteer Info" showing thumbnails of recent headlines from the N800 website. There are also lots of third party applets available for download, including weather forecasts, application launchers, sticky notes, etc.
Some applications may also display a "toolbar", i.e. a horizontal bar at the bottom of the screen containing command buttons of the active application.
By default, applications run in a "windowed mode", i.e. with all the above described UI elements visible (and taking some part of the screen area). In the upper right corner there are two buttons to minimize and close the current application. Majority of applications can also be switched to a full screen mode by pressing the Full screen key at the top of the device. Pressing it another time restores the normal "windowed" view. In full screen view there are no taskbars or other navigation areas, so the entire screen can be used for work or to display the desired content. This is especially useful in case of document viewers/editors, spreadsheets, web browsing, multimedia players, image viewers, etc. Additionally, the + and - keys located on both sides of the Full screen button let you quickly change font size, image or document magnification, audio playback volume, etc.
The UI supports both stylus and finger operation. Tap the menu icon with stylus and the menu will show small icons. Tap the icon with your finger and the icons (and space between them) in the menu will be much larger, allowing for easy selection using (even quite fat) fingers. The same applies to the virtual QWERTY keyboard. There are two versions of it: one with small "keys" for stylus and a fullscreen "finger keyboard" with virtual keys big enough to type using your fingers. As with the menu, appropriate keyboard version is shown automatically, based on whether you tapped a text field with a stylus or finger. So simple, yet so useful!
While we are at text input methods, the N800 supports three kinds of them: the above mentioned virtual stylus/finger keyboard, handwriting recognition and an external, Bluetooth keyboard. Handwriting recognition automatically displays an area to write (about 1/3rd of the screen) when you tap any text field. The recognition works on a per-character basis, with configurable recognition delay and automatic case correction. There is also a "Teach" function that lets you teach the device to recognize your own way of writing letters. All supported kinds of text input offer word completion function which can work with two selected languages (dictionaries) at the same time. The engine can be set to also predict the next word and automatically add space after each word. Predicted/suggested endings of the current word and the next word are shown at the bottom of the screen for easy one-tap selection with a stylus or finger.
The UI can also be controlled using hardware keys located on the left side of the display: scroll key (5-way rocker), escape / back key, menu key and Home / Switch key. The hardware keys not only allow for easy UI operation when you don't want to use the stylus but they're also indispensable when it comes to controlling games, and the N800 with its huge screen is a PERFECT gaming device; seeing how Quetoo (Quake 2 port) runs on the N800 will make you love the device.
As you surely know, Nokia Internet Tablets (including the N800) are powered with a platform called "Maemo", which is based on the Linux (Debian) operating system. So, shortly speaking, it is Linux. For an "average" user, it actually means nothing at all, maybe except for that the device is stable and fast. For an advanced "Linux freak", however, it simply means a fully functional computer running Linux OS. By default, the "core OS" is well hidden from the end user, but it is enough to install X Terminal to get shell, Becomeroot to obtain root priviledges, Midnight Commander for easy access to the full filesystem, etc., and you're home. The whole operating system is now yours and ready for your changes. No Ping or Traceroute available by default? No problem at all, there is a busybox version that supports them both, and a lot more. And so on.
Linux is a kingdom of Open Source, which means that you have access to the source code of almost any application. And for "command line" / shell programs not using the UI and not related to some specific hardware, it is usually enough to just recompile the source code for N800's ARM processor and it'll work just fine on the Tablet. Programs with GUI usually have to be tweaked a little bit to work properly with the Hildon UI, but even that is not always the case and one can find applications ported to or recompiled for the N800 without any serious UI modifications and still working OK, just looking uglier and not always correctly fitting on N800's screen. Anyway, porting apps to the Maemo platform from desktop Linux distros is really easy, which results in lots of additional software being available for the 770 and N800 already now, and surely much more to come.
"Open Source" in case of Linux not only means that you have access to the source code of "3rd party" software, but also that the whole operating system is open sourced. Grab the source code of the Maemo platform from Nokia site, modify it to your liking, compile it and reflash your N800 with it. Or simply get one of many available modified / "hacked" versions of the system created by advanced 770 and N800 users. You can even have two different systems (one in the internal Flash memory and the other one on the SD card) and select which one to boot via a bootmenu. Or you can decide to only use the one from the SD card in order to save the internal Flash from wearing out. Possibilities are endless and so it creativity of advanced Maemo users.
As already mentioned, the recently announced N810 will ship with a new version of the Maemo platform (4.0, OS 2008) which is not compatible with the 2007 OS currently available for the N800. But don't worry, Nokia promised to release an upgrade for the N800, too. And this puts current N800 users in quite a comfortable position: you can keep using the current 2007 OS until your favourite applications get ported to the new OS release, and then you can simply reflash your device with the new system edition to take advantage of its improvements.
All device settings can be configured using Control Panel. It is divided into three groups:
- General: Device lock, Hardware keyboard configuration, Screen calibration, Date and Time settings, Display (brightness, power saving period, screen lock, LED lights) and Memory (information about free storage space, enabling virtual memory)
- Connectivity: Accounts (Google Talk and Jabber account configuration), Certificate manager, Phone (selecting and configuring a mobile phone providing GPRS/3G connectivity via Bluetooth), Bluetooth configuration (on/off, visible, device's name, pairing new devices), Connectivity (creating new access points, WLAN search interval, idle times) and Presence (status when connected, Auto-away time)
- Personalisation: Language and region, Sounds, Themes, Navigation (icons shown on Task navigator pane, managing menu apps and folders, icons shown on the status bar), Text input settings (input method, languages, word completion, Handwriting options, Thumb board configuration).
Other system applications for device management can be found in the Tools folder of the Menu. These include Application manager, Backup/Restore, Connection manager and Handwriting tutor.
Application manager is where you can manage all software, both already installed and available for download. The N800 provides several ways to download and install software. Besides the usual methods (downloading and installing a file manually, downloading on PC and sending to the tablet via Bluetooth, etc.), the Application manager supports "repositories" - locations on remote servers containing downloadable software. Support for repositories provides many advantages. First of all, in case of manual downloads if some required dependency (e.g. library) is missing you will have to locate, download and install it manually as well, which is not always an easy thing. In case of repositories, if only a repository is configured in the Application manager, all required files will be downloaded and installed automatically, without you even knowing about it. Secondly, tapping the "Browse installable applications" button will list all applications available for download from the configured repositories so it's an easy way to immediately be informed about all new software from your favourite sources. Last but not least, the "Check for updates" button brings a list of all available updates of programs you have already installed (and allows updating them with a single stylus tap), so it's a perfect way to stay up to date with the most recent versions of your favourite programs. There are lots of websites listing the most popular repositories for the N800, e.g. here or here so right after you've bought your N800 it is enough that you copy these repositories to the Application manager and you can immediately start downloading dozens of third party applications without having to search the web and all the hassle with downloading programs from many different websites and installing them manually.
The only problem with the Application manager and repositories is that when one of the configured repositories is unreachable or invalid (e.g. a mistyped URL), the Application manager fails to update any repositories and only shows an error message. And that's fine. The problem is, however, that it doesn't tell you which repository doesn't work and with multiple repositories configured it may be a real pain to find the problematic one. This needs to be corrected in future OS revisions.
The Backup/Restore application disappoints a little bit, especially because it doesn't backup installed software or files stored in the internal Flash memory. It only backups settings, bookmarks, contacts and things like that. There should be an option to backup 3rd party software and user files, or else the Backup/Restore app isn't really up to its name. Let's hope that the functionality will be extended in future OS releases.
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