Nokia's dominance in the mobile world has really taken a knock over the last few years, and the N8 is the company's attempt at reasserting itself as one of the big players, among the likes of Apple, HTC and Samsung. The first of Nokia's handsets to feature its revamped Symbian^3 OS, the N8 smartphone sports a 3.5-inch capacitive touchscreen along with a 12-megapixel camera and 720p HD video capture. There's a 680MHz cellular processor for all of your regular smartphone features and also a separate chip on board for graphics rendering as well as 3D acceleration.
Weighing in at a perfectly reasonable 135g, the N8 is pretty pocket-friendly and with dimensions of 113.5 x 59 x 12.9mm, it's pretty compact, although not quite as skinny as Samsung's Galaxy S. The N8's svelte profile is further diminished thanks to the camera lens and flash which are mounted on a slight protrusion on the back panel. This also makes the phone's weighting feel slightly uneven as the top end of the handset is heavier than the bottom. This caused us to drop our review unit only seconds after getting it out of the box (don't worry Nokia, it had a soft landing).
The phone comes in a choice of five colours - silver white, dark grey, orange, blue and green - and the the handsets are anodised rather than painted in order to avoid scratch marks. While the anodised section of the handset does manage to stay free of scratches and grime, the screen was covered in smudgy fingerprints within minutes of its emergence from the box - and they don't seem to come off without a fight. We would advise keeping a mobile screen cleaner handy.
Apart from the screen, the front of the handset is also home to a single button in the bottom left-hand corner that is used to switch between the home screen and the menu screen, and features an elegant, lit-up white border. You'll find well-placed volume up and down buttons on the top of the right-hand edge of the handset, along with a dedicated camera button at the bottom and a spring-back switch in between that locks and unlocks the screen. You can also do this by pressing the home screen button and selecting the Unlock icon on the touchscreen. We found that providing two ways to do the same thing is just confusing, as it takes longer than it should to get used to which button is primarily used for which function.
On the left-hand side of the phone you'll find a Micro-USB port and two slots with tiny hinged covers for housing your SIM and the optional microSD card. The instructions jauntily suggest that you "put your fingernail in the gap between the covers". Easier said than done if you have short nails, and you might also struggle to get the cards located into their ports if your dexterity is a little lacking. There's also a covered mini HDMI connection on the top of the handset that's equally as fiddly to access, along with the power switch and a headphone socket.
Overall, the handset certainly has the feel of a premium smartphone, although we wouldn't exactly describe the aesthetics as breath-taking. The handset simply doesn't look or feel as streamlined as its contemporaries, although this inevitably comes down to personal taste, and if you like your phone to look like a 67 Camaro SS.
Like the Samsung Galaxy S, the N8 sports an AMOLED screen, although with a lower resolution of 640 x 360 pixels. It's clear that although the screen is quoted as measuring 3.5 inches - the same as the iPhone 4 - it's actually not as wide, although it does measure up in terms of height. As you'd expect from a smartphone, the touchscreen here is of the capacitive kind rather than a pesky resistive display. The screen is just as zippy and responsive in general use as those of its competitors and it also supports multi-touch operation, although there does seem to be a tiny delay when swiping between the three home screens. Strangely, the touch response on the menu screen and in all other areas of the UI seems to be instant. The screen's colours are bright and full of vibrancy although the low screen resolution is only too obvious when it comes to dark images, where a fair bit of clarity is lost.
The N8 enables you to have up to three customisable home screens, where you can tweak widgets, themes and shortcuts. The two extended home screens are accessed by swiping the main screen to the left or right (the main home screen is located on the far left, rather than in the middle). These are web-connected so you can include shortcuts to social networking services, along with RSS feeds and these will update automatically. The screen automatically switches between portrait and landscape even when on the home screen, unlike the iPhone.
Having a home screen, a menu screen and an app screen seems like overkill in the age of slick user interfaces. Although the idea is obviously to tweak the home screens to include all your most frequently used features, this won't appeal to people who would rather that the phone manufacturers do the hard work for them, and make their handsets simple to use as soon as they're out of the box.
Another feature of the new OS is the multitasking panel that pops up when you hold down the home screen button. This provides you with an icon for each app that you've got running on your phone. You can only have around five or six applications open at any one time before the phone tells you that it's all getting a bit much for it, and you'll have to close one down if you want to open another.
The N8 allows full web browsing and blows a metaphorical raspberry at Apple with the inclusion of Flash Lite 4, which supports the majority of Flash Player 10.1 content. However, the browsing experience is slightly irksome and not as smooth as that found on the iPhone or top-of-the-range Android handsets. A lot of tasks seem to take a long time compared to other smartphones, requiring you to battle through a series of menu screens before getting the job done, rather than using a one-touch approach.
As part of the revamped OS, the N8 displays text messages as conversations in the form of speech bubbles although you can switch back to the old-fashioned inbox style if you prefer. As with many phones, the alphanumeric keypad swiftly changes to a QWERTY arrangement when the the phone is held on its side. Although this is a useful feature that makes for easier typing, the three main lines of letter keys are laid out squarely, rather than the slightly offest pattern used on most computer keyboards (similar to the Running Bond brick laying pattern, for those that know their DIY). This small but significant detail means that fast and accurate typing is not as easy as it is on the N8's main rivals.
