Review: Nokia N8 Is Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Nokia’s first true response to the smartphone market share loss handed to it by Apple (s aapl), Google (s goog) and Research In Motion (s rimm) comes in the form of the Nokia N8 (s nok), a GSM touchscreen device with the brand new Symbian^3 operating system. I’ve previously said that Nokia is a great hardware company that wants to be good at software and services too, and the N8 is a perfect illustration of that desire.

Like so many prior Nokia handsets, the N8 is a thing of beauty in terms of design and hardware features, but still falls short by comparison in the software department. Unfortunately for Nokia, software drives the user experience, which can make or break a device. The N8 is, however, the best Nokia device I’ve used yet, and comes closer to offering what the current crop of smartphones bring to consumers. However, the unsubsidized $549 price tag makes this a tough sell in the U.S.

It’s possible that the N8 or a similar Symbian^3 device could wash up on U.S. shores with a carrier subsidy, bringing the price to $199 or less. Such a price point is in line with high-end handsets like Apple’s (s aapl) iPhone 4 or any one of the many Google Android (s goog) offerings. The N8 is meant to compete with these devices, but even with an improved operating system and app store, U.S. consumers won’t abandon the iPhone or an Android device in droves for the N8. Here’s a rundown of likes, dislikes and other observations from using the device over the past two weeks.

What’s great about the Nokia N8?

  • Build quality is superb. The anodized aluminum case keeps the N8 light, but sturdy, and gives the device a premium feel.
  • There are ports that aren’t readily available on competing devices. An HDMI-out jack at the top allows you pipe media to an HDTV, which is offered on some other new devices. The USB On The Go function is unique, however. Using the microUSB port and a connector allows the phone to interface directly with USB drives.
  • The N8 arguably offers the best smartphone camera solution on the market today, thanks to the 12 megapixel sensor paired with Carl Zeiss optics. The Xenon flash is far better than any LED flash that’s typical fare on other smartphones; it’s akin to the integrated flash of a mid-range digital SLR camera. The phone also has a dedicated picture-snapping button. The 720p video capture is nearly on par with that of Apple’s iPhone 4. While a full 30 frames per second would be ideal, high-definition video from the N8 is quite good.
  • Signal strength and call quality are top-notch. I used the N8 with my T-Mobile SIM, and the voice experience was at least as good, if not better, than on my Google Nexus One.
  • The AMOLED display is vibrant, actually usable in the sun, and uses the same capacitive touch used in the iPhone and other modern handsets.
  • The integrated 1200 mAh battery lasts at least a full day, even with moderate-to-heavy use. Kudos to Nokia for designing a device and operating system that can run a smartphone on one charge a day.
  • The software keyboard in landscape mode works really well in my hands and the auto-correct feature is excellent.
  • Multitasking is intuitive to use: Hold the only hardware button on the front of the N8 to see, close or switch running apps.
  • Nokia wisely incorporated radios that work for data and voice on nearly any GSM network in the world.

What’s improved but still falls a little short?

  • Symbian^3 is much better than S60, but isn’t completely baked yet, nor refreshingly new. To be fair, Nokia is caught in the same trap that Research In Motion is: Much like the new BlackBerry 6 OS, Nokia can’t run the risk of alienating its vast S60 user base with a radically new interface. That’s a sound strategy, but one that will mainly appease the existing Symbian users, not attract many new ones.
  • Home screens are very customizable with widgets, backgrounds and themes, which is welcome. Alas, there are only three home screens and no way to add more. While the widgets are very handy, and one of the aspects I like about Android, they’re a fixed size, which limits the amount of useful information shown.
  • Even without a current-generation CPU, the N8 is a reasonably peppy performer. I witnessed a little more lag with the N8 as compared to 1 GHz handsets I use, but not much, which is a testament to how Nokia has optimized the operating system. Much like the “version 1.0” feel of Symbian^3, however, the processor could use a boost. Nokia appears to have made a tradeoff between performance and power use here, and the GPU certainly helps as video playback is buttery smooth.
  • Nokia’s updated Ovi Store provides a better experience in finding software, although users have to install the Ovi Store on the device, which makes absolutely no sense.
  • The N8 works quite well with Google’s Gmail, which I use exclusively. Using the Mail app, I easily set up both my work and personal accounts, complete with calendars and contacts. A unified inbox would be nice, however, and I still don’t see the point of how Nokia treats message composition. Instead of typing directly in the message, you still type in a text box, which feels very 2002-ish.

What needs work?

  • For all its improvement, the main Symbian^3 interface still needs help. There are fewer system nags than S60 provides, but they still pop up every now and again. By default, the phone prompts you when hitting a secure site, for example, and will still ask if it’s okay to connect to the cellular data network. I can understand that in some regions of the globe, this is a desired feature, but maybe the default should be set by region.
  • Related to the interface: The apps are still hidden in an Applications folder. It’s a hardware button press and a screen tap just to see what apps are on the N8: a level of inefficiency echoed in various places within Symbian^3.
  • In portrait mode, the software keyboard is a T9 style, requiring multiple taps for every letter. Some would argue this offers a better one-hand experience, and I agree. However, it’s as if the low screen resolution of 320 pixels wide in portrait mode doesn’t allow for a full keyboard. Again, it feels like another compromise, or Nokia simply didn’t get around to creating a good portrait keyboard yet.
  • Social integration for media sharing either isn’t there, or I can’t find it. Perhaps it’s a user error on my part, but as a long-time smartphone user, if I can’t easily find a function, it’s not intuitive. That’s a shame because this type of integration is becoming common on smartphones and is available in prior Symbian devices from Nokia.
  • The typing in a text box issue mentioned earlier permeates the system. Typing a password on the web, for example, takes you to the textbox, where you must press a button to return where you started: then you have to hit a login button. It’s a disjointed, inelegant experience.
  • Speaking of the web, the browser is WebKit-based, but not nearly as enjoyable to use as that of an iOS or Android device. Text is pixelated and there’s no text reflow when zooming in on a page, causing far too much scrolling. The browser looks nearly identical to that of older S60 devices, and after a few years of revamping the platform, this is a missed opportunity: people are using smartphones primarily for the web and apps, so dropping the ball here is disappointing.

[inline-pro-content align=”left”]All in all, Nokia’s N8 and Symbian^3 operating system show signs of catching up to the competition in this market. Unfortunately, in many instances, it only catches Nokia up to where its competitors were two years ago. Is it a device that will make some people happy? Yes. If you’re a current S60 device owner that wants a more modern touchscreen smartphone, then the N8 is well worth the look. Will Nokia gain N8 converts from the iPhone and Android handset rank-and-file? Not in any meaningful quantities. For that, we may need to see Symbian^4 or MeeGo devices from Nokia.

Nokia has said it expects to sell 50 million Symbian^3 devices, and I think it will do that. It won’t be because these devices bested the competition, however. Instead, it will be due to Nokia’s global reach and branding in 190 countries in combination with an updated operating system that will keep Nokia’s current customers happy.

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