Review: The Sweet Agony That Is Nokia N81


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.



Kind regards to all from the UK,

Ive just purchased a N81, as im into my music…….i find it a great phone, im not into the ‘using it on the internet’ thing, as i dont understand all that stuff yet……give me a break!!! im 40 lol…….i do have a questions though…

1.How do i connect my N81 to my car sound system to use it like an iPod? my car head unit has a ‘AUX’ 3.5MM Jack on the front. When i plug it into the phone (headphone socket)via this input…..i get nothing. My phone came with headphones,the remote control unit,and driver cd…..thats it.

Kind regards to all.



have this phone for a month and a half…and I loooove it. I don’t carry my Olympus M:robe with me anymore :D

however, camera has so much grain/noise in the dark. that’s the only downside. flash, if it’s too close to the subject, may turn the photo a little bluish/purplish.

updated the firmware too. bad move. since then, i experienced hang-ups after each song. need to take out the battery (you can’t even power it off) but then it’s erratic. I mean, yep, it’s like throwing its tantrums.

Overall, I love playing games on this one (even though I am a girl). Its got the looks (just clean it from time to time – fingerprints are all over my phone lol) and teh functionality.

I’d highly recommend this phone, still :)


hey guys

i have NO idea what this reviewer is on about. 10 seconds to open a text message?? i bought my N81 last week and i think its the best phone ive ever bought.

it was the N81 with the included 2gb micro sd card, not the 8GB version. i quickly scored myself an 8GB card on ebay for another $100AUD and updated the firmware to (which it probably didnt need as it worked fine anyway) and away i went.

ive had NO lock-ups, crashes, freezes and or anyhitng of the sort since then. its been a pleasure to use. music quality is awesome, gaming is wikid, usability takes a little getting used to (inc the navi-wheel which is a pretty sweet feature) but i freakin love this phone!

i understand the design is not for everybody in that the buttons may not be as easy for some peaple to use, but hey its been designed for the young, tech-savvy person anyway. so if ur a bit weary hey dont buy it. thats the only flaw ive found. (the camera may be a little sub-standard ie a little ‘noisy’ but i didnt buy it for the camera).

ive been selling mobile phones for about 4 years now, and right now for features and performance, i think its a freakin killer.


Got my n81 two days ago, fantastic, put all my addresses, contacts and about 2 gb of music on it, no problems till today. it stopped (white screen) just as i was checking out the map application, then nothing. just wrapping it up now to return. it’s a shame for the two days it worked it was a great phone.


hey guyz i wanna get this phone but i wanna know if it will allow me download windows format file like exe on it’s memory and then load them on my pc


i just dont know what the hell people are saying abt this fone, im so much confused, few are saying the fone is great 8gb is enough memory for all you needs, hmmmzzz,,,,, but i just wanna know dat if we put our all datas in the fone, will the fone funtion stop working properly? or fone might get slow??? plzz tell me this im so much confused or nokia n81 has a windows live messenger in it?? plzzz tell me,.



Im currently using N-81 and there seems to be a little play in the slider. I have used sliding phones before but i have never felt any sort of play in the sliders.

I would like to know if this problem is in all N81(8gb) phones or was i the only one with bad luck.

Nokia N81 8GB

This is a problem, do you opt for the 8GB version and hope that there is enough memory for all of your music, videos, pictures and files or do you go for what seems like the underdog, ie: 2GB version but have the facility of expandable memory to accommodate your usage requirements?
The N81 2GB is only available on Vodafone in the UK which slims down the choice even further.


Some people say the n81 is a good phone, and some say it is a bad phone. Which one is it really? Is the n81 really that slow?


I live in Australia, and only recently we have seen the Nokia N81.

I have it on a plan, and have had it since the twentieth of December, and it has frozen on me a couple of times. I can’t turn it off from the power button, so I had to pull out the battery.

The navi wheel also sqeeks a bit when pushed down, and is a little stiff. My friend now has the same phone, and her’s is much nicer to use.

I used the camera today to actually take some nice pictures. This was the first real time I had taken notice of it. However the quality was shocking! The image seems to be very sharp, with a LOT of dots… I understand pixels etc, but when you are taking something that is dirt, and it is coming up like grass… thats not right.

I guess I have a lemon, so it will be going straight back to Nokia. They have said they allow 30 days (thank God). I hope this one is much better, and that I dont end up wishing I read this review before I got this phone on a 24 month contract!!!

Wish me luck!


I just got my N81(2GB) last Dec. 2 from Singapore and same as angel, I also live in the Philippines. I decided not to get the 8GB version because im not a big fan of phones with HUGE internal disk spaces. I prefer those with the external memory cards so that i can easily back-up my phone data if in case something goes wrong with the phone memory.

Anyway, ive been using the N81 for almost 3 weeks now and i haven’t experienced any problem that was mentioned in the review. I have the firmware version 10.0.032. I can create text messages in a snap, I haven’t experienced any lock-ups, internet browsing via wi-fi was a breeze. Before I switched to the N81, I was using the N80 Internet Edition, which I believe was a far better phone — camera wise. Nokia might have made a mistake in ditching the 3MP camera with macro mode support from the N80, but they improved the most important aspect of a multimedia phone — battery life. Ive been running the Music Player for almost 8 hours straight and it still gives me 2-3 bars of battery life, and what’s the kicker? its not even full-charged when I started it.

