I am a big fan of the Nokia N800 and use it quite frequently as a video player and RSS reader when I am on the go. The addition of a slide-out keyboard for the Nokia N810 made it a very desirable device and I was very excited when the folks at WOM World lent me a test device to play with for a few weeks. As luck would have it, I got the device just before a short trip to Atlanta and so I decided to give the N810 a real work out to see if it could replace my laptop. So for the first time in years I left my laptop at home for a trip and exclusively used the N810 (paired with my 3G N95) for all my computing needs.
For those of you who are not familiar with the N810 it is basically an updated N800 with a built-in, slide-out keyboard. The other major differences were a fixed front facing camera (as opposed to the rotating one on the N800), built-in GPS, 2GB internal storage and a single miniSD slot (instead of the 2 regular SD slots). The buttons on the front have all been moved either into the slide or the top of the device making it look and more importantly feel a lot smaller than the N800 even though they have the same size screen.
In general the N810 performed very much like my N800 – the screen is very clear and the battery life is pretty good. The audio is decent enough and it is able to play most video format right out of the box. The GPS chip had adequate recption though I did have issues pre-downloading maptile data – it took multiple hours to download the eastern US (~700 MB) and in the end it failed sometime during the process. The built in browser was pretty decent and I was able to visit all of my usual websites and do all my email with no issues. It came very close to being a laptop except for two deal breakers which were unfortunately both associated with the new slide-out keyboard:
First off the keyboard is really hard to use. It requires a little too much pressure to register a key press and even worse it does not give adequate feedback when a key is pressed. This is especially difficult in central keys like R, T, G, etc… I found that I would have to press the key and then immediately look at the screen to see if the press had registered. Plus since you are only typing with your thumbs it means that touch typing is not an option and you will have to keep looking from the keyboard to the screen. However I am willing to give Nokia the benefit of the doubt on this one – it is possible that the device I got was bit defective due to heavy use (it had been used by other people in the WOM program) though I would still hope that a device like this should be able to go through heavy usage without issues.
The second and much more serious problem is the interaction between the the keyboard and the touchscreen. The screen is small enough that its really not practical to tap on web links with your fingers. This means that most navigation is done using the stylus which is similar to the N800 and works pretty well here as well. Similarly the keyboard works quite well (assuming your keyboard works better than mine) when you need to enter text. The real issue is when you have to do something that involves both navigation and text – it is extremely difficult to type on the keyboard while still holding the stylus in your fingers. The ideal position for typing on the device is to have both index fingers on the top edge of the device with both middle finger supporting the device from below – this leaves your thumbs free to type. However this position also means that the gap between your index and middle fingers is too large too easily grip the extremely thin stylus. You can try and wedge it against the side of the device itself but that puts pressure on your fingers which will start hurting pretty soon. You could try putting the stylus down down/away every time you type but that will become extremely tiresome. And finally the change in hand grip from one-handed(to point) to two handed(to type) every few minutes is quite annoying too. While the keyboard and stylus are good at their individual tasks they are just not designed to be used together which means that the N810 is actually harder to use that my original N800 with its stylus operated soft keyboard.
The touch screen is a nice interface for web browsing but as more and more information moves into the cloud, a tablet-class device must have adequate (and relatively seamless) text entry mechanisms as well. What Nokia really needs is a secondary (or in this case tertiary) input method such the blackberry scroll-wheels and trackballs that allow the users to use a mouse-like functionality without changing their grip on the device. The touch screen will continue to serve as the browsing interface but users will also be able to go into the text entry mode which allows them to enter text and move around the page without having to change their grip on the device. If Nokia is able to get this right the N810 will truly become a laptop replacement for short trips and vacations. However in its current state I would recommend that you go for the N800 instead – it is both cheaper and the soft keyboard is much easier to use.