Comments, Code and Qt. Some words about the wonderful world of software engineering

6Oct/105

Yet another Nokia N8 first impressions

I am a MeeGo, Maemo and Qt guy, but I have been working with Nokia for a long time to have been using Symbian devices a lot. A have also owned a Nokia 5800 for a while, before I got my Nokia N900. I think I have enough credibility to be able to say a few words about the Nokia N8. I have only been playing with it for some hours now so these are really just my first impressions and I doubt I will even write a more thorough review since the Internet is probably already filled with them. I would also like to say that since I have been using the Nokia N900 for a year now, I will automatically compare the N8 to it.

Nokia N8 captured with Nokia N900

The short version

If you don't want to read this whole blog post, I'll put here the "elevator version" of what I think of the Nokia N8 based on my initial impression. The hardware is beautiful. But you knew this already and it will not disappoint you. The touch screen is very sensitive and will compare to the iPhone easily. Also the colors on the AMOLED screen are great. Overall, it is a nice looking phone if you look at the hardware. Inside the SW still feels like the old Symbian^1. Menu transitions have been given a nice improvement and the rounded corners in the popup widgets make them look nicer. Home screen works very well with three layouts and the widgets. Image gallery and music player have been given a big redesign and they work nicely. Address book has some small improvements, but is more or less the same. Browser is the same, which is a big let down. No bigger social network integrations, although you have one app that will let you view and post to Facebook and Twitter (at least). It's web runtime based so it's slow and doesn't look well integrated to the phone.

First startup

After entering the PIN code you are first presented with the familiar Switch application which will transfer your data from another Nokia device. Nothing really new here since it is the same application as in Symbian^1 phones. However, this was the first letdown; the application advertised that I can use the phone normally while it will transfer the data in the background. Ok, so I accept all requests (over Bluetooth) on the old device and happily use the N8 for other things. After a while I go to the address book to find it is empty. Hmm. The Switch application didn't transfer any content. So I do it again, manually and this time without leaving the app and now everything goes smoothly. You can also login to your OVI account during the initial startup and from there login to Facebook. I am not sure, but I don't think the first startup did anything else with the Facebook information other than stored it in some cache for later easy use. Felt a bit distorted to suddenly be in Facebook during the initial startup. Funny enough, this Facebook information was not automatically added to the home screen Social activities widget. Good: It does what it suppose to do, boot up time is pretty fast. Bad: Initial device sync failed, it's just the same old same old experience...

The home screen

I guess this is the biggest change in Symbian^3. Yes, I like the three home screens with pre-filled widgets. The widgets do what they suppose to be doing and you have probably already seen how to switch between home screens and how to customize the content. But coming from the Nokia N900, I find it clunky to notice that switching between the home screens with a flick gesture is just that - only a gesture. Home screen animation happens only after you lift your finger from the screen, which is not really the nice effect the iPhone gives you while browsing the icons or even what the N900 gives you while switching the home screen. You can see from the video below what I mean. Only when I lift the finger, the home screen wipe if initiated. Feels a bit cheap, but better than nothing I guess. Good: Very customizable, widgets work nicely, good to have three home screens. Bad: Compared to N900 you cannot customize the placement of the widgets however you like, switching between home screens is not smooth, selecting the widgets uses an ugly Symbian dialog.

Virtual keyboard

Yep, this has been really improved on since Symbian^1. Probably rewritten from scratch if I would need to make a guess. I really like it. The virtual keyboard works more or less flawlessly and even beats the iPhone's virtual keyboard. Good: It is very responsive, typing on it works very well. Bad: I would like the virtual keyboard to be integrated to the view you are entering the text into. Every other smart phone has it, so this dialog look 'n feel is really dated.

Browser

Hmm, what can I say. It's the same browser that you will find in Symbian^1. It's slow to render pages, it won't let you scroll the page every time you want because it is loading, it stalls... Yes, it has multitouch for zooming, but it's not the iPhone experience. Yes, it supports Flash, but I don't care if the overall experience is slow. I am used to the N900's browser which feels a lot smoother. I really hope Nokia updates the browser soonest. Good: Renders content as it should, Flash support is good - I guess. Bad: Same ugly and crowded interface, same sluggishness, slow to render pages.

Address book

It is a phone after all so address book is a critical application. You can mark contacts as favorites, so they show on top of the list. This is quite nice. The list itself has just small visual additions. Maybe a good thing. Scrolling the list is surprisingly smooth. When tapping on the contact in the list, you will see the details. It will show you immediately ways to send message to the person or call him. The basic stuff is there. But here comes the weird part. The contact detail page has a "Social networks" button (yes it looks odd on the screen to have a button in the middle of the screen). When tapping it, it will open the social networks application (which you signed into during initial startup and logged into Facebook with) and it will search the person from the services using the name. This is a nice idea, but launching the app will easily take 5 seconds it is not the most smooth experience. It is also a separate app (web runtime based, I would guess) so it looks different from the native apps - and the app you started from. So the experience is not consistent. Also, if you compare how Android and WebOS integrates Facebook with the address book, this is one of the more ugly solutions I can think of... 🙁 Another weird thing I noticed; I wanted to add a Google account for one of my contacts so I can chat with him (just as I can with N900). Yes, I can add a Google username to that contact, but tapping the detail will only let me edit the detail. Or that was the only usage I could find for it. So I am yet to find a way to chat with this Google username. Maybe I can't. But why would I want to just enter a Google username for a contact without being able to use it? Strange. Good: New contact detail page looks refreshing, favorite contact tagging is nice, smooth contact list panning Bad: Very limited integration with services, ugly social service integration with an external app.

