Nokia N8 preview

Strap yourselves in, pilgrims. Nokia's next great handset has resurfaced in London today, and this time we were even allowed to turn it on. There's pretty much no way you could be unaware of the N8 by now -- Nokia's done the viral video thing, the teaser demo thing, the feature walkthrough thing, we've covered it to near-exhaustion. But we've never seen it, you know, doing stuff. You can now consider that omission corrected, as we've finally powered up the 3.5-inch OLED screen, entered the overhauled Symbian^3 wonderland, and come back to tell the tale. In-depth impressions and video after the break.%Gallery-95100%

Well, now we know why Nokia didn't let us see this thing working back when we first encountered it a month ago. The software is still extremely fragile and apps seemed to believe crashing randomly was part of their runtime. Maybe it's just a very aggressive power management feature?

All joshing aside, the N8 remains an unfinished product on the OS front and we remain wary of passing final judgment until the bugs and crashes have been cleaned up. What we can say so far is that hardware remains the major attraction here, with highly impressive camera and video functionality, healthy battery life, that svelte anodized aluminum body, and a 640 x 360 3.5-inch OLED screen. The latter comes with the usual disclaimer that OLED displays aren't as useful in direct sunlight (see for yourself).

Nokia threw together the above demo video to demonstrate the N8's recording capabilities and HDMI-out playback. It illustrates the phone's stereo mics minimizing wind and traffic noise while emphasizing the birds chirping nearby and the girl's voice. There's no getting around it, this phone is indeed a terrific performer when it comes to video, and a 30-second clip we recorded took no longer than a couple of seconds to process and return us to a position where we were ready to film again. The camera is similarly snappy (we had to do it), with Nokia claiming a half-second delay between shots. Our unscientific experience seemed to corroborate the claim. That says a lot about the processing power encased within the N8, but Nokia also notes that this handset has the biggest sensor that's yet been integrated in a phone. The 1/1.183-inch imager might be the biggest physically, with Nokia echoing Apple's contention that it's all about getting those photons on the biggest possible pixels, but we wonder if output quality wouldn't have been even better served by a less ambitious pixel count. Photos looked pretty spectacular on the N8's own screen, but then most phones manage that pretty well these days -- even stretching them on an HDTV doesn't provide enough of a test as a 1080p display is still nowhere near a dozen megapixels in resolution, so we'll retain our skepticism on quality until we see the N8's pictures in their glorious full size.

What else is there to this phone, you ask? Well, we prodded Nokia on the key advantages of Symbian^3, and they seemed to be threefold: ease of use, speed, and familiarity. Can't say we care much for the latter, but Nokia believes that retaining some themes from earlier versions of the OS will allow long-term users to easily slide into the new touch-centric experience. Speaking of which, the ease of use advocated here revolves around the capacitive touchscreen, its increased sensitivity, and a related minimization of "are you sure you want to do X?" prompts. For our money, aside from getting crash reports and WiFi alerts every other minute, this was certainly true enough. All the long-press edit and submenu options really do make it easy to customize things on the fly, and menus are laid out in a sensible and intuitive manner.

We had some issues with the screen failing to recognize our taps, and although this can be put down to software again, our feeling is that on occasion the OS expects you to be too precise. There are too many instances where we are required to click a sliver of text instead of a boxier and more finger-friendly item as one might find on other touchscreen devices.

You'll already be familiar with the central UI concept of three home screens with up to six widgets per screen, and though that hasn't changed, we found it reassuringly flexible and capable of operating in portrait mode. Earlier demonstrations showed it in landscape, but the widgets rearrange themselves well enough when you flip the phone vertically. An additional menu contains your other apps, but we imagine most people will install their most used utilities -- things like Facebook, the media player, email and the like -- on the home screens and avoid entering the menus for the most part.

Multitasking was another big feature touted by Nokia and it deserves to be. Described as the proper, full fat variety, it's implemented pretty darn well here, with a visual interface showing you both a preview of what's running and a nice big X to kill any apps you no longer require. It's also logically done in terms of how you choose which apps to kill and which to keep running in the background. If you are entirely finished with an app, you can hit the soft Exit button and kill it, or if you want to have it hang around, you just hit the physical home button at bottom and it remains running in the background. Nokia's reps tell us they've had up to a dozen apps running at a time, which indicates it'd be plenty capable for most workloads. What that does to battery longevity, however, remains to be seen. We're just happy to see an instantly accessible and intuitive task manager. Don't freak out, we don't think Nokia blew it at all. We like this stuff.

Two-way sync is available for your email, with filtering on tap by sender, date, email account, etc. You can have a unified inbox or separate them out, depending on what you like, and the whole thing generally looked like a well thought out affair. Notifications for incoming mail and messages find their way onto your home screen by virtue of a widget. Messaging is threaded, though we had a little scare when we saw a 12-button soft keyboard with the phone in portrait mode -- it seems like you'll only get the full QWERTY keypad when in landscape.

To summarize then, Nokia has put together a growling multimedia powerhouse, but the OS is so far from being fully baked we can still see the dough. Clearly the only thing holding the N8 back is finalizing the Symbian^3 environment, which we're told is still scheduled to happen in Q3 2010. To quote a line we overheard at this presentation, "it's just a matter of Anssi being happy with the software" at this point, though if we were him, we'd feel pretty far away from that magical time. Let's see what the devs manage to cook up -- the ingredients are all there, and navigation doesn't seem to suffer from very much lag, so it's just a matter of knuckling down and tidying it all up.

Nokia has confirmed Vodafone as a UK carrier already, and we're hearing suggestions that the N8 will probably find its way onto all UK networks by the time it finally launches. Price is set at €370 ($448) minus subsidies and taxes, and -- again, we're reiterating suggestions rather than confirmations -- you should be able to get it for free in the UK on long-term contracts at around £25 ($36) or £30 ($44) per month.