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Photography and Art

Review: Nokia N8 Smartphone

The Nokia N8 Symbyian Phone

The Nokia N8 marks the introduction of the revamped Symbian operating system (OS) now known as Symbiam^3. The Symbian OS has been seen to be lagging behind the newer OSs especially in terms of its user interface (UI) and so the update was much need.

The N8 is presented in a very solid aluminium body with a toughened 3.5" AMOLED touch screen. It is a sleek design with only a menu button presented below the screen with no physical call/end buttons. By doing this Nokia emphasise the fact that this device is more than just a phone.

The volume control, lock switch, and camera shutter button on one side of the N8 and there are ports for the sim card and micro SD cards, as well as a micro USB port for data transfer and charging the unit on the opposite side. Are is also the proprietary Nokia charge socket on the base of the N8. The top of the N8 has the power key, headphone and HDMI sockets.

The primary feature of the N8 is its camera which offers 12 mega pixels and 720p HD video capture. Instead of using the typical cameraphone sensor size of 1/6" the N8 has a larger 1/1.183" sensor. The Sony Ericsson Satio has a similar 12 megapixel but with a smaller sensor.

  Sensor Size Diagonal (mm) Width (mm) Height (mm) Area (mm2)
Typical cameraphoneh 1/6" 3 2.4 1.8 4.32
Sony Ericsson Satio 1/2.5" 7.18 5.76 4.29 24.7
Nokia N8 1/1.183" 8.93 7.18 5.32 38.2

The Nokia N8 is a feature rich smartphone but this review will concentrates on the phones photographic capabilities.

Features

The key features of the Nokia N8 are:

  • 12 megapixel resolution on 1/1.183" large image sensor
  • Focus aid light and Xexon Flash
  • 5.9mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Optics (28mm equivalent in 35mm format)
  • Face Detection
  • Image Geotagging
  • 720p @ 25fps in H.264 or MPEG-4
  • Ambient stereo audio recording
  • 3.5" AMOLED Capacitive Touch Screen with 640x360 (16:9 nHD) resolution and 16.7 million colours.

With the N8 unlocked it is just a simple matter pressing the dedicated camera shutter release to active the phones camera. The camera starts up quickly with the onscreen display icons showing the shooting mode (stills or video), flash mode, settings, options, digital zoom and onscreen shutter release.

By pressing the Settings icon the following are revealed:

  • Scene mode
  • Face detection
  • Grid (grid overlay)
  • Self-timer (off, 2, 10 and 20 seconds)
  • Colour tone (normal, sepia, black & white, and vivid)
  • White balance (auto, sunny, cloudy, incandescent, fluorescent)
  • Exposure compensation
  • ISO sensitivity (low, medium, and high)
  • Contrast
  • Sharpness (hard, normal and soft)
  • Photos (Photo gallery - stills and video)

Pressing Options reveals submenus for the following:

  • Secondary (front facing) camera
  • Settings (adjustment of image size, GPS tagging, image review, image naming, shutter sound, auto rotate images, and restore camera settings.
  • Video mode
  • Go to Photo gallery

In the sub-menus Image Quality actually refers to the image size rather than referring to adjustment of JPEG compression levels. The image sizes provided are:

  • Large - 12mp, 4:3 aspect
  • Large - 9mp, 16:9 aspect
  • Medium - 3mp, 4:3 aspect
  • Small - 1.3mp, 4:3 aspect
  • Small - 0.3mp, 4:3 aspect

Surprisingly the most common aspect ratio of 3:2 is not represented. On the Sony Ericsson Satio 3:2 aspect related to 10mp resolution. There is no provision for adjustment of the JPEG image compression levels.

The autofocus is centralised with no provision for touch focus on any location on the screen.

When it comes to video there is no autofocus but the focus is set to produce sharp results from beyond 60cm.

