More than meets the eye
The design profile for the N8 is a new direction for Nokia — in fact, it's quite a unique look for smartphones in general. The handset's tapered ends are attractive without adding any obvious usability, and the aluminium casing feels solid. Though there's something about the N8 that strongly reminds us of a Transformer, perhaps due to its two-tone metal chassis.
Turning this phone in our hands, the N8 is littered with external knobs and sockets. The right-hand side features a screen-lock switch and camera key, the left houses a micro-USB port and slots for your SIM and microSD cards. But the real showstopper is on the top: a mini-HDMI port for connecting the N8 directly into a monitor or flat panel TV.
The phone's navigation is handled mostly by the 3.5-inch AMOLED display, though there is a single "Home" button below the screen. The screen is gorgeous, with deep, rich blacks and vibrant colours, and is excellent for playing back video files or playing games. On the back of the phone is the much-discussed 12-megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss optics, matched with a bright Xenon flash.
The 12-megapixel camera isn't the only first for Nokia in this handset; the N8 is also the first to make use of the new Symbian^3 operating system, and it suffers greatly because of this. Symbian^3 is the evolution of Nokia's tried and true Series 60 system (last seen on the N97 mini), a system that is in dire need of a usability overhaul. Well, if you were to liken Series 60 to an unmade bed, then Symbian^3 is the equivalent of pull the doona up over the untucked sheets. There are a number of enhancements to give the impression of change, but overall it is the same struggling system we've seen from Nokia over the last couple of years.
Firstly, some good news. There are definitely parts of this system that show improvement, of which the music player is an excellent example. Album art now takes centre stage in this app, with a slick CoverFlow-inspired design and zippy searching through extensive lists of artists and tracks. The image gallery shares this step-up in speed, with excellent finger-swiping control over your latest images.
But these improvements are vastly outnumbered by areas of the phone that operate below par. The phone will often become unresponsive in simple, everyday apps — the SMS client being a favourite to stall when replying to messages from friends. The keyboard is poorly implemented in a number of ways: there is only landscape orientation in one direction; the predictive text doesn't account for misplaced keystrokes (as you can expect in the iPhone and Android phones); and whenever you need to type into a dialogue box in the web browser you are taken into a separate screen, requiring you to add several extra keystrokes to navigate back to the page you were looking at.
There are also numerous inconsistencies in how you browse menus and lists, and adjusting settings on the phone involves diving into a labyrinth of menu trees. When you're in an SMS conversation you'll use kinetic scrolling to move down the page (swiping from bottom to top to "drag" the page up), but if you're viewing a text file kinetic scrolling is surprisingly absent.
Last, but not least, the home-screen design is appalling. Nokia offers users six predefined blocks to apply rigidly spaced widgets, most of which can't possibly offer any useful functionality in the space provided. The email widget, for example, shows the two latest messages and you can't scroll through this list on the home screen, and the calendar barely has the space to show your next appointment.