Nokia N8, an exercise in frustration
This is not meant to be a full and complete review of the Nokia N8. For that, you can easily find other N8 reviews online. This post is my user experience with the Nokia N8 after using it over several days.
Disclosure: I am current user of iPhone 4 and have owned all models of iPhone, except iPhone 3G. I have been using iPhones since it was originally released in July 2007. I am also a Mac user and have been one since i purchased my first Mac, a PowerMac G4 Cube, back in 2000. I had owned a couple of Nokia devices in the past. My first Nokia phone was the Nokia 8290 candy bar phone. After i returned my first iPhone (2G) in July of 2007 due to high number of drop calls in the townhouse i used to live in West Seattle, i purchased a Nokia N73 – quite possibly the worst phone i’ve ever owned – and used it for a couple of months. So technically, Nokia N8 is the first Nokia touch-screen smartphone for me. I did try my cousin’s Nokia N97 briefly for a few hours several years ago. Nokia N97 was supposed to be Nokia’s answer to Apple’s iPhone. Instead of properly designing a touchscreen UI from ground up, Nokia basically slapped a Touch-Screen UI on top of Symbian OS 9.4 and called it Symbian OS S60. Naturally, this window-dressing touch-screen UI revealed its ugly end as soon as it landed on the hands of users. I was so frustrated with the inconsistent UI and the irresponsiveness of this half-baked product, i gave up after a couple of hours.
The Nokia N8 comes installed with the latest Symbian OS, which – in its latest and most likely last incarnation – is called Symbian^3. Of all the names available, why pick this unpronounceable label as the operating system powering your flagship product? I do not have a clue. The phone was acquired a few days ago so the version of Symbian^3 installed on it is release PR1.2 and not the upcoming Symbian Anna update, which will be installed on some Nokia devices to be sold in July and also be available to all existing N8 users as a free downloadable update. Symbian Anna is supposed to address some of the short-comings in the current version.
Let me start off with what’s good about the N8. I like being able to see the current time and date while the phone is in standby mode. This is almost impossible to do on current generation of iPhone because iPhone’s display is LCD while N8′s display is OLED. In an OLED screen, pixels are individually powered so it is not necessary to light up the whole screen just to provide some simple information.
The phone is solidly built. It looks like it can withstand drops without shattering or cracking its Corning Gorilla glass. I wish i could say the same about iPhone 4. In January, when i left my iPhone 4 on top of a box about 2 feet tall, it slipped and slided across the datacenter raised floor for a few feet when my coworker moved the box, not realizing my iPhone was on it. I found several scratch marks on the glass face after i picked it up. So whatever Apple was telling people about how strong the iPhone 4 glass was when it was first revealed, it is apparently not true. I guess one advantage – if you even consider it an advantage – of having a rather fragile phone is the creation of a cottage industry full of third party iPhone case manufacturers. Among all the handsets, iPhone 4 must be the one device with the most number of cases available. It makes me wonder, why create such a beautiful and thin device when you have to bulk it up and keep it hidden with ugly cases?
There is a physical button to operate the 12-megapixel camera, one of the strongest selling points of N8. iPhone users have been whining about the lack of a physical camera button for years and in the upcoming release of iOS 5, which i have been testing since the first beta was released on June 6th, the volume up button functions as the camera shutter release.
The native Ovi Maps app, once loaded, is very fast to zoom in and out of a map. This app comes loaded with some maps, and you can add additional ones which are available for free. There is no equivalent to the Ovi Maps app on the iOS platform. The closest one that i can think of requires a combination of iOS’s Maps app and some third party GPS navigation apps like TomTom’s excellent but usually pricey navigation app. The Maps app on iPhones require data connectivity so it is completely useless if you have no data connectivity. Even that is not a fair comparison because TomTom sells navigation apps based on regions. There is not a single TomTom navigation app that covers the entire planet. If you are to purchase all of TomTom’s apps, you are looking at spending thousands of dollars with more than 20 TomTom app icons on your iPhone. So value-wise, nothing beats N8′s Ovi Maps app. That said, it appears you get what you paid for. When you are in the Ovi Maps app, it is not possible to search for the address of anyone on your Contacts list. Strangely, the app also has difficulty searching for my work address, an address known to every mapping software out there except Ovi Maps.
