More than meets the eye
The design profile for the N8 is a new direction for Nokia — in fact, it's quite a unique look for smartphones in general. The handset's tapered ends are attractive without adding any obvious usability, and the aluminium casing feels solid. Though there's something about the N8 that strongly reminds us of a Transformer, perhaps due to its two-tone metal chassis.
Turning this phone in our hands, the N8 is littered with external knobs and sockets. The right-hand side features a screen-lock switch and camera key, the left houses a micro-USB port and slots for your SIM and microSD cards. But the real showstopper is on the top: a mini-HDMI port for connecting the N8 directly into a monitor or flat panel TV.
The phone's navigation is handled mostly by the 3.5-inch AMOLED display, though there is a single "Home" button below the screen. The screen is gorgeous, with deep, rich blacks and vibrant colours, and is excellent for playing back video files or playing games. On the back of the phone is the much-discussed 12-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, matched with a bright Xenon flash.
The 12-megapixel camera isn't the only first for Nokia in this handset; the N8 is also the first to make use of the new Symbian^3 operating system, and it suffers greatly because of this. Symbian^3 is the evolution of Nokia's tried and true Series 60 system (last seen on the N97 mini), a system that is in dire need of a usability overhaul. Well, if you were to liken Series 60 to an unmade bed, then Symbian^3 is the equivalent of pull the doona up over the untucked sheets. There are a number of enhancements to give the impression of change, but overall it is the same struggling system we've seen from Nokia over the last couple of years.
Firstly, some good news. There are definitely parts of this system that show improvement, of which the music player is an excellent example. Album art now takes centre stage in this app, with a slick CoverFlow-inspired design and zippy searching through extensive lists of artists and tracks. The image gallery shares this step-up in speed, with excellent finger-swiping control over your latest images.
But these improvements are vastly outnumbered by areas of the phone that operate below par. The phone will often become unresponsive in simple, everyday apps — the SMS client being a favourite to stall when replying to messages from friends. The keyboard is poorly implemented in a number of ways: there is only landscape orientation in one direction; the predictive text doesn't account for misplaced keystrokes (as you can expect in the iPhone and Android phones); and whenever you need to type into a dialogue box in the web browser you are taken into a separate screen, requiring you to add several extra keystrokes to navigate back to the page you were looking at.
There are also numerous inconsistencies in how you browse menus and lists, and adjusting settings on the phone involves diving into a labyrinth of menu trees. When you're in an SMS conversation you'll use kinetic scrolling to move down the page (swiping from bottom to top to "drag" the page up), but if you're viewing a text file kinetic scrolling is surprisingly absent.
Last, but not least, the home-screen design is appalling. Nokia offers users six predefined blocks to apply rigidly spaced widgets, most of which can't possibly offer any useful functionality in the space provided. The email widget, for example, shows the two latest messages and you can't scroll through this list on the home screen, and the calendar barely has the space to show your next appointment.
Cracking camera and connectivity
The shame about the poorly polished Symbian software is that it spoils the usability of some truly great hardware features. The N8's 12-megapixel camera is probably the best camera phone we've ever used, taking photos extremely quickly and featuring the best digital zoom we've come across. The photos it takes tend towards a colder, more natural palette, but you can spice this up with a vibrant colour mode, or after the fact in the N8's built in Photo Editor.
A proud beast showing off the low-light performance of this camera.
It also shoots HD video at 25 frames per second, which is slower than you might be used to seeing for each frame per second, but this doesn't affect the overall high quality of the video we've taken. Like the iPhone, the N8 can edit video in the phone, allowing you to trim your favourite clips before uploading them to YouTube. The media player also supports a wide range of video files including DivX, XviD, WMV and H.264.
If you feel like a more personal screening of your mini-movies, Nokia has included what is a first for smartphones. At the top of the N8 you'll find an HDMI socket, and in the box is a cable adapter. The phone connects straight into a TV and displays whatever is on-screen. This means you can play video files in full HD, but you can also use this feature for presentations you might make, or for giving your mobile games the big-screen TV treatment. We tested this out playing Angry Birds on a 50-inch Sony Bravia and the results were stunning.
As you might have gathered from our Symbian^3 rant that we experienced below par performance from the N8. That is to say, we experienced inconsistent performance, with some areas of the phone zipping along sweetly, while others would get bogged down in number-crunching. One of the culprits in this sluggish performance is the full multitasking in Symbian^3. Every time you exit an app using the "Home" button you leave it open in the background and it doesn't take long before your system memory is clogged up with unused apps and your user experience will suffer. While we applaud the use of multitasking, Nokia needs either to manage the memory on behalf of the user or give its phones significantly more powerful components.
The N8 features a non-user accessible 1200mAh battery, which Nokia suggests should deliver a standard five and a half hours of talk time on a 3G network. This equates to about two days of use between charges, though this includes significantly less web browsing than we tend to do during tests.
Nokia has built a superb phone in the N8, with a class-leading camera and excellent connectivity, but has spoiled the whole package with its half-baked Symbian^3 software. This phone is only recommended to people looking for a basic phone experience matched with an outstanding camera. Anyone looking for a smartphone would be wise to avoid it.