Though Symbian enjoys great popularity in other parts of the world, it's not well known in the States and is falling behind the competition in usability and functionality. The Symbian 3 operating system is a stepping stone in addressing those issues, and the Nokia N8 is the first smartphone to ship running the revamped OS. It certainly brings some much-needed improvements, such as a simplified touch interface and enhanced multimedia capabilities. The N8 is also one of the best camera phones we've seen to date, and delivers good call quality and battery life. That said, it still falls short on a number of fronts, including ease of use, navigation, and integrated services. This, coupled with an expensive price tag of $549 unlocked, isn't going to attract the masses. Symbian fans will find much to like in the Nokia N8, but consumers will be better off going with an Android device or the iPhone.
For the most part, Nokia has always produced some great hardware and the Nokia N8 is no exception. As soon as you pick it up, you'll notice the high-quality construction with its metal finishes and glass display. At 4.47 inches tall by 2.32 inches wide by 0.51 inch thick and 2.91 ounces, the smartphone is a nice size: big enough to have a sizable screen but thin and compact enough to make it easy to carry and hold. The camera housing on the back sticks out just slightly, taking a bit away from the streamlined design, but it's not a big deal.
Gracing the front of the phone is a 3.5-inch, AMOLED capacitive touch screen. With a 640x360-pixel resolution and support for 16.7 million colors, the display is bright and clear, and we were able to see the contents of the screen outdoors. That said, it's not as sharp as some of the latest smartphones. Compared with devices like the HTC Evo 4G and the Samsung Galaxy S series, text and images don't appear as smooth and the pixels are more visible. It doesn't hamper the phone's use, but you definitely notice the difference.
The display offers a built-in accelerometer and pinch-to-zoom support. The responsiveness of both features is a bit inconsistent. At times, it can be quick or instantaneous, and at other times, there can be a slight delay. This is also true of the touch screen in general. For the most part, it registered our touches but there were occasions where it simply didn't respond or it was so slow to respond that we thought there was a problem. Also, scrolling through lists and home screen panels isn't quite as smooth or zippy as it is some competing phones.
For text entry, you get an onscreen keyboards in portrait and landscape modes, but you only get a QWERTY option in landscape view. This means that if you want to type any messages in portrait view, you'll have to peck away on an alphanumeric keypad.
Aside from the touch screen, there are a couple of controls to help you navigate and perform other functions on the phone. Below the display, there is a lone key that brings you to the main menu or the home screen if you're in another application. On the right side, there's a volume rocker, a lock switch, and a camera activation/capture button.
Other features of the Nokia N8 include a power button, an HDMI port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack on top of the device. The left spine houses the SIM card and microSD expansion slots and the Micro-USB port. On back, you will find the 12-megapixel camera and Xenon flash. Curiously, unlike other Nokia phones, the N8 doesn't have a user-replaceable battery. Though we found battery life to be pretty good, this is still disappointing.
The Nokia N8 comes packaged with a good number of accessories, including a travel charger, a USB cable, an HDMI cable, a USB on-the-go adapter, a wired stereo headset, and reference material. Though the included charger features an international adapter, the phone can be powered by a charger with a Micro-USB connector. The N8 is also available in five colors: dark gray, blue, green, orange, and silver white.
One of our chief complaints about the Symbian S60 platform was its poor user interface. The inconsistent touch interface, the archaic-looking menus, and the clunky navigation all contributed to a frustrating user experience. Symbian 3 corrects a number of those issues, and makes the N8 a dream to operate compared with previous Nokia smartphones. However, it still trails the competition in a number of respects, but let's start with what's good first.
Symbian 3 now offers a single-tap interaction model across the user interface, so you'll no longer have to go through multiple steps to complete a simple task or muddle through the confusion of which menus require one tap or two, as we experienced on past S60 devices like the Nokia N97 Mini. This uniform system goes a long way into making the phone easier to use, but still, work can be done to more quickly access options within an app. For example, to reply to an e-mail on the N8, you must first hit Options and then choose reply. In Android, the reply option is on the same page as the e-mail.
The home screen now consists of three panels, which you can customize with various widgets, including those for your messages, social networks, music player, favorite contacts, RSS feeds, and so forth. The widgets can provide you with a quick preview of the latest information, and if you want to see more, you can tap on the widget to launch the individual application.
The main menu is pretty much the same, presenting a grid view of your applications (you can change to list view if you prefer). A particularly useful features is if you long-press the menu key below the screen, it will bring up a thumbnail view of all your running applications. From there, you can scroll through the list to switch between tasks or exit out of an app completely.
In all, the Nokia N8 with Symbian 3 provides a much better user experience. The simplified touch experience and added customization options were much-needed features. That said, it simply doesn't compare with the ease of use, flow, and polished look of competing operating systems, namely Android and iOS.