The mobile industry has evolved at the rate of years per second in the last couple of months. The competition is fierce and the range of offerings is wide. This accelerated growth pace has been exclusively in the high-end segment of the market. A market that is now mainstream as mobile internet has become cheaper; smartphones aren’t a niche product anymore. To compete in this market Nokia came up with the Nokia N8, the most advanced Nokia smartphone ever. Although the N8 does not represent the very top-end of the Nokia line, it is the epitome of all of Nokia’s offerings for the rest of 2010 and first months of 2011.
The Nokia N8 has an iconic design. Nokia is one of the few manufacturers that can create something that looks completely different from the rest. The N8 is one of the most complete smartphones available. It has it all: HDMI-out, USB-OTG, aluminium monoblock design, 12 MP Camera with Xenon and Carl-Zeiss, AMOLED screen, Gorilla-Glass, front-camera, and availability in five different colors. The N8 is beautiful, the design unique, the phone feels solid – it is iconic.
However, Nokia did commit a transcendental mistake when choosing the size of the N8’s screen. It is just too narrow. The N8 has a 3.5” screen, but unlike other spacious 3.5” screens out there, the N8 has a widescreen format that enlarges the length and shrinks the width. This causes awkward font sizes, practically unusable keyboard layouts, and poor web browsing experience; even the telephone’s numeric keyboard feels tiny. Take as an example the Blackberry Torch: it sports a 3.2” touchscreen that is 4mm wider than the N8’s. While other high-end smartphones feature ample 3.7” and 4.0” touchscreens, the N8 is stuck with a relatively small display.
The Nokia N8 was designed as a monoblock phone, which means that the phone has no movable parts or even a removable battery. This design has its advantages: the N8 feels like a rock in the hand, but the battery can’t be removed. The N8 is fed by a 1200mAh battery. The battery life of this device is well above average compared to the rest of smartphones out there. However, the battery is not as long-lasting as it should be – the N8 requires, in most cases, a charge every day.
The Nokia N8 is the best widely available cameraphone out there. The majority of the shots are impeccable no matter what the light conditions are. The Xenon flash comes into play and makes a difference when light is scarce. I now actually see other phone’s LED flash as a joke; they are good for absolutely nothing. This will not be a camera review; it is enough to say the N8 is indeed the best cameraphone, period. The only missing feature is touch to focus. It is useful on other phones to touch an object on the screen so the camera focuses on it.
Since I am not a great photographer, taking a look at the N8’s Flickr group might provide a better idea of the power of the N8’s camera
The video camera is extraordinary too. The quality of the sound is specially clear since the N8 has two microphones to record sound. The N8 takes video at 25 ft/sec, a bit behind the widely used 30ft/sec on most smartphones. The quality of the HD video is amazing, and even more surprising, the videos taken with the N8 look great when connected to an HD TV via the HDMI cable.
FM Transmitter, GPS, Memory, Processor, Bands
The N8 comes with a special feature Nokia has been including in some Nseries phones: a built-in FM Transmitter. The idea is to wirelessly stream to a FM radio. Nokia has been a bit un-innovative and has only thought of one application: streaming songs to a FM radio. However, there are other things you can do. For example, you can navigate with Ovi Maps and listen to the directions through your car’s speakers, rather than the phone’s. The FM Transmitter works well. In some cars you will have to do aerobics to find the spot where the N8 can transmit clearly, but once you are connected, the sound is crisp.
The GPS is another extraordinary feature on the N8. The first time I opened Ovi Maps, the GPS got almost an immediate lock. It is probably the fastest-locking phone I have seen. The reception is strong, and power consumption is low in comparison with other phones.
The memory and processor of the N8 have been a debated topic. Some say that is not enough, others say that it is more than enough. The truth is that the N8’s memory and processor are adequate. The N8 supports virtual memory, so the N8 won’t run out of it easily. The processor is fast – multitasking and running several apps at the same time is not a problem. The N8 also has a GPU, a feature present in early Nseries phones, that makes graphic elements perform better.
To wrap-up one of the most beautiful pieces of hardware ever designed, Nokia implemented a penta-band 3G chip in the Nokia N8. This means that you can pop a SIM card in and use the N8 with nearly any GSM carrier around the world. The reception, as usual, is far ahead from the competition. The N8 has great reception where most phones see the bars drop.
So far the N8 seems like an excellent device. Aside from the relatively small screen, the N8 is up there with the rest. But hardware is just 50% of a phone, the rest is software – and things start to turn to a darker shade when the N8’s Symbian^3 is put under the glass. If the Nokia N8 stands out with hardware, it definitely struggles with the software. Mainly, because the UI (user interface), speed, UX (user experience), apps, and wow-cool-factor don’t perform well. To be as clear as possible, I am going to break-up even more the Software chapter in this N8 review.
