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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.
The Nokia N8 offers quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, speed dial, conference calling, voice dialing, a vibrate mode, and text and multimedia messaging with threaded chat view. The phone's address book is only limited by the available memory, and the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts. There's room in each entry for multiple phone numbers, work and home addresses, e-mail addresses, birthday, and more vitals. For caller ID purposes, you can assign each contact a photo, a group ID, or a custom ringtone.
Unlike other operating systems, the N8 doesn't automatically pull and sync contact information from your various e-mail accounts and social networking sites. It does so for Exchange, otherwise you have to use other tools, such as the Ovi service or an iSync plug-in, to get the rest of your contacts synced to the N8, which is annoying.
The N8 is compatible with multiple e-mail protocols, including Exchange, Lotus Notes, and POP3/IMAP accounts, and offers HTML and folder support. We set up our Exchange and Gmail accounts, and we were able to receive and send e-mail without problem. As we noted in the User Interface section, accessing options isn't always easy or obvious. For example, if you want to get to your folders, you need to tap the Inbox tab at the top of the screen and then choose Folders from the drop-down list. It's not the biggest of problems, but again, it goes back to the usability issue.
Wireless options are well-represented on the Nokia N8, with Bluetooth 3.0, Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n), GPS, and five-band 3G support (WCDMA 850/900/1700/1900/2100). This means you'll get 3G whether you use AT&T or T-Mobile, which is great. The N8's WebKit-based browser is decent. It offers support for Flash Lite 4.0 and multiple windows, and it renders pages quite well. Navigation, however, could be much better. A simple task like entering a new Web address requires you to launch a separate menu, enter the URL, and then press Go To, and we think it really shouldn't be that complicated. (For more about the browser, check out Performance section).
The Nokia N series has always been known for its multimedia capabilities, and the N8 certainly continues that tradition and even does it better. With Symbian 3, the music player gets a nice makeover with a Cover Flow-like interface for browsing music. It offers basic functions, such as shuffle and repeat modes, on-the-fly playlist creations, and support for MP3, WMA, AAC, eAAC, eAAC+, AMR-NB, and AMR-WB music codecs. There's also an FM radio.
Hands down, the N8's best feature is its 12-megapixel camera. With Carl Zeiss optics, a Xenon flash, and numerous editing options, the N8 delivers some of the best picture quality we've seen from a camera phone. Images came out ultrasharp with vibrant and rich colors that showed details not visible on most photos taken by a phone. The camera was also able to handle shots taken in various environments--indoors, outdoors, action scenes--with very little problem. You can check out our photo gallery for some samples.
In addition to photos, the camera can record HD video and once again, the quality is impressive. Unlike some other smartphones that offer HD video recording, the N8 produced clips that were clear without any type of haziness or yellowing. A preloaded video editor, as well as a photo editor, is available if you want to cut clips or add music and text, which you can then share on your HDTV via the HDMI port. There's also a front-facing VGA camera, which you can use to make video calls with apps like Fring.
Other apps preloaded on the N8 include the QuickOffice suite, a PDF reader, a ZIP manager, a voice recorder, a dedicated YouTube app, and Ovi Maps, which offers free turn-by-turn navigation. You can search and download more apps from the Ovi Store. The store's catalog consists of around 15,000 titles, which is a far cry from the 80,000 or so apps in the Android Market and 250,000 apps in iTunes, but Nokia has done a nice job of cleaning up the store's interface. The N8 offers 16GB of internal memory and an expansion slot that accepts up to 32GB cards.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) Nokia N8 in New York using AT&T service, and call quality was decent. For the most part, conversations sounded clear on our end, with very little background noise, but there were times audio would cut off the end of a sentence. Our friends reported good results and didn't have any major complaints.
Speakerphone quality was pretty good. It didn't sound quite as tinny or as hollow as other speakerphones, so we had no problems hearing our callers, and there's plenty of volume to hold a conversation in noisier environments. We also had no issue pairing the smartphone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset or the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.
We got reliable 3G coverage from AT&T in Manhattan. We didn't experience any dropped calls, and data speeds were satisfactory. CNET's full site loaded in 35 seconds; the mobile sites for CNN and ESPN came up in 7 seconds and 5 seconds, respectively. We were able to play YouTube videos from the browser, and clips loaded within a couple of seconds and played back without interruption. Our own MPEG-4 videos looked great on the N8, with good quality and synchronized picture and audio. We also enjoyed rich-sounding music playback through our On-Ear Bose Headphones.
The N8 did well as a navigator. The phone was able to get a GPS lock in less than a minute, and it accurately tracked our position even as we trekked through the urban canyons of Manhattan. Also, because the maps are downloaded to the device, redraws were quick.
General performance on the N8 is a bit sluggish. It's equipped with a 680MHz ARM11 processor, and we encountered some delays launching and switching between apps. Though it never crashed or froze on us, there were a couple of occasions where the lag was significant enough to make us think there was a problem.
The Nokia N8 ships with 1,200mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 12 hours (GSM)/5.8 hours (3G) and up to 16 days (GSM)/17 days (3G) of standby time, and as we noted earlier, it's not user-replaceable. The N8 delivered 5.5 hours of continuous talk time over 3G in our battery drain tests. So far we've been impressed with the battery life. With moderate use--checking e-mail, Web browsing, and some music playback--we've been able to go about a day and a half before needing to recharge. According to FCC radiation tests, the N8 has a digital SAR rating of 1.12 watts per kilogram.