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Hands-on with the Nokia N81 8GB

Chris Ziegler

You might recall that we had the opportunity to spend a little time with a pre-production N81 back in August. We liked what Nokia had done for several reasons: one, we thought it was the most attractive Nokia we'd ever seen thanks to a glossy, metal flake shell and really tastefully done faux titanium accents. Two, even in prototype form, the slider was absolutely rock solid; no one would accuse the average Nokia of being shoddily constructed, but there's typically a little play in the hinges and doors. Not so with the N81, though -- it really does feel Vertu solid. It's a bit on the heavy side, yeah, but we'd gladly trade a little extra weight for the feeling that we're operating a meticulously crafted device in our hand. Three, the N81 offers a couple innovative controls that give it a little street cred for music and gaming -- a touch-sensitive ring that doubles as a traditional four-point directional pad (Nokia calls it the "Navi wheel") and buttons atop the display that make landscape N-Gage gaming a reality. Well, we're happy to report that everything that made the prototype great is still great in the retail version. Read on for our quick impressions.

Thanks to the good folks at Wireless Imports for the hookup!

Gallery: Hands-on with the Nokia N81 8GB | 27 Photos

By and large, the N81's plethora of controls works really well -- we were surprised at how few flubbed key presses we had. If anything, the four points on the Navi wheel are a little tricky to access without accidentally actuating the surrounding buttons, but we grew accustomed to it quickly. The phone also features a physical, sliding keylock -- a feature that we wish every phone had -- that simply toggles the phone's keypad lock functionality every time it's slid. This differs from the iPhone's physical keylock, for example, which has two distinct positions. Next to the keylock is a 3.5mm headphone jack. Yep, that's right, the jack's on top. Nice, eh? Aren't you N95 owners a little jealous right about now?

The full N-Gage app won't be available until next month, but the N81 comes preloaded with several demos that left us utterly impressed. This isn't your father's Snake, folks, and we think the screen shot here does a pretty good job illustrating that fact. Motion is smooth, the visuals are crisp, and we get the general impression that the games offered through N-Gage are going to be pretty immersive. The two buttons on top of the screen light up in gaming mode, beckoning the user to make user of the extra control.

Is the N81 the best Nseries ever? Certainly not; it lacks the N95's integrated GPS and packs a relatively lightweight 2 megapixel lens on its hindquarters, just to name a couple shortcomings -- and on the gaming front, the just-announced N82 is a force to be reckoned with. That doesn't mean it's not a compelling choice, though, especially in 8GB trim. If gaming's your thing, GPS isn't a priority, and the North Americans in the crowd can do without 3G, this shimmering slider is worth a look.

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