I’ve been using VoIP hardware and software since the mid-1990s. It’d be an understatement to say that I’ve grown cynical about the claims of telecom equipment vendors and service providers, but every now and then a product comes along that lives up to its hype. The Nokia N80i phone belongs in that categorgy. I’ve been putting it through its paces for about two months now, and indeed, using it as my primary phone. It’s an impressive product, and goes on sale in the US and Europe this month.
UPDATE: to avoid confusion, this review covers a not-for-sale prototype of the Nokia N80i, which is just starting to ship this week in the US and Europe, and not the N80, which has been available for a while (but does not support VoIP). If you are shopping for this phone, double check with merchants due to the similarity in model numbers and outward appearance. Link to Nokia announcement.
Michael Robertson of Gizmogave me a prototype Nokia N80i to test recently. It’s Nokia’s first cut at a true dual mode cellular/wifi handset, and while it’s not perfect, is an impressive product that is an indicator of great things to come.
The N80i is a multi-mode phone that works on GSM, UMTS and WiFi networks. It is a true, everything plus the kitchen-sink device, and includes:
* Worldwide support for GSM and UMTS cellular voice/data networks
* WiFi (802.11g, up to 54mbps) data service
* Symbian Series 60 mobile OS
* Built in SIP (session initiation protocol) stack, no separate VoIP client to download
* SIP is seamlessly integrated with the phone’s address book, just click a contact, then select Internet Call
* Built in 3 megapixel camera
* Integrated media player, with support for MP3 and AAC audio
* Ability to play and record video clips
* High contrast, high resolution display with high-res mobile web browser
* Built in POP3/IMAP client for mobile email
* Compact slider form factor (though a bit thick due to the camera)
As a cellular phone, the N80i is a great device. I had previously been using a Nokia 6680, which is also a Symbian powered smartphone. Nokia has done a good job of striking a balance in building a smart phone that is an excellent cell phone, and does not feel like a frankenstein device as the Treo and Blackberry products often do.
I use my mobile device primarily for the following services, in descending order:
* Making and receiving phone calls (most important)
* Text messaging
* Listening to music
* POP/IMAP email
* Web browsing (infrequent)
* Custom applications (almost never)
The N80i has all of these covered. Since it is a wifi/voip phone as well as a conventional mobile, I spent most of my time testing it as a VoIP device, using Gizmo, a SIP compatible VoIP service. Knowing how difficult VoIP services can be to configure to work with third-party hardware, I braced myself for a bad experience. I could not have been more pleasantly surprised.
I fetched a small helper applet from Gizmo (as simple as opening a web address in the phone’s browser). This helper app automated the process of configuring the phone to make VoIP calls. All I had to do was enter my Gizmo login credentials.
Then I selected a friend in the phone’s address book, click on Internet Call, and voila, it worked.
I’ve never had an easier experience with mobile phone software. To Nokia’s credit, baking SIP into the phone was a smart move. It eliminates the need to download a bulky VoIP client onto the phone, so all the user needs to do is configure it. This is a big achievement on Gizmo’s part. I’ve seen other mobile software companies struggle just to get a program to download, much less function reliably.
I have bad cellular coverage in my home office in San Francisco, and also spend a lot of time on the phone, enough to run up a $500 bill if I am not careful. I also have an office in Buenos Aires, and use VoIP extensively when I am there (I am writing this article from Argentina). I decided to use the N80i as my primary phone.
When I am at my home or Buenos Aires office, I make almost all outgoing calls via Gizmo Out, which works great if you have a good Internet connection. With a strong wifi signal, most calls were toll quality or close to it, definitely better than cellular in most cases. The main issue I have encountered with the N80 is that the SIP software on the phone is not 100% stable. My phone was a not-for-sale prototype, so I did not expect it to be bug free. The main problems I ran into were:
* Incoming calls did not ring the phone, but would ring other Gizmo clients (I assumed this was due to a bug or compatibility issue with Gizmo)
* If the phone lost a lock on the wifi network after I logged into Gizmo, it sometimes would not re-register with Gizmo, forcing me to power the phone off and back on again
* The phone would rarely lock up during a VoIP call, again requiring power off.
* No seamless cellular-wifi handoff.
* Needed to manually activate VoIP mode for best results (in theory the phone should auto-connect to Gizmo whenever a wifi signal is present but that was a bit flakey)
Compared to the Treo, I thought the N80i was actually a lot better, despite being clearly labeled as a prototype unit. When I was using a Treo 650, it would freeze up, reboot itself, or require a reset several times a day, so much that I ditched it in favor of a Nokia 6680, which worked great. I’ll be surprised if Nokia has not already fixed the above issues in its production phones. Even with these glitches, the phone is quite usable. I spent several hours per day on the phone (several thousand minutes of use during the test period), and found that as long as I had a strong wifi signal, the phone was quite reliable. I think most of the glitches were the result of the phone’s SIP software not handling marginal network conditions and re-logins very well. The battery life, especially with wifi active, was not very good, but I expected that to be the case.
I tested VoIP calls in a wide range of environments, including: my home office, backyard, several cafes with open wifi hotspots, my Buenos Aires office, and even did some wardialing calls from random street corners. As long as I got a medium to strong signal as indicated by the phone, VoIP over wifi worked great for me, even in public spaces (although the phone is very sensitive to background noise).
One of my main observations was that my Gizmo Out usage increased dramatically, even when I was in the US. I don’t like using a headset, so calling from my computer is not something I especially like. Making calls from a real handset, on the other hand, feels and sounds natural. I especially liked that Nokia integrated VoIP into the phone book, so making a VoIP call was no different than a regular cellular call.
The N80i has a long list of features. It’s also a pretty good camera (3 megapixels) for daytime photography, has a built in media player, POP3/IMAP client and the best mobile browser I’ve seen yet. Overall I found it to be a well designed and quite versatile device. Since I lost my iPod (again), I’ve been using the phone as an MP3 player, and also use it as an IMAP client for my hosted email account. The email client is especially useful, it doesn’t provide true “push” email like a Blackberry, but it’s good enough. If you really want push email, Nokia supports several email services, including Blackberry Connect and Visto among others.
If you’re looking for a great mobile/wifi phone to use with a SIP compatible VoIP service (Gizmo especially due to the integration work they’ve done), I think the N80 is a great product that while not perfect is the first truly useful dual-mode phone. The phone started shipping in Europe this week and is about to hit the US market. As far as I know, no carriers are selling it, so you’ll need to buy an unlocked phone. If you spend a lot of time on the phone, or make a lot of international calls, it will pay for itself pretty quickly.
More importantly, the N80i is a sign of what’s in the pipeline at Nokia. It’s a safe bet that they’ll be incorporating this technology in a wide variety of phones, while making incremental improvements along the way. They’ll start by adding WiFi VoIP in relatively high end phones, but I expect this to become a common feature, especially as innovative carriers like T-Mobile roll out integrated cellular/wifi voice services that eliminate the need for the customer to do any device configuration.
This also says a lot to support open standards over closed systems like Skype and is a big win for Gizmo. By supporting SIP, Nokia is able to work with any VoIP provider that supports the standard, and can bake VoIP into the phone and its applications, thus sparing the customer of the need to download a special client. Because of this design, all that’s needed is a small helper script to automate the process of configuring the phone. This makes a huge difference in terms of usability and user acceptance.
Overall… kudos to Nokia and Gizmo for making this work. It’s no small technical achievement, and they not only managed to make this work, but also to design a product that was a pleasure to use.