Nokia N81 8GB review: N-series N-gaged

GSMArena team, 1 November 2007.
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Picture perfect

When we speak about phones, a 2.4" inch display is well worth a praise. With N81 and the N-Gage gaming experience it offers, the 2.4" display with 16M colors and QVGA resolution seems the spot-on choice. The display on Nokia N81 has great sunlight legibility, incredible picture quality and is large enough for everyone to see. You can hardly want any more even in this price range.

Ring, ring…

Before everything else a mobile phone should be good at making and receiving calls. After all, N-Gage or not, you'll eventually hold these gadgets up to your ear. Luckily, with Nokia N81 signal reception is on the familiar high level.Sound during calls is crystal clear, with no interferences.

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The digits on the display when dialing are large and easy to see

Here is how Nokia N81 stacks against some of the other handsets we've measured in our speakerphone loudness test. It is definitely not the loudest phone around. You can find more information about the test itself here.

Speakerphone testVoice, dBPink noise/ Music, dBRinging phone, dBOveral score
Nokia N8168.867.875.7Good
LG KU990 Viewty72.068.877.8Good
Nokia 6500 classic74.775.783.8Excellent
Sony Ericsson K85071.075.775.7Very good

Symbian with a pinch of fun

Nokia N81 is running on Symbian 9.2 OS and uses the well known S60 3rd edition graphic user interface. The improved Feature Pack 1 is no news anymore, as all recent Nokia smartphones are equipped with it. Among the strong points of the FP1 is the availability of multiple alarms, as well as the voice memo limit increase to a whole hour. Furthermore, it displays blue circles on running applications' icons to remind you to turn them off when you don't need them any more. No one wants used up RAM to slow down their smartphone. All that said, we need to mention that Nokia N81 is armed with the fastest Nokia processor to date (ARM 11, 369 MHz). The same CPU powers the Nokia 6120 Classic and Nokia 5700. Navigating the menus is very fast. All the commands are executed in an instant, which greatly contributes to the impression N81 leaves.

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Symbian looks are familiar, so is the menu structure

The display of course features an active stand-by mode. You have a bar of shortcut icons for instant access to pre-selected functions at the top of the display, and scheduled events from the calendar together with tasks underneath. When selecting the shortcuts, you can choose any application or even a website. The functionality of the two soft keys is configurable too. There is also a line on the active standby display reserved for the currently running track or radio station.

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Active Standby features a great number of shortcuts to all kinds of applications

The phone has an offline mode, switching off all transceivers but allowing the use of the other features of the device. It is the default profile if you start the handset without a SIM card. The offline mode allows full access to the functions of the phone that do not require cellular network coverage.

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The FM radio won't work in offline mode. All non-network features however are available

As with any S60 smartphone, the task manager pops up upon a longer press on the Menu key. It allows switching between applications or turning off any running application by pressing the Clear key. The four different main menu views are becoming standard for Nokia smartphones. The traditional options are the well known grid and list view. The more unusual looks are the V-shape and Horseshoe, which are somewhat uncomfortable to use. That, of course, is our subjective opinion and nobody is obliged to subscribe to it.

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The four different menu views are becoming standard for the Symbian phones

Much to our disappointment, the touch sensitive Navi wheel functionality cannot be used for browsing the menu. We do find the Navi wheel a brilliant navigation solution. Pity, Nokia developers decided to limit its functionality to the gallery, music player and multimedia menu only. The Navi wheel is really fast and fun way of finding your way around menus. The only flaw it has is that it probably makes the D-pad confirmation center even tougher to press without changing your selection.

We do find the Navi wheel a brilliant navigation solution. Pity, Nokia developers decided to limit its functionality to the gallery, music player and multimedia menu only.

The multimedia menu is where the Navi wheel has its potential unleashed. The menu can be started from anywhere by pressing the dedicated key and provides quick access to the multimedia features of Nokia N81. It is similar to the one in Nokia N95 but with a changed look and some added functionality. For example, the icons are changed to tabs with submenus for each tab, which greatly facilitates access. You can even rearrange the icons to your liking.

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The Multimedia menu looks have been changed and functionality has been upgraded a little by adding submenus to each tab, as opposed to Nokia N95

As with all recent Symbian smartphones, there is also a voice recognition feature. It's used for both starting applications and dialing contacts. It is not voice dependant, and doesn't require pre-recording of the commands. Voice recognition on N81 is OK with most of the commands, but still falls short of Nokia N95 or Nokia 6110 Navigator. Who knows, this may change with the retail version.

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Let's hope the voice recognition will be improved in the retail version, as it wasn't the best working feature on our unit

Looking N-series

If you get bored with the phone's looks, you can always pep them up by changing the theme. There are 5 preinstalled themes on Nokia N81, all named Nokia N-series. The absence of the standard Nokia theme is no surprise, as we're dealing with an N-series gadget. There is no limit however to themes you can add to an N-series device. Nice themes are downloadable for free or for a token price all over the internet.

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The four preinstalled Nokia N81 themes that do not appear on other screenshots in the review

Typical of Nokia smartphones, there are 5 predefined ringing profiles, along with the already mentioned Offline mode. This count is just enough for dealing with virtually any situation. If you still find the number inadequate, you can always create new profiles or modify the existing ones to best suit your needs.

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There are five predefined ringing profiles along with an offline mode in Nokia N81

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