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Quality Time With Nokia’s N-Gage

Somewhere between listening to its FM radio and piloting my primate in Super Monkey Ball, I fell in love with Nokia’s N-Gage. An ambitious little handset, N-Gage ups the ante for mobile gaming and music, connectivity, and organization. Everyone from the young gaming nut to the business executive could benefit from this all-in-one device.

The design philosophy behind the N-Gage is sound. The handset’s look and feel is modeled after Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance, which currently dominates the handheld market. The N-Gage’s minor problems stem from Nokia’s failure to achieve a balance between the needs of a mobile phone and a gaming platform.

As a Cell Phone

It’s physically awkward to talk on the N-Gage unless you use Nokia’s proprietary dual-input headset or its amazing two-way Bluetooth earpiece. The microphone and speaker are located on the side of the device, rather than on the back. Forget about cradling the thing between your head and your shoulder—it juts out at an odd angle from your ear.

As a Gaming Machine

The N-Gage sports a big, bright screen, and its vertical orientation doesn’t bug me as much as I thought it would. Its fairly responsive and well-situated buttons support chording, with the “5” and “7” keys beveled a bit above the rest of the keypad for easy pressing. Surprisingly, after a little play, I didn’t miss the shoulder buttons as dearly as I thought I would. However, the method for changing game cartridges is probably the N-Gage’s biggest design flaw (see sidebar). You have to turn off the phone, open the back, pop out the battery, depress a little plastic tab, and slide in the cartridge. It’s like having to change your PC’s RAM every time you want to play another game. This type of oversight is an example of Nokia’s newcomer status in the console manufacturing world.

As an Audio Love Machine

Using MMC cards as flash memory, the N-Gage can store and play MP3 files (transferred via the N-Gage’s USB port) and record music directly from the built-in FM radio, a welcome bonus. Lack of an external antenna doesn’t hurt phone reception, but it does seem to limit the N-Gage’s RF reception. You can compose music using a built-in midi sequencer and write real sheet music, though only in the treble clef and only in preprogrammed time signatures. The music editor does, however, support thirds and staccato notes.

Instead of a standard 1/8th-inch headphone jack, the N-Gage uses two 2.5mm jacks—one for the phone headset and the other for stereo audio. While the device comes with a decent pair of earbuds and an attached omnidirectional microphone, sticking to the standard jack would have let me keep my Sony MDR 7506s, and would have avoided the annoyance of plugging the headset into the wrong jack.

Conclusion

The N-Gage has met with a torrent of skepticism from the same people who claim to be die-hard mobile gaming fans. This outcry may be a reaction to the intense hype, but it’s unwarranted. The N-Gage is a first-generation device. Early adopters will have to deal with some mild annoyance, but the emphasis is on mild. With all that N-Gage offers, it’s worth a serious look.

BY AVERY SCORE

Copyright © 2003 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Computer Gaming World.





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