Nokia N8 Review

Oct 10, 2010
65

It feels like we've been talking about the Nokia N8 for a long time. February 2010 saw the first murmurings, followed by a string of leaks, rumors, semi-accurate previews and finally, around seven months later, a commercial release. In the meantime there's been no shortage of speculation over whether Symbian^3 still has a place among the smartphone elite, how the North American market will take to the N8, and indeed whether Nokia is still relevant in a world of Android, iOS and other successful platforms. That's a whole lot resting on a single device, so can the Nokia N8 shoulder the strain? Check out the full SlashGear review after the cut.

We've liked the look of the N8 and - with a couple of exceptions - Nokia's hardware decisions since we first caught sight of the smartphone, and in the hand it's certainly a solid, reassuring device. Measuring in at 113.5 x 59 x 12.9 mm and weighing 135g with the non-user-removeable battery in place, it's a reasonably slim, tactile candybar with plenty of anodized aluminum used in the chassis. Nokia offer the N8 in five different colors - silver, black, red, blue and green - and the metal has been treated in such a way that minor scratches simply rub off. It's not going to protect your N8 from a significant wrestle with your keys, but it's certainly sufficient to avoid demanding a case.

Nokia N8 unboxing and demo:

Up front is a 3.5-inch 640 x 360 OLED capacitive touchscreen, which is bright and vivid with great colors and suitably inky blacks. The nHD resolution is one of our few hardware complaints, and while we understand it preserves compatibility with the back-catalog of Ovi Store apps, when rivals are using WVGA and higher panels (the iPhone 4's Retina Display packs 960 x 640 pixels into the same size panel, remember) the N8 does feel a little left behind.

Underneath is a single button - which opens the main menu or takes you back to the homescreen - while on the bottom is a standard 2mm Nokia charging connector. The company supplies an AC adapter to suit, but you can also use a microUSB charger with the port on the lower left-hand side. Alternatively, the microUSB port will work for synchronizing the N8 with your computer, or - using the included adapter - act as a USB On-the-Go port for plugging in an external hard-drive or other peripherals. Above the microUSB are the SIM and microSD card slots, each covered with a separate flap; the N8 will take up to a 32GB card, augmenting its standard 16GB of internal storage.

On the top edge there's a 3.5mm headphones socket - Nokia supply a decent wired stereo headset with in-line call and media controls, and earbuds that actually stay in your ears - together with the power/standby button and, under another flap, a mini HDMI port. This requires an (included) adapter to turn it into a full-sized HDMI port.

Running down the right-hand side there's the volume rocker, a lock switch and the two-stage camera shortcut button. The camera itself is a 12-megapixel unit with Carl Zeiss optics, autofocus and a Xenon flash, and is in a protruding metal panel on the back of the handset. Up front, just above the display, is a VGA resolution camera for video calls.

Nokia has impressively selected a five-band WCDMA radio for the N8, meaning not only does the smartphone support quadband GSM/EDGE but 3G networks on the 850/900/1700/1900/2100 bands. It's a rare chipset, and it means the same N8 handset is comfortable not only on European 3G networks but on both AT&T and T-Mobile in the US. Why Nokia isn't shouting about this flexibility - as you can be certain Apple, HTC or any other company would be in the same situation - is a mystery. Sadly there's no mobile WiFi hotspot app preloaded (though JoikuSpot in the Ovi Store is a $12.49 option) but you can use the N8 as a tethered USB modem with the Ovi Suite.

Other wireless options include WiFi b/g/n and Bluetooth 3.0, together with an FM radio and FM transmitter, plus there's GPS and A-GPS with support for Nokia's new WiFi positioning system that promises quicker and more accurate location fixes while indoors. Finally there's an accelerometer, digital compass, proximity sensor (for turning the display off while you're holding the phone to your face) and an ambient light sensor (for automatically adjusting the backlight).

