Nokia announced the N81 8GB alongside two other handsets (N81 and N95 8GB) in August 2007. The handsets, as their model name suggests, are part of Nokia’s elite line of mobile phones – I mean, “multimedia computers” – the Nseries.
The Nseries handsets are the product of Nokia’s convergence of the latest in mobile technology including video and music playback, video and image capture, mobile gaming and Internet services.
The N81 8GB’s focus is on three specific areas: music and video playback, mobile gaming, and mobile storage.
Before I go any further, just a quick note on the two N81 handsets available from Nokia. The N81 (without the 8GB post-fix) is exactly the same as the N81 8GB, however the 8GB model comes with an internal 8GB hard drive and does not have a microSD card slot. The N81 has a microSD card slot and around 100MB of onboard memory.
The N81 8GB is the focus of this review, although as the devices are extremely similar most things will apply for both.
Now, the N81 8GB’s highlight feature by far is it’s internal 8GB flash drive. The drive provides sufficient space for up to 6,000 songs (according to Nokia) but can also be used to store games, applications, videos, documents, and more.
There is also 96MB of SD-RAM storage offered, which is shared between applications like Messages and Phonebook and is available for user storage too.
Symbian OS 9.2 is the N81 8GB’s operating system of choice, with Nokia’s Series 60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1 platform, powered by an ARM 11 369MHz processor.
Heaps of connectivity options have been bundled into the handset – there’s 2G and 3G network connectivity alongside WLAN 802.11b/g, Bluetooth, and USB local connectivity.
The N81 8GB’s 2.4” TFT LCD is a pleasure to use, supporting up to 16.7 million colours and at a pleasant 320 x 240 pixel resolution.
The N81 8GB measures 102 x 50 x 17.9mm, and weighs a hefty 140grams. This is on the heavy is quite noticeable when the handset is in your pocket. At first I thought the N81 8GB’s extra weight was due to the 8GB flash drive, but looking at the specs for the non-8GB model, it too weighs 140grams and has the exact same dimensions.
The amount of buttons on the N81 8GB is a little excessive. Below the display there are a whopping 16 keys:
That doesn’t even take into account the keys on the rim of the N81 or the two additional soft keys above the display.
- Left soft key
- Right soft key
- Green pick-up key
- Red hang-up keys
- Application key
- ‘C’ (backspace) key
- Backwards track key
- Forwards track key
- Stop track key
- Play/pause track key
- Left navigational key
- Right navigational key
- Up navigational key
- Down navigational key
- OK (centre) navigational key
- Multimedia carousel key
Most functionality with the N81 8GB is achieved through using the soft keys and navigational key – there is really no need for so many others. The dedicated music keys seem a little unnecessary as the same functionality could be achieved using the navigational buttons or even the Navi wheel (explained later).
The buttons below the display are thick – which makes them nice to press – but they feel like cheap plastic, which is not so nice. The numerical buttons are one large flat surface with tiny horizontal indentations separating each row. They are comfortable to use but messaging becomes frustrating as there is a lack of tactile feedback.
On the right hand side of the N81 8GB you will find the volume up/down rocker and camera key (although it does not have any icon on it). On the left and right sides you will find a stereo speaker protected by a sleek mesh window.
The spring-loaded slider mechanism is powerful and locks the handset into place in both positions with a satisfying click.
Only one colour variation of the handset is available. The black and grey colour scheme is dark and sophisticated.
User interface & display
The N81 8GB is powered by the Symbian OS v9.2, with Nokia’s Series 60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 1 platform. Using the N81 8GB is a walk in the park for both those who have never used a Series 60/Symbian handset before and those who are pro’s.
The huge 2.4” TFT LCD is capable of displaying up to 16.7 million colours within its 320 x 240 pixel resolution. This display is perfectly suited to the rest of the top-end features found on the N81 8GB, and provides adequate screen real estate for easy browsing of menus, web pages, and the menu system.
