N-Gage QD

Keri takes a deep breath and evaluates Nokia's second attempt

"No more side talking - Talk the way your mother taught you"

Yes indeedy, no more looking like an idiot when talking on your mobile; in Nokia's own words: we talked, they listened. Or rather, we complained, and didn't buy it, so they sorted it out. And I have to say, it actually looks as though they've done a rather good job of it.

The N-Gage QD has all the useful features of the original model (with a touch of skimping on the mp3 playback, USB port and the radio, resulting in a marginally lower price) yet is noticeably smaller, a better shape, and, thank god, a much more user-friendly device all round, the cartridge slot - or the 'hot swap' as Nokia call it - now located apart from the battery compartment, which means no more opening-up-the-whole-thing-and-taking-out-the-battery milarky: QD lets you just slide the little sim-like cartridges into the slot on the bottom edge of the phone, and access immediate game play, simple as that. And, joy of joys, the ear-piece is on the front! No longer shall the Nokia owning mobile gamer have to slink away to a darkened corner before answering his phone to avoid the notoriously embarrassing 'you're speaking into a taco in public' scenario. The QD is so petite that it actually looks like a normal phone when in call mode, and the easy-to-use functionality for which Nokia are famous makes it a pleasant and handy little gadget. One word of advice though: do look at it properly before making calls. My other half complained of how quiet the speaker level was during calls even when turned up to full volume. I asked him to show me, and yes, it was surprisingly muted; not that surprising though, considering the berk had it the wrong way up. Subtlety is one of the QD's best design features, a grace my dear beloved clearly lacks.

And it is a subtle little minx of a tool. It still looks a little like a mini-GBA, but it's small enough to make it a slightly more portable alternative, being nearly half the size of the Nintendo GBA handheld (albeit closer in scale to the SP model). The newly designed front is compact almost to a fault: anyone with obese fingers might have a bit of a problem dialling or gaming as they mash about four keys with their swollen digits, but fortunately I am of the normal (if slightly stunted) finger size persuasion, and after a couple of minutes no longer found the keypad cramped, and indeed a damn sight easier to use than the circular keypad of my 3650. The new D-pad still offers eight way directional movement, but is smaller and more comfortable on the thumb. The main game keys (5 and 8) have protruding bubbles on them to make them distinct from them the other numbers, and there's now a separate selection key in the form of a tick to make selection from phone menus easier. Call buttons have also moved, being situated at either side of the bottom at the front; the only grievance which occurs with this is that because they fit in so well with the overall design, they're somewhat unnoticeable. A fact I discovered to my panic when (attempting) to answer an incoming call.

With all the handy little extras such as various folders, a screen-shot capture utility, calendar, SMS concatenation (no waiting for the other half of someone's message to never arrive, or getting the second half first), funky orange themed matrix-y menu and stand-by screen, an impressive 10 hours of gaming battery time, Bluetooth, WAP (over GPRS), alarm clock, butcher, baker, candlestick maker, it's all going rather well. But ah, alas, the screen. At 176 x 208 pixels, it's still the same size as its predecessor, and when looking at pictures and even in-game footage, it looks great. The 'brighter backlight' shows up the colours tremendously, and shows off the phone's image capabilities to the full. But the problem is that while it's a decent enough size, one can't quite get over the feeling that it's the wrong way around. To test its gaming abilities, we had a gander at EA titles The Sims Bustin' Out and FIFA 2004, and whilst we encountered no problems on the enjoyment front (due to the good graphics and generally fun game play) the experience was just a teeny bit hampered by the narrowness of the screen. In FIFA, passes along the wing feel limited by only being able to see tiny sections of the pitch, and in Bustin' Out's SimValley town, you can't help but want to 'bust out' of that thin strip of a screen and have a proper look around.

And this, I think, is where you start to encounter problems. For the screen to be wider a complete redesign would be necessary rather than the gentle tweaks that Nokia have provided us with in the QD; if the screen's wider, how are the keys arranged? To say that they are pretty stylishly cramped now is fair enough, but any more space-economy and things would be getting ridiculous. Yes, it's a lot of fun, and the games do benefit massively from Bluetooth multiplayer connectivity and online shenanigans, but when push comes to shove, its major selling point is also its fatal flaw: it's not just a game deck, it's a phone. And to improve one, it seems that you would ultimately be compromising the other. It's not that the two properties are incompatible; indeed, far from it: I'm sure we all cheer for the innovations distracting the mobile gaming populous from the aggravatingly addictive world of Snake (intriguingly omitted from the QD), and it's brilliant to game'n'go with just one handset rather than two. And indeed, if anything will make the N-Gage an even slightly tenable competitor for the more technologically advanced upcoming PSP and DS systems, it will be this two-in-one advantage.

Although damaged by the poor sales of the original N-Gage, the line-up of titles for 2004/5 still has some good looking games, and although many of them look suspiciously like ports, those which utilize the QD's unique capabilities best sound very promising - such as WWII strategy game Pathway to Glory, with hot-seat multiplayer, Bluetooth and, of course, N-Gage Arena multiplayer options as well as a single player story mode. Most games available for the deck have Bluetooth and online capabilities, and this is another notch on the proverbial gaming bedpost for Nokia over the GBA.

So, is it worth buying? Well, yes and no. If you like gaming, and you need a phone, then this is definitely the handset for you: sexily compact, easy to use, and most importantly, great fun. Much more 'mobile' than its clichéd 'jack of all trades, master of none' older brother, the QD accomplishes usability and gaming prowess with more than a little panache. For the hardcore gamer, however, who has both a phone and a bag big enough to carry both his mobile and a handheld in, I'd suggest considering whether to hold out for one of the new next-gen handhelds. Indeed, how much you like it (and therefore ultimately its success) will probably come down to your perception of its place in the mobile gaming market. The QD puts its predecessor to shame, fulfilling the necessary criteria brilliantly, but for now, at least in my mind, its competitors remain the other mobile phone manufacturers, and not the gaming giants of Sony and Nintendo. Whether consumers perceive Nokia as a serious 'gaming' company of this calibre, and come to see the N-Gage as a quality game deck irrespective of its capabilities as a phone, will be intrinsic to the QD's success. But if Nokia can pull enough good quality, original titles out of the gaming hat, I'm sure they'll have no trouble finding people to wear it. Ahem.

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