Review: Nokia N81 8GB

Everything from the lock button on the top right down to the slide out tray for your SIM card makes you feel that the Nokia N81 has been designed from the ground up to be purposely brilliant. It’s not one of those devices that’s been scrounged from random parts where the design teams have sat there and went “sod it” and come up with… well… whatever you get when that sort of thing happens.

Earlier this year, I got the chance to review the Nokia 6110 Navigator, a phone that boasted GPS and excellent build quality. It was an excellent phone and it’s still one I recommend to friends. The value was astounding. There in that phone you got a great GPS that competes very well with pure GPS solutions, excellent call quality, fantastic design and weighting, and an all around satisfying experience.

It was, in my opinion, the best phone I’d seen all year.

Now, I may have to eat my words because the N81 8GB might just be the best phone I’ve seen all year.

And to be honest, I didn’t expect that.

When you first look at the N81, you see the similar simple softened rectangular prism that the 6110 Navigator and many of Nokia’s other range greet you with. It’s cool glossy black surface shimmers and the moment you touch it, you start wishing that you could release yourself of those finger prints that make this phone dirty the moment you touch it.

And then you press a button, any button as there are quite a few, and the screen lights up and you don’t care. Your fingerprint vanishes into the crystal clear screen and you start to realise that maybe this is what they talk about when people say the word “brilliant”. Because without holding too much back, that’s the impression the N81 is likely to leave you with.

The Nokia N81 is loaded with buttons and they’re all in good places. For instance, your green “go” and red “stop” buttons are now set to the sides of the front panel where your thumb goes making more room for other functions. Included in this room are buttons for menu navigation, gaming, and music playback.

In fact, one of the first things you notice about the control panel is that it’s been designed to flow outwards. Starting from the center, you get a control pad shaped like a squircle with jog wheel functionality, media player buttons, menu buttons & soft keys, and then your green and red buttons. It’s an easy system to understand and it certainly makes great use of the available space on the handset.

Once you open it up, the slide mechanism lets you through and the keys light up. I’ll just say something on the slide mechanism: it’s excellent. Slide mechanisms are more important than most people would realise. They’re also hard to get right. The 6110 Navigator had an excellent slide mechanism and the N81 practically continues that by feeling good and solid without feeling like it’ll give way too easily as you slide it into your pockets. It’s also not too firm that anyone can really pick it up and handle it with ease.

I actually quite enjoyed holding the N81. It had what I found to be a moderate weight that was quite comfy in both the hand and the pocket. I also quite liked the buttons on the sides, especially the lock button which is something phones have needed for a while.

Software-wise, there’s quite a lot on the N81 8GB to be impressed by. You get your standard fare of clock, calculator, calendar, notes and other apps but then there are the things which help make the word “convergence” really shine when it looks at the N81.

First it’s the multimedia side of things and Nokia have catered for as much as they possibly could have with a 2 megapixel camera, a blogging system out of the box called “Lifeblog”, and a media player.

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As a media player, you’ll probably find it competes quite well with many of the mp3 players on the market. The jog wheels under the directional pad is especially useful providing the easy access to music and videos that a lot of people have come to depend on while the sound quality is nothing short of excellent. A 3.5mm input is supplied so now you don’t need to use one of those pesky 2.5mm or proprietary converters like many other phones ask for. Just plug in your favourite set and away you go. I’ve gone from a pair of canal phones to my Sennheiser headphones and found great quality sound all throughout the mix.

Plus there is an interesting bonus that the N81 brings. Say you don’t have your headphones with you, the Nokia N81 has a surprisingly loud speaker that you can use to let everyone else head your tunes. Okay, I’m sure that’s not the main purpose of the speaker especially with the speaker phone, but hey, it does an excellent job of being a portable boom box so there’s an extra use!

Then there’s the wireless access. WiFi is still not a thing most phones have. In a way, it’s sort of like Bluetooth: it’s taking a while for most phones to get it on-board and only the ones that need it, have it.

Well the Nokia N81 has it and it loves it. Searching up a Wireless Area Network (WAN) is easy as pie and surfing the web using the truly excellent browser found on the N81 won’t take you long at all. I was actually surprised when I realised I was using a browser on a mobile platform that didn’t suck. Pages were being rendered correctly with style sheets, colours were right, and even Flash was displaying! The N81 really does use an excellent browser and there’s no faulting it.

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Games have also taken a leap forward with Nokia bringing their N-Gage platform back from almost retirement with the N81. Games from companies like Electronic Arts and Gameloft feature giving you something with a bit more graphical prowess than Solitaire or Poker on your trips to and from wherever you’re going.

Oh, and you can make phone calls on it too. Phone calls on a phone; seriously, who’d have thought?

In fact, everything from the lock button on the top right down to the slide out tray for your SIM card makes you feel that the Nokia N81 has been designed from the ground up to be purposely brilliant. It’s not one of those devices that’s been scrounged from random parts where the design teams have sat there and went “sod it” and come up with… well… whatever you get when that sort of thing happens.

The Nokia N81 is closer to what convergence is and should be and its design & functionality is something that a lot of other people should wake up and take notice of.

Speaking frankly, the Nokia N81 is what a phone should be.

Should you buy it?: Buy it if you’re after an entertainment phone. It really is quite cool.

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Product: Nokia N81 8GB

Vendor: Nokia

RRP: $1039

Website: Nokia N81 8GB

Reviewed by Leigh D. Stark

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