What's hot: Exceptional camera, responsive and vibrant touch screen, good battery life.
What's not: The OS is a solid rebirth of Symbian that's made for touch, but there's nothing that pushes it ahead of iOS and Android.
Reviewed October 4, 2010 by Lisa Gade, Editor
The phone-loving world has its eyes turned toward Nokia for the launch of the N8 smartphone, the manufacturer's first Symbian ^3 OS phone. Unlike Symbian 9.x with S60 5th Edition, Symbian ^3 is made from the ground up for touch rather than glomming touch elements onto a definitely non-touch OS. While the Nokia N97 running S60 5th Edition had annoying UI elements like tiny scroll bars and inconsistent tap or is it double-tap interactions, the Nokia N8 running the new OS is anything but annoying. The user interface is consistent and intuitive and the capacitive multi-touch AMOLED display is not only vibrant but responsive. Gone is the stylus (a traditional stylus won't work with a capacitive display) and any vestiges of old technology. The N8 reminds us of the Nokia N900 running Maemo a bit, and if you imagine a merging of the old Nokia Symbian look with a pinch of Maemo, you've got Symbian ^3 on the N8. This is certainly the best mainstream touch phone that Nokia has produced.
Nokia smartphone veterans, and there are millions of you across the world since Nokia is still the highest volume handset maker on the planet, will find the learning curve is quite small. If you've used an S60 5th Edition phone, you'll be familiar with the widgets, shortcut bar at the bottom of the home screen and top area where you can manage wireless connections. Nokia owners who haven't used a touch screen Nokia will still feel at home with familiar icons, the usual deep profile functionality and a shared logic with S60 overall. N900 users will recognize the multi-page home screen, each with its own wallpaper, and the simplified menu structures. While S60 was mired in menus that were byzantine and unintuitive until you became an old hand at things (even then, it could be hard to remember where a particular setting was buried), menus on the N8 are simple and things are where you'd expect them to be. Like BlackBerry OS 6, the menu functionality is deeper than on the iPhone, so it's a bit less simple in that respect, but it's nonetheless easy to operate and powerful.
The N8 is a phone with excellent specs, and the most impressive are the 12 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss lens and pentaband 3G HSDPA. That means this unlocked Nokia with work on both AT&T and T-Mobile's 3G networks here in the US and it will work abroad. That's what we call a flexible unlocked phone, and that's important since you can use the N8 with any GSM carrier's SIM card. The N8 has a 3.5", 360 x 640 display with an accelerometer and ambient light sensor, a 680MHz CPU, 16 gigs of storage, a microSD card slot, WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, HDMI out, a front-facing video conferencing camera and a GPS that works with the free Ovi Maps and navigation.
The N8's casing is made of aluminum and it feels solid and sturdy. The end cap areas are hearty plastic, likely a good idea since the phone's various antennas live under these areas. Nokia offers the phone in a selection of bright colors, though at launch we only get black (more like dark gray) in the US.
The HDMI port lives under this door.
As a camera phone, the Nokia N8 is simply the best on the market. Nokia has been a leader in high end phone photography, starting with the iconic Nokia N95 and its then ground-breaking 5 megapixel autofocus camera. The N8's 12 megapixel sensor is tops by phone standards and it easily competes with my not too shabby 12 megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-FS15 point and shoot camera. I doubt the N8's sensor is as large as the Lumix, and it's only a fraction of the size of a dSLR's, but it takes natural yet sharp shots that are nearly as good as the Lumix. The lens is made by Carl Zeiss, as we've come to expect from high end Nokia camera phones, and it has a wide angle 28mm view and a fast f2.8 max aperture. We're thrilled that Nokia went with a Xenon flash, and a large one at that. Though the flash is long and narrow which should help light spread, it illuminates the center of the frame rather than filling the shot with light.
Outdoor photos are crisp but not oversharpened, have very good color balance and saturation and relatively little noise. These are good enough to print up to 5 x 7 or perhaps 8 x10. Whiteout is well controlled for a camera in the point and shoot class (see the sample photo of the gnome and the sunny ground patch behind the Celosia flower). When shooting video outdoors in bright light, the camera takes between 2 and 5 seconds to adjust to high contrast lighting, and it does admirably once adjusted. The camera shoots video in 720p (1280 x 720) at 25fps (more like 24.6) in MPEG4 format. Video quality is again tops and to our eye looks better than the very good iPhone 4. The camera has stabilization for video and a wealth of settings, though the camera interface isn't a paragon of simplicity. But you'll figure things out quickly enough, and it's worth the effort given the quality photos and video this camera phone produces. Shot times are quick by camera phone standards when saving to internal storage (with 16 gigs, you can snap hundreds of shots and a good bit of video footage).
There's a front-facing VGA camera for video conferencing, and you can download apps like Fring to do VoIP and video calls.
Sample image gallery
Here's our 16 minute video review of the Nokia N8. We cover the PIM applications, home screens, hardware design, Symbian ^3 look and feel and lots more.
