Nokia’s grip on the mobile phone market has been slipping in recent years – its power to tempt people with high-end smartphones severely tested by the advent of Android et al. In a move to regain lost ground, the N8 is a radical departure for the Finns – abandoning its world-weary S60 platform for the first time in favour of its open-source descendant, Symbian^3.

The handset itself feels as if it’s been forged by a seven-foot-tall blacksmith. Monoblock aluminium casing holds a solidly embedded, 3.5in capacitive touchscreen, and even the plastic parts don’t bend.

New platform – same old feel

Aficionados of Nokia’s previous efforts will find plenty of familiar icons and menus on – and behind – the three customisable homescreens, while the rest of us smirk at its slightly retro aesthetics. It's fluid, though, with an almost telepathically responsive screen.

The N8 delivers the mobile web fast enough, but without panache. Pinch-zooming is jagged and it can take multiple pokes before it realises what you’re prodding at. Text input is joyless in the browser (as elsewhere), with QWERTY only available in landscape mode (portrait is alphanumeric) and no contextual help such as an ‘@’ key for email fields or ‘.com’ button for the address bar. Come on, guys.

Ovi ups and downs

The Ovi environment is a Nokia-only cul-de-sac, but Ovi Maps is one of its triumphs. It’s clean, fast and flexible with a 3D view, simplified night display and terrain mapping. The turn-by-turn sat-nav stands with Google's as the joint best free navigation tool available. Integrated weather services and local information from Lonely Planet, Michelin, Time Out, Expedia, TripAdvisor and Qype add to the experience.

Let’s not go overboard, though – no-one’s pretending Nokia’s Ovi Store compares to the App Store or Android Market for choice or quality. That said, there are a number of integrated widgets for feeding RSS news to your homescreen or accessing TV streaming services such as iPlayer.

One of Symbian^3’s main selling points is its new music player, with Cover Flow-style browsing and a finger-friendly interface. The N8 has tons of space for tunes: 16GB of onboard memory plus up to 32GB of microSD support. The supplied buds will do the job, but upgrade them to take advantage of the N8’s considerable sonic chops. Even the rear-mounted speaker sounds OK for what it is.

Optical excellence

A front-facing camera sits above the screen, but it’s the 12MP shooter sitting proudly on the back that shrieks for attention. Proud is the word – it’s mounted on a plinth 2.5mm above the otherwise flush back panel, along with a sizeable xenon flash. It’s a little odd, but you couldn’t accuse the N8 of giving in to homogenous phone design.

Not only has Nokia pumped up the pixel count and used its customary Carl Zeiss optics, it’s put a bigger sensor inside to capture more light. And, yes, it shows, although low-light pics without the excellent Xenon flash are noisy.

In addition to digicam-baiting stills, the N8 shoots 720p video at 25fps. There’s a dedicated microphone below the lens for better sound capture, while the phone’s mic pitches in to record stereo soundtracks for your vids. In-device editing is simple and effective, and doesn’t cost a penny (unlike, say, Apple’s £3 iMovie app).

Video and pics look great on the screen, and you can watch them on your TV via the HDMI out.

Despite its feature-rich spec sheet and new platform, the N8 is still as uninspiring as its predecessors and is unlikely to wow those eying up the latest Android handsets.


Stuff says... 

Nokia N8 review

Nokia’s latest serves up a fresh spin on an ageing formula, but ultimately fails to ace the new smartphone competition