Review: Nokia N82 - part 1 - The Physical, the Camera
Rafe takes a look at the latest Nseries - the Nokia N82 - here's part 1 of the review.
The recently announced Nokia N82 is an impressively specified device. With a 5 megapixel camera, integrated GPS, S60 software suite and WiFi, Bluetooth and 3.5G connectivity it boasts a feature set to match the flagship Nokia N95 8GB. However, the N82 has a greater focus on its camera, thanks to its Xenon flash. Its price point and smaller size suggest it may have a broader market than the expensive N95 8GB.
The N82 represents a welcome Nseries return to candybars, which remain, globally, the most popular device form factor. Typically, candybar phones are robust and can stand up to a lot of abuse and for many there's a certain sense of comfort and familiarity. Thus the traditional form factor, the stand out camera performance and something of an emphasis on style over practicality in the design should attract interest from fashion seekers looking for a phone with a bit extra. The N82 is also reminiscent of N73 and, although the N82 is not strictly a replacement (in terms of its positioning), I'm sure there will be plenty of N73 owners expressing interest in the N82 precisely because it matches their form factor preference.
The N82 is slightly smaller in volume, at 90cc, than the N95 8GB at 96cc, but bigger than the N81's 86cc. However, the form factor, with its smaller depth and longer height, means it subjectively feels smaller than both in the hand. It compares more favourably with most average feature phones than other Nseries devices, which often have a feeling of bulk about them. At 114g (N95 8GB: 128g, N81: 140g) it is impressively light and, together with its shape, means it disappears unnoticed into pockets much more easily.
The casing of the N82 is made up of hard plastics which make for a robust device. The N82 really feels built to last with excellent overall build quality, there are no untoward squeaks, flexes or rattles. The front of the device has a shiny faux metallic look which appears striking, but has an unfortunate tendency to attract finger prints, and will need frequent cleaning. The rear of the device has a more conventional muted plastic, with an attractive embedded pattern of scored lines.
The rear of the N82 is dominated by the 5 megapixel camera with its Xenon flash. The camera lens is reassuringly protected by a robust slider mechanism which, when operated, starts or closes the camera application on the phone. I've always been a fan of such physical switch mechanisms and this is amongst the best camera arrangements I've seen on a mobile phone. The up-down lens cover mechanism is much smoother and more natural than the ring slider found on the N95 classic and less bulky than the camera slide on the N73.
Under the battery cover you'll find the 1050 mAh BP-6MT battery. Even with relatively heavy usage you should be easily able to get through a day, and with lighter usage a few days is within reach. While a larger battery capacity is always better, it has to be set against the compromise of increased size and weight. Nokia have got things about right with the N82, it is in 'good enough' territory, especially compared to the N95 classic which was lacking in this department.
On the lower left hand side of the N82 is the power port, moved from its traditional bottom left hand side location. Above this is the microSD card slot - SDHC cards are supported; 8GB cards are currently available and higher capacities on the way. A 2GB card is included in most sales packs - sufficient for average usage as it gives a good amount of room for photos, music and maps. There is a generous 100MB of internal memory available and with this amount it makes sense to install applications here and use the memory card for data storage. Above the memory card slot is the microUSB port, which is used for PC connectivity. microUSB is relatively new to the Nseries (the N81 was the first device with this type of port), but it is an industry standard and phone manufacturers are looking to standardise around it. There is a degree of annoyance at moving on from miniUSB given that you can't re-use old cables, but it makes sense in the longer term and the smaller profile should be less prone to collecting dust and other grunge.
On the top of the device you'll find the 3.5mm audio jack and the power button. This is the best position for the audio jack since it allows you to keep the phone in your pocket and avoid the headphone wire problems that are common on the N95 with its side-located audio jack. The Nseries standardisation on 3.5mm audio ports continues to be very welcome and Nokia deserve credit for listening to their users in this area. Other smartphone manufacturers could learn from this.
At either end of the right hand side of the N82 are the stereo speakers. These do not seem to match the performance of the N81 or N95, but are still reasonable. Having both speakers on the same side does allows you to direct the sound more easily and in some ways is a sensible design decision, given it matches with typical speaker usage. Typically you will either be playing games in landscape mode or have the phone sitting on a desk playing music. In between the two speakers are the volume up and down rocker key, the gallery key and the camera capture key. The gallery effectively gives you the 'review mode' key which you typically find on a standalone digital camera, further burnishing the N82’s camera related hardware offering. In common with most other phones the camera capture key is positioned to mimic the feel of a stand alone digital camera when the phone is held on its side in landscape mode.
