Head to head: Nokia N8 vs HTC One X vs Lumia 800

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Everyone loves a good head to head. Especially when it involves current champions from three different mobile ecosystems, in this case Symbian, Android and Windows Phone. Leaving aside the slightly larger form factor of the One X, how well do these three phones with exemplary build quality compare?

N8 / One X / Lumia 800

It would have been great to compare the One X against larger screened competition, but the Symbian world maxes out at 4", on the uninspiring X7 and the niche E7, while the Windows Phone world's best contenders are the HTC Titan II and Nokia Lumia 900, both just launched in one market a few days ago - neither are yet available for testing over here. Hence the decision to go with the N8 and Lumia 800 - both match the One X well on build quality and camera, for example.

As usual, the table is part reference, part subjective opinion. And where appropriate, I've allocated a row winner, in green.

  Nokia N8 HTC One X Nokia Lumia 800
First sold September 2010 March 2012 November 2011
Price Around £220 Around £480 Around £300
Latest firmware Nokia Belle (v111.030.0609) Android 4.0.3 Windows Phone 7.5 (Nokia firmware ending in '12070')
Form factor, materials Aluminium shell, plastic end caps, full-face Gorilla glass capacitive touchscreen, 135g Larger, essentially two-handed form, unibody polycarbonate, full face Gorilla glass, 130g Unibody polycarbonate, full-face Gorilla glass capacitive touchscreen, 142g
Dimensions 113 x 59 x 13 mm 134 x 70 x 9 mm  116 x 61 x 12 mm
Connectivity Pentaband 3G, Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth 3.0, 'USB on the go' (to USB disks/accessories), wi-fi tethering through 'gifted' Joikuspot Premium add-on Quad band 3G,  Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, integral wifi tethering without needing third party software Tri band 3G (actualy freqs vary according to market), Wi-Fi b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1
Input mechanisms Adequate virtual qwerty landscape keyboard with writing aids, plus qwerty or numeric 'T9' input in portrait mode. Compatible with most Bluetooth and USB keyboards. Pretty good virtual qwerty keyboard in both portrait and landscape modes (where appropriate), with writing aids. Compatible with most Bluetooth keyboards Excellent virtual qwerty keyboard in both portrait and landscape modes (where appropriate), with writing aids.
Display  3.5" (360 x 640 pixels) AMOLED with anti-reflection layer, gorgeous indoors, just about readable in bright sunlight 4.7" (720 x 1280 pixels) Super LCD 2, utterly stunning indoors and pretty good outdoors too - the best phone screen ever?  3.7" (480 x 800 pixels) AMOLED with ClearBlack Display polarisers, great indoors at full brightness, pretty decent in bright sunlight
Interface  Symbian^3, kinetic scrolling everywhere, multi-touch where needed, six homescreens of live widgets, whole interface works in portrait or landscape mode. Android 4, customised with HTC Sense 4 additions, kinetic and multi-touch, of course. Seven homescreens of live, often interactive widgets. Most applications work in landscape mode, but homescreen and app menu is resolutely portrait only.  Windows Phone 7.5, flexible homescreen/launcher system with genuine 'live tile' concept, showing one or more live stats relevant to the app concerned; multi-touch where needed, portrait mode enforced most of the time.
Speed  Good, with 130MB free RAM and a Broadcom graphics processor to help out with effects, transitions and multimedia. Generally very good, with a quad-core processor for intensive tasks like 3D games and web browsing. As with Symbian, there's full, no holds multitasking (though HTC has to bundle an actual Task manager to let you keep an eye on things).

Built-in applications are speedy but, crucially, there's no multitasking of third party applications, so each has to either start loading from scratch after every interruption or, if fast app switching is used via the 'Back' icon, pick up its state as best it can. For the power user, this leads to a somewhat disjointed experience.

Memory capacity (storage)

250MB of (C:) system disk, plus 16GB mass memory and flexible microSD expansion, e.g. adding an extra 32GB. Apps can be installed on any disk. Plugging in the phone to any desktop computer allows mass memory and microSD to be mounted and treated like any other disk. Plus generic USB disk support via 'USB on the go', adding up to 128GB extra.

