Hands on with Nokia's N8: what you need to know

Nokia N8

Today I spent some time with the folks from Nokia South Africa and got to play with the N8. This is the second time I’ve checked out the device, but I’m not allowed to talk about the first.

The N8 is a make-or-break play for Nokia. The Finnish cellphone manufacturer is the dominant mobile device vendor in the world but has been lagging behind in the smartphone market where it has had its ass handed to it by the likes of Apple and BlackBerry. The Nokia N97 was a bit a of a fail, but Nokia has astutely focused on services such as Ovi Maps and its Music Store – and services are key to winning in the smartphone space. That doesn’t mean you can get away with having crappy hardware, however.

The N8 is Nokia’s answer to the iPhone and the plethora of Android devices that are flooding the market. After playing with this device and seeing it in action these are the most important things I think you need to know:

  • It’s cheap. And I mean that in a good way. The N8 will go to market in South Africa with a retail price of R5500. That’s almost half what you’ll pay for an iPhone. I can’t actually believe a phone this awesome will be so cheap. Win.
  • It’s a little underpowered. The N8 runs a 680MHz ARM processor which is a little slow compared to the 1GHz Qualcomm and Apple A4 processors  in use by its competitors. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it provides better battery life, for example. That said, the phone is a little sluggish when using multitouch and doing other more demanding tasks and I think the processor is to blame.
  • The battery life rocks (apparently). Real life users of the device claim they can easily get two days of battery life out of the N8. I obviously couldn’t test this in the short time I had with the phone but I have good reason to believe them. Hey, they smiled while they were talking. And the hardware setup of the N8 definitely lends itself to improved battery life.
  • It’s open. The best thing about the N8 is how it doesn’t hold back on features. It comes with an adapter that gives it a standard USB port and you can attach cameras and external drives to the N8. Rocking. Another adapter enables it for full HDMI output which will take video and sound from the N8 to a television monitor or projector. I watched a 720p video being played from the N8 on a 42″ LCD monitor and it looked amazing. Imagine using this in a hotel room…
  • The camera pwns. The N8 has a 12 megapixel camera that will knock your balls flat (if you have a pair). The only downside is that the camera lens protrudes from the casing a bit. But the xenon flash and radical results are worth it. It also shoots video in 720p. More win.
  • Built like a brick shithouse. The scratch-resistent, carved aluminium casing of the N8 is awesome. I like the way it feels and can be used as a weapon. Pity about the camera protrusion.
  • It’s a media monster. With support for just about every video and audio codec that matter, the N8 is a media powerhouse. Plus you can plug in an external hard drive and access media from that. Win, win, win.
  • Symbian^3 is not fail. Besides for the user interface that could use more intuitiveness, the Symbian^3 operating system is surprisingly good. I’d need longer with the device to fully rate it, but there are vast improvements in responsiveness over S60 and there are less annoying prompts.
  • You can touch it.T he screen on the N8 finally brings Nokia on par with Apple and Samsung in the touchscreen space. Resolution isn’t quite as good as the iPhone 4 and touch isn’t quite as slick as Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays, but the N8’s screen is good enough. The only feature that doesn’t keep up with the competition is multi-touch. It just isn’t as responsive when pinching in on photos.
  • Browser needs work. The N8 has a new browser complete with Flash support. It does a great job with rendering web pages closely to how they would look on a desktop or laptop monitor, but it was pretty slow and chunky at scrolling around this website. What I did like was having full support for Flash containers and players, allowing for web media access on par with full-blown browsers. But performance comes first and I hope Nokia sorts out the sluggishness of the browser before launching the device.
  • You can use your old charger(s). The N8 has support for the new standard micro-USB chargers in use by the entire industry apart from Apple, but also has a port for the older Nokia chargers. It’s worth mentioning, I guess.
  • And, most importantly: It should be available in SA by end October.

Those are the key takeaways I have after my session with the N8. It’s good to finally see Nokia getting with the programme and the company has a services stack that rocks. I’ll need more time with the N8 to draw conclusions as to how it stacks up against the competition but first impressions are good. I’ll be at Nokia World in London next month and look forward to spending more time around this sexy newcomer.

Check out the official promo video:

I'm a writer and broadcaster who also designs apps and strategies for disruptive startups in the financial world. Find out more on my about page.