Review: Nokia N8 and the Symbian 3 verdict

Announced back in July, Nokia’s new flagship N8 smartphone began shipping on the last day of September to those that had pre-ordered the device (it’s now available on most UK networks). As did the first review units sent out with almost military provision to chosen technology bloggers, this writer included.

Having already declared “Nokia is back” at Nokia World, the Finnish juggernaut is to a degree framing the N8, the first to run the new Symbian 3, as a hard reset for the company as it attempts to return its once held leadership position in the smartphone space. Not in terms of marketshare (that’s not looking too shabby) but in terms of mindshare where Nokia has in recent times fallen behind iPhone, BackBerry and the relentless onslaught on Android. It’s in this context that the N8 is to be judged.

Software

Improvements to Symbian’s UI

It’s traditional when reviewing a smartphone to begin by evaluating its hardware, but in this case I’m going to start with software. Specifically, the N8′s Operating System, Symbian 3. That’s because as already noted, it’s the first of a new line of Nokia devices to ship with the updated OS. It’s fair to say that Symbian’s reputation suffered greatly with the move to touch, with the old S60 UI getting a terribly rushed and kludge of a makeover.

So how does S3 stack up?

Well the short answer is just good enough but that in itself is significant. The N8′s UI will feel familiar to long time Nokia users but also does away with most of the head on the table idiosyncrasies of Symbian 1 (or S60 5th Edition) as found on the likes of the N97 and N97 Mini. Gone is the need to double and single tap in different areas of the UI, such as the media player. Instead a long press brings up contextual menus in a similar way to Android.

Symbian 3 also makes better play of the OS’ multitasking abilities through a much improved application switcher that presents a thumbnail preview of each running application in a carousel that can be swiped left and right and clicked on to be brought back into focus. To close an app you simply tap on the x in the corner of said thumbnail. It’s not quite as cool as Palm’s WebOS card view, lacking the ability to close an app by swiping it off of the screen, but it works just as well. Definitely better than iOS or Android’s multitasking UI.

The N8′s homescreen, which divides opinion, is the same as found on the N97 except that there is now three of them. They house the same fixed dimension widgets in a grid that works in both portrait and landscape mode. And while this keeps things tidy, it restricts the utility of many widgets, such as email, because not enough valuable information is on show.

The newly improved UI also benefits greatly from Nokia’s decision to finally embrace capacitive touchscreens, meaning that the N8, while running on moderate hardware (see below), feels pretty snappy. Not the fastest but again, good enough.

However, there are still aspects of Symbian 3′s – and therefore the N8′s – User Interface that full behind the likes of the iPhone, WebOS and the best of Android. The virtual on-screen keyboard is improved but it’s still stuck in the past. First up, you can only invoke a full QWERTY keyboard in landscape mode, with a T9 type affair in portrait mode. It would have been simple enough to give users the choice. And as previously, the keyboard takes over the whole UI, meaning that you can’t refer to the web page or app that prompted you to type something in the first place. It also introduces an extra tap or two to bring up and dismiss the keyboard.

Another frustrating aspect of Symbian’s UI/UX is that it’s incredibly prompt heavy, bringing up dialogue and confirmation boxes far, far too often. It’s as if the designers suffer from an anxiety disorder. If you’re a long time user, it’s no big deal but sort of reminds me of the few times I move from a Mac to a PC running Windows, having to adjust to continually being nagged about this action or that. Yes, I want to connect to WiFi in “off-line” mode and so on.

Other than that it’s the familiar grid of icons and somewhat nested folders. Nothing inspiring but plenty functional.

In fact, the Windows analogy is probably quite a good one for Symbian 3 overall. No, it’s not the best touch screen UI on the market but, actually, it’s just good enough for most users and it’s definitely an improvement over previous versions. And besides, a great UI does not make a market success. See Palm’s WebOS. There are other factors equally if not more important.

Namely…

Applications

And here the N8/Symbian 3 is a very mixed bag, especially those that make up the core functionality of any mobile OS such as email client, web browser, media player and app store.

Let’s start with the high points.

The N8 has a superb media playback.

The music player features a near-pixel perfect rip off of the iPhone’s coverflow view and, as already noted, benefits from the press and long hold UI construct to bring up contextual menus, such as for creating playlists etc. Missing in action, however, is a bundled podcast client, although there are third-party options. There are video ‘channels’ though, available through a dedicated app.

In fact, video playback is where the N8 bests almost anything out there. This is due to a smart mix of software – multiple codec support including the much coveted DivX – and hardware, such as HDMI out and support for external USB thumb drives. There’s also 16GB of on-board storage, microSD card support and hardware graphics acceleration that supports 720p HD playback. We threw a couple of DivX movies at the N8 (sourced from the usual places as well as our own rips) and they just played. No fussing with re-encoding into specific formats, bitrates or faffing about with iTunes.

In the media stakes, the N8 is a beast. And I haven’t even touched on its media production capabilities (see hardware).