One feature on the N8 that i like is pressing and holding the menu button will launch the task manager, similar to double-clicking the home button on an iPhone. You can switch to or close apps that are currently open. On iOS, it requires the same amount of effort to switch to another app but closing apps require an additional step: once the task manager is launched, you have to press and hold on one of the app icons until they all start to wiggle. It is then possible to close apps. There isn’t, however, a way to close all open apps at the same time in iOS. The iOS task manager also has one feature that i am not particularly fond of. It displays every single app that has been launched in the past, even if some of them are no longer open. I don’t mind seeing all the apps that have been launched in the past but i would prefer the ability to differentiate between the open apps and close apps. If your iPhone is jailbroken, the free Switchermod app improves the efficiency of iOS’s task manager quite significantly.
Writing about N8′s task manager reminds me of the location of the menu button. There are probably better locations for it but Nokia chose to stick it in the lower left corner of the phone. When you are operating the phone with one hand, it’s not a natural position for the thumb to reach, especially when the button is on the tapering end. On several occasions when reaching for the menu button while using the phone with one hand, i had the sensation i was going to drop it. Other than the bad location, the menu button has a neat feature which lights up when you have received a new SMS or email message. This is handy if you put the phone in silent mode as it provides a visual indicator.
One time-saving feature is the notification area, accessible by tapping on the top right corner of most screens except when you are in an app. Tapping the notification area pops up a floating window containing direct access to the Connectivity menu, view available Wi-Fi networks and manage Bluetooth connectivity. You can also view the battery status or activate power saving mode here. It takes no more than three taps to enable or disable Bluetooth. On an iPhone, this is an action that requires at least five steps and as much as six steps: Go to Settings, scroll down, tap on General, tap on Bluetooth and then finally slide or tab the ON/OFF switch. Of course, if you have a jailbroken iPhone, you have the choice of installing SBsettings and with it, you can enable/disable Bluetooth – plus a host of other functionalities – in no more than two steps.
There is a very nice feature in N8′s Mail app. When setting up mail accounts, you can configure the days of the week and the period of time during the day when you want to it to retrieve new emails. This can be very useful if you do not want to be awaken by the new mail chime in the middle of the night.
N8 also has setup wizards for some popular email services like Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, and Hotmail. Exchange Activesync is also available, but only one such account is possible. So if you configure Exchange Activesync for your Gmail, you won’t be able to configure an additional one for your corporate Exchange server.
Nokia provided an Mac OS X application called Nokia Multimedia Transfer for transferring pictures, videos and music from a Mac to the N8. The file transfer can happen over USB or Bluetooth, if both devices are paired up. It is not difficult to pair up the N8 with a Mac running Snow Leopard – i believe it is the same for older versions of Mac OS X as well. However, if you do wish to tether your Mac to the N8, instead of going to the Bluetooth menu for setting up new devices, you need to create a Bluetooth DUN (Dial-Up Networking) interface on your Mac first. Nokia has some information online on how to do that. Otherwise, your Mac won’t recognize the tethering capability on the N8 and you will only be able to send file to or browse the folders on N8, features which are still not available on the iOS platform because Apple for some reason chose to handicap its Bluetooth implementation. Another Bluetooth feature, not unique to the N8 and has been available on most other phones for the longest time, and which is still missing on the iOS platform, is the ability to transfer contacts between phones. Let’s just say you are at a club with no cellular data connectivity and no free WiFi, how are you going to exchange your contact info with a hot chick you just met? Writing on a piece of napkin or your hand?
As a phone, N8 has good reception. In my house, both iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS suffer from occasional drop calls. I only made a couple of calls during the two days when i evaluated the N8 so that is not sufficient to determine if it is any better than our iPhones but one thing i did notice was decent signal reception. Holding the N8 with my left hand caused some signal degradation, as visible by the immediate reduction on the signal bar. But the degradation was never bad enough to result in a complete loss of reception.
