Monday, December 27, 2010

Nokia N8

It’s really hard to sit and review a mobile phone, even if you have used it several times, and you know how it works. That’s why it’s taken us this long to post our second mobile phone review. The N8 that we have reviewed was purchased almost immediately after launch, for the full Rs. 24,000/- price at a Nokia Priority dealer. It has been in use for a few months now, and we decided to finally snap a few shots, and post our thoughts. We know that the N8 is one of the top-reviewed mobile phones out there. We also know that Nokia is pushing this phone onto consumers as if it’s the be-all and end-all of every consumer’s need for a smartphone. And of course, India being India, many consumers swayed by Android (or iOS) just write off all this as pure hype. So what’s true, and what’s not? Our full review looks at a few crucial factors that could make or break your decision to buy this for your next smartphone, instead of, say, the Samsung Galaxy S, the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, the HTC Desire, or the Motorola Milestone XT720 (all of which are similarly priced mobile phones running Android) You must also keep in mind that the price of the Nokia N8 is highly competitive; no Nokia flagship phone for the past few years (such as the N97, the N96…) has launched for below Rs. 30,000/- The Nokia N97 which launched last year for around Rs. 36,000/- has been retailing for around Rs. 21,000/- for the past year or so. This is very common for Nokia mobile phones in India (and mobile phones from other manufacturers too!) So the price of the N8 could drop within the next 6 months, making it a worthy purchase. If you like what you read in our review. So, read on.

1. Hardware – Look, feel and design

Nokia N8 - Landscape mode

The phone feels premium. From the minute you pick it up in your hands, there’s a certain combination of the materials used, and the “heft” of the device that makes you feel like you’re holding something costly, and worth the Rs. 23,000/- you’re spending on it. It’s a rare value-for-money feeling that we’ve found in very few high-end devices. The Samsung Galaxy S fails in that department, with its glossy plastic which looks and feels bad, while the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 almost gets it – except for the plastic case. The Nokia N8 is exactly what you would want a high-end phone to look like, especially one that you’re putting so much money into.

Nokia N8 - Bottom close up

The design of the phone looked a little quirky in the pre-release promotional material, but in person, it looks great. The mesh of curves and straight lines exude a design sense that is yet to be seen (or imitated!) in other smartphones. In today’s world, where half the high-end smartphones are trying to look like an iPhone, and the rest are trying to look completely opposite to the iPhone, the Nokia N8 has a very refreshing design. The brushed metal finish of the phone also feels and looks great. Trust us, this is not going to be a phone that you’ll have to sheephishly tell folks – “I spent Rs. 23,000/- on it”. They’ll definitely ask “Only Rs. 23,000 ?”

Nokia N8 - Left side

The left side of the phone (the image above) has two slots near the top for the SIM and the microSD card. Near the bottom is the microUSB port, with a screw prominently placed, flush with the phone. These exposed screws (there are a few) give the phone a very sturdy, heavy-duty feel.

Nokia N8 - Top close up

The top of the phone (the image above) houses (from the left) the Power button, the mini-HDMI port, and the 3.5 mm stereo headphone jack. The headphone jack could be used with Nokia’s headset for use with a mic and headphones, as usual – so Nokia calls it an AV jack.

Nokia N8 and Spice Mi-300 - Comparison

For those of you who wish to see how it stacks up with a Spice Mi-300 (Yeah, we had the audacity to put the two together and snap a few shots!) you can view these photos here. It is definitely thicker that the Spice Mi-300, but only slightly taller and wider. The N8 does feel a lot larger, so we were definitely surprised to see that it’s only slightly bigger than the Mi-300.

Nokia N8 and Spice Mi-300 - Comparison, top

The N8 has a 3.5 inch screen, versus a 3.2 inch screen on the Mi-300, but the 3.5 inch screen is spread over a 360x640 resolution (16:9 aspect ratio) while the 3.2 inch screen of the Spice Mi-300 is spread over a 320x480 resolution (15:10 – 1.5:1 - aspect ratio) This makes the N8’s screen much taller, and ever-so-slightly harder for single-handed use. (When holding the phone with one hand, it takes a little more effort to reach the top parts of the phone with the thumb, or forefinger, of the same hand) This isn’t a big deal, but could be a huge discomfort for some folks.

