Released in in the US on October 7, 2003, Nokia's N-Gage QD is the slimmer, more intelligently-designed successor to the overwhelmingly unpopular N-Gage. For those unfamiliar with the original, both N-Gages are GSM cell phones aimed at gamers, due to their portable game system form factors and exclusive games. It also happens to be one of Nokia's last first-generation Series 60 Symbian OS phones.

The N-Gage QD is, on the inside, very similar to the Nokia 3620/3650/3660, without the camera. This means it runs version 1.1 of the Series 60 version of Symbian OS (making it one of the last phones to do so, as Nokia had already moved onto 2.0 with the Nokia 6600 and 7610), has approximately 4 megs of free memory, and includes an MMC slot and Bluetooth among its niceties. Added into this mix is some proprietary graphics hardware, which allows it to run (allegedly) optimized N-Gage-exclusive games. (Both the original and the QD run all N-Gage games.) It has everything you could expect from a mid-range smartphone, including J2ME support, MIDI and wav ringtones, SMS/MMS support, WAP browsing, voice dialing, and so on. All of this is for a price approximately equal to that of the 3600-series or a 6600: $300 without commitment, about $100-150 with a contract in the US, and as cheap as free with contract in the UK.

The N-Gage QD looks like a smaller, slimmer N-Gage, and that's what it is. The biggest visible change is the significantly smaller size: the N-Gage QD is approximately 4" by 2.5", about the same size as the Nokia 3300. (This makes it larger than most cell phones, but not too large for your pocket.) Unlike most cell phones (but like most portable game systems), it is intended to be held horizontally instead of vertically; the vertically-oriented 176x208 pixel, 4096-color screen is in the center, the 4-way control pad and several function buttons are on the left, the number pad is on the right, and the typical dial/hang-up buttons and the confirm/cancel buttons are along the bottom edge of the face. A rubber strip goes all the way around the edge, covering the power button on the right side of the phone. The 2.5mm headset jack and standard Nokia power adapter jack are on the top edge and the MMC slot is on the bottom edge, and both are covered with flaps attached to the rubber strip. The battery is a slightly-thicker, beefed-up version of the standard Nokia cell phone battery, but the QD can use the regular Nokia battery.

If you want to use it as a proper phone, you hold the system with the screen to your cheek and the keypad against your ear, putting the top-right corner of the front in your ear and speaking so that the microphone on the left edge can catch your voice. It isn't too awkward, especially compared to the art-deco silliness some Nokia has been engaging in with some of the recent top-end smartphones, but if you're used to a regular (analog) phone or a flip phone, you may want to use the included headset instead. Despite the awkward placement, the microphone reception is fairly decent. Too bad about the speaker; both the earpiece and speakerphone are just too quiet, creating problems in areas with background noise. The reception isn't too bad, either, as long as you don't put your fingers over the upper half of the back of the phone when holding it to your ear.

More than the appearance has been changed. The software interface has been somewhat streamlined, the microphone and earpiece have been shifted to allow for the user to use it in a more natural way, the center-of-the-control-pad click button has been moved to a separate button. and the MMC slot has been moved from inside the battery casing to a slot on the bottom of the phone. This slimming down did come with some sacrifices; the original N-Gage included both an mp3/AAC player and an FM radio, both of which are gone. Also gone is the tri-band cell reciever, which is less of a big deal, and the USB port, requiring anyone who wants to install things onto their N-Gage QD to own a MMC reader or a Bluetooth adapter. (The USB port on the original N-Gage could only be used to access the MMC card, not the phone's internal memory.)

The N-Gage QD, as with any cell phone, comes in a number of regional variations. The US version uses the GSM frequencies common to American cell providers (making it compatible with AT&T Wireless, Cingular, and T-Mobile, as of this noding), and comes only in grey with black piping and highlights. (This color scheme is known as Slate on Nokia's model page.) The European version naturally uses the European GSM frequencies, and comes in Slate and Orange (a garish scheme in hunter's orange with white highlights), and the Asian version comes in Orange and Purple (the latter of which I haven't actually seen, and may not even yet be available.) Naturally, N-Gage QDs only work as a cell phone where the service is compatible, but games are not region-encoded.

For all of the improvements, the N-Gage QD is still the solution to a problem nobody has. It's a smartphone for gamers, a group traditionally uninterested in fancy cell phones, smartphones, or PDAs. It doesn't have the hardcore appeal, due to the small library of mostly low-quality games and the crushing dominance of the Game Boy Advance, but the explicitly gamer-oriented form factor, lack of a camera, hefty price-tag, and relatively expensive ($20-35 for a new title) games limit its appeal to those looking for a low-end smartphone. Even the (relatively small) market of gadget-heads have mostly skipped over it, looking for phones with EDGE support, stereo mp3 playback, or larger amounts of memory.

This isn't to say it isn't a neat little phone. It's perfect for playing J2ME games or Symbian games (including emulators), as the control layout allows for easy two-handed play, and Symbian OS gives it a fairly decent selection of installable software. It supports all of the common Bluetooth profiles (save for the keyboard profile, which is no loss), allowing for wireless headsets, easy file transfer, and PIM synchronization (including integration with iSync, for Mac users.) It's just that most people of the people who want these features probably aren't willing to accept its limitations or price tag.

The slow deployment in the US has been another obstacle. While the phone has been available in the US since November of 2003, cell phone providers have been somewhat slow to make them available. T-Mobile started offering the QD in July or August of 2004, Cingular made it available a couple months later, and AT&T Wireless started selling it in October. (Nextel, Verizon Wireless, and Sprint PCS use incompatible networks.) Game stores have been selling it since summer of 2004, but these phones are generally locked to T-Mobile, which is pretty far from the most-popular provider in the US.

Those who already have one should probably look into The Sims: Bustin' Out (a slightly-upgraded port of the Game Boy Advance version), Rayman 3 (ditto), Pathway to Glory, and Pocket Kingdom (the first cell-phone MMORPG). The rest of the library is by and large mediocre. Also, be careful of the rubber strip: it can start peeling off at either flap or at the power button. The only way to replace it is to buy a new faceplate (which also comes with a new rubber strip), or send it to Nokia for repair.

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