Rafe's First Impressions of the Nokia N-Gage

First impressions of the Nokia N-Gage.

Introduction

I've been playing with an N-Gage for the last 4 days (thanks to Nokia for the loan). Here is my first impression review. In time I'll add to this or post an extended review. In the mean time I've written down what my impressions are. I think the important thing to remember about the N-Gage is that it is going to be different things to different people, and people's opinion will depend on their perspective.

My perspective is someone who has used Symbian and smartphone before. On the other hand I'm not that much of a gamer. Sure I've tried a Gameboy, Gamegear and others in my time. I have played games on my 3650 and my P800 and therefore I do have background knowledge of mobile gaming. But I'm not a mad keen gamer (you know the sort of person who has a loader for their Gameboy, who buys import games etc. etc.). Therefore with the N-Gage I'm not just looking at a Gaming device, despite the fact that Nokia market it primarily as a game deck, but also a phone and a Symbian device.

I'll come out at the beginning and say that I like this device. It's not perfect by any means, but on the whole I'm more impressed than I ever thought I would be. Now we've got that confession out the way (and I can already hear the N-Gage detractors starting to heckle), there's something I would like to say about what other people thought.

In preparing to write this review I went and read what other people thought. Having actually used the device I was surprised at how much negativity there was in most of them. Sure there are problems (we'll come to those in a moment), but even so people have concentrated on the negative. It actually made me stop and think - was I being caught up in the hype of a new device - was I missing the over all badness of it. The conclusion I've come to is that it's partly that I am more favorable disposed to it because I recognize its strength as a Symbian Series 60 device (it adds a whole raft of functionality just by being Series 60), however it also partly that a lot of gamers (and people reviewing the N-Gage) are gaming snobs. That's a bit harsh perhaps - what I mean is I think there's been reluctance to see the N-Gage for what it is - an innovative entrance to the mobile gaming market from Nokia. Despite what everyone says (including Nokia) the N-Gage is a lot more than a gaming device. In deciding whether you want one you should remember this.

Game Deck

So what is the N-Gage like a gaming machine? Mixed is the answer. The actual unit is nice. It's smaller than it looks in pictures. The device isn't very deep so it actually feels small and slips into a pocket more easily than say the P800. The screen is bright and backlit - it's not as good as some PDA's I've used. The fact that it's Series 60 resolution means there's actually quite a lot of pixels in a small area which means games look good on the screen. The fact that the screen is taller than it is wide takes a bit of getting use to. However for some games it's a great advantage - anything that scrolls down from top to bottom for example, and when you have a 3D environment its much better having the extra height. At the same time the width is never really an issue - probably because the games have been designed with that in mind - that said keeping up with Sonic can be difficult.

There are really only 3 buttons that you'll use regularly in a lot of games - the control pad (four ways and click down), and the two main game playing keys (numbers 5 and 7 on the keypad). These are raised so they are easy to find. I found the tactile feedback very nice. The control pad is poor compared to the joystick controls you get on the modern consoles but is better than a Gameboy or any Series 60 device I've used (good thing too!). The best thing about it is that it is responsive - you do not have to kill your fingers. Compared to say the 3650 I didn't have any sore fingers after a prolonged gaming session. It's not perfect, but it worked well for me. In some games other buttons are used (e.g. Tomb Raider), this is where having a full phone keypad really comes into its own. Rather than some complex combination of button presses (or even worse game intelligence deciding that a button should do x at time y) you can press one of the subsidiary buttons and get what you want. Lara pulls her guns when you want to not when the game wants you to!

I didn't have another deck to suss out the Bluetooth stuff, but I'm sure it's great. It's certainly good for getting screenshots (for which there is a built in program BTW) to your PC quickly and easily.

The sound was good. It improves if you plug in a headset (and doesn't annoy housemates). Some of the games could do better in the sound department but the device itself is good. It seems to have a decent depth to it compared to the tinny sounds you usually get with mobiles.

Switching games. Ahhh. You have to take the back of the device, remove the battery and only then can you switch over the MMC card. It's a bit of a pain in the neck. But it doesn't take long and it keeps the MMC secure. It would be better if you didn't have to remove all the bits (you get visions of loosing the battery down the back of the bus seat). But it's no big deal at the end of the day. It's not like it makes playing games worse. I rather like having the MMC nice and secure. The fact you have to reboot to start a new MMC game not that much of a pain either. It was 22 seconds for me, and about 40 seconds all in (from switch off to game load).

The battery life does take a bit of a hit when you're playing games, but it did about 6 hours for me. Incidentally the battery is the same as a 3650 so when I was out and about I swapped them across and kept on playing. It's too early to say anything scientific about battery life, but it wasn't an issue for me.

Other Media Functions

Much has been made of the fact the device is also an MP3 player and has a built in Radio. Yes they work. MP3 player is fine (especially if you have a large memory card), but with MMC only readily available at 128MB you are not going to be using this regularly as your main MP3 player I'd have thought. Still it's nice it's built in from the beginning. The radio on the other hand is really rather nice. It is not something you need, but as an extra it is nice. I often carry a small radio with me and so this would make a major plus point for me.

The fact that the N-Gage does not have a camera is a bit of a shame. It is a missed opportunity and given how small these things are getting I can't believe it would have added that much to the devices size. With camera phones becoming common place it is something I would have expected. Still it's likely an add-on camera will be released before too long.

