First look of the Nokia N81: Music and Gaming first

The first glimpse we got of the N81 was a few months back when the first leaked pictures of this device together with the N82 (basically an N95 in candybar mode) appeared on the net. Still no word on the N82, but the N81 on the other hand has finally arrived! It was announced on August 29 2007 during Nokia’s GO Play event together with Nokia’s N95 8GB, 5310 XpressMusic, 5610 XpressMusic and Ovi, Nokia’s umbrella brand for its new Internet services. As a smartphone or ‘multimedia computer’ as Nokia puts it, the N81 is considered a multi-talented devices. But as you know in the world of smartphones some devices are more talented than other. In the case of the N95 the device has it all, hence its status as a flagship device with a flagship price. In a perfect world there would be one device that does it all and all consumers would buy this one product. But in reality some people just don’t require a device that does it all, but one that does very well in a few areas and reasonably well in others. They choose to do so because in some cases they just don’t need certain features or in other cases they want it all but choose to compromise and buy a ‘lesser’ product for economical reasons. That’s where the N81 and the N81 8GB step in. If you want a device that encompasses every area of OVI including music, gaming, GPS (Maps) and Imaging (and perform these task really well) you’d get the N95 or a N95 8GB. The N81 and N81 8GB on the other hand focus more on the music and gaming side of things. How does the N81 perform in the areas where it’s specialized in(Gaming/Music)? The N95 8GB is offered for 130 Euros more than the N81 8GB. With the higher priced N95 8GB you get: built-in GPS, 3 more Megapixels with Carl’s blessings, larger screen, TV-out, dual sliding function and hardware accelerated 3D graphics. Is the extra 130 Euros worth these extra features? Which version of the N81 is recommended? How does the N81 do when compared to previous Nseries devices? Is the N81 as a music-oriented devices a worthy successor to the N91 8GB ? Is it better then the N95 8GB when it comes to gaming and was it such a good idea to drop the 3D acceleration? These are all the questions that I’ll try answer in several small reviews focused on different areas, culminating in an extensive Mega Review. The Nokia N81 and N81 8GB
The N81 is the second N8X device with the N80 being the first one. While the N80 was more of an all-rounder (much like N95), the N81 is focused on gaming and music. It comes in two versions: the N81 and N81 8GB. These devices are basically the same, but there are two key differences: The 8GB version drops the microSDHC card slot and adds 8GB of internal memory. The N81 comes with the Nokia 2GB microSD Card MU-37 and should work with the latest 4,6 and soon-to-be-released 8GB microSDHC cards. The other difference is that the N81 8GB is offered in ‘Cocoa Brown’ while the N81 comes in ‘Warm Graphite’ and ‘Cobalt Blue’. When I talk about these color choices, on all versions the device is done in a glossy black/brownish color, but it’s only the side panels that changes in color.

The package
The box itself looks pretty familiar as it uses the same geometric shapes found on the package art of devices like the N76, N93i and Euro N95. It seems that Nokia designers just like to use geometric and abstract shapes with their devices. This can be seen with products like the l’Amour series (the cute flowers) and Nokia Prizm. The same geometric shapes used on the box is carried in the themes of the N81 and the N95 8GB. I have to point out a certain trend that I have been noticing: the materials used for the box seems to be getting cheaper looking with every new device. I know that in most cases the box will be thrown out or find its away in a dark corner of a closet, but it’s all about the presentation and for a device currently costing north of $800 you’d expecting a nice looking box. This is one area where Nokia should take a look at Apple’s products.

N81 Design
New hardware features introduced on the N81 include: the Navi wheel which basically does double duty as a D-pad and a touch-sensitive scroll wheel, stealth music keys, application- sensitive light-up game keys and power saver LED integrated into the D-pad/Navi wheel combo.
First time I saw the N81 in the press pictures honestly I thought it looked ugly, but in person it looks pretty nice. I would best describe it as a mix between the N80 and the N91 8GB. The design looks sleek, but not simplistic sleek like the iPod Touch, but sleek in the sense of a gaming peripheral as these usually tend have many buttons and design elements. To give you an idea of what I mean, just take a look at Logitech’s G-series of gaming peripherals. On the other hand the designers have managed to do a pretty good job in hiding the fact that there are A LOT of buttons on this thing. The stealth music keys are a good example of one way they have managed to achieve this.

