Review: Nokia N81 8GB, part 1 – The Hardware
January 29, 2008 by Don Smith
Update: Part 2 on the N81 8GB review has been published, check it out here: Review: Nokia N81 8GB, part 2 – The camera
Ever since the good people at WOM World sent me the Nokia N81 8GB I’ve been using it as my main device (thats about 15 days now) in order to write you guys an honest review. The N81 8GB is a cool gaming and music device with most of the other goodies you normally get with a smartphone. It’s powered by Symbian OS 9.2 and the S60 FP1 user interface. The new N-Gage gaming platform together with specially designed gaming buttons and great music capabilities such as super loud stereo speakers, 3.5mm connector for your favorite headphones and tons of storage capacity with the 8GB built-in flash memory are all nice features. But the big question still remains, is it what computers have become? Is this the next episode?
We did like
- The 8GB memory, great to store all those music and video files.
- WiFi, allowing us to browse the web and access entertainment cheap and smooth
- N-Gage gaming platform and dedicated gaming keys, nothing like killing some time at the metro
- 3.5 mm audio connector together with the Bose Quiet Comfort 3 headphones, what else you need to know?
- Great sound quality and loud speakers
We did not like
- The 2 megapixel camera, it’s good for…uhm…my grandma?
- No HSDPA means slow data transfers, we want…no we demand HSDPA!
- No built-in GPS
- Cheap plastics
- Gaming buttons cracked
- The price
Keep reading for our full Nokia N81 8GB review.
The Nokia N81 8GB in all its beauty, here’s the main S60 menu
The Nokia N81 8GB is a medium-sized (102 x 50 x 17.9 mm) gaming and music phone with a slider form factor. It’s rather heavy with it’s 140 grams, even Nokia’s heavyweight champion, the N95 8GB is about 20 grams lighter. If you’re looking for a small phone which easily can slip into your shirts pocket you’ll probably looking for something else.
Comparison shoot, on the top Nokia N81 8GB, Nokia N95 8GB and Sony Ericsson W960
The phone feels very sturdy and solid, partly because of the weight. Comparing it to my N95 8GB the build quality of the N81 seems better (which is a surprise). The front and back of the phone are made of black glossy plastics while the side frame consist of a solid smoke-colored metal. The metal feels and looks good, it should also do a good job protecting the phone from hard falls. Even though the plastic looks nice and glossy I can’t help but to think it makes the phone feel somewhat cheap.
The front panel holds a lot of buttons
The front panel holds many buttons crammed into a small space. There’s the standard call and end buttons, two selection buttons, four media buttons (play/pause, stop, fast rewind & fast forward), a menu button, a clear button, a multimedia menu button and the Navi wheel with a selection button in the middle. All these buttons are bound to cause problems especially for people with big fingers. The problem is made worse with the black background and plain surface, making it virtually impossible to distinguish where the buttons begin or end. In the end most users will get used to all these buttons, but still it’s not an elegant solution and I did accidentally press the wrong button from time to time.
The Navi wheel functions as a traditional joypad but has a cool optional extra feature, being touch sensitive the user can navigate by sliding his/her fingers around the rim of the keypad. As I said, it’s a cool feature but I found it easier to navigate in the ‘old’ way. This feature only works in the multimedia menu, the gallery and the music player, I did however get it to work on all menus once (I have no idea how I did that, must have been some kind of bug) and it worked good. There were no surprises or problems using the touch slider functionality in other menus which is why I believe Nokia will include this feature in coming firmware updates.
I should also mention the N81 lacks the pen button used to copy and paste text. This is replaced by an edit menu and there’s also the ‘#’ shortcut key, both making life easier when editing texts. I can’t say I missed the pen button but I know it’s great to have in some situations such as when using 3rd party software (read IM software where the users are likely to often change language settings for predictive text).
The plain keypad is better than expected
The numeric keypad is nicely hidden under the slider. It is also designed as a plain black plastic surface. The buttons are relatively large making good use of the phones full width which is perhaps why I had no problems whatsoever writing texts or dial numbers with this keypad, which was another surprise as I thought it would be hard to type fast on a flat surface.
