Why is it that so many mobile phones are almost perfect, but none can quite achieve perfection? I'm not talking about "You can't please all of the people all of the time" type imperfection, either. I'm talking about design and functionality choices that leave me scratching my head and asking, "What were they thinking?"
The Nokia N80 is a perfect example of the incredible frustration caused by an almost perfect product. With a 3 megapixel camera, high-resolution display, Symbian OS, and built-in WiFI, the N80 looks to be the perfect phone — on paper. But once in hand, I found two of the N80's flaws, in particular, annoying enough to make me pull my SIM card and put the phone back in its box.
Granted, I took the N80's $599 retail price into account when considering said flaws. So don't get me wrong: the N80 is a seriously powerful device with alot going for it. But if you spent $600 on a mobile phone, you'd want perfection, too, right?
The N80 is a little brick of a cell phone. Measuring 95 x 50 x 26 mm, the all-black slider is half as thick as it is wide. This gives the handset what another review called a "short, stout" appearance. While the N80's footprint is relatively small, it's size and mass are more than noticeable in hand, let alone in a pants pocket. In an age of ever-thinner mobile handsets, the N80 is an anomaly for how thick it is.
The front panel of the N80 is largely given over to a roomy screen, which is one of the device's strong points. Above the display is a front-mounted VGA camera intended primarily for 3G video calls in Europe and Asia. Beneath the display, a directional pad is flanked by four buttons: left and right softkeys, Send, and Cancel. A row of four more keys - Edit, Menu, Multimedia, and Clear - lies beneath that. The front panel also slides upward to reveal a standard 12-button dialing keypad.
On the back of the phone, the 3MP camera sensor is housed along with a camera light and macro mode slider switch. The bottom portion of the back panel slides off to reval the battery and SIM card slots.
A single button on the top panel of the N80 controls power and profiles and sits adjacent to an infrared sensor, while the bottom panel houses separate AC adapter and Pop Port jacks. The left-side mounted miniSD memory card slot is covered with a plastic cap, and a dedicated camera button is found on the right side of the phone.
The N80's buttons are generally excellent, yielding good tactile feedback, with two exceptions. First, the directional pad lacks a center button, instead requiring the user to depress the entire pad to trigger the select command. This resulted in several annoying mis-hits during testing. Second, the top row of the dialing keypad is a little bit cramped as a result of the sliding mechanism and relatively thick top half of the phone.
Overall, the N80's design would be fine if it weren't so darned thick. The all-black look of the version I tested has a classy, all-business look to it, and the device is also available in silver. The length and width of the handset are great, and the slider mechanism works well. But the N80 is just too thick for me. While it does pack quite a bit of functionality, I think Nokia would have done well to take a cue or two from Samsung's slider phones and make the phone a little longer and wider for the sake of shaving a good 5mm or so off of its depth. As it is now, the N80 really feels like a brick in a jacket or pants pocket. Forgive my obvious bias here, but that's a deal-breaker for me when we're talking about a $600 cell phone that doesn't have a QWERTY board.
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The N80 is one of Nokia's most feature-packed handsets, with equal emphasis on connectivity and multimedia options. In fact, I'm hard pressed to think of any mobile without a QWERTY board that does all of the things the N80 does.
Nokia's Series 60 interface running atop Symbian OS 9.1 powers the N80's many applications, including a full-featured media player that can handle mp3, AAC/eAAC+, WMA and FM stereo audio, mpeg4 and Real video, Flash animations, and jpeg photos in individual or slideshow views. Videos and still images alike rendered spectacularly on the N80's high-resolution display.
The music player performed excellently, and the included Pop Port adapter lets you connect standard 3.5mm stereo headphones to the N80 (a decent stereo headset with in-line microphone is also included). Music quality was on par with Sony Walkman phones - and rivaled that of my iPod - with quality earphones and use of the built-in graphic equalizer. The music player also handles m3u playlist files, which is a handy feature.
Personal Information Management (PIM) features on the N80 are extensive, and the Calendar and Messaging apps particularly benefit from the Series 60 UI's Active Standby feature. A row of application shortcut icons is displayed on the standby screen above a list of timely alerts (appointments, new messages, etc.). Both sets of information are, of course, customizable.
