Monday, July 28, 2008

My Nokia N81 Review

I�ve been trialing Nokia smartphones via their Blogger Relations program for a couple of years now (developed by Andy Abramson and his agency Comunicano), and have been lucky enough to use a wide variety of great phones. Of course it�s a bit of a misnomer to call these things phones � they�ll all pretty smart devices in all kinds of ways. This review is for the N81, which I�ve had for ages, and as with the past few Nokia phones, I�m getting it second hand. My oldest son, Max, has been getting first crack lately with these phones, so once he�s done with it, it�s my turn and here we are. Being a 15 year old, his take on the phone is different from mine, although we generally feel the same way about the N81 � you can read his review here.

Overall, I�ll tell you that the N81 has been one of the least enjoyable phones that I�ve used in this program, and I�m happy to see it go. Part of this is getting spoiled by the phones I had just before this, like the N95. Many people regard the N95 as the best phone out there today, so it�s a hard act to follow. My N95 review was rather harsh, but it still has way more going for it than the N81. That�s understandable since this phone isn�t really in the same bracket, so it�s not that fair to compare.

Enough about that � on to the review. I�ll start with the things I liked, then move on to what didn�t work for me.

What I Liked About the N81

No doubt, the phone makes a great first impression. It�s got a sleek design, all black and shiny, and cradles nicely in your palm. Design is a real hallmark of Nokia, and this phone oozes high style. No sharp corners or edges � which should appeal equally to women and men.

It�s a slider phone, which is nice for protecting the keypad. As with other Nokia slider models, the design is easy to use, especially with one hand � left or right.

The screen is a decent size, and it�s quite easy to read the numbers in the display when dialing a call. Viewing photos or video is great � the images are quite clear unless you�re out and about in daylight � more about that shortly.

8 GB means tons of memory for a smartphone, and I�m sure it�s a major selling feature. I�m not a typical smartphone user, though, so all this memory was kind of lost on me. Of course, if I was in the market to buy a smartphone, and if putting my life on my phone was important to me, then sure, I�d be pretty excited about this.

In terms of using the N81 as a phone, the only plus I can really note would be that the calling features were pretty intuitive. Prime examples for me would be putting calls on hold or conferencing two callers at the same time. When these things happen, it�s easy to get flustered, but I found them easy to manage. When a second call comes in, you get a distinct beep, and then when you look at screen, it clearly states what�s going on, and it�s pretty easy to juggle the calls. Same for conferencing, which I found pretty handy. It�s especially nice when you�re talking away to someone, and the person you�re talking about happens to call you just then. Sure it�s right place � right time, but very efficient when you can connect both callers who you�ve got on the line to seamlessly create a three-way call.

I wasn�t much on using the advanced features of the phone, but found the carousel menu easy to navigate � once you know how. It was not intuitive at first, as I was used to the N95, which had a different sequence of prompts for exactly the same features. So, it took a while to figure out the way these worked on the N81, but once I got the hang of it, life got a lot easier.

I�m afraid to say that�s all I have for my likes. This phone has a lot of good qualities, but it was hard to see many more after weighing out all the frustrations that were part and parcel of the overall experience.

What I Didn�t Like About the N81

I�m not doing these in any particular order, but what comes to mind first is that there are too many buttons and embedded buttons within other buttons to deal with. This is a necessary compromise for having a larger screen, and I�m not sure I would come up with anything better. No doubt, once you get used to all the features, and master the micro-movements of your fingers to use them all, it�s a beautiful thing. For someone like Max, this stuff is first nature, but for me, it�s a major, major nuisance. I simply have no patience for all this complexity and just steer clear of these buttons altogether. Obviously, I�m not an ideal customer for this phone, so my rant here isn�t going to get much attention. However, I have no doubt that for a large portion of the general population this sentiment would be exactly the same. Of course that�s not Nokia�s market for the N81, but hey, I�m reviewing one, and that�s how it comes across to me.

Continuing on the button theme, another BIG frustration is how incredibly easy it is to inadvertently activate the music player. Max had downloaded some of his metal music (and I use that word liberally here!), and I can�t tell you how often these tunes kick in out of nowhere when I�m carrying around the phone. Seems like the slightest touch sets it off � and this happens equally often when the phone is in my hand or when it�s inside a pouch I carry all my stuff in � and I happen to pick up the pouch the wrong way � oooops! When this happens, I�m not sure which is more of a problem � how easy it is to turn the tunes on, or how hard it is to turn them off. Both are a problem, and both are reasons I�m happy to move on to another phone.

As with other Nokia phones, the keypad is solid � you have to be deliberate punching in the numbers � I like that aspect for sure. However, it�s not nearly as usable as the N95, where the keypads were slightly raised and rounded, if I recall correctly. These keypads are flat, so you have to look while you dial to be sure you�re hitting the right ones. Otherwise, the keypad area is just one flat space, so it�s hard to get your bearings since there�s no tactile point of reference moving from key to key. The real killer, though, is no backlighting � making it difficult if not impossible to use at night. I may be the only person out there who still actually dials phone numbers, and all I can say is that the N81 isn�t very phone-friendly at night.

