Nokia N8 review

Here it is ladies and gentlemen, Nokia’s latest and greatest Symbian handset, the N8. The N8 got a bit of a late start in life, with production and shipping delays a plenty, but the handset is now starting to propagate itself the world over. Available in five different colors, the full-touchscreen device — which is powered by the Symbian^3 operating system — is a sleek, compact handset that packs plenty of hardware features. Capacitive AMOLED display? Check. 12-megapixel camera? Check. HDMI interface? Check. Now the only question becomes: how does this hardware synergize with the device’s software and, ultimately, your work flow? Hit the jump to read our full review.

Specifications

There really isn’t a single negative thing to say about the Nokia N8’s hardware. Seriously. The device packs the aforementioned  3.5-inch AMOLED capacitive touchscreen display with a 16:9 (640 x 360 pixels) aspect ratio and supports up to 16.7 million colors (or colours if you’re buying the European version). The handset has a penta-band UMTS radio supporting 850, 900, 1700, 1900, and 2100 MHz frequencies as well as a quad-band GSM radio supporting 850, 900, 1800, and 1900 MHz frequencies. Bottom line: in whatever corner of the globe you happen to find yourself, this phone will, in all likelihood, be picking up some sort of radio signal.

Other notable specs: Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, FM Radio receiver, FM Transmitter, Micro-USB port, Nokia 2mm charging connector, 256MB RAM, GPS, aGPS, HDMI-out port, 3.5mm audio video connector, front-facing QVGA camera (640 x 480), 16GB of built-in storage, microSD card slot with support for up to a 32GB card, and a 1200mAh battery.

The only lackluster vital on the N8 is the unit’s 680MHz ARM 11 processor; although, to be completely honest, this isn’t really an issue for the handset. The statistically-challenged processor ushers Symbian around with relative ease and, aside from a few isolated instances, we did not feel that the device was underpowered… in terms of the hardware, at least. 680MHz might not look impressive when compared to 1GHz on paper, but it suits the N8 just fine.

It seems like we’re forgetting something… oh, yes… the Finnish engineers who built this little fella also found room inside the chassis to stuff a 12-megapixel camera with a two-stage shutter, Xenon flash, and Carl Zeiss lens; the 12-megapixel shooter is capable of capturing video in sweet, sweet 720p HD at 25 fps. We’ll cover the camera more later, but here’s the teaser: it’s ridiculously good.

Hardware

The first thing you’re going to notice when you pick up the N8 is that it is light. Eerily light. As we said, the handset has a 1200mAh battery — which is on the smaller side for smartphones these days — and we’re assuming some weight was saved there. After you get over the weight you’ll immediately notice the sheer amount of things present on the outside of the phone. On the front of the device is a precariously placed “home” button, a small mic opening, a front-facing camera, and a proximity sensor (which is oddly visible). On the right of the device is the volume up-down rocker, a spring loaded screen-lock switch, and the dedicated two-stage camera button. On the left of the device — again from top to bottom — is a two-piece plastic flap that covers the microSD card and SIM slots, and just below that is a micro-USB charging port. The bottom of the device contains a centered, 2mm Nokia charging connector. The top of the device has a 3.5mm headphone jack, an HMDI-out port (which is covered by a plastic flap), and the power button. The rear of the N8 has a protrusion to house the 12-megapixel shooter, xenon flash, and Carl Zeiss lens; there is also a small hole at the bottom to attach one of those wrist-strap thingies (which we will never understand or support).

The front and rear housing of the N8 are constructed of metal and the rounded top and bottom sections of the device are constructed from plastic; the device’s radio antennas are located at both the top and bottom.

The device is available in five colors: silver white, dark gray (or grey), orange, blue, and green. If you are one of those people with a discerning eye, you’ll notice that the top and bottom portions of the phone (the rounded parts constructed of plastic) have a slightly different color than the main housing (made of metal). It doesn’t really bother us all that much (re: at all) and we’re glad to see Nokia didn’t go all white iPhone 4 and hold the handset back to perfect the paint.

