Nokia N8 review: hardware

It’s about time for me to write a review for the Nokia N8. I bought it five months ago, and got the Anna update a couple of months ago.

This is more or less my first smartphone. I had a Nokia Internet Tablet, the N800, which runs Linux. I am a Linux user, and a programmer — yeah, I am not a “normal user”, and I don’t care what a “normal user” needs, this review is completely personal. Despite my programmer super-powers, I never got to do much stuff for the tablet or the phone yet. I really wished I had an N9, or even a N900, but I got the N8 instead because it’s cheaper, I can code for it using Qt, and of course, it has that awesome camera. I don’t have a decent stand-alone camera but I love taking pictures.

Before I got my N8, I also spent a brief period of time using a Samsung Nexus S, borrowed from a friend. That device had a few problems with it, specially the camera, but it was good enough to experience Android a bit, and have another phone to compare.

Shape, look and build: Before using or even holding any device, that is what we experience from it. And I think the N8, like many other Nokia products, has an awesome shape, and looks very cool. I love the narrowing of the extremities, its most obvious and unique characteristic. I also love the colors, I bought the orange one. I am a great fan of the Super Mario World character Lakitu.

Our subject. (This picture was taken with a Samsung Ace.)

I don’t like those hundreds of smartphones out there looking like small bricks. People always despise brick phones, and even dare saying Nokia manufactures bricks. That is an idea from the Motorola StarTAC days, I think. Today what we witness is the empire of bricks. No “top” smartphone looks more like a brick then the Iphone 4, taken by many (journalists) as the coolest design ever. And the Nexus S has that curved glass going on. It’s bizarre. I got used to it, but it’s still felt sometimes like holding a saxophone.

I bought the N8 without ever holding it before, so I had naturally some wrong ideas in my mind. I was also used to the Nexus S. When I first held the N8, I found it too thick and too light. The lower density made it feel a bit like a toy to me. But eventually I got used to it. The aluminum is awesome, and I definitely liked the change from the Nexus S, which was all plastic. The front glass always feels very nice. The N8 has edges that hurt too, and this is always good. I always loved the N900 advertisement, about rough edges and open ends.

I was a bit disappointed with the difference from the body and the plastic in the extremities, you can’t tell it’s like this from pictures, but I can live with that. The N9 is another story, it is really homogeneous, a single piece of polycarbonate. By the way, the N9 is awesome. It feels so thin! But dense. Like holding a razor or something.

Once I got used to the N8’s shape and weight, I was really happy about it. I also like the the camera module that raises from behind the phone. Helps you knowing that you are holding it upside, for example. The Nexus S has a bump in the bottom that serves this purpose too.

All the buttons feel great, and one thing about them that makes me very happy is the volume keys. Because they are large, you can very easily press them from outside your jeans pants pockets, for example. It’s easy to find and to press them. So you can hear music with your headphones on the bus, or whatever, and easily control the volume without having to take the phone from your pocket or bag, as long as it is close to the fabric surface. I know, I should probably get headphones with volume control, or Bluetooth headphones, but that’s what I have, and the N8 is better for me because of this.

The locking key is something that I like and dislike sometimes. I wish I could unlock by tapping on the screen like in the N9. One thing I _don’t_ like is the home button. I often try to press it with my thumb when holding the phone (in my right hand), and it’s too far, and I always feel like I will drop the phone. It does look pretty though.

One complaint I have is about the black plastic pieces on the extremities of the phone. The HDMI port is great, the bottom is great — mine is written “made in Finland”, but I broke the plastic around my audio jack socket. I do plug and unplug it a lot, and abuse the hardware in many ways. I know I am a walking stress test, but it broke in approximately 4 months and I can’t help but feeling bad about it. But it’s all just cosmetics, of course, it’s still working great. I also quickly accumulated a few scratches, and it quickly discolored in the extremity of the camera module that usually touches the table when you lay it down flat.

The broken plastic piece.

You can probably avoid all that if you take care of your phone, but I don’t… That’s why I need rugged devices, and the N8 seems to be one! I had a bad experience with the N800, by the way. I dropped it once on the concrete floor, and a number of things broke. But Nokia does know how to make strong devices, and I definitely appreciate when they do.

A last note on the visual aspect: the camera module tends to accumulate some dirt on the sides, it’s a bit gross if you look at it too much, and the two lower screws on my phone are already looking rusty. It’s all still shiny though. And orange! The screen still looks new to me, and I think the amount of hand grease over it is tolerable. If you like it clean you can easily wipe it off any time. I clean it on my shirt if I have to, and it looks brand new. (Ewwww!!!)

Audio: The speaker under the camera is excellent. You must position the phone right to get a good sound, but that’s it. I also like it that you can completely mute the speaker by covering it with your finger.

Sound from the headphones is fine. I listen to music all the time, and I do recognize some of my devices are better than the others. This is one of the good ones. But you probably will want fancier headphones and speakers if you are serious into that.

Having a Bluetooth headphone must be awesome. It’s high on my list of things to buy when I get rich…

Sound from events, phone ringing, etc, it’s all excellent. I also love Nokia tune, but I changed to the calmer “Astrum”.