The sides of the N82 taper slightly from the front to back, which makes it comfortable to hold. However this does mean that the phone will not stand on its side, which makes it difficult to take self timer pictures. Personally I feel this is good design trade off, and as this YouTube video points out, you can use the memory card slot cover to get around this problem (didn't work reliably for me - Ed), although personally I'd recommend leaning the phone against something!
The N82's keypad is something of a mixed bag, but overall performance is generally good and I think the space is used intelligently given the space made available by the form factor choice. Styling is always a very subjective area. Personally I think the N82 rather stands out, it has something of a retro-alternative look and feel, but the reactions from people I have shown it to have been mixed. The backing and surround of the keypad is the same shiny plastic as the rest of the front face of the device and is similarly prone to fingerprints. Given fingers are rather essential in using a keypad it is inevitable that this area ends up looking messy.
The send/answer and end call keys at first appear to be awkwardly placed on the side of device. But appearances are deceptive, they are excellent in use partly because they are easy to locate without looking at the phone (it's almost a case of picking up the phone and squeezing it to answer). This is reminiscent of the Nokia 6680 and is in sharp contrast with the N95, especially the 8GB version, with its smaller equivalent keys.
The news is more mixed on the softkeys, which are flat rocker-esque keys combining the left softkey with the S60 key and the right softkey with the cancel key. The positive side of this is that the keys are quite large, but the downside is that you have to be more careful about where you hit them. Potentially more irritating is the fact that the right softkey/cancel key is interrupted, in the middle, by the protruding multimedia key, which results in relatively small key areas for all concerned. Left-handers will find this arrangement particularly annoying, as it requires extra contortions when pressing the keys with your thumb. These right side keys are used less than their left side counterparts and the impact also has to be measured against the utility of the multimedia key and easy access to its related multimedia carousel, which we discuss further below.
The central d-pad is in the 'ring with central button style' that is becoming increasingly common on Nokia phones. This style works well and is easy to use; allowing you to shift the thumb around the pad rather than having to lift it off for distinct key presses. The large central button that this arrangement allows is particularly welcome, given its frequent use. Compared to the N95, the design of the N82's d-pad is better, but the physical implementation is not. Unfortunately, the d-pad feels rather spongier in use than I would like. The ring would also benefit from standing out a little more from the surrounding area - left/right keypresses in particular suffer, due to their proximity to the softkey buttons.
The numeric pad is made up of small bars similar to those found on the N91 and reminiscent of the first calculators (hence the 'retro' label for styling). They look fiddly to use, but thanks to the generous spacing between the keys it is possible to achieve fast and accurate input. The small keypad area is a design constraint since candybar phones with larger screens inevitably have less keypad space, as a general rule, than slider or flip form factor models. In this light I think the N82's keypad performs surprisingly well - it is, for example, a definite improvement over the N73's.
The top of the front of the N82 has the usual light sensor (which automatically adjusts screen brightness), the call speaker and VGA video calling camera. Below is the high quality QVGA screen which is set behind hard plastic which is flush with the rest of the front face of the device. This avoids the dust collecting problem that is typical of devices with recessed screens. At 2.4 inches, the screen is noticeably smaller than those found on the N95 models (N95 - 2.6 inches, N95 8GB - 2.8 inches), which does have implications for consuming media, especially for watching video. Some areas of the UI on the N82 have slightly less information displayed on screen than the N95 - 6 versus 7 Active Idle shortcuts and 5 versus 6 menu list items (e.g. Gallery) are good examples. However the screen is still larger than most phones (e.g. the 6120 at only 2 inches) and the smaller size does add a crispness missing from the N95 models thanks to the higher pixel density. Performance outdoors is also very good with the screen visible even in bright sun light.
With WiFI (b/g), HSDPA (WCDMA 2100), and quad band GSM, the N82 is well catered for in terms of data connectivity. The same single band WCDMA as with other Nokia phones may raise some eyebrows given that HTC and other smartphone manufacturers are routinely including support for multiple bands. Part of this is due to Nokia's legal disputes with Qualcomm, but there are also cost and size (particularly with regard to aerial layout) issues to be considered.