OVI Store

I am very happy with the improvements Nokia did with OVI Store. It really shines now. However, you first need to install the latest version when you start OVI Store. Anyway, once you have the app installed you immediately feel the difference. It is now a native Qt application so it is pretty fast. Update: There seemed to be misinformation during Nokia World that the OVI Store client would be based on Qt (since it was so fast :)). But it is Web runtime based afterall. Thanks to DavidCaabeiro for pointing this out to me. The interface has been polished and made easier to navigate. But I really miss some effect to tell me that I cannot pan the list anymore. This is not consistent with how lists works elsewhere on the phone. Installing apps has never been this easy on a Nokia phone. You go to the app you want to download, and you tap "Download". Then it starts to download it and will install the app for you. Just as it should have been from the beginning 🙂 And then you can launch the app after it has been installed. Really slick. I haven't tried any non-free apps yet. But what I find irritating is that OVI Store is still just an external app. The overall look and feel is missing from the phone. Which brings me to...

Overall UI design

Nokia seems to have three ways to do UIs; native Symbian^3 apps, native C++ apps (for example with Qt) and then Web runtime based apps. All of these have for sure different look and feel to them. The clearest example is the social networking integration; it is a Web runtime app, so it looks totally different (fonts, UI design, interaction flows...) from the rest of the phone. The overall design is missing and it's like separate departments have designed the home screen, the messaging app, the email app and then the social integration. They all feel very different. This is where Apple on the other hand is superior with the iPhone, so I'd say it's time for Nokia to do something about this. I must also say that I absolutely hate how sluggish the Web runtime apps are. You really need to press several times on the UI before it reacts. And the apps are slow. I hope Nokia is not trying to fool us by saying that Web runtime apps are just as good as native apps.

Conclusion

As a conclusion I can probably say what others have said and what I think is correct; if you own a Symbian^1 device or some other earlier Symbian device, you will like the N8. It has some very welcomed improvements and it is a lot faster to use. The navigation and the interactions are better than with any other Nokia Symbian device. And yes - OVI Maps is great and it's super fast on this phone. But that said, if you compare this to an Android 2.x phone or the iPhone, you will find it clunky. The lack of social network integration, like how the Android for example does it, is one of my personal biggest let downs. I can't for example send an image directly from the image gallery or the camera to any service or import my friends from Facebook. It still feels, like on any other Symbian phone, that there is no real integration between the apps. I also don't really know how OVI is integrated to the phone... maybe some separate apps I need to launch and use. This is of course how Nokia has been doing these kinds of things for a long time, so for a Symbian user it might feel intuitive. But living in 2010, this doesn't feel to me like the solution of today. Update: What I also wanted to say is that Nokia has improved the connectivity handling on the phone. There are way less annoying dialogs that you need to click though before you can browse the web. But I still don't understand why Nokia has made the connectivity handling so cumbersome. For example, the web browser insist on using 3G connectivity although I am already connected to the WiFi. I mean come on! One connection to the Internet should be enough and let me use the one which is active. And let me choose the active one. The N900 has such an elegant solution to connectivity that N8 feels so painful to use in this sense.

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  • Great Review! very balanced and non fanboish. I although I have not handled the device before, I could definitely identify with your experience being an N900 user myself and having handled the N97mini before. It seems to be a small step for a company looking to make giant strides back in smart phone mindshare

    • Thank you for your comment! I think Symbian^3 is a great step from N97, but the thing is that N97 should have been what N8 is now. N8 handles beautifully for example multiple apps and I haven’t yet noticed any slowdowns even if multiple apps are open. And no “Out of memory” errors 😉 What it lacks it the overall polish and integration in the UI.

      • very true, the N97 should never have happened. One can call it Nokia’s Vista and the N8 is the windows 7 which is suppose be an evolution from vista but not an overhaul. Nokia still sees Symbian ^3 as a stop gap and positions Symbian ^4 as the move to total over hauling of the UI. It might explain why there is so much UI inconsistences Symbian ^3 is a bridge between the old ways of doing things (Avkon) and the future of symbian UI developement Qt and Qwebruntime. Nokia is trying to use the power of web technology and Qt to converge cross symbian and megoo, hence the N8 and symbian ^3 might be the first step towards that. I hope there would use the feed backs there recieve and use that in making the webruntime thingie faster and better and if it doesnt work discard the idea completely. The lack of social integration is a let down though. Again probably shows how much of a legacy UI symbian has. It is hopeful that symbian ^4 would address all this issues from ground up. Once again great review.

  • raheel

    I can’t launch “social” on my N8. It was working fine earlier but not anymore. Can anybody tell me why is this so, please?

  • Thank you for your comment! I although I have not handled the device before, I could definitely identify with your experience being an N900 user myself and having handled the N97mini before.