Review: Nokia N8: part 3 - Multimedia and Gaming
In part 2 of our Nokia N8 review, I looked in detail at its camera and camcorder functions, loving the raw capture but bemoaning shortcomings in the supporting software. But what about media that you bring in from outside? Videos, music, streaming media, action games - can the N8 complete with the iPhones, Android phones and personal media players on the market? And how useful are the extras, the onboard video and photo editors?
The good news is that N8's media handling is one of its strongest suits, with only a few minor caveats, essentially bringing this 2010 Nokia flagship up (arguably) beyond most of the competition. This is where the dedicated Broadcom graphics acceleration chip (GPU) really stretches its legs - in terms of raw benchmarks it's as capable as the chipsets in any other device on the market, though the question, as always, is how well Nokia has implemented its power.
One curiosity of Nokia's media management has recently been that videos get lumped together with photos in 'Photos', the argument presumably being that you're going to want to view all your media from a recently captured event in the one place. Which is fair enough, though you'd have thought the app should be renamed appropriately. As it is, there's the usual mix, plus a dedicated Videos application that just err.... shows videos, and in an old-fashioned textual list. I'm not complaining unduly that there's more than one way to browse videos, but the current setup isn't exactly elegant.
Both Photos and Videos use a degree of organisation, into 'Albums' in the former's case and between 'Captured' and 'Other clips' in the latter's case. And in both, there's the usual Symbian^3 long-press facility, bringing up a pop-up, contextual menu, for 'Delete', 'Details', 'Copy', 'Move', 'Send' or 'Mark'. It's a lot faster than going down into the 'Options' menu every single time. And yes, there's a 'Mark multiple' mode, for going through and choosing several videos to delete, perhaps to save space.
Tapping on a video immediately brings it up full-screen in landscape mode, with the usual playback controls, time bar and volume controls one tap away, plus a 'Details' pane available to give you the nitty gritty on bitrate, resolution, encoding, and so on. Interestingly, there's no mention of 'Realplayer' at any point and I'm assuming that the video player in Symbian^3 is brand new and GPU-aware - it's certainly far more capable in terms of performance than the old Symbian licensed solution.
Quoted video compatibility for the N8 is "3GPP formats (H.263), D-1, Flash Video, H.264/AVC, MPEG-4, RealVideo 10, Sorenson Spark, VC-1, VP6, and WMV 9" - which is hands-down, in my experience, the widest video codec compatibility on any modern phone. The huge (and I mean huge) vagaries of digital video, wherein the 'container' file format often has no bearing on the actual content encoded inside and where every encoding method has half a dozen variants and bitrates and resolutions vary wildly, are a subject for another day, but suffice it to say that of the dozen movie trailers I grabbed in AVI, MKV and DivX 'form', ten played perfectly, while one of the ones that didn't turned out to be in full HD format and even my Mac wouldn't play it properly. Plus my existing collection of thirty or so MP4 and WMV films and music videos all played perfectly.
Subject to picking an appropriate video file (i.e. not stupidly high resolution or some outlandish codec), there's a very good chance you can just stick it on the N8's mass memory, memory card or on your USB memory stick via USB-on-the-go, and it will play just fine. And, via HDMI or even 'standard' TV out (with the appropriate cables - you get an adapter in the box to get your N8 to accept a full size HDMI lead), also play fine through your living room large-screened TV.
The N8's specs refer to Dolby Digital Plus Surround Sound, although it's likely you'll come across too many suitable sample videos with this embedded at first. Still, maybe there will be movies available to buy with DD+ in the future? There's an example video included pre-loaded on the N8's mass memory if you want to test that your HDMI-equipped home cinema system is working, though - or just impress the heck out of your friends!
Web TV and Video streaming
New for Nokia's Symbian^3 range is 'Web TV', effectively their latest iteration of Video Centre, bringing in third party video applications and feeds, TV-style. With the N8 only just out, the number of 'channels' is a little limited: there's CNN Video, National Geographic, E! (an entertainment/gossip thing, apparently), Movie Teasers (movie trailers from Paramount), and a 'Get more' link to a special 'Web TV' section in the Ovi Store, itself containing a number of more specialist channels: 'Eros Bollywood', 'India Today', 'Gazetta TV' and 'Speed Racer TV'.