Nokia N8 and Spice Mi-300 - Comparison, three quarter view

2. Software – Symbian ^3

Nokia N8 and Spice Mi-300 - Comparison, homescreens

The biggest differentiator for the N8, is the fact that it is the first phone from Nokia’s stables which is running the all-new Symbian ^3 Operating System. For those of who are wondering what’s the difference, we thought we’d shed a little bit of light. Nokia’s N-series of smartphones began with the Symbian Operating System long, long ago. This was Series 60, which got several improvements and additions over the years. The last version was the Series 60 3rd Edition; and then Nokia decided to compete in the touchscreen smartphone race, with the 5800 Xpress Music. This ran a touch version of the same Series 60 3rd Edition, and Nokia called it Series 60 5th Edition. (“4th Edition” was skipped since far-east countries consider it very unlucky) This is also the same Operating System that was present on the Sony Ericsson Vivaz and Satio handsets, and the Samsung i8910 Omnia HD phone. The Series 60 3rd Edition Operating System has been renamed now to Symbian ^1. Symbian ^2 was just an interim release, and no phone has been released with it, which brings us to Symbian ^3. Symbian ^3 is the first release of the Symbian Operating System which is fully built for touchscreen phones. Having said that, let’s get into how the software looks, feels and works. The level of polish on Symbian ^3 is good; but if you’ve seen a phone running Symbian ^1, such as the N97, the 5800 Xpress Music, or the 5230/5233/5235 series of phones, then it is not very different. It’s not a completely different look, but more of an evolved look. Very familiar to people who’ve been using Nokia phones. One of the biggest changes that we could find (and what we really liked) is the way that Symbian ^3 handles multi-tasking. There’s a photo or two of that below; Symbian ^3 shows mini windows which can be swiped across to view all open Apps, and any open App could be closed by tapping the ‘x’ at the top-right corner of the thumbnail for that specific App. This is way, way better than how Android handles (or doesn’t handle?) multi-tasking, and visually more appealing than how iOS handles multi-tasking.

The homescreen has three pages, each of which can have it’s own wallpaper. Although this has been criticised when compared to Android’s scrollable wallpapers, we find that this could be useful. If you have a homescreen page with all your personal contacts, Facebook widget and so on, you could set a ‘personal’ wallpaper. An office page, with email and other stuff could have an work-related image for the wallpaper. This feature may or may not work for you.

Overall, the OS is smooth, with decent transitions and effects. Swipes are well recognised, to the point that we were at times surprised that this was a Nokia touchscreen device handling touch input so well. The capacitive touchscreen works wonders to the Symbian touch interface. But it’s not going to make your friends owning an iPhone or a high-end Android phone go green with envy. What will make them jealous, is the gorgeous display. We can’t explain how a screen with such low pixel density (in today’s world, comparitively) can look so good. When we had the phone lying around, trying to take comparative shots with the Android-based Spice Mi-300, a casual passer-by (non-technically inclined person) said simply “The N8 is way brighter and has better clarity” We can’t put it any simpler than that!

Nokia N8 and Spice Mi-300 - Comparison, Google Maps

Some of the Apps that we spent some time with are Google Maps, the Monopoly game (Paid, from the Ovi store) and NFS Shift (free, from the Ovi store). Of these, Google Maps works brilliantly. It loads up almost instantaneously, and is comparable in info provided, with the Android version. This version of Google Maps does not yet use vector graphics so scalability of the maps is not yet as fast as the latest version of Google Maps on Android, but it was a very pleasant experience. Monopoly had a few very short freezes; we don’t know if this is due to the game’s code, the Symbian ^3 OS, or the phone’s 680 Mhz processor. NFS Shift handles really well. Very well, in fact – the turning control using the phone’s built-in accelerometer have good response and a very decent level of accuracy.

Nokia N8 - Multi-tasking in Symbian ^3

3. Media – Camera, Video, Audio

It’s no secret that the biggest draw of the Nokia N8 is the 12 Megapixel camera. Tell us about it – many of us have recent digital cameras bought within the past year or two which are 10 or 12 Megapixel shooters. That’s how far smartphones have come. Now, a common misconception (atleast in India, not sure about the rest of the world) is that more the number of Megapixels in a camera, better the quality of photos that the camera can take. This is NOT true. A 6 Megapixel DSLR camera from a few years ago can whip almost any digital point-and-shoot camera out there today for picture quality.

