Review of the Nokia 8390

The 8390 is a small phone along the same lines as the 8290 and the 8890. Unlike those two phones however, the 8390 supports GPRS. However, unlike the 8890 (and many of the newer phones on the market these days), the 8390 is a single-band (1900 MHz only) model.

Last Updated: 10-May-2002

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

NOTE: This review was amended from the original after it was discovered that the 8390 I'd borrowed had a faulty earpiece speaker. In the early review, I heaped a fair amount of criticism on the phone for having pathetic earpiece volume. However, the person who lent me the phone had his fixed, and he went to the trouble of driving out to Mississauga to let me hear just how loud the phone really is. The following review reflects this new information.

In terms of size and shape, the 8390 is remarkably similar to the 8290, and while the styling is slightly different, it has the same boxy shape with slightly rounded edges. The keypad is a bit more stylistic, in that the keys on the left side are sloped up to the left, and the keys on the right are sloped up to the right. They keys at the bottom are also closer together than the keys at the top, which is a bit annoying, but not overly so.

Physically, the phone tips the scales at 2.9 ounces, but thatís quite a bit heavier than the Ericsson T66 on which I did a mini-review for a couple of weeks ago. The T66 tips the scale at 2.0 ounces, making it the lightest phone around. Still, the 8390 is in the feather-weight class for sure.

The phone boasts removable front and back cover plates, so you can customize the appearance of the phone. However, due to the recoverability of the cover plates, the phone is annoyingly creaky at times due to a lack of structural rigidity.

The screen is about 20% smaller than the one found on the larger Nokia models, such as the 3390 and the discontinued 5190 and 6190. However, despite being smaller in size, it has the same number of pixels, and displays exactly the same range of characters. The only true improvement to the display over previous models is a refreshingly bright and evenly distributed blue backlight. That makes the screen easier to see in the dark, even though it is smaller.

I wasnít so pleased with the keypad lighting however, which is provided by four blue LEDs located on either side of the top of the 5 key, and either side of the bottom of the 8 key. The LEDs themselves are visible through the semi-transparent key cover, and their brightness is very distracting. That wouldnít be so bad if the keys were evenly lit, but they arenít.

If I had one of these phones, Iíd do something about blocking the LEDs from my view to increase the perceived contrast of the phone. Possibly other faceplates handle the lighting better, but I didnít get a chance to try anything other than the standard faceplate that came with the phone.

The keys themselves are a mixed bag. Some of the keys on the 8390 I was testing pressed well, with positive feedback. Others felt rather mushy, and didnít have enough travel. This probably indicates a quality control problem, and the keypads on various 8390s might very well feel quite different. There was no way that this keypad could match the tactile feel of my ancient 6190.

The menus and overall functionality of the phone are pure Nokia, which is (for the most part) a good thing. Youíll find the 8390 immediately familiar if you have used any of Nokiaís other phones. Most of the features are available under the same menus and sub-menus as theyíve always been (going back over 5 years on the original European 6110s).

The menus also include Nokiaís generally excellent Calendar and To-Do features. Neither of these has changed much from the early days, including the inability to use the T9 predictive text entry when creating calendar notes. You can use it to create To-Do entries however, which is extremely odd. Why Nokia does this I have no idea.

The phone includes a functional IR port at the side, which can be used for any service where a cable might also be used. You can even use it to send and receive information from other Nokia phones having an IR port. You can use the phones as a wireless modem (in GPRS or circuit switched data modes) over the IR port.

The phone includes a headset jack at the bottom, but like other Nokia models, it is not the industry standard 2.5 mm jack, even though it appears to be. Instead it is a proprietary Nokia jack that requires either a purpose-built headset, or a headset adapter.

The phone book is borrowed from the 7190, and it is probably among the best phone book systems out there today. It allows you to store up to 5 different phone numbers for each name, and you can also include up to 4 different text fields. Those fields accommodate a street address, an e-mail address, a web address, and a non-specific text note.