Each channel appears, typically, as a side-scrolling 'Coverflow'-like set of movie thumbnails - just tap to play, although there are some differences in layout and options. Nokia has made the relevant templates available for anyone to create Web TV content and I'd expect quite a few more channels to appear shortly (I'll be looking at creating a Phones Show channel, for example).
Video is of high quality, with H.264 encoding being standard and with nHD (as on Symbian^1 and Symbian^3) being the minimum resolution.
Our review N8s didn't have BBC iPlayer pre-installed, but apparently retail units do. In any case, it's trivial to go to bbc.co.uk/mobile/iplayer/ in Web and access the programmes and downloads that way - these days, iPlayer's just a bookmark, effectively.
On the whole, Web TV looks more promising and more scalable than any of Nokia's video centre efforts so far, so let's hope for the best.
By the way, a curiosity is that there's no mention of YouTube here - I know that this isn't 'TV' in any real sense, but putting at least a shortcut to this in Web TV would have made sense to me. Instead, YouTube appears as a shortcut at the bottom of the main 'Videos' page, linking through to the excellent mobile version of the YouTube web site: videos start playing immediately when their page is loaded, though it's not obvious that users need to double tap them to bring them up full-screen. Still, once you discover this 'trick' then YouTube becomes very workable.
Of additional note is that the Symbian native YouTube client that we've had for the last few years doesn't work fully on Symbian^3 yet - there are login and authentication issues - again let's hope for a speedy fix and update and I'll report back in the news.
Brand new for the N8 is a custom video editor - this is rather impressive, as on-phone video editing goes, and is (in terms of purpose, at any rate) equivalent to the iPhone version of iMovie which iPhone 4 users have to buy as an extra. Photos and videos can be added to a kinetically scrolling storyboard, rearranged as you want, each clip can be cropped to just the frames you want included, titles added, background music added and transition effects inserted. And all of this is quite happy working with full 720p video footage. Is there a catch? Well, yes and no.
For simple, 'put a load of clips together and show to your friends on the coach on the way home', the N8 video editor is absolutely fine. But - and it's something of a big 'but', there are two caveats. Firstly, there's no concept of saving your mini project for later reworking - so you can spend 15 minutes tweaking your movie, save it to a file and watch it - and then there's no way back into the editor to correct a typo or add an additional scene - you have to start from scratch.
Secondly, although there are transitions, these are implemented very clunkily. Rather than seamlessly merge one video clip into another, the first one is frozen, the first frame grabbed from the following clip, and then the transition is applied to the two still images. After which the second clip is played. Even this would be acceptable if it weren't for the fact that the audio from each clip is stopped and started suddenly, there's no concept of fading one out and the other in, let alone merging the two. In practice this caveat produces uncomfortably awkward movies and you're best off forgetting about 'transitions' altogether.
But I'm being a little hard on the tool. It's working with full 720p video at well over 10Mbps and, importantly, doesn't reduce the quality of any of the footage in the editing, i.e. there's no resampling or re-encoding going on. For a fun little video-stitching utility it's welcome on my N8 - just don't be under any illusion that you'll use it for anything serious - and your desktop video editing software isn't going to be put out of business anytime soon.
Photo browsing and display
Photos, mentioned above, is fully multi-touch-enabled, in that you can splay your fingers on an image to zoom in on that point in real time - or pinch to zoom out. In addition, you can obviously drag the photo around while zoomed in, although there's a weird and intermittent bug where the app gets stuck for a while in multi-touch zoom mode and attempts to drag the photo around get interpreted as extra zoom gestures - here's hoping this too gets knocked on the head quickly by Nokia in a firmware update.
Zooming performance is good, considering the size of the images (up to 12 megapixels) and the OLED screen does an amazing job at displaying images to their best advantage.