The options provided are more limited in the video mode. For the Scene mode:

  • Automatic
  • Low light (for indoor filming)
  • Night (for filming in very dark conditions)

Under Options the video settings offer:

  • Video quality (High Definiion, TV high quality, and Sharing quality)
  • Geotagging (on/off)
  • Image stabilisation (on/off)
  • Audio recording (on/off)
  • Video review (on/off)
  • Video name (date/text)

In the Box

  • N8 mobile computer
  • Battery BL-4D (built into the phone)
  • USB cable
  • Adapter cable for HDMI
  • USB On the Go cable
  • Stereo headset
  • Starter guide

Performance

The Nokia N8's camera was easily activated and ready to start shooting just by pressing the shutter release. With the autofocus area fixed in the centre it was necessary to rely on half pressing the shutter and then recomposing the scene to ensure the right part of the scene was in focus. The exception to this was when face detection was active which would detect faces in any location on the screen. The N8 had no touch focus feature. Such a feature has value and would come in useful if the phone was (somehow) mounted on a tripod and an off centre object was to be focused on. There were times this feature was missed but the centralised AF was efficient in operation and rarely gave cause for concern.

 

Image Formats

The N8's image sensor has a native aspect ratio of 4:3 and only at this aspect is the full 12 megapixel resolution realised. The wider aspect of 16:9 (which fills the N8's screen) seemed to be more suited to landscapes and scenic views. The most popular 3:2 aspect ratio was missed as it would of been the preferred aspect to shoot the test photos with.

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
4:3 Format - 4000 x 3000 pixels

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
16:9 Format - 4000 x 2248 pixels

Image Sharpness

The combination of the larger than standard 12 megapixel sensor, Carl Zeiss Tessar optics and respectable image processing have produced images with a great amount of detail with nice gradations in the colours. The colour rendering appeared to be quite neutral. This combined with the fact that the autofocus system very well meant that photos could be produced that would look respectable on an A3 print. Considering that on the whole the majority of prints people make are no larger than A4 then the photos derived from the N8 will impress many.

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
f/2.7 @ 160 sec, ISO 105

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Centre area - 100% crop

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Left area - 100% crop
Image is a little softer in the corner but still acceptable.

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Centre area - 100% crop
Plenty of detail is shown as well as good contrast. The image has not been overly sharpened.

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Left edge - 100% crop
Detail has become soft and there is noise in the shadows.

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Right edge - 100% crop
Detail has become indistinct.

 

Exposure modes

The only form of exposure adjustment was via exposure compensation. Unfortunately, the user interface made it awkward to use and when implemented there was no indication of it being active when back to the main screen. The aperture being fixed at f/2.8 meant that correct exposure was determined by the automatic setting of the shutter speed. Examining the photos taken during tests showed the shutter speeds ranged from 1/8 sec to 1/640 seconds. These figures will be revised when weather conditions improve here in the UK.

The auto ISO seemed to adjust the ISO sensitivity across the whole range from ISO 100 to ISO 800. Manual adjustment of ISO offered only setting of 100, 400 and 800 which although not comprehensive was very practical.

Flash Photography

The xenon was did its job well considering its size. Its power output was limited and so offered less of a flash range than a digital compact camera but it had sufficient power to illuminate the typical people portrait shots.

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Xenon flash lit subject

Face Detection

The face detection mode was active by default and was able to detect several faces at a time quickly. The face that is determined as the point of focus and exposure has a yellow border with other faces surrounded by white borders. Face detection removed (or at the very least) reduced the need to focus and re-compose should the subject be located off centre.

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Face detection at work

 

Low Light Photography and Image Stabilisation

The Nokia N8 lacks image stabilisation when shooting stills. With its shutter speed capable of dropping down to 1/8 second it can be difficult to get a steady shot. Image sharpness reduces as the ISO sensitivity increases.

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
f/2.7 @ 1/8 sec, ISO 524

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Centre area - 100% crop

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Right edge - 100% crop
The effects of noise reduction is evident with low noise at the expense of image detail and sharpness. Note the water paint effect.

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Left edge - 100% crop

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Centre area - 100% crop
The detail in the trees branches is almost lost against the night sky.

Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone
Centre area - 100% crop
High lights are totally blown out.

Provided a steady shot can be obtained the high ISO images are usable as long as it is not required to print full size or heavily crop.

Geo-tagging

Photos were able to be taken with their location embedded in the photos exif file when the geo-tagging feature was activated. An icon appears when it was activated and indicated the status of the GPS. As is usually the case with GPS, when it is initially powered up it takes time to establish the location accurately but after that detection was very prompt.

