Nokia N8 Review: Symbian takes a shot at the high end

Posted Mar 16, 2011
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There used to be a time when Nokia’s name was synonymous for high end quality phones, and the Symbian platform was considered among the most sophisticated mobile phone operating systems in the world. But in 2007, a certain computer manufacturer decided to try its luck in the smartphone arena and ended up revolutionizing the smartphone world for ever. Nokia failed to realize the potential of a fully touch based mobile device in the beginning and has been struggling ever since. In fact the last truly successful Nokia flagship I remember is the N95, which came out back in 2007.

Over three years down the road, Nokia and Symbian are still struggling to maintain their lead as the No. 1 smartphone platform in the world. While Nokia did move to a full touch interface in 2008 (dubbed Symbian^1), the idea of retrofitting the Symbian OS with touch support was mostly met with negative reactions from the community, while the underlying hardware platform wasn’t industry leading as well. Two years and a couple of failed attempts later, Nokia has – at least on paper – done the job right with Symbian^3 and the new Nseries flagship Nokia N8.

 

I’ve decided to split my review of the N8 into two pieces. The first one is primarily going to be about the hardware of the device, while the second one would be focusing on the Symbian^3 platform. The reason I’m not covering them both in a single review is that Symbian^3 would remain largely unchanged on other devices like the Nokia C7 or Nokia E7, so it would be wiser to review it only once, and then only write about the device specific changes in the future reviews.

So with that cleared up, lets move on and take a look at the Nokia N8 hardware – after the specifications sheet of course.

Specifications

Physical_Attributes
Dimensions (width x height x depth): 59.12 x 113.5 x 12.9 millimeters 2.3 x 4.5 x 0.5 inches
Bounding;Volume: 86.3 cube centimeters
Software;Environment
EmbeddedOperating:System: Symbian^3 (Series 60 rel 5.2)
Operating;SystemKernel: Symbian
Microprocessor,;Chipset
CPU:Clock: 680 MHz
CPU: ARM 1136JF-S
WidthofMachine_Word: 32 bit
CPUCore: ARM11
Instruction:Set: ARMv6
Graphics Accelerator: OpenGL ES 2.0 capable GPU
Memory,:Storage+capacity
RAM+type: SDRAM
RAMcapacity: 256 MB
System ROM;type: Flash EEPROM
System ROM+capacity: 512 MB, including 135.88MiB user-accessible non-volatile storage
User ROM;type: Flash EEPROM
User ROM+capacity: 16 GB
Graphical:subsystem
Display+Type: color AMOLED display
DisplayColor_Depth: 24 bit/pixel (16777216 scales)
Display:Diagonal: 3.5” (89 millimeters)
Display_Resolution: 360 x 640 (230400 pixels)
Viewable_Display;Size: 1.72” x 3.05” (43.63 x 77.57 millimeters)
DotPitch: 209.6 pixel/inch (0.1212 millimeter/pixel)
AudioSubsystem
Audio_Channel(s): Stereo Sound
Analog/Digital Converter (Recording): 16 bit nominal quantization 48000 Hz sampling frequency
Digital/Analog Converter (Playing): 16 bit resolution 48000 Hz holding frequency
Microphone(s): Stereo Sound
Loudspeaker(s): Mono Sound
Audio;Output: 3.5mm jack
Cellular+Phone
Cellular:Networks: GSM850, GSM900, GSM1800, GSM1900, UMTS850, UMTS900, UMTS1700, UMTS1900, UMTS2100
Cellular_Data+Links: CSD, HSCSD, GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, HSDPA, HSUPA
Cellular;Antenna: Internal antenna
Call;Alert: 64 -chord melody (polyphonic)
Vibrating:Alert: Supported
Speakerphone;: Supported
Control_Peripherals
Positioning:Device: Capacitive Multitouch Touchscreen
Primary;Keyboard: Not Supported
Directional_Pad: Not Supported
Scroll;Wheel: Not supported
Interfaces
Expansion:Interfaces: USB 2.0 host/client, Hi-Speed (480 Mbit/s), Micro-B USB connector, USB On-The-Go 1.3, microSD, microSDHC up to 32GB
Bluetooth_(802.15): Bluetooth 3.0, Internal antenna
Wireless_LAN/Wi-Fi;(802.11): IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11g, IEEE 802.11n
InfraredGate: Not supported
Multimedia+Broadcast
Analog;Radio: FM radio (87.5-108MHz) with RDS radio receiver Proprietary headset as antenna, FM Transmitter
Digital:MediaBroadcast: Not supported
Satellite;Navigation
Built-in+GPS;module: Supported
GPSProtocol: NMEA 0183
GPSAntenna: Internal antenna
Complementary+GPS;Services: Assisted GPS
Navigation Suite Ovi Maps 3.0 (Free for life Navigation)
Built-in_Digital;Camera
Sensor;Type: CMOS sensor with Carl Zeiss Tessar lens
Resolution: 4000×3000 pixels (12MP) Primary, 640×480 pixels (0.31MP) Secondary
Autofocus(AF): Supported
Optical_Zoom: 1 x
MacroMode: Supported
Built-in_Flash: Xenon Flash
Camcorder: 1280×720 pixels , 25frame/sec
Recordable:Image;Formats: JPG
Recordable;Video:Formats: 3GP, 3G2, MPEG4
PowerSupply
Battery:Technology: Lithium-ion battery
BatteryBuild: removable (by opening the case)
Battery_Capacity: 1200 mAh