As mentioned in parts 1 and 2 of our N8 review, 'out of the box' there's relatively little you can do (in terms of sharing) with your captured photos - just the option to send them via MMS, email or Bluetooth. Which is fine as far as it goes, but not having a 'Share online' facility is a disappointment. As shown in the screenshot, it's trivial to rectify this by installing the free Pixelpipe Send and Share from the Ovi Store.
Pixelpipe has the disadvantage in that it's a little more fiddly to set up than Share online, but the huge advantage in that it knows about every media sharing site and network on the planet - and can post to any or all of them in one hit. So, for example, you could be out and about at an event and firing off photos with captions, with Pixelpipe automatically uploading them to Flickr, Twitter and Facebook without you lifting a finger. Again, let's hope that Nokia has the sense to include Pixelpipe in a future firmware build so that new users don't have to find the app for themselves!
Accessed either from 'Options | Edit' in Photos, or through a dedicated Photo editor shortcut, this is an evolution of the existing photo editing in S60 5th Edition phones, itself a port of that in the Nseries phones of the N96 era. Thirteen icons lead to basic edit functions, some of which are new and overhauled compared to what's gone before.
Here's what available:
- Rotate, Resize, Crop (as they sound, same as in previous devices)
- Clipart (curiously, a different collection to that previously)
- Fun (a morphing/bending tool, for warping faces and figures)
- Draw (a basic line drawing and pen-painting tool)
- Bubble text, Frame, Red eye (as they sound, same as before)
- Stamp (clip-art-like coloured stamps, only ten currently included)
- Effect (colour styling, art effects and filters, all quite impressive)
- Tuning (auto, vertical/horizontal comparisons, brightness/contrast, highlights/shadows, RGB colour, saturation, sharpness and de-noise)
- Animation (adds thirty or so clip-art like simple 'fun' animations)
As usual changes are saved to a new image, so you don't lose the original.
Even ignoring the trivial/fun additions, the photo editing power on the N8 is seriously useful. The Effect and Tuning panes in particular should impress most users trying to do something more with their new 12 megapixel N8-shot photos.
Music player has been revamped for Symbian^3, with the home page now a kinetically scrolling list of artists and albums - what most people will want to see first, with the full song list, playlists, genres and 'podcasts' now on the Options menu and a tap away. A prominent 'Shuffle' legend on this home page acts as a toggle to turn this feature on and off, along with companion menu options in any of the other screens during playback - as you'd expect, random tracks are chosen from your library after each song ends.
The building of the music library still takes a while, as on S60 5th Edition, but with two definite improvements: it seems that this is built-in the background at some point, since when I first went into Music player after inserting my 16GB microSD, all the tracks appeared immediately. Secondly, finding files is a lot quicker - in part due to the faster chip, but also probably due to code optimisation.
Album art remains as enigmatic as ever - there are three completely different schemes for embedding or attaching this and I don't altogether blame Nokia or Symbian for not supporting my Apple library of iTunes-ripped CDs on my Mac, in terms of handling the iTunes artwork, but would it have been too much to ask for a menu option 'Get album artwork' and a link through to the appropriate Gracenote database from within Music player? Now having artwork isn't a showstopper, but it all looks a bit patchy if your chosen desktop music scheme isn't one that's fully supported by Symbian.
File decoding compatibility is excellent, as you might expect. The quoted support list is "MP3, WMA, AAC, eAAC, eAAC+, AMR-NB, AMR-WB, E-AC-3, AC-3", which again encompasses anything you're likely to come across.
There's a graphic equaliser built-in, as on previous Nseries, with six presets, including the default 'flat' one, though there's no way to edit a preset or create a new one. Still, music sounds as good on the N8 as it usually does on Nokia's smartphones and, as ever, I positively love the way that most Nseries ship with a multimedia headset - by which I mean a stereo headset with music playback controls built into the lead. This way I can be out walking or running and change tracks, pause playback or skip an advert simply by pressing the buttons in the 'pod' on the lead, rather than having to stop and get my touchscreen N8 out from my pocket and fiddle with that instead.