Now that i am done with describing what’s good with the N8, here comes what is not so good about it. Nokia created a phone with great hardware but regrettably it is crippled by dreadful software. The user interface looks old and feels tired when being compared with its competitors. The icons and fonts look dated and i swear Nokia has been using the same font for years. Worse, N8 is plagued with UI inconsistencies littering throughout, it is as though different Nokia teams worked on different portions of the OS with very loose guidelines on how each menu and each application should look and act. I can understand if third party apps do not follow certain UI guidelines but it is inexcusable to find so many inconsistencies within Nokia’s own apps and menus. There is a reason why Apple is so stringent with consistency throughout iOS: A consistent UI is essential to providing good user experience. Every clickable item on an iPhone is clearly identifiable, unlike some of the menus in the N8. Furthermore, the lack of or very poor integration among Nokia’s own apps is astonishing. Another surprising thing i encountered over the three days of testing is the stability of N8, or the lack of. The phone suffered from four reboots (none of these were initiated by me), several instances of complete irresponsiveness requiring manual reboots and very flaky Wi-Fi connectivity (more on this later).
If N8 was released a year or two after the original iPhone back in the middle of 2007, i can at least understand the reason for its lackluster UI, the piss-poor integration among its own apps, the lack of a usable system-wide copy/paste and more importantly, stability. But for a device that was launched more than three years after Apple’s original iPhone, the faults i encountered are indefensible. I was wondering why the current CEO of Nokia Stephen Elop made the decision in February this year to abandon the sinking Symbian platform and jump ship to focus on being essentially just another handset maker for Windows Phone 7. The recently announced Nokia N9, which is partially based on the MeeGo platform, appears to be what a Nokia device should be with true touchscreen UI. Having only seen video demos of the N9, it looked like it could be a very appealing product that could pose some challenge to the current crop of iPhones and Android phones, granted it will only be a one-off device. This made me wonder even more why Elop made that decision. After all, he must have seen the Nokia N9 since he joined Nokia last September, before he made that fateful decision. But after spending a few days with the Nokia N8, the current flagship product from Nokia, i think i am beginning to understand his decision. How could he trust the Nokia R&D team that has spent years developing on the Symbian platform – the same team responsible for the N8 – to come out with a product that can compete with the best of what Apple can offer? It took me only a couple of days to identify some of the UI inconsistencies and one has to wonder how did the quality control team – if there’s one – at Nokia let them slip through? May be they have been too entrenched to realize these design defects and the only way to address this is to do a complete house-cleaning. I do not know if jumping to the WP7 platform is a wise decision, but Stephen Elop did not appear to have too many choices left.
Here are the things i do not like about the N8.
Lack of system-wide copy/paste: N8 has copy/paste capability but it is handicapped by the fact that it can only be invoked when the Editor is opened. I believe Nokia made a huge mistake when it tied the copy/paste functionality with the Editor. Want to copy a paragraph of text from a website? Not possible because you cannot invoke the Editor within the body of the website. You can, however, copy the URL of the website because tapping on the URL field will invoke the Editor. If someone sends his mailing address to you, and because reading an email does not invoke the Editor, you cannot copy his mailing address. You may be able to get around this by replying the same email because this act will invoke the Editor. To not have system-wide copy/paste baked into the OS is unforgivable.
Copy/paste, even when available, is difficult to use. Unlike iOS’s implementation of copy/paste, when you are trying to copy some text with your finger above the targeted text, it is not possible to see what’s underneath the finger. N8′s copy/paste seems more like a guessing game. If you are lucky, you capture what you needed the first try. But if you are not, keep trying. This leads me to my next point, poor integration among Nokia’s own apps.
Lack of or poor integration among Nokia’s own apps: If Nokia implemented better integration among its own apps, the lack of system-wide copy/paste may not be such a bad thing. For example, if the Mail app has the ability to identify an address as such and tapping on the address will launch the Contacts app or the Ovi Maps app, it removes the need for copy/paste in that particular situation.