2GB of system disk (for apps and temporary files), plus 26GB mass memory for media and large games and their data. The mass memory can again be mounted on a desktop as a disk. 16GB internal disk, no expansion. In practice, this seems sufficient for most users, with heavyweight media streamed in rather than stored locally. There's no disk mounting support, all transfers have to go via Zune Desktop (or Windows Phone Connector) and its proprietary protocols/dialogs.
Camera (stills)

Superlative 12 megapixel stills, taken quickly, with huge 1/1.83" sensor and Carl Zeiss optics. Exposed camera glass.

Genuine Xenon flash and tuned camera hardware make for foolproof evening/social shots.

Great 8 megapixel photos (not quite as good as those from the Lumia 800 - with latest firmware - in my tests, the One X's snaps showed too much sharpening), but I was impressed by the speed of capture and by the neat trick of being able to snap photos during video capture. Not having a camera shutter button has to be a negative though... See also my N8 vs One X direct camera comparison. VERY exposed camera glass.

In low light, the One X does a decent job of static, close up subjects with variable intensity single LED flash. As distance rises and as subjects move, the photos get worse very quickly.

Great 8 megapixel photos (with latest firmware) in good light, with 1/3" sensor and Carl Zeiss optics. Exposed, though fairly recessed camera glass.

In low light, the combination struggles, with only single brightness dual LED flash. 

(cropped from text on sign at 30 metres in daylight) crop crop crop
Camera (video) HD (1280 by 720) video is superb and at high bitrate, fixed focus by default but very large depth of field, from 50cm to infinity, plus intelligent (non-lossy) 3x digital zoom; optional continuous auto-focus mode, optimised for close-up videos; audio capture in stereo and with pro-quality digital mikes, capable of handling a very wide volume range. Full 1080p capture, though default is a more sensible 720p (1080p on a 1/3.2" sensor at low bitrates is somewhat foolish), with continuous auto-focus that generally works well, good audio capture at normal volumes, in stereo. HD (1280 by 720) video is pretty good, and with good continuous auto-focus. Audio capture is in mono and acceptable as long as noise levels are kept within range.
GPS and navigation  Good GPS, backed up by Nokia Wi-fi location, with Nokia Maps 3.8 worldwide free sat-nav. Maps can be pre-loaded by continent, country or area.  Good GPS, with Google Maps Navigation and (somewhat robotic) voice guidance. Maps can now be pre-loaded into a cache and then pulled back later, but not, as far as I can see, on a country level. Oddly, HTC Locations also now offers voice guidance, albeit only on payment. Good GPS, backed up by Nokia Wi-fi location, with Nokia Drive worldwide free sat-nav. Driving maps can be pre-loaded by continent, country or area, though Nokia Maps doesn't share the same data, curiously. 
Audio out Loud, high quality mono speaker, 3.5mm jack, A2DP, FM transmitter to car radio, plus Dolby Digital Surround Sound (through HDMI port) Adequate mono speaker, somewhat tinny, 3.5mm jack, A2DP. Quietish mono speaker, suspect limited by the OS itself to avoid distortion, a little tinny in tone. 3.5mm jack, plus A2DP.
Multimedia playback Video playback is terrific, with a wide range of codecs supported. YouTube playback in high quality requires a third party download (e.g. CuteTube) Video playback is very good, but with slightly narrower codec support than Symbian. However, the excellent HQ YouTube support means that quality video is never far away.
Video playback is good, but is crippled by all videos having to be sanitised (re-sampled) by Zune Desktop or Windows Phone Connector, a process which can take hours in extreme cases. There's a decent YouTube mobile web shortcut, plus several third party clients which work well.
Web browsing Symbian Web (webkit-based), functional without ever really impressing, though there is Flash support (including video) if needed and multi-touch Stunning rendering speed on a stunning display. The Android browser on the One X is fairly unbeatable in mobile, with Flash if needed, with text reflow, etc. At 720p resolution, many sites don't even need zooming or panning if your eyes are good enough.  Browser is fast and fluid, though with only partial Flash support, so few embedded videos work. There's multi-touch and also some intelligent reflowing of text blocks after double-tapping to zoom in.
Email All purpose Mail client provides 'push' facilities for Mail for Exchange, Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo! mail and many others - works well on the whole but some limitations and performance annoyances. The odd pairing of Gmail and a generic email client persists, as is usual for Android, but it all works well and at very good speed here.  Tightly integrated Hotmail client, plus a general purpose POP3/IMAP/Exchange client, mailboxes appear as their own 'applications' in the main pick list. Performance is generally very good.
Other application highlights out of the box Full Quickoffice editing suite plus optional Microsoft Office Mobile editing suite/cloud integration, Dictionary, Zip manager, Photo editor, Video editor, Nokia Social Networking (Twitter and Facebook) Full Polaris Office editing suite, plus Movie Editor, Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter, TuneIn Radio, 'Show me' tutorials, and more. Pocket Office, including OneNote, Word, Excel and (in read only form) Powerpoint, Twitter and Facebook integration throughout, Nokia Music streaming, Creative Studio, Xbox Live integration and games
Application store and ecosystem  Nokia Store client, hundreds* of high quality native Symbian applications are compatible. There's an automatic update system but installs are somewhat intrusive where the Qt Smart Installer is involved.  Google Play (the new name for the Android Market...!), and access to many thousands* of high quality native (based on Java) applications. Applications can automatically or manually updated. Windows Marketplace is now pretty well stocked, thousands* of high quality apps. Application updates need to be manually checked and applied, but are all installed in one go, silently, thereafter.
Battery 1200mAh, sealed, not strictly user replaceable (though it's not that hard, can be done in under 1 minute), microUSB or 2mm charging, casual use will last 2 days. 1800 mAh, sealed, microUSB, nightly charging definitely needed for all users 1450mAh, sealed, microUSB charging, casual use will last 2 days.
Ongoing firmware support and OS updates Prospects starting to look limited, space on the internal disk C: is starting to get tight and Symbian's long term prospects are of course time-limited now. Support and minor upgrades will continue at some level though. Many OS modules and components can be upgraded, over the air, as-and-when using the 'Sw update tool' in the device. Prospects good, this is HTC's flagship for 2012, though core Android updates will take many months to appear, since the OS has to have Sense applied and then tested as such. Minor HTC patches can be applied over the air. Prospects are good for this new device and new platform, we've had several updates in the last six months and I'd expect several more throughout 2012 and 2013. Updates have to be applied via Zune Desktop or Windows Connector for Mac.

