I remember one of the first mobile phones I ever used being a Nokia 5110i. It was among Nokia’s earliest of devices that packed an easy to use and straightforward interface in a supremely well-built package. Since we didn’t have as many phone launches each month back then as there are stars in the sky, the 5110i served me very well for more than 3 years without showing any signs of aging. That was in the mid to late 90’s.

Fast forward to the end of this decade and we see Nokia’s current flagship, the N8-00, continuing to hold on to the Nokia tradition of building what are arguably some of the best constructed mobile devices on the market. In fact in many ways, with the Nokia N8-00 (referred to as the N8 from here on) it seems as though Nokia has let its hardware and industrial design teams have a field day; this phone feels almost over engineered when held in your hands. While the current flagship demonstrates Nokia’s engineering prowess quite well, previous models seemed to epitomize what I felt was the company’s philosophy; build the software around the hardware. This worked just perfectly for as long as mobile phones were just that, devices used to make and receive calls and/or texts.

Sometime in the last decade, Apple, Google, Palm and Microsoft redefined mobile experiences, and as a result old flaws have slowly become gaping holes in the Finnish device manufacturer’s proverbial armor. 

The devil is in the details…

The N8’s symmetric design is attractive in a very understated manner. It won’t immediately grab your attention in any way if you look at it. The 3.5” 640 x 360 AMOLED screen commands the majority of the real estate on the front with tapering edges on all 4 corners. The menu/home button at the bottom left corner is the only detail on the face of the phone which narrowly saves the N8 design from being branded bland. 

While the button did seem a bit oddly placed when I first saw it, the overall profile and weight distribution of the phone didn’t lead to any issues in actual use (although left-handed users may disagree). 

Upon closer inspection, you will find the front facing VGA camera, the ambient light sensor and the proximity sensor sitting behind the (Gorilla) glass on the top right corner. The left side houses a well-constructed but tad finicky and plastic “suicide” door of sorts to cover the microSD and SIM card slots. There’s also a multifunction micro-USB port (more on this later) and a charging light indicator. The right side seems a bit busy with the volume controls, a spring loaded screen lock button and a 2-stage camera shutter button. This is the only part of the phone that I have issues with, when it comes to design. The volume controls have a lot of play and don’t give good feedback when pressed. The spring loaded screen lock button, while a good idea in itself, is not well placed. On multiple occasions, I kept hitting the volume button while attempting to lock the phone. 

 
The left and right sides of the Nokia N8. Notice how it cannot lay flat on its back.

The top of the phone plays host to a 3.5mm jack (that can also serve as an AV-output if used with the appropriate connector), and a mini-HDMI port hidden behind a plastic flap and the power/profile selection button. At the bottom you will find a lone connector for your charger, although it could easily pass off as a microphone because of its placement and size, along with a lanyard or strap port. 

 
The top and bottom of the N8

The rear of the phone prominently shows the N-series branding and houses the crowning jewel of the N8; its 12MP Xenon-flash assisted autofocus camera. Because of the complexity of the camera module and the associated optics used in the N8, the camera itself (along with the loudspeaker) is housed in a bulge, and as a result the phone cannot lay flat on any surface. While that in and of itself isn’t an issue, what concerns me is the possibility of excessive visible wear appearing on the lower part of this bulge as it is the only part of the phone that comes in contact with any surface when the phone is made to rest on its back. 

 
The back of the Nokia N8 (left); What makes up the “bulge” (right)

Also, something I did notice was the fact that just within a week of use, dust started accumulating in the crevice between the top of the bulge and the back of the phone.

While the design may get mixed feedback, what will garner unanimous praise is the build quality and overall construction of the device. The unibody N8 is constructed of anodized aluminum and has a smooth, matte-like finish to it. It is available in Orange, Green, Blue, White and Gray – which as you can tell was the color of our review unit. While not as grippy as the soft touch rubber finish that some devices come with, it is light years ahead of the cheap, glossy black plastic that clads a lot of phones these days. Also, by design, the aluminum back of the N8 acts as a heat dissipation surface. So with prolonged use, it does get a bit warm…but nothing toasty. Another reason why the phone feels so well put together is because Nokia has taken a leaf out of Apple’s design book and gone ahead with a non-user replaceable battery, and hence eliminated the need for a battery opening in the N8 chassis. But reports seem to suggest that the battery isn’t all that hard to get to and replace, should the need arise. So those exposed torx screws aren’t just for show…

The N8's Camera - 12 MP of Awesome
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  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    Off the top of my head (and only looking at US releases since I don't follow the international market that closely) the OG Droid went from 2.0->2.1->2.2, Droid Incredible and Droid X both are on 2.2, think the Evo is as well. Seems like for the most part the devices lagging are Sony-Ericsson (which would seem to be due to their skin) and the Galaxy S phones (which other parts of the world have seen updated, so maybe the US ones will be soon). Remember, a major snag in updating Android is the carriers and their need to test and screw with everything. That wouldn't be a problem for Nokia if they are just selling the phones unlocked and you bring whatever SIM you want. Reply
  • 7amood - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    I would like to see similar review of the old Samsung Flagship Galaxy S and the new upcoming flagship (Galaxy S2 A.K.A i9100 or i9200 not sure) that should be announced in MWC2011.

