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Nokia N81 8GB review

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It’s hardly surprising that the Nokia N81 8GB has found itself propelled into the ranks of so-called iPhone killers. The “8GB” bit is an immediate giveaway; this Nokia smartphone is stacked with storage to rival the Apple phone’s capacity, and is geared up for serious music playing. But this is a very different beast to the touchscreen-operated iPhone.

The Nokia N81 8GB is a slider phone, and one of Nokia’s many Symbian S60 multimedia smartphones. It boasts Wi-Fi and 3G mobile connectivity, though it doesn’t support t high-speed HSDPA technology for broadband-speed mobile connections.

The N81 is one of the first Nokia phones geared up for downloading tunes directly over-the-air from the Nokia Music Store. It is also equipped for Nokia’s N-Gage advanced mobile game download and interactive gaming service – so having Wi-Fi onboard for high-speed downloads is a welcome option.

The N81 8GB is no pocket-pleasing slimline phone, however, weighing in at 140 grams – heavier than the GPS-enabled Nokia N95 – and measuring 102(h) x 50(w) x 17.9(d)mm. It doesn’t have the high-end camera functionality of the N95 either, making do with a standard issue 2-megapixel camera. It does though mean room for a gorgeously detailed display – an active matrix 2.4 inch, QVGA (320 x 240 pixels) screen resolving up to 16.7 million colours.

With 8GB waiting to be filled up with tunes, the music functionality is obviously the headline grabber with this device. The N81 8GB comes with a set of music player control buttons arranged around the phone’s main Navi scroll key D-pad; these can’t be seen in regular use, but start glowing when the music player’s activated.

Nokia has also introduced a new option for the Navi scroll key pad to aid music finding – an iPod-alike Navi wheel function. This turns the silver ring of the Navi scroll key the into a touch-sensitive speed scroller that works with the music player and the multimedia gallery.

The Navi wheel option has to be activated by delving into the menu system – curiously, it’s not the default option that you’d expect. While it’s useful, it’s not as responsive or fast as an iPod wheel, and not such a smooth experience.

Another new Nokia control button option debuting on the N81 8GB is a multimedia key – an unlabelled silver key that’s next to the D-pad. This slips users straight into a multimedia menu carousel system, pulling up options for the music player, gallery, internet browser and so on.

It’s part of a new interface being developed by Nokia, and looks rather swish. You can also get the regular Symbian S60 menu system by pressing the standard squiggle-marked key on the bottom left of the keypad.

Sound like a lot of button-action going on here? You’re right. For a slider phone, the Nokia N81 8GB has a whole heap of buttons cluttering up the area beneath the display. The two call/end keys are positioned on the edge of the control array, as if they’ve been squeezed to the side. Nokia might be congratulating itself on fitting so many controls into such a small area, but combined with the smooth surface, it actually ends up creating too much potential for mis-pressing keys. And that’s even before we start talking about large-fingered folk…

The music player in itself does an excellent job of playing tunes. Tracks can be transferred from a PC using a variety of methods; the N81 8GB can sync with Windows Media Player 11 software when connected via its USB lead, or users can use supplied Nokia PC Suite software to manage and load content.

Alternatively, it’s simple to drag and drop tracks by slipping the device into mass storage mode. They’re arranged into various standard categories for playback, and support cover art too.

The stereo speakers on the side of the N81 8GB do a fairly decent job on playback – much better than most mobiles, with enough volume and lack of harsh tinniness. Still, there’s virtually no bass to speak of. The supplied headphones reveal the full sound, and impressive it is too. You can upgrade to better headphones easily, as the N81 8GB has a standard 3.5mm headphone socket on top. Listen to tunes through decent in-ear phones or over-ear ‘phones and you will really appreciate fully the excellent quality of the music player – we’d recommend giving it a go.

You can supplement your side-loaded tunes by browsing and buying at the Nokia Music Store. This is a quick internet link away in the Music apps folder. If you access this in Wi-Fi coverage, you’ll save yourself potential mobile network operator data charges, as well as speed up the download process. It’s still acceptably quick on standard 3G if you’re out and about, but if you’re not on a flat rate data deal you could end up paying a lot more of top of Nokia’s per-track charge.

For free music and more, you could also try the built in FM radio – it’s another welcome extra. You can also subscribe to audio and video podcasts over the air too, using a Nokia Podcasting app.

As well as the button fest on the bottom half of the N81, the device sports a couple of additional ‘hidden’ keys at the top of the screen – on either side of the earpiece, next to the secondary video-calling camera. These come into play when the N81 is in gaming mode. They’re designed to be part of the console-style keypad arrangement for N-Gage gaming, with some of the main control keys also doubling up as gaming controls.

Our review N81 8GB came with sample N-Gage style games – Space Impact, FIFA 07, and Asphalt 3 Street Rules – to give an impressions of the graphical complexity of the platform, although the full N-Gage gaming application was not available to download when we tested the phone; it will be though when N-Gage goes live in December 2007.

On top of the music and games, the Nokia N81 8GB offers a nicely featured, if not state-of-the-art, main camera. It’s a 2-megapixel shooter with flash, so it’s not one of Nokia’s best, but it can produce good detailed shots (see Nokia N81 8GB camera samples). There’s a decent spread of control options, for exposure and white balance, light sensitivity and there’s even red-eye reduction. But autofocus is absent, as is a macro shooting mode, limiting close up performance.

The camera user interface is well constructed, though a touch slow to respond. Snaps can be stored or sent as messages, and also uploaded at a click to Flickr or Vox online blogs. Video footage can also be uploaded as an option; footage can be shot in VGA quality at 15 frames per second, so it’s reasonably good quality for a cameraphone. Downloaded videos can be played back using the onboard RealPlayer

Among the other features, the N81 8GB has a full Nokia Web Browser, and is loaded with Nokia Maps software; this can be used with an optional external Bluetooth GPS receiver to get mapping and satellite navigation instructions sent over the air to the phone. Email support is included, with document viewers for attachments.

Nokia also supplies the N81 8GB with extensive personal information management apps, including calendar, contacts, to-do lists and so on. There are plenty of other apps, including voice memo and voice commands, plus a neat text-to-voice reader for texts and other messages.

The huge storage capacity (for a mobile phone) carried by the Nokia N81 8GB is obviously going to attract some mobile buyers, particularly as this phone is considerably cheaper than the 8GB-packing iPhone. Wi-Fi is a bonus too for fast downloading of tracks and other content.While it does have a pretty good set of features, the controls aren’t the best arranged Nokia has ever produced, can be fiddly and invites mispressing buttons. The camera is another weak point too. Anyone considering this device are advised to look at the more expensive but much better specified Nokia N95 8GB.

Nokia N81 info

Typical price: £290 SIM-free

Latest Nokia N81 8GB Prices

Pros:
2 megapixel camera
3G/HSDPA
Wi-Fi
8GB memory
Cons:
Bulky handset
Fiddly controls

Verdict: A feature heavy 8GB that is let down by its design

Rating:

Download: Nokia N81 8GB user manual and software
More info: Nokia N81 microsite

Nokia N81 8GB technical specifications.

Recycle your phone: Sell Nokia N81 8GB

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