A celebration of hardware and why I still choose the N8.

Posted on 12/19/2011

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Yesterday I took a stroll down memory lane as I was surrounded by some, for lack of a better word, ‘classic’ Nokia handsets. In today’s world these are devices built around a different philosophy, offering dare I say a more tangible and organic connection to the world through the impressive dedication to convergence, as opposed to the always online, always connected paradigm. Indeed one of the devices, is considered by many to be the last great Nokia device, and specifically not in the context of just Nokia’s portfolio but when stacked up against the competition it was revolutionary. The N95, in it’s earlier guise and then the updated N95 8GB variant was a marvel of convergence and even today still holds it’s won just purely looking at the scope of it’s components. I don’t need to go through the entire spec other than to say screen size and resolution aside, this would not be out of place in today’s market Indeed last year I had to send in my 6710 Navigator for repairs, and got to use the N95 8GB for three weeks or so and even in mid 2010 the device still more than held it’s own. Yes it was lacking in a Web 2.0 centric environment but I still got my mail delivered to me plus I could access my social networks and several web centric services by pointing the browser to mobile friendly sites. And the hardware was superlative. The build quality was (and still is) impressive, save for the burden of a three year old battery with a broken back  cover. The sound quality was stunning through ear phones or the awesome loudspeaker, GPS lock swift, the slide mechanism to reveal the keyboard or multimedia keys is still stunning, and the 5 megapixel more than held it’s own save for the use of LED flash (rectified in the stunning N82).

The revolutionary N95 8GB

Of course as we know, the focus today is not on a neverending specification list but (correctly) the focus has been on enhancing user experience, as typified by the elegance of OSs like the nascent Windows Phone plaftorm even if to the hardware centric users like myself, it is achieved by stripping away levels of complexity that entice me to a platform. It is why the iPhone has been such a raving success, despite arguably only reaching hardware parity to much of the competing OEMS with the 4 and 4s. I’m not just talking about processors and RAM but everything else. Apple created a device that was fun and easy to use first and foremost, and this captured the public imagination. As a geek I have learnt that much of what I find important in a mobile device is actually of little consequence to the wider public. So things like USB On the Go, dual charging, BT file transfer etc, I don’t compromise on, but a non geek will happily give up on those tech luxuries as long as the phone has the necessary functions of a modern day device and a great user experience.

And a device that proves the fact is the much maligned Nokia N97. Nokia had already taken a beating when they introduced the N96 as the follow up to the superlative N95. It wasn’t even that the N96 failed to improve or match the N95, but it was in fact a step backwards. The N97 was to be the answer. On paper this was the device to end all device. It brought along a large (in those days) 3.5″ touch screen to Nokia’s portfolio as well as a plethora of hardware components that would take it beyond the aforementioned iPhone and bring ‘mind share’ back to Nokia. In reality it did just the opposite. While it is clear that for example today’s dual core behemoths with gigabytes of RAM are perhaps a touch overboard, the N97 took the opposite route and severly underspecified the device in that regard. Then the touch screen was resistive, and having played with it yesterday, is really just an awful experience when finger operated. The device was saddled with slow 32GB of mass memory, a protective camera lens cover that did very little protecting, and on some units a faulty GPS chip that also did very little actual locating. In the pantheon of disasters this was up there with the best worst of them. And that’s even before we get to the software…

The much maligned Nokia N97

These struggles were to be corrected with the release of the next ‘hero device’, bringing together all of the hardware components in a manner akin to the N95, while bringing Symbian and Nokia in line with the wider mainstream market. This device once again sported a simply astonishing specification list, bringing some first to market innovations like USB on the Go and HDMI output with full mirroring of the device and with it’s astonishing camera, taking present components to previously unseen levels. This was all packaged in a stunning anodized aluminium shell with some stunning finishes.

Locked and Loaded: The Nokia N8

Sadly this was once again let down by underwhelming software. Symbian^3, the new generation of finger friendly software meant to drive Symbian into the modern age was let down by an air of familiarity, some curious design choices like a lack of split screen input, and an array of bugs. Unfortunately even the beauty and sheer scope of innovation was getting overwhelmed by an undesirable software platform. And sadly as we all know, Symbian is an immensely capable and feature rich platform, but when riddled with bugs and usability issues, and was shunned by developers especially for the ‘headline’ acts in the mobile, it’s fate was sealed.

A trio of Symbian flagships

I get exposed daily to a few platforms, usually helping friends and family set things up, troubleshoot etc and have taken in a number of different devices. I’ve treaded water outside of Symbian and have been using Android for the past month or so, starting with the HTC Desire S and now with the Galaxy S2  as my primary device.  As I wrote in my reviews, the are both excellent devices. I had expected, especially with the SGS2, to firmly put my Symbian past behind me and move in to a new dawn but I find myself coming back time and time again to the now venerable N8.

As I’m sure you have gathered by now I’m pretty much a hardware guy and being somewhat technically inclined and always willing to probe and fiddle, hence why despite all the challenges in dealing with Symbian I can say I do enjoy using Symbian phones…for the most part (N97 I’m looking at you). My view remains that while software can theoretically be improved, short of buying a new device, your hardware is fixed.

And that is why I am still so fixated with the N8.

The Nokia N8 - Stunning

I last laid down cold hard cash for a device back in 2003 when I bought a second hand Nokia 8210, still possibly my favourite device of all time. Since then I’ve had hand me downs and contract devices, usually the former to replace the latter that I have abused beyond repair. The N8 was the first device that convinced me to part with cash again. As a fan of convergence, the idea of having  quality point and shoot camera experience on a phone, a world class GPS unit, a top als0 MP3 player and all the other extras this devices had was an opportunity too good to pass.

