Nokia N81 8GB – Complex Decisions

December 17, 2007

in Mobility, Wireless

I received this gorgeous package about two weeks ago from Andy Abramson. It contained the latest Nokia N-81 8GB music phone. It’s really gorgeous. It has a deep shiney black finish and closed could almost be mistaken for an iPod. I really can’t review this phone without referring to both iPhones and the Nokia N95 which I’ve been using for around six months.

First up the N-81 has taught me new things because I keep experimenting. The things I really care about in a mobile have been
1) camera – how good is it? The N95 is the best, the N80 okay (no auto focus), the N73 3mpx and auto focus (good but slow). The camera comes first for me. The N81 at 2mpx is going backwards when I’m used to using an N95.
2)Lifeblog – When on the PC I really enjoyed the NokiaLifeblog program. It did a better job than Windows and I could basically keep track of my photos.
3)WiFi – Since having WiFi and Truphone and GizmoVoip on my phone as an international traveller it’s has simply revolutionized how and where I use it. It means anywhere I am for any length of time instantly gets me a fast connection. No more slow GPRS.

Where I’ve learned:

Nokia Multimedia Transfer – On the MacBookPro this has replaced Lifeblog (in fact all my lifeblog photos are now in iPhoto which I prefer; slide shows, etc become available.) It synchs easily. It also shifts music from iTunes to the phone.
Bluetooth-Now I have music and a new car stereo I’ve found real utility in having music on my phone. Before it was something of a — I can make a ring tone or alarm out it it thing.
Synch- Synch now become more important. To connect the phone to the base station. I’ve found the easiest way to get new podcasts to the phone is via iTunes. I add them to the Nokia N81 folder and the Multimedia transfer synchs it. Synching contacts… I still find is messy but I’d not blame it on the synch program rather my data files.
WiFi: Just got a new HP printer with inbuilt WiFi. Now that print button next to the photo I just took on the phone works. From phone to printer in two clicks with a 4X6 print outputted. (I’ll write it up separately.)

What this all means is — new gadgets / peripherals have created new value and started to redefine what I can do with my mobile. I’d never think before about accessorizing my new latest phone with a new printer, new car stereo, new bluetooth stereo headset etc. Yet combined, these things cost less than the N81 (about $550). There is probably something coming…. you buy this phone you buy this lifestyle. In this way Apple is further ahead with Mac’s, iPods, iPhones etc. They also have a better software base in itunes, iphoto, etc. At least they work better. Apple’s packaging is still superior although Nokia’s is pretty good.

So how does the N81 stack up?
It’s really looks stunning. It’ is more solid and slightly heavier that the N95. It’s edges are harder; personally I still prefer how the N95 feels in my hand. The slider doesn’t have any sloppiness in it. It springs open. Comparing the N81 to the N95 is a little like comparing a BMW or Mercedes with an Alfa or perhaps something slightly more exotic. The N81 goes the extra distance with its speaker grills too. They sound and look great. The stereo they play and the noise they can make quite something. (iPhone sucks by comparison in this regard). The design integrity is a real step forward for Nokia.

All the buttons are readily at hand. I find the very flat smooth buttons on the N81 a little harder to just touch and feel. Still there is no real change over what I’m used to.

I think there are a few enhancements in the layout of the menu. Took me ages to return on predictive text (not a help item) when it mysteriously seemed to get turned off. It’s in the Utilities section. There are advances made in using Triangulation for maps and there is a Nokia Map program installed. Still Google Maps works better. I also use Gmail Mobile exclusively now. I don’t even bother with the Nokia email built into the messaging function.

When I first tested the N95 my biggest gripe was battery life. After two weeks of running the Nokia N81 8GB music phone I’m sort of surprised I don’t have to recharge it every day. It seems a whole lot better than the N80 and N95 both which last no time at all and can leave you stranded.

Unfortunately there is a new USB cable. Unlike the N95 not a standard plug (smaller). Maybe it had to be. Just means another travel cable.

