Nokia N81 (8GB, Unlocked) Mobile Phone - Review

Nokia N81 (8GB, Unlocked) Mobile Phone - Review

Nokia N81 (8GB, Unlocked) Smart Phone - ReviewPros: The Nokia N81 supports the Nokia Music Store and N-gage gaming platform and features a 3.5mm headphone jack, dual speakers, and dedicated gaming keys. The Symbian smartphone also offers a 2-megapixel camera, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and e-mail capabilities.

Cons: The N81's controls are cramped and hard to use. The smartphone doesn't support the U.S. 3G bands, and performance can be sluggish and buggy. The Nokia Music Store and N-Gage gaming platform have not officially launched in the United States yet.

Bottomline: We had high hopes for the gaming- and music-centric Nokia N81, but it ultimately disappoints with a bad design and buggy performance.

Specifications: Band / mode: WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM 850/900/1800/1900; Talk time: Up to 240 min; Dimensions (W x D x H): 2 in x 0.7 in x 4 in

The Nokia N81 is just the latest model to join the well-established and impressive family of Nokia N series multimedia smartphones. It brings support for the cell phone manufacturer's new Nokia Music Store and resurrected N-Gage gaming platform, and is optimized for music and gaming with features such as dual speakers, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and dedicated game keys. So in theory, the Nokia N81 sounds great but in reality, it's a complete disappointment. First, Nokia's Internet services haven't launched in the United States so you can't take advantage of the N81's full capabilities. Even so, we had so many problems with the mobile's cramped navigation controls and buggy performance that we're not sure it'd be worth it when the services are fully available. It's a shame given that we've come to expect great performance from the N series (for instance, the Nokia N95), but for now, we'd have to say "pass" on the N81. The Nokia N81 is available now unlocked in two versions: an 8GB model ($629) and one with a microSD expansion slot that can accept cards as large as 4GB ($529). For our review, we took a look at the 8GB model.

Design of the Nokia N81 (8GB) Cellphone

The Nokia N81 isn't so much about flash and style as it is about function, and its design reflects that idea. Sturdy and stout, we wouldn't necessarily describe the N81 as sexy, but the lacquered black finish is eye-catching and attractive enough. The device measures 4 inches tall by 1.9 inches wide by 0.7 inch deep and weighs 4.9 ounces, so it'll slip into a pants pocket but has a bit of heft and bulk to it.

On the front, there's a 2.4-inch diagonal non-touch screen that shows off 16.7 million colors at a 320x240-pixel resolution. The display's sharpness and brightness make it great for viewing images and playing games. You can customize the home screen with various themes and wallpaper and adjust the font size and backlight.

Below the display, you'll find a plethora of phone controls. You get the standard Talk and End buttons, two soft keys, a main menu shortcut, a clear button, and a navigation toggle with a center select key. Bordering the latter are dedicated multimedia controls; a tiny, silver key launches the multimedia page, while the play/pause, stop, and forward and back buttons surround the toggle but are visible only when the backlighting is on. If it sounds like a lot to cram into a small space, you're right. We found it difficult and frustrating to use the phone; pressing the Talk and End keys takes finesse since they're squeezed onto little slivers along the outer edges, and the media buttons and other controls are so close to each other that it's easy to press the wrong key. Not to mention the fact that they're all stiff to press.

Things don't get much better with the alphanumeric dialpad either. To access it, simply push the front cover upward. The sliding mechanism is smooth and the screen securely locks into place, but the top row of number keys is lined so close to the bottom edge that our thumbs constantly hit it. Otherwise, the keys are well backlit for dialing or texting in darker environments.

There are also two gaming keys above the screen. The placement of these buttons works out well since the screen orientation automatically switches from portrait to landscape mode when you're playing games, so it feels more like a handheld gaming device. Nokia has also added some other design features to mark itself as a multimedia phone. On top of the device, there's a 3.5mm headphone jack, along with a lock switch and a power button, while there are side-mounted speakers on both the left and right sides. The right spine also holds the volume rocker and camera activation key. The camera itself is located on the back and includes a flash but no self-portrait mirror.

The Nokia N81 comes packaged with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a wired headset with remote control, a software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.

Features of the Nokia N81 (8GB) Cellphone

As we mentioned earlier, the Nokia N81 (8GB) is optimized for gaming and music. It's built to work with the recently launched Nokia Music Store and revived N-Gage gaming platform. Unfortunately, both of the services weren't fully operational in the United States at the time of this review, so we didn't get a chance to really test out these features on the device. We did, however, play a few demo games--more on this in the Performance section.