The N80 also features an "endless" phonebook whose number of entries is limited only by the memory available on the handset. Meticulous records are automatically kept of incoming, outgoing, and missed calls, as well as all packet data and WLAN sessions.
A suite of office tools including QuickOffice also comes pre-installed on the N80. QuickOffice allows for mobile viewing of MS Office documents and files in other common formats, though it does not support editing. Two games also come pre-installed on the handset: Card Deck (a suite of card games), and the visually impressive if rather difficult Snakes 3D.
As with any Symbian phone, part of the N80's true power lies in its expandability. A host of compatible applications are available for download from various Symbian Websites, and while Symbian is not as popular as Windows Mobile or Palm in the United States, it has spawned quite a robust developers' community worldwide. A little Googling will yield a wide range of N80-compatible programs from games to multimedia and productivity apps.
Nokia. why a 3 megapixel camera but no auto-focus? Why, I ask you, why? To classify the N80 as a "business phone" and drive sales of the N73 as a "multimedia phone," perhaps? That's no excuse - if you're going to give a phone 3 megapixels, give it autofocus, too!
Business phone or not, the N80's calling card is as much as a multimedia powerhouse as a Symbian smartphone, and its 3 MP shooter is one of it's highlights. But I also found it a needless source of frustration due to the lack of autofocus.
With a steady hand, you can coax great shots out of the N80, and the integrated Wi-Fi (with UPnP compatibility) and Bluetooth connectivity make it easy to share those photos wirelessly. However, the manual focus meant too many blurry photos for my tastes during testing. The inclusion of a manual macro slider and software that rotates the N80's screen to landscape mode for use as a viewfinder helps the camera's cause somewhat, but I still wish it had autofocus.
Myriad software adjustments include shooting mode, resolution, brightness, contrast, color tone, exposure and white balance settings, and the N80's automatic white balance mode performed exceptionally well. The camera also features a fairly handy LED light with a red-eye reduction option (though not a true flash), and a self-timer mode. Another drawback, however, is the camera's full two-second shutter lag, during which you must hold the handset steady in order for your photo to come out as planned.
The N80 also comes with Kodak Mobile software preinstalled. The software utilizes a GRPS or WiFi internet connection to access Kodak's online photo sharing and printing services, allowing you to post images to the Web and order prints of your photos, all from your phone.
A second, front mounted camera is limited to VGA resolution and lacks a light. Though of most use to users in Asia and Europe with access to 3G video calling, the front camera is also handy here in the States for self-portraits.
The N80 can also record video at resolutions up to CIF (352x288) using the main camera. Video is recorded with sound, and length is only limited by the amount of free memory available on the device.
The 2.1" TFT screen on the N80 is astounding. With an ultra-high resolution of 352 x 416 pixels at 262,000 colors, the display is almost on par with the jaw-dropper on Nokia's E70. Images, videos, web pages - it all looks good on the N80, and (as on the E70) you'll be amazed at how very small text is actually readable when its rendered so crisply.
Nokia's Series 60 interface is clean and easy to navigate, offering a more PC-like experience than most mobile phones. Menus are viewable as lists or grids, and submenus are intuitive and logically laid-out. Themes, wallpapers, and text are all user-customizable, as is the previously mentioned Active Standby screen. The phone also features an ambient light sensor which automatically adjusts the screen's brightness to suit external conditions.
It's hard to imagine a better mobile phone display than the one on the N80 - unless you've seen the E70 and it's 16 million colors. Anyone looking for a mobile handset for use as a serious business tool must regard a top notch display as a high priority. Continual viewing of Email, Web pages, and office documents on a 2" screen demands high resolutions and crisply rendered text to help stave off eye strain. The N80 succeeds in this regard as well as anything its size.
I tested the N80 on T-Mobile's network in the San Francisco Bay Area. A Quad-Band GSM handset, the N80's performance was uniformly excellent. Audio was clear on both mine and the other end of calls, and the phone had volume to spare whether on standard or speakerphone mode.