The two soft keys and 5-way navigational pad is the first port of call when using the handset. As it is a slider, it wouldn’t be functional to have to slide the handset open and hit * every time you wanted to unlock, so Nokia have placed a dedicated keypad lock switch on the top of the handset. The switch is in a somewhat awkward position though and it’s not entirely possible to switch it when you are holding the handset with two hands in the ‘normal’ position.
None the less, after the keypad is unlocked the UI comes to life in full colour on the display. Usually the standby screen will be displayed (unless you locked the screen at another window). The standby screen contains Active Standby elements including a shortcut bar, search bar, upcoming calendar entries, and WLAN status. The search bar provides instant searching of files in the phone memory – images, documents, applications, videos, music: the lot.
At the top of the standby screen you will find the reception level, clock, operator name, date, and battery level. The clock can be displayed in analogue or digital form.
Pressing the middle navigational button will open the main menu. By default it is a 3 x 4 grid of icons, but this can be changed to a list view or rotating view if the current theme allows. On the subject of themes, the N81 8GB comes with several pre-installed and a plethora more available on the Internet. Themes can change many elements of the user interface including wallpapers, screensavers, icons, colour schemes, and fonts.
Back to the main menu – the icons can be arranged however you desire, and functions that may be hidden away in folders can be moved to the main menu screen for easy access. The user interface is fairly fast and from start-up there is around 40MB of RAM free. Running multiple applications at once is no problem, although the first load of the program can be a tad laggy.
The only problem I had with the N81 8GB’s user interface and controls was when trying to get back to the standby screen by pressing the red hang-up key, the multimedia carousel button would accidentally be pressed. Same goes with pressing the ‘c’ (backspace) key.
The media carousel is a 3D section of the UI which creates easy access to music, games, camera, contacts, internet, and maps stored on the handset. The Navi wheel (I’ll get to it!) or directional keys can be used to control the carousel, which spins around on screen and displays content under each heading.
Now – the Navi wheel. Basically, the outside rim of the 5-way navigational keypad is touch sensitive, and in selected applications circling your finger over it will move the cursor up/down (depending on the direction your finger is moved). The feature is particularly useful when browsing photos and videos in the gallery. I would have really liked the feature to be system-wide– it would be very handy even at the main-menu level.
Making and receiving calls
The Nokia N81 8GB supports GSM 850, 900, 1800, and 1900MHz networks, allowing you to conduct regular voice calls in any country across the globe (provided there is a network in range). Additionally, the WCDMA 2100MHz network is supported for 3G connections on several continents.
A set of wired headphones is included in the sales package and can be used (among other things) to conduct hands-free calls. There’s also a loudspeaker built into the handset and the regular earpiece. Loudspeaker and earpiece volume were surprisingly loud, which is always a good thing.
Wireless Bluetooth headsets can also be used with he N81 8GB. The handset fully supports A2DP for newer stereo-equipped headsets.
On the front of the handset is a dedicated video-calling camera (320 x 240 pixels maximum), making it easy to conduct face-to-face video calls. During a video call the video can be switched to the external camera if you wish to show your caller what is going on around you. The video can also be turned off entirely (same goes for audio), or you can opt to share an image stored in the memory.
The regular Symbian phonebook provides storage for a basically unlimited amount of contacts (unless you run out of storage space, which is fairly difficult). Contacts can contain a number of different fields for data such as address, phone number, e-mails, and so forth. Multiple fields of the same type can be added.
The software provided on Nokia’s Symbian handsets for messaging is always a pleasure to use, and the N81 8GB is no exception. SMS/EMS, MMS, and e-mail messaging is supported, with T9 predictive text dictionaries offered in local languages.
The messaging interface is simple but does the job perfectly. In SMS mode a box at the top of screen is used to enter numbers/contacts to send the message too, with the bulk of the screen reserved for the actual message body. At the top of screen is a character counter, and as concatenated messages are supported there is an additional number in brackets indicating how many actual messages your ‘single’ message spans.
