Nokia N8 First Look (Hands On) - With Screenshots!
A Tech Feature

South Africa By: Mandy J Watson on 19 August 2010
Category: Tech > Hardware > Features Comments View Comments

It's felt as though Nokia has been stuck in a rut, while other phone manufacturers have been zipping past with fancy features and smart services. The N8 is the phone that Nokia is hoping will change all of that. I've had a sneak peek at what's coming - and here are my first impressions.

Yesterday I got a first-hand look at the new Nokia N8, which hasn't been released yet (anywhere in the world). Nokia South Africa gave me a 20-minute one-on-one presentation, and then I spent about 20 minutes with the phone trying to assimilate as much as possible as quickly as possible. Therefore this is not a review, as I require weeks (sometimes months) to evaluate any device properly, including (and notably) battery testing. Rather, this is a roundup of my first impressions - but with screenshots!

Nokia N8 in blue

This is not a run down of specs - you can find that information all over the Internet. This is primarily about usability and features. I've been looking forward to this phone for months, though with some trepidation - is it going to put Nokia back on track and help it regain some of the market share that it has been losing to other manufacturers that are perceived as being more cutting edge? Is it going to seem as though Nokia is just "catching up"? Will any of my operating system irritations finally be fixed? Read on to find out my thoughts and discoveries.

Let's kick off with the physical aspects before delving into the software, starting with the size and screen.

Nokia N8 in green

The unit, at 59.12x113.5x12.9mm (WxHxD), is large (though not massive), to accommodate a decent-sized touchscreen that runs at 360x640 pixels (or 640x360 pixels in landscape orientation), but it's not too thick or heavy. It's quite comfortable to hold - the edges are rounded smoothly along the sides and they taper off at the top and bottom in portrait orientation, and in landscape orientation your palms tend to rest comfortably on these tapered bits if you're holding it with two hands, or the device just fits reasonably comfortably in one hand if you're holding it and tap typing or swiping on the screen.

Flipping between landscape and portrait orientations is vastly improved. I experienced no sluggishness or freezing, which happens on occasion on the Nokia N97 mini.

The camera is 12 megapixels, with Carl Zeiss optics, and it captures HD video. There's no slider cover to protect the lens but it is recessed slightly to minimise scratching if you put the phone down. The sensor has been improved, with gains in picture quality, and the lens is a 28mm wide angle.

The Nokia N8 range

Aesthetically your mileage may vary but I really like the design and shape of the unit, as well as the colours. Bar the standard dark grey (almost black) you get a beautiful lime green, a soft orange, silver white, and a light blue, all with metallic undertones. I'm not sure if they had them all on display yesterday (it was a bit of a whirlwind) but I did see the dark-grey one and the green one (and I think I glimpsed the orange one). The colour units, in combination with the metallic finish, just look great and it speaks to a light-hearted merging of style and communication, which is perfect, because this phone's forte is intended to be social media and communication.

Slots And Ports
There's a 3.5mm headphone jack, an HDMI-out port for HD video, a microUSB port for charging and extended multimedia functionality (more on that in a second), a 2.5mm pin port underneath the phone for old-style chargers (I'm not sure why, but possibly so that you can charge the phone while you use the microUSB port for something else), a microSD card slot, and an external SIM-card slot.

Software, Usability, And Interface Tweaks

The home screens in portrait orientation

The Nokia N8 runs a new version of the Symbian operating system/platform called Symbian^3. Under the hood there are vast improvements between the software platform and the phone hardware. On a user-interface level there have been (at first glance) minor improvements to the usability. What was unexpected for me is how similar the interface appears to previous versions of Symbian Series 60 - same icons, same layout, same apps filed in the same places. For someone familiar with previous high-end or mid-range Nokia devices that run either Symbian Series 60 5th Edition or even Symbian Series 60 3rd Edition this means a small learning curve in terms of finding, accessing, and utilising most of the system, app, and multimedia functions.

The home screens in landscape orientation

Obviously Nokia would prefer it that I didn't compare the phone to devices by other manufacturers but there's no better way to describe some of the new interface enhancements that I saw yesterday. There have been tweaks that have stepped up the game in both an Android and iOS direction. In the music player, for example, you have a similar interface for the album covers that can be found on some competitive hardware in which one flips through the covers in a smooth, flowing manner to select the appropriate one. The Ovi Store now looks much more like the Android Market. You can pinch and zoom photos in the photo viewer. The home screen comprises up to three screens that one can flip through (previously only seen, on Nokia devices, on the Nokia N900, which runs Maemo 5, not Symbian), although, in this case, a smart addition is that you can flip in an infinite loop in either direction - you don't hit the left or right "edge" and have to flip back to see "previous" screens.

