Netbook Navigator Nav9 Slate PC review
The Netbook Navigator Nav9 slate PC is one of the first Windows 7 slates aimed at the growing tablet market. While companies have been pumping out Windows tablets for the better part of a decade, most older tablets have carried high price tags and built-in keyboards, allowing you to use the computers as tablets or laptops. The Nav9 looks a bit more like an iPad, since both computers lack keyboards.
There are some major differences between the Nav9 and the iPad though. Not only does one run Windows while the other runs iOS, but the Nav9 has 3 USB ports, an SD card slot, a standard SIM card slot, a VGA and Ethernet adapter, and a front-facing webcam.
Sure, the ports make the sides of the Nav9 look a bit less pretty than iPad, but you can plug in all sorts of accessories to expand the Nav9′s capabilities.
Unfortunately, the Nav9 also has some problems that make it difficult to recommend this tablet. It’s heavy. The combination of a resistive touchscreen display and relatively slow Intel Atom N450 processor make entering text or interacting with some programs a bit difficult.
The battery is only good for a couple of hours. And while the tablet has a starting price of $599, you’ll have to pay at least $699 to get a model with Windows 7 installed. The lower price only covers the cost of the hardware, not the operating system.
Still, the Nav9 shows a bit of promise in some areas, and provides a glimpse of what Windows 7 is capable of on a slate computer. Read on for the details.
Netbook Navigator sent me a demo Nav9 to review. The computer features an 8.9 inch resistive touchscreen display, a 1.66GHz Intel Atom N450 processor, 2GB of RAM, and Windows 7 Home Premium 32-bit. The demo unit also has a 32GB solid state disk. As configured, the Nav9 costs $874. You could save $175 by picking up a model with 1GB of memory and 16GB of storage for $699.
The computer also comes with a retractable stylus, but there’s no spot in the Nav9′s case that you can slide the stylus into, so you’ll have to carry it around with you separately — or learn to use your fingernail to interact with the touchscreen display. You can also use a fingertip, but you have to press fairly hard on the screen for a fingertip tap to register, and fingertip input isn’t as precise on the Nav9 as the input from a fingernail, stylus or other pointed object.
While the Nav9 slate is pretty much a typical netbook under the hood, it doesn’t really look like a netbook, and there’s a good reason for that. There’s no keyboard or lid. The device front of the device is pretty much all screen and bezel, like the iPad and pretty much every other slate computer expected to hit the streets this year or next.
The area around the display is black, while there’s a silver colored outer edge surrounding that. There are a series of blue LED lights above the display which let you know at a glance whether the battery is charging, the wireless is on, the hard drive is active, and so forth.
While most laptops also have these status lights, I find them a little more distracting on the Nav9, since they’re just above the display and you’re always looking at the screen.
The display, bezel, and the entire case are made of plastic, but while the screen and bezel have a glossy finish, the back of the computer is matte.
There’s an access panel on the back of the Nav9 which you can open with three screws. But while you might think this would give you quick access to the solid state disk or RAM, you’d be wrong.
There’s no easy way to upgrade those components, and Netbook Navigator instead stresses that the company provides a 30 day return window, which would allow you to ship back the entire product and pay for a model with additional storage or memory.
On the right side of the computer you’ll find a USB port and slots for an SD card and a SIM card, although not all models have 3G capabilities.
The left side of the case has 2 more USB ports, mic and headphone jacks and a port for an adapter that adds VGA and Ethernet ports.
On the top you’ll find a power button, and that’s about it… except that there are also vents on the top and right sides of the Nav9.
While I didn’t notice a lot of air coming through the top vents, there seems to be a constant flow of air coming out of the vent on the right side of the computer.
This has two effects. First, it means that the Nav9 slate is always a little noisy, since the fan is pretty much always blowing. Second, it means that you’ll feel a bit of warm air if you hold the computer with your hand over that side in either landscape or portrait mode.
The plastic case feels fairly sturdy, but with a starting price of $599 (without an operating system installed), it’s hard not to look at the $499 Apple iPad and envy its lightweight aluminum case.