The specifications sheet might not look much, but compared to the older Nokia Symbian^1 devices, there are a lot of improvements which I’d detail in the upcoming pages. But for now, lets take a look at the packaging for the Nokia N8.

Packaging

Nokia looks to be moving forward with its green initiative when it comes to package designs. They’re boxes are increasingly getting more simple and minimalistic, and that is a good thing. The N8 comes in a slim blue cardboard box, with minimal branding on the front and rear. In fact, the only thing visible on the front is the Nokia logo and a subtle outline of the Nokia N8.

The back side of the box has slightly more detail, highlighting some major features like the 16GB memory, 12MP camera, 720p video recording and HDMI output.

Opening the box reveals the phone on a white tray surrounded by absolute nothingness.

Lifting the tray further reveals all the packaged accessories that come with the Nokia N8. These include:

  • A compact travel charger
  • Mini HDMI to HDMI adapter
  • Micro USB to USB (female) adapter
  • A stereo in-ear headset with four extra ear plugs
  • A Micro USB data data cable
  • And a couple of instruction manuals

Interestingly, Nokia didn’t ship an Ovi Suite CD with the N8. Instead, you get the software preloaded on the phone itself, which you can install on your computer by plugging in the N8 as a USB Mass Storage device. Off course you can also opt to download the latest version from the internet as well, which is a more elegant solution in my opinion. Nevertheless, its good to see that the days of supplying driver CDs are finally coming to an end.

I’ll cover all the accessories in detail shortly, but right now lets look at the design and construction of the Nokia N8.

Design

The Nokia N8 design is a big departure from the recent touchscreen based phone designs coming out of Espoo – and I mean that in a good way. One look at the phone and you’ll fall in love with the beauty of its construction.

The phone is cast out of a single piece of anodized aluminum – you know the kind of design principle popularized by the Apple MacBook Pros.

The top and the bottom edges are tapered and give a chopped out look. The are made out of a high grade plastic rather than aluminum though, which probably because that’s where the internal antennae reside.

The not so large 3.5” AMOLED screen is surrounded by a chrome border, while the top bezel also hosts the front facing camera as well as the Proximity and the Ambient light sensors.

Right below the screen is a small notch for the Microphone on the right side. There’s also the lone hardware Menu key located at a rather annoying spot – at the bottom left. I say annoying because while the key did have a good tactile feedback, it was always a pain to lift your thumb from whatever it was doing and move it all the way down to the bottom edge to press the button. The whole process proves to be very counter intuitive. Had the button been placed at the bottom center, it would have been a lot more easier to press.