Home screen options

The home screen is, of course, customisable, so you can insert widgets and shortcuts into the slots to have easy access to your favourite functions or real-time Web updates from news services or social networks.

The task manager and File Manager

The task manager has been improved. Previously if you held down the menu key you'd get a small icon-bar popup at the bottom of your screen that would show you what's open and allow you to switch between the items. Now you get a "scrolling layer" on top of whatever you have open with large thumbnails of the apps. You can select to switch to an app or you can close any of them from within the task manager.

The on-screen keyboard seems a bit small. I only used it very briefly so I can't tell if my problems typing (in landscape mode) were due to 30 seconds of unfamiliar interaction with a new keyboard or if the buttons are just to small. I have quite small fingers and I did wonder as I was typing how someone with large hands would cope. Unfortunately I didn't have time to install Opera Mobile 10 to compare its on-screen keyboard to the Symbian^3 keyboard, so that will have to wait until I obtain a review unit and can spend some time experimenting.

File Manager is still available, so you can access the drives directly and cut, copy, and paste files and folders, among other functions.

In certain places, as before, you have access to the phone equivalent of a right-click menu (generally a tap-and-hold popup), which houses extra features. It's most notable in File Manager. In the web browser, however... nothing. You have to tap the "stretched arrow" icon (I don't know its name) to get the on-screen menu buttons, then hit the menu button (the icon with three horizontal lines), and that gives you a popup of extra functions. However, what if you're on a web page and there's some interesting text you want to copy and paste elsewhere? Um.... You still can't do that (as far as I know -I'm waiting for official confirmation of this, but I certainly couldn't find it anywhere). The default Symbian web browser has been horrible for years as it's remained unimproved and has stagnated while other features have continued to be tweaked, which is why whenever I've received a Nokia phone I've always immediately installed Opera Mini or Opera Mobile - and thankfully, of course, you can still do this on the Nokia N8 - but I was, at the very least, hoping for cut and paste finally to make an appearance in the default browser.

Two views of in the default web browser

There was also the usual "double tap to zoom" functionality and, as before, you navigate a page by flicking the screen around. Finally, web sites do still detect it as a mobile browser, which may or may not be to your liking. As for the browser's other usability issues, I'm not sure as I didn't have enough time to surf the web extensively, so that's another area in which I wish to do much more testing.

And then I'll probably still install Opera Mobile anyway.

The default web browser: zooming, menu options, and image display

Speaking of installing things, the operating system recognises and utilises .jar and .sis files, so you don't have to worry about your old phone-software collection becoming redundant. In fact, these screenshots were taken with one of the tools in my Symbian Series 60 toolbox. For developers, this means that you have three environments in which to work - Symbian C++, Java, and Qt.

Familiar menus in landscape and portrait

The Nokia N8 is geared for social media so there's a lot of integration on the phone itself, notably with Facebook and Twitter. You can view a merged stream of updates from both networks on the phone or link contacts' profiles to their social network profiles and then interact with them within the communications system on the phone (send a direct message via Facebook, for example, without leaving the messaging centre on the phone and logging in via the Web or a separate app). Although social media is a primary aspect of the phone it's the area in which I currently have the least to say. It's one of those things that really requires time to test and experiment. I saw a brief overview of functionality and potential but I can't yet say enough of what is and isn't possible.

Along with the social-media aspects we, of course, have the email integration. You can set up a maximum of 10 accounts, including Ovi Mail, private addresses, or Gmail or similar services, and there's support for Mail For Exchange.

There's also the standard inclusions, such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

Settings menus

Camera And Multimedia
I didn't have a chance to take test photos and videos but I was given a demonstration of media files that the local Nokia staff have captured, which were streamed to a TV, as I mentioned previously. One of the best new features is that the camera zoom actually works better now - I imagine that the optics are controlling more of the zoom (rather than software interpolation alone, which results in fuzzy, blocky images). There is still some degradation - it appeared as though at some point it switches between optics and digital zoom - but it's not nearly as bad as I have seen on previous Nokia phones.

The video samples were streamed via the HDMI interface to a TV and the quality was excellent. Again, the zoom fared well.

A really great new feature is the ability for you to hook up a portable USB flash device to the phone via a female USB to male microUSB adapter that's included in the package. When you plug a USB device into the adapter the phone starts behaving more like a computer - the operating system detects the USB device and you can surf the files and folders and then stream your media files directly. In fact, you can even stream from USB through phone via HDMI cable to TV.

