Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Review of Nokia N81/Nokia N81 8Gb
Nokia N81 8GB
Wired stereo-headset (HS-45) with remote control (AD-54)
USB data cable (CA-101)
For Nokia the release of the Nokia N81 is a hallmark event in that it is one of the first handset to support its re-launched N-Gage platform. On top of that, within the Nokia’s range this model is about to claim the position of the most affordable multimedia convergent device marrying music, games and imaging under its hood. So as not to pose a threat to the Nokia N95 and the Nokia N95 8 Gb, this device comes with no GPS receiver onboard, but the N81 still ships with local maps, sort of reminding its users that a Nokia-branded external receiver is always up for grabs.
The Nseries line-up is now seeing a very an amusing differentiation of its members. Nokia tries to take some devices to the mass-market using quaint designs and pushy advertising campaigns, like those of the Nokia N76. Another part of its offerings, on the contrary, is jam-packed with features, so as to meet the requirements of the users who put some thought into choosing their new phones and normally have functionality on the top of their priority lists. However even the latter camp has own sub-classes: basic editions and pumped-up versions. The example of the Nokia N95 and Nokia N95 8 Gb shows that the memory volume is not the only thing setting them apart – the 8 Gb’s RAM volume has been modified as well. So it is more of a polished variant of the model with most letdowns of the original handset done away with. Nevertheless, the Nokia N81 stands just outside the latter camp – both version of this phone share the same hardware and are pretty much identical in terms of the materials used, and moreover, they hit the market on the same day.
This product’s target audience is the youth, with 22-30 year old male being its primary focus, while girls and older consumers have been given short shrift. What the company is banking on with the N81 is its gaming department, while other fronts and smarts are not as important. In a certain sense this model is the first go at this field, that starts shipping long before its major constituent, the N-Gage service and N-Gage Arena come along.
Since the N81 was designed with the youth in mind, it’s no wonder why it sports such curves and materials. They tried to make it both no-nonsense and flashy at the same time, and in some ways they succeeded.
Even before the Nokia N81’s official release date, it turned up in the middle of a scandal. First, Orange proclaimed it was not adding this device to its portfolio, since Nokia’s latest and greatest offspring shipped with bundled access to Nokia Music Store. Essentially, this service was a direct rival for this carrier’s own music shop. “3”, a British operator, followed in the footsteps of Orange shortly. However, Vodafone didn’t announce it was going to dump the N81, yet noted that it would never give it an aggressive advertising campaign for the very same reason. If you skim through all write-ups on this issue, it feels like this matter is extremely crucial for Nokia, and threatens its value-added services altogether. However it couldn’t be further from the truth in this case.
Mind the fact that carriers have been retailing the Nokia N95 armed with Nokia Music Store access as well and what a wild success it is. It appears this “forgetfulness” of carriers applies only to a number of select products. We won’t make guesses about why it is so, since the only thing that matter is that the N81 will be widely available on all markets, even though not in the guise of a carrier-branded device.
The N81’s display shows up to 16 million colors (TFT), sports QVGA-resolution (240x320 pixels, 37x49 mm, 2.4 inches from corner to corner). It accommodates up to 12 text lines and 3 services lines, whereas in the web-browser mode you can easily cram up to 20-22 lines into it. The display quality is fine; we found the picture quite vibrant and easy-to-read in the sun.
Putting the N81 up against the Nokia N95 8 Gb, it’s easy to notice the latter trumps it with its larger diagonal (2,8 inches), yet falls flat when it comes to color reproduction.
The Nokia N81’s foremost innovation is its touch-sensitive keypad; however Nokia’s approach to this is quite different from what we have come to expect. The only touch-sensitive thing about the N81 is its navigation cluster that sits on top of the upper slide. Thanks to its flat surfaces, the phone looks pretty quaint, but here is the number-one question – what about tactile feedback, for consumers generally like to feel every press they make? Unlike Samsung, where they couldn’t solve this issue for a very long while in any acceptable way, here Nokia employs a combined mechanism. You do feel how the buttons go down, even though all these presses are handled by touch-sensitive sensors (for music controls only). Technically, this is a cross between two worlds, and what’s especially good about it is that it won’t work without you actually pushing a key down, so this reduces the possibility of accidental clicks.
