Nokia N8 smartphone review


After years of Nokia phone ownership, and the latter part being all Symbian phones I did my switch to Android.  The transition from Nokia also came after i switched from the E-series devices to the N97 mini, which sadly showed how little the Nokia devices had evolved over the years, and in many ways the phone was inferior to the older models both in multimedia, and also rather unstable.

However the Android experience via an Sony Ericsson X10 (yes not the best, but still very much a decent example, specially on the camera end for Android at that time), highlighted how much more smarter the Android and IPhone devices had grown.  However one area that really put me off on Androids was the poor battery life, and lackluster camera (though things have moved on now on these areas).

The two points were important enough for me to switch back to Nokia, and this time to the Nokia N8, the current multimedia champ even after over an year in the market.  However i continued my Android experience by purchasing an 7″ Samsung Galaxy Tab, where i found it to be more suited for my needs.  The review of the Nokia N8 is entirely based on my personal experience Symbian phone ownership, and recent experiences with Android phones/tablets and Apple devices.

First Impressions

A very vital aspect of any smart phones is the design and look and feel. While not having the super slick look of an IPhone 4 or Android phones with similar design, the N8 has its own touch of class in a very different way.   You really get a feel for the phone is when you hold it, as the size and weight really make it feel very comfortable.  Pictures do very little justice for this phone.  In many ways its like a car, you have to test drive it to really appreciate it.

While the bulge from the camera definitely impacts the design of the camera, you know the bulge has to be accept for what that little  camera can do! In case the impact the slim looks is a problem then an IPhone4, Android smart phone or the Nokia C7 might be a better choice, but be very aware, they all come with less capable cameras.

Design

The phone just feels very comfortable, and the size is very pocket friendly.  However if they could have gone with the 3.7 or 4″ screen with a higher res screen it would have been ideal.  But i am sure both those would have meant less battery life, and seemingly the resolution issue might be also due to the platform.

The phone oozes class and quality when you hold it, and the raw metal really gives a feeling of confidence on the unit, something you don’t feel when you hold a pure plasticky Samsung Galaxy or similar Android phones.

The screen being an AMOLED type has very good colors, and does quite well even outdoors an area where less capable LCD screens are severely challenged.

General Features and Sync capabilities

Nokia always has been well featured on the standard telephony side, and the N8 and Symbian^3 maintain this.  The contacts, call management features and calender management features are good.  The sync with desktop is done with the Nokia OVI suite which works well with outlook.  The phone can also sync with your online account in OVI, though not sure how many use that feature 🙂

The OVI windows client is pretty decent and does a good job in syncing most of the content.  The application though has grown heavier over the years, and a very large download as well!

In addition the phone comes with the Office and Acrobat Reader (light edition).  Editing of documents is not possible with the version provided, with the editing version only coming bundled with the E-series Nokia phones.

The Nokia map feature is highly regarded, sadly for me i cannot comment since Sri Lanka is not covered by the maps provided!  So i have to depend on Google maps for any navigational purposes.

The phone also comes with a YouTube player, and you can find a YouTube downloader software on OVI as well.  Also available free is Swype, an alternative keyboard that can be very effective if you are heavy Text-er.

The browser sadly had been clunky, and the latest version with Symbian Anna is better.  However I don’t complain much since i mainly use Opera Mobile or Mini, and when using this the performance is competitive and so is the usability.  Even on Android or and for that matter an IPad, i mostly use other browsers than the standard. On the standard browser Flash playback is possible, but its a the full fledged Flash version.

Multimedia capabilities

Nokia has always been strong on media format support without the need for any third party software, and the N8 continues this tradition.  The built in media player is capable of playing most formats, and does a good job.  Though it runs a puny 680Mhz processor, it has dedicated hardware for boosting video processing which is the reason why it can match or surpass the performance of supposedly more powerful hardware on the video playback front.

The key emphasis of the N8 has been the camera, so much so many say is more a camera-phone, rather than a phone-camera.  Packing one of the largest sensors installed onto a phone, and coupled with a very good lens that has been developed by Carl Zeiss is good enough for most phones.  However adding a powerful Xenon flash and an AF assist light ensures that the camera is able to perform quite well even in trying indoors and low light conditions.  In addition it also has a built in ND filter, something very rare even on proper cameras that allow it to provide very good photos in day light even under very bright light conditions (another area that cameras find it hard to generate good pictures).