As for the N81's multimedia capabilities, it follows suit with the company's other N series smartphones. The integrated music player supports MP3, WMA, W4A, AAC, AAC+, and eAAC+ files, as well as OMA DRM 2.0- and WM DRM-protected songs. The music library categorizes tracks by artists, albums, genres, and composers; you can also create playlists right on the phone and adjust the sound with the built-in equalizer. You can listen to your favorite podcasts using the N81, and there's an FM radio. Just be aware that the latter requires the use of the included headset since it acts as the tuner. RealPlayer is also onboard with 3GPP and MPEG-4 video-streaming support.

You can capture video and images of your own with the N81's 2-megapixel camera. It comes equipped with a flash and up to 20x digital zoom and can capture video at up to 15 frames per second. For still shots, you have your choice of three image qualities, six scene selections, and eight sequence modes. You can also adjust the white balance, color tone, exposure, and ISO settings. In video mode, user options are reduced but you do get three video qualities, two scene modes, and white balance and color tones. Once you're done, you can share them via e-mail or multimedia message; view them as a slide show; print them via Nokia's Xpress Solutions; or upload them to the Web or Nokia's Lifeblog app. Picture quality was mediocre. Objects looked clear, but there was grayish tone to the colors. On the other hand, video quality was pretty impressive for a camera phone.

With all its multimedia capabilities, you might be wondering about the Nokia N81's memory capacity. The smartphone comes with a healthy 8GB of internal flash memory, which could hold about 6,000 songs if you were storing music only. Now while the onboard memory is ample, just be aware that the N81 isn't equipped with an expansion slot so keep tabs on your available storage.

Amidst all the fun, let's not forget that the Nokia N81 is a phone first. The quadband mobile offers world roaming, a speakerphone, voice commands, VoIP support, conference calling, speed dial, and text and multimedia messaging. The address book is only limited by the available memory, while the SIM card can hold an additional 250 entries. For caller ID purposes, you can assign each contact a photo, a group ID, and any of 33 polyphonic ringtones.

Disappointingly, the Nokia N81 doesn't support U.S. 3G bands, so you're left to surf the Web using EDGE speeds. You do get integrated Bluetooth 2.0 and Wi-Fi. Supported Bluetooth profiles include those for mono and stereo wireless headsets, hands-free kits, dial-up networking, file transfer, and others. And while our review unit was able to find our Wi-Fi access point, it took several attempts to get connected.

Last but not least, the N95 runs the third edition of the S60 platform on the Symbian operating system for your productivity needs. Unlike the Nokia N95, it doesn't come preloaded with QuickOffice, so you'll need to download this application if you plan to use the N81 for viewing and editing Office documents. You can do this through the preinstalled Download catalog. For messaging, the smartphone supports IMAP4, POP3, and SMTP e-mail accounts. Other productivity apps and PIM tools include Nokia Maps, Adobe Reader, a Zip Manager, a calculator, a notepad, a measurement converter, a clock, and a voice recorder.

Performance of the Nokia N81 (8GB) Cellphone

We tested the quadband (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; GPRS/EDGE) Nokia N81 in San Francisco using AT&T service, and call quality was good.

General performance was on the sluggish side. There were noticeable lags when launching or switching between applications, and there was some bugginess. For example, after exiting out of the music player, displayed track information would remain onscreen for a few seconds, overlapping with the main menu page. The media player also randomly started playing music on a couple of occasions, startling yours truly and her colleagues.

On the upside, multimedia performance was good. The dual speakers really helped amp up the sound as songs sounded rich with plenty of volume. Watching videos was also pleasant as audio and image always synced up and pictures looked great on the N81's sharp screen. Game playback was also smooth. We played a couple of the demo games, including Space Impact Light and Asphalt Street Rules 3, and found it to be functional and entertaining in short spurts--definitely a good time waster while you're commuting on the bus or train. However, the cramped navigation controls took away from the overall appeal, and it's hard to judge the revamped N-Gage platform without having full access to the service.

The Nokia N81's 1,050mAh lithium-ion battery is rated for four hours of continuous talk time and up to 17 days of standby time. In our battery drain tests, we were able to get 7 hours of talk time on a single charge. According to FCC radiation tests, the Nokia N81 has a digital SAR rating of 0.81 watt per kilogram.