Connectivity: First of all, let’s mention USB on-the-go. This is awesome. You can plug USB memory sticks as easily as in a computer. But it’s not just that! I worked in a place where we had these OTPs (one time password), that is a little USB thingy with a button, that you plug in the computer and it connects like a keyboard. Then you press the button, and it “types” a new password. Well, the OTP worked flawlessly in the N8, so I could use it just like in a computer, accessing stuff while walking in the street. If you had any other phone without USB OTG, that would be simply impossible.

HDMI works, but I still haven’t used it a lot. I tried to watch a Divx movie just the other day, but found out too late that the player didn’t like the codec. So I still have to test all that better. In theory you could use it as a movie player on your TV, but in the one time I tried that, it let me down. I did hear music form the HDMI, though, and watched pictures on the TV, and browsed youtube too… I did all that with the phone on the TV table, and controling it remotely from a Logitech Bluetooth mouse+keyboard.

Charging: you can charge via the USB socket. I am not sure I like the place the connector sits, but it’s OK. What is really nice is that is also charges from the Nokia 2mm round charging plug. Only after I tried the USB I found out how good this is. It’s because you can move the phone much more freely! The connector can rotate, and the wire is much more malleable. This may be going away in the future, but it will be missed. It’s the best way to charge from a power outlet. I use the USB to keep the phone charging from my computer while I am working.

Battery life: I am always checking email, googling stuff, checking twitter, taking pictures and listening to music. Yeah, it drains the battery. Usually I wake up in the morning, listen to some Internet-streamed radio from Nokia radio — which is _awesome_ by the way — then go to work listening to music, and when I get there I leave the phone recharging all the time I am on my machine.

It does survive a whole day or more if you are not doing a lot of stuff, but be sure that if you take too many pictures some day, taking a walk in the city or whatever, the battery can go out in like 2-4 hours. Does that mean it is bad? I am sure not! Batteries suck in general! It’s just how smartphones are, and I doubt it any phone is significantly different. Does Symbian has some intrinsic higher efficiency? I can’t really tell. I do suspect it does a bit, but I can’t make a fair comparison. I also have an impression it charges pretty fast too. And regarding the possibility of replacing the battery… I doubt I would ever do that if I had to. Nokia sells a thing that is a battery with a power plug you can use if you want to carry more Joules around, and I would buy that if I needed/could.

The display: I like it a lot. Excellent resolution, excellent colors. You do see the pixels in some situations, but _I like that_!! So sue me. It’s 200 dpi. I would probably prefer if it had 300, but 200 is good already. Watching HD video and seeing pictures on the display is just great. The only complaint is that sometimes I try looking at it under the sun, and I even think it’s off. The automatic brightness control sometimes makes me mad too, but I can live with it. The always-on clock is awesome, and I can’t live without it, and I pity the phones that do not have that.

Regarding the capacitive touchscreen, it took me a while to get used to it from resistive screens. People talk about “responsiveness”, and I still don’t know what it means. I can never tell what can be a problem in the display, and what may be a bad responsiveness frm the OS.

And since we are already talking about touching: the tactile feedback is also excellent. One more of those things all Nokia reviews should always make sure to mention.

Ah, and I became a Swype fan too! Could be improved, but it’s definitely impossible for me to live without now.

Memory: It supports microSD cards, what is great. It has a small slot on the side where you can load cards like they were floppy disks. I love that so much! It’s a childhood dream I had, I used to play with Lego, and make big computers with slots where you would insert microchips. You have no idea how much I love loading a microSD card in any device!

The N8 also had a big extra internal memory, it’s something like 256 MB for the “main” system memory, and a separate memory with 16GB for storage. Right now my main memory has like 100MB taken by installed apps, and 100 of other stuff, and the other memory has a whole lot of pictures and films, and 500MB more taken by apps too. In 5 months, I haven’t needed to move any of my hundreds of pictures away from my device.

This is great. The phone is not a very expensive one, and Android and Iphone fans may dislike it because of all kinds of silly stuff, but here is one important feature that must never be forgotten: 16GB of internal storage space. This is one very good thing, and the next time I buy a phone (years from now if the Belle update is really good), I will make sure to pick one with a 16 or 32 GB internal memory.

Bit pushing: I do feel the N8 could have a little little more powerful CPU and more RAM. Let’s be fair, it often “hangs”, and lets you touching the touchscreen like a dork, or holding the stupid menu button below. But again, maybe it’s the OS’s fault, and I am hoping that Belle will make things better. At least that’s the word on the street. It does play videos, and the 3D games do run nicely, or well enough I don’t know. You can play angry birds, so it’s probably good enough for the “average user”.

The Camera: You know, it’s N8. It has that awesome camera. We can’t avoid to praise it!! ๐Ÿ™‚

It is all that you heard. 12 megapixels. 4000×3000 pixels. I love these round numbers. I always ask my friends the exact number of pixels from their cameras, and they don’t know. I embarrass them. Then I say “mine is 4000×3000”. I even feel guilty. And the wide-angle lens is excellent. I did a few tests, and I am not very sure it is 28mm equivalent as advertised, but it is certainly wide. By the way, it supports a “wide-screen” mode too, but it just crops the image. I wish it was like the N9, where the two modes are really reaching areas the other can’t. That is one very cool feature of that camera.

