Skyping up the N800

The Nokia N800 Internet Tablet was already an intriguing product, a multifunction Wi-Fi-powered device, neither cell phone nor full-fledged PDA, but useful and appealing in a number of ways.

It became a little more useful and appealing recently when Nokia and Skype joined forces to put a tailor-made Skype client on the N800. We reviewed the basic product in a sister publication earlier this year. Then we tested it again recently as a mobile Skype device.

Just to recap, the N800 ($240 to $400 online) is about the size of a pocket address book—2.95 x 5.7 x 0.5 inches, weighing 7.27 ounces. It sports a 4.1-inch wide-format, touch-sensitive screen (800×480 pixels, 65,536 colors), built-in speakers and microphone for playing music and video (and, now, making Internet calls), and a webcam that pops out from the side on a little pencil-like protrusion.

The N800 is Linux-based and comes with a built-in Opera browser. Nokia doesn’t say which processor is in it but it’s rumored to be Texas Instruments’ OMAP 2420 SoC with a clock speed of 320MHz. The unit has 128MB of RAM, 256MB of internal flash memory and an SD card slot for “mass” storage.

There is much to like about the N800, including the screen, but my feeling the first time I reviewed it was that the screen was too small for the device to work really well as an Internet device. Too often, body copy on Web pages is too small to read easily.

On the other hand, it’s definitely an improvement on most PDAs as a pocket-size Internet device. With the addition of a Bluetooth keyboard, it would also work as a lightweight mobile word processor. More to the point for this review, the screen size is certainly adequate for Skyping.

Setting the N800 up on my Wi-Fi network was a breeze. It connected in a few seconds, once I remembered to add the device’s MAC address to the wireless card access list in my Netgear router’s browser interface. (I use MAC address filtering, and I invariably forget this crucial step, cursing the shoddiness of the product for a few minutes before realizing that, as usual, the problem is user error.)

With the latest firmware update, a Skype link appears on the N800’s main menu. Clicking it started a very smooth automatic download and install of the Skype client, with only a few stops: to accept the license agreement and confirm the choice of folders for storing Skype code.

It took very little more time than it did on my desktop PC for Skype to connect, sign me in, and display my contact list.

The client looks a little different than it does on a PC screen. It’s familiar enough, but some functions are missing: search, conference, send SMS, SkypeFind (the new small business locater), and Live (a listing of ongoing “public conversations”).

This is reasonable enough. None of these functions is essential for a mobile, and something had to be jettisoned to make Skype fit on a device this small.

One disappointment: Skype does not support the integrated webcam. If you want to make a video call, you have to use the built-in generic Internet Call client with a Googletalk account—and while Googletalk worked reasonably well, it typically doesn’t deliver as good connection or audio quality as Skype.

The Nokia 800 Internet Tablet
The Nokia 800 Internet Tablet

The interface
The default view for the Skype client is full screen—it even hides the N800’s main control buttons on the left side of the screen and across the top. You can change this in the Skype View menu, however, so Skype only uses most of the screen, leaving these controls visible. You can also toggle between the two view modes using a button on the top edge of the unit.

On the home screen, the contact list appears down the left side. On the right side, you see profile and other information about the selected contact, as well as big call and chat buttons. There are three tabs across the top left: contacts (visible on launch), the phone keypad for SkypeOut calling, and call history. At the top on the right side is a small panel showing your account name, a drop-down menu for selecting presence status and a tally of your SkypeOut credits.

To get access to other Skype functions, you can click the N800’s menu button in the control panel to the left of the screen or tap the down arrow in the title bar at the top of the Skype screen. A pop-up menu appears, covering part of the contacts list, with top-level choices for Add a contact, Edit profile, Chats, History, View, Tools, Sign out, and Close.

The Tools/Settings submenu provides access to many of the functions in the desktop client’s Tools/Options menu, but by no means all. But then, not all are required. There is no option for choosing a sound device, for example, but you can only use the N800’s built in speakers and microphone or a headset plugged into its headphone jack anyway. (Another disappointment: I couldn’t get my Bluetooth headset to work with Skype, though it connected without any problem to the N800 and worked with Googletalk when I first reviewed the product.)

Doing phone
Caveat: Real world testing of Skype devices is always a dicey proposition because quality is subject to degradation from any number of variables outside the control of the device. If it’s a bad connection, it doesn’t matter how good the phone, it will sound bad.

On test calls with the N800 in the same room as the Wi-Fi router, using the integrated speaker and microphone and calling other Skype users, audio quality was surprisingly good—once I’d cranked the volume all the way up in both Skype and on the device. It was also, more surprisingly, good at the other end, with little of the tinny, echo-y effect you would expect with a speaker phone.

On SkypeOut calls, audio (and connection) quality were almost as good, though slightly lower volume made it more difficult to hear on the N800’s diminutive speaker. Using the earbud headset shipped with the product didn’t help much. On most connections, however, people at the other end reported that I was coming through loud and clear.

But you likely won’t want to use the N800 in the same room as the router. You’ll use it around home or the office when you don’t have a desktop or laptop handy, often at some distance from the router. Or at a hotspot. The N800 performed well enough away from the router, but it doesn’t have the range of other wireless Skype devices we’ve tried.

When I walked outside my home, connections were still good—in cases where the Skype connection was good to begin with—up to 60 or 70 feet away, at which point they began to degrade pretty rapidly with break-ups and volume dips. Some other wireless Skype devices I’ve tried that use 900 MHz or DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) were useable as much as 50 feet further from the router.

In limited testing at Wi-Fi hotspots, the Skype worked reasonably well, even when the N800 was reporting fairly weak connections. The incoming voice was especially good with most calls I tried, though the person at the other end sometimes reported I was breaking up even when their voice was clear and constant. Also, the low volume levels made it difficult to hear in noisy environments.

Is the N800 the best wireless Skype phone we’ve ever tested? It is not. But, in this reviewer’s opinion, it works well enough. Given the device’s other appeals, the fact that it’s also now a reasonably good Skype phone should win it a few new fans.

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