The Nokia N8 is the first device to use the Symbian^3 operating system. The new version of Symbian brings along several improvements in memory management and the touch-UI, improvements to overall system stability, and a grounding in web runtime and Qt technologies which will bolster future platform offerings from Nokia.
The hardware features read like a wish list for many smartphones: an ARM-11 processor running at 680 MHz, 3D graphics hardware accelerator, oodles of memory (256 MB RAM, 512 MB ROM, 16 GB internal storage, and an microSD slot supporting up to 32 GB microSD cards), penta-band cellular wireless, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS/AGPS, and to top it off, a 12 megapixel, Xenon-flash equipped camera that’s able to take 720p (HD-quality) video at 25 FPS.
Using all of the N8’s abilities can be a daunting task, and I was hopeful that the battery and Symbian^3 OS could keep with such use. I found that the N8 fared well, not perfectly, and has significant room for improvement.
For the most part, all interactions are a lot smoother. The home screen transitions took a bit to get used to — you swipe and then there’s a small delay before the screen switches to another panel. There are still a good deal of menus and screens work your way through to get to applications and preferences. This is something Symbian users have had to get used to.
The N8 is the most capable mobile device on the market today in terms of its abilities on the wireless side – there is pretty much an antenna in it to support everything except Morse Code (I think). From the side of cellular phone use, there’s its support for four bands of GSM coverage (850/900/1800/1900) in addition to the standard GPRS and EDGE features. And — an industry first – support for five bands of HSDPA, or 3G, cellular coverage (850/900/700/1900/2100).
This allowed me to take a look at the voice quality of the N8 on both T-Mobile and AT&T networks, in both solid and patchy coverage for both carriers. (The version of the N8 I’m using is “unlocked”).
Nokia devices have traditionally been very good in terms of utilizing cellular network resources efficiently, and the N8 keeps in line with that tradition. I dropped all of one call (in Charlotte, on AT&T) and had no drops when traveling between 3G and EDGE areas for both carriers. Voice quality was very well done, with the N8 showing some nice clarity at the higher ranges and while using the speaker phone. I did notice some jumping around of the signal with 3G and EDGE in some near-rural NC areas with my Truphone/T-Mobile SIM, but that seemed more a network artifact than the mobile.
Actually making a call was a nice improvement. The N8 has a smart dialing feature on the dial pad screen which searches your phone book for matching contacts, though you can click through to the Contacts app still to do contact searches if you find that the previous Symbian^1 method was easier. Contacts still supports groups, ringtones, video ringtones, full screen caller images and voice commands to call a contact (w/o training) remains.
Syncing contacts to online stores was a mixed affair. There’s no ability to manage several contact stores on one device, so no matter if you choose Ovi, Exchange, or Google (via sync app), your device will always contain all of the contacts aggregated. The Social app doesn’t improve things here as the contact stores for Facebook and Twitter are managed from that application and not within the Contacts app.
In terms of cellular data, I was also impressed. Side-by-side with my N97 (using the AT&T SIM, the N8 had the Truphone/T-Mobile SIM), the N8 constantly showed faster download speeds and seemed to connect calls a tick faster. Using the AT&T SIM in the N8, I noticed some of the same tendencies.
With its Symbian background, I didn’t have any issues getting in and using most of the phone features of the N8. One of the more pleasant additions to the N8 from the N97 is that of the Contacts widget for the homescreen. There, you can place up to 20 contacts in the widget for easier access. The Contact Card screen has also seen some refreshing in Symbian^3, adding a new applet to see the social networking statuses of your contacts through the Nokia Social application.
Unfortunately, there are some issues remaining on the call side. The call log is still bare. There really is only one button on the front of the device, and so, for those contacts not in your Contacts widget, you’ll have to tap at least twice through the UI to get to the Contacts list for them for anything besides voice/SMS.
Overall, the N8 handles those things wireless and phone related better than I had figured. A lot of it has to do with some attention to detail in Symbian^3 for these items, but the beefed up hardware doesn’t hurt here any.
The Nokia N8 is like many smartphones in that it has the ability to work and play hard. The most defining aspects of it productivity is the efficiencies gained by the use of Symbian^3 and the well associated ARM-11 processor. The addition of new widgets and home screens adds to some of the versatility as does the excellent camera and battery life. Though all is not well — the UI still shows that much detail was missed, and the resulting room for improvement might be too spacious for some.
The N8 continues with the traditional Symbian PIM applications (Calendar/Tasks, Contacts, Messaging, and several other smaller utilities). These have been mostly massaged from their versions in Symbian^1. As explained before, the Contacts application has seen a good deal of massaging. The Calendar is refined just a bit — there’s a larger month view, and the ability to label calendars — but still not the ability to easily manage multiple calendars without using a third-party application.
The home screen’s updates are more significant, and aren’t bad (if you come from other Nokia/Symbian devices) or not customizable enough (if you are more used to Android OS way of doing things). There are three home screens with the N8 and all of the available widgets plus any you download from the Ovi Store, can be used to customize your notification needs. One of the things that I liked is that you can use the same widget across several screens — for example, I have the email widget set up twice so that I could see email from two accounts.
Speaking of email, the Nokia Messaging application has seen a healthy amount of tweaks. The user interface is a lot cleaner and the ability to create an account is beautifully quick and easy. Weirdly enough, my Nokia Messaging settings from my N97 (signatures, etc.) didn’t transfer from their servers to the N8.
Depending on the network, emails either came in nice and quick, or seemed to be a bit stuttered and a few emails would come in at the same time (this happened with Gmail and Ovi accounts).
Some improvements in Messaging/Nokia Messaging include the ability to view HTML emails, but finding the preference to download/not-download images takes a bit. The composition interface reverts to the plain text Messaging application, which seems a bit disconnected.
