Walt Mossberg

Nokia’s Marriage To Small Computers Still Has Its Problems

If Apple can make a cellphone, can Nokia make a computer? Yes, sort of.

The convergence of the computer and consumer-electronics businesses, including the mobile-phone business, is accelerating. Apple dropped the word “computer” from its corporate name last month and announced its new iPhone big-screen cellphone, to ship in June. Hewlett-Packard quietly announced its first real mobile phone last week. Smart-phone makers Palm and Research In Motion are really hybrids of cellphone and computer companies.

Meanwhile, traditional mobile-phone makers like Motorola, Nokia and Samsung have all turned out smart phones, which are, in effect, little computers, with the ability to handle email, multimedia, Web browsing and more.

Nokia, long the leading mobile-phone company, has been pursuing an even more radical project — a hand-held computer that isn’t a cellphone at all. It has just brought out the latest version of this product, the $399 N800 Internet Tablet, and I’ve been testing it. The N800 is part of a long-term strategy by Nokia to evolve into a company that’s more a maker of small multimedia devices with connectivity, rather than primarily a maker of phones.

The N800 is an overhauled version of the 770 I reviewed last year. That model, priced at $360, was so underpowered as to be almost useless. The new one is speedier, more powerful, thinner and lighter, albeit a bit longer. Like the 770, the N800 is designed to connect to the Internet via a Wi-Fi wireless network, though it can use a cellphone as a modem. Like the 770, it uses a touch screen and virtual keyboard.

The new model has some nice features the 770 lacked, like a pop-out video camera, and the ability to make voice calls over the Internet. It can take two standard memory cards, rather than the one oddball card the 770 accepted. Like the 770, it does a far better job of browsing the Web than any smart phone on the market today.

The screen, like the 770′s, is huge — 4.2 inches diagonally — and with a stunning resolution of 800 x 480, significantly larger and sharper than the much-touted iPhone screen.

But, like the 770, the new N800 is a good example of how hard it is for a company that grew up in one business to migrate successfully to another. I can’t imagine many people carrying around this device. For one thing, the N800 is a tweener — smaller than a laptop, but too big for a pocket. It’s 5.7 inches long, 2.95 inches wide and 0.5 inch thick. It weighs 7.27 ounces. The iPhone is smaller and lighter.

More importantly, the N800′s software seems unpolished and unfinished. There’s no calendar application, no method for synchronizing data from a PC, no software for using the camera to record videos or snap still pictures, though Nokia says that’s coming. And there’s no simple way to use the camera for video conferencing with a PC, unless you get somebody else to download a special Nokia program. The company hopes to solve this later with a Skype program for the device. You can make a video call to another N800.

The N800 Internet Tablet, $399, has a touch screen.
The N800 Internet Tablet, $399, has a touch screen.

Nokia is hoping that open-source developers will help polish the N800′s software and add functions. This is an idealistic goal, and has won the hearts of some techies. But mainstream consumers expect complete functions on the device, out of the box. Third-party software is a great thing, but it isn’t a substitute for strong software from the manufacturer.

Still, the N800 does some things well. Web browsing is a pleasure, because pages render much like they do on a real PC, and you can see a much larger portion of each page than you can on a typical phone, even a Windows Mobile or Palm model. Handy buttons on the top of the Nokia make this even better, by zooming in or out on the Web page, or instantly hiding the navigation controls so the page can claim the whole screen.

Instant messaging also worked well, although the only prominent service bundled with the N800 is Google Talk. I also successfully made and received Internet voice calls via Google Talk. These were clear and easy, though they don’t fully compensate for the lack of a built-in cellphone. An RSS feed reader, which sucked in headlines from various Web sites, was also good, as was the photo-viewing program.

The email program is fair, if pretty bare-bones and sometimes slow. BlackBerry addicts are unlikely to accept the onscreen keyboard in place of a real one. Some attachments, such as pictures or PDF files, open easily, but Word documents never even showed up in my tests.

We won’t know until June whether Apple has been able to successfully invade Nokia’s turf and make a decent cellphone. But so far, Nokia is struggling to go the other way.


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