Nokia N81 is about the size of most other Finnish smartphones. It stands at 102 x 50 x 17.9 mm, which is almost identical to Nokia 5700 XpressMusic or Nokia 6110 Navigator. No need to fuss over a millimeter or two. The difference in weight however can't be overlooked, with the N81 weighing 15 grams more than the recently reviewed Navigator and good 25 grams more than the 5700 XpressMusic smartphone. Even Nokia's top multimedia device - the omnipresent N95 - is as much as 20 grams lighter. Not that it's too much of an issue, but there are a lot of people who don't want such a load in their pocket. In any case, the phone will be hard to squeeze in tighter pockets and, if dimensions are the most decisive factor when buying a phone, you will probably have to look elsewhere.
On a different note, the handset is of solid build, with high-quality sturdy materials used on the casing. The slider construction also seems very reliable though it somewhat lacks smoothness. All in all - the phone is a typical Nokia in that aspect.
Starting with the Nokia N81 front panel, at the top right corner is the video-call camera. Dead center at the top of the front side is an oblong plate with the earpiece right in its middle. The plate serves as a dual key (rocker) with the two gaming buttons on each of its sides. Invisible when not in use, the dedicated gaming buttons backlight in environments where they can be used. Under the gaming keys is the sparkling 2.4" display. It supports 16M colors and has a QVGA resolution. Offering stunning picture quality, the display ranks among the best even by Nokia's standards. Under the screen come a whole bunch of controls in what seems the most crowded of D-pads. The Navi Scroll key is the central element. It is truly unique for two reasons. Firstly, it offers the exceptional Navi wheel navigation and, secondly, its confirming center is very hard to press. This may sound unbelievable, especially given its ample size. In fact, it has to be pressed exactly in the center, otherwise the cursor will move before confirming. We did have some trouble with it and we have little hope that it's going to be fixed in the retail version. On the other hand, the Navi wheel is doing a truly amazing job but more on that later in the review. The square Navi Scroll key is framed within a larger pad with the four dedicated music keys at its angles. On the periphery of this frame-within-frame layout are the two soft keys (top), and the Menu key and Clear key (bottom). At the sides of the D-pad are the Call and End keys, placed on the sloping edges of the handset's front. Finally, on the right side of the scroll key we find the last control: the silver multimedia key. It has the same functionality as in Nokia N95 - opening a dedicated multimedia menu, which has been redecorated and is now looking even better and more convenient to use. Except for the multimedia key and the frame of the scroll key, all other buttons are completely flat. Regardless of their touch-sensitive disguise, they are actually regular hardware keys.
Opening the slider reveals the numeric keypad, which just happens to be one of our greatest disappointments with Nokia N81. The keypad is entirely flat with almost undetectably thin lines separating each row of keys. If you had any hope of typing on Nokia N81 without constantly looking at you fingers, you'll be vastly disappointed. The keys themselves are quite large but still fail to resolve the usability issues of this keypad. Built on the concept of a new gaming experience, the N81 will likely attract the young and it is not the smartest decision by Nokia to make the phone so texting unfriendly. After all, SMS is key to exactly this age group, which the N81 seems to be targeting and keen texters wouldn't appreciate having to put so much effort into it.
On the right side of the handset we find one of the two stereo speakers at the top, the volume rocker right below it, and the dedicated camera key at the bottom end. The volume rocker is a bit too hard to press but our guess is that's a unit-specific problem of out beta handset.
|Even Nokia's top multimedia device - the omnipresent N95 - is as much as 20 grams lighter. Not that it's too much of an issue, but there are a lot of people who don't want such a load in their pocket.|
The other stereo speaker is symmetrically placed on the left side. This is a nice layout of the stereo speakers, as it prevents them from being muffled when the phone is laid on a table or when held in hand.
Topside we find another thing that is a real rarity in Nokia phones - the lock switch. This is truly a convenient control, as it replaces the well known two-key combination with a single slide. Next to the lock switch is the 3.5 mm standard audio jack allowing use of regular headphones with your Nokia N81 for better sonic experience.
Moving on to the bottom side of the handset, we come across four apertures there: the mouthpiece, microUSB slot, the charger plug and the neck/wrist strap eyelet. Is seems microUSB is becoming a standard in all recent Nokia models and is gradually replacing the miniUSB used in the models of the previous wave. The main reason for this is that microUSB is obviously more space-efficient than miniUSB.
The back panel is quite plain, holding the Nokia N-series label and the 2-megapixel camera lens with LED flash only. We are still wondering why Nokia decided to go for a 2 megapixel camera module instead of at least a 3 megapixel cam. Auto focus would have been nice too. Upon removing the back panel, we find the battery. Nokia N81 is equipped with a Nokia Li-Ion 1050 mAh BP-6MT battery. We were quite satisfied with the power supply of our unit, which generally lasted about three days in moderate usage, while Nokia is promising up to 410 h of standby time or up to 4 hours of talk time. Expected music playback time is rated at 11.5 hours, while promised gaming time is up to 6 hours.
Under the battery is the SIM card holder. It is quite difficult to operate, as you have to pull it out with your fingernail, to insert or remove the SIM card.
To sum up our impressions of Nokia N81 design and construction, we have to say that apart from the few flaws we have already pointed out, we are pleased with the phone. The use of quality materials benefits both the phone's sturdiness and design. On the other hand, the glossy front and back panels do tend to attract fingerprints, so keeping Nokia N81 clean is quite a time-consuming job.
The backlighting is strong and even, which greatly helps operating the phone in dark environments. However, lighting around the edges is very uneven, which spoils the refined and sophisticated look of the handset. It looks like a manufacturing blunder and may really be one.
Finally, we have to mention that the phone is nice to hold and one-hand and two-hand operation are equally comfortable. Except for the D-pad that is, mainly because its confirming center is hard to press correctly in single-handed operation. You really need one hand for holding the handset firmly and the other for precise aiming.