Symbian^3 has been the subject of much speculation over the past months, so is it a break-away from what made Symbian S60 V5 feel dated? Can it springboard Nokia’s touchscreen phones into the current generation of user interfaces? Does it offer something unique that no other mobile OS does? All these questions can be delved into now that we’ve got Symbian^3 on a premium handset in front of us, the Nokia N8.

Our Nokia N8 review unit is currently in standby mode. There is a large, semi-illuminated analogue clock displayed on the screen, which immediately adds a nice element of thoughtfulness to the OS. Unlock the phone and it’s bye bye, clock; hello, bright screen and... Symbian S60 V5? The multiple home-screens alone convey very little change between Symbian^3 and its predecessor, with 3 screens, each with a grid of 8 spaces for optional widgets that can be added or removed by a long press. The bottom part of the homescreen contains three keys: options (relating to homescreen options only), homescreen switcher (indicated by three dots) and call (bringing up the dialer). The menu is accessed using the physical button to the bottom left of the Nokia N8’s screen, though a shortcut to the menu can be added to the homescreen, if you prefer.

There are a host of live widgets to choose from pre-loaded on the Nokia N8, such as RSS newsfeeds and mail, as well as static shortcuts. Notice anything different yet? No, neither did we.

Nevertheless, unlike a lot of “old” Nokia touchscreen phones, the Nokia N8 doesn’t have a habit of lagging. With numerous apps plodding along in the background, including Opera browser, music player, camera and gallery, transitions between the homescreens remained smooth, and we could comfortably add and remove widgets with no slow down. The range of widgets on our unit wasn't as extensive as we hoped it would be (RSS feeds, favourite contacts, radio, email, notifications, phone setup, search, social networks, time/profile, WLAN). There are more available through the Ovi Store, though this doesn’t really cut it when a lot of people will want a fun and functional range of things to put on their homescreens out of the box. Widgets are a fixed size, so information heavy widgets can’t take up two cells for example. This means the Facebook widget is very squashed, while the shortcut widget isn’t. A disappointing aesthetic contrast which conflicts with the harmonious physical design of the Nokia N8. Another gripe we have with the widgets is the shortcut widget. You can only insert shortcuts in groups of four, even when you only want one, further cluttering your homescreen.

Homescreens can be added up to a maximum of three and a minimum of one, with the option to have a different wallpaper on each homescreen which we like a lot. Slide between homescreens to activate the smooth fading transition between wallpapers, working well against the sliding widgets.

Activate the menu, and once again, we’re very hard pressed to see the marked evolution from Symbian S60 V5. It’s smoother and slicker with consistent kinetic scrolling and single tapping throughout, but this is more what we might expect from a firmware update coupled with much speedier hardware than a newly-revised OS. Symbian Foundation has clearly gone with the “if it ain’t broke” approach. The question is, is it broke?

The Nokia N8 has a comprehensive organizer. The calendar is finger-friendly, classically in line with Nokia’s styling and easy to get around, with standard viewing options (week, day, month)and easy appointment entry. We wish it was easier to sync with our Google Calendar (in the same way Gmail now is) but this needs to be done through Mail for Exchange.

Contacts are easy to navigate through with kinetic scrolling implemented throughout. Selecting a contact will give you a range of options such as voice call, message, email, video call, find on map and social network. Upon pressing social network, you can manually link your contact with their online profile, pulling their contact picture and giving you quick access to their profile. The integration of this feature could have extended deeper however. There is no option to automate a sync between social networks and phone contacts, and no live information about the contacts is updated automatically. The Nokia N8’s contacts are also like the calendar, not syncing with our Google Contacts, only with Ovi Contacts. Once again however, this can be remedied by the slightly unintuitive Mail for Exchange support.

Messaging on the Nokia N8 is improved. With texts viewable as conversations as well as isolated messages, the whole experience feels more unified than before. The on-screen keyboard is numeric in portrait and QWERTY in landscape. There is the nice addition of left and right arrow to the numeric pad, and more room dedicated to the text with a slightly smaller font size and less superfluous buttons than S60 V5. In landscape, the QWERTY keyboard also takes up less screen room, leaving more to what matters - the message. Keys may be smaller, but it is very usable and we found ourselves making very few mistakes, even when we first started using it. There is also optional haptic feedback that can be manually set to one of three strengths.

Offering a huge range of functionality, the clear answer to the earlier question is no, Symbian^3 isn’t broke, however, it hasn’t had the amount of change we feel it needed either. Symbian^3 is much better than older Symbian iterations, with numerous under the hood tweaks implemented seamlessly to make the whole experience better. The problem is, the tweaks are often too un-obvious. For a consumer that wants clear tangible benefits to choosing a specific OS, the Symbian^3 interface doesn’t step up its game enough.

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