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Review: Nokia N8 Is Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

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Nokia’s first true response to the smartphone market share loss handed to it by Apple (s aapl), Google (s goog) and Research In Motion (s rimm) comes in the form of the Nokia N8 (s nok), a GSM touchscreen device with the brand new Symbian^3 operating system. I’ve previously said that Nokia is a great hardware company that wants to be good at software and services too, and the N8 is a perfect illustration of that desire.

Like so many prior Nokia handsets, the N8 is a thing of beauty in terms of design and hardware features, but still falls short by comparison in the software department. Unfortunately for Nokia, software drives the user experience, which can make or break a device. The N8 is, however, the best Nokia device I’ve used yet, and comes closer to offering what the current crop of smartphones bring to consumers. However, the unsubsidized $549 price tag makes this a tough sell in the U.S.

It’s possible that the N8 or a similar Symbian^3 device could wash up on U.S. shores with a carrier subsidy, bringing the price to $199 or less. Such a price point is in line with high-end handsets like Apple’s (s aapl) iPhone 4 or any one of the many Google Android (s goog) offerings. The N8 is meant to compete with these devices, but even with an improved operating system and app store, U.S. consumers won’t abandon the iPhone or an Android device in droves for the N8. Here’s a rundown of likes, dislikes and other observations from using the device over the past two weeks.

What’s great about the Nokia N8?

  • Build quality is superb. The anodized aluminum case keeps the N8 light, but sturdy, and gives the device a premium feel.
  • There are ports that aren’t readily available on competing devices. An HDMI-out jack at the top allows you pipe media to an HDTV, which is offered on some other new devices. The USB On The Go function is unique, however. Using the microUSB port and a connector allows the phone to interface directly with USB drives.
  • The N8 arguably offers the best smartphone camera solution on the market today, thanks to the 12 megapixel sensor paired with Carl Zeiss optics. The Xenon flash is far better than any LED flash that’s typical fare on other smartphones; it’s akin to the integrated flash of a mid-range digital SLR camera. The phone also has a dedicated picture-snapping button. The 720p video capture is nearly on par with that of Apple’s iPhone 4. While a full 30 frames per second would be ideal, high-definition video from the N8 is quite good.
  • Signal strength and call quality are top-notch. I used the N8 with my T-Mobile SIM, and the voice experience was at least as good, if not better, than on my Google Nexus One.
  • The AMOLED display is vibrant, actually usable in the sun, and uses the same capacitive touch used in the iPhone and other modern handsets.
  • The integrated 1200 mAh battery lasts at least a full day, even with moderate-to-heavy use. Kudos to Nokia for designing a device and operating system that can run a smartphone on one charge a day.
  • The software keyboard in landscape mode works really well in my hands and the auto-correct feature is excellent.
  • Multitasking is intuitive to use: Hold the only hardware button on the front of the N8 to see, close or switch running apps.
  • Nokia wisely incorporated radios that work for data and voice on nearly any GSM network in the world.

What’s improved but still falls a little short?

  • Symbian^3 is much better than S60, but isn’t completely baked yet, nor refreshingly new. To be fair, Nokia is caught in the same trap that Research In Motion is: Much like the new BlackBerry 6 OS, Nokia can’t run the risk of alienating its vast S60 user base with a radically new interface. That’s a sound strategy, but one that will mainly appease the existing Symbian users, not attract many new ones.
  • Home screens are very customizable with widgets, backgrounds and themes, which is welcome. Alas, there are only three home screens and no way to add more. While the widgets are very handy, and one of the aspects I like about Android, they’re a fixed size, which limits the amount of useful information shown.
  • Even without a current-generation CPU, the N8 is a reasonably peppy performer. I witnessed a little more lag with the N8 as compared to 1 GHz handsets I use, but not much, which is a testament to how Nokia has optimized the operating system. Much like the “version 1.0” feel of Symbian^3, however, the processor could use a boost. Nokia appears to have made a tradeoff between performance and power use here, and the GPU certainly helps as video playback is buttery smooth.
  • Nokia’s updated Ovi Store provides a better experience in finding software, although users have to install the Ovi Store on the device, which makes absolutely no sense.
  • The N8 works quite well with Google’s Gmail, which I use exclusively. Using the Mail app, I easily set up both my work and personal accounts, complete with calendars and contacts. A unified inbox would be nice, however, and I still don’t see the point of how Nokia treats message composition. Instead of typing directly in the message, you still type in a text box, which feels very 2002-ish.

