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Hands-on with the Nokia N81

For the last few days I've been carrying Nokia's answer to iPhone with me — the 8G N81 entertainment phone.  Piano black with brushed aluminum, and a slick slider, it feels solid and comfortable in the hand.  Moreover, it's stuffed with finishing touches like the individual buttons that illuminate on demand for particular applications.  The N81 is a gorgeous device. 

Others have compared this device to the N95, but really it's a successor product to the N91 music phone.  The N91 used a 4G hard disk to store the music; the N81 has 8G of solid state storage.  Like the N91, this phone hides the numeric keypad under the slider.  The slider itself has all of the music controls exposed on the outside, which makes it easy to browse, select and play music.

The media applications are activated via a brushed aluminum button on the front of the phone.  In a nod to Apple, the ring around the D button is also touch sensitive.  When using the media applications, this capability is activated, allowing you to brush your finger around the ring to make selections.  It's cool, but not as well implemented as the iPod.

Like most recent N-series phones, the N81 also sports WiFi.  Early indications are that it may be more power efficient than prior N-series phones, though.  In addition, although Truphone will tell you that their Series 60 client software isn't certified for the N81, it runs just fine.  Within a few minutes of installing it, I was making and receiving calls over the Truphone network.

The N81 also sports a game pad interface, for use with a suite of games that Nokia is planning to market under the nGage brand.  I found the pad a little stiff. Not being a hard core gamer, I don't know if this would be a problem or not.  The nGage site itself is not yet online, however Nokia is promising early December.

Like the nGage site, the Nokia music store isn't online yet either, except in the UK.  However, the music experience is much cleaner than previous Nokia phones. Synchronizing music with Windows Media was a breeze.  In 90 minutes I downloaded 7 gigabytes of music to the device without any hiccups.  The sound quality is excellent, even with the supplied earbuds.  Nokia also has bluetooth stereo headphones available for those who want to be unplugged.

The N81 is $629, and available direct from Nokia.

No doubt this is a beautiful phone.  However, unless you're a hardcore music or gaming fan, you may find that the 8G N95 is more to your liking.  The N95 sports a 5 megapixel camera as compared to the lowly 2 megapixel camera on the N81.  In addition, the N95 has a built-in GPS, and a pretty good media player.  So, are the gaming and music features of the N81 enough to win customers over?  Only you can tell.  But whether you choose the N95 or the N81, they're both amazing phones.

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