Speaking of backlighting, there�s another related problem area for me. The screen display is well lit and easy to read � so long as you are indoors. In this case, the problem isn�t night time, it�s day time. I don�t recall the N95 having this problem, but the N81�s screen is downright unusable in daylight. When I�m walking outside with it, the screen is simply impossible to see unless you create some shade to minimize the glare. If you�re walking � which I presume is what most people are doing when they�re using their phones outside � you need to use your free hand to block the glare so you can see the screen. That solves one problem, but it creates another. Now I don�t have a free hand to dial a number. I realize this isn�t a problem for people who autodial all their calls, but sorry folks, if you need to use the keypad - whether it�s dialing or texting � you have to duck away to a shady spot. That solution works, but I don�t think it�s a very optimal end user experience � and just seems plain ridiculous to me.

On the topic of walking, I can�t imagine I�m the only one to have noticed how difficult it is to walk and talk with this phone, especially outdoors. I have yet to find the ideal, pinpoint location where my ear lines up just right so I can clearly hear the other party. In fact, as I look at the phone, I can�t even find the tiny hole where the sound comes out for phone calls. I know that�s what Bluetooth headsets were invented for, but I don�t use these things, and you should be able to walk and talk with your phone as is. I�ve had this problem with other N series phones, so I guess they�re just not designed to be used like conventional phones. To be fair, I think this is a common deficiency for all cell phones, and I just shake my head when I see countless people walking down busy, noisy streets yapping away on their phones. If their phones are anything like the N81, there�s no way they�re having a real conversation � it�s just impossible to hear the other person. I�ve long believed most of these are just pretend calls because talking on the phone while you�re walking about projects an image of self-importance, and the cell phone is simply a great prop to do that. I digress � and don�t get me started on that vein.

Let�s move on to the camera � I never thought you�d ask. For me, the camera is the real centerpiece of the phone, as I love taking photos, especially in-the-moment. As most Nokia watchers know, the N81 is a 2 megapixel camera, and it works just fine. The camera is on par with most of the other cell phones out there, but it�s a big step down from the 5 MP camera that came with the N95. I find this really bizarre for a phone with 8G memory. Storage isn�t a problem with the N81, so why scale down the camera so much? This phone is made for taking high res photos and fancy videos � strange, huh? To be fair, though, for most needs, the quality of photos with the N81 is perfectly fine � it�s just not as nice as the N95.

I�ve got a sidebar to share on the photo front that is without a doubt my most painful memory of this phone. One of my recent trips took me to New York, which included a tour of Yankee Stadium. I knew this would be my only chance ever to see this park, so it was a pretty big deal. This was a pretty cool tour that took us all over the park � the field, Monument Park, the dugout, the press box, etc. The weather was perfect and I took lots of pictures. Later, while reviewing the photos to pick the ones for my blog, I found that the camera�s memory � or operating system � or whatever � was scrambling the pictures. I�m not going to get into detail, but let�s just say I was only able to salvage a handful. I have no idea what happened or why, but I just have to roll my eyes. It seems that no matter what gadget I use, something goofy always happens that nobody can explain or understand. I�ve trialed quite a few Nokia phones, and have never had such a problem or such a disaster. All I can say is that when I needed this phone the most, it let me down in the biggest way possible. We all have our share of horror stories with technology, and this was a big one for me. I�ll never forgive this phone for messing up like that, and I haven�t even thought of using it as a camera since. For all I know, it may work perfectly fine, but it doesn�t matter � I can�t trust this phone for taking pictures any more. Now I simply take a digital camera when I travel, which means I use the N81 a lot less. It may be an extra gadget to carry around, but at least I know the photos will turn out. Enough � I hope you can feel my pain.

Not much else to talk about, but I�ll briefly touch on a couple of things. As with the other Nokias, the battery has a habit of dying too quickly without warning. I think we�ve all experienced this � the phone shows three bars of battery life, so you feel pretty safe for a bit. Then you take a call, and about two minutes later, the phone dies. Ugh. It seems like the phone lasts forever up at five or four bars, but after that it�s got like, zero juice. What can you do? Just keep it charged as much as possible, I guess.

Finally, I�ll end where I began � the overall design. I started off this review by saying how much I liked the sleek design and basic feel of the N81. No qualms there. However... there�s just something about the smoothness of this phone that makes it so darned slippery � and I�m being very polite here. I can�t tell you how many times this phone has slipped out of my hand and crashed to the floor or the ground. The fun doesn�t stop there. When it hits the ground, the plastic backplate pops off and then the battery pops out and now I have an expensive mess on my hands. And this phone is a loaner, folks! I�ll gladly pay for any serious damages, and maybe it�s best that I pass it back to Nokia while it's still in one piece and we�ll just move on. I�m very conscious that this phone isn�t mine, but it just keeps slipping away at awkward times. Fortunately nothing has cracked or chipped � which is a testament to the quality of the components � but it just seems to me that a phone of this caliber shouldn�t fall to pieces so easily. You might be thinking I�m just clumsy or careless, but I�ve used lots of phones and never had a problem like this before. Maybe the next generation of the N81 will have a textured surface or a more grippable finish. That�s my two cents worth of free advice.

To conclude, if you�ve stuck with me this far, you�d be right to say I didn�t care much for this phone. It definitely has some great smartphone features, but I�m just not the right guy to get the most utility out of it. No doubt I was spoiled by the N95, and if I�d had the N81 first, my review would likely have been more positive. I just take them as they come, and I�m really trying to be objective here. I�ve tried hard to point out the good qualities, but no matter how you spin it, they�re outweighed by things that to me, should not be problems for smartphones. Sorry, Nokia, but that�s my main takeaway message here. Whether you think I�m being too critical or on the money, I�d love to hear your thoughts, especially from other N81 users.

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