The outcome is that the camera provides superb photos in day light, and does very very well indoors and under low light.  The xenon flash is powerful enough to light up a small room, and the sensor good enough to take decent photos even without the flash if you can hold the camera steady.

However not all things are good, and even with the latest update these issues the software side has some serious shortcomings.  Until Symbian Anna, the camera interface was the same camera interface i have seen in the N97 mini, running the older Symbian operating system.  With Symbian Anna and the new update from Nokia Beta labs the camera interface is much more user friendly but still lacks some key features to make use of the camera hardware better.

  • Option for precise ISO control
  • Ability to to set the sharpness and ISO as a fixed configuration (currently its clears every time you change any of the camera scenes, and defaults back when the camera application is loaded each time)
  • Option to set the shutter speed manually (since the shutter is set by software, i am not sure why the shutter speed control cannot be provided)
  • Ability to set a minimum shutter speed
  • Ability to set a maximum ISO threshold
As an owner of the famous Lumix TZ/ZS superzoom camera, i know that you can get some very good long exposure shots even with small sensors if you are able to keep the device steady and expose if for a longer time. The N8 has the camera hardware, but the lack of software to allow this really puts a hard stop.
The camera software algorithm has a nasty tendency to increase ISO and keep the shutter speed down, which is why you may end with too many blurry shots even with such fine hardware (for a camera in a phone).  Lack of control over the the shutter speed definitely is something hurting the N8 very badly.

On the video front of course the phone excels, with very good video recording.  The benefit of a good sensor, and good lens, specially a fast lens helps with videos under low light conditions.  Xenon flash means it cannot assist in video mode, so its all up to the sensor, lens and software, and check out samples on you tube and you see the video quality even under poor light is better than cameras with the single and dual LED spotlights!

The camera also comes with built-in editing for videos and photos, and the apps are surprisingly very capable and featured.  In addition you can download the Panaroma photo tool from OVI.  The tool is a bit tricky to use, but the outputs are pretty decent.  Here is one taken using the software.

App Market (Nokia OVI store)

The OVI store sadly though having a large number of apps has very little great quality apps. Thankfully the Nokia phones comes bundles with a lot of standard software and applications that you need to purchase or get from an app store for other platforms. If not Nokia smartphones would have not survived at all.  However you can see that the business apps, kids apps, multimedia apps are very lacking and even the vendors who provide this service do not consider Symbian a platform they wanted to supported.

One of my favorite apps for password management was Splash ID which i started using with my Palm PDA devices, and then with my Symbian phones.  But the Symbian version was dropped, and is not supported on any of the Symbian touch type  operating systems versions.  Same issue with the very popular note taking software EverNote.  I hope with the resurgence we see on Symbian that vendors bring Symbian back and not write it off prematurely.

Currently social networking is the BIG thing among smart phone users, and though the Nokia Social app has improved its still not anywhere close to the support Android provides.  The best Facebook app i have used is the latest software that Facebook themselves provides, but its very basic compared to what you find on other platforms, and this is an area Nokia really needs to work on to bring in the younger generation back since i am sure design and hardware is second to none.  However with the ever growing interest towards Windows Mobile, these may only be a dream.

However to me, it provides me all the applications i need and since i can live with the slight lags (used to it for years) in return for the better battery life, camera and portability (i like the size).   Apps i generally use include Skype, Facebook, JoikuSpot, Swype, Nokia Situations, Opera Mobile and Mini, Fring, WordPress and EPOCCamera.  The built in QuickOffice provides the Office application reading capability.

One area that is miserable on Symbian is PDF reading and viewing. The options are very minimal and all the apps in my opinion suck big time. In addition this is an area where the lower pixel screen of Symbian^3 devices such as the N8 really feel lacking.

Expansion and external connectivity

The cool thing about the N8 is that it comes with the USB on the go ability (added recently to Android as well), that allows to connect an USB device directly and access it.  The USB adapter is provided as standard with the Nokia N8 when you have to buy it for any other device that touts this capability.  I tried this out with a flash drive and it worked superbly.

The device also has a mini HDMI, and again Nokia provides an adapter to connect a full HDMI, something you need to fork out with other devices. I tried this out with several HDMI equipped TVs and found it works superbly.