With the Nokia N81 the maker revives the already-forgotten name – “Navy Wheel” – yet puts a whole new meaning and purpose in it. This is a smallish mechanical button with its edges sitting slightly above the surface. Honestly, I didn’t find it a joy to use. It is also flanked by music controls, which is the same control cluster you will see on the N81’s remote. But that’s not the most interesting thing about it. The fact of the matter is that it is the first occasion when a Nokia-branded device utilizes touch-based navigation, so you can scroll though your gallery and music library by sweeping your finger around the navigation button (direction doesn’t matter – if it’s clockwise, then you’ll be scrolling down). Nevertheless, it is not an essential or vital touch, that’s why by default it is disabled in the menu, which is the right thing. I bet there will be a bunch of young people assuring me that this touch-based scrolling ability is really big. We won’t argue with them, and will rather note that with other actions being unavailable with this touch-sensitive control element, this is more of a first go at this type for Nokia. For instance, the Samsung F500’s touch-based interface is much more enticing.
The N81 has a rated battery life of 4 hours of talk time and up to 410 hours of standby. For Nokia N95, the standby time was rated at 240 hours. While both figures are good, the Nokia N81 does last longer if you are not heavy on its feature pack. However, with similar usage scenarios the battery life numbers for either of the devices won’t stand too far apart – it is all about the display and the radio module power consumption.
It takes the N81 a tad longer than 2 hours to charge from empty to full.
Below is the chart of top times we squeezed out of the N81 in various modes:
GPS-navigation (external Bluetooth-receiver) – 7 hours
Video – 4 hours (5-6 hours claimed)
WEB-surfing (EDGE) – 3 hours
Wi-Fi (non-stop data upload) – 3 hours
Music in headphones – 10.5 hours (11.5 hours claimed)
Games – 5 hours (6 hours clamed)
The numbers we got are pretty much in keeping with the official ratings, and the fact we got only 10,5 hours of music is probably because we used the top volume level, which is quite painful, and very few will go for it.
In Moscow, the N81 stayed online for around 2 days when we were heavy on its features (regular mail checks, up to 5 hours of music and up to 20 SMS messages). We are confident the phone will easily last 2 days even in the most extreme usage mode (except for non-stop web-browsing), and if you are planning to use nothing but its voice calls, then expect 3-4 days of operation, depending on how much time you spend on the phone.
Memory, memory card
In fact, the Nokia N81 and the Nokia N81 8 Gb are set apart only by the memory expansion slot, which is available with the former (up to 4 Gb as of today, it will also handle bigger cards as soon as they hit the market), while the latter edition sports bundled flash-based storage.
The phone comes with 128 Mb NAND-memory, utilized for storage of the operating system and user data. A brand-new device will offers its user roughly 25 Mb of free space (Disk C), whereas the Nokia N81 8 Gb’s flash memory comes as Disk E and has 7672 Mb available.
The two editions are no different in terms of UI speed, on top of that, regardless of what you have, memory card slot of flash storage, they can be accessed from a PC equally fast.
The RAM size makes 96 Mb (SDRAM), and right after turning the device on for the first time, you will have around 42 Mb available for your applications. This RAM volume doesn’t seem to be optimal – for instance, the Nokia N95 8 Gb comes with 128 Mb of RAM onboard. For the most part, you won’t see sluggishness on the N81’s side, however when managing a couple of windows in the browser, it may come that you will simply run out of memory, the same goes for the gallery.
On the other hand, though, applications are launched pretty fast, and the N81’s memory can hold up to 8-9 “heavy-duty” apps, like games, which you can toggle between with no noticeable freeze-ups. That’s why we’ve come to think that these memory issues are typical only of certain applications, since the N81’s memory management has improved over the previous solutions with comparable specifications.
USB, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Infrared
USB. The handset comes in with USB 2.0 support, upon a successful PC connection you can choose one of the following modes:
Data Transfer (Mass Storage USB) – memory cards is available, no drivers required, as your OS identifies the handset automatically. Data transfer speed makes around 950 Kb/s (USB 2.0).
