I’ve been thinking about this long overdue post for a while now. I received a Nokia N8 to review a couple months ago and resisted the idea to publish a typical N8 review. There are already a number of reviews up – Nokia SA did a pretty good job seeding the review units and just about every local gadget blog has a review which will give you the nuts and bolts of a Nokia N8 experience.
Reviewing the N8 came at an interesting time for me. At the time I was a dissatisfied HTC Desire user and although I really dislike HTC hardware (it comes down to poor resources on the device to handle apps), I love Android as an operating system (if you want an Android phone, take a serious look at the Nexus S).
The N8 runs a fairly new version of Symbian, Symbian^3, on the other hand. Visually, it is pretty much the same as most recent Nokia smartphones and while the user interface has been criticized, it is like that for a reason. It is pretty easy for any Nokia user to pick up a new model and use it out the box. That said, after few months with Android I struggled for about 15 minutes to remember how to set up wifi on the N8. The N8’s hardware is great. It is well built and feels good. The screen is a bit small for my tastes (which have changed since I switched to an iPhone) but the N8 otherwise feels as good as you may expect a Nokia device to feel. Symbian^3 feels like an outdated OS, to the point of being a bit retro. The big question I have is how rich the app ecosystem is on the Ovi Store. While an increasing number of popular apps are being made available on Symbian, it doesn’t have all the apps I have come to depend on and the OS itself isn’t sophisticated enough to handle my basic productivity needs. That pretty much rules Nokia devices out as a viable option for me. But that is just me. The N8 is sort of the smartphone for the Nokia faithful and for the gadget middle class. It is cheap (R5 500 cash in SA, if I remember correctly) and robust. It could easily replace a point and shoot camera with it’s excellent camera (I did have a disappointing experience with image quality on my device which no-one else seems to have shared) and will do what most normal users want to do with their smartphone. It can’t hold up against Android smartphones like the new Nexus S or other recent models or the iPhone but it will do very nicely for a lot of people.
When it comes to the Desire, my big issue with the device is it’s tiny memory for apps. Most people may be happy with one or two apps but I use a lot of apps on my phones to do a number of things. Yes, you can move apps to the SD card but even this leaves a residual memory footprint on the device memory and apps like Evernote use a lot of space! When it comes to Android OS updates it bugs me like crazy that manufacturers take months to roll out the newer versions with their customizations. I wound up rooting my phone and going with the Cyanogen ROM which is pretty fast but that process breaks something in the Google apps update process. Every time I installed a new version of Maps, for example, my memory usage for that app effectively doubled and I had to wait for a new Google apps pack from Cyanogen to fix that. Back to the memory issue.
When it comes to Android itself, it really is a terrific OS! I missed a couple apps I really wanted to use (OmniFocus was a biggie for me) but I found alternatives which worked just fine (the Remember the Milk app is a great alternative and ties into the Web app which I like for it’s ubiquity). Android’s sharing options are the best I have come across. You can share stuff with a wide variety of installed and connected services and apps and this is a big thing I miss in iOS. Android is still a little fidgety and this is another criticism. I don’t think it is a big deal and the Android user experience is generally pretty good and getting better. From the perspective of upgrades, I suggest sticking with the vanilla Android ROM. Manufacturers like HTC seem intent on limiting their devices to a couple OS updates and that’s it. Considering we have seen 2 updates this year alone, that means your Android device with it’s custom ROM will only probably have a year or two’s worth of updates a good few months after Google’s stock update is rolled out to Nexus users.
Unlike with Android, Apple centrally controls it’s iOS platform and rolls out updates to everyone as and when they are released. The limitation is more hardware as older devices can’t support all the new functionality. This has burned Apple already with the iOS 4 release and seems to have affected the original iPhone and the iPhone 3G.
The iOS experience is smooth, consistent and, on my iPhone 4, pretty fast. The app ecosystem is much more developed for iOS devices and that means I have all the apps I want and then some. I have also spent a bit more than I expected on apps and that makes Uncle Steve very happy. I ultimately decided to switch to the iPhone because I didn’t want to fiddle with my phone to do stuff. I wanted a device that just worked for me and the iPhone does that. It has an excellent camera (just not if you zoom a lot – picture quality tends to degrade noticeably), even better than the N8 I think. The iPhone lacks the rich sharing capability Android devices has and that does bug me whenever I have something I want to share. Notifications in iOS are awful. In Android your notifications appear in the top menu bar and are unobtrusive. On my iPhone they are pop-ups that get in the way and that really irritates me. Hopefully future OS versions will fix this. Android handles notifications far better.
Otherwise, the screen on my iPhone is that good! It really is. The battery life is also pretty decent and I usually get through a day comfortably if I don’t charge through the day. The iPhone 4 feels really solid although my case adds some bulk I can live with.
I miss Google apps on my iPhone. Well, there are Google apps but they are not nearly as good as the Android versions. Gmail and Google Maps are big ones that are much better on Android. The iPhone 4 has been pretty popular so far and most of the people I know in my space have or are getting one. Those that are not interested in the iPhone tend to have a BlackBerry. That said, I believe Android will become the next dominant mobile platform across the board. Nokia should be very concerned. Actually, the N8 running Android would be very interesting. It won’t happen though.
Having used these three major platforms and devices in the last few months, I am happiest with my iPhone. I miss a lot about Android but not enough to switch back any time in the foreseeable future. I thought Apple’s relatively closed ecosystem would bother me but it doesn’t. Apps I have are high quality and do what I need them to do. Android will continue to improve and on some great work and I am excited to see how it develops. As for the N8, I like the device but it’s not for me. Nokia has an uphill climb to stay relevant in the coming years and it’s new OS, MeeGo, may be Nokia’s make or break OS.
By the way, I typed this post in Simplenote on my iPhone. I managed to hurt my back so sitting up with my laptop isn’t an option for me for now. Sorry about the typos!