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Nokia's N-Gage QD gets mixed review on trial run

GAMING The tester found the QD to be too big and uncomfortable to be a full-time phone and too limited to compete with the dedicated portable game systems


Nokia Corp's new N-Gage QD is a vast improvement over its first all-in-one cellphone/gaming device. But that's not really saying much.

The Finnish company's first foray into mobile video games was reviled as ugly, heavy, awkward to use and underpowered when it was released last year.

The QD revision remains stuck between two disparate functions: talking and gaming. Like the original, I found the QD too big and uncomfortable to be a full-time phone yet too limited to compete with more robust, dedicated portable game systems.

There are three major improvements: The price has dropped to an attractive US$99 when bundled with a wireless contract (US$199 without), the way game and memory chips are swapped out has been simplified, and it's a bit easier to use for talking.

With the original N-Gage, you had to shut down and pry off the battery to change games stored on tiny multimedia cards. On the QD, I quickly peeled back a small back plastic tab to reveal the card slot. Better yet, the slot is "hot-swappable," so you can change game and memory cards without having to turn the QD off.

Nokia also removed some features: FM radio, MP3 music player, Universal Serial Bus interface and tri-band world phone support.

The QD retains the original's Bluetooth short range wireless and 4,096-color backlit screen (the QD screen is actually a bit brighter).

The first N-Gage has been described as taco-shaped, and it still applies to the QD. Though a bit smaller at 11.8cm long by 6.8cm wide, it's still too big to cram in a shirt pocket.

And at 191.75g ,the QD weighs a bit more than the original's 135.33g. The added heft translates into longer battery life. Nokia claims 10 hours of game time, five days of talk time or 11 days of standby time with the QD.

Pluses and minuese

* The price has dropped to US$199

* The way game and memory chips are swapped out has been simplified

* It is smaller and easier to use as a phone

* It no longer has FM radio, MP3 music player, Universal Serial Bus interface and tri-band world phone support

* It's tiny loudspeaker makes it hard to hear the games with headphones

* The screen is too small

The so-called "side talkin'" feature of the original, where you had to hold the side of the phone against your head to talk, has been replaced with a less ridiculous design. You simply hold the QD against your head like a cellphone.

Some odd design decisions remain. The tiny loudspeaker is on the back of the silver and black device. Even with the volume turned all the way up, it was hard to hear games without headphones.

Since the QD lacks USB, you'll need a computer with Bluetooth capability if you want to back up or exchange files like address books or calendars.

My test unit shipped with three games: "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2004" and "The Sims: Bustin' Out" from Electronic Arts, and "Ashen," a first-person shooter from Torus Games.

About 20 games are available, and Nokia says it plans to have about 50 games out by Christmas. I'm not sure it's enough to compete against game-only devices like Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, which has a massive library of games.

The three QD games I tried were a mixed bag. I found "Ashen," an N-Gage exclusive, to be a blocky-looking throwback to three-dimensional monster killing games like "Quake" and "Doom." I was more impressed with "The Sims" game. The graphics were about on par with the Game Boy Advance version I've played, though the puny speaker made it hard to hear.

"Tiger Woods" had crisp visuals, though it was hard to control the swing using the four-way directional pad and the number buttons. Whether I was blasting a golf ball toward the green or a supernatural monster into oblivion, the 176 by 208 pixel screen -- about half the size of a business card -- felt cramped and limiting.

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