Series 60 Device

It is easy to overlook the fact that you've got a full Series 60 device with the N-Gage. After all the glamour is in the games and the media function. What it means though is you've got a full set of PIM applications. These are the same as on the 3650, but for those who haven't seen them before there's a few screenshots below.

You've also got an XHTML browser which is good for accessing information on the move. Having used it on the 3650 extensively I haven't got any complaints. If you want full web browsing you can get Opera which works without problems on the N-Gage (some people have had memory issues on other Series 60 handsets but this is less apparent on the N-Gage).

You've also got a full e-mail client with support for POP and IMAP. You are never going to enter vast long e-mails, but for reading e-mail on the move and short replies its great.

You've got the Contacts program which ties in with the phone and e-mail client and acts fine as an address book too. Then there are tasks and the other standard applications.

Of course you can add 3rd party programs too. Given this is a gaming device emulators of other gaming machines are bound the popular. Commodore 64, Spectrum and Gameboy are among those available. This opens up 100's of other games even if the legal position is not entirely clear. Other things that might be added are Instant Messaging, IRC client, PDF Viewer. There's already a plentiful supply of Series 60 applications that will work fine with the N-Gage.

I think that downloading small midlets over the air will be a popular with the N-Gage. If you want a new game you might not want to splash out on the more expensive MMC card, but how about a £3 midlet. It won't last as long, but in terms of keeping thing fresh and ease of purchase it does not get any better than OTA.

In general usage the control pad means that moving around is better than any other Series 60 device. The problems are given its shape you need to use it two handed. That said given its pocketable nature and the ease of moving around, the standard keypad, and the media extras I would say that this is a serious contender as a smartphone, as a pure Series 60 device, even completely ignoring the gaming side of things.

As a Phone

In order to use the device as a phone you have to hold the phone to your head on its side. You look slightly silly doing this (though not really that much more than those big boom things). You can always use the supplied headset. Tapping out SMS is easy and with the traditional grid pattern on the phone keypad people aren't going to have the same problems as the 3650 with its circular layout. As a phone it works well, I've always been a fan of the ease of use and power that Series 60 brings to telephony functions and the N-Gage benefits greatly from that.

Games

The N-Gage has launched with some well known franchises backing it up. In all around 10 games are going to ready at launch or just after, and this number is expected to double by Christmas. I've had a chance to play Tomb Raider, Puyo Puy, Sonic N, and Super Monkey Ball. I'll briefly say what I thought of each one. After all at the end of the day with the N-Gage success or failure depends on how good the games are - nothing else really matters. Because there's I only had access to one device I couldn't test multiplayer functions which I think will make all the difference in a lot of cases. Therefore the comments below apply to the single player functions.

Puyo Puy is a game in the style of Tetris - things dropping down form above - arrange them in a certain way to make them disappear. We've all played this type of game. On their own they are not that great, but as a two player games they shine. The same is true of Puyo Puy. Gameplay is slick and the graphics are fine, but its just not that a complex a game to rave about.

Super Monkey Ball is one of those games that you don't really get until you've played it. The basic concept is guiding a monkey in a ball round courses collecting bananas. The trouble is its quite easy to fall off the edge into the abyss. It's surprisingly addictive and I was playing this one till late at night. The 3D environment makes for more involving gameplay and when you consider you're playing on a mobile device it is impressive. As you play the games you unlock mini games. These range from Monkey Race to Monkey Fight. They are a nice touch that adds a little extra to the value.

SonicN is a good game, not great, not a killer game, but really enjoyable. I've played Sonic games before and this is one of the slickest I ever used. You can play as Sonic or one of his pals through various levels. After some fairly sustained game play I think I got to the last level with Sonic, but there are numerous ways through each level and I think I've done it by getting minimal points. The nice thing about sonic is it's easy to play and for a mobile game that really is important.

Tomb Raider has received a lot of attention because of its graphics. There's no denying that this is impressive. After all there do not seem to be much differences between this a PSOne version. I only got a little way into the game. It takes a while to get use to the controls, and because some of the additional buttons are used there are a few more keys that you need to remember. It's a good thing though as you have a lot more control that in the typical 3rd person game. I've shown the N-Gage to a couple of friends and this is the game that makes them go wow... I had trouble getting it back at times.

In general the games seemed polished, but I do wonder if there's a platform signature title missing. Think of Nintendo and you think of Mario. The N-Gage is perhaps that mature yet, and it needs to build up a catalog of games quickly. However if the quality of the released games matches those of the one I've tried there wont be any problems. These are among the most impressive mobile games I have ever played. It remains to be seen whether they'll be good enough to make the N-Gage succeed.

Conclusion

The N-Gage is an impressive device. I am seriously considering using this instead of a 3650. I think that it's better as a Series 60 device in some ways (the two handed usage being the main downer). As a gaming device I was impressed. Its takes games on a mobile phone to a different level. Compared to the Gameboy I think the hardware is about equal, on the games front the N-Gage need to gain more titles to match the huge back catalog of the Gameboy. Whether that happens remains to be seen. The launch games are good although there is nothing outstanding.

Although this is meant to be primarily a gaming device the fact you've got Series 60 as well means this device is so much more. With 3rd party software it has even more potential.

The N-Gage is a converged device. Combining game deck with smartphone, and media functions this device is exceedingly good value. Whether you want to combine them is up to you, but for me it couldn't be any better.


Published by Rafe Blandford at 10:34 UTC, August 12th

Section: Articles
Categories: Comment, Hardware
Platforms: Series 60, N-Gage