Could this be the phone to restore Nokia’s reputation as a serious player in the smartphone market? We look at the first phone to showcase the new Symbian OS…
Nokia has a lot to prove with the N8. Not only is it the company’s latest flagship device but it’s also the new poster boy for its latest iteration of the Symbian platform, Symbian^3.
The chief purpose of Symbian^3, despite what many Nokia fan-boys will say, is to bring the platform inline with what consumers now perceive as an ‘operating system’ per se.
Specifically, it has to try and get to a level that allows it to compete with both Android and Apple iOS, for Nokia to remain relevant amongst the newly appointed rulers of the smartphone market.
Looks wise the Nokia N8 is a fantastic looking device, with its entire body crafted from Anodized Aluminum. This gives it a solid, robust feel in the hand, which is something of a departure from Nokia’s design characteristics of old.
A quick glance at the forthcoming Nokia E7 illustrates that this style is set to be something of a trend with its new high-end smartphones.
Fortunately, the aluminum unibody does not bring with it any weight issues, so on comparison the 135g N8 feels no heavier than either an iPhone 4 or BlackBerry Bold 9700 in the hand. Nevertheless it is bulkier than both the aforementioned devices, with its protruding camera lens and ever-so-slightly raised volume, phone lock and camera keys, located along the right-hand side of the device.
There’s no removable battery on the Nokia N8 so users will have to become accustomed to inserting the SIM and memory card into the side of the phone. This isn’t really a big deal, but it is the first device from Nokia to incorporate this design.
At the top of the device, you’ll find an HDMI port, 3.5mm headphone socket and a power button. Located on the front, to the bottom left of the screen, is the Menu key. It serves two purposes: firstly to wake the phone from sleep, and secondly to take you to the main menu.
When we booted up the phone for the first time and made our way through the usual ‘register an Ovi Account’ set-up wizard, we were pleasantly surprised with how the user interface looked and operated.
It’s still very much an obvious Symbian device (which might be a good thing for customers who do still regard Symbian as an excellent operating system), with the same fonts and menu layout (and even the same wallpapers!), but there is something different. Symbian^3 does look more modern, even by today’s standards.
You’ve now got three homescreens to play with and each one can be customised with either dedicated widgets – although there aren’t many on the Ovi Store as yet, unfortunately – shortcuts and applications.
Customisation is more abundant on Symbian^3 than previous incarnations, but it isn’t as easy as it should be. For example, you have to load up individual apps within tiles (you can get four in one tile space) by selecting ‘shortcuts’ and then editing the shortcuts to your desired apps. However this is a fairly long-winded approach to adding, say, just one application.
We would have much preferred the ability to simply add them individually to the homescreen, like you can with Android.
In terms of the hardware, the Nokia N8 is something of a beast. Not only does it have a massive 12-megapixel Carl Zeiss optics camera (producing pictures that are 4,000×3,000 pixels) with autofocus and Xenon flash, but it also shoots video in HD (1280x720p) quality at 25 fps.
Then there’s the storage, which can be expanded from the internal 16GB to 48GB with a 32GB microSDHC card. If you fill the phone with photos and videos, you can then watch them easily on your HD compatible TV, as long as you have an HDMI cable (Nokia supplies an adapter in the box for the mini-HDMI socket on the phone itself).
In addition to the HD video, you also get Dolby Digital Plus thrown in for good measure.
Basically, there’s an awful lot to like about this device, especially if you’re more interested in hardware than operating systems.
One of the ‘big deals’’ about this device is its 3.5-inch (360×640 pixel) AM-OLED capacitive touchscreen.However, we couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. It is a very good display, being clear, bright and visible in sunlight, but it’s hardly a revelation.
In short, the screen is good, but by other device’s standards, such as the iPhone 4 or HTC’s Desire HD, it’s nothing special.
Nokia has nipped a few longstanding nuances in the bud though. For example, it has replaced its old (and very annoying) ‘scroll and select’ paradigm with a much simpler ‘single-click’ operation, so you can access pretty much anything you can see with a single click.
In addition, the constant stream of notifications that used to pop up in older versions of Symbian has been reduced dramatically, which is great. Data connection notifications still appear in the top-left hand corner of the display and the occasional ‘view security certificate’ ones as well, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be.
The user interface itself is very snappy too, and we didn’t really encounter any sort of lag whilst we were testing the handset, but this probably has something to do with the N8’s ARM11, 680MHz, processor combined with 3D graphics acceleration, a major improvement on the other Symbian based devices on sale now, or coming soon (at a lower price point to the N8). Although not as powerful as some other models on the market, it still keeps everything running smoothly. In fact, any issues with the UI are more likely down to poor coding than a lack of power, meaning they’ll hopefully be optimised in future firmware updates.
Typing on the Nokia N8, with its multi-touch support firing on all cylinders, is also a very nice experience and we had no trouble bashing out long-winded emails and texts.
One thing that is quite strange is Nokia’s continued insistence in having only an alphanumeric keyboard in portrait mode, when many other smartphones with even smaller displays can still offer a mini-QWERTY keyboard that is nicer to use.
This did take some getting used to, although for users who may be upgrading from a more traditional ‘feature’ phone, it does help retain some familiarity.
On a slightly more technical note, Nokia has packed Symbian^3 with some new networking architecture that improves the device’s data performance. It now allows auto-switching between access points; so it can switch between Wi-Fi and 3G to give the optimum speeds when required.
The stock browser is improved too, with support for Flash Lite and, at last, pinch-to-zoom – which can be also used when looking at photos.
We also liked the browser, with bookmarks, options and history being easily accessed on the right-hand side through a single tap. However, it isn’t quite up there with the browsers on other platforms. This is something that can be solved by adding a third-party browser like the excellent Opera Mobile.
The Nokia N8 is packed with all the necessary connectivity options, both in terms of wireless ones, with Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, 3G, GPRS, EDGE and Bluetooth, to wired options including USB On-The-Go, which allows you to use the supplied adapter to connect any powered USB storage device, or flash drive. Hook up a device filled with HD movies and who needs a Blu-ray player?
Overall, the Nokia N8 is Nokia’s best hardware to date. It stands it out from the crowd, with an excellent camera onboard, HD quality playback and an improved user experience.
However, Nokia is no longer leading the way in smartphones, and the operating system still can’t compete with iOS and Android for overall usability, or the massive choice of apps and games.
The Ovi Store has improved, but it is still devoid of many cool apps and games. Still, the N8 is the best chance Nokia may have for some time to help get developers interested.
As a result, the N8 will still do better for those people who aren’t worried about apps or games. As a self-contained phone, the N8 is class-leading, but until we see Symbian^4 devices in the middle of 2011, Nokia still has a way to go.
The biggest problem Nokia has is that Symbian is now looking dated, and as the first device to introduce the new Symbian^3 user interface, the N8 is a definite improvement, but not enough has yet changed to make it ready to take on Android or the iPhone. That will come in 2011 with Symbian^4, so Nokia must instead rely on the impressive features, which are undeniable. HD video, a 12-megapixel camera, a great display, good battery life, loads of connectivity options and a great design. As long as you can accept minimal apps and games, the N8 is great.
UPDATE: Since this review was published, Nokia and Symbian have announced changes to the future of Symbian.
Ratings (out of 5)
[wpgalleryimage title=”Editors-Choice-4Star” float=right]Performance: 4