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First impressions: Nokia N8

(Update 04092010) Alright let’s get straight to the point, we screwed up on the MicroUSB port bit in this review. After much rummaging through the interweb , the Nokia N8 does use MicroUSB for its data connectivity. Perhaps during our rush to get as much material as we can from the short time we had with the N8, we got the ports all mixed up. We’re sorry about this and thanks everyone for correcting the error.

Nokia Malaysia was kind enough to invite us to play around with what they are claiming as their most innovative smartphone ever. Yes, ladies and gents we got some quality hands-on time with the Nokia N8 and here’s our first impression of the device.

Overall design, feel and built-quality

We really like the look of the Nokia N8. The design is fresh and unique that it stands out from the myriad of touchscreen smartphones that now tend to look too much like each other. We like that the design on the N8 is sleek and edgy at the same time. Its exposed screws, offset menu button and square lines setting the tone of a high-end, performance oriented device. When you’re totting around the N8 you can be rest assured that people won’t be mistaking it for another device.

The N8 has curves at all the right places and the anodised aluminium feels good in your hand. We like that its weighted nicely too making it feel solid and nicely built. It’s a real quality phone this, but at almost 13mm thick, we don’t recommend you brag that the N8 is the thinnest smartphone out there. In this respect it is a tad pudgy considering that the iPhone 4, the Samsung Galaxy S and the HTC Desire are 9.3mm, 9.6mm and 11.9mm thick respectively.

The N8 has good built-quality but we not sure it the aluminium body is as scratch resistant as plastic. In our experience, metal is more easier to scratch compared to plastic. We know that this may sound weird to some but it has something to do with the fact that metal — especially rigid aluminium — is less pliable than plastic. It is less forgiving, less absorbing on the molecular level thus making it much easier to scratch. What’s more is that metal phones show dings and knocks more prominently. If you drop the N8 and it gets dinged, that ding will be more obvious than if it was on an plastic smartphone like the iPhone 3GS or Samsung Galaxy S.

You will also note that the battery on the N8 is technically not user replaceable. Yes, there are exposed screws that you can undo to access the battery but you’ll need a special screwdriver as the heads of these screws are proprietary. If you happen to have a screwdriver that can undo these unique Nokia screws then, you maybe can replace the battery yourself but that would probably void your warranty. Nokia recommend you bring it to a Nokia tech centre if you need to get the battery replaced.

The design of the N8 is not without its flaws. The MicroSD and SIM card slots for example. Because you can’t open the back panel, these slots are located externally and although it is good to have a hot-swappable memory expansion slot, we don’t like that both of these slots are very difficult to pry open. The SIM card slot is especially difficult and you’ll need a good set of nails if you’re the kind of user that swaps SIMs and memory cards often.

Also, we don’t like that Nokia decided to opt for a non-standard data connector port on the N8. At first glance it looks like a MicroUSB port but in actual fact it is not. That’s a bummer considering that MicroUSB is now the default data connection option for most smartphones. The Nokia N8 is however USB-chargable. The Nokia N8 uses industry standard MicroUSB for data and its USB-chargable.

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At launch there will be three colours for you to choose from, a plain looking silver, a funky looking electric green and a real classy looking dark grey. We like the dark grey alot and if it was us getting the N8, that would be the colour we’d pick. Nokia will add two more colours into the lineup, anodised blue and orange a little later after launch.

Internals and user interface

We’re very happy that Nokia has finally opted for a capacitive touchscreen rather than their normal resistive tendencies. This means it’s now so much more easier to tap inputs onto the 3.5in 640x480 360 pixel active-matrix OLED screen. The screen looks good producing sharp pictures and videos. Text are very legible and reading lengthy articles or web pages on the N8 is easy on the eyes.

We’re not sure if it is the brightest screen out there though. Our brief playtime with the N8 left us feeling like the screen is not as bright as we would like it to be. Perhaps a little adjustment in the settings might fix this but we’ll reserve our final judgment on this when we get a review unit to play with for longer.