On iPhone, if an email contains an address, tapping it will automatically launch the Maps app, while tapping and holding will open a pop-up window with options to look up the address in Maps, add the address to Contacts or to simply copy the address.
If you are already in Ovi Maps app, there is no way for you to retrieve your list of contacts from the Contacts app. To find out where your friend lives or the directions to get there, you have to first open the Contacts app, search for your friend, and then tap on the field that reads “Find on map”. Even that integration between the Contacts app and the Ovi Maps app is very poorly implemented. I’ll just use my own information in the Contacts app as an example.
Tapping on “Find on map” opened a pop-up window with two addresses – home and work – and when i tapped on my work address, it took quite a few seconds to launch Ovi Maps app. Now what i initially expected was Ovi Maps would find and pinpoint the location of my work address on a map. But no. The first thing that appear in Ovi Maps, after the initial loading of the app, was my work address in Editor mode. I assume that was my work address because the search box in Ovi Maps only displayed the last portion of the address. It just sat there waiting for me to acknowledge, by tapping on the button with the green checkmark. How many confirmations did the Ovi Maps app need? I thought i already made my intention very clear when i selected my work address but apparently, in the Nokia world, you have to confirm, confirm, and confirm again.
So now it would finally determine where my work address is right? Oh no. Ovi Maps displayed three different addresses near my work address. Now if it is smart enough to determine how far those three addresses were from my work address, why was it not smart enough to determine where my work address was in the first place? And guess what? It was not able to find out where i work. I later even updated Ovi Maps app with map data from the state of Washington but no matter what i did, it simply could not locate where i work.
With that exercise ended in utter failure, i decided to go back to the Contacts app to find out if there was any typo in my work address – there shouldn’t be since it was imported along with all other entries in the Contacts app from my Macbook Air. To go back to the Contacts app from the Ovi maps menu displaying the three not-my-work-addresses, i had to tap on clear, clear and then finally, close.
No Unicode support: The firmware that shipped with all N8 handsets in the US does not contain support for unicode characters like Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. If you get any emails, SMSs or visit any websites written in Chinese, the Chinese characters will show up as rectangular boxes. I understand if i want unicode support, i can install the firmware for Asia pacific region. But why do i have to do that? If i am a German guy and i want to have German menus on the phone and the ability to read/wrote Japanese, this would be impossible because Nokia does not have a firmware that includes support for those languages. There appears to be a way to hack the N8 to include support for unicode characters but the process looks rather tedious – you have to install some unofficial character sets made available on some public file sharing sites – and the hack probably won’t survive the next OS update from Nokia. In comparison, both iPhone and Android-based devices all come installed with unicode support. A Cherokee keyboard has even been included in iOS 4.
Abysmal Web browser: Other than the lack of Flash-support, iOS’s web browser sets the standard when it comes to web browsing on a mobile device. N8′s web browser, on the other hand, is slow, ugly and not conducive to the web browsing experience. Even its much touted Flash-support is no where to be seen when i visited my own website with an embedded YouTube video. Scrolling is always lagging behind the finger. For example, you have to drag your finger a little before the screen starts to scroll.
There are a few odd behaviors too. When i visited my own site, by default, it would only display what it thought was the main body of the site. Even when i rotated the phone to have it display in landscape mode, it still refused to display the full width of the website. If i have to view the full page in both portrait and landscape modes, i have to pinch to zoom out.
Like iPhone, N8 also implemented a double-tap to zoom in/out feature. But unlike iPhone, Nokia appears to have implemented only the zooming in/out portion. Double-tapping on a paragraph of text will cause the N8 to zoom in but it does not zoom in to the width of the paragraph. Instead, it zooms in to a set level and it does not care if one side of the paragraph is unreadable.