The Netbook Navigator Nav9 Slate PC measures 10″ x 6.6″ x 0.8″ and weighs 2 pounds. It comes with a protective case which holds the computer reasonably well, but the checkered pattern on the lid isn’t the most attractive I’ve ever seen, and unlike some tablet covers, there’s no way to use this one to prop up the computer on a table or desk.
The Nav9 has an 8.9 inch resistive touchscreen display. Unlike most cheap resistive screens, this one does support multitouch input. You can draw two lines at the same time or take advantage of gestures that require two inputs such as pinch to zoom when viewing pictures or looking at web pages.
Touch gesture support, for instance, is baked into Internet Explorer on Windows 7 Home Premium, so I was able to zoom in and out of web pages by pinching and scroll through pages by flicking my finger across the screen — much as you would with an iPhone or Android device.
While scrolling worked quite well most of the time, I noticed that the pinch zoom feature was a bit more hit or miss. At times it would take a few seconds before anything would happen and when it did work immediately the zoom animation wasn’t nearly as smooth as it is on most modern smartphones.
It’s hard to say whether the touchscreen, the processor, or the integrated graphics are to blame, but while the Nav9 Slate features support for the touch capabilities included in Windows 7, the touch experience isn’t as great as it would be on a higher end device… or a cheaper smartphone with a less resource-intensive operating system.
I know some folks are convinced that capacitive touchscreen technology always trumps resistive, but I think you could make a case that resistive screens are better suited to Windows.
Scrollbars, toolbars, and many other elements of the Windows user interface were designed for a mouse and keyboard which offer very precise input. A resistive touchscreen and stylus comes closer to that experience than a capacitive touchscreen which requires you to try to touch a very small spot on the screen with a big finger.
I found I had an easier time navigating Windows on the Nav9 than I have had on several Windows computers I’ve used with capacitive screens.
The display has a glossy finish which causes it to reflect glare — and images quite a bit. With the backlight off, the tablet could come in handy if you’re shaving and don’t have a mirror handy. With the backlight on, the tablet looks pretty good when you’re looking on it head-on. Colors look reasonably accurate and the screen is nice and bright.
The viewing angles, on the other hand, are pretty poor. In landscape mode, when you lie the Nav9 flat on a table and look at it from a 45 degree angle the screen might as well be black.
What’s odd is that viewing angles are much better in portrait mode than landscape mode. If you do the table test with the tablet in portrait mode, you can make out images and text.
This means if you’re holding the tablet in portrait mode to read an eBook, web page, or other content, you can move your head without losing the picture, and it should even be fairly easy to show photos, video, or other content to people sitting to your left or right. Good luck trying to do that in landscape mode.
The Nav9 has a 1024 x 600 pixel display, which is the same resolution found on most netbooks. That may not be a perfect screen size for opening multiple windows side by side on the computer, but it’s good enough to view most web sites and have things look pretty much the same as they would on a larger computer. Few web publishers make their pages wider than 1024 pixels.
When you rotate the screen to portrait mode, on the other hand, you have a 600 x 1024 pixel display — and that’s not really good enough for a full web experience. Some web pages, (such as this one, for example) look OK at this resolution, because the main content columns are less than 600 pixels wide.
But when I tried visiting the New York Times web site in portrait mode the last few characters in every line of text were cut off on the right side and I had to either zoom out of the page or spend a lot of time scrolling left and right to read articles.
I would have just adjusted the default zoom level, but honestly, text didn’t look as sharp when I zoomed out, so I gave up and read the paper on another computer — something I frequently found myself doing when trying to test the Nav9.
Tablets running Google Android or iOS don’t have the same kind of problems running in portrait mode because they can automatically reflow text so that even a 700 pixel-wide column will look good on a low resolution display. I haven’t found a web browser for Windows that does this properly yet — but I suspect if consumer-oriented Windows tablets take off in any real way we might start to see apps built for this form factor.
There’s another thing that makes rotating the display on the Nav9 a little painful — there’s no G-sensor. That means the screen won’t automatically rotate as you shift your hold on the computer. Instead you need to manually rotate the screen. I found the easiest way to do this was to pull up the Windows Mobility Center app from the start menu and “pin” it to Windows 7 taskbar.
