The bigger they come, the harder they fall. Indeed, it's hard not to hear the sound of phone giant Nokia's face slapping on the pavement when you play with the N8, despite its sleek aluminium case, insane plethora of features, and 12-megapixel camera.
It's available SIM-free for around £430. You can also get it for free on a £25-a-month, 24-month contract.
Symbian monkey business
We don't like to point fingers, but we blame Symbian for the N8's problems. This is the first phone with the latest version of the operating system, Symbian 3, and, although there are improvements, it's just not good enough.
If you've ever used a Nokia before -- and who hasn't? -- the N8 will feel very familiar. On the plus side, there's now multi-touch zoom support in the browser, email and photo gallery. And you no longer have to double tap options to open them, a welcome change that makes moving around the phone feel faster. Also, the 3.5-inch capacitive touchscreen on the N8 is miles better than the resistive screen on earlier phones like the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic -- it's pleasingly responsive.
On the down side, you'll still have to wade through heaps of screens and pop-up notifications to do anything. These have been reduced, but we still had to log into our Ovi account twice to add our Facebook and Twitter accounts to the N8. After being prompted to load the Ovi Store -- it really should be ready to go, right out of the box -- we then had to approve a secure connection, approve the download, and approve the installation.
Also, when setting up email for the first time, a message popped up saying that we couldn't use email on the phone unless we were registered for Ovi Mail, although that actually turned out not to be the case. And why the unnecessary prompt telling us to 'contact our operator'? We hope that people who buy this phone on a contract won't be troubled with this nonsensical warning.
It's not uncommon for mobile phones to sport a few grammatical mistakes here and there, but, since Symbian is a more established OS, we expect better than to be asked if we want to 'log in automatic'.
The on-screen keyboard on the N8 also feels like an afterthought. In portrait mode, it's the 12-key alphanumeric kind, which takes ages to use and is an unwelcome blast from the past. We've seen usable Qwerty keyboards on touchscreens that are narrower than the N8's, and we wish Nokia had given this kind of keyboard a try.
We also hate the fact that, when typing, the screen is totally covered by the editing area and keyboard -- there's no sign of the original screen that contained the typing field. This means that, if you forget which field you're typing in, you'll have to approve what you've typed -- since there's no cancel or back button -- to go back and refresh your memory.
Both the iPhone and Android phones have long, scrollable menus of icons that let you access your phone's features and apps. Nokia prefers a single non-scrolling page of icons for its main menu, with plenty of sub-menus and nested options. That means options can be harder to find on the N8 than on its competitors.
We spent ages searching for the option to turn off the haptic feedback, but it wasn't under 'touch input' under 'settings' in the 'phone' menu -- instead, you have to change this option individually several times in each of the phone's profiles. You may love haptic feedback -- we think it feels like there's a small cockroach living in your phone -- but, whatever you're looking for, the N8 makes things too hard to find.
We also missed having a back button, since the on-screen navigation system isn't always crystal-clear. We were often faced with a pop-up box that had two buttons -- one labelled 'cancel' and one that was blank. You'll see this unhelpful box when, for example, you click an album to play a song in the music player. The solution is to click the song name that appears in the box, rather than either of the buttons, but that's not obvious, and it's not good design policy to have a blank button anywhere in a user interface.
This isn't anything new for Symbian phones, so, if you love your Nokia handset now, you won't find anything to complain about with the N8. But, as Nokia's new flagship phone, we're comparing the N8 to its competitors, such as the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy S and the HTC Desire. Although Symbian 3 offers some improvements, the operating system isn't getting better quickly enough to keep up with Android, which is getting slicker and more fun to use with each new release.
Twelve angry pixels
The N8's software may have a whiff of a retirement home about it, but the hardware is cutting-edge. The aluminium body is sleek and modern, and we love its metallic good looks. Nevertheless, its appearance did divide opinion in the office, mainly due to the raised camera on the back.
But what a camera it is -- the N8 packs 12 megapixels of goodness. There's a reason for that raised area too -- it gives the sensor more space to focus. There's also room for a xenon flash, which we found very bright and fast to respond.
But pictures speak louder than words, so we took the N8 on a fruit-shooting odyssey around Crave towers. We pitted it against a decent compact camera -- the Fujifilm FinePix J150w -- and an iPhone 4.
