Mobile

Review: Nokia’s N8 is a hardware beast trapped in Symbian's cage

Why can’t Nokia sell phones to Americans? Because of phones like the N8.

Nokia’s new flagship smartphone was announced in March this year, and it’s the first to support the Symbian^3 operating system. At the time we described it as a phone for “Facebook hipsters” thanks to its 12 megapixel camera. After spending some quality time with the N8 over the past few weeks, I can’t even imagine that hipsters would use it. Even they have standards.

The Good: Camera and voice quality

Let’s start with the good: Nokia, unsurprisingly, knows how to build an attractive device. The N8’s mostly aluminum construction feels expensive and on-par with the iPhone 4 — but unlike Apple’s glass-encased beauty, it also feels like it could take a stumble or two. Its Gorilla Glass display is the same scratch-resistant glass featured on Android phones like the Motorola Droid. My only issue with the N8’s aesthetics is the noticeable camera bump on its rear.

At least the N8’s junk in the trunk is worth it — the device holds the largest camera sensor ever seen on a phone, with a 12 megapixel resolution, mechanical shutter, Carl Zeiss autofocus lens, and powerful Xenon LED flash. Photos taken with the N8 appear clear and lifelike, especially compared to photos taken on Android phones and the iPhone, and could easily pass as coming from a dedicated point-and-shoot camera. The device also sports a two-stage shutter button, so you can lock down focus and exposure at half-press before snapping a picture.

With a great camera comes excellent video recording performance. The N8 can shoot 720p high-definition video at 25 frames per second, and its video output generally looks better than Android phones like the Evo 4G and Droid X. Unfortunately, being capped at 25fps means that the N8’s video appears choppier than devices like the iPhone 4, which can shoot video at a smoother 30fps.

Nokia N8 photoUnfortunately for Nokia, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would ever buy a phone solely based on its camera. Competing smartphones generally offer “good enough” picture performance, so most users likely wouldn’t see the benefit of the N8’s large sensor. And its video performance, while good, isn’t a huge leap ahead of the competition either.

One other highlight is something we tend to forget these days with 4-inch screens and gigahertz CPUs: Voice quality. The N8 is one of the best-sounding phones I’ve ever used, something that clearly comes from Nokia’s many years building mobile hardware. In my testing on AT&T’s network, reception is also better than average with the N8. (The phone also supports T-Mobile’s 3G network, see below for availability details.)

Media-wise, the N8 includes a few features that some users would appreciate. For one, it does a great job of playing pretty much any sort of video file — including obscure formats like Matroska (.MKV files). It even handled high-definition files just fine, thanks to the N8’s gigahertz processor. It also includes an FM radio — which is a nice feature, but not exactly something I’ve missed, since most radio stations offer mobile-friendly audio streams. The N8’s music player is serviceable, but like the rest of the device’s software, I can’t imagine living with its terrible usability day-to-day.

The Bad: Everything Else

The N8’s Achilles’ heel — if we can imagine an Achilles’ heel that covers 90 percent of the device — is the Symbian^3 (S^3) operating system. While Nokia managed to put together some great hardware, it’s driven by software that’s clearly several years behind the most recent pack of smartphones. In a world where Apple is on its fourth iteration of the iPhone OS, Google is quickly catching up with Android, and even Palm has managed to innovate (albeit briefly) with webOS, Nokia’s dedication to a dying platform is both baffling and insulting.

S^3 is an evolution of Symbian’s pre-touchscreen days, and it shows. While touch response is decent on its home screen, the device’s usability begins to fall apart if you try to do practically anything else. Everything requires one too many clicks — including opening a new web page window, or changing a minor setting like screen brightness. And for a touchscreen device, Nokia seems far too enamored with nested file folders — something you’d never see on the iPhone or Android.

The N8’s virtual keyboard is a prime example of Nokia completely missing the mark. In landscape mode, it’s a fairly functional touchscreen QWERTY keyboard, but when held in portrait view Nokia forces you to use a standard phone keypad — which means you’ll have to type text like you would on an ancient cellphone. What’s worse, the phone is completely erratic about switching from its portrait to landscape mode keyboards. On several occasions I was forced to enter text awkwardly in portrait mode because the phone refused to give me the landscape keyboard.

nokia n8 landscape

Basic functionality like web browsing and email works well enough. The device’s web browser includes “pinch and zoom” gestures like the iPhone, and it’s fairly fast. The mail client was a bear to set up. Even though it supports popular mail providers like Gmail and Hotmail, you’re left to your own devices figuring out the necessary server information to plug in. Once I managed to set up my email, I found it difficult to read on the N8, since the device doesn’t offer smooth anti-aliased text like the iPhone or Android. Instead, you’re forced to stare at ugly jagged text straight out of the pre-iPhone era.

Forget about multitouch support on Nokia’s Ovi Maps software — it’s pure single finger navigation all the way. Nokia at least offers free turn by turn driving and walking directions with Ovi Maps, but it’s also so unintuitive to use that I could never imagine someone programming directions while idling at a stoplight. Like much of the N8’s functionality, Ovi Maps offers some nice features — including detailed maps peppered with information from the likes of travel guide company Lonely Planet — but it’s hidden away under S^3’s terrible user experience.

The N8 also struggles when it comes to apps, arguably the most important aspect of every modern smartphone platform. Nokia’s Ovi app store contains a few titles users in the U.S. might recognize — including the popular game Angry Birds, Foursquare, and a few titles like The Sims 3 from game publisher Electronic Arts — but otherwise it’s filled with tons of irrelevant content. Part of the Ovi store’s app deficiency stems from the fact that S^3 is backwards-compatible with earlier Symbian software, which seems to be holding back any true app innovation. Given that Symbian is the most popular smartphone platform worldwide, you’d think Nokia would have figured out the whole app business by now.

Nokia’s retail plan for the N8 isn’t going to do the device any favors either. No U.S. mobile carriers have agreed to take on the device (like many other flagship Nokia phones over the past few years), so the only way to get your hands on one is to pay $549 on Nokia’s site, or other online retailers. The N8 is compatible with both AT&T and T-Mobile’s 3G networks — all you need to do is drop in a SIM card to get going.

Summing Up: Symbian is dead, MeeGo inspires little hope

As you’ve probably picked up by now, I’m no fan of the N8. After living with the device for a few weeks, I’ve lost faith in Nokia in a big way. Someone in the company should have realized that delivering a weak Symbian smartphone so late in the game was a terrible idea. Instead, Nokia should have focused its energy on its next-generation Meego platform.

But even Meego may be too little, too late. A Linux-based joint platform developed by Intel and Nokia, Meego is being positioned as a sort of super-platform for smartphones, netbooks, and tablets. But after hearing about it for nearly a year now, we still haven’t seen enough to determine if it will be a legitimate competitor to the iPhone, Android, or even webOS.

As it stands, I can’t in good conscience recommend the N8 to anyone, especially since there are so many better options flooding the market. While it may be a decent choice in European countries where it costs less, and cellphone plans are more flexible, there’s simply no room in the U.S. smartphone market for the N8.


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