Available : October 7th, 2003


N-Gage Coverage: Part 1
Review by: Thomas Cap


We first saw it and played it at the Games Convention in Leipzig this year. Today we hold the final product in our hands: Ladies and Gentlemen, get ready to n-gage!

NOTE: It came to our attention that some people are not aware that you need a working SIM card for the N-Gage. Like most phones there will be providers that offer value bundles including the phone and a SIM card – contact your local retailer for additional information.



Expression of thanks

In the last few days we've turned Nokia’s N-Gage upside down, tested it, stressed it, covered the games that will be available at launch date on the 7th of October, listened to music, played multiplayer battles, tested the available accessories and not to forget called some people. You can read this all on Gamer’s Hell even before launch date thanks to the people at Nokia who sent an express courier the moment they got the final products themselves but also thanks to local cellular phone provider T-Mobile (www.t-mobile.com) that answered questions and provided bandwidth necessary for our online testing. We wrote the articles, but it couldn’t have been done without them. Thank You.

N-Gage!

Almost everyone will admit that it is at least an ambitious project, while others even might call it insane or futile: entering a market that basically has been in the hands of one company alone for years. Nokia, one of the largest mobile phone producers, thinks it is up to the challenge, and today the first so called “Game Deck” is about to hit markets worldwide. But what is a game deck? Nokia describes it this way: It is a handheld gaming console with high-quality mobile phone features and a digital music player in one. Couldn’t have put it better myself.



Size does matter

Phones get smaller and smaller nowadays. A phone that you can’t stuff it into your trouser pocket, even if it is a Game Deck, wouldn’t be something very useful. But at a size of 133,7 x 69.7 x 20,2 mm or for our American readers 5.26 x 2.74 x .80 inches you shouldn’t have a problem at all putting it where your cell phone used to go. Gamers will now perhaps doubt the quality of gaming at this size - after all a gaming device heavily depends on its screen attributes. Compared to the competition the N-Gage’s screen has about the same height (41mm vs. 42mm) and is not as wide - about 35% less. One might need some time to get used to the different aspect of ratio, but after a few hours of playing, surfing and working you won’t notice it anymore.

Many maybe will begin doubting the system now especially, when we take a look at the even more important attribute of every screen: resolution. With 176x208 pixels compared too 240x160 pixels the N-Gage definitely comes in second place, but tell you what? It still looks better. With the ability to display the whole 24bit palette – which the competition can only do in bitmap mode, in character mode it is reduced to 511 colours, the games simply look more realistic. This alone wouldn’t mean much, but don’t forget that the N-Gage came a little time after the unit from the competition, and since technology advances every day the N-Gage is more powerful when it comes to processor power. And thanks to this power the N-Gage can go where no game deck has gone before: into the 3rd dimension. Besides the classic 2d games we have seen 3D games e.g. fps shooters and alike from the competition too lately, but let’s face it – no matter how good the other 2D games are, going into 3D normally meant nothing less than a display of pixel clouds. Times have changed, here comes genuine 3D. But more on this in our follow-up articles in the next days...



What we want to cover today is the main unit which means the out of the box features as mobile phone, organizer, radio, video & music player, browser and messaging device.

To begin with let’s face something first, the most unpleasant fact which I wouldn’t exactly call a feature: the price. With a base prize of about 329 to 349 € many will think twice before replacing their gaming device which retails at less than half that prize. But before we condemn the new kid because of its price, let’s take a look at what can be done with it first, shall we?

Listen to the music – and the video!

By now you should have guessed that the N-Gage is more than “only” a mobile gaming device. Besides being a cellular phone – and a quiet good one - it is more than a capable music, radio and video player as well. Let’s take a look at the features list:

Stereo FM Radio

*Automatic next/previous channel seek
*20 radio channel memory



Digital Music Player

* Digital music player for AAC and MP3 files
* Stereo line-in for audio recording (analog)
* Music file download from compatible PC over USB cable
* High-fidelity stereo headset for music player, radio, and voice calls (mono)
* Integrated recorder (AAC) from analog stereo line connector and radio
* Handsfree speaker
* Shortcut buttons to start either the music player or the radio



So what does this all mean for you, the end user? First of all: The N-Gage can play MP3s or AAC-format tracks for up to eight hours. The number of tracks you can store depends on your card (the N-Gage accepts every MMC (MultiMediaCard) up to 128MB), but to give you a basic idea on 64 MB you can store about 1 hour of MP3s or 2 hours of AAC-format music. With the included USB cable you can either transfer files from your PC’s music collection to the N-Gage, or choose to record them from any source equipped with an analogue stereo-out jack. All you have to do is to plug the – yet again already included – cable into your N-Gage and into the source, and the built in recorder will do the rest. Another quite convenient feature. For listening to the music the N-Gage does have a built in speaker and for its size it is quiet powerful, but since you can easily cover the speaker itself with your hand while playing, muffling the sound output, and seeing the fact that you won’t win any new friends playing your music loud in the tram, I really suggest using the – this is getting interesting – INCLUDED stereo ear phones. The earphones are high quality ones and include a microphone to make hands free calls possible, but in case you feel that you own a better pair you can of course use them too. The necessary adapter is included...