I dont care if the N81 doesn’t give me crisp pictures like the N80, but it has satisfied my needs for a true music phone. Ive been a nokia music phone owner since the 5510 days.. Ive tried them all even the “Music Edition” NSeries phones. And I can safely say that the N81 wins. For now that is. I am very happy with my purchase. Money well spent indeed.

However, there are problems that I want to be resolved by the next firmware update. First is to allow us to use the NaviWheel in the phone menu, and second, to allow us to close the music player, not just hide it. Maybe I’m just not used to seeing other applications “running” when I press down the menu key. But overall, the N81 is a very good phone if you know how to use it and if you know what you are looking for in a phone.

Sorry for the lengthy post. Thanks for reading. :P


look…,the n81 is a good device in all ways.We should be grateful of its exsistance,Wen i slide my nokia n81 up,or hold it in a vertical position,people have the tendency to look(in my country STARE) at the remarkable clamshell device in addition its 16m colour screen.The camera on this phone aint bad;better than the out-dated,stone aged:D n70 6280,9500,6111…ect..,.My suggestion of mentaining this device is to,clean the glossary surface once in a while,dont drop the beauty,be responsable of your memory use by not filling it up:){YES YOU N81 8gb USERS) IN ORDER FOR BETTER FUNCTIONALITY,take an effort on repairing nd searching fo upgrade firmware fo me it seemz to be just fyn!huha


is it me or all nokia N series is a cock-up? im not a sony ericsson person myslef but right now i cant point a good phone on the market. it could be nokia 3510 or the imfamous Iphone.


I have had the N81 (2 gig) for two weeks now and it is great. The screen quality is fabulous, it is quick to load music/images etc. I can’t wait to download the games when released. The special multimedia keys are both good and bad – you can get music really quickly, but I also have the tendency to press the buttons by accident, turning it on at unfortunate times. I like the little iPod type navi wheel, but it is not supported in all the functions (for example scrolling down messages and songs etc).


what are the preloaded materials and cost is high or not n what is the cost


Oh God here we go again; I bought the worst phone I ever owned when I picked up the N81-8GB. I had and still have exactly the same problems Om describes. In fact; just try opening the gallery to view the images, mine takes about 10 to 12 mins with just a few dozen images in there. I have around 850 tracks. FW upgrades do not help in this case.

The problem with these 8GB Nokia devices is that they all have hard disks, I know iApple uses hdds too but they must have optimised file access on them. Nokia have no clue about optimisations.

Nokia published a document on how to configure the damn phone so that the disk doesn’t get trashed too much. Don’t keep your text store on the hd, don’t have themes on your hd, avoid hd use as much as possible, etc…

I am still keen on replacing my N91 and the iphone is not a choice for me duty to text message and typing limitations, I don’t know what to do!!! I think I’ll go ahead and take the plunge on this on.


I’m from the Philippines and just bought my N81 without looking at reviews (stupid me) but I actually find that I am happy with my phone so far. Opening messages doesn’t take more than 2 seconds, camera is okay although I would have wanted at least 3megapixels. I like the feel of the phone on my hand although I’m always afraid I’d drop it and scratch it (give me a month and I probably won’t care). Connection to wi-fi can qualify as better than my 2 year old notebook computer. The only thing that truly annoys me about the phone is that I keep accidentally playing music. Someone please show me how to disable the music keys! Oh, and no games are out yet for this phone! Someone please teach me how to upload the old card-deck game! Okay, so it doesn’t sound like I’m all that happy, but I am =)

Paul Parkinson

Sorry its taken a while to get back to you. I’ve been travelling. If it’s Tuesday it must be Brussels…

The “Device Software” (firmware?) is version 10.0.053 and the machine is an out-of-the box Vodafone acquired N81. I’ve upgraded nothing – just added Shozu (Flickr uploader).

Hope this helps.



thanks but what about bad reception does this phone loss sig very easy i have the nokia E65 and have found in some places it hangs up but my previous phone SE did not i was woundering if it had inproved on this phone ???

the build quality might look great on the E65 but its the worst i have seen

1 no seald screen dust under it
2 bad reception pick up
3 screen saver does not kick in
4 phone bent abit so slider does not work

not very good for the e65

Om Malik


the sound quality is great, or rather as good as most Nokia phones. that is not an issue. hopefully they will fix the OS issues


what about sound quality when you ring a person i mean is it top quality from the ear peace wwhen thay chat as well as the mouth peace when you talk ????.

and does the phone keep hold of the signal ok i mean by not droping the line ???

i use my phone as a phone and not one review or person has said what the call quality is like and if its bad fro holding the line in bad reception areas ??

can anyone help me on this question

Darren Rowse

I spoke to a phone sales guy yesterday about Nokia phones and he quietly took me aside when I expressed interest in the n81 and told me to wait a month. His advice was that Nokia phones have a habit of being released buggy. He said he always buys a Nokia as they are a cut above the rest – but that he’d never buy a Nokia just after release. Pretty poor form but I suspect we’ll see the n81 improve over time.


Om, you forgot to take into account that N81 is still not in release. And I suspect it will go through massive testing on Nokia internal lab rats a.k.a. Nokia employees because it has been promised by high-level boys. Just let it come to market and then try again, for sake of comparison between Nokia beta and Nokia delivery-day-promise.



The second post written under your name was much better than that first lot of made-up fake nonsense ‘speak’: you should ask your big sister to write for you more often.


I had similar problems (time taken to launch apps, switch between them, and open text messages – it gets worse if you apply a custom theme) with the Nokia E65, which also used Symbian S60 3rd edition. It was my first Nokia in quite awhile too, so I tried to give it a chance. Worst 3 months of my life.

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