While the N95 had sharp angles, the N81’s design is characterized by rounded edges, repeating design elements like the rounded square shaped of the Navi wheel that is repeated in the camera lens surround and straight lines near the center of the device that contrast with the rounded outer edges. Another characteristic of the design is that it’s very symmetrical and balanced. Basically the design is ‘busy’ with a lot happening, but they have managed to hide this and make it look pretty simple. The N81 in closed position doesn’t really look like a phone, it has in my opinion more in common with an MP3-player or portable gaming device. While the N95 and N76 (Sony T-series) resembled digital cameras, the same cannot be said about the N81. Some people I have shown it to, commented that it reminds them of the LG chocolate.

The N81 is done in what at first sight might seem like glossy black with the sides that are done in a light brownish color that Nokia calls ‘Cocoa Brown.’ But upon closer inspection the black color actually seems to be a very dark shade of brown that is easily mistaken for black. It has some very fine metallic flakes in the paint and is covered with glossy clear coat. Brown is not a very common color used in mobile devices or electronics in general (black and silver seem to be dominating colors), but the brown is tastefully done, unlike let’s say the brown used on the Microsoft Zune. The N81 seems to give a feeling of being much more solid then the N95 and in fact it is. The slide is perfect and solid, not E65 perfect, but close. After using the N95 for such a long time I found myself trying to push the slide of the N81 downwards as if it had media keys like the N95, which indicates that I have really gotten accustomed to this. The solid feeling is carried throughout the device and in some areas the buttons feel a bit too solid and start to feel kind of stiff (Call and End key). While the slide is obviously good, I wondered why the N81 gave me such a feeling of it being well-built. After thinking about I think this has to do with the fact that it’s made up out of as few sectional parts as possible: one single piece that covers the screen and single piece that makes for the entire brown side panels. I think the weight also adds to this: it has a nice heft to it, but doesn’t feel heavy. The N95 for example which housed a lot of features didn’t feel heavy at all which I consider a bad thing. A phone should have a little bit of weight to it.

Let’s move on to the keypad. Obviously these are flat and honestly I don’t like flat keys: they may look stylish and are all the rage right now, but I prefer good old raised buttons with good tactile feedback a la N93. The keys on the N81 are surprisingly good and easy to use despite their flat nature and require just the right amount of force to be pressed. Don’t know if you guys noticed this, but the backlight color is now white, just like the new N95 8GB. Nokia used to used to use a blue backlight (and I like blue), but this white is so much nicer and I applaud Nokia for this decision.
Turning the N81 around it looks sleek and simplistic with a huge (and exposed) lens cover. Will Nokia never learn? The lens needs to be protected with some kind of cover like the classic N95. While we’re on the subject, I have seen way too many reviews calling the lens cover on the classic N95 the ‘shutter.’ In reality this is not the shutter, but just a lens cover. The shutter is the actual element found inside that allows light to pass for a determined period of time, for the purpose of exposing the light-sensitive sensor.

Other things worth mentioning for now is that the speakers are much better integrated into the body then the N95 with its ultra-shiny and tacky looking speaker grilles. I also like the new microUSB port, it feels very secure It’s compact and has a distinct click when you fully insert the plug. The transfer speed does seem slow as I managed to transfer 4GB of music in about 2 hours. This is painfully slow compared to something like the iPod, as some reviews are indicating that they managed to transfer 118GB in about 5 hours. One thing missing is the ability to charge via USB. What I don’t like is the fact that this thing is a huge finger print magnet and seeing that it’s marketed as a gaming and music phone targeted towards the youth this is definitely not a good idea. Sweaty hands combined with a slippery phone surface and a very exciting N-Gage game will surely result in you dropping the device. The best material for the job would have been the rubbery material used on the back of the plum N95. Trying to keep the N81 clean can be best described by a Dutch saying:’Water naar zee brengen’, which literally means: bringing water to the sea. Basically cleaning the N81 is pointless And lastly, what’s that rattling inside? When you shake the device there’s something loose in there. This problem doesn’t seem isolated to the sample I received, Stefan from Intomobile who also received a N81 also had the same problem. Not sure what that could be, but the device seems to be working perfectly.

