As far as flops go, Nokia's original N-Gage was fairly spectacular, a Heaven's Gate of the electronics world if there ever was one. We're not sure what Homer Simpson's "d'oh" sounds like with a Finnish twang, but it wouldn't surprise us if such a proclamation was uttered several times between shots of Finlandia in a Helsinki sauna as the Nokia execs watched their heavily promoted gaming phone fail to generate any sort of heat in the marketplace.
Lucky for us, those Finns are a tough, ruddy lot who know that the best cure for the common product hangover is another product--the quicker, the better. Thus, we have the new, improved Nokia N-Gage QD, a more compact and slicker model that fixes many of the mistakes the company made with the original.
Ergonomically and cosmetically, the QD is now much better designed. Weighing in at 5 ounces and measuring 4.7 by 2.7 by 0.9 inches, the device is sized about right, with nice, tactile backlit buttons and a rubber, protective ring around it. The QD feels solid and durable and withstood some fairly substantial drops in our tests.
Thankfully, this N-Gage has an easily accessible slot for inserting the games, which come stored on MMC media; in contrast, the original N-Gage required you to lift the battery out to insert the game card--really. Another improvement: The QD's earpiece is built into the face of the unit, so the sidetalkin' phenomenon is, sadly, all but over.
The N-Gage's 4,096-color, 176x208-resolution screen is sharp and bright with the backlight on. But it's small compared to that of the Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP. It's also vertically oriented, which is a liability for certain games. Aside from the screen debate, the value added here is multiplayer wireless gaming; you can compete head-to-head against another N-Gage owner via Bluetooth or a GPRS connection using Nokia's N-Gage Arena. With some games, even more players can join in.
In terms of features, the QD, which runs the Series 60 version of the Symbian OS 6.0, is pretty well anointed, though much is being made over the fact that Nokia has stripped out the original's MP3 playback and FM radio capabilities, leaving users with mono sound, even when using headphones. The absence of MP3 playback is hardly a deal breaker, but it's worth noting that the Tapwave Zodiac, for instance, lets you listen to your own tunes in the background while playing games. Another downgrade from the original N-Gage: The QD is a dual-band GSM (850/1900) phone, not triband, so it won't work overseas; conversely, the international version won't work in North America.
In the plus column, after you download some software from Nokia's site, the QD, like other Series 60 phones, will sync contact and calendar info from your Outlook so long as your computer is equipped with Bluetooth. The phone also displays images, sends and receives e-mail, and is MMS (multimedia messaging) capable.
As a phone, the QD is decent, though far from stellar. Call quality was good, and battery life--as one might expect from a phone that doubles as a gaming device--was impressive. We hit the rated talk time of 5 hours, while battery life for gaming is listed at 10 hours, but those times will be mutually exclusive. The one gripe we had was that the earpiece wasn't terribly loud, and we had trouble hearing callers in the noisy streets of New York. The phone comes with an earbud-style headset, and we recommend using it, though you might want to upgrade to a fancier model or maybe even a wireless Bluetooth unit.
In the final analysis, the QD, though not without its flaws, is a cool product, and we're sure Nokia wishes that it had launched with this N-Gage. The pricing is attractive, too; you can pick up one of these for $99 with a new service plan. But ultimately, with any gaming platform, success comes down to the titles themselves. The games we played--The Sims Bustin' Out, Marcel Desailly Pro Soccer, Ashen, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004--were compelling enough to keep us occupied on our subway rides home and during a slow work meeting or two. But in order to really attract a bigger following, the N-Gage needs an exclusive title, that killer game that no other platform has; the World War II-themed Pathway to Glory, for instance, looks promising. We hope Nokia has one up its sleeve because the hardware is now decent enough to deserve it.