With WiFi present, S60's usual SIP client puts in an appearance allowing you to make VoIP calls from services such as Truphone or SIPhone. A Gizmo client that utilizes the SIP client and adds a few other features (including chat) is available via the Nokia Download! service. Some operators have disabled the SIP client in their own branded firmwares,so it is worth checking with your operator if this is an important feature for you.
The N82 has the familiar Bluetooth profiles, including A2DP and AVRCP for use in stereo audio headsets. In tests I had no problems with any Nokia accessories. However, a Sony Ericsson audio accessory remote volume control did not work; this is probably due to an incompatibility problem in the AVRCP profile, though it is difficult to say whether the accessory or the handset is to blame. Bluetooth keyboards do work, although you will need to download Nokia's Wireless Keyboard application as, strangely, it is not included out of the box.
Imaging is clearly one of the N82's core functions; it has the same 5 megapixel camera module as the N95. These impressed with their picture quality in earlier reviews, but the N82 has a few tricks up its sleeve that makes the N82 stand out even more.
The first of these is the N82's Xenon flash, a first for the Nseries line. This is capable of producing a much brighter flash than is possible with an LED flash (as used on previous Nseries models). Consequently the N82 is capable of producing much better pictures in low light conditions. It can even take photos in near total darkness provided the subject is within about 3 metres. In low lighting conditions you should be able to achieve good results up to 5 metres away. Previous Nseries camera performance was poor in low lighting conditions and this was the one area which really held them back from fully replacing digital cameras. After all, a good portion of people's pictures are taken indoors in less than ideal light conditions. The difference is obvious in comparison pictures and this single factor makes the N82 a much more versatile cameraphone. The N82, like other Nseries, also has a dedicated autofocus assist lamp. This is the red light that comes on in low light conditions in order to help the camera focus. In previous Nseries models, the assist lamp was part of the LED assembly, in the N82 it is still part of the overall unit, but is isolated in one corner. This may be one of the reasons why the N82 has faster lock on times for auto focus in low light conditions.
The second improvement is in overall camera speed. The N82 has a fast camera start up time (around 2.6 seconds in my tests) and a low shutter lag time (less than 0.2 of a second) which means it is more likely that you will be able to capture that magic moment. The shot to shot time is also quite impressive at around 4 seconds. These numbers will vary depending on lighting and other conditions and, while there here is still room for improvement, the N82 is much better in this department than most camera phones.
Here are some sample images captured by the N82:
These last two images of a near identical scene differ only in that the second was taken when it was completely dark.
The quality of images captured on camera phones generally face two key limitations: image noise and post processing artefacts. Both of these factors are worsened by the unavoidable physical limitations of mobile phones. Here is a quick, simplified, explanation of the problem:
Image noise is the random fluctuation of pixel values (colours) in an image (for example two adjacent pixels may have different colour in a captured image despite being the same in reality). Such noise is caused by the imperfect capture of light by a CMOS sensor or electronic interference in the sensor itself. It is most apparent in low signal conditions such as in shadowed areas or in under exposed images. Thus image noise is generally most noticeable in low light conditions (an area where cameraphones are already weak due to anaemic LED flashes). The amount of noise in a captured image is also closely related to the density of light sensors (i.e. the size of individual image sensors) within a CMOS sensor. Each CMOS sensor is made up of many individual light sensors and these collect photons (light) and convert them to electrons (electrical signals). Thus the number of photons falling on each sensor is important because it directly correlates to the strength of the light signal (small light sensors collect fewer photons (weaker signal) than large light sensors (stronger signal). Consequently smaller sensors have lower signal to noise ratios. Other important factors related to the size of the image sensor are dynamic range (the range of tones a sensor can capture) and diffraction. You can read more on this subject here. This explains why a 3 megapixel stand alone digital camera will out perform a 3 megapixel cameraphone, the CMOS sensor in the digital camera will be larger than in the mobile phone.
The CMOS sensor size in mobile phones has remained relatively constant while the resolution (megapixels) has increased which means image noise problems have increased over time (this incidentally explains why more megapixels is not always better in performance terms). To correct for this, cameraphones typically perform post processing via their built in software; this includes techniques such as noise reduction and edge enhancement. These techniques are implemented through software algorithms and can effect image quality because they create artefacts (areas of unnatural looking image). The creation of artefacts is related to the quality of the post processing software and its algorithms. The removal of image noise and artefacts from post processing results in clearer, better defined images (although as a general rule image noise and artefacts are generally only individually discernible after you zoom into an image).