Panoramas

The Nokia N8 does not have a built in panorama mode but via Nokia's Ovi Store Nokia provides an app that performed this task. The was provided free of charge and worked reasonably well but at times lost track of the N8's position as it was panned.  In comparison to that in the Sony Ericsson Satio it did not seem as reliable but then it was not limited to stitching together one three shots.

High Definition Video

The video mode produced impressive results. The results looked detailed no doubt aided by the N8 allowing bitrates up to 12Mps. As with the stills images colour rendering was on the neutral side. This would be of benefit for those who wish to post process their video images. The cameras lens in video mode was set to provide sharp focus from 60cm to infinite but in practice the minimum focus distance seem more like 90cm or a meter. The autofocusing was missed but the fixed focus ensured that there was no problems with focus hunting (which can happen when an autofocus loses track) or the need to refocus. The N8 was not suitable to do macro shots in video mode which makes filming subjects likes insects out of the question. One possible mitigation for this was to use the digital zoom. It provided x3 magnification without apparently degrading the image. 

The N8's two microphones didn't produce the typical stereo left/right field due to their unusual placement at the front and back of the N8. Certainly the microphone on the back had its sound panned towards the right side which helps to separate any narration. The two mics showed good sensitivity and an extended frequency response which helped to produced a full bodied sound track. The 128kbps bit rate for the sound track was put to good use. On a few occasions low level clicking sounds could be heard. The cause of it was not clear but it may of been due to other tasks being performed in the background.

 

The Nokia N8 Short Movie

Shown below is a short movie called The Commuter which was filmed using the N8, directed by the McHenry Brothers and features Pamela Anderson, Ed Westwick, Dev Patel and Charles Dance.

 

 

 

The Travel Companion

The N8 looks set to be a worthy travel companion. It's multimedia credentials would keep a traveller entertained especially with a 32GB microSD card in the phone to boost the already sizable 16GB internal storage.

The built in RDS radio was well designed and delivered clear and stable reception.

The phone can play back movies in the MPEG4 and H.264 format movies which it's AMOLED 16:9 screen is very suited to producing a very colourful and detailed display.

The music player worked well and provided impressive audio via the supplied ear bugs. Any headphone can be plugged into the 3.5mm jack but it's worth noting that if the headphone impedance is not correct the sound could be degraded. For example the usually great sounding Sennheiser PX100 headphones suffered a bit at the high frequency end of the audio spectrum. The provided headphones also have the advantage that it has a controller for adjusting volume, and transport controls to aid finding the required track or moving to a different point in a movie.

Apart from keeping the traveller entertained the Nokia N8 has Ovi Maps. The maps makes it possible to plan destinations on a computer that is to be visited and then have the maps downloaded to the N8. This ensures that roaming data charges are avoided whilst overseas. Other locations can be visited can be recorded on the maps as way points but its not possible to add accompanying notes. The added waypoints can be shared (exported) via email or sms but the format is not suitable for viewing the waypoint on Google Earth. What is produced is a link to the online Ovi maps which will show the area surrounding the waypoint. This is handy for showing friends and family back home your current location. If there is the need to document a journey then an application like Trip Journal does this very well. Unfortunately it is not yet available for the N8.

Speaking of apps, they can be obtained from the Ovi Store. It's a growing collection of apps although some apps are only provided direct from the developers website like in the case of Skype.

When travelling a decent web browser is always useful. In these days of extreme weather events and flight delays being able to check the news, weather reports or alternative flight details is always handy. The N8's web browser does well at rendering pages but its interface is not user friendly and it will struggle to handle large web pages.

Emails accounts were straightforward to set up due to the built in email wizard. For the likes of Yahoo, Google, and Hotmail the emails are going via Nokia's own servers. This had the advantage that emails are straightaway set to the phone. The disadvantage is that there seems to be a 4MB limit on emails being sent out. Email accounts can be set up manually but then the phone has to actively fetch at intervals that can be defined.

The SMS worked well and could form the messages into conversations.

The phone function should not be be forgotten and it felt strange to be using a Nokia phone without the physical call and end keys. The result was the reliance on touch screen to initiate and end calls. Making calls was simple enough but strangely ending calls was initially confusing if the dialler was on the screen. With the dialler displayed there was no provision for directly ending a call. In order to end a call it would be necessary to press the Back or the Green phone icon to get back to main call screen where the end call button can found.