Overally, it's distinctive, sturdy and - perhaps most importantly in the current saturated market of touchscreen-centric handsets - doesn't look like anything else. The upcoming Nokia E7, which has a bigger display and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard - shares the same design aesthetic, and it's a direction we far prefer to the smartphones' overly-plastic and sometimes clunky predecessors.

Turn the N8 on, and what will arguably be the handset's biggest hurdle becomes clear. This is Nokia's first device to run Symbian^3, the latest iteration of S60 5th Edition as on the N97, N97 mini and various other touchscreen phones. Now released as open-source and managed by the Symbian Foundation, the OS has its fair share of fans - predominantly in Europe - but is yet to make significant in-roads into the North American market.

That lack of familiarity, and the marketing strength of rival platforms such as Apple's iOS and Google's Android, has left the N8 launching into everything from apathy through outright dismissal. Like all mobile OSes, Symbian^3 has its strengths and weaknesses, but it's fair to say that this is the most polished example to date.

Fresh to Symbian^3 is a three-pane homescreen navigated by side-swipes and which automatically flips between portrait and landscape orientation. Each can be filled with up to six widgets - either in a column of six or two columns of three - which are fixed in their dimension. The N8 has a variety preloaded - for instance a time/date bar, an app shortcut bar with space for up to four icons, a search bar (with both online and local search options), favorite contacts, media and calendar, together with various news feed widgets from National Geographic, CNN and others - and you can download more through the Ovi store. Altogether there's room for eighteen across the three panes.

It's a reasonably flexible system, but can be overly restrictive depending on which widget you're looking at. For example, the email widget shows the name of the account and excerpts of sender, subject and date from the two most recent messages. Unfortunately there's no way to extend the widget to see more; you can add a second email widget for the same account, but you'll still only see the two latest messages. Each pane can have its own wallpaper, meanwhile, and there's a simple three-dot navigation block at the bottom of the screen - in-between the Options and Call buttons - to remind you which panel you're looking at; unlike in iOS you can flick through continuously rather than bumping up against the last pane.

The main menu is familiar from a long line of Nokia devices, being made up of three columns of four icons by default, or with an optional list view. As standard it puts the Calendar, Contacts, Music, Web, Messaging, Photos, Ovi Store, Maps, Videos, Settings, Web TV and Applications on the first panel, relegating other apps to the Applications submenu, but you can reorganize them, add new folders and generally mix things up as you see fit. Unlike on earlier Symbian devices, there's no frustrating double-tap involved in first selecting and then activating an app: instead - and as it should be - you tap a single time to select and launch. It's a small change, but it leaves the whole OS feeling faster.

Open apps - or folders with running apps in them - have a wheel icon in their top left hand corner, which is a neat way of showing activity, but you can also hold down the menu button and call up the new multitasking bar. That shows previews, webOS style, of each running application or menu, and allows you to close them with a single tap. It's significantly better than either Android or iOS, which only show the running app's icon.

When the N8's hardware specifications were made public, there was some discussion about how the 680MHz ARM11 processor would hold up to devices toting 1GHz Cortex A8 chips. Of course, the CPU is only half the story - it's what the OS does with all those cycles that counts - and the N8 has proved to be a mixed bag. Many tasks, such as menu navigation, the multitasking bar, browsing media in the CoverFlow-style music app, and shooting/saving photos are snappy and lag-free; however, we've also noticed some significant pauses at times, particularly when working with our Gmail inbox. Refreshing email or opening up a message could take a few seconds as the system churned, whereas rival devices experienced no such delays.

We can't blame background processes, either, or at least not entirely; the same inbox delays would happen no matter if the email app was the only program running, or if there were a half dozen other things going in the background. Despite the final firmware, too, we've experienced a few crashes where the system has restarted; these too can happen without apparent reason. Most times, after a power cycle, the N8 was back to normal, but on one occasion it reset the homescreen entirely to its out-of-the-box state.

