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Hands on with Nokia's flagship N8

The high-end fight back begins

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How often do you see somebody in town with a high-end Nokia phone these days? Is there even such a thing? Nokia's flagships have gone missing, of late, along with half the fleet.

Well, all that should change come early autumn, as Nokia starts to fight back against the pummelling it's been taking from Apple and RIM over the past three years. This time it has some decent ammunition in the form of the N8, a smart camera phone set at an aggressive price.

After six weeks of teasing, the Finns at last offered a hands-on with this in Singapore today - so far journalists have been able to touch one but not turn it on - and I attended a mirror event in London. It worked out at over half an hour's facetime with the prototype - not enough to explore all its features, or put all the claims to the test, but enough to get a decent overall impression.

First impressions

After envisaging the smartphone market 15 years ago, Nokia was badly caught out by competitors who timed their arrival to perfection (Apple) or brought a good reputation in a niche market to the mass market (RIM). It wasn't the lack of QWERTY or a touchscreen that embarrassed Nokia, but the reality that the competition offered a much more straightforward and less niggly user experience. S60 had been considered "good enough" for years, but really it was neglected, and the pigeons finally came home to roost.

Nokia N8

This year's Nokia phones will, of necessity, prolong the agony a little longer. There's no sign that its Linux OS (now called Meego) is anywhere ready for prime time, and the major overhaul of Symbian, Symbian^4, won't be in phones until next year. The UI improvements here are incremental, and intended to resolve the greatest niggles, rather than an entirely new shell, or a ground-up rethink, a la Windows Mobile 7.

With the N8, Nokia is fighting back on two fronts, and putting an aggressive price of &370; on the package. It's a cameraphone first, second and third, and features an HDMI port and Dolby Digital Plus surround stereo. This is a subtle but overlooked point - Nokia envisages people hooking the N8 up to the family flat panel TV as often as they hook it up to the PC. Given that new TVs have HDMI ports to spare, this is no longer Jetsons territory.

If the N8 does nothing else (and of course it does), it does photos and video extremely well. This will be the selling point on the high street, and from my hands-on, users shouldn't be disappointed.

Photos are vivid, with plenty of detail, without looking over-processed. There's no more lag with the 12MP images than what people already expect from a phone, which is a huge improvement on some of its predecessors. Half a second should be typical.

Nokia also boasts that the N8 features the largest sensor (1/1.83) of any imaging phone; the lens has a focal length of 28mm. For people who regularly like to blind their friends in dark rooms, the N8 has a "real", ie Xenon flash. In an interview, the Nokia manager responsible said the designers traded off variable aperture for superior optics. Some familiar features from dedicated cameras, such as face tracking, have found their way into the N8.

Nokia has opted not to protect the lens with a mechanical cover, but instead use multicoated scratch-resistant glass. Since almost everyone has had a bad experience of unprotected lenses, the market may take some convincing.

I found the camera slightly less than intuitive, even though it supports more gestures. I couldn't get pinch to zoom to work until it was demonstrated to me. A doubletap produces a fast zoom. But other gestures brought up the traditional slider - which feels quite anachronistic on a "direct manipulation" device.

One aspect likely to stump even more people is the refusal of the main camera button to take a picture - one is available on screen, but for the camera button to become "active", the phone needs to be satisfied it's in focus.

Video performance is also excellent, with audio noise reduction evident, and the phone working hard to eliminate pixel blurring. The spec is 720p video at 25fps, using H.264 encoding. In practice, a thirty second clip turns out a 40 to 45MB file. And you'll want subjects of the video to remain roughly where they are: it doesn't have continuous autofocus.

Obviously the £200-£300 camcorder market will remain intact, but device owners with this kind of capability in their pockets - it's really quite decent - will find themselves making more videos.

There's still some work to be done, I was told, in various aspects of the software - the phone is out in early September (Q3 is the official launch window) - but it already looks an attractive piece of kit.

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