Nokia N80i

In my earlier review of the N70 I said: “Until a practical wi-fi SIP dual-mode phone comes along, the N70 will continue to serve my needs.”

On paper, one would have thought the N80i (or N80 Interner Edition) was the answer. Unfortunately, after the using the N80i for some time now, I have to say that, overall, it falls short of my Wi-fi and VoIP expectations.

As a GSM phone, the N80 is much like the N70, so most everything I said about that phone (good and bad) apply to the N80.

Nokia refers to the N-series as “multimedia devices” instead of phones. I guess this is their way of warning us that these phones will be (a) expensive and (b) harder to use than other phones. These phones are definitely for geeks (or power users) and not for the typical phone-oriented user. If a nice web brower and lots of data capabilities are not important to you and all you really want is a handy phone, the N80 is not for you. For example, for a pure phone, the venerable 6610 beats the N80i hands down: battery life, size, weight, speakerphone quality.

So to like this phone, one must have in mind the data capabilities because as just a phone, there are dozens of devices that will do a better job, especially for the cost of the N80i.

So below are some of the highlights, from my perspective, and in particular some of the marked differences over the N70:

Web browser. The N80’s web browser is really nice. On the N70, the built-in brower was pretty buggy and limited, but it had the Opera browser too, which was better. The N80 browser beats both of these handily. It’s the nicest small-screen browser I’ve found yet.

Battery life. As bad as the N70 was, the N80i is even worse. The biggest pain in the neck is that it is highly inconsistent and the battery indicator is almost useless. It will read 100% one moment and the phone will switch off the next. The N70 suffered the same problem, but the n80i seems even worse.

Wi-fi. The phone can use a Wi-fi access point for access to the Internet. I didn’t try connecting to a hot spot that required a web-signup. Presumably, it should work, since the N80i has a pretty capable browser.

VoIP. The phone can be configured for a SIP-based VoIP service. However, the settings are not user friendly. Most people are going to want to use one of the ‘canned’ VoIP services like Gizmo or Truphone. More on this below.

One of the coolest things I can do on this phone is check and listen to voicemail using the browser. This is where the multimedia capabilities of the phone really stand out for me. I browse to my web-based PhoneGnome voicemail, click the message I want to listen to, and the N80i plays it. For me, this is far more pleasant way than dialing a number and walking the voicemail IVR tree. I get the message I want with one click and no airtime used up.

VoIP and Wi-fi Issues

Right in line with Alec’s recent post about VoIP being too hard, Nokia has continued this trend with the N80i. One of the problems is that the phone has so many capabilities, that accessing them all, while still making the more common use easy, is tricky. And Nokia hasn’t even tried in this case. It takes far too much user interaction to select and configure an access point. And making a VoIP call is an absolute ordeal.

Every time you want to use a feature that requires access to the Internet, there are a dozen options for how the phone will behave. None of them are simple enough for regular people (a non-telco guru or gearhed) to understand. In most cases, the user is prompted to select an available ‘network’ which may be a GSM-based data service, like a GPRS account or it may be a Wfi-fi setup. This is geek territory for sure. Most users don’t even want to keep track of the difference. Nor do they want to be prompted. There should be an ‘automatic’ mode where the phone simply selects Wi-fi if possible and GPRS or whatever otherwise. Most users will be overwhelmed and frustrated with all these settings and prompts. I know this because I have let many non-geeks experiment with this phone, and the reaction is pretty common. I realize that this phone is targeted more toward geeks, but it’s interesting to see how unappealling it is to non-geeks.

Likewise for VoIP calls. When a user is confronted with one option, which is key a few digits in and press ‘Go’ to place a standard GSM call vs. all the hoops the Nokia N80i makes one jump through to place a ‘VoIP’ call, one has to REALLY want to place that VoIP call. This is way too much trouble for most users. When it takes a dozen extra actions to do the same exact thing (call a person) where is the value in VoIP? Throw in that the VoIP call may be flakey and the challenges of selecting Wi-fi above, making the whole thing a “plug and pray’ affair, and the added value question is even more diluted. When a VoIP call does fail, the user gets basically no useful feedback. I have to be out of minutes on my GSM plan, or placing a call to a location I know is MUCH cheaper on the VoIP plan, in order to be willing to jump through all those hoops. And I have to be at a Wi-fi hotspot in the first place, in which case perhaps placing the call on my PC is just as convenient.

As with the suggestion above of ‘automatic’ wi-fi, the phone should also have an option to automatically route the call via VoIP whenever it can, without me first selecting the hotspot and then clicking addtional menu options every time I want to place a call.

Today, Nokia hides some of the important settings (such as STUN setup) required to make VoIP accounts work with the N80i. They claim they will open this up later this year. This means that one can only use the SIP capabilities in certain situations with certain providers. What’s the motivation behind that? Is this a result of pressure from wireless carriers to hamstring the VoIP utility of the phone? Or is it to help their partners that have paid for the privilege of being able to set these ‘secret’ settings to give them a market advantage? Either way, it’s bad for users, and a nasty practice, IMHO.

Conclusion

The N80i is a step in the right direction. I’m thrilled that the phone has user-configurable SIP/VoIP setup and I look forward to Nokia opening up the full SIP capabilities of the phone, as they say they will, later this year. They could have introduced a totally closed, proprietary VoIP setup, and they elected not to. They deserve credit for that.

As good as the screen and web browser are with the N80i, I’m kind of surprised that, in practice, the utility of Wi-fi is more limited due to the small screen and lack of keyboard, than I would have expected. Be careful what you wish for. We want small screens and lightweight devices, so this is a trade-off we will have to live with.

Overall, the VoIP call experience must become vastly simpler and offer some additional value in order to be something mainstream users will use.

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