- Unparalleled camera performance
- Aluminum shell combines beauty and brawn
- Gorilla Glass-protected AMOLED display
- Symbian user experience lags competition
- Still too many system nags and prompts
- No QWERTY keyboard in portrait mode
We've got no complaints to proffer about the apparent durability of the handset itself and that extends to this extra bump on the back, but there are a couple of notes worth making. Firstly, the N8 will spend most of its horizontal time resting on the camera section's bottom edge. In our time with the phone we noticed it generated an unpleasant screeching sound anytime we slid it across a flat surface and we imagine over the long run that portion of the body will suffer plenty of wear and tear. Additionally, we found ourselves inevitably fingering the lens every time we held the handset up to make a call. That was just the most natural place for our forefinger to go, which is hardly a deal breaker in itself, but something to bear in mind if you care to keep your imaging equipment immaculately clean (and if you read our camera section below, you probably will care).
We'd be remiss not to also note that the menu key at the N8's bottom left corner feels rather improperly placed. Nokia loves to tout its phones as being designed for single-handed operation, but reaching down to hit the menu key and access its multivariate functions was something of a treacherous activity. We nearly dropped this precious drop of aluminum a couple of times while trying to maneuver our digits over that button, and eventually settled on using a second hand when we needed it.
Aside from those somewhat minor points, the N8 really looks to be continuing Nokia's fine tradition of making phones built to last decades rather than mere months or years. The volume buttons are crowned with handy little nubs for blind operation, the traditional screen-locking slider is also present and accounted for -- coming with a nicely ridged surface and a finely tuned spring mechanism -- and is joined by something of a rarity in smartphones: a two-stage shutter button for the camera, which is also easy to find and operate.
Much has been made of the N8's use of a 680MHz processor in a 1GHz world, but those numbers are predictably beguiling. The N8 has a separate Broadcom GPU alongside its ARM 11 processing core, which takes over when things get graphically intense and delivers performance that rarely left us feeling underpowered. Couple that with Symbian^3 being able to exploit the graphics processor to perform hardware-accelerated OS animations and graphics, and grunt should altogether be quite adequate for the tasks the N8 is intended to perform. 720p movies were certainly no challenge for this phone. A lot more worthy of critique might be the 256MB memory allowance, which halves what other new phones are coming out with, but again, the argument can be made that Symbian^3 is an inherently more efficient platform and the lower number on the spec sheet doesn't seem to have had a correspondingly negative impact on real world use. In our experience, spanning multiple N8 devices, we only saw a "memory full" error message once -- while viewing a video file on the phone with the calendar open in the background.
Suffice it to say, you won't be lacking for options with the N8.
The array of additional features is pretty comprehensive too, with 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 3.0 plus A2DP, GPS (both the real and assisted kind), USB On-The-Go support, a 1200mAh battery, 16GB of built-in storage, and of course a MicroSD slot for adding up to 32GB more. Light and proximity sensors are joined by an accelerometer and magnetometer in ensuring that there's no unfilled nook or cranny within the N8's aluminum body. Suffice it to say, you won't be lacking for options with this handset.
It's also worth pointing out that a recent teardown of the N8 showed it to be quite friendly to user repairs, thanks to the use of Torx screws throughout, with the battery compartment in particular being only two of those fasteners away from being pried open. It's reassuring to know that even when Nokia moves away from the traditional user-replaceable battery design, it still offers a cell that is accessible to the somewhat more motivated owner. We didn't have the chance to test the battery out in full, but our time with the N8 made a good impression -- we were typically able to get more than a full day's use out of it, though do beware overusing that Xenon flash. The camera was the biggest power drain for us, with its oversized lighting unit predictably being the chief culprit.
The FM transmitter included on the N8 made us smile with nostalgia, as it hearkens back to a time when we actually cared about FM radio waves. In itself, it's a pretty hit-and-miss affair. The hit is that the setup is an utter cinch, asking you only to select the same frequencies on your Nokia and the nearest boombox you've got lying around, while the miss is the fact that we got an awful lot of noise and distortion while trying to listen to our music. Eventually we did position our phone just right for almost flawless playback, but it's a temperamental affair and would require a bit of patience and commitment from the user determined to squeeze every last cent's worth out of his 1985 Technics hi-fi. On a less flippant note, we reckon drivers will really appreciate the transmitter's inclusion, particularly those who have to rent regularly, as it gives them a connectivity mode with unmatched backwards compatibility.