The slider has been much improved and now has a really nice spring mechanism making it easy to slide in and out. Once opened it does however make a clicking sound. It’s nothing I noticed to start with, but a demanding user will still find it an annoying detail. All in all, the phone feels sturdy and solid, the plastic details however leave more to wish for.
The gaming buttons cracked!
The front panel also holds a video-call camera and the earpiece beautifully incorporated in the middle of the dedicated gaming buttons. The gaming buttons blend in nice with the rest of the phone and don’t look awkward at all, a nice feature is that they light up when they can be used. Unfortunately my trial device fell from my bedside table (a fall of approximately 80 cm) causing the plastic gaming buttons to crack. A phone must survive falls to the ground and the gaming buttons of the N81 8GB certainly did not do that very well. I’m not sure if the crack was caused by a exceptionally bad fall, if this is a build quality problem I’m sure future users will report on similar cracks.
The backside holds the 2 megapixel camera
This device was obviously not meant as a camera phone, still it’s equipped with a decent 2 megapixel camera, which should be able to produce somewhat blurry photos (there’s no autofocus) from your nights out. The camera also has a nice and strong flash and can produce mediocre video recordings (we’ll take a deeper look at the camera and it’s performance in part two of this review). Underneath the cover, there’s a BP-6MT 3.7V 1050 mAh battery with enough power for a 4 hour conversation. The standby time is up to 17 days.
In my experience the battery last for about 1 day with frequent use of WLAN, listening to music and browsing the web. If you turn of the WLAN, the battery performance significantly improves giving you enough power for about 2-3 days. The average user, using the phone to make sporadic calls and send texts will find the battery sufficient. Underneath the battery we find the sim-card holder, which slides underneath what I believe is the antenna.
Charge and mini-USB connectors
The bottom of the phone holds the charge and mini-USB connectors. The mini-USB connector is great because it’s the same type of cable you’re using with most other gadgets making it easy to access and transfer data wherever you are.
Power button, 3.5mm audio connector for regular headphones and keylock slider
The top of the phone holds the keylock slider, the power button and a 3.5mm connector. The audio connector is superb making it possible to connect your regular headphones easily and enjoy great audio quality. The keylock slider has replaced the two button sequence and works great to lock and unlock the keys. It can also activate or deactivate the automatic keylock when the slider is shut which is a nice and very handy detail. However, both the keylock slider and the power button are somewhat loose causing a clicking sound whenever you shake the phone. The user experience will likely be that somethings loose and moving around inside the phone (which is not the case). The power button can also be used to switch profiles.
Camera and volume buttons + side speaker
There are only three side buttons, these are the volume and camera buttons. The volume buttons are accessible regardless of what application or menu you are using, which is a great feature making it easy to decrease or increase the music volume. This is one of those features that people miss on other N-series. Like other devices in the N-Series the camera button can be used to start the camera application. The side speakers are really loud and the sound quality is better than most other phones. The memory slot found on the N81 has been removed and replaced with 8GB built-in flash memory. Enough storage space for most people. But remember, no memory slot means no possibility to replace memory cards.
From the left, Nokia N81 8GB 2.4" display in comparison with the Nokia N95 8GB 2.8" and the Sony Ericsson W960 2.6" displays
The N81 8GB is equipped with a 2.4 inch display using QVGA resolution (240×320 pixels). The screen is really bright and the contrast is sharp, making it a good choice in sunny conditions. Some people might want a 2.8 inch QVGA display instead, but that only results in bigger sized pixels and makes the image appear less sharp, not to mention how it affects battery time. All in all, the display does a good job considering this is a music and gaming device.
The phone lacks HSDPA support which means you can’t transfer data as fast as with WCDMA. This is an issue if you’re likely to transfer lots of data using your carrier connection, it does however allow fast access to WiFi networks which can be used to transfer all that data. Its armed with a 332Mhz ARM 11 processor and has about 42MB of free RAM memory. Transfers are mainly done using USB 2.0, there’s also Bluetooth 2.0 support.
In the next part we’ll take a look at the camera, the music software and gaming of course! Make sure you send us all your feedback and questions by commenting on this post.
You might also want to read other stuff we’ve written about the N81
Nokia N81 8GB gallery – more images, both official and ours
Nokia N81 8GB Special Edition with Bose Quiet Comfort 3 headphones
– Full specifications