When i went hunting for a new LCD TV, I loaded different videos which i already had seen on my PC LCD and new the quality, and then had this on a USB flash drive.  I then connected the HDMI adapter, and had the videos playing from the flash drive via the HDMI adapter, and it worked very very well.

The phone comes with 16GB on-board, and also has the very important micro-SD slot to allow you to upgrade further.  The slot supports cards up to 32GB in capacity. Unlike IOS (Apple), Symbian like Android has a full file manager, and allows you to open a file from any application that supports it.  You can also download video, music files and save it to the device and play later (unlike Apple!).

Battery Life

This is one area where the Nokia N8 excelled compared to even its less capable N97 predecessor, and specially compared to the new breed of Android phones that can barely survive a normal day of operations.  The phone easily can last a day of normal operations, and with the power saving feature enabled 2 days + is easy.  I do agree though that if you use the phone on heavy Internet browsing and multimedia, there is no big difference between this phone and the Android devices, and for such users the Android devices with the better browsing experience, and larger screen estate is a better choice.

Software Upgrades

Not something one would usually talk about, but platform updates are now something all are keen on.  Android its all about the new version, and same with the IOS platform.  Symbian has been lacking on any explosive growth, and with Nokia partnering with Microsoft even i felt it was funeral bells for Symbian.  However it seems the Windows Phone era and Nokia has hit some delays, and Nokia is being backed by Microsoft itself in continuing to make Symbian a backup OS for Windows Mobile as we Microsoft apps that were not featured outside Windows Mobile now being made available or supported on Symbian including Communicator, Lynx, SharePoint and even Microsoft Office.

Though Symbian development was officially moved to an external vendor (Accenture) the speed of new changes, and the magnitude of changes has been amazing.  Symbian has grown in capability and look and feel in the last 6 months more than it has ever done for the last few years!  The new features work quite well on the Nokia N8 even if the hardware was engineer for something much less, and you can see that the new software runs even better with the new 1Ghz + newer GPU that is running on the most current generation Symbian hardware.

I just updated mine with the Symbian Anna update, and am waiting for the Bella update.  Even though the changes in the Anna update are suttle, the changes are important.  Browser experience is better, the keyboard implementation definitely much improved for touch use (and the split keyboard, so important).  Qt support has also meant better looking and more user friendly apps for Symbian.

Image Sample Gallery

I have attached a few samples to showcase the camera capability across very trying conditions.  Conditions include pure daylight, indoors, macro, panaroma.

Broad daylight, macro mode.  You can see it does a fair background blur.  You cannot expect any blur like you get in a DSLR from any small sensor camera.

Indoors with decent light of a picture on a wall. Taken with default settings to show the level of detail captured.

One of my work colleagues taken during a wedding.  My Nokia N8 no competition to his Canon 60D though 🙂 Picture straight of the camera with only cropping, no post processing.

Not easy taking a picture of a butterfly close up, shows how quick the AF is o this camera.  Bit of post processing since i felt the camera default was overexposed.

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Cheap (Chinese) Android Tablet devices any good?


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While the expensive IPad and Android based tablets from Samsung, HTC, Toshiba, Asus, Acer fight it out for sales in the markets that people can afford, the allure of the tablet in the year the tablets outsold the PC’s in US has effected many of us as well.

This has seen an explosive rise in various Chinese tablet devices, that have found nirvana with Google Android, a full fledged open OS that they can use on a compatible device.  These devices sell well under $100 even in the US markets, but when the come to markets to which they are originally intended (for people who have lower budgets), the prices sadly are more closer to the 200-300$ mark.  Still very cheap when you consider that the expensive devices are even more expensive in these markets.  E.g. The IPad2 16GB WIFI that sells at 499$ in US sells close to 800-900$ locally from small dealers who bring them in small numbers since Apple only sells there products in selected markets.

Sadly the market for Android tablets have not seen the popularity as much as the IPad, since these are purchased by many more for design than for their use.  The lower cost tablets of course are a different ball game, and the expectation from the purchases it seems that it will do the same as the expensive counterparts for a lot less money.

But is that correct, or are there things we need to watch, or could these devices be actually better than their expensive counterparts?  Let me share some of my thoughts, you work it out if it makes sense for you.