Even happier news were found on the video transmission front, where we were able to drop a downloaded .mkv file off from our MacBook Pro and onto our N8 just through OS X, without recourse to any additional software, before exploiting the phone's HDMI connection to pump the video out to our home cinema projector. It was easy and straightforward, and having Matroska format compatibility right out of the box is very nice indeed.
What lies beneath it is a 3.5-inch AMOLED display stretching to 640 x 360 resolution. That's obviously not the densest panel you can own anymore, but neither is it a slouch. The N8's vibrancy and color saturation look highly accurate while the auto-brightness guesses correctly most of the time and gives you enough power -- unless you've got the sun shining directly down on the phone, of course -- to get on with your Symbian^3 business. That resolution is really the only thing holding this display back, but it's not like Nokia can do too much about it now.
Color balance and light metering are superb. The two-stage shutter button feels wonderful, and locks both focus and exposure when half pressed.
Pictures captured with the N8 contain a tremendous amount of information and leave the door wide open for some serious post-processing. Color balance and light metering are superb. The two-stage shutter button feels wonderful, and locks both focus and exposure when half pressed. This gives the more advanced user plenty of creative flexibility in re-framing shots and/or playing with exposure. As to the less talented among us, we did note that the use of the physical shutter button (instead of the provided onscreen capture icon) introduced an extra bit of camera shake into our results. That wasn't universally the case and trained professionals could perhaps show us how to hold it right, but it did arise as an issue in our earlier hands-on with Nokia's new flagship.
The N8's LED-assisted autofocus is the fastest we've ever encountered on a cameraphone, but focus distance is somewhat limited by the wide-angle lens, with the macro starting at 10cm (four inches). Low-light performance, while generally quite impressive, sometimes exhibits more noise than expected. We talked about this with Damian Dinning at Nokia (the man behind the development of the N8 camera), who explained that the goal was to preserve detail at the expense of some noise, thus allowing more wiggle room for post-processing. While this is a reasonable approach, we'd like to see a setting to enable additional noise reduction. With the flash turned on, the N8 is pure Xenon magic. Night shots from macro to about two meters (six feet) look fantastic with the flash.
The N8 records video in 720p at 25fps. It performs better than the Motorola Droid X, but the resulting footage is choppier than the iPhone 4 and Samsung Wave, which both record at 30fps. Instead of autofocus, the N8 uses an active hyperfocal system which keeps objects in focus from 60cm (two feet) to infinity. While this works well most of the time, it means there's no macro for closeups. Audio is captured in stereo and sounds extremely clear, even when recording in loud environments. The N8 was recently hacked to record video at 30fps with continuous autofocus, and to take pictures at 100 percent JPEG quality (the default is 85 percent). Hopefully, Nokia will make some (if not all) of these features available in a future firmware update.
While not as simple as the iPhone 4 or as polished as the Samsung Galaxy S, the N8 camera interface is reasonably intuitive for long-time Symbian users, and provides plenty of useful settings, such as flash control, scene mode, face detection, exposure, white balance, ISO (100/400/800), sharpness, color tone, and contrast. There's no touch-to-focus, and no panorama setting, although the latter is supported via a separate app (see our sample shot here). The onscreen zoom slider is easy to touch by accident and seems redundant since the volume rocker also controls the digital zoom. Nokia provides functionality to edit and tag photos and videos, but strangely no direct way to upload content to sites like Flickr or YouTube, other than via email, of course.
Speaker / earpiece
Sound is another feather in the N8's resplendent hat. The speaker is loud, bordering on booming (for its size), and produces crisp and punchy output. When placed on a flat surface, the rear-firing audio port did a fine job of bouncing sound back off its resting place and into the atmosphere around you, but it was less accomplished when placed on softer landing zones. We managed to disarm it almost completely by innocently placing it atop a cushion. You might say that's a small shortcoming and you would indeed be right. For those cozier moments, you can just make use of Nokia's bundled headset, which features a pair of noise-isolating ear buds that are a clear cut above the mediocrity typically thrown in with phones. It also has an in-line music remote plus a built-in a mic for some old school handsfree telephony.