One of my great annoyances with previous versions of this operating system is that the camera flash defaults to "on". It's been irritating me for years from one phone to another. If you switch off the flash it remains off while you're in the camera application but once you quit it resets, so next time you launch it the flash defaults back to "on". I was really, really hoping that this would be fixed in Symbian^3 but, unfortunately, it's still there. Be warned.

In terms of sound there's the 3.5mm headphone jack for your head/earphones, as well as a built-in speaker (or speakers - I'm not sure) at the back of the device behind the camera. The sound quality is good, though obviously a little tinny, but, commonly for the design of Nokia phones, in which careful attention usually seems to be given to the placement of speakers in relation to how one is expected to hold a particular phone, the placement of the speaker(s) in the Nokia N8 is such that if you hold the phone in portrait orientation in one hand the natural curved shape of your palm below the back cover and the speaker(s) helps to amplify the sound and diffuse a small amount of the tinniness.

The music player

To play music there is, of course, the music player, whose "cover movement mechanism" I've already discussed. (I'm still waiting to hear what its official name is but with regard to a different brand of phone people have been heard to utter "Cover Flow(TM)".) The player didn't seem that different from previous versions of Symbian but I didn't have much time to look at it. After I had inserted my microSD card into one of the units, and then launched the player, it - as before - automatically recognised that there was new storage attached that housed media files, and it scanned the microSD card and updated its library file. (In fact, in my screenshots I can see some of my files amongst the files that were already on the device.)

I've already mentioned Ovi Mail and the Ovi Store. Nokia is in the process of merging and reorganising all its services under the Ovi banner - you'll soon be hearing more about that so I won't go into it now. A key point to this is that you'll have access to everything via one account and login, rather than one for the Ovi Store and another for Ovi Music Unlimited (Nokia Comes With Music), for example. A per the announcement earlier this year, you now get Ovi Maps for free on your device. There are some updates in this version I saw on the Nokia N8 - a notable one, called "Map Reporter", being that you can now report a mistake on the maps directly from within Ovi Maps and Nokia will then go and verify this and update its database.

Options and tools in some of the sub menus

We've fallen into iPhone land with this one. You no longer have access to the battery - the phone housing is screwed together and you can't open it (bar with a screwdrier, of course). You now also insert your SIM card via an external slot rather than into a slot under the battery cover. I'm still waiting for confirmation on the battery specs but I've been told that it's around 1800mAh, which is impressive, but it remains to be seen how quickly the hardware may drain it. (The data sheet says 1200mAh - the Nokia BL-4D - so I'll post a comment when I get official word.)

In The Box
I'm not entirely sure of everything that you get but there is an HDMI cable so you can hook up the phone directly to the HDMI port on a TV to display your photos or stream your video directly. There's also the female USB to male microUSB adapter, which I mentioned earlier, that allows you to hook up a USB flash memory device directly to the phone. There's also a car charger, so you can use Ovi Maps while driving, without running out of juice. The spec sheet also says that there will be a stereo headset in the box.

Final Thoughts
I won't know until I've thoroughly tested one but my first impressions of the Nokia N8 are that, rather than being a game changing device that some of us were hoping for, this is just a solid phone that brings the software in line with the hardware and finally places Nokia where it should already be in terms of phone technology. The problem lately has been that the mid-range and high-end devices have been stuck on Nokia's Series 60 platform running on Symbian, and it's an old platform that has held back the hardware, which, for the most part, has been very good. It now feels as though the two aspects - software and hardware - are in tune with each other and therefore the final product feels more "complete" and synchronised.

However, in the larger context it may still feel as if Nokia is playing catch up - we're in alignment now (though we should have been months ago) but what happens in six month's time when other manufacturers have already started bringing out the next phase of what phones are becoming (whatever that may be)? Will Nokia seem as though it's lagging behind again or is the Nokia N8 the first part of a plan that will see the company keeping pace with the rivals?

That sounded negative, and I don't mean it that way - I just want to put my thinking as a reviewer (who also has to look at the larger picture) in perspective. I remain very excited about this phone, though I am disappointed that none of the little irritating things in previous versions of the operating system and interface (and which I've mentioned in various places further up in this article) that I've been complaining about for years seem to have been fixed. On first impressions, however, I still feel very good about this phone. We'll see if that continues once I've had a chance to put it through its paces - battery life being prominently on my mind.

The review units that I saw are still prototypes, so certain functionality and specifications may still change for the retail version of the device, which is expected in about six weeks. Also, due to the very brief nature of this hands-on experience some of my technical assumptions may be incorrect - if you know differently, please post in the comments!

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