Phone and Data
We've come to expect excellent voice quality and reception from Nokia and the N8 delivers superb voice quality on both incoming and outgoing ends. 3G reception is just average rather than stellar, but we'll cut Nokia some slack since they managed to get 5 bands of 3G, a very rare feat, in the N8. We tested the phone with both an AT&T and T-Mobile US SIM card and got 3.5G connections and speeds up to 2100kbps down on those carriers' HSDPA networks. The phone supports HSDPA up to 10.2Mbps and of course it can do UMTS and EDGE.
The Nokia has an excellent speaker for both multimedia and voice calls. The microphone's range isn't that large and we found we had to stay within a foot or two of the phone when making calls. The N8 worked well with a variety of Bluetooth headsets, Bluetooth stereo headphones and the car kit we tested. For you retro wired types, there's a stereo earbud headset in the box.
While data speeds, as measured using DSL Reports' mobile speed tests, were quite good, the browser was the surprising weak link in all things online. Nokia once had one of the best browsers in the business, but we found the N8's full HTML browser with Flash support to be a bit sluggish and balky on full HTML desktop sites. Pages rendered perfectly but the browser often paused a few times during page download and rendering, even pages without Flash. Scrolling is smooth and multi-touch was a big laggy at times compared to the iPhone and recent Android phones. We were able to play Flash videos embedded in web pages (watch our video review to see Flash in action), but it sometimes took quite a long time for these pages to load and even more time to get the player going. At other times, Flash pages downloaded fairly quickly and the video started in under 5 seconds. We suspect that future firmware updates will improve the browser and Flash performance. The browser's user interface is similar to the Nokia N97 and N97 mini: once the page renders an arrow on the bottom right corner brings up a palette of controls and you can quickly bookmark sites. You can set your preferred search engine (Google or Bing), and when you tap the enter URL function, a second box appears for searches.
The phone comes with very basic Twitter and Facebook apps/widgets, no IM clients and an email client that works with POP3/IMAP and MS Exchange email. The email client isn't sexy but it worked reliably with our IMAP and Gmail accounts and had solid Exchange support. The phone can sync to Ovi for contacts as well as MS Exchange but there's no built-in Google sync. The contacts and calendar applications on the phone are a distinct improvement over older S60 versions with a more modern UI (again, check out our video review).
the N8 runs on a single core ARM11 CPU clocked at 680MHz. That's a bit slower in terms of clock speed than the top Android phones, but Nokia's OS and software tend to be very lightweight. The phone has 256 megs of RAM (again, that's at the low end of the smartphone scale) and 16 gigs of flash storage. There's a microSD card slot on the phone's side next to the SIM card slot where you can expand storage.
Overall, the N8's speed was acceptable and sometimes fast. But the phone lagged here and there for a second, making us think again of future firmware updates that might improve performance. This is not a slow phone, but it's not lightning-fast like the new T-Mobile G2 Android OS 2.2 smartphone. Even with 5-7 heavy programs running in the background, the phone kept up nicely and we didn't get any out of memory error messages. You can press and hold the application key below the display to bring up a list of running programs.
The photo viewer is attractive and fast. It starts with a screen full of thumbnails and you can tap on any photo or video to view it. The app responds quickly to the accelerometer and resizing images is quick. The video player handles MPEG4, Flash, WMV9 and RealVideo formats. The player performed solidly with our test MPEG4 H.264 videos encoded at VGA resolution up to 2mbps bitrates. The widescreen display is particularly well-suited to movie playback and viewing angles and brightness are excellent. Since this is an AMOLED display, colors are very saturated, making photos and video look even better.
The music player has a pleasant interface and it supports a variety of popular formats including AAC and MP3. Nokia has their own Ovi Music Store with many millions of tracks, and you can load your own music using drag and drop via Mass Storage mode, or via desktop sync on Mac and Windows. Sound quality is quite good via a good set of headphones and the speaker is notably better than average. You can stream tunes to your car radio using the phone's FM transmitter, and there's an FM radio as well with RDS and station detection.
GPS and Ovi Maps
The Nokia has a built-in GPS and it comes with Ovi Maps, a free mapping and navigation service that downloads map data, POIs and directions over the data connection. Ovi Maps' interface has improved, and it's somewhat less arcane to use, and US directions are less bizarre but still not quite all there yet. Example: I had the phone map a simple 1 mile trip home in a town that's laid on a logical grid with 2-way streets, and it told me to go 1.2 miles out of my way, crossing over a highway and taking a street that was a half mile east of my starting point and destination. Trust me, this was neither the shortest nor quickest route in my straight line due north trip. The GPS is not locked to Ovi Maps, so you can try out other solutions when they're available via the Ovi Store or direct retail.