Most frustrating, though, is the on-screen keyboard. The N8 has both portrait and landscape 'boards, but only the latter gets a full QWERTY layout. In portrait mode you're stuck with a numeric keyboard and either multitap or T9 prediction. Having used QVGA (i.e. 320 x 240) touchscreen devices which nonetheless manage to offer full QWERTY in both orientations, it's a painful omission. T9 works best when you have a physical keypad - since you can type without looking - which is obviously missing from the N8.

We're also not keen on Nokia's auto-prediction and auto-correction, which puts its suggestions above the word itself rather than just above the keyboard - meaning a further finger stretch - and defaults to your original spelling rather than the suggestion. In landscape orientation things get somewhat better, but we're looking forward to when the Swype third-party keyboard - which we're familiar with from Android - arrives for the N8.

A modern smartphone lives and dies by the standard of its browser, and Nokia's promised next-gen update can't come quickly enough. As it stands, the Webkit based browser preloaded onto the N8 supports pinch-zooming and Flash, but can be sluggish in comparison to other platforms. We like the page size indicator - which shows how much data is being transferred - and the fact that the browser automatically switches to full-screen view after a few seconds, but double-tapping a block of text zooms in but doesn't trigger paragraph reflowing as in, say, the Android browser.

Without a hardware back button (or, indeed, a persistent on-screen control) there's no choice but to use the thumbnail history, which although useful for skipping back a number of pages, is also unnecessarily long-winded. Having both options would be preferable. There's also no option to open links in a new tab or window, unlike most other platforms. Large pages can be slow to render and, until that's complete, jerky to pan around. Still, the ability to watch Flash video in the browser is neat, though controls intended for a full-sized screen and mouse can be tricky to hit with your fingertip.

Some salvation is at hand in the shape of Opera Mobile 10 and Opera Mini, each available as free downloads through the Ovi Store. They bring with them a QWERTY keyboard in portrait orientation, together with windowed browsing and - optionally - the company's compression technology that speeds up page loading times. No pinch zooming, mind, nor Flash video support.

Messaging in Symbian^3 is another area which has been polished, and there's now support for threaded SMS/MMS conversations which are visually a lot more pleasing. Alternatively there's the standard inbox view which can be sorted by sender, date, message type or subject. As for email, the N8 supports POP and IMAP accounts together with Exchange, can support more than one active inbox simultaneously, and comes with a useful setup wizard for Ovi Mail, Yahoo! Mail, Gmail, Windows Live Hotmail, Exchange, BT Internet and manual accounts.

Exchange will, as on other platforms, pull in contacts and calendar entries as well, but unfortunately the same can't be said for Google's address book or calendar. There's no native Gmail push messaging, but if you haven't already set a Mail for Exchange account you can use Google's Sync instead; non-push inboxes can be polled every 5 minutes at their most frequent. Most of the time we had no issues with messages updating, but occasionally the inbox would seemingly hang and not refresh until manually synchronized. Once you're set up, though, there's support for plain text and HTML email - with optional image download - and plenty of flexibility over how much of the message is initially retrieved.

What you don't get is any sort of preloaded instant messaging app, though there is a rudimentary Facebook and Twitter social networking app that can be linked to a homescreen widget. Neither option is especially slick, they require you create an Ovi Account before you can log in, and while the UI is similar to what you'd find on other smartphones, it's generally slow to update. From the widget you can scroll through a combined feed of Twitter and Facebook statuses, or tap-scroll back to the very top of the list to update one or both networks yourself. There's also no integration with the N8's contacts, as you get with HTC Sense: both Facebook and Twitter are treated as completely separate information sources in the phonebook. A far better experience is had with popular Twitter app Gravity, though that's a $10 download.

Gravity is just one of the apps available through Nokia's Ovi Store, the company's equivalent of the Apple App Store or the Android Market. It uses the same Ovi Account you may have created in order to use the native Twitter and Facebook integration, and according to Nokia's own figures comprises over 15,000 titles (including ringtones and wallpapers). There are four broad categories - Applications, Games, Audio & Video and Personalisation - which are then individually sub-divided again. You can view free and paid apps separately, search, as well as see those newest to the store, though the lists can be slow to update.