The headset, a WH-701, is of good quality, too, with in-ear design. You can swap it for a traditional 3.5mm set of headphones of your choice, but you'd lose the ability to take calls from the headset, of course. Another option is to use any stereo Bluetooth headset, but I've never been a fan of having my encoded and then decoded MP3 and AAC music getting re-encoded and re-decoded just to make the journey 30 cm from my pocket to my ears...
This being the N8, there's also a built-in FM transmitter (as on the likes of the N86 and N97) and you can set this to any FM frequency you like - this works brilliantly in the car for getting your music from phone to car speaker system, provided you can find a frequency that's not used much in your area - I know this can be a potential problem in London and the South East of the UK.
As mentioned in Nokia N8: part 1, overview and hardware, there's no sign of Nokia's official Podcasting client in the launch v11 firmware - which is a major shame. I'm assuming that this is a temporary situation (as with Share online?), but in the meantime it's easy enough to make do with the beta of Symbian Podcatcher (grab the Symbian^1 version until the author fixes the SIS file for the Symbian^3 version....)
You'll have noted from our news item that Nokia has now released Internet Radio (in the Ovi Store) for their Symbian^1 phones - the timing of this can only mean that a Symbian^3-checked version is imminent for the likes of the N8 and C7 - watch for news of this. In the meantime there are a number of third party streaming radio apps in the Ovi Store, dedicated to a group of stations.
In addition, there's the Ovi Music client, a Web-based online store for buying and downloading Nokia's (now DRM-free) music. 30 second samples are available for most tracks and play with one click from the album pages.
As with most Nseries handsets from Nokia, there's an FM radio included too, working using the headphone lead as the main aerial, with a station list downloaded over the air for your area, as determined using your Internet connection. And, as usual, its usefulness depends entirely on where you live and how strong the signals are.
One area where the iPhone has reigned supreme since 2008 is gaming - specifically action games, involving 3D movement, real time texture rendering, and so on. Think first person shooters, motor racing, flying games, and so on. Once upon a time, with the N95, Nokia was leading the pack in terms of smartphone graphics, with an onboard graphics coprocessor, but then the chipsets got simplified and, in gaming terms, Nokia's smartphones got a lot dumber. Just as the iPhone app store's gaming scene was going stratospheric.
However, with the new Symbian^3 handsets, Nokia has seen the light and copied the Samsung i8910 and Sony Ericsson Vivaz in incorporating a dedicated OpenGL 2.0-compliant graphics processing chip. Those two handsets weren't big enough sellers to attract games developers, but Nokia's devices are a different story. The N8 (and C7, C6 and E7) will sell in their tens of millions over the next six months, and the top games developers have come onboard to offer titles that rival some of the top titles on even the iPhone.
For example, GT Racing: Motor Academy HD, which in its scope, feel, graphical intensity and frame rate rival anything else in the world. The circuits are full 3D, complete with gradients and camber and throwing one's car around is quite an adrenaline rush. Car racing seems to be a strong suit at the moment, with Need for Speed: Shift, Rally Master Pro and Raging Thunder 2, but there are other impressive titles in the Ovi Store (Angry Birds, anyone?) and more being released each week, all of which take advantage of the N8's graphics power.
On the N8 itself, the presence of a big (16GB) mass memory is welcomed because of the size of these games. With the high resolution graphics needed and with accompanying digital sound, some of the titles mentioned exceed 150MB - with accompanying dire warnings about making sure to download them over Wi-Fi only!
In summary, although a dozen decent games on Symbian^3 doesn't get close to the hundreds - or even thousands - on the iPhone app store, it's a good start and shows the potential of these new smartphones.
The Nokia Nseries has always been centred around multimedia - both creating it and playing it - and the N8 takes multimedia to a new level on the Symbian platform. And arguably on any platform - with the device plugged into an HDMI cinema system, for example, playing back captured and pre-recorded 720p 'HD' movies and showing off some of the new generation of Symbian^3 games, I don't think many observers would be as dismissive of the N8 and Symbian as they might have been a year ago.
In part 4 of this Nokia N8 review Rafe will be looking at Internet connectivity, messaging and email.
Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 12th October 2010
Reviewed by Steve Litchfield at