Why the N8? Because, for me, it's still standing out for me in a competitive world

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Why the N8? It's a question I get asked a lot. Not just in the Symbian world, either (i.e. which is my pick of the current devices?), but out of the dozens of current smartphones that I've tested, borrowed or bought, why the heck am I still using the N8, a whopping seven months after I got it? After all, the OS is supposedly 'dead', the interface is 'unintuitive' and the screen on the small side for a 2011 champion phone. The answer, surprisingly, is not just all about the camera....

N8 and Gravity

Over the last year, I've reviewed something like 40 different smartphones of all persuasions, operating systems and form factors and, to be honest, I could have wangled any of them as my day to day device if I'd put my mind to it. Either by twisting someone's arm for a loan extension or by trading in an older device or two to fund the new purchase. And yet I find myself still with the N8. But why? In other words, how am I justifying this in the face of competition from more modern, faster devices running iOS, Android and Windows Mobile?

Yes, the phenomenal camera is part of the story. It has to be, but I've written enough about the 12 megapixel camera with Xenon flash here on AAS to fill a book already. Suffice it to say that wherever I go, I know I can snap moments and scenes in such a way that I'm going to look back on the results a year later and think 'I'm really glad I had the  N8 for these shots, I can do so much more with them' (cropping, printing, applying effects). Those of you who have seen some of my photos posted on Twitter will know what I mean, quality wise. The very best shots have been of people, but I can't post them online for obvious reasons!

But, analysing this black monoblock in my hands, there's more to the N8 than this, more to its charm, more to its triumph of function over finesse. For a start, its radios have been faultless for me. Ok, I haven't actually left the country while owning the N8, so haven't been able to test its pentaband 3G radio antennae, but the way it hangs onto 3G and GSM signals when travelling has been terrific, in comparison to many competitor devices - Nokia knows how to build devices with good cellular radios.


FM transmitter

Even more unique to the N8 is having an FM transmitter (no, not an FM radio, please don't get the two confused!) - I can't think of many other mobile devices which can match this trick. You don't think you need this function until you start trying it. In the car, it's a fabulous way to stream music or podcasts from your phone to any car radio. In the home, I've used it several times to get Internet radio and podcasts onto a home hifi or ghetto blaster, it has saved the day several times when the appropriate leads, adapters, etc weren't available. FM is a little old school, but sometimes old school is a great lowest common denominator for spanning the gap between items of real world equipment.

Talking of audio and returning to a traditional Phones Show Chat rant of mine, I don't think I'm that unusual in listening to podcasts over the built in speaker of my smartphone, while doing chores around the house. Also heavily leaning on the need for a goodish speaker is watching videos and movies, at least half of which is done acoustically, i.e. without headphones, in my case. The N8's mono speaker is controversially positioned in that if you place it on exactly the wrong surface or put it in a tight fitting pouch case then the speaker slot gets muted out, but, that aside, it's fed from a miniature power amp and the speaker membrane itself is of a decent size. Voices come out well and even streamed music isn't too bad, it's certainly one of the best phone mono speakers I've heard. Important for me, at any rate, even if I do keep harking back to the 5800 and X6, together the gold standard for smartphones with audio output. Yes, this is all highly personal, but the pathetically tinny and quiet speakers in many Android smarphones is one of the main reasons why I keep trying them and rejecting them for everyday use, chez Litchfield.

Time to get even more personal now. One of the reasons I keep picking up the N8 is the choice of materials. The N8 feels like a tank, (nearly) all metal and Gorilla Glass - and has a robust reputation to match. I love picking it up and feeling cool, hard metal. In contrast, I pick up many other smartphones and there's just... plastic. Warm and often somewhat... squishy. Like I say, it's a personal thing - I've no real evidence that a metal phone is any better than a plastic one, but hey, it inspires me with confidence that the device is going to last and not let me down, it makes a phone feel like more of a tool and less of a toy.


Podcatcher and great audio

Even more left field is that I love the dual charging option. It's almost impossible to go anywhere in the world where there's not either a Nokia 2mm charging jack or microUSB solution of some kind. Being able to charge from either makes the N8 a real 'charge anywhere' device.