Interjection

“Included” ... a word I had to use quiet often in the last paragraph. We are speaking about “added-value” here dear reader. Other companies would charge you extra money for earphones, connection cables and adapters. Summing it up and comparing the prices again, the price difference is still steep but we are catching up...


The only case where you *have* to use the earphones, is if you wish to use the built in fm radio. While you still can use the built-in-speaker the earphones act as antennae, so only in this case they are mandatory.

Still images, moving images

So, what have we got by now? A phone, a gaming handheld, a mp3 and AAC player, a fm radio and a built-in recorder for radio and analogue recording. Of course images! The N-Gage supports the jpeg standard and can scale most pics to fit on the screen – here also a full screen feature comes in handy, as it disables the menu bars to get the most out of the screen's dimensions. If you are one lucky guy who has a digital camera and stores his images on MMC card, you don’t even to move the pictures to your PC first. We also don’t want to forget the screenshot feature. The system utilities include a screenshot app that – once activated – can take a in-game or in-video or in-system screenshot whenever and wherever you like – just remember the button combination you've configured it to. This makes all screens you see in this and future articles genuinely exclusive, because they were taken from our own N-Gage.



But still images get boring with time - how about some moving ones?

The N-Gage features a port of the Real One Player that can not only stream trailers, music videos and alike from the internet – we will cover the online feature in detail in the articles to come – but the included software can virtually convert every video file you have on your harddisk into a suitable format. When moving a video file from your PC to the N-Gage the software can automatically convert most formats including mpeg, avi (and therefore including the lately very popular DivX format), Quicktime and mp3 files – the latter only if you wish to convert them to AAC to save extra space at the cost of a little quality.

We tested the player with various game trailers of different kind that you can download from our site. From time to time the converter showed a few weaknesses. As long as the filmed environment is not too dark the quality of the converted video is not too bad, but darker movies – our example was the recent Resident Evil 4 Trailer which you can get here - were problematic for the encoder and the scenes were – although still recognizable – quite washed out, unsharp and pixelated. But taking into credit the small size of the converted files – an over 20MB mpeg with 2min 20’ runtime ended up needing only 1.3 MB on the flashcard - and the fact that the encoder is just a free software that certainly will get better over time using the N-Gage as handheld tv set might not be one of its main features, but a possibility for the future.

Coming to this point we yet have to mention the only “feature” that we didn’t like while testing the N-Gage. Although the music files can be transferred using the included USB cable, Nokia decided to make video conversion and all other synchronizing features – read on below – only possible using a Bluetooth connection. Although Bluetooth Adapters are available everywhere between 20 and 30 € and fairly easy to setup (plug-in, install software, done), they are not as common as USB Interfaces yet, and why Nokia decided to use this standard although their phone supports USB too is a mystery too us. The only possible explanation would be security concerns, as Bluetooth is a safer transfer method compared to USB but we are awaiting a response from Nokia on this topic and will keep you posted.



Personal Digital Assistant assist me please!

After all these features we are still not done yet. Like most phones recently the N-Gage also tries its best to even replace the diaries and the PDAs in end-user’s pockets.

The N-Gage’s Contact, Calendar and Messaging apps support most major PC programs of this category including Microsoft Outlook and the Lotus products. The other “obligatory” apps like Notes, To-do lists, ring-tone composers, a calculator and a currency converter are of course included as well – nothing else did we expect. But like already mentioned above these features – including the possibilities to backup and transfer back and forth your N-Gage’s data including stored images, videos and ring tones – is only possible if you have a Bluetooth connection setup.



Conclusion

In part one of our coverage we tried our best to cover the most important features of this so called game deck, that offers not only gaming pleasure at a very high level, but so much more as well. It is undeniable that the price compared to the competition is steep. But after all the N-Gage is still a phone too, and cellular phone providers – like our test partner t-mobile – will offer you a good deal on the unit itself if you sign up with them, bringing the N-Gage itself to less than 200€.

Taking into credit that the unit itself is more powerful and the usability as multi-media player, recorder and pda the N-Gage IS theoretically worth the extra money the one question that remains: is it worth this extra money to YOU?



Anyway history showed that more power and features do not necessarily mean success too. When dealing with gaming devices it all comes down to the games themselves. While Nokia has many renown 3rd party publishers onboard the question remains if they will stay onboard – a problem other consoles had in the past and have in the present. Nokia is up against a company that dominated this special market for many a year. and while we as gamers would love to see peace and harmony between all developers and publishers, this is real life and the competition will be rough. And time is short to establish itself on the market. In about a year Sony’s PSP is scheduled to hit the market.

Only time will tell if the N-Gage will turn out to be a profitable project for Nokia. All we at Gamer’s Hell can do is judge what the N-Gage is capable of if given a chance, but only players worldwide will decide whether or not the N-Gage will be able to develop its full potential. We on our part are ready to N-gage...


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