The N8 is Nokia’s big stab at fighting the iPhone and Android onslaught in premium markets like Europe and the United States, much as the BlackBerry Torch is to RIM. On paper it looks like it has a fighting chance: The N8 has a high-quality 3.5-inch touch screen, 12-megapixel camera, 16GB of internal memory, and looks fairly slick. Unfortunately, like the BlackBerry, it is weighted down by an operating system that is showing serious age, and an underclocked processor. With a price tag in upwards of $500 (no U.S. carrier is subsidizing the phone), this isn’t going to be the beacon of hope Nokia needs to regain footing in premium markets.
The N8 looks like a solid touch device, albeit smaller than some of the more recent Android devices. A single button sits at the bottom of a 3.5-inch AMOLED multi-touch screen and a front-facing camera and light sensor sit up top. Surrounding the screen is a thin, raised border and a gray casing with silver end pieces on the top and bottom of the phone. On the left is a microUSB charge slot, and covered slots for a microSD card and SIM card for GSM carriers (the phone also supports CDMA). On the right side is a volume toggle, camera button, and an unlocking slider – a feature common to Nokia devices, allowing the user to wake the phone up from sleep by pulling down on a spring-loaded switch.
Like the iPhone, the N8 has a unibody shell that doesn’t allow access to the battery. You would think that such a shell would make for a better product, but the phone didn’t feel particularly solid in our hands. The abundance of plastic and metal that feels like plastic is a downer, and the seams in the plastic suggest sliding parts that don’t actually slide.
Bottom line, the N8 does not feel as solid as other devices in its category, or look as sexy as the iPhone 4 or many Android devices. Despite Nokia’s best attempt to streamline its design, the N8 does not stand out from the competition.
The N8 is loaded with great features: It has 720p HD video recording, a mini HDMI slot, 5-band global 3G, Assisted GPS navigation, HSPA 10.1 data speeds, Bluetooth 3.0, 16GB of internal memory, a microSD expansion slot so you can add up to 32GB more, and support for fast 802.11n Wi-Fi networks.
Unfortunately, two things make all these fancy features next to worthless: a slow 680MHz processor and Symbian v3, the archaic operating system Nokia refuses to abandon. The processor should be a snappier 1 GHz chip and the OS should be something that modern phone users will understand how to use.
Stuck on Symbian
Recently, Nokia announced that it is sticking by Symbian, but we can find few reasons why it should. Symbian v3 is outdated, clunky, and overly complicated. The Finnish company wants its OS to look different than the competition, but such a wish is only worthwhile if Symbian looks and works better. It fails on both accounts.
The version of Symbian on the N8 has three homescreens and each is customizable like Android, but they only support rows of horizontal widgets, six per page. If you’d like to add shortcuts to your downloaded apps, better luck somewhere else. Symbian hails from an era before apps became the big thing, and it shows. As a sign of the times, Nokia just launched the Ovi Store, its best imitation of the Android Market and Apple App Store.
Downloading apps isn’t particularly difficult, but finding them on your phone might be a challenge. Unlike Android, there is no on-screen place to find apps. Instead, you must press the physical wonder-button underneath the N8’s screen. This button performs a lot of functions. Often, we used it to escape back to the main screen when we were in an app or menu that has no visible escape. However, from the home screen, pressing this button will open up a three-by-four grid of hand-picked applications on a black background. To reach apps that don’t appear you’ve installed, you must click on the ‘applications’ icon. Inside ‘applications,’ there are more folders to dig into, only they don’t look like folders; they look like apps. Basically, your apps are split between multiple levels and folders of app pages. It’s the Inception of app screens — you have to keep digging deeper to find the app you’re looking for. Some may even appear in the “tools” subfolder, which has an icon confusingly similar to settings.
Eventually, you’ll figure out how to move apps between these folder levels, but the confusion is unnecessary. Why not let users make their own folders, should they desire? Like many aspects of the Symbian, it is possible to do what you want, but it isn’t intuitive. Before the iPhone, Symbian started the smartphone revolution, but more than three years into the touchscreen movement, it just can’t compete with Google and Apple. Devotees will likely love it, but Nokia won’t win many new fans.
Besides the glut of third-party Symbian apps, many built-in features don’t stand up to peers. For instance, Nokia has turn-by-turn ‘Ovi’ navigation, but it doesn’t feature actual maps, and often misses turns, its performance is almost pathetic compared to Google Navigation on Android devices and paid apps on the iPhone. We cannot recommend it.