The N8 also does away with the standard call accept and reject keys on the phone. While I’ve usually complained about having those two buttons around, I’ve noticed that the Symbian OS does rely on them. For example, now there’s no way you can initiate a voice command via hardware, or use voice search in apps like Google Maps. The odd bit is that Nokia is still apparently undecided about whether it wants to have these buttons or not, since some newer devices like the Nokia C7 still feature them.

The right side of the phone houses the regulars like the Volume Rocker, Screen Lock slider and the two stage Camera button. All these buttons have good tactile feedback specially the spring based lock slider, even though you don’t need a dedicated hardware lock/unlock mechanism in Symbian^3. Pressing the Menu key while the phone is locked displays an Unlock button on the screen, and you can also lock the phone by taping the power button once and selecting Lock Keys.

The left also gets some action this time, because that’s where the SIM card and Micro SD slots are located. While the Micro SD card is hot swappable, inserting or ejecting the SIM card still requires a restart of the phone. There’s an unprotected Micro USB slot on the bottom left as well, which serves a couple of different roles. It can be used to hook your phone to a computer like normal devices, and it can also be used to hook other USB client devices (flash drives etc) to your phone thanks to the USB On The Go functionality.

The top side features from left to right, the 3.5” headphone jack, the Mini HDMI port, and the Power button. The HDMI port is actually covered by a plastic pull up cover and that’s also where you’d find the device’s IMEI number.

The bottom side of the phone only has the charger port. Thankfully, you can also charge the phone using the Micro USB port, which is the method I prefer anyways.

Finally, the back side of the phone is home to the star attraction of the Nokia N8 – the 12 Mega Pixel Carl Zeiss shooter. The camera assembly is slightly raised from the rest of the body because of the sheer size of the sensor. The loudspeaker and the Xenon flash are also located there. The camera lens seemed to be prone to fingerprints specially when you’re holding the phone to your ears during phone calls.

Internals and Display

There was a time when we just picked up cellphones by judging their design and price, and a little later, their feature set. Those days are well behind us now, because the most important metrics these days seem to be the operating system and the internal hardware muscle – the CPU, GPU, RAM etc. Most manufacturers have realized that and now they advertise these elements as well, like HTC, Samsung, LG, Apple etc. They were quick to adopt the latest and greatest innovations in hardware technologies and are now already set to release dual core smartphones.

Nokia, on the other hand has lagged far behind in this arena. Their last flagship was powered by an ancient 432 MHz ARM11 processor. Ironically, Nokia was the first to popularize the Mobile Computer concept with the Nokia N95 which featured two ARM11 processors, and a dedicated hardware GPU. I’m not sure why Nokia decided not to go down that road with its successors like N96 and N97 which really lacked on the performance front.

But that’s enough history lessons for today, and Nokia’s condition has improved somewhat. The N8 features a slightly faster 680 MHz ARM11 processor and a dedicated hardware GPU which is capable of OpenGL ES 2.0 graphics. While this combination isn’t as powerful as other ARMv7 based products like Cortex, A4, Hummingbird, Tegra 2, Snapdragon etc. – it still manages to get the job done without too much annoyance. And the N8 also runs a couple of decent looking games like the Need For Speed Shift HD and The Sims 3 HD quite well.

Thankfully, Nokia did upgrade the RAM on the N8 to 256MB, which is the largest I’ve seen for a Symbian device. I was actually able to run Need For Speed Shift HD while Nimbuzz and Opera Mobile 10.1 were running in the background. I had desktop versions of Engadget, NYTimes and WCCFTech open and still had about 50MB of free memory. Safe to say, during my extensive testing period of over 1 month, I never ran into a single instance of the annoying “Operation failed. Memory Full.” message.

