Nokia's N8 Hands On: The Game of Catch-Up Continues

By  |  Monday, June 14, 2010 at 5:09 pm

If you compiled a list of the biggest big-bang moments in tech history, Apple’s January, 2007 introduction of the first iPhone would rank mighty high. Three and a half years later, the companies that dominated smartphones back then are still scrambling to compete with Apple’s phone. Especially from a software standpoint, and none more so than Nokia, the Finnish giant who has struggled to build even vaguely plausible iPhone competitors on its long-in-the-tooth Symbian OS.

Nokia’s newest flagship smartphone, the N8, won’t arrive until sometime in the next quarter, and when it does it may have a low profile in the U.S.: There’s no reason to think that AT&T or T-Mobile will pick it up and sell it at a subsidized price. Unsubsidized, Nokia is saying it’s a 370-Euro phone, which works out to about $450–aggressive given its pretty meaty features, but not a price most Americans will pay.

I got a demo of a beta version of the N8 today, and while it’s the clearest sign to date that Nokia is moving in the right direction, it’s also obvious that modernizing Symbian is a years-long project that’s still in progress.

Like many Nokia handsets, the N8 is impressive in multiple ways from a hardware standpoint. The 3.5″ screen’s resolution of 640 by 380 is only midrange by 210 standards, and the ARM processor and Broadcom graphics appeared to be less than blazing–for instance, photos took a moment to snap into full-resolution view. But just about everything else about the phone’s specs is a plus. It supports WCDMA 850/900/1700/1900/2100 and GSM Edge 850/900/1800/1900, allowing for 3G compatibility on AT&T, T-Mobile, and carriers around the world.

The main camera is a 12-megapixel model with Carl Zeiss optics, face detection, a powerful xenon flash, and what Nokia says may be the largest sensor on any cameraphone. Sample images were outstanding for phone photos, even when displayed on a giant HDTV. There’s also a front-facing camera, and while Nokia doesn’t seem to be working on its own FaceTime killer, it did tell me that video calls would be supported via Qik and Fring.

Did I just mention HDTV? The N8 can output 720p video with Dolby Surround Sound via HDMI (the necessary dongle is included). Nokia demoed the N8 to me in a home theater at Dolby headquarters in San Francisco, using a TRON trailer that looked and sounded impressive on Dolby’s fancy home theater setup. The phone can also hold up to 48GB of storage (16GB of fixed memory and a 32GB MicroSD card), enough for hours of movies. But Nokia’s Ovi Store doesn’t have anything to match the movie downloads available from Apple’s iTunes. (The N8 is, however, compatible with Amazon’s Video on Demand–although the process of getting movies onto the phone sounds a tad complicated.)

One other potentially nifty hardware feature: The N8’s USB port lets you hook up external storage devices such as thumb drives using an included cable, letting you move files back and forth without using a PC as a middleman.

Oh, and the phone looks good, with an aluminum case (the one I saw was green) and what seemed to be solid build quality. It’s got a lump on its back, but that’s a pro not a con, since it accommodates the unusually serious camera.

How about some photos? Here’s the front:

And the back:

And the HDMI port on the bottom:

And the USB connector on the side:

Hardware hasn’t been the factor that’s held back the N8’s predecessors–it’s been the aging Symbian operating system, a once-impressive, hopelessly archaic piece of software. This is the first phone with a new version of the OS called Symbian^3, and a Nokia rep took pains to keep my expectations under wraps–she said it was an evolution, not a revolution. (Nokia is simultaneously talking up Symbian^4, another upgrade that’s further off.)

I didn’t use the N8 enough to come to a definitive conclusion about Symbian^3, other than that it’s a marked improvement on previous versions but still feels like an old OS with some much-needed tweaks–not a sleek, modern competitor to iOS, Android, and Palm’s WebOS.

This is is the first Nokia device I’ve tried with smooth, well-done scrolling and pinch-to-zoom, and common tasks require fewer screen taps than before. The phone’s multitasking interface lets you zip between apps via thumbnail images that remind me of WebOS’s Card interface. The home screens are highly customizable; there’s also a pretty bountiful collection of bundled software, including photo and video editing apps, a slick Maps program with free turn-by-turn navigation, a browser that renders full-blown Web sites well, and the Quickoffice suite. (I didn’t check out Nokia’s Ovi Store, but the company is apparently refusing to say how many third-party apps it contains, which isn’t a good sign.)

Still, Symbian^3 has a look that feels like its roots date to the 1990s–which they do–with a boxy feel and crude typography. Even though the N8 packs more pixels than the iPhone 3Gs, its interface feels more cramped and convoluted. I think it’s more evidence that it’s way harder to bring a venerable operating system up to modern standards than it is to start fresh, as Google and Palm did with their OSes.

I want Nokia to build thoroughly contemporary smartphones–the more choices we have, the better–but it’s still not obvious that those phones will run any flavor of Symbian. (The company might be okay even if Symbian isn’t–it’s also betting on MeeGo, a Linux-based OS developed in partnership with Intel.) At worst, the N8 merits more exploration and consideration; I hope to do a real review once it’s closer to its on-sale date.


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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Vulpine Says:

    Why does the OS look like a GPS operating system? Ah well. Welcome back to 1990 and Windows 3.0.

  2. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    Steve Jobs must laugh his ass off at Nokia’s products. It’s almost 10 years since the iPod came out and then conquered the music player market with a combination of software and simplicity. Nokia took absolutely no lessons from that. Now, iPhone is conquering the smartphone market with a combination of software and simplicity. Nokia is still pushing lots of diverse and complicated hardware with almost no software and no simplicity. People keep forgetting how much software there is in an iPhone. The bottom 3/4 of iOS and the bottom 3/4 of Mac OS are the same OS X software. The reason Apple could go to a 300 dpi print-quality screen in iPhone 4 is that OS X has been able to do print-quality graphics and typography for many years now.

    So Nokia needs to become a software company if they want to make smartphones. Apple is competing based on software. It’s not like the PC industry where there was basically a non-compete on software between all but one of the PC makers.

    > I think it’s more evidence that it’s way harder to
    > bring a venerable operating system up to modern
    > standards than it is to start fresh, as Google
    > and Palm did with their OSes.

    Google did not start fresh after iPhone, though, they just hadn’t shipped yet. Android has been under development since before 2005 when Google bought them, and is very much a pre-iPhone phone operating system: the carriers do the software integration and updates, the native C API is closed to 3rd parties, who are limited to Java apps that have very limited functionality. iOS and WebOS phones have integrated 1st party software and updates, 3rd party native C API’s (although Palm’s was just barely getting off the ground when they folded), and no Java. Google is having similar problems to Nokia, just not as extreme because Google is stuck in 2005, not 1995 like Nokia. A lot of excuses are made for Android, but the excuses aren’t going to make 3D games magically appear, or fix the problem where a steady 75% of the platform are running v1.6 and will never get v2.

  3. Tom Ross Says:

    Nokia’s price quotes are always fishy, but then again they have a tradition of continually lowering prices, unlike Apple. This thing will be way more than 370 € (once it finally arrives 3+ months from now), probably around 500 €. But you’ll be able to pick it up for less than 350 € after Christmas.

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