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Saturday, April 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nokia 770 falters on real-world chores

The Washington Post

The Nokia 770 Internet Tablet ought to possess all the ingredients necessary for tech success. This thin, light device — essentially, a touch-sensitive color screen framed by a few buttons — looks like an artifact from science fiction. It comes from a company with a long history of innovation in mobile devices. And it runs on the tinkering-friendly, open-source Linux operating system.

But while this $360 gadget might fit in great on "Star Trek," in the real world it competes with a galaxy of other handheld devices, most of which do more than the Nokia 770, and do it far more reliably and gracefully. The Nokia 770's aptitude at providing a pocket-size window on the Web can't overcome its ineptitude at almost everything else.

Nokia didn't start with a bad idea. It shouldn't be necessary to buy a full-fledged computer — with all the labor that entails — just to hop on the Web. With the 770 (www.nokiausa.com/770), the idea is to replace the laptop you'd otherwise use to go online at home and anywhere else you can get wireless Internet access. Instead of 5 pounds of bulky laptop, you have 8.25 ounces of tablet that measures 5 x 3 x 3/4 inches, small enough to stash in a jeans or jacket pocket.

Nokia has plenty of company in this effort. People have been trying to make a go of selling simple Web terminals for years. But none of them has succeeded, and it doesn't look as if the 770 will do any better.

Its biggest flaw is the keyboard Nokia left out. You can enter text only by tapping a tightly packed onscreen keyboard, with help from an automatic word-completion option, or by taking your chances with handwriting recognition that's either ploddingly slow or wildly inaccurate. That alone should sink anything built for constant Web and e-mail use.

The 770 can get online via Wi-Fi wireless networking or through a Bluetooth pairing with a cellphone. In practice, only Wi-Fi is likely to work, given (a) how often wireless carriers disable dial-up networking capability on their Bluetooth phones and (b) how hard it can be to configure that Bluetooth link even when the carrier condescends to allow it.

Wi-Fi on the 770, however, may not work much better. The review model I tested frequently failed to log on to my home network's wireless signal for no apparent reason; uselessly vague error messages such as "network problem" left me guessing about the cause.

The 770 fared better on other networks but never as well as any laptop I've used.

The most important program on this device is its Web browser, a version of the Opera program. Given the constraints of the 770's wide-format screen (800 by 480 pixels), it does an impressive job of displaying standard Web pages.

This browser can open multiple pages at once — you switch among them by tapping on identical, unlabeled icons at the left of the screen — but it almost always crashed if left open with too many pages for too long.

It's not as if the Nokia 770 will be the first portable gadget somebody buys. It's going to have to earn its way into pockets, purses, bags and backpacks already occupied by phones, Palm or Pocket PC handhelds, iPods, Sony PSP or Nintendo DS game machines or laptops, often more than one of those. With that competition, a 770 will probably land on the shelf.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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