I’d love to see the front camera work. Why can’t I do video calls over WiFi like I can on the N800 series via Gtalk? That’s a trick that would make this component make more sense to me. (Works as a mirror too!). Nokia is pushing the boundaries and learning faster from their community than ever before. They have Nokia Beta Labs, and phones can be upgraded with the latest software over time. These upgrades are getting simpler.. however they still aren’t for the faint hearted.

I’ve read a few other reviews. Om Malik said the N81 was slow slow to open. Not something I’ve found. It’s as quick as any I have tried. I have had a couple of “crashes” where it seems to reboot for no reason. I think these are usually around WiFi and Truphone type connections; moving in or out of zone.

So we have the million dollar questions?
1. Would I buy it?
2. How does it stack up to the iPhone?

I’d buy the N95 in preference to the N80. Certainly the 8GB for it will do everything and more. The N95 camera 5mpx is simply great outdoors. (None of these indoors with flash are any great shakes.) In my view the dollars for the camera are worth the extra. (GPS well – still questionable as is very slow). In a market where most phones are locked and sold by carriers at a discount it’s hard to justify an unlocked Nokia when you will probably go to AT&T. Which makes the iPhone a no-brainer here in the US if you are prepared to get the data plan.

I can only compare the iPhone somewhat anecdotally. My experience equates to about three hours on different occasions in Apple stores and watching and listening to lots of users. In my mind it is a less is more deal. The iPhone offers less and yet offers more and it costs less. The more is in simplicity and elegance. I’m not sure about texting, and touch in that way. My guess is I’d just learn.

I believe that the Nokia vs Apple battle is probably the most interesting consumer product battle currently out there. (Some might like to include RIM – Blackberry in here). Nokia has exploded the number of form factors. Yet the majority of phones are still sticks, sliders, and flips. Is Apple’s iPhone good enough generically to be everyone’s phone? A form factor like a laptop that we have little variation from? When I play with the iPhone I find the same elegance I find in Apple’s single, and double finger trackpad. So I worry that Symbian really needs an upgrade that it may be as stuck as I believe Windows is. If so Nokia may be in trouble, or we will see Nokia Android phones … who knows.

Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch are better sharing devices. They share pictures better than the Nokia’s do. They continue to provide a richer music and video experience. Example, I don’t get the album art on the Nokia. I also find I cannot fast forward on video on the Nokia and full screen isn’t just a tilt. The touch technology give them an advantage when you hand them to someone else to look at your pictures.

In conclusion… mobiles have to become simpler to become smarter. I’m a power user when it comes to Nokia. I understand every command etc. I’ve played with the options. However, most won’t push the boundaries the same way. I still remember my son’s comment when he got his first Nokia Smart phone. Wow… it took me a whole day to work out all the things it can do. I could give him the N81 tomorrow and I know he’d say it rocks. On a college campus he doesn’t need an AT&T Edge plan. For the most part a WiFi phone can do it all for him. He’d also find that some of the smart things it can do require those peripherals. He doesn’t have them yet. Although I’m sure he will or others will around him.

The N81 and its offspring have a real battle vs the iPhone. The iPhone is ahead on bringing content into the mobile. It’s behind on WiFi, openness, and general camera quality. There’s not much in it around the directory. On costs and profits. The touchscreen, and iPod touch base components are going to give Apple leverage that Nokia may only scale to on a few models. I want a few things from iPhone before I buy one. Better camera (8mpx) and even more than 8GB of storage. Better inbuilt speakers. WiFi that is really open and can enable a SIP stack. GPS with maps. And that is probably enough. Apple’s goal is to make buying a fully featured communication device a simple decision. Nokia’s choice strategy has perhaps made that more complex. Why do they continue burying the SIM cards so they are fiddly to exchange? Phones could be like watches, the vacation one, the weekend one, the work one, etc.

In the meantime the N81 has brought new “value” to my music and photo printing. For me that’s a step forward.

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