So I’ve had the N8 for exactly a week now and it is time to table my midway thoughts. I have to say that I have not missed the 6710 Navigator at all, a phone that after a bit of a battle, had become quite literally an extension of me. Buttons are no longer so important now. When using keypad driven phones I occasionally do find myself tapping the screen, expecting something to happen. That’s a good thing I guess. I do sometimes miss the smaller form factor, but then I’m reminded of the comparative size of the screens, and the compromise seems worth it.
Build Quality and Design Choices
I’ve said it before and it something I will never stop repeating; this is one of the best built devices of any kind I have ever handled. The green colour will still take some getting used to of course, but that is only a slight distraction. It looks fantastic in the silver grey. The curves at the corners of the phone have not proven to be a hit with some people, my wife for example, who prefers a less obvious curvature (say like on the Samsung Galaxy S) or simply squared off ends. I’ve found them distinctive and actually practical. When the phone is held in landscape mode, the curvature of the left and right hand corners allows for a comfortable resting position for my index fingers.
Another thing I like about the N8 is the ergonomic positioning of the ‘home/menu’ button. As I’m interacting with the the screen, the home button is located such that without having to flex my thumb too much, I can move from the screen to the home button and back in an almost continuous arc.
One thing I don’t like is the position of the 3.5 mm port and the design of the earphones that come with the N8. It’s fine with the N8 held in portrait, but once you shift to landscape mode, it’s is directly where my left thumb is and it means I have to adjust my typing position. Usually I spend a couple of hours a day commuting by train to work and back home, and music had become integral to make the journey more palatable. This is also when the phone takes the most abuse with multitasking taken to another level. Some use cases for the N8 are more logical to carry out in landscape mode than portrait mode. I have found that this is problem arising from the fact that the housing of the headphone jack is straight and actually quite stiff. This is different to the ‘right angle’ design of my Sennheiser earphones (see photo comparison below). While not as aurally pleasing as the Sennheiser’s, the earphones are actually very good, and better than any default set I’ve used. They also come with a handy remote unit, with forward/back skip buttons, play/pause, volume rocker and call answer key for the hands free. Having this is such a life saver, and I would hate to lose all that functionality and the better than average sound quality. I think in the long term the headphone jack design could get very frustrating and I would have to revert to using the Sennheiser’s.
User interface tweaking
I definitely consider myself anti form-over-function. Superfluous design elements frustrate, whether in hardware or software. If it doesn’t do anything I don’t want it there. It’s that simple. As such my default settings on the phone are a black theme that retains the most of the default icons, the theme animations off, and a basic clock screen saver which was default on the N8 anyway. The black theme for me offers the best screen contrast and readability, and I generally have no interest in fancy icons, or theme elements whizzing by, rotating or doing summersaults.
I did however look at customizing options on the N8 to see if there where any that I might found useful. There were three in particular that appealed to me, Instant Menu, Grid Touch and SPB Mobile Shell. Instant Menu works exactly as the name implies. In the top left corner of the screen there is a discreet box that activates the menu with a single tap. The menu can be populated with all your important apps and functions, and is accessible from any screen on the phone. Pretty convenient. Populating the list was a bit tedious having to be done one app a time. The benefit of having one click access to most apps is a great feature though. Grid Touch didin’t last very long with me. It has 9 panels with your apps distributed through with each panel representing a category. You can place a shortcut on the homescreen, for quick access, but I found no way to rearrange icons (edit: a long tap does the trick), and it was no faster than using the standard menu anyway. It is free unlike Instant Menu though.
Lastly SPB Mobile Shell. Unlike the other two, which are simply UI enhancements this completely takes over your phone, and presents a whole new paradigm for interacting with the N8. It also has homescreens, which can be populated with a number of widgets, you can choose, one, three or five homescreens, either in ‘lifestyle’ or ‘professional’ modes, or both if you like. The widgets, unlike the stock N8 ones, are depending on the nature of the widget size adjustable, and can be placed anywhere on the homescreen instead of in predetermined slots. You can also drag widgets across homescreens too. The range of UI animations is far more arresting than the default layout, particularly the main layout which is the form of a carousel that you can spin around with a flick of your finger. It does have a use though with all the extra functions, like the application launcher, contacts section, call log and agenda in panels on the wheel. It is simply nothing like how the N8 ships and will certainly appeal to some people who find the N8 UI dull and/or dated. The primary deterrent will be the cost of the application, a scary R240! Below are some screenshots of SPB Mobile Shell running on my review unit.
Personally I am satisfied with the homescreen arrangement of the N8, in fact SPB Mobile Shell ended veering dangerously toward sensory overload but I can see the appeal. My most important functions in any case pinned to the homescreen and the rest of the apps/functions are no more that three clicks away. The settings are buried a little deeper but only things like security settings (pin, puk, lock code) are five or six taps away. Important settings like connectivity (tap the battery) icons, profiles (homescreen widget), alarms (homescreen widget or tap the battery icon) are readily accessible from the homescreen or within three taps from the homescreen.