PC Suite – used for device management via Nokia PC Suite, enables all features of the phone, data backup etc.
Image Print – no explanation required.
Media Player (MTP protocol) – synchronizes data with Windows Media Player.
Bluetooth. The smartphone sports EDR-enabled Bluetooth 2.0 alongside the following profiles:
The top speed you can get with the N81’s Bluetooth connection is around 100 Kb/s. We also tested its A2DP profile in pair with the Sony Ericsson DS970 headset, which worked just fine – we managed our play list, skipped within tracks and adjusted volume seamlessly, however we couldn’t make current track’s title show up on the N81’s display.
Wi-Fi. This handset comes armed with Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11 g) support. All security standards are supported: WEP , WPA , WPA 2, with other advanced settings available. The device supports Universal PnP standard (UPnP), which is the successor to the wired standard PnP. With its help, along with Wi-Fi, you can send slides to a TV, music to a stereo system, and photos to a printer. In a certain sense UPnP is like an add-on to the infrastructure (Wi-Fi, for example) in the form of Bluetooth-esque services, so this looks more like a software upgrade. The sales package includes Home Media Server, which allows connecting the N81 through your home Wi-Fi network to a desktop PC.
There is also a Wi-Fi wizard available in the N81 – it can keep looking for enabled networks in the background mode and tap into them
Both iterations of the Nokia N81 are important for the company – they are its feeler devices that should showcase the N-Gage’s abilities and bring the concept of similar solutions to the mainstream. While other makers don’t even attempt to take their pilot products to the mass-market, Nokia takes advantage of its brand strength for these purposes. However, this very device will never be a wild success. Why?
Nothing out of the ordinary – the handset arrives on the market before the N-Gage service actual launch, and technically offers Nokia’s partners (hundreds of them) a proving ground for new concepts. The company has its hopes centered around the next device- the Nokia N82, which is supposed to become a bestseller and in some ways follow in the footsteps of the Nokia N73 and the Nokia N95. On top of that, its retail price will be somewhat in between the N7x and the N9x series. Curiously, Nokia hasn’t had any enormously successful solutions in this segment lately – all its offerings enjoyed moderate sales. Just remember the Nokia N80, which sparked an avalanche of forum posts and threads, but it never became the king of the sales charts.
The reception quality provided by the N81 is up to Nokia’s standard, nothing to worry about here. The volume of ring tones, all thanks to its stereo-speakers, is over the roof, which automatically makes the N81 one of the market’s loudest devices. The vibro alert is not particularly easy to feel due to the phone’s bulky casing.
The 8 Gb edition retails in Europe for 430 Euro, while the junior model will set you back more than 360 Euro – these prices may vary by region, though. At the same time, speaking of the Russian market, the Nokia N81’s memory-card version sells for 600 USD, and its 8 Gb sibling will be yours for 740-800 USD. Obviously, once they have taken all the cream, the prices will be knocked down to the recommended 500 USD and 640 USD respectively, but will take some time, so expect the price cut no earlier than after the New Year.
The N81 is a mixed bag – on the one hand, it is a youth-orientated device with all the essentials of one inside, but it comes with a very mediocre camera and no business-savvy features onboard (applications in the first place, but you can install them manually). Sonic experience-wise, the N81 is quite a decent performer, which is indicated by our RMAA tests; unfortunately the set of headphones it comes packaged with is not as good. Its gaming department is yet to emerge, and when the N-Gage service will go online the Nokia N81 will one of a slew of offerings with knack for games.
In some ways, this handset reminds me of the Nokia 3250 – similarly positioned towards the youth, quite moderate sales (‘one million units sold’ was Nokia’s PR, nothing more to it – other models were selling better back then). This phone lacks charisma to become a bestseller with its design alone, and its feature pack is not as fantastic as they claim. On balance, it is an average solution, that can’t make our mouths watering, or make us throw it back into the box – it is somewhat between these two extremes. This means the N81 scores a “B” and if you are not expecting it do somersaults, you will be quite content with it.
SAR for the Nokia N81 8 Gb – 0.96 W/kg, for Nokia N81 – 0.81 W/kg.