The Nokia N81 8GB is not the best in any one thing. In fact, it has many shortcomings. But for the market position, and what people would appreciate from their mobiles, it's a refreshing entrant into the smart/musicphone side of things. And like the iPhone, makes you expect just a bit more from the device in your pocket.
The Nokia N81 and N81 8GB are mid-range models. They have some of the features of their sibling, the more expensive Nokia N95, but not all. As you might expect, the N81 8GB adds an additional 8 GB of storage, but loses the microSD memory card slot that's in the standard N81.
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Both are Symbian devices with S60 Feature Pack 1 (the latest operating system available) and are focused more on entertainment than productivity. They are capable of being business devices, but a few minutes with one will make it clear that the N81 8GB was made to rock out.
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The N81 8GB is a very sleek device, even though it reminds me of a well chiseled brick. It's heavy, but not too much so.
When the slider is closed, you see a device that begs to be touched. My first reaction to it was that it was a touchscreen model.
The front buttons looked more like heat-sensitive controls rather than standard buttons, and I could easily tell that that was probably the thought when designing them.
The front face slides up to reveal the number pad, which is too small for my fingers, but several people I talked to (mostly women) had no issues with it. Still, using the keypad was a good bit easier than I thought it would be; though the keys are small, they give excellent feedback
The other buttons all around the device are completely flush, yet easy to touch and give adequate feedback. The power button was the only one I really had a problem with, as it was too hard to press and required a bit of a dent into my finger to access it.
The screen is a so-so affair. Until I changed the default theme, it was nearly unreadable in direct sunlight. It seems to take in all the sunlight and give nothing back. Nevertheless, indoors, the display was bright and clear and due to the automatic screen adjustment, always looked just right in most conditions.
Outside of the screen, the front of the device is marked by a Navi-wheel. I was initially very confused by this. It looks like a regular 5-way navigation button, but in some programs you can scroll it as if it's a wheel in order to scroll menus. Unfortunately, this feature has to be considered a broken one, as it does not work in every application, and works sporadically in the applications it does work in. In addition, the scrolling is counter-intuitive to your natural reactions.
On the right and left sides sit stereo speakers which offer excellent sound, whether listening to a ringtone or music.
Overall, I have to place the design of the N81 8GB as one of missed expectations. It's a device that begs to be touched, but the inconsistencies in user interface on both hardware and software sides leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Getting past the hardware design, you quickly realize that the N81 8GB was designed to be an entertainment device just as much as it was designed to be a smartphone.
The music player included is suitable for most playing tasks. Like much of S60, there are tons of menus to do just about anything that you want to do. The N81 8GB also includes a Podcasting application so that you can download and listen to podcasts easily.
Music is controlled from any application by the playback buttons surrounding the Navi-wheel. These are basic buttons, and are only lit when the device is active and playing music, or when you have the music player open. I only had a problem with hitting the Play button, as it's too close to the Clear ('c') key, but other than that, it's well designed.
The N81 8GB includes a sleek multimedia-like menu interface that is accessible using the silver key above the Clear button on the front (I found it by accident). This menu fades in and out when activated and takes full advantage of the Navi-wheel functionality.
The two versions of this smartphone give you a couple of options. You can get the one that can store 8 GB of music right out of the box, or you can get one that lets you choose how much storage you get with miniSD cards. There are 8 GB cards available now; and you can easily buy a bigger card later when they are released.
The so-so included headphones plug into the 3.5 mm headphone jack. The headphones include a controller that allows you to control features such as play/pause, next/forward track, answer/hang-up calls, and volume. Unfortunately, without that extension, the default headphones are too short to use unless the device stays in a shirt pocket.
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On the rear of the device is a 2 megapixel camera. I expected a camera that was along the lines of the highly regarded one on the N95, despite the lower megapixels, no auto focus, and no Carl Zeiss lens. What I got was a camera that took noisy pictures. Whether in a well lit area or not, the camera never performed well, even when the LED light was used. For such a device that feels so great in the hand, to take a bad picture is just a big knock.
Overall, the multimedia aspect of the N81 8GB was not over and above, but it just kind of fit. The design seems made for this kind of use, and everything from the applications to the buttons just seem to fit in very well together. It's not as slick as the iPhone, but it does work and works well.
Nokia's N-Gage platform makes a return with the N81 8GB. There is a demo version of a few games, and a nice introduction to the service.
Probably one of the most impressive aspects of N-Gage on this device is the N81 8GB has buttons over the top of the screen just for this purpose. Ordinarily, the buttons are hidden, but they light up when playing any game and then the N81 8GB becomes a solid gaming device.
Admittedly, I got very stuck on playing FIFA and Need for Speed more than I did with checking out the rest of the service. The games are well done and as a whole seems to fit the N81 8GB quite well.
As I have recently moved to using a Symbian/S60 device as my main phone, I found nothing unfamiliar in the N81 8GB. I did notice, though, that some design decisions affected how much I would use it as a phone.
This is one of the areas where the Navi-wheel not usable, as you can't use it to scroll through contacts. Nevertheless, you can search as if they were on any other mobile phone. I tended to use the call log to get to whom I wanted to call, if it was someone I frequently spoke to, that is.
Voice quality, whether using a Bluetooth headset, the handset itself, or the speaker phone was excellent. I would have preferred a bit more volume and clarity at the upper end of the range for loud places when in a car, but for the most part users will be hard pressed to find areas where they are not able to hear the person on the other end.
Other aspects of the phone side of things that I noticed:
there is still no built in threaded SMS application
adding MP3s to contacts is a lot of wading through menus
Overall, nothing spectacular about using the phone side of the N81 8GB, but given a few UI enhancements it could give a few phones a run for their money.
Like most Symbian/S60 mobiles in Nokia's N-Series lineup, the N81 8GB comes with several programs that make staying on top of your connected life easy and seamless.
Nokia Maps is a navigation program that, when the smartphone is paired with a Bluetooth GPS, gives a solid mapping solution. The only downside of Nokia Maps is that most of the really good features, such as voice navigation, can only be had with a paid subscription.
Some additional applications on the N81 8GB include Adobe Acrobat Reader, Real Player, Flash Lite 2.0, an Instant Messaging program that works with several IM services, and Nokia's Download service which points to several other third party applications directly downloadable to the N81 8GB.
Battery life is one area that I was impressed with. It's good as a phone, but as a smartphone I was knocked off my feet.
The N81 8GB stayed connected to Mail for Exchange (for email, calendar and contacts) and Jaiku (social network) pretty much all the time, and I have been able to get 1.5 days out of using it. This includes using the N81 8GB as a modem for my Nokia N800 Internet Tablet for a few hours at night.
Nokia N800, N81, and N75 (view large image)
Flat out, it's impressive. Most people should expect an easy two days of use unless they are using it as an MP3 player for 10+ hours a day.
The N81 8GB is a mobile that sometimes let me down, and others times delightfully faded into the background. Just the design of the device screams of something needing a touchscreen and touch-sensitive controls, and I was let down where I could not do so. Even still, the buttons and controls were well placed and for the most part easy to figure out.
Where the music, phone, and Internet abilities were great, and above that of many mobiles; the camera and some aspects of the general user interface were disappointing.
Musically, I was impressed with the sound, the ability to find the amount of music quickly, and the music controls. Voice quality and features were of the normal high Nokia standard.
If you are looking for a camera phone, then move on, but if your interests are a mobile with more than capable music and Internet abilities, the N81 8GB is a solid buy.
The N81 8GB can be purchased from retailers such as eXpansis USA andAmazon.