Walt Mossberg

Not Yet the Holy Grail: Nokia’s Tiny Computer Is Crisp, but So Slow

One of the holy grails of the digital era has been the invention of a true pocket-size computer, a device smaller than the smallest laptop that could still perform most of the common functions of a PC.

The closest contenders are the smart phones, like Palm’s Treo models. But these devices are generally poor at one of the most important tasks people do on their computers — browsing the Internet. Because their screens are so small, they either render Web pages in a manner never intended by their designers, or they require a ton of tedious horizontal scrolling to view the page.

Nokia 770

Now, Nokia, the big phone maker, has come out with a $360 pocket computer that aims to solve that problem. It’s called the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet and, true to its name, it concentrates on surfing the Web. The 770 can also send and receive email and instant messages, view images and videos, and play music and simple games. But its focus is on displaying Web sites really well.

The 770 has been popular in Europe, at least among techies, but has had little impact so far in the U.S., where it is available only via Nokia’s Web site (nokiausa.com/770) and a few other online outlets, such as Amazon.com.

Since Nokia is a cellphone maker, it’s odd that the 770 has no cellphone radio inside and can’t connect to the Internet via the latest cellphone networks, which now boast broadband speeds. Instead, it relies on Wi-Fi wireless networking, which is faster but much less ubiquitous than cellphone networks. It’s possible to connect a cellphone to the 770 and indirectly use a cellphone network, but as with all such setups, this is a clumsy approach.

I have been testing the 770, and I found that it performs its main function, Web browsing, better than any other pocket device I’ve tried. But it falls down badly on many other tasks, partly because of kludgy software and partly because it is agonizingly slow at almost everything other than surfing the Web.

The best thing about the Nokia 770 is the hardware design. It’s a sleek, thin, horizontally oriented device with a handsome black-matte finish and a small number of silver-colored buttons. It weighs just 8.1 ounces, and is only 5.5 inches long and 0.7 inch thick.

Most of the surface is occupied by the very vivid, bright display, which boasts by far the highest resolution I have seen on a hand-held digital device — 800×480, enough to display photos and videos really well and to view many Web pages without scrolling. This is a higher resolution than many Windows PCs commonly used 10 years ago.

By contrast, the screen on the Sony PSP portable game player, generally hailed as excellent, has a resolution of just 480×272, although it’s roughly the same size as the screen on the Nokia. And the screen on the Treo 700p, which has the best resolution of any smart phone display, is just 320×320.

Text looks very sharp on the 770, but it can be too small to read easily. To help with that, Nokia has placed buttons on the top edge of the device that can quickly zoom the display in and out, and put the device into full-screen mode, banishing all menus and icons temporarily.

Unfortunately, this beautiful exterior hardware is served poorly by the software, and by the processor and memory beneath the covers, which are easily overwhelmed.

Using the 770’s Web browser, I was able to successfully, and fairly quickly, call up a wide variety of sites, and all the ones I tried were rendered just as they would be on a regular computer.

In most cases, even though no horizontal scrolling was needed to read the pages, I often had to use the zoom feature to make out small text. Vertical scrolling using the stylus was easy. You can also skip from link to link on a Web page using the gadget’s five-way navigation control pad.

But the email program was so slow as to be essentially useless. Even simple tasks like selecting and deleting emails take forever. There’s another reason the 770 isn’t a very good email device: Unlike the Treo, the 770 lacks a keyboard; so you have to tap out emails on an onscreen keyboard or use handwriting recognition, which wasn’t great.

The image viewer, and video and music players, worked pretty well with pictures, song files and video clips I copied to the 770’s storage card from my Macintosh via an included USB cable. But I couldn’t figure out how to do some simple things, like rotating a photo.

The user interface is confusing. The same icon is used for both the Web browser and for turning on the Wi-Fi connection. The email program is buried in the Contact menu and the picture viewer is buried in a Utilities menu.

There are many more software oddities. The 770 also uses an unusual, hard-to-find type of memory card for data storage — a “reduced-size” Multimedia card.

If you are a gadget geek, or just want to surf the Web on a small device with a great screen, the 770 might be for you. But for most mainstream users, the 770 is a disappointment. With more horsepower and a revamped interface, it might get closer to the holy grail.

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