We we’re informed that the touchscreen on the N8 is protected by GorillaGlass but from the product briefing, we got the impression that the screen is not at tough as the ones on the Dell Streak or Samsung Galaxy S. Wonder is Nokia will let us test this to find out once and for all.

In terms of performance, the Nokia N8 is powered by an ARM11 680MHz processor with 256MB RAM. Now that might sound piddly compared to the 1GHz processors powering the current crop of high-end smartphones in the market but Nokia assures us that the new Symbian S^3 OS is not as resource intensive as competing OS. To also take some some load of the processor, there’s a separate 3D graphics processor on the N8. So you can expect a very responsive and smooth UI. We can vouch for this during our short test but the N8 does show some tendency to slow down slightly when you have multiple apps and processes running in the background.

There’s 16GB of on board storage space with a hot-swapable MicroSD slot capable of taking 32GB cards. This gives you a storage potential of up to 48GB, which is nice. The N8 comes with a feature called “thumbdrive on the” go where you can use a special cable adapter (supplied) to plug in a thumbdrive to the N8 for additional storage space. This can be useful for some users.

Overall, the S^3 OS and the ARM11 processor did their job quite well on the N8. It is by far the most responsive Symbian we’ve ever used. Couple this with the capacitive touchscreen and you have a very smooth user experience on the N8 so long as you’re not opening too many apps at the same time.

We like that the new Symbian S^3 is very easy to use compared to all of the other older S60 iterations. It looks good and is pretty fast too, the file management and folder structure are now more streamlined and it’s nice to be able to execute most actions with just one tap.

The improved WebKit browser has pinch to zoom and is smooth. Tough, we can’t vouch if loading times are fast as the mobile network where the N8 preview was held was choppy to say the least. We’ll save our full judgment the S^3 web browser for when we get a review unit. You’ll be happy to note that the N8 browser supports Flash Lite 4.0.

The Ovi Store interface on the Symbian S^3 is much improved as well. Locating apps is now easier and faster and the general layout is much cleaner, we feel like the Ovi Store layout on the N8 is much more user friendly. We have to say, we like the improvements on the Ovi Store very much.

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Unlike the homescreens on Android and iPhone, you can orientate the S^3 homescreen to landscape mode, this is nice but we’re not sure why Nokia has limited the number of homecreens that you can have on the main screen to only three.

Something we’d like to point out is that Nokia has done an awesome job working with local content providers to make local content more integrated and readily accessible on its devices. During the N8 preview, we were showed dedicated apps from TV3 and 8TV to allow N8 users to watch catchup episodes of lcoal shows on their devices. On top of that you can also watch catchup episodes on CNN, E! Entertainment, Paramount pictures and National Geographic.

Although we didn’t get to test this feature in full, on account of the patchy mobile network at the venue, we think having the dedicated app is a move in the right direction. If the execution is as good as the idea, then we might have a killer application in our hands. Again, we’ll have to wait for a review unit to test this out thoroughly.

Navigation with Ovi Maps is as good as any Nokia but it’s faster on the N8. The thing we don’t understand is why Nokia dissabled the pinch-to-zoom when navigation is running. It’s very odd given the fact that pinch-to-zoom is supported in the browser and photoviewer. We’d prefer pinch-to-zoom, or double tap to zoom at least, in the navigation app rather than having to tap away at the plus and minus buttons to zoom in and out of the map.

As a media phone, the N8 is top notch with HDMI output and Dolby 5.1 support. We were blown away at the sneak preview when Nokia demo’ed the home media output capabilities of the N8. It is a very capable media player, churning out HD content and really solid Dolby 5.1 surround sound. We can see ourselves loading the N8 up with HD movies and then hooking it up to a flat screen TV and a home theater system, it can hold its own as a dedicated media player but we’d like to see more format supported by the native media player. Currently the N8 can play H.264/3, MPEG-4, VC-1, Real Video and AVI formats. We would like Divx and Xvid codecs thrown in as well but alas, these formats are not supported.

