Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Nokia N8 two weeks hands-on review

Nokia's latest multimedia flagship has been in my hands for almost two weeks now so I've got more thoughts to share about this device in addition to the very first impressions that I posted right on the day when I've got N8.

Firstly, I think any Nokia N8 review has to be split into two parts, describing separately hardware and software aspects of this smartphone. That is because in particular case of N8 it's somewhat difficult to judge it as a whole. Let me explain that further later on.


It's obviously a matter of personal taste but I think most people will find N8 as really attractive and eye-catching piece of kit. I mean it is really appealing device visually. I happen to have the silver edition which makes the whole impression even better. Aluminium case feels very solid and brilliant touchscreen is perfectly aligned with the rest of the body. Screen itself is also excellent, despite rather disappointing resolution it manages to provide sharp, bright and vibrant colours.

Apart from lovely looks, N8 also impresses in terms of under-the-hood hardware specs with camera in particular being easily the best feature of N8. Perhaps I haven't got much experience with many camera phones out there but I can safely say that N8's camera is simply the best one I have ever used in any mobile phone to date. Photos taken with it are easily comparable with cheap dedicated compact cameras, or perhaps even better. The most credit should be given to the exceptionally powerful flash. The most jaw-dropping moment was seeing a photo taken in a completely dark room in the middle of the night - picture was razor sharp and the whole scene has been brightened by the flash light. Amazing!

Camera in Nokia N8 makes me think that the market for cheap, dedicated compact cameras is going to shrink in time as more and more mobile phones will feature cameras capable to produce pretty good quality photos, like N8.

Sample photo taken with N8 in complete darkness
(click to see full-res picture)
However, with all that buzz around the camera, video recording quality disappoints slightly. Although it's HD 720p resolution, it still is rather far from real HD quality, as the noise in the video is quite strong, unfortunately. Thankfully, sound quality is fine, so it's not that bad after all, and definitely much better than a camera in HTC Desire Z which is just a joke.

Then there is a HDMI output, yet again, as with video quality I've got a bit disappointed here. I was expecting to see a real HD resolution on my TV once HDMI kicks in, yet what I've seen is just upscaled 640x360 resolution from the phone - even while playing videos - (actually, photos and videos are displayed full-res on TV screen - thanks for pointing that out, Halley!) which doesn't make any difference from the standard TV-OUT port and composite cable we've seen in many previous Nokia models.

Last but not least - I wasn't sure whether that's a hardware or software feature, or a little bit of both: an USB On-The-Go mode (aka USB Host mode). Man, this is one of these things where you say it's the best thing since sliced bread. I mean seamlessly transferring gigabytes of music, videos, photos and all stuff from other phone to N8 without even touching a computer really is the best thing since sliced bread. Simply brilliant!


Ha, here we have the tricky part of this review. ;) By saying that is difficult to judge Nokia N8 as a whole I meant that all these hardware bells and whistles are somewhat undermined by the software and the whole experience is degraded to some extent and I'm going to explain why.

Firstly, Symbian^3 that Nokia N8 features is really just a good, old and rusty Symbian with beefed up UI, few nifty features added and much improved responsiveness since its previous incarnation of S60v5 (aka Symbian^1).

Let's start with UI. On one hand it is way more finger friendly and generally works much better than S^1 in Nokia X6 for instance. All standard UI elements like buttons, lists, prompts and such are laid out nicely and there are no problems interacting with them. Interface is way more responsive (albeit not blazing fast either), switching between landscape/horizontal view is virtually instant and also there are good looking UI effects bundled in too, which don't seem to have any impact on performance. Lovely.

On the other hand, however, forget not this is still Symbian. So you still get its typical pains that seem to be knitted in forever, such as confusing, multi-tiered menu layout (wait, where do I find a calculator app?) with equally confusing and overly complicated Settings. In smartphone world nowadays interface simplicity seems to be the key for a success, yet Symbian was never like that and probably will never be.

Another annoying thing is interface inconsistency between some applications. Say Social Networks or Ovi Store apps which for some odd reason have white'ish UI and their own set of controls, buttons and dialogs (written in Qt, perhaps?) , which are completely different from the standard UI. I would understand such things from 3rd party apps, but official applications bundled within phone memory? That doesn't feel quite right.