What really impresses with the N82 is the noticeable reduction in these image noise artefacts issues in captured images. Image noise and artefacts do not disappear altogether; there are still more than in most standalone mid-tier digital cameras. The reduction is noticeable though in comparisons with images captured with the N73 (and similar vintages) and there is a slight improvement over photos from the N95 classic.
While this may be partly attributable to the improved optics and sensors on the N82 (and the Xenon flash in low light conditions) it's also likely due to improved post processing software. Over the last few years, Nokia has been steadily improving the quality of its camera drivers and image processing software: the N82 represents the current peak of these continuing developments. Fortunately for other Nseries owners, at least some of these improvements are universal (and some can be delivered via firmware updates), the recent N95 8GB (and its firmware), for example, has near identical performance to the N82, at least in well lit conditions. However the combination of software improvement and Xenon flash deliver the best performance of the Nseries range to the N82.
The N82's camera software will be familiar to most Nseries users. It allows access to a number of settings, including mode, flash, self timer, color tone, viewfinder grid, white balance, exposure, sharpness, contrast and ISO speed. Viewfinder grid is the only addition, it places gridlines on the screen horizontally and vertically, dividing the screen into thirds. This helps you compose photos according to the rule of thirds principle. The N82 works well in fully automatic mode (which I imagine most people will use 90% of the time), but with practice you can get better results by changing these settings. The most obvious ones to use are the mode functions (e.g. using night mode to take a night photo without the flash), but the others are worth exploring too, especially exposure. In order to get the most out of these, you probably need to have a decent understanding of the fundamentals of photography. There are also a number of options after you capture an image: Send (MMS, Bluetooth, Web), Add to print basket, Web upload and Delete. Web upload allows you to upload pictures to Flickr with a single click, a form of instantaneous sharing which is hard to beat.
Video capture is also supported, with a VGA resolution at around 30 frames per second and offers very similar performance to the N95 models. The quality is easily watchable on a TV and with practice you can get some really good results. With video capture, more so than still image capture, the results are dependent on the expertise of the user in terms of assessing lighting, framing the video, holding the phone steady and so on.
The Gallery application, used for viewing and accessing multimedia, remains the same as on previous Nseries. It does a reasonable job of basic media viewing, although album functionality is a little inaccessible and combining images and videos together in one big list is not ideal (agreed - Ed). More impressive are the companion functions and services, including Slide show, Image editor and Printing.
Being able to run a slide show on your TV (via TV Out) with background music or order hard print copies of your photos from your phone (via the XpressPrint service) or upload pictures directly to Flickr is a user experience that no ordinary digital camera can meet. It is this sort of area that really shows of the power of Nokia's multimedia computers. However, Gallery has room for improvement; finding an image once you have more than 50 or more images is cumbersome. If you try to solve this by regularly taking photos off the phone then there is no easy way of keeping your favourite photos on the phone and little incentive to properly categorise photos into albums on the phone. An option to view media in hierarchies or smart albums which took advantage of the available meta data (by date, by location, etc.) might help.
Nokia Photos, a PC application currently in beta (and available from the Nseries web site) does solve some of these issues. It provides easy to use sync and an option to sync photos back to the phone from the PC. However, given its beta status, made obvious by clashes between the Lifeblog, Gallery and Nokia Photo applications in both process and nomenclature, it cannot be considered in an assessment of the N82.
There is no doubting that the N82's camera functionality is very impressive and gives excellent all round results. It is easily capable of replacing mid range standalone cameras in almost all situations. The addition of the Xenon flash means decent images can be captured even in very low light conditions; this was a stumbling for all previous Nseries devices. Overall start up and auto focus times have been improved, making it easier to capture that passing moment. Of course camera performance and image quality is only one half of the picture (no pun intended). The lens shutter mechanism, sensible positioning of the capture key and decent camera software create a very intuitive camera experience. The only thing that doesn't really measure up to these high standards is viewing photos after they have been taken and that is down to the Gallery issues we discussed above. Despite this, the camera performance and user experience taken together mean that there is no question that the N82 is the best cameraphone that Nokia have ever produced.
In part 2 of my Nokia N82 review, I'll be looking at its GPS, its overall software package, UI tweaks and general performance.
Rafe Blandford, All About Symbian
Published by Rafe Blandford at 12:30 UTC, January 23rd