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Nokia N81 – hands on

[intro]The new 8GB smartphone has landed on my desk, full of N-Gagey goodness. Yes, I did say goodness[/intro] So, Nokia's N-Gage is reborn. Fortuna

[intro]The new 8GB smartphone has landed on my desk, full of N-Gagey goodness. Yes, I did say goodness[/intro]

So, Nokia’s N-Gage is reborn. Fortunately, the new incarnation is nothing like those two previous console-wannabe phones; this time, it’s a software portal for games, running on N-series handsets and pre-loaded for the first time on the new Nokia N81.

And now that the N81 has arrived on my desk, I can finally get to play it. Or at least, I can play with the demo application that tells me I can download the full N-gage software when it’s ready. D’oh! I’ve been waiting for this for almost 18 months now… 

The good news is that the N81 has been designed with gamers in mind, and the earpiece doubles as a left-hand button for landscape gaming. The demo games look good, too, but I’m still waiting on a confirmation of the full launch date.

The N81 features some other neat interface touches, such as ‘smart keys’. Smart keys, in case you don’t know, are keys that have little icons inside them that only light up when they can be used – open the music player and little ‘play’ and ‘forward/reverse’ icons appear. The ‘menu’, ‘C’ and selection buttons are illuminated on the picture above. Doesn’t sound groundbreaking, I know, but it works well.

Otherwise, the N81 is very similar to the N95, but shorn of its sat-nav features (though you can still download Nokia maps). My review handset has 8GB of memory, although you can get a cheaper, memory lite version and use micro SD card. Either way, you can load up the revitalised music player with tracks and plug your headphones directly into the N81’s 3.5mm jack. You can even – joy of joys – copy across DRM’d Windows Media tracks. Finally, I can start making use of this Napster subscription.

Problems? Well, the camera is only 2MP but it does have a flash. More worryingly, the phone has the familiar Nokia waistline – as you can see from the comparison pic with the iPhone below, it ain’t thin. The N81 feels more solidly made than the N95, though, and despite the plasticky finish it has a refreshingly solid clunk-click sliding mechanism (is it only me that worries about these things?)

One final bugbear/feature: the N81 is the first phone I’ve come across to be infected by the infuriating Ken Burns virus effect – that slideshow animation that zooms in and out of pictures instead of showing you the whole thing, as if you’re watching some crummy History Channel documentary. Apple is to blame for popularising Ken Burns, and everyone wants to be Apple at the moment – but Nokia, you’re copying the wrong bits!

But hey, I’m a forgiving gadget lover – and I’ve got a lot of time for the N81 8GB. Let’s see how it survives a few days in my pocket…