But to be fair I need to say I've got nicely surprised by Ovi Store - it has gone through massive improvement since I last checked and it is now actually, well, just usable. I can finally search and browse through apps relatively quickly and install many apps at once. It's still far off from Android Market, tough, yet I don't get gray hair trying to use it either.

Now let's move on to features.

One of the first things that average Symbian user would probably notice is completely revamped home screen with three virtual "desktops", each independently configurable - a kind of setup that apprently is "a must" for every smartphone manufacturer these days. While the idea is definitely a step in right direction, implementation isn't necessarily. Each screen is divided in six, arbitrary placeholders where I can put my widgets. The trouble is that kind of setup gives very little flexibility, ie. there's no way of placing just a single application launcher (icon), as I can only place a dedicated widget with four configurable launchers at once. If I wanted to have large calendar widget to view many calendar events at once, well, I can't, as each widget can only occupy just a single placeholder which is simply quite small. So yes, completely configurable home screens is a kind of novelty in Symbian world, yet implementation gives very little flexibility to the user.

As a side note, I must say that the best home screens setup I've seen so far is in... Maemo 5. With my Nokia N900 I could place each widget literally wherever I liked with 1-pixel precision and I even could place one widget on top of the other. Unfortunately, this kind of flexibility is unmatched by any other mobile plaftorm so far, even Android feels a bit rigid in this aspect.

Another thing that would benefit from improvement is a web browser. While browser itself perhaps isn't massively wrong, having used Android browser for quite a while I can say it's just... not very good. No way of reflowing text after zooming, wacky window management (or rather lack of thereof), weirdly hidden options and settings, separate location and search bars... all of these have to change at some point to provide good mobile browsing experience at least closer to Android's.

But hey, it's not all that bad as it sounds. There are few cool things in Symbian^3 too! Multitasking management, for instance, is one of the better I've seen (and again Maemo 5 holds "the best" badge in this area). Idea with a "single sign-on" to the Ovi account which I mentioned in my first post is also great move and saves loads of manual logins to each Ovi application later. Smart dialling contacts directly from phone keypad is another excellent feature that I discovered by accident. Speaking of contacts, these have been improved too and it is now possible to link contacts with their social network profiles. Then there are Conversations for fancy SMS/MMS dialogue-view with each contact - this is bundled within standard Messaging in S^3 now. Last but not least, absolutely brilliant Video Editor app which allows easy editing video recordings on the go - I was amazed how nicely this app is implemented, so video editing on small'ish touchscreen with fingers is sooo easy!

Too little, too late

Summing things up Nokia N8 is a weird kind of beast. Shortly speaking, it has exceptionally good hardware undermined by ageing software. Symbian^3 is definitely a massive jump into the future for die-hard Symbian fans using older S60 editions (ie. my wife jumped on N8 from X6 and is very happy), however it has very little chance to attract those people who already touched Android or iOS, both of which are simply better than S^3 in many aspects. Nonetheless, if you're after a powerful multimedia phone with brilliant camera and at the same time you're fine dealing with few software quirks, then yes, Nokia N8 would be quite good choice.

In fact, Symbian^3 as is isn't really far off from the competing mobile platforms. I reckon it's mostly a matter of polishing UI experience to get Symbian in line - namely get rid of that complicated menu layout, improve built-in apps and make them consistent with the rest of OS, get better web browser and email client on board, brush off few other typical Symbian nuances and there you go - Symbian is back on track. In theory.

However, in the light of recent developments in mobile industry, Symbian is doomed anyway and even Nokia employees seem to think that killing Symbian off is actually a step in right direction. The main trouble with Symbian is that when the mobile world was moving very fast on in past few years, Symbian stood pretty much still and having Symbian^3 as it is now two years ago would probably make considerable impact on the market. Now it's just too little and too late.


  1. The HDMI output is Upscaled for only the regular phone screen display (Games, web Browsers etc.) Video and photos are displayed in an excellent 720p resolution.

  2. Halley, you're right actually. I'll make a correction to the post. Thanks!