Nokia N800 Review: Part 3
Part 3: Built-in Software
The N800’s built-in software suite is a bit limited, but if you don’t download any other software to the device, you could get by, especially if you’re as dependent on web apps like Google’s suite of Gmail, Google Reader, etc. as I am. Of course, if you want to get the most out of the N800, it would benefit you to explore 3rd-party apps (to be discussed later).
Among the built-in apps, I mainly tested out the Opera web browser (of course), the PDF viewer, the media player, and the RSS reader. I briefly played with the sketch program to write out a short ink blog post from the N800. One hardware-related issue I forgot to mention was that when I wrote on the screen with the stylus, the screen felt really soft and I could see “trails” left by the stylus, similar to what you’d see if you poked your LCD monitor with your finger. It was a bit disconcerting! I would suggest that in a future hardware rev for the N800, the screen be made a bit more robust so that the squishy screen feeling wouldn’t be a problem anymore.
Built-in IM Client
Also, I checked out the built-in Google Talk chat client once. Actually, IMing back and forth using the on-screen thumb keyboard was a pretty good experience. I wasn’t as fast a typist as I normally am on a physical QWERTY keyboard, but I still was able to type responses in a reasonable amount of time. I think it worked as well as texting on my MDA, and the MDA has a slide-out thumb keyboard. I think that the N800 would be a pretty good device for mobile IMing despite the lack of physical keyboard. However, there was one thing I didn’t like about the built-in Google Talk client. There didn’t seem to be a way to configure it not to log on automatically. At work, the firewall didn’t allow the GTalk client to connect, so I always had to tap on the presence indicator and change it to offline so that I wouldn’t keep seeing the pop-up dialog indicating it couldn’t log in to certain accounts.
It would’ve been nice to be able to configure GTalk not to connect automatically. Update: Commenter Alexander let me know that there is a way to disable automatic logon for the IM client in Tools -> Control Panel -> Accounts. Thanks, Alexander!
Built-in RSS Reader
The RSS reader was okay, but since I use Google Reader, I was not that interested in the N800’s RSS reader, besides testing how well it could be used as a podcatcher client (not very). As far as basic RSS aggregator functionality, it was pretty basic. I didn’t see a way to change the screen layout; I prefer to read individual feeds in “river of news” style, with each item’s full text viewable (like Google Reader). I’m pretty particular about how I want to read my RSS feeds, so it didn’t take me long to realize that the built-in aggregator wouldn’t be of use to me. There also didn’t seem to be a way to import OPML files to bulk import feeds, which is a kiss of death to any aggregator application I try out. No way do I like to input RSS feed links one by one! The main screen widget for the RSS aggregator was okay, but I eventually turned it off.
Built-in Media Player
I thought the media player was very bare bones and not really worth using. I played some audio and a sample video on the N800, and while the playback was good (full-screen video looked great), that’s the only good thing I could say about the built-in media player. It was not intuitive to me to figure out how to set up a playlist of items from the library. I had copied a bunch of podcasts to an SD card and wanted try out the media player as my podcast player, but I could not figure out a way to either create a playlist on the N800 itself, or create a playlist on my desktop and copy it over to the N800 (not just the tracks in the playlist, but also the order of the tracks). The media player’s “now playing” list seemed to randomly populate itself with all of the items in my library, and I couldn’t see an option for clearing out the list to start over. Perhaps this all is user error, but considering how easy it is to use other mobile media player interfaces, I was disappointed with how frustrating the N800’s media player app was.
Also, the controls were not very good. The on-screen playback control buttons are big enough to tap at with your fingers, but the controls to rewind/forward through the track were not. You basically had to scrub through the track via the small time remaining slider/indicator; there weren’t on-screen buttons that you could hold down to rew/ff. And the hardware buttons were not mapped to control playback as I expected. Usually on a PDA or mp3 player, a d-pad is mapped so that the left and right buttons can skip through tracks if you tap them, or you could scrub through the track if you held down on the buttons. And either the center button or one of the up/down buttons would be mapped to play/pause. There was no way to configure the d-pad or any of the hard buttons to make controlling media play back easier. There was too much dependence on the touchscreen, which I guess is okay for playing tracks back at your desk.
However, I used the built-in media player to play a podcast on my commute in to work, and the media player controls were not car-operation friendly. Switching between “Now Playing” mode and library mode was not a one-click affair, which is another feature I’d expect from a normal media player. And there is no way to set up which folders the N800 looks at for media. It did find my media on the SD card automatically, but I think a user would want configurability for this. It just seems like the interface for media player was really not given much thought, which was a bad idea, IMO, because a lot of people are going to pick up an N800 thinking it’ll be a great media player, with that huge screen and stereo speakers, but be truly disappointed by the media player GUI. Users shouldn’t have to install a 3rd-party application just to get a decent media player interface.
