Nokia N8 Review

5 months ago, I shut down Symbian-Guru.com, my personal project of nearly 4 years. The decision was based mostly on the horrendous experience that was the Nokia N97, and I just couldn’t wait to see if the N8 was any better, especially based on early previews. Fortunately, the folks at Nokia are awful friendly, and sent me an N8 review unit anyways, just so I could see for myself if it was an improvement.

I’ve used the N8 for a little over a week, and to be honest, I’m quite impressed with it. Using the N8, it’s very clear that Nokia took in all the feedback from the N97 and sought to integrate it into the N8 experience. The build quality is rock solid, with high-quality materials. There is plenty of memory in all the right places (RAM, ROM, etc), and the phone feels really snappy, even without a full 1GHz Snapdragon in there. They’ve also worked on the actual experience, but you can read the full review to find out where.

Hardware

The Nokia N8 is easily the most solidly build Nokia smartphone I’ve ever used. The materials are high quality, and the pieces are put together tightly, with no looseness or gaps. The middle portion of the phone is metal, while the top and bottom caps are plastic, to allow the cellular signal to get through. The 3.5-inch nHD display is covered with Gorilla Glass, which lets it withstand plenty of abuse without getting scratched.

The 3.5-inch AMOLED display is awesome, though – I can easily read it in sunlight, much better than my Nexus One, which I simply cannot read in direct sunlight. It’s bright, shows great colors, and is pleasantly responsive – Nokia did a great job with the display on the N8, there’s no doubt about that.

There are only a few buttons on the Nokia N8, and honestly, they’re a mixed bag. The power button on the top of the phone is small but easy to press, and the menu button on the bottom left corner of the front of the phone is the same (though I can’t figure out why on earth it’s offset like it is). Along the right side of the phone is the volume rocker, slide-lock button, and the camera button. The volume rocker on my unit is awful – it’s entirely too mushy and you can almost press the whole thing in without really pushing it. You’ve really got to apply some pressure to get the volume up/down recognized. The camera button, on the other hand, is just a bit too stiff, making it somewhat tricky to take good photos without moving the camera just a bit in pushing the button.

Software

There are two parts to the software part of the Nokia N8, in my opinion. First, there’s the improvements made to the base Symbian platform from S60v5 to Symbian^3. It’s not a complete rewrite like it probably should have been, but there are some major improvements, nonetheless. Second, there’s the Nokia layer to the Symbian platform, which includes a few Nokia-specific applications and the Ovi Store experience.

Platform Level

The best way to sum up the changes from S60v5 to Symbian^3 is that they cleaned things up quite nicely. It’s still far from perfect, but it is definitely improved. The first thing you’ll notice, if you used any of Nokia’s earlier S60v5 devices, is that you only have to tap things once – the double-tap is gone, for the most part. They still need to tweak this a bit, as I often selected things instead of scrolling, specifically in longer lists like the music player.

The menus, however, are still not as organized as most people seem to prefer. Whereas other platforms, like iOS and Android, just toss all your apps in a single scrollable menu, Symbian has a bit more organization out of the box. Apps in the main menu are tucked into various subfolders, grouped with similar applications. Office apps are with other office apps, games with games, media with media. Of course, it’s Nokia’s opinion on where these go, so you may disagree with some of the placements.

iOS and Android take a different approach to this, and I can’t really say which is better. Android gives you a number of homescreens for organization, mixing widgets and icons and everything. iOS, on the other hand, is actually the most similar to Symbian in that it lets the user organize the main menu freely, including subfolders and such. The difference is that Symbian has a default organization, while iOS lets you start from scratch.

The browser on the N8 still sucks, but at least Nokia knows it and is reportedly working on a brand new one that will be delivered to the N8 via OTA firmware update sometime early in 2011. It’s a full web browser with Flash built-in, so it’s technically competitive, but it’s just slow as Christmas and clunky to navigate. Symbian^3 does finally give users the option to change the default browser from stock to Opera Mini or something if they so choose, but that’s not really a very good solution.

