Hands On With The Nokia N8 — Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

This week, like many Australian tech journalists, I scored a little bit of face time with the new Nokia N8 (and some Nokia marketing people as well). Their message was one of optimism, of confidence, of excitement with their new smartphone. But I’m sorry to say that after a short amount of time playing with the phone, that’s not what I was feeling at all.

The N8 is the first handset to be released in Australia running the new “built-from-the-ground-up” Symbian^3 operating system. It’s got a 12MP camera that sticks out on the back of the phone, has inbuilt GPS and comes with 16GB inbuilt memory, with MicroSD expandability. The capacitive touchscreen is pretty responsive, there’s a mini-HDMI jack on the top of the phone and a micro-USB port and bundled adapter lets you connect any external USB powered storage to your device.

But here’s the thing: This isn’t a high end smartphone. Nokia themselves say that it will be the first (and last) N-series phone that runs on S^3, with their top-end phones from here on out running on the MeeGo platform.

Instead, this is a smartphone targeted at the every man. A phone for the mass market, if you will. When it launches in Australia in about three months time, it will be sold outright for $749.

Now compare that price to some other smartphones on the market. The iPhone 3GS 16GB costs $799, but is a year-old phone. The HTC Desire, currently Telstra’s flagship smartphone, costs $768 outright and is much better specced (except for the camera). And by the time the N8 actually launches, those prices could drop.

Sure, I’ll readily admit that the pictures from the 12MP camera looked fantastic. And that the touchscreen was fast and responsive, and there was a pleasant little haptic kick back when you scrolled past the end of the page and it sprung back to the end. I’ll also happily confide that the pre-production demo phone was happily running a few apps simultaneously, although it did crash at one point when the Nokia guys launched one app too many. Not to mention the fact that Nokia’s GPS software has come a long, long way since I last checked it out, and is now actually usable.

But the thing that struck me the most about my time with the N8 was the fact that even though Nokia completely recreated the Symbian OS from the ground up, they still kept the same boring font that was used on my original monochrome Nokia phone when I bought it in 1999. Apparently it was a conscious choice – Nokia didn’t want to alienate its userbase too much with the new OS, and when they begin releasing Symbian^4 phones we might see a change.

But by then it could be too late. It may be because I’ve spent too much time staring at the design of iOS or Android, but all I saw when I looked at the shiny new and responsive N8 was a dated UI. Sure, it seemed new and responsive, but the font (and subsequently the entire design) seemed old and dated, and more a mark of past success than the leap into the future it needed to be.