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February 25, 2008 / Marco

Nokia N81 8GB Cell Phone Review: Part 1 Early Expectations & Physical Aspects

Note: the links which start with “IMG” let you view relevant images. All images were taken via my friend’s Nokia N82, and my own N82 was also used for comparison purposes. Also, the only difference between the Nokia N81 and the Nokia N81 8GB is the presence of the memory card slot in the former and the use of an 8GB internal hard drive in the latter; as a consequence, whenever I don’t use “8GB” in describing the N81, it doesn’t mean that I want to attribute a certain feature to either of these mobile phones.

Early expectations

When about two weeks ago I was told by WOM World that I was going to get a Nokia N81 8GB for trialing, I wasn’t over-excited about it. After all, go ask those who have an N82 about a so-called relatively mid-tier device like the N81 8GB and you won’t see that authentic flash of passion in their eyes. The same happened to me, although I was looking forward to getting my first Nseries handset from WOM World, and that itself was more than enough to make me feel over the moon. However, when on Feb. 21st I got the N81 8GB Special Edition package, I was ready to reevaluate my prejudice. In particular, I was pleased to find the Bose Noise-Cancelling headphones included. IMG: WOM World N81 8GB package,
IMG: N81 8GB and accompanying accessories,
IMG: Bose headphones,
IMG: N81 8GB closed.

At first I was expecting to handle a super-bulky handset in my hand. After all, a 140 g cell phone isn’t small or light by many users’ standards. Fortunately I didn’t find the N81 8GB very big, or grossly bigger than my N82. The N81 8GB is slightly thicker than the N82: 17.9 mm as opposed to 17.3 mm: IMG: N81 closed and N82 side by side. Neither is it oddly bigger than Nokia 5700: IMG: N81 and Nokia 5700 side by side. On the other hand, the N81 8GB gets distinguished from the N82 when the slide opens: IMG: N81 opened and N82 side by side. As such, the N81 extra weight is mostly attributed to its internal components, and nothing disturbing gets noticed on the outside.

The N81 8GB is a phone which houses a one-way sliding mechanism unlike the N95 or the N95 8GB. It has an excellent build quality and looks like a sturdy device. It seems to me that Nokia has taken a good deal of care to produce a good sliding mechanism because the phone doesn’t wobble when the slider gets opened or closed. This is an improvement compared with the N95 Classic. Typically I hold the N81 in my right hand and work with the slider and the keys with my left hand. I was also expecting to have a hard time migrating to a slider phone, but that was accomplished quite effortlessly. As a candybar fan, I think there’s a nice feeling attached to using a candybar phone since there both the keypad and the front buttons are at the same level, whereas with sliders you should raise your fingers a little to press or hold front buttons like “select” and “key 2”. In passing, the N81 is Wi-fi-enabled but doesn’t offer an internal GPS module. It also has a 1050 BL6 battery.

Getting to know the N81 8GB

Now let’s take a closer look at the handset. The top of the device houses the 3.5 mm audio jack and the Power button. From left to right, you can see a new addition to the Nseries handsets, followed by the 3.5 mm audio jack and the Power button: IMG: N81 8GB top. Know what that new key is? It’s called the “keylock switch”. When moved to the right, it locks the keypad and returns to its original position. When moved to the right yet again, it unlocks the keypad. On the N81 this is the best way of locking the keys and the “Key 1+Star” option has been removed. I’m a huge fan of this mechanical approach and find it far more intuitive specially for novices. The audio jack is also in a great position to avoid wire tangles – something which tends to debase the N95. As for the Power button, I’m facing some difficulty presssing and holding it as it is a bit recessed into the phone, and a nail press is required to do the job rather than a finger press. I don’t face this problem on the N82.

The charging socket and the micro USB socket can be found at the bottom of the device: IMG: N81 8GB bottom. In line with the N82, Nokia has decided to use a micro USB port rather than a macro USB port found on the N95. Personally speaking, I find this switch a smart decision on Nokia’s part because the micro USB port is both being standardized everywhere and prevents bigger particles from penetrating the handset quite easily. But why is the N95 different in this regard? At any rate, the N81 8GB has USB 2.0 implementations like other high-end Nseries and Eseries handsets.

The left of the device accommodates the left speaker and the right side of the device houses the right speaker, the volume up/down keys and the “take photo” key: IMG: N81 8GB left,
IMG: N81 8GB right. No Gallery key can be found on the N81. As with the N95, this handset uses left and right speakers. While I’ll comment on performance-related features of the N81 8GB including the fabulous speaker performance in a later post, it’s worth mentioning here that the N81 speakers are nothing but superb.