Text input on Symbian is embarrassing, to say the least. In portrait mode, your only option is a standard numeric keypad, with T9 predictive text. There is no portrait QWERTY keyboard (that’s also expected to be available in that upcoming firmware update). Honestly, I don’t mind T9 – in most cases, it’s actually much faster, especially when you can only use one hand. The problem, however, is that some input fields let you use the predictive feature, while others force you to use multi-tap – you know, press the 6 key three times to enter an ‘o’ – which is completely retarded.

Also, one of the best parts of T9 you may remember from your older phone is that the predictive part was almost always the same – this allowed you to quickly get to the point where you could type an entire paragraph on your phone without ever having to actually look at it. It was brilliant, and unfortunately, that feature is broken on the N8. A great example of this is the punctuation. Sometimes, pressing the 1 key and then # to scroll through the options would give you a period and then a comma, while other times the question mark followed the period, with the comma pushed down the line a bit. Just endlessly frustrating.

When you rotate the phone to landscape mode, thankfully, there is a full QWERTY keyboard. The buttons on this keyboard are nicely sized and it finally has a bit of predictive software, offering to not only auto-complete your words, but auto-correct, too, if you choose that option. Unfortunately, Symbian missed the big opportunity with software-based keyboards – context. The landscape QWERTY keyboard on the N8 lacks all of the little extras that make the iPhone and Android’s onscreen keyboards so dang handy. There are no contextual buttons at all – such as a dedicated ‘www/.com‘ button in the browser, a smiley button in the messaging app, and so on.

Also, symbols are a nightmare, as you have to manually switch to ‘symbol mode’ each time – there is no option to long-press certain letters to get a symbol like there is on the HTC or Swype keyboards. Speaking of, there is a version of Swype for the N8 that is freely available on the Ovi Store. Unfortunately, this is only a landscape keyboard replacement – it does not include the excellent Swype portrait QWERTY, so you’re still stuck with the T9 in portrait mode.

Nokia/Ovi

Unfortunately, the Nokia N8 suffers much the same fate the N97 did when it launched – many of Nokia’s Ovi services simply aren’t yet available. Of course, there’s an updated version of Ovi Maps on the Beta Labs, which is freakin awesome, and the integrated Nokia Messaging for Email, which is also quite good. I was also pleased to see Ovi Sync built-in, but more on that in a moment. Ovi Chat is nowhere to be seen, which is unfortunate, as it was nicely integrated with the contact list in the Nokia N97.

I’ve tried Ovi Sync before, and tried desperately to get it to work for me. I’ve never once had it work properly, but I figured I’d give it another go. First, I logged into my account on my computer, and disconnected any old phones that might have hung around. Then, I manually deleted every one of the contacts I had from before, logging out and then back in to make sure they were all really gone. Next, synced the N8 with my Google account, using the instructions from my friend Dennis at WapReview.com. This went smoothly, and now I had all my contacts and calendar entries from my Google account on the N8. I then removed the Google account, and was pleased to see that my contacts/calendar entries remained on the phone.

Next, I setup the Ovi Sync account on the N8. It was really quite easy, only really asking for my username/password, and it gave me a few options on what to sync and how frequently. I let the first sync go through, and gave it a few minutes to populate in my online Ovi account. Much to my dismay, I somehow had multiple duplicate entries, including contacts that I had long since deleted. It appears as though manually deleting the contacts online didn’t actually delete them. What a steaming pile of fail. Fortunately, I was able to hard reset the N8 to delete everything, and start over with only my Google account, and everything has been running smoothly.

Media

The Nokia N8 is the first real touchscreen Nseries, in the original purpose and design of the ‘Nseries’ branding.

When I connected the N8 to my computer via USB, I wasn’t hassled with a popup asking me to choose the type of connection – it just worked and showed up in MediaMonkey with no issues or configuration needed. I was able to transfer 1,300 music tracks in a matter of minutes – a task that would have taken hours with the N97. The tracks immediately showed up in my music library, as well – no refreshing needed (though I did see the option to do so in the menu). The music player is still essentially the same as what you’re used to with Symbian, with some small changes. There is still no support for a ratings system, and it doesn’t seem to track or synchronize metadata such as playcount or last played.

