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.
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.
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.