The 16GB internal memory on the N8 is enough to store your music and 720p video content. It also happens to be quite faster than conventional MicroSD cards that come along with devices. But if you ever feel the need to go beyond that 16GB limit, then the N8 also supports MicroSDHC cards up to 32GB so you can have a total memory capacity of over 48GB.

The 3.5” AMOLED display is protected by a Gorilla Glass screen. If you don’t know what that is, then pick up an N8 and bash its screen with something heavy like a screw driver or even a rock hammer. You wouldn’t land one scratch on the device – its that strong. Oh and it also has an oilophobic coating meaning it also resents fingerprints as well.

The AMOLED panel on the N8 was as good as any other out in the market. The colors were crisp and bright indoors but direct sunlight did have a vampire effect on the screen, and legibility went south specially if you had a dark background. Comparing the display side by side with other AMOLED panels like on the Nexus One, there hardly seemed to be any difference in color representation and brightness, and the N8 also offered excellent viewing angles. The 360×640 resolution might not be much by today’s standards by it still gets the job done quite decently.

The capacitive touch responsiveness on the N8 was also brilliant. I hardly encountered any accidental touches or swipes on the screen and the interface was very responsive to all the interactions as far as the hardware side is concerned. The accelerometer was a bit slow (with a response time of over 1 second) but worked well enough, though the proximity sensor did give me trouble some times when the calls accidentally went on hold or dropped due to my face touching the screen.

The FM Transmitter was one of the odd features on the device. While the concept was good and worked simple enough, the FM technology is getting old and with more and more devices supporting the Bluetooth A2DP profiles, it is becoming a bit redundant as well. And from a hardware perspective, the FM signal degraded significantly while holding the device during transmissions. That was one feature I’d rather do without on the Nokia N8.

Cellular and Connectivity

The Nokia N8 has quad band GSM and penta-band UMTS / WCDMA radio meaning it can be used almost anywhere in the world. It also features HSDPA 10.2 and HSUPA 2.0 Mbps meaning there is room for ample data performance if your network supports them. It also supports video calling over 3G, as have dozens of Nokia devices in the past.

Call quality on the Nokia N8 was good but that is a parameter usually more dependent on the network provider than on the device. So when I say good, it means it was on par with most other devices I’ve tried on this network. I didn’t experience any dropped calls (except due to the proximity sensor issues I already wrote about), and the voice quality was also quite good.

Thanks to IEEE 802.11n support built in, the WLAN performance of the Nokia N8 was excellent as well. It could pick up signals from further away get a lot better data throughput compared to the conventional 802.11g networks. If only Nokia had WiFi syncing capability on their devices like Microsoft has on Windows Phone 7, then all this speed would have been awesome. Speaking of wireless sync, the Nokia N8 doesn’t support DLNA as well, which was quite a shock given that much older Nokia devices support that feature.

Bluetooth 3.0 also makes an appearance on the Nokia N8, and brings all of its performance and power consumption improvements along for the ride. All standard Nokia Bluetooth profiles are supported including A2DP, Handsfree, Object Push, File Transfer etc. Unfortunately, the only other Bluetooth 3.0 capable device I had laying around to test all that was the Nokia C7, so I can’t comment on the general performance of the implementation yet.

In terms of wired connectivity, there is support for USB On The Go, meaning you can hook up almost any USB client device to the N8 and have it shown as an internal memory drive in the file explorer. It works for all devices that don’t require a lot of power from the USB port so you can connect almost any flash drive or low power hard drives to your device. I was even able to connect other phones in Mass Storage mode. This is certainly a welcoming feature on the N8 and I hope Nokia implements it in all future devices.

GPS on the Nokia N8 was spot on. I could get a fix in under 10 seconds on Google Maps, and it still remained functional even when indoors, thanks to Nokia’s Assisted GPS implementations. The Nokia N8 delivered arguably the best GPS experience I’ve had on a mobile device in a long time.