I was pleased to discover that the music automatically paused if my headphones came unplugged, a feature Symbian-lovers have requested for years. The speakers are insanely loud, as I would have expected.

There are a number of videos pre-loaded on the Nokia N8, including a few TRON ones, possibly hinting at more collaboration with the movie when it hits theatres in December. Of course, these look astounding on the N8’s high-resolution display, and play smoothly, as well. I tested a few videos from various sources, as well, and was pleased to see that the N8 was able to handle them without any conversion needed – another big step forward from Nokia.

The Nokia N8’s camera will completely blow your mind. It’s that good. I’m not a professional photographer – I’m a point-and-shoot photographer, and I rarely tinker with any settings. I love the spontaneity in photos, really – the ability to just pull my phone out and quickly capture the moment, and the N8 doesn’t disappoint. There are a handful of photos that I took with the Nokia N8 available at my Flickr page here, or you can check out the N8 User Group for more photos taken with the N8. Video capture is equally awesome, as you can see in the sample below:

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8dpHJz7W1Q

The Nokia N8 also has onboard apps for editing photos and videos, something we haven’t seen on a Nokia since the venerable N95. Of course, they’re somewhat limited in options, but they’re easy to use and work quite well, nonetheless. The Nokia N8 is a content creation machine, plain and simple, and that’s why I believe it’s the first real touchscreen Nseries. It’s similar to the N95 in that regard – a true multimedia computer as originally envisioned.

Here’s a video that I captured and edited completely on the Nokia N8:

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJTH69_moPs

Apps

This is where I’m probably going to lose a few readers, and I’m OK with that. It’s a fact that there are not as many apps available for the Symbian platform as there are for Android or iOS. I currently have over 70 apps on my T-Mobile G2 (you can browse them on AppBrain) and for the most part, I actively use every one of them at least once a week, if not more.

That being said, the lack of apps is NOT Symbian’s biggest problem right now. Most of the ‘big ones’ are already available – Mobbler, Gravity, Nimbuzz, Pixelpipe, etc. Even many of the niche apps, like Foursquare and OpenTable, are readily available on the Ovi Store. The reason I don’t think this is a big issue is because Symbian already has many of the features that apps bring on other platforms. I also felt more productive when I was using the N8. There were fewer distractions, and I spent less time wasting time on the phone.

Ovi Store

Speaking of, Ovi Store on the N8 is nearly equal to the Android Market on v2.2 (FroYo), in my opinion. The overall experience of browsing through apps and getting details on applications is basically the same, and that’s pretty good. The biggest thing I was missing is the ability to check for updates to applications. It’s very likely, however, that the apps on my N8 simply didn’t have updates, but that’s also a problem, in my opinion. Overall though, the Ovi Store team should be congratulated – they’ve done some incredible work taking a horrendous experience and making it significantly better. I’m anxious to see what other improvements they have in the pipeline.

Conclusion

Overall, the Nokia N8 is surprisingly good. My two biggest complaints are the browser and text input options, both of which are, apparently, getting a major overhaul with the v2.0 firmware expected in early 2011. The hardware is top-notch, and feels really well put together. If you’ve been using an older Symbian device and wanting an upgrade, I would recommend the N8 without any hesitation. As with most of Nokia’s high-end smartphones, it’s probably a good idea to wait until the 2.0 firmware is available – chances are, the phone will be ~$100-150 cheaper by then, and you’ll get some major benefits with fewer bugs.

The software can always be updated – the hardware, though, you’re stuck with. Fortunately, the N8 does well here. The processor isn’t as pokey as I anticipated (Symbian does really good with lower specs than other platforms), the battery life is awesome, and there is plenty of internal memory to go around (including the ROM C: storage that the N97 seemed to be missing). The camera will rock your face off, and if you’re a content creator, the editing and uploading functions definitely make the N8 stand out.

I wouldn’t say the N8 is an ‘iPhone Killer’ or an ‘Android Killer’, by any stretch of the imagination. I also don’t think everyone wants that. Some people out there just like Symbian, or dislike the other platforms. The N8 is a great device for them.

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