Built-in Web Browser
The N800’s web browser was pretty good. It’s not branded as Opera, but that is the underlying component of the N800 browser. It’s very cool to be able to see most webpages as they would look on a PC. This is a big feature for the N800 to differentiate itself from other WiFi-enabled PDAs or smartphones, one that really made me think about getting the N800 in the first place, since I was fed up with the lame mobile browsers on my MDA. The N800 browser handles page rendering pretty well, even when you zoom in or out to fit the page to the width of the screen, or enlarge the text for readability. There are some pages it still hiccups on, most notably the desktop version of Google Reader (ugh!), and other pages that have too many fancy Ajax or Flash elements, but often you can tell that the desktop version of Opera would probably also falter on some of these pages (even Google Reader to some degree).
Overall it was so nice to be able to surf on such a small device like the N800 and be able to see the full versions of webpages, not the wimpy, stripped-down mobile versions. My main complaint about my T-Mobile MDA was that I hated having to navigate desktop-formatted websites on Pocket IE or Opera Mini. Those browsers did their best to reformat the pages, but they often turned out really mangled, barely readable, and barely usable. That’s why I was very interested to try out the N800 and other Nokia devices with Symbian OS. I had often heard that the built-in browsers on Symbian S60 devices are very good at rendering pages for a small screen. Web browsing on the N800 is a good experience. For people who use a lot of web apps as opposed to desktop apps, the N800 could be a great mobile device for them to access their online accounts on the go, without needing a laptop.
Built-in PDF Viewer
Just as I was impressed with the browser on the N800, I was really impressed by the built-in PDF viewer. Just to make a comparison, I have a Sony Reader which I really like for reading e-books. Its screen size is great at approximating paperback-sized pages, which makes it a little nicer to read e-books on than smaller-screened PDAs/smartphones. Although it does support PDFs, its rendering engine for PDFs is not very good at handling files that aren’t formatted for the Reader’s smaller screen. The files are often just shrunken down to fit the Reader’s screen, which makes the fonts miniscule. So, you have to use some software to try to wrangle the original PDF into something more readable. The N800’s PDF viewer is way more capable than the Sony Reader at automatically reformatting for the N800’s screen, and the N800’s screen is smaller than the Reader’s! I tried out a few PDF files, an e-book from WOWIO that seemed like it was formatted for a smaller screen (but not specifically formatted for the N800), and a couple regular PDF e-books for viewing on a PC. All three files were totally readable on the N800’s screen. Even if I zoomed in to make the fonts bigger, they never got pixelated. The pictures in one of the PDFs (a back issue of JPG Magazine) would eventually get pixelated from the zooming, but the fonts never did. Scrolling around the pages to read the content, while not ideal, was not that bad of an experience, either. You could use the d-pad to scroll around, or tap and drag on the screen directly. The whole concept of not having to go through a process to reformat PDFs for the N800 was very nice. I’ve had enough of file conversion to deal with for my other devices; the less of that I have to do, the better. One thing I didn’t like about the PDF viewer was navigating from page to page. If the document fit the width of the screen, switching pages was an easy click of the d-pad. However, if you had to let the document be wider than the screen for readability, there was no easy way to “flip” pages because the d-pad was used for scrolling around the screen. I either had to click on the context menu button and navigate through a couple levels of menus to hit the next or prev page option, or essentially do the same thing using the stylus and the menu bar at the top of the screen. Not cool. Also, I couldn’t find an option for rotating the screen in the built-in PDF viewer. While reading e-books in landscape mode seemed better for larger font sizes or whatever, it would’ve been nice to have the option for reading in portrait mode.
So, with only the built-in applications on the N800, I think it would be best as a mobile web browser — awesome full versions of web pages, no lame WAP or uber-simplified pages necessary, unless you want to surf those types of pages — and a PDF/e-book reader. The media player is fine for the most basic playback of audio tracks or videos, but don’t expect much usability from the GUI. The sketch program is okay for quick sketches, short handwritten notes (also typed notes? I didn’t try that), or very rudimentary ink blog posts, if you’re so inclined. The RSS reader is also quite basic and lacking in configurability. I thought IMing using the built-in Google Talk client (I believe it is configurable for other IM accounts, but not sure which ones) was pretty decent, and if my workplace didn’t block the client from connecting, I probably would’ve used it a lot more as a mobile IMing device. I didn’t get a chance to do video chatting with Google Talk, but I hear it’s also a pretty good experience. But the camera itself is pretty low-res, so YMMV. These were the built-in applications that mattered to me most. I know I left out things like the Internet radio streaming, but I wasn’t very interested in that, so I never really tested it. I also did not set up the built-in e-mail client because a) I didn’t want my e-mail getting downloaded to the device, and b) I mainly access my Gmail account via the web, so I had no need. As I said earlier, if you were only interested web browsing, some light IMing, and mainly viewing PDFs for work or as e-books, the built-in apps will do just fine. But the N800’s Linux-based OS sort of cries out for installing 3rd-party apps, so I’ll discuss that a bit in the next part of my review.