Can these in-expensive devices be better?

The expensive brands are fighting it out for “slimmest tab”, “most featured tab”, “longest battery life”, “best screen”, “fastest CPU” and also try to sell you accessories.  So that means you can find most devices don’t have,

  1.  A full USB port, some don’t even have a mini/micro USB port
  2. Some don’t even have any expansion ports (microSD/SD cards), so you are stuck with the storage that is internal to the device
  3. Most don’t have 3G or you have to fork out more for the 3G version.  There too you may have the CDMA vs GSM versions, and now the LTE versions to stop you using it in all markets.

Strangely the low budget tablets have loads of features,

1. They usually have a full USB port, or if not they definitely have an micro USB port.

That means you can hook up a USB or card reader and access stuff on flash drives, memory cards.  Since they run Android 2.2 in most cases or newer, you can access these storage and increase your storage space.  Something you definitely can’t do with an IPad, and for that matter with a lot of expensive branded tablets.  For instance the currently IPad2 challenge the Samsung Galaxy tab 10.1 has no expansion slots or USB.  You need to buy an accessory that is hard to find that fixes to the proprietary slot to connect an USB or card reader.  Makes the whole idea of slim design so less practical.

2. Wifi is standard, but 3G is prompted by saying simply use a 3G USB dongle!

Since these devices have a full fledged USB device, they can use a 3G USB modem directly and the latest modems have support for Android.  You can do this only with a very few branded expensive tablets such as the Toshiba Thrive, Acer A500.  None of the Samsung Galaxy tabs have this directly on the tablet, and definitely the IPad can’t do this 🙂

3. They come with all the accessories

These devices come bundled in full kit.  The package will usually consist of a basic carry case, and for devices with an micro USB connector, the adapter that connects a full USB devices, etc.  Such consumer oriented thinking sadly is not there with the expensive brands, they want you to spend spend and spend..

So that’s the nice part of the story.  Part 2…

What should one be vary/careful when buying?

Less price does sometimes means a bargain good buy, but in this case i have dug deep and have to say you have to be a tad cautious and also see what kind of use.  In the event the usage model is suitable then these devices are the thing for you.

1.  Don’t be deceived by the specification

We all love specifications.  The chaps who sell this know this well.  Which is why they prominently state the CPU speed,  Screen Size, Connectivity Options.  A bit lower in font you see the Android version.  The other points are either not listed or hard to find.  Why ? Let us see.

2. Android support and upgrades

Android is developing at an unbelievable pace, and with it just like desktops the expected hardware capabilities to support the newer operating system and applications are also rising steeply.   Google and rest don’t seem to be too bothered about backward compatibility, though in recent times Google has started to apply more regulations on the standards to ensure the app market grows, which has been on area that has ensure Apple still was popular, as even their older devices can run the newer operating systems and applications.

Read carefully and see what features are missing in the Android OS that your devices ships with, since some features are very necessary such as USB tethering, support for mass storage devices, multi-touch support, etc.   In addition some of the new applications won’t run on older versions as they depend on the new operating system to work better.

These in-expensive tablets have poor software update support, so you will have to rely on custom ROMs, the popular place for that is http://xda-developers.com/.

The forums on this site are also good to find which of the in-expensive tablets are the one’s are less risk or less problematic.

3. CPU speed alone is not enough

The reason these devices can run Android is that all the mobile tablets are ARM based.  Hence if they comply to these standards the devices are technically compatible to run Android.  However 1GHZ speed is not the only thing, just like in a desktop / laptop CPU, you have different manufacturers, and you also have different versions.  You have the low end, mid level and the high end.  Most of the Chinese devices are using the older (1-2 era’s in mobile terms) chips. These support less features and hence the performance is a lot slower.  This will be definitely noticed when you run power hungry apps or try to multi-task.

Also Chinese tablets are very well known to “lie” about the CPU.  Dig around the Internet as you will find that though the brand various many originate from the same manufacturer.  The manufacturer usually states the correct spec, but the companies that brand it and sell these devices spice it up.  They sometime indicate higher speeds than what is running, or say its an newer version of the processor when its actually based on an older ARM spec.