I must say though that I have been seeing pictures from 8 MP cameras, and they don’t look too bad for me. I can’t say the current cameras are much worse, but I haven’t really compared them all to tell. If you look at an N8 picture at 100% magnification, you will notice it usually has a kind of a noise going on, that I don’t know where it comes from… So its real resolution is probably not 12MP. I am very happy with the N8 camera, though, and I really can’t recommend it enough, unless what you really need is a stand-alone with even better quality.

Macro shot from the N8

The xenon flash is definitely great. I can tell it is good. The thing is I don’t like flash in general. I hate how flash pictures look, and every time I take a flash picture, I look at it, and then I turn off the flash and take the picture again. So this is supposedly a big difference from other cameras, and I recognize it’s great, but for me it’s not really critical. I much prefer the fact the pictures taken in low light with the flash off look better then garbage.

HDR is one improvement that is definitely in the future of mobile cameras. The low range is frequently a limit I encounter. So that is something that could be improved. I haven’t tried yet any really good HDR software on the N8.

I will talk about software in a later article. But right now I must say that about the camera software: I love it how I can take a picture, then from the screen showing the picture afterwards you can press the “share” button, write a caption and upload it to Twitter and Facebook at the same time. I think that only appeared on the N8 when Nokia Social was released. I heard that it’s not like this in some other smartphones, and I was surprised. All phones should work like that. I wish there were more services from that menu, though.

Anyway, with this machine you can easily and happily walk around taking pictures and immediately sharing with your friends. I do it all the time. I have no idea why so many journalists try to make you think N8 is not good for that. It is!

Voice calls: I hardly ever make voice calls. When I do, it works. I use SMS a lot too, etc. It all works. I can’t tell if the N8 radio is good or bad, because I can’t compare to anything else, and my network blows in general, so it’s hard to know whose fault it is.

One thing about the radio I would like to know is if the reception is affected anyhow by holding the device by its extremities. Isn’t there where the antenna is located? Could this totally normal way of holding the device result in some kind of “grip of death”? Well, not on my experience. But I would love to read a nokia engineer tell me how many dbm are lost.

Still regarding voice calls, Symbian has native SIP support, so you can make and receive voip calls like that if you have a server to use. It works just like normal voice calls, it’s awesome. I use Ipkall + sip2sip + Google voice to receive international voip calls on my phone. I live in Brazil, and there is no Google voice here yet. There’s Skype too, but noew we are entering the software domain…

The front-facing camera is not great. But I haven’t tested it on video calls, so I don’t know how much that is relevant.

Couple of last things on connectivity: You can use the phone like a USB modem. I do it in Linux, just configure wvdial, make sure the kernel has the right PPP modules compiled, and you are good to go. You can also make a wi-fi hotspot, in ad hoc mode, using the paid app Joikuspot. I recommend Jouikuspot, but I would prefer if that was native. Symbian has lots of stuff that you get from paid apps that I wish was available as part of the system. But there are probably things it does that other OSes don’t ofer natively too.

I will wrap up for now, and write about software later. So this concludes this hardware review of the Nokia N8: great build quality, excellent camera, great connectivity. All the fun you can get from 135 grams of silicon, aluminum, carbon and xenon.

Lakitu throwing away his old, useless dumbphone.

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4 thoughts on “Nokia N8 review: hardware

  1. Pingback: Nokia N8 review: software « xor

  2. nlw0 Post author

    Of course I missed some details that are worth mentioning. The N8 supports many GSM frequencies, it was the first pentaband phone ever released. That means not having to care about frequencies!… At least I didn’t have to, I am not sure there exists any standard frequency out there it does not support.

    The N8, like pretty much all Nokia phones, is also capable of turning on by itself to play an alarm. I think that is great, but I don’t use this features because my phone is always on.

  3. sam

    This thing sucks!!
    I’ll have to admit that the build quality is exceptional, and there’s an HDMI port, and an AMOLED screen…

    but look on the darker side:
    1. The operating system is far too cramped and sluggish to use on a touch based device.
    2. Nokia is still promoting the Symbian OS (which noobs say is complicated :P)
    It could’ve given the priority to WP7.
    3. Even though the camera is a 12MP shooter, it lacks sharpness and vividness of color. And of course, shots in the dark w/o flash come crappy.
    4. Too much of bulk for the weight.
    5. Battery is inaccessible, which makes it unrecoverable from hangs.
    6. Hardware is a total wuss!
    7. not worth the price.

    I wouldn’t recommend buying this thing. I had to return mine within a couple of days. I exchanged it for a Samsung galaxy s instead ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. nlw0 Post author

      Oops, found out this old comment lying around here! Sorry.

      I wouldn’t recommend it either, I am tired of being responsible for other people’s happiness, I don recommend anything to anyone anymore. But I had my fun with the N8. I am only pissed off right now because I can’t sync mail anymore, can’t fix that damn thing. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ But the hardware is still awesome, I would only replace it for something really awesome like an SIII or Nexus…

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