Mail and Contacts: The setup wizard in the Mail app seems to have some dependency on the availability of Nokia’s servers. Yesterday afternoon when i attempted to set up email accounts, when i declined the Terms of Services – from what i was told, agreeing to the Terms of Services will my emails be routed to Nokia’s proxy servers – the setup wizard did not know the proper incoming and outgoing email servers for the various popular email accounts i was trying to set up. Even when i managed to set them up, i was not able to get “push” email working. New mails that would show up on my iPhone almost instantaneously took hours to appear on exact same mail account on the N8. Another disappointment is the lack of support for unified Inbox. If you have multiple email accounts like i do, it is nice to be able to see all your emails in one Inbox, without having to go to each individual Inbox.
The Contacts app has a very limited search tool. It only searches for First and Last names. So say you want to search for someone in your contacts list who works at IBM, you can’t just type in IBM in the Search box – it won’t allow you to. In order to do such a search, you will need to Search Tool located in the Applications folder.
Instability: In the three days of testing the N8, the phone suffered from several reboots not initiated by me. Twice, including when i attempted to delete a mailbox from the Mail app – it became irresponsive, requiring a manual reboot. I also had to reboot the phone on two occasions because of Wi-Fi connectivity issue. All these are quite shocking for me considering the fact i had only installed one third party app, a screen capture app – due to the lack of a built-in one – to capture screenshots. If the phone is already unstable with just one third party app, i can imagine the instability increasing when you introduce more apps to it.
Some other nagging things:
- Music player does not support gapless playback. I have tons of continuous mixed trance albums and not having the ability to play songs without a pause is already a deal-breaker for me since i listen to a lot of music using my phone.
- In the Photos app, it does not understand iPhoto’s albums. Nokia Multimedia Transfer app on my Mac is able to identify the different iPhoto albums but i do not understand why it is not able to translate into something the Photos app on the N8 can understand. All the photos from various albums on iPhotos are transferred into the “All” album.
- Tapping on a video in the album list view will play the video immediately, and only in landscape mode. Rotating the phone to portrait mode does not help.
- No way to clear search history in Ovi Maps app. The Ovi Maps app keeps the last 10 searches. So the only way to clear the previous 10, you guess it, is to search for 10 other addresses!
- I spent hours looking for a way to delete an already defined Wi-Fi access point but i just could not find it. If it allows me to so easily define an access point, why not allow me to delete it?
- The button for the caplock key also serves as the shift key. One tap is supposed set its function as a shift key while double-tapping it engages caplock. This worked just fine until i opened Ovi Store app for the first time and used the Editor in landscape mode. Even since then, i have not been able to get the shift function of that key back and now a single tap on the key engages caplock.
- While i was transferring some photos to the N8 using Nokia Multimedia Transfer, i had problem making changes to existing shortcuts. In the menu to change shortcut, it would open the list of applications that i could choose from very briefly for a second or two before closing itself. This happened repeatedly until the transfer was completed. It really makes me question N8′s famed multi-tasking feature, if it can’t even handle something as simple as file transfer.
- Scrollbar. Most of Nokia’s apps and menus appear to follow the same scrollbar mechanism in which you can tap and drag on the scrollbar to move the content of the page up or down. In Ovi Store app, there is no scrollbar in both portrait and landscape mode.
Also in Ovi Store app, when you are trying to login to your Nokia account using the Editor in landscape mode, a scrollbar appears. However, the purpose of this scrollbar appears to be more of an indicator. You cannot tap and drag like other Nokia apps and menus.
- Inconsistent Editor behavior. The Editor shows up when you are required to enter some text and it is either in portrait or landscape mode, depending on the orientation of the phone. In Ovi Store app, when you are searching for apps or logging in to your Nokia account, the Editor behaves very differently from other apps/menus. Once the Editor is launched – by tapping on the search box or the fields prompting you for your username and password – there is nothing that tells you what are being prompted for. Since the Editor in landscape mode covers the entire screen, it’s impossible to know what you are being prompted for without exiting the Editor.
In other Nokia settings and apps, the Editor actually tells you what you are being prompted for, like when you are setting up a Wi-Fi network.