Call quality on the N8 was similarly above average, with our direct comparison to the iPhone 4 showing a slight, but distinguishable, advantage for Nokia's handset. While voices sounded a tad bit tinnier on the N8, they were also more natural, making the iPhone sound "digital" by comparison. Not that it should come as any sort of a surprise, but Nokia has clearly taken care of the fundamentals with aplomb here.
Nokia and the Symbian Foundation have been met with a unique challenge: the platform has needed to evolve in ways that prevent it from breaking many years of architectural compatibility.
Looking at the spec sheet, the N8 is notable not just for its epic camera hardware, but also for the fact that it becomes the first Symbian^3-based device to hit the market. Of course, Nokia and the Symbian Foundation have been met with a unique challenge that Android and iOS really have not thus far: the platform has needed to evolve in ways that prevent it from breaking many years of architectural compatibility. A very real example of that comes in the form of Avkon, Symbian's UI framework, a framework that has existed since Series 60's creation in 2002; odds are many of your old non-touch S60 applications don't work on S60 5th Edition or Symbian^3, but the fact that any of them do is a testament to the fact that Avkon soldiers on just as it did back in the pre-5800 days. For devs, Avkon's relative stability has made it easier to develop Symbian apps with some assurance that they'll work for years to come -- an important point for attracting high-quality software to the platform.
That's not to say Nokia's been standing still. The company has been slowly preparing itself, its users, and its developers for a clean break from Avkon to Qt starting with Symbian^4 and MeeGo, and to make that transition a smoother one, preview implementations of the Qt framework have been available for quite some time both on S60 5th Edition and on Maemo. In other words, Nokia has given devs plenty of time to wake up, convert their wares to Qt, and deploy them right now -- no need to wait for the first Symbian^4 devices to come out in 2011 and go through several weeks of panic as customers realize that none of their prized apps will install. The N8 supports Qt out of the box.
That's great, but there's still a big problem: to call Symbian's third-party app ecosystem "primitive" would be an understatement. Like the backward compatibility issue, part of this malaise stems from S60's nearly decade-old roots -- a time when phone storage could be measured in kilobytes, not gigabytes. Back then, users had to accustom themselves to trawling websites and forums to download .sis files (or purchase them from vendors they may or may not trust) and transfer them to their phones -- only to repeat the process when updates became available. Put simply, app discovery was nigh impossible (ironically, Nokia helped pioneer the managed app clearinghouse concept with its Download! service, but never bothered to do anything useful with it).
Of bigger concern, though, is that once you get the Store installed, it's a little light on big names. Don't get us wrong -- it's far better than the early days when paid wallpapers and themes outnumbered actual apps by a wide margin, but there are still glaring holes in the inventory that would make it difficult or impossible to beef up a seasoned Android or iOS user's N8 with enough functionality to match what he'd had before (or even come close). Easy example: where's the official Twitter app? Yes, Gravity is quite good, but we dare you to find another modern smartphone platform where you need to pay $10 for a kick-ass Twitter client. Another example: Facebook's in the Ovi Store, but it's not showing up for the N8 at the moment for some reason ... and regardless, it's not a true native client, but a somewhat wonkier web runtime. Google services are weak too -- the Gmail app is a barebones Java client (if you've used the BlackBerry app, you've got an idea of what that's like), the Google Maps app is optimized for the 5800 (there are several places where it asks you to press the nonexistent Send button) and lacks multitouch capability, and if you're a Google Voice user, you're pretty much out of luck ... we were able to track down a year-old Python-based third party client with mixed reviews, but nothing even close to an official app. You might also miss major streaming services like Pandora and Slacker.
Considering that Symbian still commands the largest installed base globally of any smartphone platform, you might say it's really strange the Ovi Store doesn't get far more respect from the big names. It's pure conjecture on our part, but we think there are a few reasons for it. The root cause is likely the legacy we've mentioned -- as a smartphone platform, Symbian is relatively ancient, and its users and developers are still acclimatizing themselves to the brave new world where both free and paid apps flow like water through a well controlled central source. Secondly, Symbian's in a transitional phase right now where developers need to support both touchscreen and non-touchscreen form factors, which essentially means two entirely different user experiences and twice the design work. Thirdly, Nokia's global dominance might actually be working against it here -- localizing apps to the countless markets where Nokia does business can be a huge pain, and outside North America, Nokia's market share is so well distributed that you have little option but to take on the challenge (an interesting side effect of that: many of the reviews we saw in the Ovi Store were in languages other than English).
