Nokia’s 2010 flagship is, in many ways, a masterpiece. From its unibody aluminum design to its groundbreaking penta-band 3G radio to the high-spec onboard camera to the full-size HDMI port to the innovative USB host mode, the N8 can’t help but impress.
That is, until you actually start using it — because unfortunately, it runs Symbian.
It’s not that Symbian is technically lacking as a mobile OS, it’s just so incredibly antiquated that at this point it stands pretty much a zero percent chance of gaining new users — less than zero if you consider some former Symbian evangelists of note who have jumped ship for Android, myself included.
Using Android full-time for the past month has given me a fresh perspective on Symbian, and it doesn’t compare well at all.
Take the main menu above for example. I’m sure Nokia has paid big bucks to a team of in-house usability experts to produce this “optimal” layout of icons. Too bad that (1) there’s no easy option for alphabetizing the icons without displaying them as a list, and (2) it suggests to the user that the icons outside of the Application folder aren’t actually apps…?
Once a user figures out how to organize this menu by manually dragging things around they’ll realize it’s about as easy to customize as the Start Menu in Windows XP — i.e., a royal pain in the ass.
As for installing new software, here again Symbian makes a woeful first impression. Upon launching the Ovi Store on the N8 a user quickly finds out that it isn’t actually the Ovi Store app but a link to download it from Nokia. Presumably this is by design so that the user gets the proper version for their geographic location and/or carrier. But it’s a nuisance at best and a usability disaster at worst.
Apple would never ship a locked-down Internet appliance with something so inelegant; yet kludges like this seem to be the best that Nokia can fight back with, at least on the software side of things.
And then there’s the web browser itself. It’s barely usable, and inexcusable on a flagship connected device. Savvy Symbian experts will install Opera Mini or Mobile straightaway, but they shouldn’t have to.
It’s not just me. As an informal test over the weekend I handed my trial N8 over in turn to my nephew and two nieces. The results?
- My 8 year-old nephew: “How do you work this?”
- My 11 year-old niece: “I don’t like this.”
- My 13 year-old niece: “I can’t figure this out…”
Granted, children aren’t exactly the target market for Nseries devices. On the other hand, my older niece is a BlackBerry user, and on my Nexus One my younger niece managed to take a photo of me, caption & tag it, and was but a tap away from posting it to Facebook and Twitter before I could snatch it away from her.
Given all the hype that Nokia’s N900 was getting this time last year it’s bewildering to me that they’re still putting any effort into Symbian at all, rather than fast-tracking their Linux Foundation-approved mobile OS. Symbian does have an almost ten-year legacy of applications and (among other things) full support for SyncML, but for me it’s day has clearly come and gone. From here on in, it’s MeeGo or no-go.