An Update on Input
I wrote about text input on the N8 earlier, functional without ever being particularly impressive or fast, annoying at times but not a deal breaker. I just want to quickly mention how the Opera browsers both Mobile and Mini handle text input and the awesome Swype for the N8.
In advanced settings for the twin Opera Browsers, there is an option to use the Opera keyboard or the N8s default keyboard. The first thing you notice is that the Opera keyboard only comes in the QWERTY flavour, as opposed the N8 offering T9 in portrait and QWERTY in landscape. The other thing you notice is tapping any dialog box, overlays the keyboard instead of opening a new screen meaning than one is free to interact with the underlying UI, particularly important when entering URLs. There is no prediction or text correction with the Opera keyboards though, so there won’t be an AI correcting all your spelling mistakes as you type along. I sent an email via Gmail mobile using Opera Mini, and it was better having the screen available so that if you ever want to review any of the content, for example if you were replying to a really long email, you can do so without having to switch back and forth between screens. I find the portrait QWERTY horribly narrow though, I’m sure it’s to do with the 16:9 aspect ratio of the screen, and it requires a much greater level of accuracy than in landscape mode.
I was very skeptical about installing Swype. With Swype you simply trace your finger from letter to letter, and the AI ‘intuitively’ predicts what word you were trying to type. You don’t even have to tap the space bar between words! I mean I was just getting used to a foreign way of interacting with the phone, and now I don’t even have lift my fingers of the screen!?!?!? I gave it a trial run (it’s a free download from the Ovi Store), expecting a very steep learning curve but taking it one step at a time, I got the hang of it very quickly. I have been seriously impressed with how easily and quickly it deciphers my squiggles across the screen. Typing a word in manually adds it automatically to the Swype dictionary. My typing speeds have increased dramatically though I doubt I’m in a position to break the SMS speed typing world record of 25.94s for 160 characters achieved using Swype. This will remain my default keyboard choice from here on in.
Stability and Performance
I think this being the midway point of the review, it’s a good time to discuss stability and performance of the device. Stability is not something I have had an issue with while performance is a little different but not too bad. Only one application has crashed in the week I have used the phone and that was Opera Mini. I mentioned that Opera Mini has it’s own keyboard, and I have had to use this out of necessity. With predictive input on while using the system keyboard in portrait, the browser just simply crashes on me, and since I have switched to the Opera keyboard everything is fine. The only other issue that I had occurred early on in the review, on day two I think. After exiting an application the entire background in the menu went a brilliant, but frightening white, and this affected every menu level. With the default text being white it meant that the menus were nigh on impossible to read. The homescreens were unaffected and neither were applications, so I carried on hoping the issue would simply resolve itself, but the situation did not improve so I had to reboot the device. I must say at that stage I was not impressed but no such ‘white flash of doom’ has reared it’s ugly head since!
Performance in general has been very good. The one issue that keeps coming back is the email client. I will review the actual client itself later in the week, but it’s the effect that email sync has on the phone sometimes that is a worry. I set my Gmail and Ovi accounts to sync hourly, and exchange is left to sync always during peak hours and every four hours the rest of the time. When playing games for example, if the email client starts syncing, the graphics jerk and stall, which is just not on. I’ve played Need for Speed Shift while listening to music, mobbler scrobbling to my last.fm account, and with gravity running in the background and everything is fine until an email comes through. I’ve also noticed some lag but not often with the Socail app. I have not used the browser much since the first day. It only really gets used when hitting links from say the email client or the twitter portion of the Social app, and also to download applications that need to identify the type of device. It’s excellent for mobile sites, like facebook mobile, and actually handles and renders these better the the Opera browsers, however it is when viewing full websites that it becomes a problem. Opera Mobile, also a full browser is far superior here.
The shining light in terms of performance on the N8 is the camera app. It loads very quickly, and can be activated by simply clicking the camera shutter key. The time between shots is incredible. I’m used to sometimes waiting for more than five seconds from taking a shot to the camera letting me take the next shot, and with a 16 month old son, who is a most unwilling subject, good shots often went to waste. With the N8 that is not the case. Time to focus is also amazingly quick meaning I can frame a shot and snap quickly without losing the moment. Moreover the N8 supports tapping the screen to take a shot. Tap on the screen and the N8 will focus and take the shot, and this is useful for those who don’t like the two-stage shutter key. Personal I prefer the shutter key, as it gives me more control over the shot.
Beyond that I have to give the N8 a good score at the halfway stage. The phone has simply just worked for the most part as I expected, and since that forced reboot, the phone has been switched off only once, and that was after installing Swype, which required a reboot to take effect.
For the second week, I’ll look at the organiser on the N8, the email client in more detail, and the mutlimedia aspects. Moreover I hope to subject the N8 to my brutal train multitasking routine.