For entertainment, you've got the all-important Angry Birds, and Electronic Arts has made a big commitment to the platform with key titles like The Sims 3 and Need for Speed.
It's not like the Ovi Store is barren, though. Services like Qik and Fring -- both of which got their start on S60 -- are in there, and you'll find popular names like Foursquare, OpenTable, and YouTube. For entertainment, you've got the all-important Angry Birds, and Electronic Arts has made a big commitment to the platform with key titles like The Sims 3 and Need for Speed. The biggest problem might be with home screen widgets; most handsets Nokia currently sells (and nearly all devices in users' hands right now) still don't support them, so developers seem to be lukewarm on creating the content at this point. At our count, there are just 14 widgets available for download, which supplement the 16 that Nokia supplies in firmware -- some of which are lame like a Phone Setup widget (essentially a shortcut that takes up the entire width of the screen) and dedicated CNN and Reuters RSS widgets, so they don't really count towards the total (you can create your own RSS widgets by subscribing to feeds from the browser).
But enough about the Symbian ecosystem -- let's get into the trenches. Overall, you can think of Symbian^3 as a refresh of S60 5th Edition / Symbian^1, designed in part to ease some very specific pain points of 5th Edition's early days and generally continue to make the platform more touch-friendly than ever. The first thing you'll probably notice is that you've now got support for multiple home screens, configurable between one and three. Depending on how you roll, you might be able to get by on just one screen -- but that'd be a lot easier were it not for the fact that Symbian^3 still only allows one widget size that takes up the entire width of the screen in portrait mode. We'd love to see these guys go the Android route and allow developers to choose a size that makes the most sense for their widgets; depending on the functionality and style, anything from one-by-one to four-by-four can make sense. This is still better than iOS by a mile, of course -- we'll take widgets with limited layout options over no widgets any day.
Early 5800 and N97 users might remember that the UI felt extremely rickety; it was obvious that Nokia needed more time to get its touchscreen ducks in a row. Over time, those devices' firmwares have improved, but you can look at the N8 as a culmination of all those efforts so far. Finally, the stylus (or plectrum) never feels necessary here -- which is an especially good thing, seeing how the screen is capacitive and it doesn't come with one -- and the entire interface features inertial scrolling and single-touch selection. We can't tell you how frustrating it was on the 5800 to not know whether a list would scroll under our thumbs or whether tapping an item would activate it or merely highlight it ... but all those inconsistencies appear to have been thoroughly squashed. We really couldn't find anything to complain about in that regard.
The browser is one of the places where the N8 is definitely bumping up against the raw limits of its 'mature' processor.
Fundamentally, the N8's browser seems better-equipped to handle mobile-optimized sites than desktop ones. Of course, the same could be said of every phone, regardless of platform, memory, or processor -- but nowadays, Android, iOS, webOS, and Windows Phone 7 can all generally render them with reasonable performance and offer decent tools for navigating, whereas the N8 is really pretty bad at it. It repeatedly crashed loading engadget.com for us (though the mobile version worked fine, thank goodness), regularly ground to a halt while scrolling, and didn't look as good, largely because text isn't anti-aliased regardless of size or style. As far as we can tell, the browser is one of the places where the N8 is definitely bumping up against the raw limits of its "mature" processor -- it might not be possible to eke enough juice out of it to make a mobile browsing experience that can hang with the best at this point.
Ovi Maps, Messaging, and Email
Speaking of multitouch, let's take a look at a prominent app that doesn't have it: Ovi Maps. Mapping is one place where it's awfully hard to go back to a single-touch experience after you've had the opportunity to pinch and zoom (the Android 1.6-powered Dell Streak comes immediately to mind). Once you get past that, though, we immediately noticed how much faster the app loaded and AGPS lock was obtained than in any other Nokia device we've ever used. We're not sure if the improvements are borne from the app, the N8, or a combination, but we don't care -- it's good, and it helps put Ovi Maps within spitting distance of Google Maps' usability. On that topic, Nokia helps match (and in some ways exceed) Google Maps' built-in places directory by integrating a number of services, including WCities, Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, Expedia and TimeOut, all of which expose location information for points of interest that can be sent straight to the map.