The N8 is Nokia’s fastest phone (N900 aside). But the N8 is the industry’s high-end slowest smartphone too. Nokia just hasn’t been able to provide a fast UI that responds immediately to the touch. As an example, I compared a simple web browser open-time in both a Galaxy S running Android 2.1, and the N8. Both from a fresh start, both at the same time. The N8 opens the web browser from the homescreen (averaged from several trials) in 1.41 seconds. In the Galaxy S, it is almost immediate, I couldn’t come up with a time because it just opens when you touch it. Same thing happens throughout the UI. The N8 literally takes a second to respond.
This nuisance has been present in Nokia phones for ages. It was until I came back from Android and didn’t know why I just felt awkward using the N8, that I realized that one second makes the whole difference.
The kinetic scrolling is also impractical. Scrolling long lists like Contacts and E-Mail is just not intuitive. The physics are wrong, the response is not as pleasing as in other platforms. Take as an example the homescreen scrolling method. The user slides across the screen, and is not until a couple of milliseconds later that the screen responds and the homescreen changes. This, by the way, is by design, proof that Nokia can improve by simply asking users what they want.
The web browser in the N8 is unusable. It is probably the darkest stain in the whole product. I would be ashamed being Nokia, and allowing such a mediocre, outdated, and unpractical browser in a flagship product. First of all, the web browser is lacking Flash 10.1, and HTML 5. That by itself renders the N8’s browser behind the rest, but the thing is so bad, that is not even the problem with it. The browser can’t load sites properly – some don’t load at all, they just crash and make the phone unresponsive. The UX is just terrible: users can’t open tabs, going back takes a few clicks, and fonts don’t adjust after zooming.
The text-input on the N8 is well behind the industry standards. The N8 is the only widely available, high-end smartphone in 2010 to lack a full portrait QWERTY keyboard. This is a great design mistake, and a great contradiction in Nokia’s own philosophy. Nokia argues that smartphones should be designed to be used with one hand. This is valid, it is practical and convenient. But the N8, by not having a portrait keyboard, forces some users who are not used to T9 to turn the phone to landscape mode in order to use the full keyboard. There are some users, like me, that would rather wait for a computer to be available, than composing an E-Mail using the alphanumeric portrait keyboard on the N8. Here comes a strong argument on why the N8’s screen should have been larger, or have used the regular non-widescreen format. The N8’s screen is just too narrow for a full portrait keyboard to be effectively implemented. And what is a smartphone without an effective text input method capable of satisfying multiple types of customers?
The landscape keyboard isn’t something Nokia should be proud about either. Since the beginning, I could notice that the area for each key wasn’t too generous. The keys are organized in a grid, unlike the normal organization keys have in every keyboard out there (if you look closely to a keyboard, keys are not perfectly aligned). But on top of that, the N8 has an awkward and strange organization of characters. The “enter” and “backspace” keys are totally misplaced at the bottom right corner.
Nokia finally implemented Ovi with the Nokia N8. The very first thing the N8 asks the user is to sign-in or sign-up for an Ovi account. This is brilliant because syncing makes switching between Nokia phones a breeze. It is also an effective method to offer many services through one name, allowing Nokia to build a brand as a service provider. The Ovi Services in the N8 are Sync, Ovi Store, Ovi Maps, Social, and Music where available. The integration of Ovi with the N8 is excellent. The device stores the password and username, so once you signed-in for the first time, you can forget about signing-in in the rest of the services.
Nokia has come up with an “Ovi by Nokia” logo that shows up every time an Ovi Service is fired up. It is basically a blank screen lacking animations that shows the user the Ovi logo for an average of 12 seconds every time an Ovi Service is started. The logo is shown when starting the Ovi Store and Social. Fortunately, and amazingly, the logo does not show up for Ovi Maps. Now, my question is, whose idea was this? Boring the user with a 12 second screen without fancy animations is a bad idea. If Ovi Maps, a far more complex app, can start without a logo, Ovi Store could do too.
