Look who’s calling the shots…

The N8 represents many firsts for Nokia. It is the first phone to be based on the Symbian^3 platform. It is the first Nokia phone to carry a 12MP camera sensor. It is also the first Nokia phone to have a discrete GPU. And finally, it is the first mainstream Nokia phone to be multi-touch capable (and just the 2nd to have a capacitive screen) and have a GPU accelerated UI, both of which are as a result of switching to Symbian^3. And when it comes to the display and what’s driving it, the Nokia N8 doesn’t disappoint.

NFS Shift HD running on the BMC2727 in the Nokia N8

While I’ll get to the biggest change in the N8 that is the Symbian^3 OS in a while, Nokia has also updated what’s calling the shots behind the scenes. Up until Symbian^3 came along, Nokia rarely ever bothered with including a GPU in its phones and even when it did, it was never really put to any good use. Its last N-Series flagship, the N97, didn’t even have a GPU per se. Except for the Cortex A8-touting outlier that the N900 is, the best that Nokia has done in terms of integrating GPU’s into phones is make use of the OMAP 2420 SoC, which included a PowerVR MBX GPU, in a handful of its previous devices and even this was left mostly unutilized. Things have changed, for the better, with the Nokia N8. Although Nokia is still sticking with a tried and tested ARM 11 implementation for its CPU, it has actually gone ahead and made full use of a discrete Broadcom BCM2727 Multimedia processor for graphic duties. While you can see performance numbers later in the review, the general impression is that it is fairly competent as a GPU.

The BCM2727 Block Diagram

Nokia’s choice of using an aged ARM 11 implementation, down-clocked to 680 Mhz (instead of the spec’d 772 Mhz) for its CPU may draw criticism in this day and age of gigahertz-capable, multi-core mobile SoC’s. But digging a little deeper seems to show that there may be some method to this madness. You see, pretty much everything in the N8 runs around the BCM2727 media processor. I would hazard a calculated guess that apart from lightweight low-level OS functions and interfacing with the baseband and other radio’s, there isn’t much else for the CPU to do on the N8. Plus, Symbian’s inherently efficient use of available resources helps too.

So what was needed in this case was a low-power, package efficient CPU design that could just about get the job done while sipping as little power and occupying as little space as possible. And this is almost exactly what Nokia found in the Samsung K5WXXXXXXX series of Fusion Memory MCP’s. This MCP (Multi Chip Package) allows Samsung to stack different memory types (DDR, NAND etc.) along with non-memory logic in the same low-power package. So for basically the same footprint as a single memory chip, Samsung is able to integrate the DDR memory (256MB), NAND (512MB) and a CPU (TI ARM11 applications processor).

Most of the heavy lifting in the N8 is done by the BCM2727, as it renders the Symbian^3 UI and games alike, works with the camera module to capture and process 12MP stills and 720p videos, encodes/decodes those videos, drives the HDMI output (upto 720p) and even decodes the audio. So in case of the N8 and Symbian^3, it made sense for Nokia to have a low-power ARM11 CPU coupled with a reasonably powerful and competent multimedia processor. Using an A8 Cortex-based 1Ghz+ part here to run Symbian^3 would have been overkill and power-inefficient. And this decision is quite obvious when you use the N8. The UI is very fluid and responsive with crisp transitions and swift app switching. Furthermore, the N8 posted very competitive battery life numbers to further substantiate Nokia’s decision here.

The N8's Camera - 12 MP of Awesome N8 Display Quality, simple HTPC with HDMI out
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  • alovell83 - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    "And with one such update promised for the N8 sometime in Q1 2011, it may be the device to recommend, after the update."

    Unfortunately, after the update this phone will be what, 6+ months on the market? With no more flagship phones running on Symbian I'd never recommend this OS to a friend, even if they are familiar with Symbian.

    Meego should be able to help Nokia remain competitive, this phone, unfortunately for Nokia and it's fans, wont be of great use to a consumer outside of the cameraphone aficionados.
  • alovell83 - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    Also, in case anyone wants to say how easy it is to cross-develop apps for Meego & Symbian, from what I read, that much is true. However, I wouldn't want my OS to be reliant on Meego's adoption rates and apps when Meego has no hardware release dates and is showing up to this party quite late.
  • deputc26 - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    Hmmm a little grandiloquent
  • Antibios - Tuesday, January 25, 2011 - link

    A tad sesquipedalian
  • anactoraaron - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    other reasons to not recommend: wifi pathetic, talk time sub par by today's standards horribly slow web browser (which is why you need more 3g battery life- the damn pages take forever to load!), screen res below what I would call the current industry standard (thanks to android devices), and lastly when you make an unlocked phone that you are trying to sell for ~$600US (typical for Nokia flagships) you DO NOT put in a 99 cent ARM 11 chip!! Can you say overpriced? And where the heck is the 1500 mAh battery found in almost every other nokia phone? I guess when you lose that much marketshare you can't afford to put quality components in your flagship. My guess is that Nokia already had this camera/sensor/flash prior to their imminent demise. Same with the 1200 mAh batteries now found on their phones. Sad really.

