Despite recent headlines, Nokia is still a very big player in the mobile phone market. But it’s not the colossus it was, and it’s lost a lot of impetus particularly in the smartphone market, where it's struggled – OK, let's be honest, failed – to keep up with the competition.
There was a lot of anticipation ahead of the N8's launch, and it has a decent set of features, headed up by a 12-megapixel camera and HDMI port for transferring HD video. The main problem, as it has been for a while, is with the Symbian operating system and its user interface. Now that's all in the past thanks to the WinPho 7 merger, but should be judge the last Symbian N-Series phone too harshly?
Design and build
Many of the top-end smartphones seem to be expanding until they can hardly fit in the average pocket, and alongside the likes of the HTC HD7 or the upcoming Acer Iconia Smart, the N8 is relatively compact at 114 x 59 x 13mm and 135g.
The aluminium casing gives it a classy, upmarket feel and surprisingly, it’s fixed, with no backplate you can remove to get to the battery. To do that, you’ll need to undo a pair of screws, which seems like a bit of a palaver, but then, how often would you need to do it? Happily, you can get at the SIM card and microSD memory card much more easily via a pair of slots on the side, each of them covered by a floppy plastic grommet.
On the sides you’ll also find a volume rocker, microUSB sync port, screen lock switch and camera button. At the top are a power button and 3.5mm headphone jack sitting on either side of a mini HDMI slot (securely covered) which is intended for transferring HD video. At the bottom is Nokia’s usual charging port. At the front, beneath the screen, is a hard menu button which doubles as home and triples with a long press to help you manage open applications.
The 3.5in multitouch capacitive AMOLED screen looks terrifically sharp and it’s sensitive too, easily distinguishing between brushes and presses without sticking – something other recent Nokias haven’t always been capable of. It looks great, but it could have done with an iPhone-style anti-grease coating, as it turned out to be a bit of a fingerprint magnet.
Interface and OS
Each of the three homescreens can be populated with a variety of shortcuts and widgets, all of them arranged into tight little rows. Despite Nokia’s reported Grand Canyon of R&D into which they’ve shovelled millions, it manages the trick of being organised but looking messy, and certainly less appealing than any of its rivals from Apple, Google, Microsoft or RIM.
But this is the first phone to feature the 'Symbian^3' version of the operating system (now relabelled just 'Symbian'), and aesthetic hangover aside, it is an improvement on its predecessor. That awkward system where some menus required one tap and two for others seems to have gone, which is good, but aside from a few small changes like this, it’s still basically the same old awkward Symbian.
Unlike the scrolling lists we’ve come to expect from Android and now Windows, Symbian still leans towards clumps of icons that you have to dig into to find what you’re looking for, which a couple of levels down, Inception-style, can start to get confusing. Not that this would matter too much if everything was easy to find, but it isn’t necessarily. For instance, email is hidden away three levels down in Applications – why? A hard back button would have been handy too, since it only seems to appear on the screen intermittently.
To add to the N8’s woes, the processor seemed to struggle on occasion, leading to more instances of lag when switching between apps than we were comfortable with.
The 12-megapixel camera is the N8’s star turn, and it’s backed up by a Xenon (as opposed to LED) flash and a Carl Zeiss lens, which juts out at the back. Extra features include autofocus, face recognition and Nokia’s really rather good picture and video editors. The picture quality is impressively sharp (by camphone standards) and colour resolution generally accurate.
It can record HD video at up to 720p resolution and there’s a second microphone (the often overlooked one which is used for noise cancellation during voice calls) which is called into play for stereo sound recording. It looks sharp and detailed, but the frame rate is only 25fps, which can lead to a bit of judder if you’re trying to capture some fast movement. There’s also another VGA camera at the front for video recording.
Apps and browser
It’s good to see a social networking app on board that will pull together your Facebook and Twitter updates into a single feed. The bad news is that you can’t make any updates from within it – you’ll need to go to your Facebook or Twitter apps separately to update your status. It only works with those apps too, and won’t pull in your emails and texts, like HTC’s FriendStream for instance.
The virtual keyboard isn’t of the first water either – cramped and awkward to use with its ugly layout and not particularly intuitive layout.
The Symbian browser seems pretty much as it has been for the last year or so. You can pinch to zoom, which helps, but it still has those same ugly navigation controls which take up too much of the screen and generally get in the way.
Media and connectivity
The AMOLED screen is well suited to viewing decent quality video and boasts 16 million colours. There’s also an option to stretch the film to fit the screen, which reduces intrusive letterboxing. The HDMI connection worked fine too, linking up straight away with an HDMI-enabled TV to transfer video from the handset to the big screen.
There’s an FM radio on board and while the sound is okay through the supplied headphones, it’s a surprise that there’s no option for internet radio or podcasts.
Performance and battery life
The N8’s battery life held up particularly well, delivering a good two days of fairly heavy use before requiring a charge.
- Clear, sharp and sensitive screen
- Top notch camera and flash combo
- Stylish aluminium casing
- Symbian^3 isn't enough of a jump on its predecessor
- Social networking integration could be better
- Virtual keyboard and browser ugly and unintuitive
- No lens cover
Verdict: The Nokia will certainly find some fans, for its sturdy build, excellent screen and 12 megapixel camera, as well as decent battery life, but Symbian ultimately serves as a hindrance to Nokia’s good work elsewhere.
More info: Nokia N8 spec
Price: From free on contract, £429 PAYG