The Nokia N81 may be marketed as a music focused mobile; the retail box is plastered with pictures of rowdy concerts, and the user manual is covered with musicians in recording studios, but there's nothing about the device itself that screams "Rock!". The piano black and brushed titanium body is classy looking, but not particularly sexy. At 18mm in thickness the N81 is a stocky-looking slider phone that feels similar to others in the Nokia family, the N95, the E65 and the 6110 Navigator to name a few, but without the advanced components in those devices we think the N81 should have at least been slimmer.
External navigation keys show the direction Nokia has taken with the N81, with music player controls front and centre, the call buttons pushed way out to the side, and the volume controls on the side are large and easy to find without looking. A keypad lock switch on the top is a smart addition, used to unlock the external keypad without having to slide the phone open.
Audio is heard through an external speaker on the side of N81, or alternatively -- and preferably -- through headphones plugged into the 3.5mm headphone jack on the top. The ability to use your favourite headphones, via the 3.5mm port, is a winner on a media device, and having it on top means you can keep the phone in your pocket comfortably while listening to your tunes.
There are, in fact, two N81 models being released, an 8GB model, and a model with smaller internal memory and a micro SD card slot for greater flexibility. The 8GB of memory is the stand-out feature, likening the N81 to a lot of dedicated portable music and media players, but without memory card expansion media junkies will have to swap their files when they have filled the available storage.
While the N81 may not look like the device of rock stars the music player is definitely up to scratch, featuring most of the functionality you'd hope for; including equaliser presets and album cover art display. The laborious task of sifting through the music menus with the directional pad can be sped up using the nifty "navi-wheel" option tucked away in the settings menu. The "navi-wheel" converts the square click pad into a touch sensitive control similar to the click-wheels on iPods. Why this option is not set on by default is beyond us, even if controlling the wheel is a bit finicky, it's still a much faster way of scanning through the dozens of artists and albums you're bound to have stored on the device.
The N81, like all new N-Series devices, comes pre-loaded with Nokia's N-Gage gaming application, and if we were doubters before, let us tell you, we are now converted. Two of the three demo games we saw are by far the best mobile phone games to date. Game juggernaut Electronic Arts (EA) has developed a mobile version of FIFA 07 soccer and it is outright addictive. Let's cross our fingers for a Nokia phone with a decent joystick, because if these games are indicative of what to expect from N-Gage, we'll be seeing some very cool mobile games in the near future.
To fill the phone with games and music Nokia have complimented 3G connectivity with Wi-Fi so you can, presumably, jump onto the Nokia Ovi Web portal, and start downloading content at faster than 3G speeds and without incurring expensive mobile data charges. You can set Wi-Fi network scanning to constantly search for available access points and the results are displayed on the standby menu.
As a mobile phone the N81 provides a predictably excellent experience. Running the latest Nokia S60 Symbian operating system provides the user with a powerful platform for multi-tasking, fast access to the menus, and any tools or features you can't find pre-loaded you can almost certainly download. While we do tend to think the S60 user interface could do with a facelift -- it's boring to look at and not as easy to use as it could be -- there's no doubting its stability.
The 2.4-inch screen is ideal for watching videos, especially when holding the N81 on its side. A pre-loaded music video we watched looked great but beyond this we had no luck loading our own videos onto the phone. Nokia says the N81 will support 3GPP, MPEG4 and H.264 video files played through Realplayer, and while the files we loaded were MP4s, all we saw were black screens. The inclusion of DivX playback in other recent release phones, such as LG's Viewty, leave the N81 far behind as a video player.
The music player continues to play lag-free in the background while the phone continues with other functions, such as SMS messaging or Web browsing. One of the few features that failed to impress was the 2-megapixel camera; the photos we took outdoors looked washed out with flaring on some of the brighter sections of the image.
We were particularly impressed with the life of the battery in the N81. We saw four days between charges, which in itself isn't remarkable, but considering we were using a 3G network, constantly scanning for Wi-Fi access points, Web browsing, and using the phone for music and games -- we were more than satisfied.
The N81 is an impressive device, and with built-in Wi-Fi networking and the massive internal storage, we have no problems recommending it. We do wish the N81 was slimmer, sexier, more fashionable, and to be recognised as a truly well-rounded media player the N81 would need a longer list of compatible video codecs. The N81 will appeal to people interested in a high-end phone like Nokia's N95, but who would prefer to save money at the expense of the excellent camera and built-in GPS, even if skimping on these components won't slim down the pocket bulge.