Nokia N81 8gb Review - Gaming or Music, Which Fares Best?

By: Darren Evans

I've been using the new for a couple of days now and I'm still undecided what I honestly think of it. It does look nice and the screen is excellent as ever with recent Nokia releases, but on the other hand it's a little heavy, feels 'plasticky' and overall a little bit cheap. The camera is also a bit of a let-down.

I had my eye on this unusual-looking music phone as it has both Wi-Fi and 3G, so on paper it seemed a better than option than the Sony-Ericsson W910i (see review on this model) and I'm looking at alternatives to the iPhone. The gaming aspect did raise my interest a little too.

For gaming, the N81 excels, there are a range of games available through Nokia's N-Gage website and more are being added all the time. Most games can be played in landscape mode, meaning the dedicated gaming keys at the top (when the phone is upright) of the screen really come into their own and provide a very comfortable user experience. The music player is worth complimenting as well, with the normal options for finding music by playlist, track name, artist or album and the sound quality is better than a lot of other music phones out there. I really found the 3.5mm jack very useful as I could use this to plug my own earphones in and not being limited to using what I got in the package. I also liked the in-built speakers which had a much-better quality of sound than most I've tested lately, as they didn't have the 'tinny' sound I've noticed elsewhere.

Also in the N81's favour is that the battery life is very good, particularly for a Nokia. I got a good couple of days of normal phones usage as well as playing music & games and downloading a couple of songs before the battery ran down completely. Going back to the games, the quality of what you get (even if they are only demos to begin with) is a big jump from the normal games you expect on a phone. Seeing an actual 3D game like Fifa 07 was impressive although understandably you can't expect PS3-quality graphics. The two dedicated gaming buttons only light up during gameplay and make it much more comfortable than on a normal phone.

On the downside the phone is definitely not easy to hold (gaming being the exception). There are too many buttons below the screen and it's very easy to touch the wrong ones when writing a text or going through the menus. Remember when I mentioned that the speakers are a little loud? Trust me, there's nothing is more embarrassing than having a Gary Glitter tune suddenly blaring out at full volume in front of commuters or (even worse) schoolkids - Scary.

The new Navi-wheel is, in my opinion, very disappointing. The idea that it can be used either as a D-pad or a Navi-wheel does make a lot of sense, but it just hasn't been implemented in the right-way. Thankfully you can switch the wheel off, which I did as the two systems do seem to confuse each other more often than not.

Overall it's a very mixed bag and it's hard to make a decision on the N81. The gaming functionality is without a doubt the key feature and the camera is no worse than on the iPhone or W910i, but when it comes to ease of use it falls well short of the iPhone in particular (though so does almost everything else). The sound quality is very good, but just goes to show that Nokia haven't quite caught up with on that side of things. As far as I'm concerned, the bad points do slightly outweigh the good and the ease of use is the main one. Whilst the N81 is by no means a bad phone, there are better options out there.

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