Like the N82, the N81 uses a 2.4 QVGA display: IMG: N81 8GB display. It supports up to 16.7 million colors, and offers sharp images. The display gets separated from the outside world by means of an excellent cover which keeps dust away. The downside of this cell phone, on the whole, is that your fingerprint gets readily displayed on it and it requires constant cleaning. Near the top of the display there can be found two dedicated gaming keys which tend to make gaming a more pleasant experience on the device: IMG: N81 8GB gaming keys. So far I’ve not yet found a way to assign other functions to these keys, but such a feature might exist somewhere under the hood.

The battery door covers the back of the handset and also surrounds the 2.0MP camera lens: IMG: N81 8GB back. I’m finding the removal of the battery door a tad difficult because unlike the N82, the battery door on the N81 is longer and the device itself doesn’t offer an easily touchable battery hinge. Neither does the mediocre 2MP camera have a mechanical shutter like that of the N82 or the N95 Classic. I wish Nokia could have tossed in at least a 3.2MP camera, but that’s the subject of another post.

The N81 8GB has a keypad which is exposed to the user when the slide is open: IMG: N81 8GB keypad. As you touch the keypad for the first time, you feel as if the whole keypad were made up of four very keys representing numbers 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, and *0#. A raised dot makes identifying number “5” easier, but that’s all about it. The keys aren’t tactilely detectable upon touching them for the first time, and you should spend some time getting familiar with the keypad. As someone who has handled handsets like Nokia 6600, Nokia 6630, N73, N82, N95, and Nokia 5700, this is the first time I see such a keypad style. What’s more, compared with the aforementioned handsets the keys on the N81 8GB need more force to be pressed down. The bottom line is that I can’t understand Nokia’s logic here, although I guess they must have listened to other users. After a few days I can use the N81 keypad without any hassles, but as I go to my N82 and return to the N81 I readjust my fingers for a few seconds.

The saga of the N81 8GB gets more complicated with its front buttons: IMG: N81 8GB front buttons. The bottom part of the front of the N81 8GB is crammed with a whole host of buttons. Here we can find 11 buttons, excluding the navigation key. On the left side and near the left edge of the phone three buttons are visible: key 1, call and menu. On the opposite side and near the right edge of the phone three keys have been positioned: key 2, exit and clear. My major gripe with the N81 is related to the way Nokia has handled this area. First, there’s no tangible distance between these two sets of three buttons, and, as such, you should learn how to press the big left-side key in order to use the menu key rather than the call key. Even now I bend over backwards to not press the call key and the menu key simultaneously. Second, you should apply a great deal of energy to press both the menu key and the clear key; as a consequence, their adjacent keys, call and exit, get pressed in at least 80% of the instances. It would have been better if Nokia had used 6 separate keys rather than 2 big ones.

The N81 is first and foremost a music-centric handset, hence it comes with dedicated music keys. These small keys surround each edge of the d-pad. The first two buttons at the top act as the previous/next song keys, and if they’re held down, they act as rewind/fast forward. The last two buttons at the bottom act as the stop and play/pause keys. I’ll talk about the music playback on the N81 in a later post. Here suffice it to say that one should spend a few days with the N81 before gaining enough competence to press these keys without getting adjacent buttons involved. Keep a few fingernails ready for them! The joystick is, on the other hand, well positioned with a solid build along with the Select key. The “multimedia” button is to the right of the joystick, also known as the navigation key, and can be tactilely identified.

Last but not least, there comes the Navi wheel near the d-pad which is supposed to help you move around in a couple of currently supported applications by just touching that area; however, so far I’ve not been able to use the Navi wheel successfully even after enabling it in Tools/Settings. It might be me or it might be the crudeness of this tool, but I’ll keep trying.

Physical pros and cons

Pros

  • Excellent build quality,
  • Superb speakers,
  • Firm sliding mechanism,
  • Mechanical keylock switch,
  • Dedicated music keys,
  • Nice 3.5 MM audio jack positioning,
  • Dedicated gaming keys.

Cons:

  • Undistinguishable keypad keys,
  • Crammed front buttons,
  • Rather stiff menu and clear keys,
  • Lack of a mechanical camera shutter,
  • Average camera,
  • Non-ergonomic Navi wheel.

Over the next few days I’ll be switching to the performance and functionality side of using the N81 8GB. If you have any questions or comments about the physical appearance, I’d be glad to take them here.

Other N81 Reviews:

Nokia N81 Review: Part 2

Nokia N81 Review: Part 3

Nokia N81 Review: Conclusions

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3 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Amir / Feb 25 2008 1:13 pm

    I just noticed that one of the images cannot be viewed in the article as it doesn’t have a proper URL. You can view the image which shows the N81 opened and the N82 side by side by using the following URL:

  2. Amir / Feb 25 2008 1:26 pm

    Just fixed the link in the article.

  3. rick / Apr 6 2008 4:15 pm

    does the nokia n81 8gig come standard with those bose earphones if you buy it at a shop

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