N8: Nokia's Future Comes in Colors
Yesterday I had the pleasure of going to Dolby Labs in San Francisco for a hands-on demo and briefing with Nokia and their forthcoming flagship handset, the N8. As a lifelong geek and amateur audio nerd, going inside the doors of the Labs brought back memories of my first Sony Walkman with "Dolby B NR," and it honestly took a little bit of effort to focus myself on the Nokia demo in the midst of all of that audio equipment. But, hey, a job's a job and so I settled down and checked out the N8.
In summary: The N8 is a solid, sleek phone with modern features like a multitouch-aware capacitive display and what no doubt will be state-of-the-art imaging and audio/visual capabilities. I just wish the experience of using its Symbian^3 operating system felt as modern as the hardware itself.
Home Theater in Your Pocket
The briefing started in a home theater demo room. Nokia had an N8 hooked up to Dolby's test rig via an HDMI cable, with the phone's screen mirrored on a giant flat panel LCD display and audio routed through a high-end surround sound setup. A Nokia rep fired up a 5.1 audio test movie stored on the N8's internal memory ... and the phone crashed. But, hey, it happens, especially on pre-production units with non-final software, and so they swapped a second unit in and fired the demo clip up once again.
From there on out it was all about multimedia, and frankly it was pretty impressive. Not perfect, but pretty impressive. The N8 drove Dolby's home theater setup through 720p two video clips with Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 surround sound: The aforementioned Dolby-branded test movie and a trailer for Tron Legacy. We also got a look at a video shot with the phone's onboard 720p/24fps camcorder, and looked at some photos shot with the 12MP Carl Zeiss camera, which features a Xenon Flash and extra-large sensor meant to capture bigger pixels for better image quality. The photos were downsized on the N8 to fit the HDMI-out port's 720p maximum resolution.
All in all the multimedia demo was pretty great. Video playback was crisp and generally smooth save for a few stutter-y hiccups when the Tron clip first started to play. Audio was awesome, and as much as Dolby's high-end speakers were to thank for that, the sound would not have been good if not for the Nokia's ability to handle the source clip with such grace. The clip shot on the device itself was also quite nice - a snippet of a school band concert shot outside in fairly bright sunshine - though it suffered from shakiness of the sort that plagues one-handed HD video cams in general. And despite being downsized to 1280 x 720 pixels, still photos captured with the N8 looked terrific on the big LCD panel.
I couldn't help but wonder, surrounded by all of that ultra-high end home theater gear, if A/V geeks would be willing to settle for the N8's 720p video and 5.1 sound in a world where 1080p video and 7.1 sound are readily available on Blu-Ray discs and MPEG files small enough to fit on USB data sticks. Nokia explained that in their field testing they encountered a large number of 20-something users who were happy to trade a bit of a/v resolution for the ability to store and output media from Web-connected smartphones made to be carried around all day at the ready for impromptu screenings. While the N8 does employ a mini HDMI port not commonly found on home theater equipment, Nokia will supply an adapter dongle in the phone's retail packaging.
We also got a walkthrough of the latest build of the Symbian^3 operating system, which will launch on the N8 when it ships later this year. Symbian^3 is meant as something of a bridge between the current Symbian-based S60 platform and, well, whatever winds up as Nokia's next flagship platform, be it S^4, MeeGo, or both. There are two ways to look at Symbian^3: On the one hand, it takes the look and feel of S60, which is familiar to millions of users around the world, and adds some welcomed refinements as well as lots of under-the-hood improvements. On the other hand, it takes the look and feel of S60, which is positively clunky when placed next to an Android, iOS or webOS device on a store display, and more or less retains it when Nokia arguably should have thrown the whole thing out and started over.
Before you go getting all upset about my being a "Nokia hater," go back and read the "on a store display" portion of that last sentence. If you love your Symbian device and dig the feel of the S60 UI, then great. If you've tweaked the heck out of your S60 theme and think it holds its own against the "look and feel" of any other modern OS, then greater still. Symbian is powerful, it's incredibly well-supported by users and developers alike, and it's been well-versed in buzzwords like "Multitasking," "Two-way video chat" and "App store" long before Android and iPhone entered the public consciousness. Symbian^3 has some Android-style UI features, including multiple home screens accessed by swiping and social networking integration that can pull photos from Facebook and Twitter into your Contacts app. N8 also features an advanced on device video editor that supports transitions, titles and music pulled from your device's library. Nokia and Symbian also seem to have eliminated many of the "annoyances" (Nokia's word) from the S60 UI, including those endless dialogue boxes that turn simple tasks like joining a WiFi network into multiple-step exercises in frustration.
Hot Hardware, Lukewarm Software: Same as it Ever Was?
If anyone can produce a cameraphone that's truly capable of replacing your point-and-shoot digital camera and/or camcorder, it's Nokia. I have no doubt about that. Way back when three or four years ago, their N-Series "multimedia computers" were truly state of the art. In many ways the N8 is once again a state-of-the-art device from Nokia, particularly if its 12MP camera lives up to the hype once its out in the wild later this year. While a 3.5", 640 x 360 display doesn't quite stack up to the latest from Apple and HTC and not everyone cares about HD video and Dolby Digital audio via HDMI-out, the N8 is still a slick little piece of hardware that's thin and light enough to easily slip into a pocket. And it's nice to see it being offered in a range of colors. Dare I say it, an out-and-out fun - arguably flashy - handset from Nokia? It's true!
I just fear that Symbian^3 is a nice baby step forward when Nokia really needs to make a major leap. Again, that's not to undercut the power, flexibility and loyal user base that the platform has long enjoyed. It's just to say this: Smartphones have entered the mainstream consciousness; they're no longer only the domain of the fabulously geeky among us. Nokia has long dominated the global smartphone marketplace, but if they want to continue that reign they really need to think outside of their comfort zone when it comes to combining form and function in a way that can appeal to American mass consumers, Japanese hipster enthusiasts, and emerging smartphone markets all over the globe, and not just to their long-standing European user base. Like it or not, eye candy has its appeal. And while Apple, Google, and Palm may or may not be able to match Symbian feature-for-feature when it comes to pure mobile OS power, they're winning on looks alone and close enough in terms of feature sets to lure a portion of the hardcore audience away from Nokia. That spells problems in the long-term for Espoo.
Nokia knows this, though, and they say they're making a concerted effort to reach the North American buyer. The N8, in near-final but still pre-production form, is a step in the right direction. The hardware is attractive, the imaging capabilities promise to be awesome, and the software is better than it used to be. I'll reserve judgement until I get to test the device out in its final form, but at the least I'm looking forward to taking an N8 out into the wild this Autumn, capturing some HD video with it, and plugging it into my own home theater setup - if not the one in Dolby's demo room - to enjoy the results.
For the record, Nokia told me that N8 will ship globally in Q3 of this year. While the device is built to support both AT&T and T-Mobile's 3G bands here in the United States, US ship dates are still up in the air and subject to carrier negotiations, amongst other things.
(left to right: HTC Evo 4G, Nokia N8, Apple iPhone 3GS)