What's bizarre is that the Ovi Store isn't actually preloaded onto the N8; there's a shortcut to the download page, but you have to manually load it before you can start browsing. That seems an unnecessary step to put in the way of potential customers. When you're finally in, there's a range of free and paid applications, though it's unsurprisingly not as broad as what's on offer for iOS users. Nokia also has a companion Ovi.com site, from which you can browse apps and send links to your phone (they're delivered as a shortcut via SMS, rather than triggering the download automatically).

Ovi Maps has matured into a strong GPS/navigation package, complete with free turn-by-turn spoken directions and integration with a number of online POI review sites. Best of all it's free, using Nokia acquisition NAVTEQ's mapping content. If you're used to Google Maps then the Ovi Maps UI takes a little acclimatising to, but it's worth doing. The N8 features the company's latest WiFi positioning system that helps find a faster, more accurate lock when indoors, and indeed it proved surprisingly accurate even when tested in a basement. It's also possible to download mapping data to the N8's own memory, rather than loading it across the network as necessary; while you sacrifice storage space that way, it also means no data charges while roaming and faster map navigation.

Both driving and walking directions are supported, and you can optionally have Ovi Maps automatically update Facebook with your position as well. There are also weather reports and location-based events that are broken down into various arts, sports, nightlife and other categories. As for review information, that's courtesy of Michelin, Qype and TripAdvisor (in the UK; other regions may have different services). Unfortunately there's no car cradle bundled with the N8, although you can pick one up (the Nokia CR-122) as an optional extra.

While we've certainly seen larger smartphones of late, billed as perfect for mobile entertainment, the N8 is no slouch when it comes to video and audio support. The smartphone can handle H.264, MPEG-4, VC-1, Sorenson Spark and Real Video 10 video content, together with MP3, WMA, AAC, eAAC, eAAC+, AMR-NB and AMR-WB audio (up to 320kbps) and has an FM radio and support for streaming Flash video. We transferred on a range of clips - including some we had edited and exported with Apple's iMovie - and had no problems playing them.

We prefer Symbian^3's music app UI, which has a Cover Flow style carousel of album art when the N8 is held in landscape orientation. The ARM11 processor had no problems keeping up with a large number of images as we flipped through. In the video app, you get a simple list of clips instead, broken down into those recently watched, recently captured and the rest. There's also access to video content on the Ovi Store and on YouTube, the latter opening up the video site's mobile page in the N8's browser.

While the N8's OLED display is great, there's also the HDMI output if you have access to a TV or suitable monitor. We're in two minds about HDMI connectivity on smartphones, especially when you need to remember to carry an adapter around with you, but there's no question that the N8 does what it promises to. Rather than just video playback, the full screen from the N8 is duplicated via the HDMI output, with both portrait and landscape orientations supported. The only exception is video, which is only played on the HDMI screen rather than simultaneously on both; we're guessing that's a processing power issue, since in-page Flash video on websites, which the phone attempts to play on both the N8 and the HDMI screen, had trouble loading at times.

Browsing generally, though, is good, though it's worth noting that although up to 720p HD resolutions for video playback are supported via the TV-out, everything else is at the regular N8 resolution. That means, although webpages are certainly bigger, you're not actually getting any more pixels than you would on the N8's display - they're just enlarged.

HDMI connectivity makes more sense if you think of Nokia users showcasing the N8's optics, and indeed it's the 12-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss lens, autofocus and Xenon flash that helps the smartphone stand out in the crowded market. Much of the functionality from a regular point-and-shoot has been carried over, including face recognition and various scene modes including portrait, macro, night and sport, and there's a decent amount of manual control over ISO, exposure, contrast, white balance and sharpness. Unlike most standalone cameras, however, you can also opt for automatic GPS geotagging and easy sharing to online galleries.