Then whenever I wanted to rotate the screen, I opened the Mobility Center” and tapped the “Rotate Screen” button. Unfortunately this tilts the display by 90 degrees every time you press it — so you have to click four times to get back to where you started — unless you’re content using the tablet with the LEDs at the bottom and the Nav9 logo at the top, not that there’s really any reason not to do that.
The biggest challenge with the Nav9 touchscreen is text entry. Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate all have a software keyboard and handwriting recognition technology baked into the operating system. Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Any time you tap on a text input box such as a Notepad document, URL bar in a web browser, or the search bar in the Start Menu, an icon will pop up. Tap on that icon and the full keyboard or handwriting bar will open up.
The keyboard can be resized and moved. On the bright side, that means it’s more customizable than the keyboards that you get with most modern mobile smartphones. It also features more keys in one window than the Android or iOS keyboards. You don’t have to hit a special button to bring up numbers or punctuation marks.
The downside is that it’s much harder to use this keyboard than the Android or iOS keyboards. First, you have to move the keyboard to a part of the screen where it won’t obscure the text area. This is pretty easy to do if you’re just entering a URL in a web browser. If you’re trying to write a document or fill out a form, on the other hand, you may have to continually move the keyboard to get it out of your way.
While the keyboard is relatively easy to tap on in landscape mode, when you switch to portrait mode, you’ll find that all those extra keys get in the way a bit and make the keyboard far less useful. And while the Nav9 supports multitouch, the resistive display is really most responsive if you use a stylus or fingernail instead of a fingertip — so thumb typing is pretty much out of the question. That means you’ll probably find yourself entering text one character at a time, hunt-and-peck style. It’s a rather unpleasant typing experience.
You can also tap a button to switch from the keyboard to the Windows 7 handwriting recognition tool, which takes up less space and which is reasonably accurate. But I found that I’d often have to wait a moment or two to see if the tablet recognized the word I had written because it was wrong (or my handwriting was bad) often enough that I couldn’t simply rely on the handwriting tool blindly. Thus, entering text this way was also excruciatingly slow.
The biggest problem I had with the keyboard/handwriting recognition is that sometimes it simply didn’t work. This seemed to occur after resuming from sleep about one out of every three or four times I put the computer to sleep. I would wake the computer up, tap on a text box and the keyboard icon simply wouldn’t pop up. The only way I could get it back was to reboot the computer.
Finally I decided to try a third party solution called ritePen, which lets you write anywhere on the screen. This sort of solves the problem of the keyboard blocking the display, but it also takes a little getting used to, since at times it will think you’re trying to write something when you’re actually trying to scroll through a web page.
I suspect all of these text input methods work better the more time you spend getting used to them. But out of the box, the experience wasn’t nearly as easy or intuitive as it is on an Android or iOS device — and the relatively slow processor and resistive touchscreen certainly didn’t help matters.
Performance and battery life
While I found text input to be a bit of a chore, for the most part the computer was reasonably snappy and able to handle simple tasks such as surfing the web, watching video, or listening to music. Windows 7 also makes performing some simple tasks such as dragging and dropping files, selecting multiple files, and simulating a right-click to bring up a context menu pretty simple with a touchscreen device.
In order to select multiple files, you just draw a line around them. Check boxes will show up next to selected items, and you can unselect items by removing the check mark. You can then copy the files to a new folder simply by tapping and dragging on the group of files or an individual file. And you can bring up the context menu by tapping and holding the stylus. It may not be quite as fast as simply hitting the right button on a mouse, but it works pretty well.
Unfortunately some other Windows tricks didn’t work quite as well. I only had about a 20% success rate of double-tapping on the top of a window to maximize it or snapping a window to the left or right side of the screen. I also often had a hard time opening “File” menus in programs that were in full screen mode, because the File button is usually in the top left corner — right by the floating icon that lets you pull up the on-screenkeyboard. I can’t count the number of times I tried to hit File, but launched the keyboard instead.
While 1080p HD video playback was out of reach, I was able to watch a 720p WMV video without too much stuttering. HD Flash video, on the other hand, was atrocious, while 480p and lower resolution YouTube videos looked fine — even in full screenmode.