    I used to be a nokia fan but they are so outdated... no more nokia for me...
    maybe I will change my mind when I see MeeGo but until then...
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    They reviewed the Epic and Fascinate (2 of the US versions of the Galaxy S) and most likely will get some form of the S2 whenever available. Reply
  • Samus - Thursday, January 13, 2011 - link

    Nokia is similar to RIM in a lot of ways. They make solid hardware with outdated software. But that isn't a bad thing. Their products are reliable, refined, and built to last. I don't think many people here with HTC and Samsung phones can say the same thing. I simply don't see business users using them. Battery life, reliability, and overall finish keep most people I know who depend on their phones away. Android has great promise, but with the exception of Motorola, who makes good hardware running it? Reply
  • Voldenuit - Thursday, January 13, 2011 - link

    I'd add HTC to the list of good handset makers (regardless of OS), although their track record does vary (as does Motorola's). And their Sense UI is a lot more usable than Moto's (horrid) Blur.

    Samsung puts some cutting edge hardware in its phones but the build quality is often wanting, and the reliability is not good in my experience. My fiancée went through 3 (!) Blackjacks in 2 years, each device would start failing after several months, and she eventually replaced it with a Moto Bravo. She had the option to get a Galaxy S variant (I think it was the Captivate?) but declined due to her negative experience with the brand.

    Definitely agree with you about Nokias being built to last. My N70 lasted nearly 4 years, and that was with some nasty drops and bumps. The N8 had a recent nasty fall the other day, and I was very relieved to find it made off without a single nick or scratch (fell onto some metal railings).
    Reply
  • jonup - Thursday, January 13, 2011 - link

    Most people that look at spec sheets do not get these benefits that Nokia phones have. All these people know is that "My phone has more MHz than yours" and "I want iPhone 4". What is been overlook is that as much as Symbian OS is been bashed it is very efficient OS and does not require as much resources as some other OSes.
    This review also does not give the phone's excellent standby efficiency justice. Since most of the time the phone is in your pocket, the standby efficiency quite make up for the not so good battery life in the benchmark scenarios in this article. With normal use you would get 3 days out of N8, something out of reach for iPhone 4 or most Androids, which meanwhile have larger battery capacities. Smaller battery allows for use of better quality materials while keeping the weight down.
    For all the performance freaks, I recommend to get a Samsung. I have own one and my boss has an Epic, they brake just in time for the newest and the greatest SoC release; which by the lay seems like is every three months now.
    To all the N900 lovers, have you seen one? It is literary twice as big as my phone and weights almost 2.5 times. And while solidly built, it still feels too plasticy.
    Reply
  • Voldenuit - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    Good job Mithun!

    I confess that I couldn't wait for the AT review, so I ended up splurging on the N8 a month ago.

    Fortunately, I haven't had the issues that you had with the Ovi Store and email - I was able to use the Ovi store on the device just fine, and I have gmail set to 15 minute synchronisations with few problems - it correctly identifies read messages in my inbox, although it will not mark a message that I receive on the phone and then subsequently read on the PC as read.

    I've also had no problems with GPS acquisition (using Ovi Maps 3.06) - lock is pretty speedy even in urban areas and accurate enough for turn by turn navigation. I like that you can download maps for offline use, very handy if you're going overseas on a trip, for instance.

    As you've outlined, the camera is great, and easily as good as a high end compact, as long as you're happy with a prime lens. In fact, the lens appears sharper to me than the Canon S90's.

    Battery life is nothing short of superb. I've just recharged the phone today - the (3rd party) battery monitor app reported the battery at 15% after 5 days and 21 hours of mostly standby and light use (facebooking, email, some calls, some music viewing). With heavy use (Angry Birds, 720p playback, music, internet), I've had to recharge the phone every other day, which is still stellar.

    Also worth noting is that there is no need to root the phone to sideload apps, and you can also run java apps compiled for general smartphones. Being a nokia, it is a phone first and foremost, and the call functionality is great - the speakerphone is crisp and clear, handset is great, and there is a LED notification light for missed calls and messages.

    When I first purchased the phone, I found the UI took some getting used to compared to, say, iOS, but now that I am accustomed to it, have grown to love the phone. If you think that Nokia is out of contention because of the weak CPU, you might be surprised by how full featured it is. Couple that with top notch build quality, great call quality, a superlative camera, very good battery life, great GPS and navigation apps, and the N8 is a definite contender.
    Reply
  • mythun.chandra - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    Good to know you're enjoying your N8!

    If Nokia keeps to its commitment of updating Symbian^3 on a regular basis, it actually may be a very viable alternative to the other platforms. The only issue as I see is that Nokia does not seem to have a clear cut platform roadmap. They have S40 for the lower-end devices, S^1 for entry-level smartphones, S^3 for the higher-end devices and Meego...well...we're not sure when and how Meego fits in. This, according to me is going to be a problem for Nokia.
    Reply
  • Voldenuit - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    Thanks mithun!

    BTW I notice that mention of the camera is conspicuously absent in the conclusion section. Until the rumored Panasonic Lumix phone appears, the N8 is the best choice for photo enthusiasts on the market, and perhaps some note could be made of that in the recommendations.

    For me, at least, it's more attractive than getting a S95 or LX5. Although I lose out on the zoom and capture parameters (you can only control ISO and EV in 0.5 stop steps over a +/- 2 EV range), I end up with a device with a very nice lens, good detail retention, and the ability to edit, geotag and upload my images all from the one device. If you're travelblogging, the N8 makes a very good companion. For reference I have a GF1 and a 40D, so I'm pretty keen on photography, and the N8 has delivered all I could ask of it in a carry-everywhere package.
    Reply
  • mythun.chandra - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    From the conclusion page:

    "With most definitely the best camera ever seen on a mobile phone, the N8 is a worthy replacement to basic point and shoots." :)
    Reply

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