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Summary:

It has been nearly 65 days since I went without a phone set change, leading to snide remarks from my co-workers about my fidelity to Apple’s iPhone. Despite getting frustrated with iPhone’s email application (I carry a Blackberry to get some serenity) and poky Edge connections, […]

nokian811.gifIt has been nearly 65 days since I went without a phone set change, leading to snide remarks from my co-workers about my fidelity to Apple’s iPhone. Despite getting frustrated with iPhone’s email application (I carry a Blackberry to get some serenity) and poky Edge connections, I avoided the hassle of switching to another phone.

That was up until yesterday evening, when I came back home to find the new Nokia N81 8GB music phone, the cornerstone of the company’s big push into music-related services. Nokia (NOK) had sent me a review unit, and when I opened the elegantly packaged box, I knew I had to try it out. It is a handsome device — very sleek and elegant — thanks to its brushed metal-black lacquer finish, rounded edges and crisp screen.

And even before it was fully powered up, I was betting this device was going to exceed my expectations. Did it?


Nokia N81, which is going to set you back about $550, is a slider phone with ample storage capacity to let you play back music for a long, long time. The keypad, which slides out smoothly, has recessed keys and still is good enough for blind dialing — that is, dialing without looking at the phone.

Being a music phone, all the music-playback functionality is built into the top half, so you don’t have slide out the keypad to control the phone. It is a quad band GSM phone that comes with a 2-megapixel camera, which can also be controlled without sliding out the keypad.

nokian812.gifThe keys on this phone are too crammed together, but I can understand that engineering a complex multifunction device isn’t easy. Still, the dial and stop buttons are pushed to the side and are tough to use. The navigation pad that dominates the faceplate is good way to navigate through many functions on the phone, and I appreciate the special music-navigation key that was added by Nokia.

Nokia N81 easily connected to my home network, making it ready for Voice-over-WiFi calls via Truphone. A special download from the Nokia Europe web site made syncing the address book and calendar on my Mac a snap. The Nokia multimedia transfer utility (in beta for now) was simple enough to use and is a pretty decent music manager.

Plugging in a special USB cable (different connector compared to your typical cable) and attaching to my Macbook allowed me to easily transfer music purchased from Amazon Music Store and other MP3 files to the device. It took about four hours to fill it up, but I managed to get all my favorite tracks on the flash drive. I was all set to rock the casbah when reality set in.

The device behaved like a three-year-old throwing a tantrum. Unless this is an especially buggy device, N81 has to be one of the worst Nokia phones I have ever used and would be loathe to recommend it to anyone.

It is underpowered and the Symbian S60 OS behaves like Windows ME. Remember that piece of junk? Well this is worse. It takes more than 10 seconds to open a text message. Switching between applications is akin to me running — out of breath. One has to constantly reboot the phone to even make phone calls.

Sure, the music playback quality was flawless and even at full volume didn’t distort a bit. The regular stereo-headset jack worked with all sorts of headphones — Bose, Nokia, Shure and Ultimate Ears. And the tunes were crystal clear.

However, getting the music app (or any app for that matter) to open was a torture test. It was frustrating enough for me to not even test any of the other features, such as the video camera or Lifeblog or NGage gaming.

In comparison to the Nokia N95, or even the older N71 and N73 phones, N81 is pokey, and a major disappointment. It is going to be packed up and shipped back, pronto. Nokia, which often delivers phones that I love, has flubbed this one.

  1. I disagree. I’ve had this phone for a few days now and have had no problems with it at all. I switched from my N91(4GB) which had performed well, if a little slow on boot up, for a year or so since Nokia gave it to me at the PME 06.

    The quirky connect cable was a disappointment but it works okay. I have not, admittedly filled up the hard disk with data yet but I have some music there now. Still, no problems.

    I downloaded Shozu (for Flickr) and although the site didn’t specifically say it would work on the N81 it did. Flawlessly.

    Don’t give up – it’s a good phone.

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  2. Paul

    I have to say this is the worse experience i have had with this phone and i am not joking about it. i tried to do everything and it didn’t change anything.

    how is your performance experience. are you saying the phone works briskly and smoothly when you switch between applications?

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  3. Om,

    I played with the N81 for a few moments and I wouldn’t like to go near it ever again. After having reviewed almost 200 phones in the last 3-4 years, I know when I see a bad product.

    I would like to add a couple of points to your review:

    1. The click wheel imitation is very crude and since the D-pad is not circular, it’s not intuitive either. The OS is so sluggish that if you use the click wheel, the files just fly by even before the OS can display the name.

    2. The gaming keys include the ear piece, which is not a good idea. For A & B gaming buttons, I’d prefer the ones found on some Sony Ericsson phones.

    3. I second the opinion that the face is too crowded. It seems as if the designer was given only this space below the screen to fit every possible function.

    On the other hand, the N95 8GB looks yummy…

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  4. Om,

    I currently have a N81 for review purpose. Although this is not the latest firwmare (which was released just yesturday), I cannot find myself with any of the problems you mentioned regarding the device speed and stability.

    I almost have have it since 24 hours, load hours of music, used the web browser, switch between apps and no crash so far. Opening a message just take a couple of seconds.

    Maybe your device had an ealy firmware.

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  5. Review: The Sweet Agony That Is Nokia N81

    This story has been submitted to Stirrdup. Your support can help it become hot.

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  6. Om,

    I’m having a great experience with the phone. If I didn’t know better I’d be saying you and I had two completely different phones!
    Prerelease model? Doesn’t sound like it as they sent it to you as a new out of the box model.
    Firmware? Might be worth checking for an upgrade.
    In direct comparison with my N91, the phone is, I think, quicker! The POST is certainly much faster and the UI works just great…

    I’ve had up to 8 apps open and switching between them is slick. When I press the Menu button down for (roughly) 2 seconds it brings up the open apps slider and scrolling is fast and selection brings the app to the forground very swiftly.

    Puzzling indeed.

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  7. Swapnonil Mukherjee Friday, November 9, 2007

    Hi Guys,

    How does the phone’s music quality compare to that of an iPod?

    I am specially interested about your thoughts on the bass response, and sound quality at high volumes. Is it as good as an iPod?

    Just one more question :)

    How loud is this phone? Can you hear this phone ringing, even while you are watching TV in another room?

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  8. Personally, I think iPhone sounds better than my 5G iPod. Having everything work seamlessly more than makes up for “poky Edge,” which actually isn’t that bad for email, stock quotes, weather, and an iPhone-friendly mobile Web site. Also, iPhone’s Mail application works quite well, especially for sending photos. If you have a lot of spam, consider using Google Apps for Your Domain or regular Gmail now that Google offers IMAP along with the world’s best spam filter.

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  9. @ OM

    dude i totally disagree wid ya !!!!!i m usin dis handset from last one week nd not facin big probz as ya mentioned……..i know data transfer rate is slow nd wifi connectivity is bad……..but nokia releasd firware upgrade for these bugs few days back…..other then these os operation is smooth……..switchin between task aint a big trouble !!!!! rebootin for makin call is problem in os which i used to face wen i was usin nokia 5700 also……so its not n81 z prob………
    i m disappointd in ya dude !!!!! dont get offended but i think da review is quite harsh !!!

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  10. I think you have hardly tested and regarding the phone taking too long, i doubt that its a fault with the N81 8gb in general considering the fact that it has an 369 MHZ ARM 11 proc.

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