But, what else does the new Symbian^3 OS bring with it? Well, the email function has improved - you can now switch between multiple accounts and it only takes seconds to set each one up. You also get the option to apply filters such as dates and attachments, making searching and organising a lot simpler than on previous handsets. The N8 also includes a social networking app that features the big two - Facebook and Twitter, with the latter being the most usable. Unfortunately, the Facebook client is rather clumsy and not nearly as good as the versions on other smartphones, although you can create a shortcut on the home screen, which updates in real time.
We found the Ovi store to be fairly clunky - it didn't recognise our password one minute and then signed us in with no problems the next. We also found the selection of apps to be relatively poor, especially for those that are used to the superior Android Market or Apple App Store. You'll also be either pleased or irritated to hear that the phone comes pre-loaded with a shortcut to the official X Factor app on Nokia's Ovi app store, depending on your opinions of the programme itself.
There are lots of small niggles that we would have expected to see ironed out by now, especially on a handset claiming smartphone status. For example, if you're on a screen where you're being asked for your email address for the Ovi Store, then you expect the @ key to be readily available - you don't want to have to tap through to another screen to get it. Another example is painfully apparent while using the camera mode. Instead of having all the tweakable setting in place, there are various touch-buttons including text-based menus and icon-based options, making the whole experience rather long-winded.
The Here and Now app is designed to offer location-based information on various things including the weather and cinema listings. However, when we opened it up, the first thing that came up on the screen was a nearby restaurant that closed well over a year ago. Obviously this is down to the information provider, rather than Nokia, but it wasn't a great first impression.
When it comes to the on-board camera, the N8 boasts an impressive 12-megapixel snapper with Carl Zeiss optics and a Xenon flash. Along with face recognition software and autofocus the camera also includes a 2x digital zoom for stills and a 3x zoom for video. There's a red-eye flash mode and self timer and you can tweak the contrast and sharpness settings and also add a grid to help you to compose your photos properly. Images are automatically geotagged and can then be viewed by tag cloud, month or album, or run as a slide show.
You can upload your pictures directly to Facebook and Twitter and you can also tweak them with the comprehensive photo editor which enables you to rotate, resize or crop your images. There's plenty of room for fun as you can add a series of garish frames as well as speech bubbles. You can distort pictures of people, House of Mirrors-style, with rather sinister results. A wide range of picture effects, with all the usual suspects such as monochrome, sepia, negative, and a series of coloured tints, including a retro-styled Lomo effect are offered. A secondary camera with a 640 x 480-pixel resolution sits on the front for "self-shot" video calls.
The N8 is equipped with 16GB internal memory which is an impressive find, even for a smartphone. As such, it should be able to cope with all your photo and multimedia file storage needs. It can also be upgraded to 32GB using the microSD card slot.
The N8 is also capable of capturing HD video at a resolution of 720p and offers support for Dolby Digital Plus surround sound when footage is played through the HDMI port with a compatible home theatre system. When capturing video, you can choose from a variety of different scene modes comprising automatic, low light and night, although we couldn't see a great deal of difference when shooting using the different settings. You can also adjust the white balance and choose between four colour modes - normal, monochrome, sepia and vivid.
We found the video quality of the footage that we captured to be really good with sharp edges and clear, punchy colours. The footage even stood up to the real test of being played back on a high-def screen. However, the only drawback to the video capture function is that the microphone isn't brilliant, although as this isn't the phone's primary function, we can't mark it down too much for that.
The N8 does come up with a few nice surprises such as the extremely compact power adaptor, with a slide out central pin. It might not sound like much, but when you're packing your bags for a trip and you have to contend with several adaptors for all of your various gadgets, then anything that can free up some space and baggage weight allowance can only be a good thing. The supplied headphones are also relatively decent and the built-in speaker offers good audio quality, so you'll be able to infuriate people on the bus with no problems whatsoever.
Obviously the price is dependent on the contract and supplier but you should be able to get yourself a monthly contract from £30 a month, while you can get yourself a PAYG handset for £385.95 PAYG on O2 from The Carphone Warehouse. If you're after a SIM free mobile, then the N8 will set you back around £413.
While the N8 does offer some quality features such as its 12-megapixel camera and HD video capture, not to mention its music player and generous built-in memory, it feels slightly clunky when compared with the rest of the top-tier smartphones currently available. While the updated Symbian software certainly offers some significant improvements when compared with previous models, most of the new features that it includes are available on other OSes and have been for some time. This makes it feel as though Nokia is playing catch-up with its rivals, rather than introducing any of its own innovations.
For Nokia fans who have been loyally waiting for their preferred mobile phone brand to come up with the goods, then the N8 certainly offers a huge improvement. However, if you're comparing it to other top-end rivals such as the iPhone, the Galaxy S or the HTC Desire HD then it doesn't quite measure up. It is however, a fair bit cheaper which could give it a much-needed advantage over its competitors.
It doesn't instil a great deal of confidence that this is to be Symbian's high-end swan song, with the OS to be reserved for the brand's budget handsets in future. That, along with its clumsy interface and disappointing OS upgrade makes it hard to fully recommend.