As for video, the N8 will record at up to 720p HD resolution (with control over white balance and color tone) at 25fps in MPEG-4 format, though there's also a low resolution 3GP option for MMS use. The internal storage is enough for around an hour of highest-resolution video. Digital image stabilization is optional, as is geotagging and audio recording, though it's worth noting that, while pre-recorded clips can output Dolby Digital Plus surround sound via the HDMI, the N8 can't actually record surround sound itself.

Nokia N8 720p HD video sample:

We're already seeing hacks for the N8's camera skills that promise to make the experience even stronger, however. The default 25fps frame-rate for video recording has been increased to 30fps, for smoother footage, while the native image compression has been tweaked to make for even more detailed stills (at roughly five times the file size).

Even without those modifications, the content produced by the N8 is surprisingly good. Still images show a high degree of balance and colors are accurate, and after spending some time playing with the settings the results can be mightily impressive. Alternatively, it works well in auto-mode, the camera app generally loading up in a few seconds and taking around three seconds to process shots at maximum resolution. There are sample shots in the gallery below. Video, meanwhile, is also strong, though as with other cameraphones can suffer from judders if panned too quickly. Still, it's crisp and bright, and certainly in the top tier of smartphone camera experiences. Thanks to the overdose of megapixels on offer, even using the digital zoom - which is a conservative 2x for stills and 3x for video - doesn't introduce much in the way of fuzz, unless you're zooming in by extreme amounts.

Could it be better? Touch focus would be top of our list for inclusion, but we wouldn't say no to a tripod screw mount on the N8, and we'd like more control over how much JPEG compression is applied to each shot. The downside of having a Xenon flash, meanwhile, is that you can't use it as a video light as you can with an LED. Still, they're relatively minor complaints about a photography experience that is streets ahead of most smartphones out there.

Nokia also preload photo and video editing apps onto the N8, and each is flexible enough to keep you from needing to raid third-party alternatives from the Ovi Store. In fact, considering Apple charge for their iMovie for iPhone app - albeit just $4.99 - having it up and running on the N8 out-of-the-box is something of a bargain. Editing clips or still images on a smartphone-sized display is never going to be quite as straightforward as on a desktop, though of course you can plug in an HDMI cable on the N8.

Still, the UI for both apps is sensible and you can have decent results after just a few minutes work. The video app offers either a photo slideshow wizard, with various themes and transitions, while the full video editor allows you to splice together clips and stills with titles, transitions and other effects. We expected the ARM11 CPU to struggle a little with some of the more complex rendering involved, but while there's unsurprisingly a pause while the N8 churns, it's not as lengthy as we feared it might be.

Nokia handsets have a track record of strong phone and audio performance, and the N8 is no different. It proved tenacious with a signal and in-call quality was high both using the earpiece and the speakerphone. Music playback via the speaker was less impressive, being predictably tinny, but when we plugged in a set of headphones the N8 made a far better job of things. It's worth noting - for European users, anyway - that Spotify offer a mobile app for Symbian in the Ovi Store, for streaming content rather than loading it directly to the phone. Even Nokia's own wired headset, as bundled with the N8, proved capable, and of course there's Bluetooth A2DP for using wireless stereo headsets. The VGA front-facing camera can be used for 3G video calls, though the feature remains rarely used.

Battery life proved a mixed bag. Nokia quote up to 720 minutes of GSM talktime or 390 hours of GSM standby (350 minutes/400 hours of WCDMA respectively), or alternatively 6 hours of HDMI video playback or 50 hours of audio playback (the latter with all wireless turned off) from the screwed-in 1,200mAh battery. Real-world use, though, is a mixture of calls, media playback, photography and messaging, and we found our email settings made the biggest difference to overall runtime. With POP/IMAP accounts regularly checking (as in sub-30 minute check intervals), we drained the N8's battery in under a day. Relying on push-email instead, however, and with some browsing and media use, and we managed to get through around a day and a half of use. That could probably be coaxed out to two days if you were less ambitious.