Launch firmware was a buggy. One of the main bugs that infuriated me was a Mail for Exchange that didn’t allow one to creat an email message. As Exchange is the easiest to sync Google data with a Symbian phone I resorted to using Exchange for Calendar and Contacs and setting up a normal Gmail account. Two accounts for one service…sigh. Never mind that push has never worked when setting up mail accounts this way. This was rectified in the next product release.

The N8 has received a further PR update, then the long awaited Anna update which brought about a whole host of usability changes that made the N8 a faster and more stable device. Now Symbian Belle promises a radically different experience that brings the N8 closer to the competition.

Much closer.

Symbian is still no Android or iOS but it is infinitely more usable now that it was when I got the N8. Moreover since around June there have been some quality applications that have been introduced to the platform again bringing it more in line. The ‘headline’acts are still missing. You won’t be seeing the likes of Springpad and Evernote on Symbian anytime soon and some that are on the platform like Skype lack features enjoyed on other platforms like video calling.

But interestingly having access to an excellent Android device with 300 000 odd apps on the market has actually led me to think carefully about what I want the device to do. As I did with Symbian, I crossed the 100 app mark pretty quickly but here I quickly closed on to the 200 app mark.

‘There’s something I haven’t tried before’ – install.

‘Oooh that looks interesting’- install.

‘That’s new’ – install

Repeat ad nauseum.

Then chronic app fatigue hit and I started uninstalling superflous apps until I was down to an app list that was give or take a few app here and there, suspiciously resembled the apps I had installed on the N8. While I’m not disregarding the necessity of all those apps it is clear that I don’t need that many apps. I really don’t. I still think an app store needs a lot of apps covering a broad range of apps. It’s the head and tail philosophy, a short fat head and a long tail. The majority of people probably flock to download the same core apps, but the tail will display huge variance. I have also been very selective in what I use. I don’t believe that with a such a variety of devices available that we should allow ourselves to become vendor and platform locked, and so I have always gone for cross platform solutions that will allow me to migrate easily. In fact right now I am able to switch seamlessly between the SGS2 and the N8 without skipping a beat. A restrictive approach granted but one that has paid dividends, even as I review devices.

Android is in itself a little more elegant than Symbian. The sharing capabilities simply blow Symbian away, likewise integration and notifications, so important with so man services available today is leaps and bounds ahead of what Symbian as managed. The SGS2 itself is a supremely fast and well kicked devices that for day to day operations does most thing s faster ad more elegantly than the N8.

But as I’ve said, I still find myself returning to the old horse. Even for say wanting to check my tweets, I pick up the N8 and kick start Gravity. Some offline reading, pick up the N8 and fire up SymPaper. Note taking..N8 and SymNote. I could go on. The SGS2 obviouly handles web browsing much better, in fact there’s no contest, and being a Google person, my email, contacts and calendar and much better served by the Android handset.

Where the N8 does stand out and why I prefer it to the Galaxy and to the Desire S before it, is in the hardware. Yes it’s slower, noticeably slower than the SGS2, but it’s beyond that.

It’s built better and it’s a nice size. I love the 4.3″ screen of the SGS2 but it really is stretching the limits of what constitutes a phone. I hate that I have had to compromise on one-handed usage and in that sense the N8 is much more friendly. But this is subjective. I’m a small guy with not so big hands so I can understand how for some people this is not an issue at all.

I’ve taken to running a lot these days and I use Sports Tracker and more recently Adidas miCoach to manage my workouts, and using both of these on the SGS2 made me appreciate the N8 so much more. miCoach relies on voice coaching to whip you into shape and I had noticed lately how I had to strain to hear the coaching on the SGS2. I run on the roads and so I don’t use earphones, and thus rely on the loudspeaker.  Then one day I had about 10% battery left on the SGS2 so switched to the N8 for the run and what a difference. The N8 was so much more audible than the SGS2 and I could just go about the business of my run.

I also found that even though the SGS2 can get GPS lock incredibly quickly when using Maps, for Sports Tracker and miCoach, I found myself waiting and waiting sometimes,  especially on cloudy and rainy days. The N8 just has no issues get a fix.

So I found that the N8 was slowly reeling back functionality that it had ceded  to the SGS2. I was finding that while the SGS2 had a software advantage and the couple performance advantage, the software improvements the N8 had received had brought it closer. And now noticing how much better the hardware was was leading me back to this much underrated device.

The N8 was also already permanently on my person because I get so much use out of the FM Transmitter. Again I understand that this is a niche use case but for me this piece of hardware is indispensable and having had the pleasure of using it I am struggling to do without. Having at the moment 10Gb of music on tap and access to all my podcasts when I’m driving is a boon. Equally I have got preset stations that cover the majority of trips I take, meaning I never lose signal, save in some parts of the city.

And lastly the camera. As I said in my review, the SGS2 has an excellent camera when conditions are right, but take it out of it’s comfort zones, in situations where I know I can trust the N8 and if falters. And that’s just during the day. Take it out at night and having experienced the N8s superb xenon flash, it can only be disappointing.

Let me just say before I conclude that I love the SGS2. And Android has allowed me experience mobile in ways that Symbian just cannot. But despite all of that I still believe that as a package the Nokia N8 remains even at the tail end of 2011, the device that I want to use day in day out, something that is no doubt due to the superlative hardware and a software platform that despite being given an end of life notice, is improving with each iteration and is supported by some very capable third party developers. That is why I still choose the N8.

And that is no mean feat.

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