    A turd is a turd, even if it is well built.
  • Voldenuit - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    Firstly, it is not selling for $600. It can be found for $399 at a lot of places and newegg is selling it for $429. For an unlocked pentaband phone, that's not a bad deal, especially since it comes with a camera as good as found on $400 compacts (S95, LX5 are ~$400).

    Secondly, Mithun's 3G talk time results seem egregious to me. The GSM talk times are a lot longer (I've had hour long conversations on the phone that did not dent the battery gauge, sadly don't have the resources/money to test talk times like AT), and there's not much to gain from going 3G for talk anyway.

    The CPU is slow, yes, but it's not a handicap for the device in practical use. It's as snappy as a 3GS, and the GPU is great for gaming - played Angry Birds, NFS Shift and Galaxy on Fire with no slowdowns. It's also played 720p videos without a hitch - remarkably, the phone stayed cool to the touch even after a 1 hr+ video session with a 720p mkv for me.

    Slow webkit browser is slow, fortunately Opera Mobile is decent for general web use (as opposed to synthetic benchmarks). Definitely one area Nokia could improve on though.

    It may not be the Ferrari of phones, but it is a far cry from a turd.
  • mythun.chandra - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    I actually tested the 3G talk time twice and it was about the same. As I mentioned in the review, I could get away with using the N8 over a GSM-only network with moderate usage for almost 3 days. So yes, the GSM talk time is better.
  • Voldenuit - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    Thanks for clarifying, mithun.

    As an aside, you can force the phone to use GSM/Edge for calls by putting it in power saving mode (click on battery icon in top right hand corner, or push power button once and select from options).
  • anactoraaron - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    <sigh> there's always a nokia fanboy that bought the phone and has to post to defend their purchase... Yeah newegg has it at $429 now but do you see the "was $549"? That would make it MSRP of $549 which last time I checked would make it "~$600" (just south of $600). My point is and still remains that if Nokia wants a NEW "flagship" phone it seriously falls short by today's standards (set by apple and android phones). And the 3GS is outdated. It came out in ~August of 2009. Is Nokia then trying to compete with 1.5 year old phone hardware?? No wonder they are losing that massive amount of their marketshare. If I want to play handheld games I will buy a DS or PSP due to large quantity of titles available for them. Let's face it, these days cell phones are for 2 main things.
    1: making phone calls. And I don't care about GSM talk time. I don't want to have to go through all of the menus to find the obscure option to switch to GSM every time I want to have a long phone call and then back again to get online.
    2: Quick web surfing, including posting tweets and facebook updates and the occasional youtube upload. And the numbers for Opera Mobile aren't that good either.
    I see you have no comment on screen res or wifi performance. Yeah it stays cool at the lousy res since anything higher will stress the "great GPU". It's the same as pc's- when you increase the res it's more demanding on the gpu. Sure it's got a great camera. Which is why nokia went out of their way to say it over and over so everyone would overlook everything else.
    Don't get me wrong, I'm not a Nokia "hater" as I have had numerous Nokia phones (most recently an E63). But I can remember the days that Nokia hardware across the board was innovative, not just feature packed. Using an outdated cpu, bad wifi, short battery life talk time (seemingly a nokia first), failing to get to 800x400... I basically already said these things. I expect better from Nokia (and so should you).
    The N900 is going for the same $429 right now. Why buy this phone? For the camera?
  • Exodite - Wednesday, January 12, 2011 - link

    Pricing varies a lot between markets I presume.

    For the sake of comparison the Nokia N8 costs ~4000 SEK here while the Desire HD is ~5100 SEK (recently dropped from 5600 SEK) and the iPhone 4 16GB is ~7000 SEK (~8300 SEK for 32GB).

    I can't speak for the rest of the world but it offers high-end smartphone features at a price point significantly lower than the competition.

    Surely that's not a bad thing?

    At that price you really have to compare the N8 to mid-range smartphone, like the HTC Legend or Aria.

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