It’s been more than five months since Nokia announced the N8, the first in a new breed of Symbian OS-based phones that Nokia hopes will give cutting-edge handsets like the iPhone and the Motorola Droid X a run for their money.

Five months: That’s an eternity in today’s fast-moving tech world, where a span of even just five weeks between a phone’s announcement and release seems like a lengthy wait. To be fair, though, Nokia has always maintained that it would release the N8 in the third quarter of the year, and the Finnish phone giant says it’s finally started shipping the phone — just under the wire.

Many Nokia fans have wondered will there be further delays for the N8, and this is probably the best answer to that question. Recently, Nokia informed some of the customers who have pre-ordered the device they will be receiving it “during October,” as Nokia decided to “hold the shipments for a few weeks to do some final amends.” However, Nokia immediately clarified that the N8 is not being delayed, and now it proved it with the pictures of N8s leaving the factory.

Boasting a 3.5-inch, 640-by-360-pixel, multitouch-enabled display; a Carl Zeiss optics-enhanced 12MP camera with a flash, auto-focus and HD video recording; and a 680MHz ARM11 processor under the hood, the half-inch-thick N8 marks the first Nokia phone powered by Symbian^3, the touch-friendly revamp of the aging but still widely used Symbian mobile platform.

With Symbian^3, Nokia’s mobile hardware at last enters the modern age of swipeable home screens, pinchable photos and Web pages, “rubberbanding” menus (which bounce when you reach the bottom or the top) and, of course, apps (through the just-relaunched Ovi store).

I took a brief test drive of the N8 in the summer and came away reasonably impressed. Unlike Nokia’s old (and disappointing, in my humble opinion) flagship, the N97, the N8 truly feels like a modern smartphone, replacing the N97’s squishy resistive touch display (which uses flexible layers of plastic to register taps) with a glass capacitive display, same as on the iPhone and the latest Android handsets.

Tapping and swiping through the N8’s various menus and screens also felt like something you’d expect from the iPhone or Android, with smooth scrolling and intuitive navigation.

The N8 also benefits from an impressive list of features like an HDMI video output, an FM transmitter (for broadcasting tunes over an FM radio), support for Dolby Digital Plus sound, and 16GB of onboard storage (plus a microSD memory slot).

But the N8’s interface still doesn’t feel as polished as what you’ll see on the iPhone 4 or, say, the Droid X or the Samsung Epic 4G. The basics of swiping, pinching and tapping are all there, but (if you ask me) the “wow” factor is missing: The menus are a little plain, screen transitions are utilitarian, the icons are a bit dull and so on. Given time and a few updates to the Symbian^3 OS, Nokia may well get there; for now, though, the N8 still feels like it’s playing a game of catch-up.