All in all, the S^3 OS is a huge leap forward for Nokia. Nokia fans will come in droves to get the N8, but we can’t help but feel that there’s something missing. Although the N8 and S^3 does provide a polished user experienced, we feel that iOS is more integrated and easy to use and Android being more flexible as mobile operating system.

Don’t get us wrong, the S^3 is good but you feel kind of boxed in. Yes, there’s a lot that the OS can do, but first time users don’t get that impression. And that is probably a good thing as it makes using the N8 and S^3 easy and straightforward but it left us wanting more.

The camera

The Nokia N8 comes with one 12MP main camera and a VGA forward facing camera for video calls. You can take pictures with the VGA camera but we’ll focus more on the 12MP main camera in this post. Nokia says the 12MP camera is so good that it can rival dedicated point and shoot cameras in the market today, and from what we gathered from the sneak preview, there is some substance in this claim somewhat.

Test shot taken from Nokia N8.

Test shot taken from Nokia N8.

Test shot taken from Nokia N8.

The 12MP camera with an optimised imaged sensor to capture more details than comparable cameras with same megapixel count has Carl Zeiss optics and a xenon flash. As you can see in the test shots, even in less than ideal lighting conditions, the level of detail captured by the N8 camera is rather good. We can’t say the same about the colour reproduction though. Although the details are good, the colour reproduction is rather faded and dull in our test shots. Once again, we can’t draw a conclusion on the N8 camera from this short sneak preview but first impressions of the image capturing capabilities on the N8 left us curious about what the camera can do.

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As you might expect the main camera can also take 720p video recording at 25fps and playback at 30fps. We’ve uploaded a short test clip but we feel like more testing is required to find out how well the video output of the N8 is. From the test clip, we’re seeing the same faded colours as the test photos and the details captured is not what we were expecting from the N8. We’re putting this on hold until we can do a full review as well.

Budding film makers will be happy to know that the N8 comes with a built-in video editing app which is quite easy to use. You can add pictures, sounds, graphic elements and transitions to make a basic montage. We played around with it for a few minutes and feel that it adequate for its purpose.

One thing that’s bugging us with the camera is that it’s laggy. Too laggy in fact. We found that camera start time is very slow for a high-end device like the N8 and shutter response is not as fast we would like. Comparing the N8 with the Wave (one of the best camera’s on a mobile phone we’ve ever tested), we feel that the start and response time on the N8 is cumbersome.

Nokia tells us that the unit presented during the sneak preview were prototypes and that most of the bugs or niggles seen in these units would have already been fixed come launch day. We hope, the camera performance improves considerably as well.

At the end of the day

What can we say about the N8? Well, given the fact that we have only a couple of hours to really scrutinise the device, we’re more curious than content. Having said that, the N8 did leave a good first impression on us. The design is good, built-quality is right up there with the best of them and the S^3 is a marked improvement over its predecessors. What we have with the Nokia N8 is a device that’s finally able to keep up with the greatest and latest offerings from Android and iPhone.

Nokia fans will look forward to this device. It is a solid upgrade over whatever that they are using now. And with an estimated price of around RM1,900 to RM1,700 outright, the N8 is solid value for money. The question is, will it have enough going for it to sway buyers who are considering Android and iPhone?

Right now it’s hard to say. We’ll need more time with the N8 to really give an opinion of how good it is and where it stands in the smartphone arena. What we can tell you however is that Nokia has put a great effort in the N8 and it is something to definitely look forward to.

The N8 is slated for an early October Malaysian launch, just in time to duke it out with the iPhone 4, which we suspect will be coming mid to late Sept, if not the same time.

Stay tune for the latest N8 updates, here at www.SoyaCincau.com.

Do check out our videos on the Nokia N8:
Nokia N8 Hands-On Preview
Nokia N8 walkthrough: Symbian S^3 Intro and Music Player
Nokia N8 walkthrough: Dolby Digital 5.1 and HDMI output
Nokia N8 walkthrough: Video and Photo Editing