Another oddity with the Editor in Ovi Store app is after you have tapped in username, password or the apps you are searching for, the Return key does not work. You have to tap on the green checkmark key, which takes you out of the Editor and you then have to tap on “Sign in” or “Go” to proceed. The Return key appears to work fine outside of Ovi Store app.
- How many ways to quit? You can exit out of most menus/settings by tapping on the “Exit” button. However in Ovi Store app, there is no “Exit” button where you expect to find one – bottom right – and instead, you have to tap on the “Store Menu” button and then choose “Exit Ovi Store”. In Ovi Maps app, the “Exit” button is replaced by a “X”. In the Web Browser, the “Exit” button shows up on some screens but once you are on any websites, it is taken over by the “Close” button.
- Forgetful menus. In the Connectivity menu, if you back out of any menus listed here, except the bottom three menus for “Video sharing”, “Admin. settings” and “FM transmitter”, it remembers the exact location where you previously were in the main Connectivity menu. However, if you back out of the three amnesia-suffering menus, it takes you right back to the top of the Connectivity menu, instead of the bottom, where you were.
- I can share but you can’t. In the Photos app, while you are viewing a photo, you can click on the “Options” key to open a pop-up window with various functions to choose from, including sharing it. However, if you are viewing a video, no Options button is available. To share a video, you have to go out to the album list view, tap and hold on the video to open a pop-up window, follow by selecting “Send”. This is where another weakness of the N8 is revealed. N8 has the ability to send video for sharing but it has no native tool to compress the video. Attempt to send most videos will result in it prompting you that the attachment file size is larger than the maximum allowed 4MB.
Poor Labels/Icon choice:
- In Ovi Store app, the search box reads “Type Here…” instead of may be something more appropriate like “Search Here” or even just “Search”.
- Is this part of the picture? In Photos app, when looking at a picture, a single tap on the screen brings up the menus/options available. Unfortunately, it is a mistake to use white font with black border. On some pictures, it is extremely difficult to separate the menus/options from the pictures.
Instead of simply using just white font, Nokia should have placed those menu/option on a semi-translucent layer so that there is no mistaking those actionable items from the picture. Below is the same picture on an iPhone.
- Which is for email? The first time i tried to launch the app for email, since none of the icons are labeled on the N8, i opened the SMS app instead. Why use an icon for the SMS (or Text Message) app that looks so much like an icon for the email app?
- Which one is tappable? In many Settings menu, it is difficult to tell if an item is tappable or not, unless i tap and hold on that particular item. If an item is tappable, tapping and holding it causes a box under the item to turn green. The choice in using the same type of font for menu titles is questionable at best.
Which one is clickable and which one is not?
It is not like Nokia had no clue how to properly implement this. On some menus in Settings, tappable items are easily identified. The Bluetooth menu is one such example. Once again, this demonstrates the irritating inconsistent UI on the N8.
On iPhone, every tappable menu is easily and clearly identified. No one will mistake a non-tappable item from one that is.
Illogical Sensors settings menu: The Sensors settings menu has two menu items: Sensors On/Off and the not-so-easily-identifiable Turning control menu. All three items in the Turning control menu has a dependency on whether the Sensors is On or Off. However, if Sensors is set to Off, the Turning control menu is still accessible! I think this will be extremely confusing for users. By allowing the Turning control menu be accessible even when the Sensors is Off, Nokia is implying that items in the Turning control menu are independent of the status of Sensors, which is false.
On iPhone, if a child menu item has dependency on the parent menu item, it is greyed out and inaccessible if the parent menu item is disabled (or enabled). And this is the way it is supposed to be. No one will be confused by the child menu item’s dependency on the parent menu item.
A friend of mine – a very dedicated Nokia user and owner of a Nokia N8 – would argue incessantly on occasions that iPhone is not really a “smartphone” and that it is not as feature-laden as his Nokia “smartphone”. Would you choose a phone that makes your life easier with great apps integration, excellent and consistent UI, or would you pick one that is supposedly feature-laden but makes your life a living hell? At least for me, the choice is clear.