Portable gaming is growing rapidly, with more than 20 million people worldwide regularly playing games on dedicated gaming devices, PDAs, smartphones, or a new category of convergence device, gaming-smartphone hybrids. Nokia's N-Gage QD fits into the last category. It¡¯s a new and improved version of the Nokia N-Gage, which along with the hard-to-find Tapwave Zodiac, gave birth to this new class of game-phones. How does the N-Gage QD stack up, as a portable gaming device and as a "smart" cellphone? As a portable gaming device, it offers wireless and Bluetooth LAN multiplayer capability, which no other device does, but otherwise can't compete with Nintendo's GameBoy Advance. As a "smart" cellphone, it's relatively cheap, but you get what you pay for. Potential buyers will have to weigh pros, cons and prices very carefully in deciding whether to buy the N-Gage QD, to opt for separate gaming and talking, or wait for newer and better game-phone convergence models.
The original Nokia N-Gage was not successful, thanks to some downright baffling design decisions. To switch games, the user had to power down the unit and remove the battery to get access to the tiny game cartridge buried in its slot. Speaker and microphone were located in the edge of the handset instead of its face, so that when using the device as a phone, users had to hold the handset edge against their heads instead of flat against their ear, making it look as though they were talking into a metal taco sticking straight out from their skull (this became known, affectionately or derisively, as "sidetalkin' ").
With the release of the N-Gage QD, Nokia has fixed these two mistakes, and reduced the handset's size from 133 x 70 x 20 mm to 118 x 68 x 22 mm. They have also added multiplayer capability with two options: you can connect two N-Gages together using a Bluetooth cable, or you can play a wireless match using a GPRS connection to Nokia's N-Gage Arena. This multiplayer capability is really the N-Gage QD's claim to fame, and paired with a truly popular game, this alone may be enough to sell many gamers on the unit (for those who don't know, playing against a skilled human opponent is far more fun and challenging than taking on predictable software-driven enemies). No real hits have emerged yet among Nokia's stable of N-Gage and N-Gage QD games (the QD can play both) but Nokia has inked a deal with a key player in the game development industry, and hopes to have 50 game cartridges available by the end of 2004.
Multi-player capability is the good news as far as the N-Gage QD's gaming qualities are concerned. In almost every other category that matters, the QD gets hammered by Nintendo's GameBoy Advance and Advance SP. The QD's screen (4,096-color, 176 x 208 resolution) is smaller and displays fewer colors than GameBoy Advance's (32,768-color, 240 x 160 resolution). In addition, the QD's screen is vertically-oriented, whereas the GameBoy's is wider horizontally, like TVs, most computer monitors, and other gaming displays. Without getting into a detailed debate over the merits of wider versus taller screens, it's safe to say that many gamers will find the vertically-oriented screens unfamiliar and awkward. Another significant weakness of the N-Gage QD compared with GameBoy is sound: the QD pipes mono (not stereo) sound from a small and weak speaker on the underside, while GameBoy features dual speakers on the bottom edge (facing the user) that play louder, clearer stereo sound. QD users will find that headphones are a must, and will probably want to swap the basic earbuds that come included for a better pair.
The definition of a "smartphone" isn't exactly written in stone, but this reviewer takes "smartphone" to mean a hybrid handheld device that combines the personal computing functions of PDA with mobile voice transmission and reception. To qualify as a smartphone, a cellphone has to do more than run downloaded Java or BREW applications. It needs an operating system and real data storage capacity that you can allocate however you wish (not just pre-designated memory slots for phonebook entries, ringtones or digicam images). According to this definition, the N-Gage QD qualifies as a smartphone: its 32-bit ARM processor runs Symbian OS version 6.0 with support for Java 2 Micro Edition; it features 3.4 MB of internal memory and optional removable flash memory sticks (32, 64, 128 or 256 MB).
Compared with recent smartphone releases (for example, the latest BlackBerrys, the Treo 600, Sony-Ericsson's P900, and the Samsung i700) the N-Gage QD is under-powered and under-equipped, but also far, far less expensive. In fact, the QD is probably the cheapest real smartphone available in most markets globally, and for this reason alone, anyone in the market for a PDA-phone hybrid should give it serious consideration. For those on a budget, a cheap smartphone is a lot better than no smartphone, and the dedicated gaming capability of the QD will come as a bonus. Potential buyers interested in the QD as a smartphone ought to compare their projected needs with the device's smartphone capabilities and performance, then ask themselves if they need to spend hundreds of dollars more for a leading competitor.
Ignoring gaming entirely, how does the N-Gage QD stack up as a phone and PDA? First, unlike the original N-Gage, the QD is not a tri-band "world phone", and can't travel from North America to Europe or Asia, or vice versa. Instead, Nokia have made the QD dual-band, meaning it uses GSM 850MHz and 1900MHz digital networks. Reception and transmission are adequate, but the sound from the earbuds that come standard is poor. Even with sidetalking a thing of the past and the unit reduced in size from the dimensions of the original N-Gage, it's still too big and heavy to comfortably slip in a pocket or use as a mobile handset (of course, so is almost every other smartphone on the market).
The N-Gage QD is capable of displaying images, MMS (text messaging with video and sound), sending receiving e-mail, and browsing the Web (as always, full use of these features depends on the cooperation of your service provider). The QD comes complete with two suites of personal organizer features and software: one associated with mobile calling (phonebook, scheduler, and the like) and another more complex set associated with PDA functions (calendar, email, and so on). Unlike many smartphones, the QD does not have an MP3 player, which will disappoint some potential buyers. Nor does it support USB, so to sync calendars and contacts with your desktop or laptop, your computer will need a Bluetooth card. On the other hand, Bluetooth compatibility is a real plus, and not all higher-priced smartphones have this. Battery life is also excellent, surpassing many smartphones and PDAs: Nokia claims you can game for ten hours without recharging, or talk for five, and independent tests have borne this out.
Ultimately, the N-Gage QD's strengths are multiplayer gaming and its low price. As a portable gaming device and smartphone, it can't outperform leading competitors, but it does perform adequately. Those seriously considering buying an N-Gage QD might want to wait until later in 2004 when its direct rival, the TapWave Zodiac, becomes widely available. By all accounts, the Zodiac is a superior gaming device. But if you can't wait, don't have the budget to buy a high-end smartphone, and are more interested in gaming than other PDA functions, the N-Gage QD might be just right for you. If you can find a good deal on price in combination with your service-provider contract, this model is your entry into the world of PDA functionality for a fraction the price.
Prices (Where to Buy)
Nokia released the N-Gage QD on July 8, 2004.
We've got you covered! Download a free PDF copy of the Nokia N-Gage QD user manual here.
Nokia backs up the N-Gage QD with a 1 Year parts & labour warranty.
If your N-Gage QD has problems and is still within its warranty period, you could contact Nokia support or the retailer you purchased the phone from. You'll find Nokia's contact information here. If your phone is off warranty and needs repair for a physical problem such as a broken screen or bad battery, you should visit an authorized service centre or a local phone repair shop. You can also connect with others in The Informr Community Forum to find and share answers to questions.