Battery

The battery life on the N8 is what you’ve come to expect from Nokia — very good. By default, when you power-on the handset, the screen saver is set to display the time. This means that after that 3.5-inch AMOLED screen times out it doesn’t actually shut off; rather it goes dark and displays a nice analog or digital clock. The way the device is shipped you’ll be lucky to get 12 hours from the battery. If you go ahead and disable the screen saver, however, you can nearly triple that. Bottom line: buy a Timex and disable the screen saver.

As we alluded to: with two push email accounts set up on the device and the screen saver off we easily could get 36-hours of battery life out of the device. Obviously, your mileage will vary depending on usage.

Calling

As a long-time iPhone user, I know a thing or two about dropped calls. With all of the empirical knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years, I would go as far as to say I am an expert on dropped calls, especially when on AT&T’s network in the Boston area. Taking into account my past experiences — combined with the fact that I have little to no faith in AT&T’s network — I was shocked to find that I did not once drop a call while testing the N8 with my AT&T SIM. This little, Finnish, herring-loving handset was covalently bonded to Ma’ Bell’s network. It was, to say the least, very impressive. Call quality coming from the set is great — no buzzing or white noise in the background — and the speakerphone is both loud and clear. Say what you will about Nokia handsets, the folks from Finland know how to build a smartphone that earns the latter half of that name.

The handset is also capable of making video calls, a feature that is fairly useless in the U.S., but since Nokia was kind enough to build it in we thought it was worth a mention. You can use the front facing camera to make VoIP video calls using services like Fring in both the U.S. and abroad.

Camera/Video

The camera is by far our favorite part of this device. Is it as simple to use as the shooter on the iPhone or DROID X? No. Does it take amazing pictures? Yes.

From the home screen you can fully-depress the N8’s dedicated shutter button to activate the camera, and the camera UI gives you the pertinent information you need without being too crowded. You have “options”, an on-screen capture button, and the “exit” key along the bottom of the screen when holding the device horizontally; this might be a good time to mention that all the camera’s on screen menus stay in the landscape orientation even when you hold the phone vertically (portrait).

Along the top of the screen you are presented with the current shooting mode — your shooting options are automatic, manual, close-up, portrait, landscape, sport, night, and night portrait — along with how many images the device can store with the memory available, what resolution the camera is set to (the camera can shoot in 12, 9, 3, 1.3, or 0.3 megapixel modes), and a battery meter. The right side of the screen presents you with the option to switch to video-capture mode, flash settings (on, off, automatic, and red-eye reduction), and settings. The settings key, which is a picture of a little wrench, is used to select scene mode, face detect, self timer, color tone, white balance, exposure, ISO, contrast, sharpness and has a shortcut to the photo gallery.

The camera is set to shoot in 9-megapixel mode by default but if we know you, and we think we do, you’re going to go ahead and ratchet that resolution right on up to a full 12 megapixels. With the built-in 16GB of memory in the N8, you can store well over 6,000 12MP images (obviously this will depend on how much else you load onto your N8 in the way of music and programs).

To get the very best images out of your N8 you really do have to utilize the preset modes – again: automatic, manual, close-up, portrait, landscape, sport, night, and night portrait. Leaving the camera in automatic can result in grainy photos when inside or shooting close up, however adjusting the mode to portrait or macro respectively did yield clearly better results. As with most cell phone cameras, and point-and-shoot cameras for that matter, shooting outside is never really an issue due to the abundance of natural light.

When you flip the switch on the camera in order to capture 720p video, you are presented with a similar on-screen setup, though your options are much more toned down. Available video modes are automatic, low light, and night; you can also manually adjust the white balance and color-tone if you so choose. You can record in three video qualities as well: high, TV high quality, or sharing quality. High is a full 720p in the 16:9 aspect ratio, TV high is in the 4:3 aspect ratio, and sharing is setup with a limited time and bitrate for MMS. Both the high and TV high aspect ratios record in MP4 format and the sharing settings records in 3GP.

Software

All right, here is where things start to get a little dicey: Symbian^3. Don’t get us wrong, we like Symbian and we understand its function and utility in the marketplace. But when you bring a full-touchscreen device to the U.S., you’re instantly going to be matched up against the iPhones, EVOs, and Incredibles that already exist in the marketplace. And to be frank, those are fair comparisons to make. The N8 was not birthed into a market absent of other devices, and for that reason it can’t be treated as such. We’re not going to go as far as Gizmodo and declare the device “irrelevant before it launched,” but, to put it mildly, Symbian^3 is a huge disappointment.

