Hardware, Reviews

Nokia N8 Review: A Tale of Two Phones


Nokia has been going through quite a bit of change over the past year, and we’ve been following the company through their ups and downs. Nokia has been known as the world dominating leader of cell phones ever since GSM standard started. Period. The problem is that now Nokia has a lot of challengers in the Smartphone arena and they really have up until recently failed to deliver a solid Smartphone.

We were originally slated to review the Nokia N8 many months ago, but the truth is the phone besides the camera was a heaping pile of junk. I spent an entire month trying to get the phone to work right. There were a whole host of issues, some of which I even tried to reach out to customer service about but it was clear that they were all software issues. I decided to put the phone down for a month and pick it back up again and install some updates, notably Symbian Anna (the much needed update to Symbian^3).

The original review was going to write along the lines of… the Nokia N8 is a great camera, but really fails as a Smartphone or even just a phone. The main problems that we encountered in our testing were that the overall UI was sluggish and unresponsive, simple slide gestures simply didn’t register or if they did with considerable lag. This was further amplified when trying to make or receive calls where the device would not pick up phone calls even after multiple presses. It also didn’t like to register key presses until they had almost all been pressed and they would flood in all at once. Yet another issue was that the device could not update the Ovi Store which is Nokia’s app marketplace which meant that we couldn’t get the latest and greatest apps. After multiple hard resets and troubleshooting nothing seemed to help.

That was all before the Symbian Anna update.

Now, the Nokia N8 is a fully functional phone that also has a great repository of apps and is extremely responsive. Its really amazing to see how it feels like an entirely different phone after simply applying an update. This update also enabled us to update the Ovi Store which gave us access to the plethora of Nokia apps available to Symbian^3 users. The truth is that the Nokia N8 was a very buggy phone, but now, even with what is considered to be an archaic OS it is a very fun phone to use.

The Symbian Anna update to Symbian^3 is really a combination of Symbian^3 and the remnants of what is known as Meego. If you look at the Nokia N8, you’ll see a lot of pointers to Meego and the OS really feels like a different phone. This also enables you to use Swype for Symbian on the phone and makes texting and writing emails a breeze.
N8 Camera

The whole point, though, of the Nokia N8 is really to take pictures because it features a 12MP, 4000×3000 pixel sensor which is arguably one of the best cameras in a Smartphone today. Furthermore, the options that the camera gives you really makes you feel like you’ve got a point and shoot camera in your hands. Nokia’s hardware development and quality are second to none and as you can imagine, Nokia has included a hardware camera button on the N8 as well.

We actually took the Nokia N8 with us one day while we were on a harbor cruise around San Diego Bay and decided to use it instead of our DSLR and we really weren’t disappointed at all. Frankly, the Nokia N8 functions so well as a camera with its Xenon flash that many people who will end up buying the Nokia N8 will probably never use their point and shoot cameras ever again. The Nokia N8 is so thin and sleek that it is actually thinner and lighter than most point and shoot cameras, not forgetting that it is also still a cell phone.

We also took some pictures with the front facing camera. They were admittedly, not very good.

We also took a sample video including the Zooming of the camera in real time. Note that it has autofocus and that the zoom is actually an optical zoom rather than a digital one. Nokia could have easily opted for a digital zoom by blowing up the pixels, but they opted for an actual lens with physical zoom.

Note that none of our sample photos have be altered in any way shape or form other than being resized for publication and watermarked.
Hardware and Design

The Nokia N8 is really a culmination of Nokia’s innovation in hardware and design, the phone itself is extremely comfortable and made from an aluminum unibody. The sleek silver case is complimented by a series of extremely thought out inputs and outputs. The N8 features a 3.5mm headphone jack, a mini-HDMI port, a micro-USB port, a charging port, a memory card slot, and a SIM card slot.

The best thing about this design is that there are still some hidden features inside of the phone that most people aren’t aware of but once they are, they ask themselves why every phone doesn’t have them. A perfect example of that is Nokia’s wireless transmitter function which they also had in the N900 we reviewed. A simple little feature, but it enables you to wirelessly connect your Smartphone with your car radio for free.

Furthermore, the Nokia N8 comes with 16GB of eMMC or solid state memory already built into the device. This means that the phone can store up to 48GB of music or videos depending on the size of the memory card you decide to use in it. In all honesty, the 16GB alone is already enough for most people unless they want to have their entire music collection on their phone as well as hundreds of pictures and videos.

Needless to say, this phone has plenty of storage and expandability and we’re unfortunately witnessing a slow devolution into built-in memory and the death of microSD card slots like in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Motorola Droid Razr.

The phone also has the ability to directly connect to your HDTV via HDMI and allow you to share your videos and pictures on the TV screen. More so, the phone also allows you to use the touch screen of the phone as if it were the screen of the TV and manipulate what is on the TV be it a photo, video, or a webpage. This is yet another illustration of thinking outside of the box by Nokia’s design teams, it’s just a shame that their marketing and OS development have been so weak. As if these features weren’t enough, you also can use the Nokia N8 as a USB host and connect regular USB drives to it so that you can save files to your phone or read files from your phone.

All of these features were natively supported by the Nokia N8 from launch and the phone even includes the necessary cables to make both of these features possible. The real problem for this phone, though, was that these triumphant features were overshadowed by a very weak OS and a complete lack of marketing (at least in the US market).
Call Quality and Battery Life

The call quality of the Nokia N8 is really no better or worse than the next competitor. The phone makes and receives calls without any issues and has pretty good reception. On top of that, the phone supports HSPA+/3.7G which means that it can download data much quicker than many of its predecessors and even current competitors. This, though, does drain battery but not to a degree that we would consider alarming. 

In our use of the N8 we were able to get a full day’s use out of the phone without having to recharge it. This included copious amounts of phone calls, texting, mobile web, and photos. The data signal was also pretty good as the N8 appears to have a pretty decent antenna, but in the past the phone did drop calls before the Symbian Anna update. We believe that those dropped calls were actually a result of the OS/radio rather than an actual hardware fault.
From our point of view, the Nokia N8 is still a great phone to buy. It may not be running Android, Blackberry OS, iOS, or even Windows Phone (yet). But, the truth is that it is now a very solid phone and if you’re looking to buy a phone that really takes amazing pictures but still is extremely functional in many ways, this is a great deal. You can grab one for about $300 online without any contract and if you’re in the market for a phone that takes great photos, it’s actually a pretty good value considering that you don’t have to sign a contract.

From our point of view, the Nokia N8 was a failure up until the day that Symbian Anna came out. The OS was buggy, unresponsive, and felt archaic. The phone was characterized by many people that played with it as something that belonged in the late 90’s and not today. After Symbian Anna, the Nokia N8 overcame its biggest hurdle and became an extremely functional camera phone that also did many other things extremely well.

If Nokia had released the N8 in its current state at launch, we would probably have been ranting and raving about the phone, but the fact of the matter is that it took way too long for Symbian Anna to come out and Nokia had already lost a lot of customers to Apple, Samsung, HTC and Motorola. Perhaps, now with a better OS, in Windows Phone, Nokia’s Lumia series of Smartphones has a chance, but we’re really hoping that Nokia makes another N8-like phone. We’re not sure if we agree with Nokia’s decision to ditch Meego, but we do believe that having their own OS enabled them to innovate with hardware in ways that we’re scared might not happen for quite some time.

Also, as a funny side note, there is an actual App in the Nokia App store created by Microsoft to let you experience Windows Phone on Symbian (like the N8). A similar web app is available on most mobile devices, but we thought it was interesting that they would try to market to Nokia customers in such a way.