Next up, I want to mention the N8′s app store or to be precise, the Ovi Store. It’s a definite improvement over previous versions, which were slow to navigate and often outright failed to download anything. That said, it’s odd that only a link to the store’s app is included, meaning that a new user will be prompted to download it first, then sign-up to Ovi to begin sourcing apps. Not the best out of the box experience. The app store cupboard is a lot fuller too, although the breadth and quality still varies greatly compared to iPhone and Android.  It’s something that Nokia is addressing but progress is slow with all the various mobile platforms competing for developer mindshare coupled with Symbian’s reputation as being a pain in the a butt to develop for.

This is something that also shows – although perception might not be reality – in the inconsistencies in quality of Nokia’s own apps. The email client, for example, is dead simple to set up as it has pre-sets for the most popular services, such as GMail. It’s also quite well touch-optimized and is fairly intuitive. But it has one very annoying attribute when dealing with HTML emails. There doesn’t appear to be anyway of increasing font size without doing a pinch to zoom gesture. That would be fine except that the text doesn’t reflow, instead introducing tons of horizontal scrolling.

I suspect that this is because the email client uses the same rendering engine as Symbian’s standard web browser, which suffers much of the same fate. In fact, web browsing is a real missed opportunity on the N8. The browser, despite supporting Flash, falls short of the best of class iPhone or WebOS or Android.

It’s usable but not good enough, which is clearly why Nokia is talking up a completely re-written web browser to be released as an update in early 2011.

So, email client is largely good, browser OK.

But here’s the real stinker. The N8 comes with Nokia’s own social networking app for tracking updates on Twitter and Facebook.

And it’s poor.

The UI is anemic for a touch device and it’s slow as hell. Updating Twitter can take 3-4 seconds, which makes a mockery of the realtime web. It’s much less responsive than virtually any other Twitter client that I’ve used on any platform. Worse still, you’re required to sign up to Nokia’s Ovi service to use the app. That’s probably part of a strategy to acquire Ovi users but if Nokia wants to tie Ovi that closely to its hardware, why not require users to register the first time they boot up the N8, just as Google does with stock Android.

Luckily, for Twitter addicts there is the far superior Gravity just a download away, which also does a little Facebook, Foursquare and Google Reader too. In fact, Nokia should buy Gravity and hire its developer or start again.

One area in software where the N8 is looking promising, however, is games, thanks partly to hardware graphics acceleration that Symbian 3 stipulates. For example, the infamous ‘Angry Birds’ is already available for the N8.

I also want to mention Ovi Maps, which offers free turn-by-turn navigation, amongst a host of features. It’s a great Sat-Nav solution and has a major advantage over the likes of Google Maps in that maps are pre-loaded so that the app doesn’t require a persistent data connection. That means it can be used abroad without costing a fortune in data charges and also saves on battery life.

Hardware

The N8′s hardware on so many levels is a triumph for Nokia. But then many will attest that the handset maker has always been capable of rolling out great hardware.

In the looks department, the N8 has a premium feel to it with plenty of metal and a guerrilla glass 3.5 inch touch screen. It also benefits from a unibody design, keeping it pretty thin and rock solid, although the downside is a more or less non-user removable battery (a special screwdriver is required).

However, with Symbian’s modest power requirements in comparison to other mobile platforms and the N8′s modest processor, battery life shouldn’t be an issue for at least a full day’s use and some.

I also really like how the N8 has its own design cues, in part forced upon it because of the protruding camera lens, producing something distinctive but attractive compared to hundreds of fairly bland touch screen slates currently on the market. In terms of screen resolution, the N8 is far from cutting edge – 640 x 360 – but this also ensures the widest compatibility with existing apps.

The N8′s flagship hardware feature, of course, is its 12 megapixel camera, which is said to rival standalone digital cameras and is capable of shooting 720p HD video. From the array of photos that I’ve taken on the device, I’d say this isn’t too much of an exaggeration. Images look very natural as well as benefiting from the high pixel density, and there’s a proper Xenon flash for night shots. On the video front, the N8 handles focus extremely well, although in a back to back test with the iPhone 4, the latter has better image stabilization. I wonder if this is something that can be improved through a software update. Sound is also a strong point, recording in stereo no less.

As already noted, the N8 has 16GB of built-in storage and an HDMI out so that it can be plugged into a HD television and, unlike the iPhone, anything on the phone (not just video and photos) is mirrored on the TV. That’s a really nice touch for family viewing and makes the most of the phone’s strong media playback abilities.

And I can’t overstate how awesome it is to plug in a USB memory stick and play movies stored on it through the N8 and, optionally, onto a high def television. It gives you that feeling of “why hasn’t anyone done this before?”

So, overall then, the N8′s hardware is a win.

Verdict

As noted, the N8 is largely a triumph of hardware over software, although the criticisms of Symbian 3′s underlying UI is somewhat overstated. It’s more the varying quality of Nokia’s own apps or those around the edges that lets it down. That said, in the media playback and production stakes, the N8 holds its own.

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last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

2 Responses to “Review: Nokia N8 and the Symbian 3 verdict”

  1. Uptowngal says:

    I would like to add that the N8 allows handwriting input for Chinese language. This hasn’t been mentioned in any reviews I’ve read and I’m guessing that’s cos none of the reviewers write Chinese. Anyhow, i like this feature and Nokia deserve credit for it. :)

  2. xcubelabs says:

    Like it or not Symbian is one of the best Smartphone OS. The only problem is usability.
    I tried my hands on the device and agree with almost all what you said here.