Let’s start with some of the things Symbian does right. The device allows for multiple home screens (a la Android), utilizes functional widgets to display pertinent information, and makes accessing phone controls very easy. Just as in Android, swiping left and right on the home screen will take you to a second or third home screen; you can only have three. From there you can add up to six widgets to each screen. Unfortunately, the widgets can’t be resized to display more information and the default size only allows for two or three lines for information to display (e.g. the email widget can only display the first two messages in your inbox). In the upper right and left of the device’s screen are the battery meter and profile selector, respectively. Tapping on the device’s signal meter instantly gives you access to the device’s available connectivity options (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, FM, Video sharing, etc.), exact battery percentage, alarms and world time, and available WLAN networks. We’ve got a short video demo of this below. We like the quick access to some of the controls that you often have to go diving through the phone to get to.

The HDMI-out on the device (big props to Nokia for including the adapter with the phone) also works really well. When you hook up your N8 to your television via a HDMI cable you actually see the phone’s entire OS right on your screen. Home screen, emails, widgets, whatever… it’s all there. When you play a properly encoded video through the N8, the quality is ridiculously good. We did our viewing on a 42-inch 1080p LG set and the experience was awesome. You will not be disappointed.

Okay, now it’s time to take the gloves off. The real beef we have with the device is how utterly complicated it makes simple tasks. Let’s start out with an easy one: typing. There is no full-QWERTY soft-keyboard layout on the N8 when you hold the phone in portrait mode. Let me repeat that, no QWERTY in portrait. Your options are to use a T9 style predictive text keypad or the real old-school method of just hitting the number key as many times as you need to in order to get your desired result. When we began using the phone, T9 was like a fun trip down memory lane. After about 90 minutes, when we just wanted to get stuff done, it became a huge bottleneck. At 3.5 inches, the phone’s screen might be a bit small for an on-screen keyboard, but we would have at least liked the option to try it. We prefer to use our phones in portrait mode so flipping the phone 90-degrees every time we had some serious typing to do became a nuisance.

We’ve have never really appreciated the whole addressing system in Symbian. Open an email or text message, start typing someone’s name… nothing. You can either hit the “To:” button and be presented with your contacts; try to search and you’re presented with a keyboard that is, for whatever reason, in alphabetical order A-Z. After you finally get your contact in the “To:” line (you better hope you only need to send your message to one persons) you’re presented with the message body. Flip the phone horizontally for a full keyboard. It just seems like work and doesn’t flow.

The one thing the email application does seem to do right is attachments. There is a clearly visible button for it and the options of what you can attach are pretty much wide open… if you ever manage to finish typing your email.

Another huge annoyance is the limited selection of applications for the device. Want a decent — not good, just decent — Twitter client? You better be ready to fork out $10 for Gravity. The only applications we found moderately acceptable were WhatsApp, Google Maps, and Foursquare. Most of the device’s applications don’t utilize notifications in any way, you have to either turn on email notifications (for service like Twitter and Facebook) or just manically open the program to see if you have new data. This isn’t the most efficient way to use a smartphone.

After a week and a half with the device it finally hit us: the overall flow of the device is just very primitive. There isn’t anything really integrated or sexy about how Symbian gets things done. Can you get the device to do what you want? With enough time and effort, yes. Is it attractive when there are other options in the market place? No.

Summary

The N8 really does sadden us. I mean, come on… read that hardware stat sheet again. Slap Maemo or MeeGo on this puppy, call it a work-in-progress, promise frequent updates, and you might — repeat might — have a winner. As is, with Symbian^3 as its OS, the N8 is unacceptable when compared to other available handsets in the States.

We are fairly sure that outside the U.S. this device will be the best-selling Symbian set Nokia’s ever made. Those who are used to (or actually like) the ebb and flow of Symbian will see the device as a true high-end handset and a successor to their current phone. However, as we said before, we’re a U.S.-based blog and our reviews compare like devices, at like price points, that are available in the U.S. market. Taking all that into account, the N8, at $549, is a disappointment. It pains us to see Nokia spend time, money, and talent on a device that we can guarantee will have no appeal to U.S. consumers.

Click on over to our Nokia N8 Gallery!

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