MMS messaging is much the same as SMS messaging except for the addition of a subject field. Of course, the options to add images, video, and sound are now available. Content from the memory can be added or you can capture new content to add.
Moving onto e-mail messaging – the N81 8GB supports IMAP4, SMTP, and POP3 e-mail accounts. Headers or full messages can be downloaded to save on data costs, and attachments are supported. With WLAN connectivity you can download messages when in wireless coverage for much cheaper than if you use 2G/3G data channels.
As I mentioned in the physical aspects section, the flat keypad isn’t very tactile and messaging is frustrating. Those who tap out messages in the blink of an eye may become irate quickly. Fortunately, there is no lag between button presses and UI response.
Nokia’s N81 8GB supports loads of our favourite connectivity standards: 2G & 3G networks, Bluetooth, USB, and WLAN.
GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz networks are fully supported, providing 2G network connectivity in all corners of the globe. While roaming on a 2G network data access is handled by GPRS (Class 10 compliant), EDGE, and HSCSD.
As for 3G networks, the N81 8GB supports only one network band, WCDMA 2100MHz. This band is used throughout Europe, Asia, and several other locales. Data speeds of up to 384kbp/s can be achieved when using the 2100MHz network.
Automatic switching between bands and networks (2G/3G) is supported and most of the time you won’t even notice the switchover.
Unfortunately, there is no HSDPA support - and for me, this is a huge downside to the N81 8GB. Yes, there is WLAN connectivity, but HSDPA is in a different ballpark and would have really topped the handset off.
Inside the N81 8GB’s sales package is a USB data-cable and CD-rom with Nokia’s PC Suite software. A microUSB port is located at the bottom of the handset and it is fully compatible with version 2.0 of the USB standard.
When connected to a compatible PC the N81 8GB can be used in conjunction with Nokia PC Suite, or can be switched into “Mass Storage Device” mode, allowing you to access the memory like you would a removable hard drive. This is the easiest way to transfer data to the handset as there is no need to install extra drivers, it’s fast, and best of all – easy.
USB printing via the PictBridge protocol is also supported, allowing images captured by the N81 8GB (or any image stored on the handset) to be printed to compatible printers without the need for a computer as the middleman.
Bluetooth version 2.0 is supported, with the following profiles: A2DP (stereo Bluetooth audio), AVRCP, BIP, BPP, DUN, FTP, GAP, GAVDP, GOEP, HFP, HID, HSP, OPP, SAP, and SPP. I tested the N81 8GB with several laptops, other Bluetooth phones, and Bluetooth headsets – and didn’t run into trouble once.
To save on expensive OTA data costs, and to take advantage of the abundance of WLAN networks popping up all over the place, Nokia have packed a WLAN chip into the N81 8GB. The chip fully supports IEEE 802.11b/g standards, and comes with support for UPnP devices over compatible wireless networks.
Wireless security has not been overlooked, and the N81 8GB supports WPA, WPA2 (AES/TKIP) and WEP protocols. Setting up a WLAN connection is made easy with the WLAN Wizard, and any application on the handset that utilises a data connection can be configured to use a WLAN connection instead.
The music player is identical to music players on other Symbian handsets except for one feature addition: the Navi wheel. As I mentioned earlier not all aspects of the UI utilize the Navi wheel, but the music player is one aspect where it is. Moving your finger around the Navi wheel makes it easy to scroll through a huge list of tracks (which you will no doubt have thanks to the 8GB of available storage).
The dedicated music keys below the display can be used to control the player when it is active.
Music formats supported are: AAC, eAAC+, MP3, MP4, M4A, WMA, AMR-NB, AMR-WB, Mobile XMF, SP-MIDI, MIDI Tones (poly 64), RealAudio 7,8,10, True tones, and WAV. This should cover practically everyone’s music collection.