Like the 7190, the text handling of the 8390 is among the best you can get. Text from most places in the phone can easily be cut-and-pasted to text messages. Subsequently, getting text information into an SMS is especially easy.

Not only does Nokia have one of the best T9 implementations in the business, it also chose to include the user-definable SMS folders that have thus far existed only on their 7190 model. As you may remember from my review of the 7190, I gave very high praise to the folder concept.

Oddly however, I donít believe they have as effectively implemented the concept in the 8390. Whereas the 7190 includes all of your folders in the same sub-menu as the standard folders, the 8390 forces you to first select the ďMy FoldersĒ sub-option, and then after youíve chosen the folder you want, you must select the ďOpen FolderĒ option to get into it. You cannot use numeric shortcuts to go directly to a user-defined folder. However, despite these reservations, I still believe that having user-defined folders is a solid plus for the 8390.

The phone supports an audio recorder, which can be used to record both sides of a phone conversation (up to a maximum of 3 minutes). You can also use the unit to record your own voice outside of a phone call, but getting there requires a number of keystrokes. Fortunately, you can start a recording during a call by simply pressing the left softkey twice. Iíd still have appreciated a dedicated button on the side of the phone.

As with all recent Nokia phones, the 8390 includes a selection of games. Of course, one of those games is Snake, which has been a staple on all Nokia phones since the 6110. The other games are interesting, but not the sort of things to challenge your mind or keep you interested for much longer than 5 minutes at a time. I would have preferred games such as the excellent Opposite from the 7190.

RF and Audio Performance

As many of you know, I personally judge a phone based on its RF and audio performance. The 8390 does rather well in the audio department with a generously loud earpiece, and reasonable tonal balance. In fact, the tonal balance is better than just about any other Nokia phone Iíve tested to date. It isnít quite in the same class as the Motorola P280, but it is actually not far off. Outgoing audio isnít bad either, and it too seems to have a fairly good tonal balance. However, the microphone picks up way too much background noise.

The RF performance is a bit disappointing though, but it is certainly nowhere near the worst phone Iíve ever tested. Nokia did a better job of RF sensitivity on the 3390, which also as has no visible antenna. I compared the 8390 against my P280 inside Square One mall in Mississauga, where there are a number of halls that provide gradual signal attenuation.

The 8390 starts to loose the audio of a call in areas where the P280 works perfectly. The 8390 also drops calls under those same conditions. I tested the transmitter efficiency of the phone by recording a test message to my voicemail while walking around at the very end of a hall where signals were quite weak. I did that on both the 8390 and the P280. Whereas the audio on the recording made with the P280 was rock-solid, the one from the 8390 was audible only 50% of the time, and it broke up badly even when it was audible.

Oddly, the phone could hold on to service while idling in those areas, but if it ever lost service, it was a pest to get it back. Even when I told the phone to manually scan for available networks, it would often come back and tell me that it couldnít find Fido service (in an area where the phone actually showed usable service once it found it).

On the positive side though, putting an 8390 in your shirt pocket has no discernable effect on the ability of the phone to retain the network while idling, or to ring when called (even in marginal signal areas).

Out in the real world, it wasnít much better. I drove the phone through weak signal areas, and the 8390 did a rather disappointing job of providing clean audio. The P280 taken through the same area would provide markedly cleaner audio, and fewer problems with call dropping.

In areas where the network was prone to thrashing (bouncing you back and forth between multiple sites), the 8390 sounded rather messy. Its ability to cope with handoffs wasnít really much worse than other Nokia phones, but Iíve never rated Nokias highly for this aspect of performance.

For me personally, the phone was disappointing. Even though it had all the best bells and whistles from other Nokia models, and an excellent display (despite its small size), the true test of a phone is its ability to work as a phone. In that area the 8390 comes up short. It has excellent earpiece volume, but its uncomfortable feel against my face, and lackluster RF performance, didn't inspire me to use this phone in day-to-day activities. Thatís too bad really, because otherwise the 8390 is a great little phone.

Other Reviews of the Nokia 8390

Howard Chui