The N8's other connectivity - the ability to plug in a USB device such as a memory stick - also requires an adapter, included in the box. Here the dual charging methods come into their own; if Nokia had only supplied a microUSB AC adapter, users wouldn't have been able to simultaneously power the smartphone and plug in external peripherals. A small consideration, but we're pleased Nokia thought of it.

There are limits to what exactly you can do with the port, however. We had mixed results with different USB memory sticks - some would be recognized instantly, and load content with no issues, while the system refused to accept others - while portable hard-drives proved even more temperamental. It seems to be a limit of power and what the N8's port can provide; an externally-powered desktop hard-drive would be recognized, but portable drives (which would normally get their juice from the USB port itself) were not.

With the right peripheral, however, you can turn the N8 into a decent mobile workstation, especially if you have the HDMI adapter and a suitable display. We paired a Bluetooth keyboard, hooked up our TV and a thumb-drive full of video clips, and were able to use the N8's video editing app to comfortably put together footage before then browsing the internet and composing emails on the big screen. The performance felt on a par with a basic netbook - though, ironically, with a bigger display and keyboard - and while we wouldn't leave our regular laptop at home, if you knew your hotel room TV was going to have an accessible HDMI port we could well see the N8 being a decent travel alternative for everyday users.

The lingering question is not only whether this is the Nokia device the fans want it to be, but whether it's the handset to take the North American market. For existing owners of S60 5th Edition touchscreen devices, the N8 takes that experience and polishes it hugely. It bests the camera performance of old favorites like the N86, tightens the touchscreen integration to the point where - in most places - it actually feels like its been designed for finger control, and the preloaded media editing apps (together with the HDMI output and support for external storage) mean the N8 is strongest as a multimedia device.

Despite Symbian^3's improvements, however, there are still plenty of places where it feels old and tired in comparison to Android or iOS. The homescreen widgets feel prescriptive in comparison to Android's, while an iPhone 4 is more stable and visually-pleasing. That's not to say it's universally left behind: the multitasking is more intuitively controlled on the N8, and despite the processor being slower than most flagship Android handsets and that in the iPhone 4, much of the time the new Nokia could happily keep up.

We did experience more crashes than we'd have liked, however, or simply glitches in the system that undermined the smooth experience. On more than a few occasions the N8 froze and restarted, or would refuse to recognize any network connections and require a manual restart. The Ovi Store could also be temperamental, sometimes freezing while downloading apps and forcing us to end it using the task manager. It's certainly not unusual for a new device to be buggy in places; what remains to be seen is how quickly Nokia roll out a firmware update to address that bugginess.

Our initial question still stands: can Symbian^3 hold up to rival platforms like Android and iOS? In terms of sheer functionality, the answer is a general yes - push email, connection sharing, Flash and the high-res camera are all staples of the modern smartphone - but we still fear users may have trouble seeing past the "old" UI, and in places, if you're not accustomed to Symbian's way of doing things, general ease-of-use pales in comparison. It's a flexible and capable OS, certainly, but it doesn't encourage the same casual play that a recent Android device or iPhone 4 might.

That shortfall will be the N8's biggest hurdle, not functionality, and Nokia's challenge is to better educate would-be users to the strengths of the handset: the superlative connectivity, the excellent camera and the offline flexibility of Ovi Maps. The N8 is certainly the best Symbian device to-date (though we're keenly awaiting the hardware QWERTY 'board of the bigger E7 later in the year) but it's not all-round perfection. No smartphone is, of course, but Nokia's rivals generally do a better job of highlighting their strengths. With MeeGo (or, indeed, Android) the N8 could've been a clear winner; with Symbian^3, Nokia has to persuade users that the N8's undoubtable abilities outweigh its particular compromises.


Must Read Bits & Bytes