I ran a series of tests to see how the Nav9 fared against netbooks with similar components, including the Asus Eee PC 1001P, a $300 netbook and the Lenovo IdeaPad S10-3t, a $499 convertible tablet-style netbook. All three models have Intel Atom N450 processors and Intel GMA 3150 graphics, although the Nav9 I tested has 2GB of RAM and Windows 7 Home Premium while the other machines have 1GB of memory and Windows 7 Starter.
As you can see in the chart, the Nav9 notched very similar scores to those other machines in three tests: transcoding a video file, transcoding an audio file, and creating a ZIP file from a folder containing over 2000 individual files. These are all pretty CPU-intensive tasks.
So the Nav9 is demonstrably not really any slower than a typical Atom-powered netbook. It can run all the same apps. It handles multimedia just as well (or just as poorly, depending on your viewpoint). And it can handle basic multitasking such as listening to music while surfing the web or running several other apps at the same time.
But at times, it feels slower, largely because of the extra amount of fumbling you have to go through to input text. Theoretically you could also use the Windows 7 speech recognition utility, but I had a horrible time getting it to work on the Nav9. During setup the computer repeatedly gave me messages indicating that it either couldn’t hear me well or not at all. Once I finally got it set up, I was unable to get the Nav9 to respond to a single voice command — and the Windows speech recognition tutorial wouldn’t even run because it requires a minimum screen resolution of 1024 x 768.
I’m also a bit wary of speech recognition in general, because while it may work as a solution for inputting text or issuing commands around the home, it’s a bit more awkward to use when you’re in a classroom, library, coffee shop, or other area where you either don’t want to look like you’re talking to yourself, or where the computer may have a hard time distinguishing your voice from background sounds.
The Netbook Navigator Nav9 has a 3 cell, 2500mAh battery. The company claims it should be good for up to 3 or 4 hours of run time, but I’m not really sure what you would have to do to the computer to get that kind of battery life.
I only got 2 hours and 19 minutes of run time. This was while streaming an online radio stream through Windows Media Player and occasionally looking at web sites using Internet Explorer. I suppose turning off the WiFi would increase battery life a bit, but that doesn’t seem like a realistic way to test battery life these days.
The Netbook Navigator Nav9 tablet represents an interesting attempt to take the basic components of a netbook and throw them in a slate PC. Unfortunately it falls short of its promise in several areas.
First, the Nav9 lacks some of the features I would have expected, including an accelerometer for automatic screen rotation and a place to store the stylus.
Second, the poor viewing angles make the tablet a bit difficult to use unless you’re looking straight at it.
Third, I came to dread entering any amount of text. Visiting a web site was painful enough that I didn’t even want to consider composing an email message or anything longer on the Nav9. The overall experience of using Windows 7′s touchscreen features on a device with a slow processor and low resolution display just feels clunky. I suspect the on-screen keyboard and handwriting recognition probably work well on devices with larger, higher resolution displays allowing you to move the keyboard out of the way, as well as more powerful CPU and graphics components, which would help reduce the lag you experience when trying to enter text. An active digitizer for improved precision would also be nice.
Of course, that leads to the fourth and biggest problem: The Nav9 is already a fairly expensive piece of equipment. Adding features like those listed above would only drive up the price.
I tried installing third party software such as Mirabyte FrontFace on the Nav9 to see if it improved the user experience. While FrontFace definitely made navigation a little easier, it did little to improve the text input experience since it still relies on the Windows 7 virtual keyboard.
The Nav9 tablet is available from Netbook Navigator for $599 without an operating system. The cheapest model with Windows 7 Home Premium runs $699, but you’ll have to pay extra if you want more than 1GB of RAM or 16GB of storage. The slate is also available with Windows 7 Professional and Windows 7 Ultimate.
There are certainly some advantages to running Windows on a slate computer instead of iOS or Android. The Nav9 supports Adobe Flash out of the box; it can run thousands, if not millions of programs; and you can plug in USB hard drives, flash drives, DVD drives, a keyboard, mouse, or other accessories. But the bottom line is that this particular Windows slate just isn’t that pleasant to use on a day to day basis.