Another danger that has been found was that these vendors used binned processors (processors that failed quality tests) or overclock the processors above the maximum threshold.  This can mean your device can fail in a short period of time, or can get warm or unpleasantly hot when used for even short periods of time.

To find the ARM processor types see –

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARM_architecture ,

http://www.arm.com/products/processors/index.php ,

http://www.arm.com/community/partners/cores.php

For vendors who make processors,

http://www.arm.com/community/partners/company_list/rw/ProductTypes/1,2/

Remember ARM is standard, and different manufacturers make processor that comply with these standards including Samsung, Qualcomm, VIA

4. Don’t have GPU acceleration (no dedicated GPU, your CPU has to do the GPU work)

While your every day usage of the tab can live without GPU acceleration if you are patient, even these apps such a wall papers, document viewing, email viewing, browsing all would do with some GPU acceleration. And with an Android tablet would you not try out Angry Birds at least 🙂 No GPU acceleration means lots of apps will either not run, or will be bog slow, and will also drain your battery.

You can find more details on the GPU configurations for devices from this Wikipedia article – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_Android_devices

5. Battery life can be low to pathetic

This is another area where these devices can be great downfall.  They are packaged with batteries that have 50-100% less capacity compared to the branded tablets. That means while the branded expensive devices can happily run for 6-10hours or weeks on standby mode, these cheap tablets can barely run for 2-3hours or stay on standby for more than a few days.  This can be big issue for some.  Definitely a big issue for me.

The next area is the battery origins are not known, finding replacements are not going to be easy.  Most tablets are designed where the battery is sealed unlike mobile phones, and battery replacement is not simply buying and inserting the new battery.

6. Screen resolution, quality,  pixels and TYPE

One of the biggest issues is that most of these devices are still resistive touch, not capacitive.  Resistive means you can use a stylus, but you have to really thump into the screen.  The low smooth scrolling you get when you use an IPad/IPhone, or the new Android/Symbian devices are only possible with capacitive touch devices.  However the good news is that some of the newer devices are now moving into these type of screens.  However again be careful, as the marketing literature will say it is but the true hardware maybe not.  One quick way is to try the famous pinch and zoom, which can only be done with a multi-touch capacitive screen technology.

800×480 or 800×600 might seem a lot, but in a 7″ or 10″ tablet that is way to little and you will immediately notice it any form of usage.  When other devices are going past the 1024×768 into 1280×800 or better, you are going to miss a lot on picture quality when you view on these screens.

Another area is the brightness and clarity, most low end displays will be useless in direct sunlight or indoors under bright light, and that will make the device useless.

Branded vendors will also use technologies that are applied as coatings on top of the glass that will reduce glare, are resistant to finger smudges, and also more resistant to drops (the most popular and supposedly strongest being Gorilla Glass by corningware, yes the same guys who the kitchen pyrex stuff!).   I doubt if any of the cheap tablets have this protection, the list of devices that are shipping with this type of screen is constantly updated at http://www.corninggorillaglass.com/products-with-gorilla/full-products-list.  IPad avoids this glass, and works with another glass company called Akashi glass in Japan, the IPad1 was very suspect for cracking, but the IPad2 is lot more resilient as it uses a technology called DragonTrail glass, that is also fairly tough but not at the same level as the Gorilla glass.

7. Repairs

These items are usually made by companies based on what is available in the market.  Hence the models change from batch to batch.  They may look the same but internally the components can very tremendously.  Hence if you item is out of warranty you may find it very hard to get it fixed, but on the counter argument it might be cheaper to buy a new one than fixing it, something you will not be able to do if you buy an expensive branded Tablet.

8. Codec support

Google Android does not provide codecs for all video formats as standard.  Hence the vendor packaging the device has to included the additional codec and pay royalty to the firm they get the codec from.  Some current popular high dev formats such as MKV, DIVX are not bundled with most tablets in the in-expensive range, and surprisingly even expensive tablets from manufacturers including the IPad does not support this as standard and you need to user other free or paid software to play such formats. One of the manufacturers who does provide most codecs is Samsung.

Though you don’t have the codec you can use players such as RockPlayer, etc to play all formats, but in most cases this is entire software and CPU based rendering, lacking the hardware support which means possible skipped frames, poor quality rendering and drain on the battery. Since tablets are regularly used for viewing video related material, this is also another important area to consider.