New features on the software side include: Music Player with update look which also separates your podcasts from your tunes, an updated visualization called Circles. Other changes include a new task-based Multimedia Menu (similar to the one on N95 8GB), Ngage App (Currently only comes with demo’s), Music Store (soon-to-be-released), new themes, ringtones, 12 included songs (Yes Moby’s In my heart is still there, but luckily not the only one), a new ‘show viewfinder grid’ option in the camera menu and a new app called Voice Aid.

Voice basically reads text on your screen allowing you to perform basic phone functions without having to look at the screen. The N81 I received from Nokia was a final production model with final firmware version 10.0.053. I also checked and it seems FOTA (Firmware-Over-The-Air) is present. The recently introduced search feature on the Active Standby screen comes now standard with the N81. As a person who likes to stick to the original themes I find the ones included with the N81 lacking in variety: they are all basically the same theme in different colors. Where’s that beautiful dark theme that was included with the original N95?

Overall the N81 feels very speedy, which I suspect is due to software optimizations and the single 369 MHz CPU. It manages to start-up in about 13 seconds, which is pretty fast Did I mention that Nokia has finally learned its lesson and the N81 is now a multi-tasking beast?

I will cover the music side of things later on in details, but for now I have to say that early on I suspected that the N81would follow in the footsteps of the N91 when it comes to audio quality and I was right! One of the first things I checked for was the audio quality and I’m very impressed. I tested the N81 with the Etymotic ER-4P and there’s absolutely no hiss or any type of audio artifact and the overall output quality is just phenomenal. A lot of people have been complaining about the volume in mobile phones: the N81 finally delivers ample audio headroom to drive any high-end earphone. The N81 sounds even better then the N76 which I proclaimed a few days ago as the best sounding model in the line-up after the N91 when it comes to the 3.5mm audio jack output. The N81 puts even the flagship N95 to shame and equals the N91 in audio quality. I haven’t listened to the N95 8GB yet, but I suspectthat they have slightly improved it by removing the hiss, but the N81 is expected to come on top. I did notice that the N81 feels kind of slow when changing tracks, especially when playing the first track after the music has been stopped. This is probably a firmware issue that will be addressed in the next firmware update.

Probably the weakest point in the N81’s feature list is its imaging abilities. The pictures are just not looking very impressive as it lacks any auto-focus and the images seem washed out and pixilated in dark conditions. To give you an idea what to expect, basically the N70 takes better pictures then the N81. The same thing can be said about the video as it uses a pretty average 320×240 video at a pretty choppy 15 fps. While it’s easy to criticize the device as it compromises video and pictures, but from a marketing stand-point adding high-res video and imaging would put it in direct competition with Nokia’s own N95 8GB, we should remember that the N81 is more about the gaming and music.

The N81 comes with pre-installed with demos of FIFA 07, Space Impact light and Asphalt 3: street rules. From the looks of it, the N81 should be the reference gaming device for the Ngage gaming platform. It’s still a mystery whether some games will take advantage of the 3D acceleration of the N95 which the N81 lacks. But the N81 on the other has dedicated gaming keys which the N95 doesn’t. There’s also the discussion whether the N95 will support gaming in
andscape mode. The lack of TV-out seems like a missed opportunity when it comes to gaming for the N81. Right now it’s just too early to say much about the gaming side of things. But as the November release edges closer I we’ll see how the N81 does.

Initial conclusion
So far it seems that the N81 is a worthy successor to the N91 in terms of audio features and audio quality. Its good build quality and solid slide should prove to be sturdy enough for gaming use. The usage of a glossy finish doesn’t seem like the best solution here and it’s yet to be determined if dropping the 3D acceleration was a good idea or not. TV-out would have been perfect for the N81, but leaving it out seems like a missed opportunity. On the gaming side the N81 has yet to show what it’s made of. If you have any questions you would like me to include in the N81 Mega Review, leave me a comment.

Written by Devin