30 Minutes with the N-Gage

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30 Minutes With the Nokia N-Gage.

Welcome to the first "30 Minutes With..." Device Review. These are not going to be the in depth reviews of Symbian OS Phones, but more the initial impressions I have after a short time with them. Not a fixed 30 minutes, but generally after a day or two. First up, Nokia's N-Gage Mobile Gaming Deck.

Phone or Console?

Half the problems with the N-Gage (physically) come down to the 'is it a phone or a console' question. Now I don't want to start worrying about why something new automatically has to be pigeon-holed, but my take on this is simple.

It needs a SIM card. Therefore it's a phone. If it was a console first, it would ship off-line with a dummy SIM card, or the off-line profile would work sans SIM. Therefore it's a phone.

Now, the fact that it has a button layout that fits nicely into a two handed grip, and has space for large capacity MMC cards to hold a lot of data, is an added bonus. I don't think that anything physically makes a big enough distinction from a souped up phone that has a nice two handed hold. Of course, this area is murky, as Nokia have followed a games licencing model from the Console industry, a shipping model from the phone industry, and the mechanics of changing game cartridges from Erno Rubik.

Ah yes, changing the Game Cards. I've already decided the N-Gage is a phone (that happens to play games very well, and has extra storage just for these games), so theres an element of understanding why it is like this, but I can't accept it in a final product. The Siemens SX-1 had the same design flaw in it's prototype stage. Now the production model has an elegant sliding door/tray system, hot swappable cards, in fact everything the N-Gage should have. Hmm, perhaps it's time to licence back that bit of technology from Munich to Finland?

Don't go blaming the design. You could spin the card 90 degress, and I don't see any electronics between the card space and the top slot of the device. Nor should you blame the Operating System. Symbian OS can happily live with hot swapping MMC cards - Nokia managed it on the 9210 Communicator!

I can just about live with it if everything else on the N-Gage lives up to it's promise. So, let's blame the PR and Marketing department with their surveys. There are some nice people inside Nokia who help this site a lot, and I'd hate to tar them all with the same lack of foresight.

Button Schizophrenia

And here's my biggest problem with the N-Gage. I think the quality of later game releases is going to make the console in spite of the design flaws Nokia have gifted it. What gets me the most is the fact that the buttons keep changing what they do!

Hear me out: on the standard Series 60 screen, you select things and do things with the 'push down' on the cursor. It's a bit awkward, especially as your thumb is already in the classic fire position over button '5.' And that's what most Game Cards realise, so '5' )and '7') act as the main buttons during games. But not in running the device or in ota/installed applications. Having a style guide for Series 60 apps made all the apps behave the same way, and expect the same buttons. Now the Game Cards break that style - and don't even manage to have a consistent style themselves. This is an area that needs addressing sharpish, becasue (as I'm about to say) it's the games that will decide the fate of the N-Gage.

Summing Up

The hardware has flaws, that's acknowledged. But like any console, it lives and dies by the games. If they are up to scatch (or are better than expected), then Nokia have a good portable phone that plays great games, and roll on the sales of all those MMC Cards. If the games stay average, or the shadow of Sony means people wait for that unit instead of buying what's available now, then they have a very expensive Atari Lynx for the Playstation generation.

It's going to be an interesting 2004 for the N-Gage.