Ovi Maps is, perhaps, the strongest positive point in the N8’s software. Ovi Maps definitely deserves praise. The service has grown from being just a map application, to a hub of location based services. From Ovi Maps, the user can get access to Weather, travel guides from Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, Insight Guides, Expedia, Bookatable, and many more services. An important observation, is that even with all that new functionality, Ovi Store keeps being the amazing navigation app that it was meant to be. Since GPS locking is really fast in the N8, navigating with it is a pleasure, a free pleasure. Nokia played very well its cards by making Ovi Maps navigation a free service on new Nokia devices. The user can even download any map from the Ovi Suite for free. With this feature, roaming charges remain zero, and lack of carrier coverage doesn’t pose as a problem while navigating remote areas. The navigation on the N8 is accurate – there are plenty of POIs; and, searching almost comes up with something. Unfortunately, Google Maps still has more results than Ovi Maps. The navigation voices on the N8 are the best on any phone, you can even program your own voice, or choose from a variety of celebrity voices. All in all, the N8 is probably the best GPS replacement phone out there.
Ovi Store is a mixed bag of opinions. For the most part, the Ovi Store is an intuitive and fast application that offers a great user experience. The scrolling on the Store is comparable to that of other platform’s; it is smooth and works how it is supposed to work – it is by far the best kinetic scrolling experience on the N8. The design of the app is current, using it is a pleasant experience. The negative aspects, however, do outweigh the positive points. Starting with a 12 second mandatory Ovi Logo is already a minus. But is the lack of quality applications what makes the Ovi Store unexciting. It is obvious since opening the Ovi Store, that most of the apps in the front page don’t really look interesting. The Store is crowded with RSS feeds (there are even some Facebook feeds in there), wallpapers, ringtones, videos, and podcasts that don’t belong to an app catalog. Searching for titles one would expect to be available for a smartphone like the N8, also fails: Kindle, eBay, Pandora, Google Earth, WordPress, a simple parcel tracker, Epocrates, Epicurious, and thousands of cool apps and games other platforms have, aren’t available at the Ovi Store. This lack of applications creates a mindset in the user that any search on the Ovi Store will be unproductive; unfortunately, most times this will be the case. The lack of app updates is also a major problem that Nokia has to address. On other platforms, the user is notified when app updates are available. This is really useful because app bugs are fixed, and often features are added.
It is worth mentioning that Nokia is making an effort to bring more apps to the Ovi Store. In fact, there are some excellent paid HD Games available right now. Calling all Innovators North America also looks promising; it might finally bring the titles mentioned above, and many more to Symbian and MeeGo powered smartphones. We will have to wait and see how the Ovi Store will populate after the contest is over.
The Nokia N8 comes with a Social Networking app called “Social.” It is an Ovi Service, that provides Twitter and Facebook support on the N8. The service also has the ability to link contacts in the phone book, with a contact on Twitter or Facebook. The linking doesn’t work in the way an user would expect it to work. You can only link one contact at a time, and there is no way to sync all contacts from any of the social networks into the N8’s phone book.
The app by itself is slow. While using Social, the lag is very noticeable; selected elements highlight a second after being pressed. Scrolling, which should be flawless in an app like Twitter, is horrendous. There is also a limit on how many Tweets you can go back to, it won’t show more than around 100 tweets. There is also the capability of uploading pictures and videos straight from the camera application, however, there is no description field. You will have to tag, and describe the pic you uploaded from a computer.
The Social app on the N8 is a big letdown. The app is slow, very slow. It lacks real power, and is just not intuitive or fun to use.
The Nokia N8 can handle a lot of tasks at the same time; and, unlike other platforms, the N8 has *real multitasking. The N8 doesn’t have any problems running 35+ tasks at the same time. The multitasking feature is accessed by long pressing the menu button, which opens a carousel with visual multitasking. The only problem with how multitasking works, is that when there are more than 20 apps open, scrolling through the tiles to find the desired app can be tedious. The N8 only shows 2 tiles in one screen; it would be better if Symbian had a more Maemo-like approach and position tiles in a grid.
Nokia Messaging is an awesome service Nokia has been supporting for now a while. It lets you configure you mailbox, and receive emails as soon as they are sent to you. And it is pretty impressive, emails even show first on Nokia Messaging than on my Gmail webmail client. The only thing Nokia Messaging hasn’t been able to get right, is the UI of the application. To start, and you will see a pattern here, is the sluggish scrolling on Nokia Messaging. It is not smooth enough, the mails actually flick while scrolling. The unread emails aren’t that well distinguished from the rest, and threaded conversations are missing. I also got errors while trying to download attachments. Fonts are inconsistent when opening emails. Basic emails are rendered with a readable font, but newsletter and other complex emails will have a tiny font that is really hard to read.
Special: Since Nokia has changed its strategy to continuously update Symbian, there is the potential that many substantial changes are made to the N8 in the upcoming months. There will be a new review if this is the case.