For the traveller a useful application was Notes. The keyboard provided came in two forms. When the phone was in portrait orientation the typical T9 keyboard was presented and in landscape it became a qwerty keyboard. There was no option to have a portrait qwerty keyboard.

Whilst travelling a useful addition to the N8 is to have a battery pack on hand. The N8's internal battery is the BL-4D but it is sealed in the body. This means carrying a spare battery is not an option. What can be done is to carry an external battery pack. Nokia's Extra Power DC-11 is one such device but there are other such packs designed to plug into the micro USB socket like the Energiser XP2000 (2000mAh), Dexin BluePack S8 (3000mAh), and range of other products on the market.

Compared with the Sony Ericsson Satio

The Sony Ericsson Satio, which was introduced a year earlier than the Nokia N8 is perhaps the Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphoneclosest to the N8 in terms of its key feature set. The Satios key feature is the camera which sports a 12 megapixel sensor. Video capture is only at WVGA (around 800 x 480 pixels) resolution. The N8 offers a better all round feature set but there are areas that the Satio still does shine. The Satio was designed with its camera in mind and this is reflected in its controls. There are physical keys provided to quickly change from stills to video and back again. There is also a key that brings up the photo gallery so it's not necessary to dig into the menus to get to the photos. The lens shutter protects the lens as well as providing a method to quickly activate the camera.

Both cameraphones sports screens with a resolution of 640 x 360 pixels but the technology they use is very different. Both screens are fine under indoor or subdued lighting but outside in bright conditions the N8's AMOLED capacitve touch screen remains easy to read where the Satio's resistive touch screen struggles.

Where the Satio scores over the N8 is its camera user interface. The N8 has the better and newer operating system but the Satio's camera UI makes getting at the features straightforward. Its a matter of touching the required icon and selecting the mode. The N8 on the other hand required too many key presses to get to the required feature and then get back to the shooting screen. Also, the arrangement of the features did not seem very logical in some instances. No doubt over time the user would get use to the UI but it is a deterrent to making full use of the cameras feature set. Hopefully this is something that will be refined in future firmware updates.

The N8's photo gallery offers a lot of flexibility as it allows photos and videos to be tagged or placed into albums.Nokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone The Satio doesn't have such features but its gallery is very intuitive to use and auto collates the images into groups based on the month the photos were taken. The N8 will indicate the month only if the scroll bar is used when browsing the gallery.

An ace feature for the N8 is 'USB on the Go'. The ability to connect a USB memory (via the supplied cable) direct to the phone and access its contents or transfer media to it. This feature worked well with USB memory sticks but did not work with a portable hard drive like the Western Digital My Passport unit.

The physical call keys on the Satio made it feel more of a phone where as on the N8 the phone aspect felt to be relegated to just another feature. However, both phones have good comms and call quality never seemed to be an issue.

The N8 offers the better all round image quality especially in terms of lower noise and detail. The Satio seems to of squeezed every drop of detail out of its tiny image sensor but its images can look a little flat compared to those from the N8. The N8's photos seem to have more body which may be an indication of the Carl Zeiss lens offering better contrast as well as the benefits of having a larger sensor.

The N8 uses electronic image stabilisation for video capture and unlike the Satio gives the choice to activate it or not. Shooting without it allows the full 28mm view to be used where as with it active the view is reduced. Strangely there is no IS implementation when taking photos. Certainly the benefits of electronic IS is very limited (especiallyNokia N8 Symbian Cameraphone compared to optical IS) but on the Satio what little difference IS has made often made the differences between having an unusable photo and one acceptable sharp in low light conditions. The higher maximum ISO of the N8 (800 compared to 500) helps. 

When it comes to video capture the N8 wins hands down. The Satio does a good job with its WVGA resolution but it cannot compete against 720p resolution. Also, the N8 renders the colours a lot better. The audio track is also fuller as a wider frequency range is captured.

The Satio has the more flexible AF system with the inclusion touch focus but the N8 focuses faster and more consistently under low light conditions. The Satio unfortunately disengages its focus aid light when its xenon flash is switched off but N8 does not do this ensuring the focus aid light is always at hand.

Currently the Sony Ericsson Satio provides better facilities for uploading photos to social networking sites like Facebook. For the N8 rather than using the Facebook app the app called Gravity is the better choice.

