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).
More recently, Nokia has all but solved those shortcomings with Ovi Store, and we found Ovi Store 2.0 -- the new version that ships with the N8 -- particularly pleasant to use. Actually, back up: it doesn't
ship with the N8. There are a few hooks in the operating system (looking for more UI themes online, for instance) that will prompt you to visit a site where you can download the Ovi Store installer, but it's not in ROM. That's a problem that RIM has had prior to BlackBerry 6, but they've now corrected it -- it's mandated that all BlackBerry 6 devices ship with App World pre-installed, the company tells us -- and we'd recommend Nokia does the same. This is how consumers expect to get their mobile apps now, and there's simply no reason for Nokia to pretend that there might be a scenario where you don't want it. It's fine that Nokia still allows you to install your own .sisx files if you're into that sort of thing -- in fact, that flexibility is one of the platform's big advantages -- but the only way for Ovi Store (and other Ovi components, for that matter) to achieve success is through ubiquity. Nokia's got a massive installed base and is selling literally hundreds of thousands of new phones each day ... it makes no sense for Ovi Store not to be instantly available on every one of them -- the ones running Series 40 and Symbian, anyway.
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).
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
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.
When we played with the N8 and its Symbian^3-based stablemates at Nokia World last month, we perceived the long delay between swipes and home screen changes as sluggishness; at the time, Nokia insisted it was a feature, not a bug. Pauses of any sort on a phone are rarely good, however, and Nokia seems to have taken the complaints to heart because the delay is nearly imperceptible on the production firmware. We'd note that there's still a minor learning curve here if you're coming from an iPhone or an Android device because the screens don't move with your thumb -- rather, you execute a swipe gesture, then
the screen changes. Takes some getting used to.
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.
There are also small touches, random bits of intelligent design, sprinkled throughout the platform. Most of these aren't new, but they still make us smile when we come across them on a Symbian device. We still love Turning Control, a feature more recently picked up by a few other devices on other platforms here and there, which lets you silence your ringer or snooze your alarm just by flipping the phone over (the Gorilla Glass should save you from any potential for scratches from that maneuver). We also appreciated that the N8 has a screensaver that makes smart use of OLED's property of self-illumination: it's a very dimly lit outline of a clock and date. The remainder of the screen remains black, and therefore consumes zero power. We imagine the feature drains very little juice, and it's worth it just to be able to see the time as soon as you pull out your phone without fiddling with any buttons (yes, it's almost impossible to see in sunlight, but you can't win 'em all).
The browser is a mixed bag. Many folks will recall that Nokia was one of the first companies to really deeply embrace WebKit on mobile; in fact, in its early days, it was usually regarded as the best web experience you could get on a phone. Problem is, Nokia failed to iterate the browser to keep up with the times, and not much has changed with the N8 (your first clue is that the UI is largely carried over from S60 5th Edition). Symbian^3 adds low-level support for multitouch, and the browser is the biggest beneficiary of that; we're happy to report that both pinch- and double tap-to-zoom work really well -- they're generally smooth and fast. Scrolling is inertial and pretty well calibrated, but it tended to get jerky when rendering complicated desktop-optimized elements (think engadget.com). Like Nokias before it, the N8 features built-in Flash Lite, which rendered both embedded ads and movies with aplomb. We're sure they were to blame for some of the jerkiness when navigating sites, but when playing YouTube videos from within YouTube's site, everything came through smoothly.
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.
It's good, but there's some weirdness in Ovi Maps that still holds it back from being truly great. For one, there's no way to search your contacts from within Ovi Maps. Strangely enough, you can choose an address visually using Ovi Maps when adding an address to a contact, but we couldn't find a way to then use that address as a navigation destination. The traffic data situation is similarly perplexing: when navigating in the US, we kept getting traffic information for German autobahns, which ... wasn't particularly useful. Confusing the situation further, there's an integrated service within the app called TrafficFlow that shows a map with colors indicating -- you guessed it -- traffic flow, and the data is actually showing for our local area, but it doesn't integrate with the actual navigation map. That's right, it's a totally separate, unrelated map -- you can't see this
traffic information while navigating, you've got to go up to the Ovi Maps main menu and go into the separate TrafficFlow service. Not terribly helpful.
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.
As media goes, neither the photo nor video viewing apps are terribly notable in their functionality -- they simply get the job done without much flair. It'd be great if Nokia had some sort of native movie rental / purchase ecosystem, because the app provides a link to go straight into the video section of the Ovi Store ... but alas, it's all indie content of unknown quality (some paid, some free). As for DivX, the official DivX Mobile Player for S60 5th Edition kept producing "general errors" when we tried to play video, but it's all good: all the sample DivX media we had on hand played without drama through the N8's built-in player, proving once and for all that Nokia has thrown a DivX codec in here. Great for the HDMI out, right? The photos app has a slideshow mode, but otherwise, there's not much to note -- you can send shots via MMS, email, or Bluetooth, arrange them by album, tag them, or export them for editing (more on that in a bit).
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.
On a brighter note, Symbian^3 has really stepped up its multitasking game -- something the platform has already been doing pretty well for years. Pressing and holding the menu key below the display brings up a strip of cards -- effectively snippets of each app's display -- which you can swipe through to decide what to switch to or close (by hitting the "X" in the corner of the tile). Simple, right? The card view concept might be played, but it most certainly isn't played out -- this is quickly becoming the
way to properly do a multitasking experience on a mobile device, and we're happy to see Symbian adopt it (just as Maemo already had).
You know it, we know it, and Nokia sure as hell knows it. The Finnish mobile-making team shot itself in the foot with its N8 launch purely through a bungled execution on the software front. It's not unreasonable to believe that the hardware for this device was ready as far back as April -- which shines through with the perfectly thought out and built handsets our review team was provided with -- but delay after delay on the Symbian^3 front meant the awesomely specified hardware didn't see the light of retail day until, arguably, too late. Had this phone come out earlier this year, during what we might refer to as the pre-EVO
era, its 720p video, spectacular camera, and high-end construction would have returned Nokia to the title of smartphone leader all on their lonesome. Seriously, the hardware is that
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.