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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