The N80 comes with a wired stereo headset with an in-line microphone that worked quite well for voice calls and also pumped out decent stereo music. An included Pop Port to 3.5mm adapter allows for the use of any stereo headset, and my tests with Etymotic ER-6i earbuds yielded excellent results. Unfortunately, the adapter does not feature an in-line microphone, so I had to unplug the headphones for voice calls.
Bluetooth headsets are supported, though A2DP stereo over Bluetooth is not. The N80 paired easily with a headset and voice quality during calls was quite good.
The N80 has support for SMS, MMS, and IM messaging. Messaging is available through cellular service as well as WiFi WLAN networks. Use of the pre-installed IM client requires a bit more configuration than what's necessary on your standard T-Mobile or Cingular branded phone, but the third-party Agile Messenger client for S60 provides "off the shelf" support for AOL, Yahoo!, MSN, and ICQ instant messaging.
Composing SMS and MMS messages on the N80 was straightforward, but as the top row of the dialing keypad butts up against the edge of the phone's top half, extended messaging was a bit frustrating. In other words, I kept hitting my thumb on the N80's housing when pressing the 1, 2, and 3 keys. Nokia's predictive text input system worked well and provides a handy display of how many characters as you're composing a message.
The included Email client supports multiple POP3 and IMAP accounts, though it does not support BlackBerry Connect push email. The messaging application will, however, continuously check for and download new email headers if you leave it running in the background.
Internet access is a highlight of the N80. Between its best-in-class Web browser and WiFI, EDGE, and GPRS data connectivity options, this handset has serious mobile data capabilities. Nokia built the N80 with the same stellar Web browser found on the E70. Based on Apple's Safari browser, it takes full advantage of the N80's high-res display to offer a near-PC browsing experience and also offers the page overview feature I raved about in my review of the E70.
A quad-band GSM handset, the N80 supports the 850/900/1800/1900 bands as well as GPRS and EDGE data transfer. The N80 also features support for European 3G networks on the WCDMA 2100 MHz band, but is not compatible with 3G networks in the U.S. The phone is suitable for use abroad on T-Mobile and other GSM networks, and comes with a European voltage charger that requires an adapter for use in American households.
The N80 also features integrated WLAN connectivity with support for 802.11b/g networks including WEP encryption and WPA. Connecting to any available network was easy via the Connections Manager application, and WiFi reception was quite good for a mobile device. Note that extended use of the WiFi antenna does put quite a strain on the battery.
Bluetooth includes support for audio devices as well as file transfer and syncing. I had no trouble pairing the N80 with a mono headset or my computer. The phone features an AC adapter jack as well as a single Pop Port that's used for the included wired hands-free earpiece and USB data cable.
The phone has 40MB of internal memory available for file storage and also features a miniSD slot for expansion via removable memory cards. A 128MB micniSD card is included in the retail package.
Make no mistake, Nokia's N80 mobile phone is a seriously impressive device. Combining a Quad-Band GSM phone with EDGE (and European 3G) support, WiFI connectivity, a flexible media player, and an excellent high-resolution screen is no mean feat. Throw in a 3 megapixel camera and you've got the perfect mobile for the power user who doesn't need a QWERTY board, right?
Almost. While the N80 is smaller in terms of length and width than most every phone that approaches its feature set, it's awfully thick. At 26mm, or just over 1" thick, the N80 is bulky in hand or in a pocket. This might not bother you as much as it did me, but it's worth getting to play with an N80 in person before shelling out $600 for one of your own.
My other qualm with the N80 lies in its 3 MP camera. While the camera is capable of taking excellent photos, it suffers from noticeable shutter lag and, more importantly, lack of autofocus. As such, it loses out to other 3 MP cameraphones - the Nokia N93 and N73 and SE K790a come to mind - when it comes to both user-friendliness and image quality.
All of that being said, the N80 is a powerful, flexible business device well-suited to the power user. However, the N80 has some stiff competition from other multimedia phones and smartphones, though few of them combine such a high-resolution camera with WiFi connectivity. If you can live with its size and have a steady hand for picture taking, the N80 is definitely worth a look.
Author: Noah Kravitz