Review: Apple, Google Can Rest Easy Over New Nokia N8

Nokia Oyj just released an awfully sweet little camera. It fits into a shirt pocket and features a 12 megapixel sensor, xenon flash and Carl Zeiss lens. If only the rest of the wireless phone wrapped around it, the new N8, were as good.

The world’s largest smartphone maker has a lot riding on the N8, which it’s rolling out worldwide this month. The Finnish company has been hemorrhaging market share -- down to 37.4 percent in the second quarter, from 45 percent a year earlier -- recently replaced its chief executive and has announced the departures of two key managers.

The N8 represents Nokia’s biggest effort thus far to right the ship. And though it improves on previous offerings, it doesn’t come close to matching the state of the art as defined by Apple Inc.’s iPhone 4 and the best devices from Motorola Inc., HTC Corp. and Samsung that use Google Inc.’s Android operating system.

Smartphones rise or fall on their hardware, software and the apps and services available. The N8 does well on the first and decently on the third; where it falls short is on No. 2.

The N8’s software, called Symbian^3, is an updated version of the software that’s been powering Nokia phones for several years. But “updated” isn’t the same as “up to date,” and while it has some nice touches it’s still behind the times.

Down Memory Lane

For example, when you write an e-mail or send a text message and hold the phone in portrait -- that is, upright -- position, the touch screen defaults to a telephone-style numeric keypad. For some users, that will be a trip down Wireless-Phone Memory Lane, back to those halcyon days when typing the letter “s” meant hitting the “7” key four times. Most people, however, will likely be annoyed at always having to flip the phone sideways to get a QWERTY keyboard.

The N8 also sometimes requires you to go through a multistep process to perform what ought to be a simple task. Answering an e-mail, for instance, requires you to first hit an “Options” button, then choose “Reply” from a menu. And the software feels sluggish at times, such as when sliding between the three available home screens.

Physically, the phone is mostly impressive. The scratch- resistant, anodized-aluminum case makes it both look and feel like a premium product. Not all of the five colors are to my taste -- bright orange, anyone? -- but to each their own. The phone feels solid and good in the hand and, at 4.8 ounces, weighs just about the same as iPhone 4 even though it’s thicker.

Protruding Camera

The reason for that extra thickness is also the most impressive thing about the N8: the camera, which protrudes slightly from the back. It’s among the best I’ve seen in a mobile phone, not only for its resolution but for its operation in both idiot-proof mode (when I was using it) and under manual control. There’s autofocus, built-in face-detection technology and 2X digital zoom for still photos.

The N8 also shoots 720p video -- it includes an HDMI port and adapter cable for viewing on a high-definition TV -- and has a front-facing, lower-resolution camera as well for video calls. I found the 3.5-inch screen acceptable but nowhere near as good as the displays found on Apple and Samsung handsets.

The N8’s battery was able to get me through a full day of moderate to heavy use. Good thing, because -- like the iPhone, and unlike just about every other smartphone -- the battery isn’t replaceable by the user.

Eccentric Design

In Apple’s case, the non-swappable battery is a reflection of Steve Jobs’s desire to control the entire user experience. Here, the decision just seems eccentric, like Saab putting the ignition switch next to the shifter. I also found myself concerned about the little trap doors covering the slots for your carrier’s SIM card and an SD storage card. I was afraid they would snap off, though I eventually concluded they were sturdier than they seemed.

Nokia can’t compete with the iPhone and Android devices in terms of the number of available applications. Still, I found its Ovi services -- which include a very good mapping application, calendar and mail, among others -- to be thorough and well-integrated into the N8. Nokia is also building out Ovi as a platform for third-party developers, although to access their wares you first have to install the Ovi Store application itself; it doesn’t come pre-loaded on the phone.

The N8 is in the process of being rolled out around the globe. In the U.S., it’s available for $550 unlocked in a version that will run on either AT&T Inc.’s or T-Mobile’s network; there’s no word yet on whether a carrier-subsidized version is on the way.

Nokia isn’t the only smartphone maker struggling to reverse a slide; Microsoft Corp. this week unveiled its new Windows Phone 7 operating system as well. Given Nokia’s No. 1 ranking in the global market, Stephen Elop, the former Microsoft executive who took over as its CEO last month, is starting from a stronger position than is his old boss, Steve Ballmer. Elop’s task will be tough nonetheless: The N8, while an improvement on what’s come before it, still isn’t good enough to stanch Nokia’s bleeding.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Rich Jaroslovsky in San Francisco at rjaroslovsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

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