Nokia N8 preview: First look

We were almost starting to suspect mobile phones of giving up and playing soft. They seemed unstoppable you know. They went from 5 to 12 in no time and there was nothing to suggest that digicams will ever get a timeout for a much needed breather. Surprised or not, the game is back on and Nokia are pulling the big guns out. The N8 is the new wannabe king of cameraphones.
Fat numbers on the specs sheet and all that shining armor, the new Nseries flagship is hitting hard and playing tough.
The Nokia N8 has two massive tasks on its hands: beat digicams at their own game and bring Symbian back to its past glory. The hardest thing perhaps is to tell which one is harder. But if anyone should be trusted to perform a seemingly impossible stunt, (still) market leaders Nokia are a safer bet than many.
Nokia N8 at a glance:
•General: GSM 850/900/1800/1900 MHz, UMTS 850/900/1700/1900/2100 MHz, HSDPA 10.2 Mbps, HSUPA 2 Mbps
•Form factor: Touchscreen bar
•Dimensions: 113.5 x 59.1 x 12.9 mm, 86 cc; 135 g
•Display: 3.5-inch 16M-color nHD (360 x 640 pixels) AMOLED capacitive touchscreen
•Memory: 16GB storage memory, hot-swappable microSD card slot (up to 32GB)
•OS: Symbian^3
•CPU: ARM 11 680 MHz processor, 3D Graphics HW accelerator; 256 MB RAM
•Camera: 12 megapixel large-sensor (1/1.83”) autofocus camera with xenon flash, geo-tagging, face and smile detection and built-in ND filter; 720p video recording@25fps
•Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth v3.0 with A2DP, microUSB port with USB host support, 3.5mm audio jack, GPS receiver with A-GPS, HDMI port
•Misc: Accelerometer, DivX/XviD video support, Stereo FM radio with RDS, FM transmitter, 720p TV-out, Flash support in the web browser, anodized aluminum unibody, proximity sensor, scratch-resistant display
•Battery: 1200 mAh Li-Ion battery
As you see the hardware is all there – there’re not too many devices out there that can match the Nokia N8. Some will understandably frown at what looks like unimpressive CPU clock speed and scarce RAM. Just remember that it’s the performance to be judged here and not the sheer numbers.
Different platforms have different needs so we’ll only know if Symbian^3 can do without a 1GHz Snapdragon after we’ve seen the N8 in proper action.
12 MP camera
Let's be honest - it's the reason why you are here. The Nokia N8 hopes to change the way we perceive cameraphones, by making the shooter its leading feature. Nokia did their homework and packed the device with the largest sensor a mobile phone has seen (stretching to 1/1.83" inches). It has an advantage of roughly 50% over regular 1/2.5" sensors found in the Samsung Pixon12 and the Sony HX5 that we recently featured in a blind camera shootout. The larger sensor surface should benefit its low-light capabilities and dynamic range greatly.
But it doesn't end there - the Nokia N8 also comes with a mechanical shutter, a powerful xenon flash, a 28mm wide-angle lens and a front lens made out of reinforced glass. The built-in ND filter will compensate for the lack of variable aperture in those extremely bright conditions when you just cannot increase the shooting speed any more.
Judging by the results of the blind test we conducted yesterday, the company has also managed to deliver on the image quality front as the Nokia N8 managed to convincingly outdo the previous cameraphone ruler, the Samsung Pixon12 and an expensive compact digicam such as the Sony DSC-HX5v Cyber-shot. And here come the promised full resolution samples from the three cameras so you can check them out.
To be honest we are a bit surprised by the results. No, we are not saying that the N8 does something wrong and its win isn't deserved. Right on the opposite - the handset is undoubtedly the best cameraphone in existence.
It's just that the company's philosophy with the N8 is to do as little processing as possible, giving the image a natural look, rather than going for more saturated colors and higher contrast. We thought that this approach won't produce images as appealing to the wide audience. As it turns out we were in the wrong and the Nokia imaging team really knew what they were doing.
The well-measured in-camera post-processing has kept the images from the excessive noise that you usually get when you boost color channels to achieve more pumped up color output.
Plus it allows you to fiddle with the images in post processing leaving quite some room to work with.
Nokia imaging team also had a very sensible approach to noise suppression, wiping away colored chroma noise, but leaving the more bearable luminance noise be, which allowed them to retain as much fine detail as possible.
Add all those factors together and you will see why the Nokia N8 managed to trash the competition in the high ISO part of yesterday's test. Elsewhere things were more evenly matched with the large sensor advantage not as noticeable in good lighting. Yet, even then, the Finnish flagship cameraphone delivers slightly more resolution.
Another thing that came to our attention in the test is the fact that the N8 lens unit has almost no geometrical imperfections unlike the Pixon12 lens, which has notable barrel distortion. There's no fringing too.
The cell phone world has found its new camera champion in the face of Nokia N8 and the digicams are starting to feel the heat. We didn't need that much time to realize that, but we are still examining the margin of the N8 win. That final question should get its answers once our full review is complete.
The Nokia N8 does well on the video end too - it offers 720p recording at 25 fps, which is on par with the best in class. However the Nseries new king also offers very important extra that can easily make it stand out against the competition - its 3x digital zoom.
You won't hear us praising digital zooming in any way, but with the Nokia N8 it's different. Most cameraphones zoom in by cropping a part of the live video stream and then upsizing it back to 720p, making up for severely pixilated or blurry result.
Unlike its competitors, the Nokia N8 shoots regular 720p video by using all the 12 megapixels worth of its sensor and when it's time for zooming, it uses these 12 megapixels as a source.
As a result there's always enough resolution to crop from for a magnifications so the resulting 720p videos are always top-notch for magnifications up to 3 times.
The bad news is that we found a strange bug - the Nokia N8 only starts doing that smart zooming when you are at about 2x. Before that it behaves identically to every other handset out there and looses quality. We've prepared a short video to make our point more clear (the effect is best perceived when you watch it fullscreen).
We are really hoping that Nokia will step up and fix this up in a future firmware update. Before that we suggest you set the zoom in your N8 to either the widest position or close to the longest end (2-3x).
(GSM Areana)
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