What needs work?

  • For all its improvement, the main Symbian^3 interface still needs help. There are fewer system nags than S60 provides, but they still pop up every now and again. By default, the phone prompts you when hitting a secure site, for example, and will still ask if it’s okay to connect to the cellular data network. I can understand that in some regions of the globe, this is a desired feature, but maybe the default should be set by region.
  • Related to the interface: The apps are still hidden in an Applications folder. It’s a hardware button press and a screen tap just to see what apps are on the N8: a level of inefficiency echoed in various places within Symbian^3.
  • In portrait mode, the software keyboard is a T9 style, requiring multiple taps for every letter. Some would argue this offers a better one-hand experience, and I agree. However, it’s as if the low screen resolution of 320 pixels wide in portrait mode doesn’t allow for a full keyboard. Again, it feels like another compromise, or Nokia simply didn’t get around to creating a good portrait keyboard yet.
  • Social integration for media sharing either isn’t there, or I can’t find it. Perhaps it’s a user error on my part, but as a long-time smartphone user, if I can’t easily find a function, it’s not intuitive. That’s a shame because this type of integration is becoming common on smartphones and is available in prior Symbian devices from Nokia.
  • The typing in a text box issue mentioned earlier permeates the system. Typing a password on the web, for example, takes you to the textbox, where you must press a button to return where you started: then you have to hit a login button. It’s a disjointed, inelegant experience.
  • Speaking of the web, the browser is WebKit-based, but not nearly as enjoyable to use as that of an iOS or Android device. Text is pixelated and there’s no text reflow when zooming in on a page, causing far too much scrolling. The browser looks nearly identical to that of older S60 devices, and after a few years of revamping the platform, this is a missed opportunity: people are using smartphones primarily for the web and apps, so dropping the ball here is disappointing.

[inline-pro-content align=”left”]All in all, Nokia’s N8 and Symbian^3 operating system show signs of catching up to the competition in this market. Unfortunately, in many instances, it only catches Nokia up to where its competitors were two years ago. Is it a device that will make some people happy? Yes. If you’re a current S60 device owner that wants a more modern touchscreen smartphone, then the N8 is well worth the look. Will Nokia gain N8 converts from the iPhone and Android handset rank-and-file? Not in any meaningful quantities. For that, we may need to see Symbian^4 or MeeGo devices from Nokia.

Nokia has said it expects to sell 50 million Symbian^3 devices, and I think it will do that. It won’t be because these devices bested the competition, however. Instead, it will be due to Nokia’s global reach and branding in 190 countries in combination with an updated operating system that will keep Nokia’s current customers happy.

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29 Responses to “Review: Nokia N8 Is Two Steps Forward, One Step Back”

  1. The N8 is a great phone, I love the quality of materials and of course his wonderful camera. a feature that I like is that it can read USB memory also the FM transmitter and the HDMI.
    But I’m not too sure about the good performance of the new Symbian OS, I agree that Symbian was not made for touch

  2. For the non-English world which users need to ‘switch’ keyboard layout. Symbian^3 falls very short. You need at least 4 steps/clicks to change one and equal to change back.

    Android has dedicated soft key on its keyboard, feel like press Shift for another layout.

  3. Juxtapox

    Symbian^3 is pretty much a total rewrite over previous Nokia operating systems – why else would they have spent years baking it ?

    That Symbian^3 is “not refreshingly new” is a bit curious notion – I’d think that a strong argument also supports an opposite angle, eg. regarding “familiarity”, and “old user base”.

    Naturally we’ll see development in Symbian^3 OS as NOKIA pushes towards Symbian^4 in H1/2011. (Same thing that’s currently happening with Nokia N900 running Maemo (pre-MeeGo) natively: a new PR 1.3 firmware is arriving, with MeeGo dual boot capability ; )

  4. What does this phone have that no other US smartphone has? Pentaband 3G/HSPA. You can get fast 3G data services on both AT&T and T-Mobile in the USA—with a Nokia N8, you’re free from your carrier without compromises.

    Pentaband 3G was an unbelievably major shortcoming of Google’s Nexus One—without it, all that talk of a phone free from your carrier and new business models this and that was nothing but hyped-up nonsense. Nokia’s finally delivered it.