First, here's a picture of nature's bounty in a well-lit, controlled environment, against a plain white table. In this environment, the N8 did a great job of capturing the correct colours and exposures. We would have a hard time telling the N8's picture from that of a compact camera. (Click the image to see an enlarged version, or you can see the full-res compact-camera shot here, the N8 shot here, and the iPhone 4 shot here).
But how does the N8 perform in mixed lighting? It didn't capture colours quite as accurately as the compact camera, but it did a good job of figuring out the extreme depth of field. (Click the image to see an enlarged version, or you can see the full-res compact-camera shot here, the N8 shot here, and the iPhone 4 shot here).
But you're not likely to be exclusively taking photos of fruit, unless you're involved in some very odd websites. In this photo of a gurning TV reviewer, the N8 can't match the compact camera for skin tones, and the background is noisier. It does better than the saturation-obsessed iPhone 4, though. (Click the image to see an enlarged version, or you can see the full-res compact-camera shot here, the N8 shot here, and the iPhone 4 shot here).
We were also happy to see that the N8's xenon flash came on automatically when we were shooting against a backlight, filling in our photos well. But it's worth noting that we sometimes had trouble capturing shots in focus when we used the dedicated physical camera button, rather than the on-screen one. It required a good hard press to take a shot, which meant that it was difficult to keep the phone perfectly still. The on-screen button isn't as convenient to reach, but it led to sharper photos in our tests.
The N8's 720p video-recording capability is also decent. We especially liked how the phone's second microphone, which is normally used for noise cancellation when you're making a call, records stereo sound when you're making a video. But the 25-frames-per-second recording rate means videos that include plenty of movement look jerky and nauseating. Try to stay put while you're filming.
All the shots were taken using automatic settings, at the N8's full 12-megapixel resolution. The phone has a whopping 16GB of storage built-in -- we didn't even have to take advantage of the hot-swappable microSD card slot, which supports up to 32GB of extra space.
Ain't no party like an HDMI party
Once you've packed the phone's memory to bursting point with photos, videos and music, it's time to find a way to share them. We were disappointed to see that, even with Facebook and YouTube apps built in, there are no shortcuts to upload photos and videos, only ones to share them over email or MMS.
But, if you interact with your friends in person, rather than exclusively over the Internet like us, there's another option. The N8 includes a mini-HDMI port, and an adaptor, so you can plug it into a TV with HDMI connectivity. We tested it in our television lair, and the connection worked instantly. You don't just get access to your media either -- the TV mirrors everything that you see on the phone, so you can fire up a photo slideshow, show an email attachment, or just let your friends share in the wonder of your Snake prowess.
The experience of viewing videos and photos on the television isn't perfect -- even the 720p videos that Nokia includes with the N8 show plenty of artefacts when played on a big screen. But, if you tend to keep your photos on your phone, and you'd like to see more of them, this HDMI port could be a handy feature.
The phone offers a built-in app to bring together your Facebook and Twitter updates in one place. It even includes a widget that you can pop onto one of the three home screens, so you can catch up with your updates without opening the app. But, like so many similar attempts on other phones, the widget is a disaster.
For example, the tiny widget lets you scroll through a summary of your Facebook stuff, a place to update your status, and the first few characters of every single update, one at a time, from all your friends. Once you've scrolled through each of them, you have to scroll all the way back up again to update your status -- it's utterly mad. We can only assume that whoever designed this widget has no Facebook friends.
Thankfully, there are apps and attendant widgets that can replace it on Nokia's Ovi Store, if you can find them. There aren't as many ways to find the best, most popular apps as there are in competitors' stores, but it's easy to search for what you want if you have something particular in mind.
The Ovi Store has struggled to catch up to Apple's App Store, and, more recently, the ever-growing Android Market. There aren't as many apps, and a few big-brand names, like eBay, are still missing. But Nokia has made apps easier to install than on previous phones, and simpler to find once you have them. We're sure that the store will continue to improve.
The N8 is the slimmest, best-looking and most usable Nokia touchscreen phone yet. But, sadly, it's still not that great. Despite being an improvement on previous versions of Symbian, the N8's software feels confusing and frustrating compared to that offered by the iPhone and Android rivals. The N8's camera is a rare treat, and the hardware never lets you down, with great connectivity and an HDMI port. But, unless you're a die-hard Nokia fan and you don't feel like changing, we can't recommend the N8.
Edited by Charles Kloet