Out of the box, the N8 has a QuickOffice Viewer (you have to pay for an upgrade to edit Microsoft Office files), Calculator, Dictionary, File Manage, and Zip Archiver.
One of the better features of the N8 for those who like to use desktop applications to sync/backup and manage device content is that the N8 had Nokia’s Ovi Suite pre-installed on the device. You simply connected the smartphone and in the root of the 16 GB of internal memory was the installer for Ovi. This makes it easier to quickly setup any PC that you are at with a local store of your content without downloading anything. Just keep in mind, it doesn’t seem that if there are any updates to the application that this copy of the app would also get updated.
As with previous Symbian devices, software updates can be handled through Ovi Suite, or over-the-air (OTA) by connecting to the Software Updater service. The software updater service mainly deals with the OS and default applications that are pre-installed. Many applications from the Ovi Store will not show up in this list (still).
Mostly, this is just enough to get through most of your workday — with the issues that I initially ran into with the on-screen keyboards, I was loathe to get any serious work done. Having had the device for some time, its easier, just not optimal to work on the go with the N8.
The music player is probably one of the highlight applications of the Nokia N8. And I say this because it addressed a major issue with previous Symbian devices, and its user experience is much better than the rest of the N8’s software.
There are two main views, a list in portrait view and a”Cover Flow”-like view when the N8 is held in landscape. I really like how fast it not only loaded the album art, but was quick (<3 min) to refresh the library with tracks from my microSDHC card.
There’s only one speaker, but man it is loud and clear. My ears might have heard some songs a bit stressed on the highs, but that could have also been the digital file(s) that I was listening to. I didn’t like that the speaker could be muffled if the N8 is placed rear-down on a soft surface, such as a bed or pillow. In that case, the sound volume is almost unhearable.
A set of wired earbuds comes with the device. These have call and audio controls on them. However, I usually choose to go wireless and was pleased to see the N8’s Bluetooth functionality still support both my Jawbone Prime and Nokia BH-214’s for Bluetooth feedback.
Nokia Social is a new social networking application that enables connectivity of to Twitter and Facebook accounts, and syncs this information with the Contacts app if you so connect them. The initial version of Social felt much like an unfinished application. A few days before penning this review, however, an update was released which improved the overall performance, and added a few other sharing possibilities with new social networks and sharing of links and photos. It is nice, but not quite up to the caliber of the hallmark social networking application for Symbian, an app called Gravity.
WebTV is another interesting app included on the N8. It is essentially a filtered view of some customized widget/applications which connect to Internet media sources. Right now, there are only a few channels available (CNN, National Geographic, E!, and Paramount Movie Trailers). I was initially skeptical of this, but it could essentially be a really neat step towards a customized TV offering if Nokia can get more channels. These channels also make using TV-Out with HDMI even more worth it.
If you want more apps, the Ovi Store has been completely refreshed for Symbian^3. It has been rewritten with Qt and web runtime to better feel and act like a native application. Getting in and around the store was easy, especially for re-downloading content that I’d had previously. However, I wasn’t expecting to see error messages for applications that won’t work on the N8. It was good to see, but the Ovi Store had previously been a lot better in not showing what was incompatible with your device. Several important applications are being updated for Symbian^3, and being released at a very fast pace.
Ovi Maps was another application that I was surprised by. One, because of its overall speed and usefulness, but also because its user interface is a bit tighter than some of the other default applications. Maps load much faster than on my N97 with the latest version of Ovi Maps (later version than what comes with the N8). It seemed like it was faster to see the various POI once maps have loaded. Satellite/terrain views loaded notably faster as well.
As with previous versions of Ovi Maps, you can still use drive and walk navigation. In addition, it allows you to share your location with Facebook followers and to sync your bookmarks with the Ovi Maps web service. There are also stub applications for Lonely Planet, Weather, Events, and other guides based on the Ovi Map data.
With most Nokia devices, the spec sheet usually says enough. And this was my thought when the N8 was announced with its 12 megapixel camera. I thought that it was just a marketing thing to talk about its wider focal length, the 25 frames per second for video, the video editor. And then I started taking pictures. Wow!
Compared to my N95 and N97, the N8 is remarkably in another class. And it isn’t just at the highest settings, taking 9 and 5 megapixel pictures also shows for the same attention to quality and detail. Shutter speed is also improved, so much so that I didn’t need to use the Sports settings to snap some moving cars.
There’s red eye and face detection, and the Xenon flash is one bright number. The physical size of the Xenon is nearly as large as the dual-LED assembly in my N97, but the light and results are much better.
Video was also impressive, but there was some room here for adjustment. On my N8 unit, all of the video seems to have a slight cool cast to them. Also, the default settling for videos is aggressive with the white balance. Still, taking a few videos indoors and one outdoors while riding a bicycle showed some amazing detail.
I was less impressed with the video editor, only because it had a bit more of a learning curve than I had hoped. That said, with a few projects that I’m involved with, being able to take a few pictures and then setup a quick movie to share was very neat. To not need a PC for most of that process was pretty liberating.
The camera is indeed the calling card to the N8. It is very hard to take a bad shot, and at the same time, the camera and video facilities will reward the opportunistic and patient photographer.
If there is one word that I could say about the battery life of the Nokia N8, that word is “impressive”. At only 1200 mAh, I expected to be very disappointed. I wasn’t.
Outside of any photo heavy days (and there were a ton of these), the N8 went a clear two days of use for me. Outside of BlackBerry devices, I’ve not seen this type of battery life. Typical use for me was either connected to Wi-Fi for numerous days with 1-2 hours of calls and email set to push; or, traveling up to 4 hours between 3G and EDGE areas.