The Nokia N8 is the only Nokia I can recall that doesn't have a user replaceable battery. Nokia states that it can easily be replaced at a service center, and I suspect one must remove two tiny Allen head screws to open up the battery compartment. The phone has exceptional battery life by high end smartphone standards, and with 3G active, 2 social networking widgets updating throughout the day, email running and WiFi left on, the phone lasted through 2 days of fairly heavy use. We're impressed that Nokia managed such impressive battery life with a 1200 mAh Lithium Ion battery. The N8 can charge over USB or you can use the included charger with the newer Nokia tiny barrel style connector to charge the phone. When the phone is idle, it displays a large analog clock with the date by default. As with most Nokia phones, it can flash its LED to notify you of missed calls etc., and it has that spooky-sounding breathing option where it lets you know it's alive.
The Nokia N8 vs. the Competition, Conclusion
Thanks to the iPhone raising the bar for touch screen smartphones several years ago, the Nokia N8 faces some stiff competition. If you're currently a Nokia person, you'll likely enjoy the N8. It's a solid high-end Nokia with great voice, a fantastic camera and a vivid AMOLED capacitive display. And the new Symbian ^3 OS will seem like a godsend too. But if you're not a Nokia person (this includes most Americans), Symbian ^3 won't offer anything that might tear you away from iOS or Android. It's less evolved and less sophisticated in terms of UI, and it lacks the fun-factor that makes you want to keep playing with the phone. It's competent and quite usable, but it's not alluring. That said, if you're a shutterbug and are looking for the best camera you can find in a phone, you might decide you'll adapt to Symbian. Likewise, if you need a flexible unlocked GSM phone, it doesn't get better than the pentaband N8.
The Ovi Store has a large selection of applications, but nothing that can compare to iTunes or even Android just yet for Symbian ^3-optimized selection. However, with a few million downloads per day and a huge Nokia worldwide community, we're sure to see a lot more Symbian ^3 apps in the Ovi Store. There are several good IM clients, popular games (Angry Birds, anyone?) and plenty of news and weather apps.
The Nokia N8 and Symbian ^3 are a good start for Nokia as it seeks to compete with iOS, Android and even BlackBerry OS6. While the software isn't ground-breaking, it's well optimized for touch and familiar to the large installed base of Nokia users. The hardware is top notch, and the phone has excellent build quality and all the specs you'd expect from a flagship smartphone.
Pro: Superb camera, vibrant multi-touch display, modern OS, great battery life, excellent call quality, has 3G for all GSM networks, lots of internal storage plus a microSD card slot, can play Flash video.
Con: OS is modern but not captivating, phone sometimes lags, browser is sometimes sluggish, battery isn't user replaceable, Ovi Maps navigation is weird in the US.
Display:3.5" multi-touch capacitive AMOLED display. Screen size diagonally: 3.5". Resolution:
360 x 640, supports both portrait and landscape modes via accelerometer. Has proximity and ambient light sensors.
Ion rechargeable. Battery is not user replaceable.
x 2.78 x 0.53 inches. Weight: 4.67 ounces.
Phone:Quad band unlocked GSM world phone with GSM/GPRS/EDGE on the 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands. WCDMA/HSDPA/HSUPA on the 850/900/1700/1900/2100MHz bands (works with AT&T, T-Mobile and overseas carriers). HSDPA Cat9 10.2Mbps.
Camera:Main (rear) camera: 12 MP with Carl Zeiss autofocus lens and Xenon flash. Focal length: 28mm, f2.8. Max photo resolution 4000 x3000 pixels, JPEG format with Exif data and optional location data. Video resolution is 720p (1280 x 720) at 25fps in MPEG4 H.264 format. Has 3x digital zoom for video and 2x digital zoom for photos. Secondary (front) camera: VGA 640 x 480 resolution).
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Has micro HDMI port (cable included). FM radio and FM transmitter are on board. Has music, sound recorded and video players. Supported video playback formats: Flash, RealVideo 10, Sorenson Spark, WMV9, 3GPP, MPEG4 H.263 and H.264. Music formats: MP3, AAC, AC-3, eAAC, AAC+, eAAC+, EFR and WMA.
WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 3.0 supporting the following profiles: A2DP, AVRCP, BIP, DUN, FTP, GAP, GAVDP, GOEP, HFP, HSP, OPP, PBAP, SAP, SPP.
Software:Symbian OS ^3. Full HTML 4.1 web browser with support for WAP, Flash Lite 4.0, Flash video and XHTML. Email client (POP3/IMAP/MS Exchange, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, file manager, dictionary, Zip utility, Adobe PDF viewer, voice recorder, Message Reader, QuickOffice viewer (compatible with MS Office 2007 and earlier), Ovi Maps, Ovi Store, music player, video player, photo viewer, Ovi Music, Settings and setup wizards, software update utility, FM transmitter, FM Radio, Ovi Sync, clock, camera, YouTube player, social networking (Facebook and Twitter) and on-phone user guide.
SDHC microSD card slot. Supports USB OTG, mass storage mode and MTP for card and internal memory. No card included.