Apple’s iPhone recently planted its size nines on all the major mobile companies’ toes – and now it’s payback time. Nokia has decided to not only open a multimedia download service called Ovi but also resuscitate its N-Gage gaming platform. Two mobile hitmen have been nominated to usher in this new era – the smart N95 and, now, the slick, powerful N81.

While the N81 lacks its big bro’s multimedia and sat-nav might, this Symbian smartie still has a lot to offer, especially in the mobile music and gaming stakes. The theory is simple: Nokia has taken the core of the N91 8GB, transported it to a slicker looking, less clunky chassis and given it a feature polish.

Wheel of misfortune

The slider design is straight out of the 6110 Navigator school of gloss, although it looks less prosaic and far more striking. It also roughly shares its sat-nav stable mate’s vital stats but is incredibly hefty at 140g. It also bizarrely weighs more than the N95 8GB despite packing less power and features.

The N81’s over stuffed front keypad cause a few vexing moments. Firstly, the call keys are shunted to the edge but too close to the soft, menu and cancel keys and unwanted encroachment is common.

Secondly, the five-way mechanised joypad doubles as an iPod-esque touch Navi-Wheel that helps you trawl through the new look multimedia menu (this can be accessed via the dedicated front key) and your music library. But you really need to work it hard to get any response and with this lack of sensitivity we preferred it turned off. Nokia did, though, suggest that this may be due to the pre-production nature of our sample

Unfortunately, at the time of writing Nokia’s Ovi internet interface and new music store was shut but we managed to sample the delights of the N-Gage gaming. This is where the N81 excels, with dedicated gaming controls that enable two-handed handling in landscape mode. The Space Impact Light shoot'em up demo up looks glorious on the 16-million colour 2.4-inch display and the N81 already looks to be the best gaming phone out there.

Great gigabytes!

With 8GBs of flash memory at your disposal, the N81 knees the dedicated music player where it hurts. Luckily, the N81 has a slick music player to back up it up plus an integrated 3.5mm headphone jack to plug in your Sennheisers. The player is controlled via the front touch-sensitive keys and these are pretty responsive while your tunes are filed under the usual artist/album banners, including space for your podcasts and album artwork display.

Hooking up your own quality cans will wheedle the best sound out of the N81, with a five-band equaliser to enhance the sound (the Bass Booster setting gives it some welly) and plenty of volume. Naturally, it also supports Stereo Bluetooth for wireless action while the side mounted stereo speakers eschew the customary tinny weedy sound and blasts out an impressive meaty audio. Another nice touch is a top lock-switch to stop the front controls activating while in the pocket or bag.

Symbian stuffing

As a Symbian Series 60 smartphone you get all the standard OS trimmings. Full fat internet browsing is snappy over a 3G connection with built-in Wi-Fi on hand for the need for speed brigade. Of course, browsing the web will drain the battery but it stands up well to prolonged music playing while Nokia is quoting six hours of gaming time.

With music and gaming top priority, the camera’s megapixel allocation seemingly suffers. The N81 is regrettably fitted with only a fixed focus, 2MP lens. For such a powerful phone this seems woefully short but it takes decent enough snaps and the power LED light helps out in low light. Video recording hits VGA quality heights but not the 30fps on the N95. Instead it shoots at 15fps but the performance is still better than most phones out there.

Where you could argue the upcoming N95 8GB has its fingers in too many pies, the N81 focuses fully on music and mobile gaming to deliver a compelling experience in both camps while revitalising the N-Gage platform into the bargain. It’s just not quite the all-conquering PSP and iPod rival we’d hoped for.

Stuff says... 

Nokia N81 review

The N81 8GB shows how the mobile music and gaming gig should be done, but won't give the PSP and iPod sleepless nights