A given for the N8 but also, of course, for just about every other Nokia smartphone of the last 3 years, is that the (now) super slick real time satnav solution that is Nokia/Ovi Maps is onboard and, allied to a decent GPS receiver, means that the N8 is just about the best all round device for in-car or on-street navigation in the world. A screen that's just large enough to be easily visible, a small and slim enough device to fit the hand and not stand out or get in the way of life.

Also common to other devices, in this case the AMOLED-screened sister devices running Symbian^3, the C6-01, C7-00, E7-00, E6 and X7, is another completely unique feature in the phone world - the always-on time and date display, thanks to the power-efficient nature of OLED screens, just lighting up a few pixels 24 hours a day. This doesn't sound very exciting, but it means that you never have to press a button or tap a screen to see the time. And it means that in the middle of the night, you can just look at the N8, bleary-eyed and instantly see the time, nicely dimmed to the right level for night vision. It's a system and function that sounds trivial but is actually incredibly useful and well implemented.

AMOLED always on clock

So we have the main reasons why the N8 keeps calling out to me and demanding that no other current smartphone can take its place yet. It's at this point that many will cry foul and point to the current trend for the very word 'smartphone' to refer more to apps and cloud integration. It's a subject I've mused on at length in the past and I'll admit that it's a valid criticism of my very hardware-centric analysis above.

Out of the box, the N8 (and true for the other Symbian^3 phones) has a slow and slightly clunky web browser, a finicky email client that, simply, sometimes doesn't even work, and a social networking integration system that's actually beautifully designed but which runs on top of the aforementioned browser engine, making it all a bit slow and tortuous.

However, as an informed user, it's easy and not expensive to add in native applications which fix most of the above, from Opera Mini to Gravity - you know the apps by now. Talking of apps, there's still on Symbian a relative dearth of native applications covering the latest cloud and service darlings of 2010 and 2011, from Instapaper to Evernote to Kindle. And with Symbian's end of life now telegraphed to the developer world, there's little hope that the situation will improve much in this regard.

But I'm happy overall, the huge functional benefits mentioned above outweigh the need for a little customisation of the software. And isn't that how it's supposed to be with smartphones? i.e. they're flexible enough that you can bend the software side to your needs? After all, software can be changed, whereas form factor, specifications and (ahem) gadgets are hardware and you're stuck with what you get on day one in the retail box.

With the (no doubt blushing, by now) N8, what you get on day one is an impressively long gadget list allied to rock solid form and the undoubted unique selling points I've just mentioned.

No device's hardware is perfect, mind you, whether it's Nokia N8 or Apple iPhone 4 or Samsung Galaxy S2, there's always something for me to complain about. The N8's weak point here is its 1200mAh fixed battery and it's quite easy on a day of heavy camera snapping, especially if you've had email and social software running the whole time, plus satnav use to get to wherever you're taking the aforementioned photographs, to run a bit low on the battery front. The recommended solution is to top up the N8 battery when you can, whether from your car's 12V lighter or from a portable charger, many of which have been reviewed here.

BL-4D at the ready

With the N8, there's also my favoured emergency solution, shown above, a fully charged BL-4D battery and a Torx T4 screwdriver, rubber banded together and kept in a jacket pocket. I've only had the N8 actually die on me in the middle of an action packed day once in the last six months, but when it happened I was ready and I had the battery swapped out in around a minute. So it can be done. Phew!

So the N8 has ruled the roost, for my personal needs, for seven or so months now, a relative eternity in the phone world. Are there signs that the competition is catching up? Absolutely. But each of Nokia's previous camera and media centric powerhouses (N93, N95, N82, etc) have reigned supreme for me for many months after they should have been overtaken by competitors and the N8 is following the pattern. What will follow the N8 in my affections and which OS it will end up running is an extremely interesting question. And how many compromises will I have to make from the unique functionality of this black, bold, powerhouse tank of a phone?

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 16th May 2011