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The N-Gage in depth

To be or not to be? That is the question

N-Gage adverts are everywhere, phone operators are offering them at increasingly lower prices, but still no-one buys them. Why? There are two key flaws in the N-Gage’s design that really pull it down; its screen and the way memory cards are handled. Nokia have put the screen so it sits vertically on the console as opposed to the GBA’s horizontal display. This isn’t ideal for most of the games on the system, as it cuts out any peripheral vision you might need. Any game that requires you to navigate around an area will be hampered because you just can’t see that much. The other key problem is changing games. You see, if I’m playing Tomb Raider and I want to switch to Tony Hawk’s I have to power down the N-Gage, remove the back plate, remove the battery, take out the game, put in a new game, put the battery back in, slide the backplate on, power up the system and then play the new game. In comparison, a GBA takes 4 seconds to changeover a game whilst the N-Gage takes a laborious 70 seconds (and that’s if you’re quick!) How that got past the drawing board I don’t know!

These flaws aren’t there for the hell of it, there is a reason behind them. That reason is compromise. You see, Nokia wanted to make the N-Gage a games console and a phone, but that just can’t be done without screwing up the whole design. A phone should be slim and light with a portrait screen and a portrait body. A portable games console should have a landscape screen and a landscape profile, the opposite of a phone. Putting the two together just doesn’t work because you can’t have something that’s portrait and landscape; all you get is a mess of compromises. The N-Gage’s radio and media player fit in really well because they can work well in almost any shape device. The N-Gage is primarily a games machine, so that should have taken priority.

For a phone, I want something that’s small, easy to hold and useable. I want to be able to whip it out of my pocket to text someone or to turn it onto silent at the cinema. The N-Gage is only operable when using both hands, it makes calling awkward and it’s just a bit too big to be practical. The features are all there, but it doesn’t feel right. Try using the original GBA as a phone, you’ll get the idea. As a games console, the N-Gage isn’t bad at all, it just has an oddly positioned screen and an awful game changeover method. The underlying hardware is great, but the design doesn’t cut it. The N-Gage is like this because it’s trying to be a phone and a games console at the same time; something that just doesn’t work out. It’s like two fat people trying to run through a door at the same time.

I like the N-Gage, I really do, but I can’t help thinking that it could have been so much more. If Nokia re-released the device with a different screen, an easier game changeover and forgot about the phone function, then they could have a real winner on their hands. The N-Gage looks and feels good, but a few flaws let it down so much. It’s such a shame that these problems didn’t get sorted out earlier on in the development stage. I wouldn’t give up my T610 for a N-Gage, nor would I swap my iPod or Gameboy Advance. They all excel in their own field, whereas Nokia’s machine doesn’t really excel in any.

Nokia should have worked out what they wanted the N-Gage to be and then built around that. They shouldn’t have thrown a phone function into it just because they’re good at making them, as this spoils the whole design. Dyson are famous for making vacuum cleaners, but when they built a washing machine did it have a vacuum cleaner built into it? No. Integration is sometimes good, but not when the result is a compromise between the device’s functions. The greatest irony of it all, is that the Nokia N-Gage isn’t as good as it should be, because it’s a phone.

The author of this fine article

is the Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2000. Get in touch on Twitter @PhilipMorton.

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