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Review: The Sweet Agony That Is Nokia N81

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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.

94 Responses to “Review: The Sweet Agony That Is Nokia N81”

  1. Om, I tried the Nokia N75 for two weeks, with the intention of switching from my ipod to it. It was the most frustrating two weeks ever. The Symbian OS,Nokia’s music manager never seemed to work together. The worst was the incessant, illogical steps to navigate the menu to get anything done were just unbelievable. I never did get the N75 to recognize the Sandisk 2GB microSD card,during a music sync.(Win XP was fine)If this is Nokia’s idea of Competing with the Iphone, they should just roll over and die now.
    I will never own another Nokia. Sold it. Guess what I did get to ease my pain? Yeah…

  2. LNSJ,

    Well done on proving ethic’s point. You wished to show that you should be taken seriously and cleaned up your language. Had you made the same observations in the style ethic was complaining about you would have made a much more forceful impact. I too read your previous post and cringed. We aren’t asking for grammatical perfection (which you could obviously provide), just readability.

  3. S60 at least on the hardware it runs on in Nokia phones isn’t getting the job done. It’s ugly, it’s sluggish and navigating the icon system is pretty slow and painful all round.

    As a phone Nokias are usually quite nice, especially now with good voice recognition and a headset added, but for entertainment and smartphoneish uses they’re pretty bad.

    You’d have thought Nokia would have learned some of the iPhone lessons by now, but perhaps this phone was already in the pipeline… or else they are to dumb to understand that people want really stylish UI’s and lightning-fast response times these days, not dog slow and ugly.

  4. Did you try updating the firmware to the latest version? Did it perform better? Or was it still sluggish and buggy..?

    Am very interested in getting this phone, but judging from the review, I’m having second thoughts. Might want to wait for a better phone. But then again, there’s always something better… why wait lol

  5. Graham Anderson

    Nokia already burned me with the N80 and the 7760. I found the N80 completely infuriating and ended up buying myself out of my existing contract to “downgrade” back to a Nokia 8800 Scirocco. The 8800 is exactly the kind of phone that Nokia built its reputation – intuitive, responsive – does what it says on the tin. I fear that with its “portable media computers” it is busy throwing that reputation away. My next phone will either be another another simple phone like the Nokia 8800, or an iPhone.

  6. ethic,

    “English” is capitalized. If you’re American, use double quotes, not single, and avoid pointless air quotes in print.

    And for deciding whether compounds are open, closed, or hyphenated, consult a dictionary.

  7. LNSJ,

    How can you expect anyone to take you seriously when it is clear you are either practically illiterate, or more likely you actually choose to slaughter the english language…

    Spend a little more time in class, and less time watching MTV reality shows, and you will find that people will listen to, and perhaps even respect your opinion; because right now you are only regarded as a fool. Try writing your cover-letter and resume in ‘ghetto-speak’ and see if you can advance past that prep-cook position you likely hold at Taco Bell…

  8. That you say it’s worse than the N73 gives me the chills. The N73, like all Nokias, was a good phone-phone but forget about music or synching on PC or anything else. Text messages took 4 seconds to open which feels like an eternity. The camera crashed constantly, and always got into a mode where it doesn’t focus – so your whole day of pictures has gone to waste and you only notice when you get home and take a closer look at the photos.
    I tried the music player exactly once – completely ridiculous. The difference between “can play music” and “want to listen to music on this device” became very obvious.
    I got so annoyed with all the little shortcomings I eventually traded it for a Sony P990i – probably one of the worst phones ever made, but that’s another story. Now I have the iPhone which works well. Nokia et al should be ashamed of themselves.

  9. Hamranhansenhansen

    What I like about this phone is it bridges the gap between awful phones and awful MP3 players. It has the classic 20th century design of 90% hardware and 10% software, which is backwards today. Also the software is immature and poorly managed.

    Apple’s stuff is almost all software. The hardware is like a picture frame. Most of it even looks like a picture frame. iTunes is half of the iPod/iPhone that gives you 50% software before you even count the software in the device, such as OS X or the ISO MPEG-4 codecs. If you’re going to run a Web browser you need at least as much software as a modern PC. That means OS X or Linux because Windows is not portable by any definition. Nokia needs to generate an order of magnitude more software than they are currently in order to compete.

  10. Have to say my experience of the N81 is much more positive but it’s a European model. Maybe the US model has craptacular firmware?

    The N81 is about to be superceded by the N82 in Europe.

  11. Lee Sherman

    I have to say, given the contrasting experiences of other N81 users that it really sounds as if you didn’t do due diligence in making sure there wasn’t something wrong with the specific phone that you were reviewing. Instead of jumping to conclusions and publishing a negative review, why didn’t you go back to Nokia and ask them about the problems you were having?

    They would most likely have sent you another N81 which you could have compared to the one you had.

    It seems more likely that you got a “lemon” than that this phone (which runs the same OS as other N-series phones on the same processor) is as slow and buggy as you describe doesn’t it?

  12. Greg and Paul,

    Can you tell me what version of firmware are you using?

    On that same point, I wonder how many average folks are going to upgrade their firmware to get this to work properly. think about it: they send a phone to review and its a lemon. just bad luck? I don’t think so. Even the N95 took an upgrade of the software to run nicely.

    If i am being harsh, well they are nokia, they have been making phones for a long time, they have an OS which they have been tweaking for a while, and more importantly N-Series is bringing home the bacon.

    As for being a pre-release phone: not really. It is a shipping model.

  13. Swaponil

    The sound quality is fantastic and as I said, it is perfect even at high volumes and work nicely with any and every set of headphones I used. It is the OS (and its cumbersome behavior) I had problems with.

  14. @ 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 !!!

  15. 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.

  16. 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?

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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…

  20. 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?

  21. 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.