  5. You make a small comment that “Nokia wisely incorporated radios that work for data and voice on nearly any GSM network in the world” but that is a HUGE benefit for a phone. It makes buying an unlocked phone much more desirable because it allows carrier-independence without a degradation in 3G speeds.

    Hopefully upgrades to the firmware and better quality and local QT apps will increase it’s usability. For many people, they will buy it because of the camera just like many buy the iPhone to play their music. I’m not sure they are looking for converts from other platforms as much as they are looking for NEW smartphone buyers or upgrading existing customers.

  6. Good review Kevin,

    With regard to the T9 keyboard in portrait mode. I really like the T9 keyboard that said I’ve used the beta of Swype on a friends N97 and from my limited playing it’s much better than traditional poking away at the screen. On the N97 it provides a normal qwerty keyboard in portrait mode so hopefully it will be the same on the N8.

    With regard to the browser Nokia have an updated version which should be ready before the end of the year and should resolve most of the things you mentioned.

    As for the missing photo sharing this is a strange one. Nokia have had this since the the N95 8GB and even put it on their dumb phones so why they’ve left it off a phone that has such a strong camera is very strange indeed. I suspect that like all of the other points i’ve made it will be fixed in a software update.

    A commentator made a good point in a review I read else where which basically said that at least they got the hardware right. Most of the other problems can be fixed with updates later but you can’t add HDMI or a 12MP camera later ;)

  7. Fair and balanced review for the most part. I’ve had the phone for 3 days now and it’s an absolute powerhouse! My iPhone 3GS has been useless to me for a while now, having been relegated to being a toy for my 5 year old daughter to play games on. The N8 is a nice upgrade from my main business device, the N97mini.

    It’s nice to see you tried one of the Midnight themes. I can’t say much for your choice of widgets though :D My desktops have a lot more colour in their wallpapers (Gundam, Eboy) and choice of icons (Angry Birds, Youtube, Opera, Skype, Spotify etc.).

    I’m familiar with Symbian and this Symbian^3 is a HUGE step forward for the OS. It still offers far more right out the box than ANY OS on the market right now.

  8. bostonphoneguy

    “Unfortunately, in many instances, it only catches Nokia up to where its competitors were two years ago.”

    Been par for the course for Nokia flagship devices of late. I’ve been saying the same thing for some time. Excellent review, Kevin. At least you didn’t go all “Matt Miller.” ;-)

  9. bostonphoneguy

    “Unfortunately, in many instances, it only catches Nokia up to where its competitors were two years ago.”

    This is what I’ve been saying about Nokia’s latest flagship devices since the N95. Excellent review, Kevin! At least you didn’t go all “Matt Miller.” ;-)

  10. Good review, Kevin. I largely agree with the points you make.

    One thing though – for me the N8 does best the opposition on the grounds of battery life and call/signal quality and as the main purpose of a phone is to make calls and text that’s a winner. After all, one can improve software but you can’t do much with hardware once it’s out there.

    Expet improvements through firmware updates. That’s the usual Nokia way.

    • Good point Mark. Apple won’t be upgrading current iPhones to get a real camera or flash. No upgrades to allow them to switch to T-mobile and still get 3G. No way to take your iPhone apart and add Bluetooth 3.0, USB on the go, FM transmit/receive, aluminum case and gorilla glass screen to prevent all those cracks and scratches. Having reception issues? Don’t like the call quality or low volume speaker or short battery life? Good luck finding a fix. Meanwhile, many of the shortcomings of the N8 will be improved with software updates and third party apps. Virtually all the complaints I’ve seen about the N8 are with the software, but at least that stuff has a possibility for being improved for current owners. Cheers to Nokia for attending to the hardware features, something lacking on most Android and Apple phones.

    • Muliadi Jeo

      I completely agree with you Mark. One thing that I always love about Nokia phones are they are phone first and then PDA next. The design of the phone and the quality of the voice call are always superb with Nokia. Kevin hits the mark when he said that Nokia is a solid hardware company.

    • Clearly it isn’t since the improvements to Symbian^1 have increased customer numbers and share over the last four quarters. This is simply an extension of that strategy – stop the bleed, regroup and then attract new customers with specifically designed products (S^4 – DirectUI which is touch optimised as opposed to AVKON which isn’t – and MeeGo).

      People have been saying Nokia are dea for two years. They were wrong then, they’re wrong now.