Five equaliser presets are offered with the ability to modify them as you see fit. Your favourite Bluetooth headphones can be used with the N81 8GB in stereo goodness thanks to support for the A2DP profile.
A quirk with the N81 8GB is that once the music player has been opened, it cannot be closed. It will remain in the background using RAM, even if music is not being played. This issue isn’t isolated to the N81; there have been reports of it happening with other N-series handsets like the N76. Strange!
Video playback is handled by a mobile version of RealPlayer. A generous range of formats are supported: 3GPP (H.263), H.264/AVC, MPEG-4, and RealVideo 7,8,9/10. Depending on the aspect ratio of the video the player will automatically rotate playback for the best possible viewing experience when in full-screen mode.
The N81 8GB’s gallery is wonderful to use – and another area of the handset where the Navi wheel can be used. When image and video viewing is selected the display rotates to landscape mode and the two soft keys located above the display light up for zooming functionality. The 3D rotating gallery allows you to view small thumbnails of 8 images/videos, and one large thumbnail. It lags a little (more so when starting for the first time) but is still very usable.
The Flash Lite 2.0 player for SWF movies and games is pre-installed. It works well.
If your 8GB music collection is getting old you can always switch to the integrated FM radio and let someone else DJ. All the usual features are supported including automatic scanning and storing of channels. Nokia’s not-so-popular Visual Radio is supported. RDS however, is missing.
Last but not least is the N81 8GB’s N-Gage functionality. Some versions of the N81 8GB will come pre-installed with three N-Gage games, others will only come with an application that asks you to download a hefty application from the Internet and then install it to the handset via your PC.
The games are quite entertaining and most operate with the handset in landscape mode, utilising the two soft keys above the display.
Additional games will be available shortly on the N-Gage website, but at time of writing there were no prices available. Nokia have put a lot of effort into resurrecting the N-Gage platform, and at present things look promising.
Performance with MIDP 1.0 and 2.0 applications is good, however the 3D benchmarks were a little disappointing. Most users will not face any troubles though.
A host of pre-installed productivity applications provide the N81 8GB with many useful features.
In terms of office productivity there’s an Adobe PDF reader and ZIP file manager – but one important application missing is the QuickOffice suite. If you wish to open popular document formats like Word, PowerPoint, and Excel, you will need to purchase the application separately.
Nokia’s Maps application is pre-installed and can be used with or without a GPS accessory. Standard features like a calculator, organiser, notepad, converter, clock, and voice recorder are all included.
Java MIDP 2.0 applications and games can be installed on the N81 8GB in a flash – just transfer the appropriate files (.jad and/or .jar) and open them up. The following results were achieved using the JBenchmark testing suite:
||LQ: 196, HQ: 383
The N81 8GB is a big handset and feels very solid in hand. The spring-loaded slider is powerful and won’t open here and there by itself. The top section of the slider can be nudged slightly to the left and right which isn’t desirable but doesn’t appear to be a major problem.
I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that the keys on the front of the handset below the display were made of cheap plastic – they’re creaky and just not the usual standard that I’ve come to expect from Nokia.
The back cover slides off nicely once you have pushed the release button, and the battery can be removed without the need for an astrophysics degree. The SIM card slots into the handset behind the flash drive, holstered by a metal frame.
A Nokia BP-6MT 1050mAh battery is used to power the N81 8GB and provides the handset with an incredible level of battery life. Before I get into the real life specs, here’s what Nokia say:
Talk time: Up to 240 minutes (2G) / 180 minutes (3G)
Stand-by time: Up to 17 days
Video playback time: Up to 4.5 hours (at QVGA resolution)
Browsing time (packet data): Up to 5 hours
Music playback time: Up to 11.5 hours
Video recording time: Up to 3.5 hours
Gaming time: Up to 6 hours
While I was testing the N81 8GB I could easily go 2-3 days without needing a charge – and that was with heavy data (both packet and WLAN) usage, camera use, messaging, and calling. Really impressive.