The email and messaging apps aren't much different than their S60 5th Edition equivalents, but one change really stood out for us: the N8 at long last includes a "conversations" mode for reading text messages in a threaded view. It's exactly what you expect -- alternating bubbles calling out messages that you've sent and received, all grouped by contact. What sets Nokia apart from the competition here is that it's preserved the single-message view as well; we can't imagine too many people prefer it, but if you fall in that camp, it's there for you. No need to panic. Oddly, we get an error when trying to send emails using Nokia's in-built Exchange support to connect up to Gmail, but it doesn't matter too much -- the phone supports Gmail accounts (along with a variety of other types) right out of the box, so you'll just use that for email and the Exchange connection for contacts and calendar.
All in all, there's no mind-blowing functionality here, but it gets the job done admirably.
The music app appears designed to show off some of Symbian^3's upgraded graphics capabilities with a slick three-dimensional (if not overtly CoverFlow-like) album cover viewer that automatically engages when you rotate the N8 into landscape. You can select from a handful of preselected equalizer modes from inside the app, toggle the FM transmitter at a frequency of your choosing, and export songs straight to ringtones -- a drop-dead obvious trick that the iPhone should've learned eons ago. All in all, there's no mind-blowing functionality here, but it gets the job done admirably -- and the N8's sound, as we've already said, is superb both on headphones and through the powerful, resonant loudspeaker.
We'd mentioned the photo editing app before, and this is one of the neat ways that the N8 differentiates itself: it ships with really capable photo-editing capabilities in ROM. The photo editor -- which is a separate app entirely from the photo gallery -- lets you rotate, resize, crop, and adjust colors, saturation, contrast, and so on. You can also draw, add fake photo frames, make red-eye adjustments, and apply basic filters like sepia, charcoal, emboss, vignette, and the like, and you've also got a handful of optical effects like pincushion. It's relatively fast, efficient, and usable, and we can safely say you won't feel the need to buy any other photo editing suite for the phone.
The video editing app isn't quite as awesome. We found it tended to bog down a lot, and as far as we can tell, there's no way to save projects -- it's a one-and-done sort of operation. You can intermix photos and video clips on your phone with audio tracks to make new videos and add text captions (in the trademark Nokia font, of course), but we came away feeling like this one probably wouldn't get too much use unless you were desperate to throw something slick together for an MMS.
Many of the remaining apps that ship with the N8 are carryovers from phones gone by -- so rather than look at those, let's talk a bit about some of the OS services that affect you system-wide. First off, they keyboard remains a huge sticking point for us, just as it has been in S60 5th Edition devices of old. The biggest issue is that there's no QWERTY keyboard in portrait mode -- your choices are triple-tap or T9, just as they were in your phone from eight years ago. It's only when you change to landscape that you get full QWERTY. Predictive text in landscape is off by default, but we found that we did better with it on. Thing is, there doesn't seem to be a way to get the phone to replace your typing with the top suggestion when you press spacebar -- you have to manually select it, which we found slowed us down a ton. Sometimes you just have to trust the prediction, and Nokia doesn't seem to be willing to let you do that. Perhaps our biggest keyboard beef, however, is the fact that Symbian^3 still doesn't let you see any UI while the keyboard's in use -- regardless of whether you're in portrait or landscape, it completely covers the display with a full-screen keyboard and input box. That can be especially disorienting on websites when you're not certain you've tapped in the right textbox.
Let us also be clear about the software: we can say in no uncertain terms that the N8 is easily the best Symbian device that Nokia -- or any company, for that matter -- has ever made. Unfortunately, by evolving at a glacial (and largely superficial) pace, Symbian itself continues to cater specifically to a market of individuals who were early smartphone adopters five or more years ago. That's a market whose continued loyalty only stands to shrink, not grow. And at a time when 720p video recording is no longer novel and 3.5-inch screens are starting to look a bit on the small side, even DSLR-like image quality isn't enough to justify a phone without a fantastic and thoroughly modern user experience to match. Symbian^3, sadly, regrettably, heartrendingly, isn't there yet.
MeeGo, your move.
Additional reporting done by Chris Ziegler, Myriam Joire, and Thomas Ricker.
Symbian Foundation Symbian^3