In the good old days, there was only one brand that was almost synonymous with a branded mobile phone – Nokia. A flood of new brands and new handsets later, Nokia has been pushed out of the limelight, especially in the smartphone market. Recently, they launched the Nokia N8, a smartphone with an all-new and improved Symbian3 OS. With a high price tag putting it on par with the big boys out there, we wanted to find out whether the N8 matches up to the smartphone benchmark.

First glance

At first glance, the N8 really impresses. It has a sturdy body, encased in an anodised aluminium casing. It feels hefty in your hand, although it is just about short of being called bulky. The 3.5-inch screen is a 16:9 HD AMOLED, which is a decent size for viewing videos and photos. It also ships with 16GB of internal storage, expandable by another 32GB through microSD. One of the USPs of this phone is the inclusion of a whopping 12-meg camera with Carl Zeiss optics and a Xenon flash. The camera protrudes out of the back panel, however this does not interfere with the overall look of the phone.

The front of the phone is bare except for a single button on the bottom left, which brings up the menu screen when pressed. The right panel has a volume rocker switch as well as a dedicated camera button. It also features a lock button that you slide sideways to lock or unlock the phone. On the left is a slot for a microSD card slot, a SIM card slot and a mini-USB port. The back panel is fixed, so you don't have to bother taking out the battery to put in your SIM. However, this also means that the battery is difficult to replace.

The top of the phone has a power button, a 3.5mm headphone jack and best of all, an HDMI slot. The bottom only has the standard Nokia thin-pin charging point.

The phone can be charged either through the thin pin slot or via mini-USB.

Interface

The new Symbian3 interface definitely appears to be an improvement over the last few versions. It includes features like HD video playback, three customisable home screens, multi-tasking and one touch switching between open apps.

You can add widgets of your choice to the home screens, by long-pressing the screen until the edit option pops up. Switch home screens either by swiping to the left, or pressing the touch button at the bottom of the screen. Other touch buttons on the screen are Options and a Call button.

The touch screen is capacitive, and you can program it to vibrate when touched. The screen was responsive and worked smoothly most of the time. The screen supports multi-touch, including pinch to zoom and swiping.

You get a choice of two keyboards – the QWERTY keyboard in the landscape mode and the alphanumeric one in the portrait mode. We found typing in QWERTY mode to be slightly difficult, as the virtual keys were a bit small.

Media

Unlike in most phone cameras, the 12-megger in the N8 doesn't let you down. The closest we've seen to such good image quality is with the 8-megger on the Sony Ericsson Xperia. The camera comes with a variety of scene modes, and gives you manual options to adjust ISO, White Balance, Exposure, Contrast and Sharpness. Images came out with good colour reproduction, and the camera functioned quite well in low light too.

The camera is also capable of taking good quality videos in 720p at 25 fps. The only downside we observed was the lack of adequate zoom – the camera offers only 2x zoom for stills and 3x zoom for videos. However, considering that this is a phone camera, those niggles can be overlooked.

The phone also has a decent photo and video editor. The latter lets you add music clips and text, and we ended up with some really fun productions.

Videos played beautifully on the N8, with crisp quality and no stagger. We used the provided USB connector to hook the phone up to a flash drive, and were able to browse its contents and play media straight off it. The phone acts like a mini-computer, letting you use external devices as a storage option. Transferring a 700MB movie file took less than three minutes, and we were able to navigate through the movie without any delays, stagger or pixellation.

The music player displays album art, which is always a welcome addition. The ample storage means you can store all your media without the need for an additional Mp3 player. It also comes with an FM radio.

The Social network manager from Ovi integrates Facebook and Twitter into one handy application, displaying your updates on the home screen. What we missed was the lack of contact integration between Facebook and the phone book.

What you can do however, is add someone's social network profile to their contact details, so when you select that you're taken to their SNS profile. However, the Symbian3 interface, unlike the Android, doesn't allow for automatic integration, so you tend to avoid the tedious, manual process. Events from your Facebook do get added to your calendar, which is a nice feature.

The Browser on the phone hasn't seen much improvement – what is on offer are just basic functions, so you can do a Google search or enter in an URL. We would have liked to see the addition of multiple tabs on this latest Symbian OS. However, it comes with Flash Lite, which supports most Flash Player 10.1 content.

The phone comes with integrated GPS, and Ovi maps also worked really well, pinpointing our location in seconds and giving step by step directions to where we wanted to go.

Call quality

We had absolutely no problems with call quality on the N8. We were able to hear people on the other end clearly, and our callers had no complaints about clarity, even when we were in moving vehicles.

Performance

This is one area where we felt that the phone let us down. Although the Symbian3 OS has made a huge difference to the overall experience, we observed niggling issues that made us think Android or the iOS 4 trumped Symbian. The phone comes with a 680MHz ARM11 processor, so it doesn't match up to the 1GHz processors we've seen in some other smartphones.

The accelerometer wasn't very accurate, often it would continue in landscape mode for a couple of seconds even after we turned it to face us vertically. We also found that the menu and apps took a few seconds longer to load compared to some of the other smartphones in the market.

The phone has a built in proximity sensor, but this is one area where it really failed. Often the sensor didn't work, and even when it did, it only resulted in the screen timing out, so we ended up putting people on hold or activating the speaker phone on numerous occasions.

Symbian3 does support multi-tasking though, so we were able to have the music player on when doodling with other functions on the phone.

We were also able to use the accelerometer to put the alarm on snooze simply by turning the phone upside down.

Battery life is estimated at 720 minutes of talktime and 390 hours standby. With the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on, all applications running in online mode, intermittent use of the camera and a few hours of talktime, the phone lasted about a day, which was pretty good. Putting the widgets in offline mode and turning off the Bluetooth increased battery life considerably.

Our verdict

Despite the improvements made on the new Symbian OS, it doesn't match up to the Android's user interface. This is definitely one of Nokia's best attempts at the smartphone segment, and the N8 trumps the N97 Mini by far. But, Nokia is also pitching the N8 at a hefty price. However, if Nokia does decide to go down the Android road, other contenders in the market might find themselves in a spot of trouble.