I got some hands-on time with Nokia's latest N-Series phone, the N8, today in San Francisco. Like other N-Series phones, such as the N97 and N97 mini, I was impressed with its slick hardware and superb multimedia features. But the N8 falls short when it comes to software and user experience-the downfall of previous N-Series phones we've reviewed.

In hand, the N8 feels lightweight, yet sturdy. It feels slightly on the chunky side, measuring 0.5-inches thick (for comparison, the iPhone 4 is 0.37-inches thick while the Motorola Droid Incredible is 0.47-inches thick). The N8 will come in five colours: dark gray, silver white, green, blue and orange. The face of the phone is minimalist with the 3.5-inch 640-by-360-pixel display dominating its face with a single hardware button below it. This hardware button lets you switch between the homescreen and menu screen and when held down, shows you all of your open applications.

Multimedia Monolith

The back of the phone houses the rather large Carl Zeiss 12-megapixel camera and Xenon flash. That 12-megapixel snapper-the largest sensor on any phone according to Nokia-takes incredible photos, too. I took a few photos during my demo and was impressed how bright and natural colors looked and how sharp details appeared.

Additionally, there's a front-facing camera which ideally will work for video calling. Nokia said that while Fring and Qik apps do exist for the previous version of Symbian, they'll have to be rewritten for S^3.

The camera also captures 720p HD video, which looked great on both the phone and played back on an HDTV. Yes, the N8 has HDMI out so you can play high definition videos from your phone to your home theater. Even better, the HDMI adapter is actually included in the box (unlike another HDMI-capable smartphone I can think of). Overall, the video-watching experience is brilliant on the N8. The phone not only supports HD quality video, but Dolby Digital surround sound as well. This is a boon for movie junkies and I hope that Nokia makes purchasing movies a simple process.

Stale Software

I'm just going to come right out and say it: I really dislike Symbian's typography. The boxy, small text just looks so late 1990s to me and simply isn't easy on the eyes. When Nokia announced the Symbian S^3 revamp, I had hoped for cleaner, more modern-looking typography and aesthetically-pleasing icons. S^3 more or less looks the same as the previous version with some tweaks and added features here and there. The software also felt a bit slow, but according to Nokia, these particular demo review units were loaded with preproduction software. That's a relief, seeing as both the browser and social networking client crashed on me during my hands-on time.

There were a few features in the software that didn't strike me as user friendly. For example, unlike the iPhone OS, Android and webOS, you can't upload photos or videos to your social networks directly from the camera or gallery app. Instead, you must go into the dedicated Ovi social networking client, which aggregates your social networking accounts into a single app, to share your photos. Additionally, the on-screen keyboard felt too small and cramped-even more so than the native Android keyboard.

There are some improvements in S^3 from older versions of Symbian like multitouch in the browser and photo gallery, fewer taps required for navigation and a simpler multitasking system. And of course, Nokia's excellent, free navigation service Ovi Maps will be loaded on the phone. I'll have to spend more time with the N8 before making a fair assessment of S^3 and the N8 itself.

The lack of a carrier partner may hurt Nokia N8 sales; Nokia confirmed that the N8 will be sold "through the usual N-series channels." This means the phone will be sold unlocked for a high price (the N97 was originally $700 at launch) via Nokia's website and other retailer partners. Interestingly enough, my contacts at Nokia did say that they are trying to work with carriers for a subsidised version of the N8 and noted their success of the Nokia Nuron on T-Mobile and various E-Series models on AT&T. The N8 is slated to land in the US in Q3 and pricing is to be announced.

OUR VERDICT

The Nokia N8 has some cutting-edge multimedia features like a 12-megapixel camera and HDMI output, but the software feels stale and dated.