Conclusions

The Plus Points

  • Image quality
  • Carl Zeiss Tessar f/2.8 optics
  • Fast and accurate AF
  • 720p HD video and audio quality
  • Xenon Flash
  • Physical shutter release
  • AMOLED touch screen viewable in bright conditions
  • Call quality
  • Solid construction and toughed touch screen
  • Internal 16GB storage and up to 32GB micro SD
  • Time and date shown when in standby
  • USB On the Go
  • MicroSD port
  • HDMI port
  • Micro USB charging
  • Supplied headphones and audio quality

The Negative Points

  • User unfriendly camera interface
  • Easily to put fingers on the lens.
  • No physical call/end keys
  • No 3:2 aspect ratio
  • Battery not user changeable
  • No LED light
  • Web browser needs updating
  • Symbian^3 OS needs further refinement
  • Poor placement of the speaker
  • Under powered Facebook upload feature
  • Occasional clicking sound in videos audio sound track

The Nokia N8 with its large sensor and Carl Zeiss lens produces images to be proud of. As the phone is the device most people have with them at all times the N8 may see a lot of use whether that be shooting stills or videos. The N8's image quality helps to show that a cameraphone need not be limited to taking mediocre quality images that are only suitable for viewing on small screens.

The first N8 sample user for this review unfortunately developed a fault were the phone would ramdomly restart itself making use very difficult. The second sample worked flawlessly. The phone has a lot more features than was covered here such as the FM transmitter, the three home screens with widgets, media editing applications, file manager, and music player to name but a few.

The user interface is were the N8 could do better. Symbian^3 is an improvement on Symbian S60 5th edition but it does not have the finesse and speed of the likes of iOS and Android. The OS is quite capable and has helped to make the N8 feature rich but it could do with an extra bit of polish. The scroll bars remain from older Symbian versions remain but they are not essential for scrolling now. When they are used they tend to act as a kind of index.

The trend now is not to have protective shutters on cameraphone lenses now and the N8 has followed that trend. Unfortunately it was just too easily to get finger prints on the lens leading to degraded images making it important to check the lens before taking important photos.

The web browser was the biggest disappointment. It does a great job of rendering pages and its ability to show Flash was a nice bonus but its user interface is unfriendly and it struggles to handle large or graphics heavy webpages.

Despite the negatives, the Nokia N8 was a much liked and useful product. Its photographic and audio capabilities will ensure that it would make a useful travel companion. The quality hardware gives Nokia a solid base from where to continuing building and hopefully continue bringing updates and improvements. EA

 

Specification

Mini News

22 November 2012: Sigma 18-250mm now available in Sony's A-Mount

Sigma Imaging UK Ltd has announced that the 18-250mm f3.5-6.3 DC Macro HSM lens is now available at a suggested retail price of £499.99. Sigma's APO Macro 180mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM lens will shortly be available in Sony's A-Mount for a suggested retail price of £1499.99.

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17 October 2012: Firmware update for Sony NEX 7 v1.01

Sony NEX firmware update provides the following;

  • Addition of capability to enable or disable the MOVIE button
  • Addition of exposure settings of bracket shooting (three frames /1.0EV,2.0EV, 3.0EV)
  • Improvement of response for showing auto review image.
  • Improvement of image quality when using a wide angle lens
  • Improvement of indication when setting “Flexible Spot”.

Visit the link: http://www.sony.co.uk/support/en/product/NEX-7/updates

Firmware updates are also available for the a77, a65, and a57.

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15 October 2012: Purchase Sigma's 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM ultra wide angle lens and claim FREE 77mm UV DG filter

From Monday 15th October 2012, Sigma Imaging UK Ltd are introducing a short term special offer that enables anyone who purchases Sigma’s multi-award winning 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM ultra-wide angle lens to claim a FREE Sigma 77mm UV DG filter worth over £60!

A Sigma Ultra Violet filter is the perfect accessory to protect your lens from damage to the front element. Sigma’s DG filters benefit from a special multi-layer lens coating, developed to counteract the highly reflective characteristic of image sensors.

Terms and Conditions apply. Visit www.sigma-imaging-uk.com or ask your local photographic retailer for more details of this offer and how to claim your FREE Sigma 77mm UV DG filter.