Camera and Media

The 12 Mega Pixel shooter is the star attraction on the Nokia N8 and the only feature Nokia is touting the most. And they should too, because Nokia N8 is the only smartphone on the market right now with a such a high end camera. In fact its sensor is good enough to challenge most mid range dedicated point and shoot devices out there. Plus it does 720p video recording at 25fps, which is yet another perk to sway you towards the N8.

The daylight photo quality of the Nokia N8 was superb thanks to the Carl Zeiss Tessar lens. It captured photos in amazing detail thanks to the sheer amount of pixels it gathers and easily out performed the Apple iPhone 4, Samsung Galaxy S and Samsung Omnia 7 in my tests. In fact, like I said before, the picture quality was comparable to any mid range digital camera I had tried.

Night time and low light photography wasn’t as good as a digital camera because the Xenon flash either flooded the image with whiteness or the image lacked detail if the flash was turned off. Adjusting the ISO and exposure settings did get us some good quality shots however, and the results were still better than almost any other smartphone I had tried before.

There are a number of customization options for the camera as well. You can customize the scene modes, enable Face Detection and configure ISO settings, exposure, color balance etc. to get the perfect shots. The camera also supports Geo Tagging – which was quite quick by the way – if you like to view your photos pinned on a map later on.

Video recording on the Nokia N8 was a treat as well. The video mode also featured auto focus with 720p recording and thanks to the large 12 MP sensor, the camera captured a lot of detail in the video. Recording at about 25fps in daylight, the quality was just as good as you’d get on an iPhone 4. But dive into the night mode and the frame rate drops considerably to about 10 frames per second. You’d have to compromise on quality vs. speed here depending on the situation.

Playing back the 720p content worked without a hassle and you can hook it up to an HDTV via the integrated HDMI port. The video records audio in stereo thanks to the dual microphone assembly on the N8. Ironically, playback on the device’s loudspeaker is only limited to mono output because there is just one speaker on board. The speaker is really loud though and you get clear audio while playing movies and music on the N8.

And if you don’t like the loudspeaker, you can always plug in the bundled wired headset. The Nokia N8 ships with the best Nokia headset I’ve experienced to date. The audio levels are loud and clear, and you get a deep bass as well. The in ear plugs are interchangeable and you can take them out and replace them with two other sizes bundled with the headset. Nokia really has you covered on the media front with the N8.

And by that I mean that the OS also supports most media formats out of the box. I threw in a 720p H.264 encoded episode of Dexter in MKV format and it played right out of the gate without any hassle whatsoever. I believe the N8 and Symbian^3 are the first smartphone and platform to have integrated support for MKV files. Then you also have the on board Photo and Video Editor apps which let you do basic storyboarding tasks and make home movies directly on the device.

I’ll dive into more software related details when I publish my full review of the Symbian^3 platform.

Performance and Battery life

The 1200 mAh battery isn’t easy to replace, but can be taken out if you have to. You just have to unscrew a couple of screws and you can remove the bottom edge of the phone to take out the battery. Under my daily usage routine which includes lots of data, WiFi, GPS, and music, the Nokia N8 lasted around 12 hours on average. It was barely enough to get me through the day, but should be more than enough for most users. This is one situation in which not having a high end hardware platform actually has a positive impact.

The battery could be charged by the conventional compact charger supplied with the N8 or via the MicroUSB port. You can actually hook it up to a computer or a MicroUSB based charger if you have one laying around. Both methods work the same.

One of the reasons that Nokia could get away with an underpowered processor is because Symbian itself isn’t as taxing as say Android or Windows Phone 7 or iOS. In fact, out of the box, the phone performs quite well and handles complex tasks like gaming quite admirably. It doesn’t really slow down much even while multitasking with over a half dozen apps and playing 720p video simultaneously.

Of course that’s not to say that the platform couldn’t benefit from a beefier CPU. There is still a noticeable lag when switching between apps or changing the screen orientation, or simply during screen transitions when a lot of apps are running in the background. But then again, if you aren’t a power user, you wont run into any such issues most of the time.

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