* yes, yes, overall numbers in each store are much higher, but I'm estimating the number of genuine high quality applications/games. Not novelties or copycats or junk.

N8 vs One X vs Lumia 800

As ever, it's interesting (though not that relevant) to add up the green 'wins': N8 - 6 greens; HTC One X - 5 greens; Lumia 800 - 4 greens. So a fairly even split in 'score'. Does this mean that the £500 One X is no better than a £200 N8 or £300 Lumia 800? No, I'm not saying that - each of the three mobile OS has its fans, its pros and its cons, and the HTC One X is, holistically, the best smartphone on the planet right now - in my estimation it bests the iPhone 4S, though comparisons with any iPhone are destined, inevitably, to fall down because people either like/lust/demand iPhones or they don't - there's rarely any middle ground.

Hopefully the table above will help you compare three current flagships, at least. What's interesting is that:

  • depending on your particular focus, you can make a good case for a Windows Phone or even Symbian smartphone as an alternative to an Android flagship or iPhone. For example, for my needs, the N8 still leads the world and I'd still put it (just) in an overall world top 5. I need great camera with Xenon, great speaker, great video capture, FM transmitter, AMOLED screen, good battery life and replaceable battery. N8 all the way. For me.
  • even with inclusion of the 'best phone in the world', in the One X, there are still compromises and negatives - we're still a long way off a perfect phone, if such a thing is possible.

Comments welcome as usual.

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian and All About Windows Phone, 11 April 2012