Review: The Sweet Agony That Is Nokia N81

nokian811.gifIt has been nearly 65 days since I went without a phone set change, leading to snide remarks from my co-workers about my fidelity to Apple’s iPhone. Despite getting frustrated with iPhone’s email application (I carry a Blackberry to get some serenity) and poky Edge connections, I avoided the hassle of switching to another phone.
That was up until yesterday evening, when I came back home to find the new Nokia N81 8GB music phone, the cornerstone of the company’s big push into music-related services. Nokia (NOK) had sent me a review unit, and when I opened the elegantly packaged box, I knew I had to try it out. It is a handsome device — very sleek and elegant — thanks to its brushed metal-black lacquer finish, rounded edges and crisp screen.
And even before it was fully powered up, I was betting this device was going to exceed my expectations. Did it?

Nokia N81, which is going to set you back about $550, is a slider phone with ample storage capacity to let you play back music for a long, long time. The keypad, which slides out smoothly, has recessed keys and still is good enough for blind dialing — that is, dialing without looking at the phone.
Being a music phone, all the music-playback functionality is built into the top half, so you don’t have slide out the keypad to control the phone. It is a quad band GSM phone that comes with a 2-megapixel camera, which can also be controlled without sliding out the keypad.
nokian812.gifThe keys on this phone are too crammed together, but I can understand that engineering a complex multifunction device isn’t easy. Still, the dial and stop buttons are pushed to the side and are tough to use. The navigation pad that dominates the faceplate is good way to navigate through many functions on the phone, and I appreciate the special music-navigation key that was added by Nokia.
Nokia N81 easily connected to my home network, making it ready for Voice-over-WiFi calls via Truphone. A special download from the Nokia Europe web site made syncing the address book and calendar on my Mac a snap. The Nokia multimedia transfer utility (in beta for now) was simple enough to use and is a pretty decent music manager.
Plugging in a special USB cable (different connector compared to your typical cable) and attaching to my Macbook allowed me to easily transfer music purchased from Amazon Music Store and other MP3 files to the device. It took about four hours to fill it up, but I managed to get all my favorite tracks on the flash drive. I was all set to rock the casbah when reality set in.
The device behaved like a three-year-old throwing a tantrum. Unless this is an especially buggy device, N81 has to be one of the worst Nokia phones I have ever used and would be loathe to recommend it to anyone.
It is underpowered and the Symbian S60 OS behaves like Windows ME. Remember that piece of junk? Well this is worse. It takes more than 10 seconds to open a text message. Switching between applications is akin to me running — out of breath. One has to constantly reboot the phone to even make phone calls.
Sure, the music playback quality was flawless and even at full volume didn’t distort a bit. The regular stereo-headset jack worked with all sorts of headphones — Bose, Nokia, Shure and Ultimate Ears. And the tunes were crystal clear.
However, getting the music app (or any app for that matter) to open was a torture test. It was frustrating enough for me to not even test any of the other features, such as the video camera or Lifeblog or NGage gaming.
In comparison to the Nokia N95, or even the older N71 and N73 phones, N81 is pokey, and a major disappointment. It is going to be packed up and shipped back, pronto. Nokia, which often delivers phones that I love, has flubbed this one.