The N8, though, has a very large camera sensor; and it’s got a Xenon flash to complement that large camera sensor. The two, put together, can just rock any scene, almost anytime. The N8 takes very good pictures. It’s not a “Those are nice pics!” kind of camera, it’s more of a “WOW! Those photos are simply awesome!” kind of camera. Video-taking is very good too, with the 720p video capturing capabilities doing justice to the hype around the N8’s camera. We had a few niggling issues with video capturing at the beginning, since Geotagging (adding your GPS location to images and video captured by the phone) was enabled and the camera was spending time trying to get a GPS fix, when we were trying to capture video. Switching off Geotagging for videos helped.

Viewing videos and photos is a breeze; the N8 handles this with great aplomb. The USB On-The-Go feature comes in handy here; if you’ve got a film (or two) dumped onto a USB flash drive, and you’re itching to watch it, no need to pull out your Notebook PC. Use the provided USB converter and plug your USB flash drive into the phone; directly access the film from the phone and enjoy. A very handy feature here is the HDMI output from the phone. Think about it – you can directly hook up your USB flash drive to your phone, and then hook that upto an HDMI-input based LCD TV. Of course, with many LCD (or LED) TVs coming with built-in USB ports these days, this feature may not be a big draw. But it’s there; and it can be very useful, if required.

Audio is something else that the phone excels in. When our phones ring, we hear a phone ring. When the Nokia N8 rings, it plays music. It has great audio output, both from the built-in speakers and the provided headphones.

4. Other stuff – Battery, Sensors, Touchscreen

The most important thing for a smartphone, apart from all its features, is – battery life. “How many hours can I squeeze out of this one” is the primary question on many of our minds when looking out for a high-end smartphone. The N8 lasts for a little over a day with constant use, Bluetooth headset always connected, and not much carefulness in closing running Apps. Use it minimally, and you should be able to squeeze out a minimum of two days.

The proximity and accelerometer work just fine. In all our time with the phone, we haven’t found any hiccups with using either – not even the odd occasional hiccup that might reside in an Android phone. The homescreen always tilts when rotating the phone, which is sometimes over-sensititive.

The touchscreen is, as we noted earlier, very responsive. We had no issues in using it; it was pleasant and we don’t have anything to complain about. Trust us, we were looking out for glitches so that we could report it in our review and call the device all sorts of names in our review – but we were proven wrong.

The unit also has 16 GB of built-in memory, which is very handy to store your entire (or atleast, a good portion of) music collection. Forget your MP3 player – throw all your music on here, and use the included premium headphones (or your own awesome pair of headphones!) for all the listening pleasure that your time can afford. Don't forget that the N8 has Nokia's Comes With Music subscription for a year - which gives you unlimited downloads from Nokia's legal music collection. Such a service is a rare find in India, so this is a very good addition to the phone.

5. Wrap-up

Nokia N8 - In hand

For those of you who have stuck with us through the entire review, and are reading this now, you all probably know what we are going to say. But if you’re the too-lazy-to-read type, who scrolled down to this portion to find out our final word on the Nokia N8, then you might be interested to know that we think that this phone is worth the money. If you give us about Rs. 25,000/- and ask us to go out and buy ourselves a smartphone, we may try adding in money of our own and picking up either a Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, or the HTC Desire (or the Desire HD maybe). We might be tempted by the awesome camera and the gorgeous construction; it does feel very good in-hand. But overall, the Operating System has a few non-modernities that we can’t yet put up with. But that’s just us.

We’d like to reiterate what we said a while back in our overview of smartphones (Which phone should you buy and why?) and our recommendation for the N8 in the Our Recommends : Smartphones article – if you’re in the market for a Nokia phone, and your budget is Rs. 23,000/- then there’s no better phone that you can buy. If you’re in the market for an awesome camera in a phone, and don’t care too much for the OS, then the N8 is your device of choice. But if you want a few niceties that Android brings to the table, such as easy-access notifications, and excellent backgrounding of services, then we suggest that you look to either HTC, Sony Ericsson or Samsung’s stables. For now.

We thank Samuel Santhoshkumar for his contributions to various portions of this review.

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