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Hands on with Nokia's flagship N8

The high-end fight back begins

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The only lags I encountered when stress-testing the N8 were switching between the two biggest applications on the device: the new video editor app and Maps. But even then, the worst I got was about a second or so of black screen. The old single/double tap confusion seems to have been comprehensively banished.

Scrolling through albums - a direct steal of Apple's CoverFlow feature - was instant, but the demo phone only had a few dozen albums (and a dozen contacts). Scrolling through photos was also pretty smooth - although when it encountered videos, it gave me a low-res default icon, rather than an image preview of the clip. This is all good, and will be very welcome.

It may be a stretch to call it a "direct manipulation UI", however - there are still controls such as the zoom slider (mentioned above) and scrollbars. You don't need scrollbars if it's a true direct manipulation UI, you just swipe. I can't understand why they're there.

Nokia makes much of a "long press" popping up more context-sensitive menu (Opera's browser makes good use of this) - and it's a nice idea. But it only works in a few places. One place it doesn't is in the S60 applications deck. iPhone users are used to using a long press to delete applications, or move them around, but you can't do either from the Nokia apps list.

And with some trepidation I have to report that the home screen shows little improvement over the N97 from a year ago. It still invites you to clutter it with dodgy widgets.

The sprawl can be extended over three pages of "home" screen, which is probably one more than most people need; I find Android's choice of multiple pages on the home screen pretty pointless and nerdy. Who has more than two homes? Surely it stops being a "home" screen if there are multiple locations - and remember, the old S60 application "deck" is still underneath. But it's all in the name of choice.

Nokia claims to have reduced the number of prompts with which the phone pesters the user - and made setup easier. I couldn't test the latter - it still seems to offer the same, quite daunting "Connectivity" settings of current 5th Edition phones such as the X6.

It's disappointing is that in Symbian^3, Nokia and Symbian haven't grasped the opportunity to make the Settings coherent: they're still atomised, and all over the shop. This was pretty bad in 2002, when the first S60 phone appeared, but it's quite inexcusable now.

Even seasoned Nokia users still have trouble changing the wallpaper or a ringtone on today's phones. Wallpaper isn't under Display, for example. Ugly they may be, but nobody has trouble changing the setting they need with a BlackBerry, while Sony Ericssons remain a model of organisation.

Yet, as I pointed out at the outset, Symbian^3 is a stopgap, and it's removed many of the worst niggles that curse its current offerings.

The verdict

Half an hour isn't a lot of time to put a phone through its paces. The press material for the phone makes much of "web tv" offerings - but these aren't ready yet. Practical users may want to see how quickly it can compress the giant images and clips it takes down to a size suitable for dispatch to a friend or social networking site.

Obviously I couldn't test reception (a question mark whenever a Faraday cage material like aluminium is used) or how well the screen performs outdoors. These are all potential showstoppers.

Nokia's current touchscreens are sort of, meh, alright. They're quite usable if you adjust your expectations accordingly. But with the N8 there are plenty of positives, not least that it shows Nokia can once again bring high quality consumer electronics to a mass market.

The N8 leaves the iPhone unchallenged in terms of usability and apps, but it may well hit the sweet spot for people on a £30-£35, who utterly refuse to pay the Apple tax. It appears that Android phones have that section of the market to themselves. Not for much longer®

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