First impressions of the Nokia N81 8GB; music now ROCKS on a smartphone!

It has been a few months since a device was sent for evaluation through the Nokia Nseries Blogger Relations program and I was looking forward to checking out one of the new Nseries devices, a Nokia N82, N81, N95-3, N95 8GB, or N810 Internet Tablet. On Thursday I arrived home with a plain brown box on my porch from Andy Abramson and Comunicano so I couldn't wait to see what was inside. As you can see in my unboxing video below, it was a Nokia N81 8GB with a full Maroon 5 album and 2 music videos preinstalled on the 8GB flash drive. I've read several reviews that stated the build quality was not that great and people were quite disappointed in some performance aspects (web surfing, file transfer rates) of the device so I looked forward to checking it out first hand. As I'll comment on below, I don't think it is the best quality Nseries device, but if you are an audiophile or music functionality and quality is your primary criteria for a mobile device then the N81 8GB needs serious consideration. This is the BEST music playing smartphone I have ever tried and that includes the iPhone.

It has been a few months since a device was sent for evaluation through the Nokia Nseries Blogger Relations program and I was looking forward to checking out one of the new Nseries devices, a Nokia N82, N81, N95-3, N95 8GB, or N810 Internet Tablet. On Thursday I arrived home with a plain brown box on my porch from Andy Abramson and Comunicano so I couldn't wait to see what was inside. As you can see in my unboxing video below, it was a Nokia N81 8GB with a full Maroon 5 album and 2 music videos preinstalled on the 8GB flash drive. I've read several reviews that stated the build quality was not that great and people were quite disappointed in some performance aspects (web surfing, file transfer rates) of the device so I looked forward to checking it out first hand. As I'll comment on below, I don't think it is the best quality Nseries device, but if you are an audiophile or music functionality and quality is your primary criteria for a mobile device then the N81 8GB needs serious consideration. This is the BEST music playing smartphone I have ever tried and that includes the iPhone.

Unboxing the N81 8GB

The Nokia N81 8GB is clearly a music focused device with every picture on the retail box and video I have seen promoting the music player. The bottom line when it comes to music is that this devices ROCKS! I used my Ultimate Ears earbuds with several of my devices and only on the N81 8GB could I not even turn the volume up all the way without blowing my eardrums. The music is crystal clear, loud, and tones can be controlled with the 5-station equalizer. Quality through the headphones is amazing and I LOVE listening to music with the device. There are also stereo speakers, similar to the Nokia N95, and they sound very good. I would like a bit more bass in the speakers though since even turning bass up all the way in the equalizer isn't enough for me. However, I can now take the N82 8GB on trips and listen to the device in my hotel room without having to pack external speakers. While the device does support the Nokia Music Store in Europe, I was able to load all my Yahoo! Music content so I have a huge library of content to choose. As with other S60 devices, I love the fact that I can subscribe to and download podcasts directly to the device.

Specifications of the device include:

  • Intel ARM 11, 369 MHz processor (fastest Nokia processor available on S60 devices)
  • 8GB internal flash drive
  • Symbian OS 9.2 S60 3.1 UI
  • Integrated Bluetooth 2.0 with A2DP support
  • Integrated 802.11 b/g WiFi
  • N-Gage gaming support with dedicated gaming keys over the display
  • 2.4 inch QVGA display with 16 million color support
  • 2 megapixel camera with flash
  • 3.5 mm standard audio jack
  • Touch sensitive Navi wheel
  • Dedicated music keys
  • New multimedia (Tile) interface
  • microUSB port for syncing

The device feels dense in your hand (small with some heft), has angles around the faceplate that remind me of a stealth fighter or something, and has shiny black plastic on the front (fingerprint and face grease magnet) with a dark brown plastic (a bit cheap feeling and creaky) on the back. It comes in a slider form factor, similar to the N95 and T-Mobile Shadow, with a spring loaded slider that definitely slides into place. I did find that the display wobbles a bit when slid open, as showed in my 2nd day video, that tends to take away from the quality experience of the device. Other than this wobble and the rather creaky back plastic, I think the device is pretty dang solid and built well. There are a ton of "buttons" on the device, but most are actually backlit areas you press to activate on a single plastic piece rather than dedicated buttons.

The keypad is mostly flat with 3 small ridges differentiating the 4 rows of keys. There are no physical buttons and you press down on the labeled area of the character. While there are no real buttons, they are well spaced and I was actually able to crank out messages and text quite easily. There are multimedia "buttons" around the directional pad, that don't actually appear unless you are using the device as they are backlit (with a lighter intensity than surrounding buttons). There is a dedicated media button that launches a new Tile interface for Contacts, Gallery, Games, Music, Maps, and Internet. You can arrange these tiles in your preferred order, but you cannot customize them.

More usage of the N81 8GB

You can scroll quickly through songs in the media player, photos and video in the gallery, and tiles in this new interface with the Navi wheel (that is actually not even activated by default). The Navi wheel is the silver border part of the directional pad that becomes touch sensitive in these select areas of the device. I found it to work very well and was much more responsive than the spinning wheel on the T-Mobile Shadow. It reminds me a lot of an iPod wheel and I prefer to use it in the music player to scroll through the songs.

The N81 8GB uses a microUSB port for connecting a USB cable to syncing and while it seems to make a solid connection, I prefer a standard miniUSB connection so I don't have to have a bunch of separate cables lying around. There is a lock switch on top next to the standard 3.5 mm headset jack (yeah Nokia!) that is actually spring loaded switch rather than a two direction switch. It does wiggle in the groove a little bit, which tends to take away from the device quality.

I took a couple of quick test photos and so far the camera does not impress me. I have to test it out more in well lit environments and try out the video capture capability too over the next few weeks.

Gaming on the N81 8GB with N-Gage

The N81 8GB supports the N-Gage platform and three demo games are loaded on the device. As you can see in the video above, the graphics look good and gameplay is decent on the device. I didn't see a lot of use with the dedicated gaming button though and will have to try out more when N-Gage launches in December.

So far with a couple days of use I have found phone call quality to be excellent on both ends. The RF signal does not appear to be as strong as I have seen with some devices (I am using a T-Mobile USA SIM card) and I have lost the signal a couple of times on my train commute where I never lose it on the N95 or T-Mobile Shadow.

I have had issues with the web browser taking a long time to load pages, even when connected via WiFi, and this doesn't make much sense since the S60 browser has always been a joy to use on the Nokia N95 and other S60 devices. I'll have to test this out some more and see if it is my connection strength or if there is something going on with the device.

After a couple of days, I am very impressed with the music player and find it to be a decent smartphone. I have to check out the camera, transfer speeds (it seemed to work fine for me with a few MB of Yahoo! Music, but some people are reporting it is extremely slow), and other advanced features of S60 and the device. You can find the device SIM-unlocked for around US$550, which is a very good price for a high end Nseries device, IMHO.

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