Nokia's Pricey 8801 Misses the Mark

The cell-phone maker's fashion-forward new model isn't as user-friendly as the price tag might lead one to expect

Back before the turn of the century, when folks in Finland seemed to be the only ones who saw that cell phones could be fashion items, Nokia ("NOK") came out with a phone informally known as "the Zippo." Like the famous lighter, it was encased in silvery metal. Solid and smooth, it begged to be touched, and it closed with the most satisfying click. The Zippo wasn't ideal for everyone. If you wanted great sound quality, an affordable price, or keys for grown-up fingers, Nokia had other more sensible models. No, the Zippo was for techno-strutters.

For the last couple of weeks, I've been trying out the latest descendent of the Zippo, Nokia's 8801. Like its ancestor, it's wrapped in stainless steel, has tiny keys, and closes with an authoritative click. It weighs in at a solid 4.7 ounces, about 40% more than the most popular fashion phone on the market, Motorola's ("MOT") RAZR. This is not a phone built to forget you have it in your pocket. Au contraire.

But you know what? I haven't been carrying it around much. I have to remind myself to. This is an extremely worrisome sign for a handset that sells for a steep $550 (at T-Mobile) and is built to exude desire. What's wrong with it? Much like the venerable Zippo phone, it's not that easy to use. The keys are too small for my fingers. On the bottom row, I bump up against the metal framing. And the screen interface is not quick and easy to use. To get to the camera, for example, you have to click first to the Media icon, and then select camera. It's a lot easier on many other phones.


Some features just seem badly engineered. Removing the back casing to install the phone subscription (sim) card was a headache. There are two tiny panels to squeeze on the sides. The experience was akin to opening a super-duper child-proofed bottle of aspirin. Also, two tiny but crucial navigation keys are camouflaged under the screen. I often miss them and hit the hang-up key instead.

And then there's the click. It should be firm and authoritative, like the shutting of a Mercedes door. But Nokia has gone a bit too far. Slide the phone shut and the click is more like a twack, loud and jolting. When I slide shut the phone, I find myself fretting that the impact will damage the machinery inside. This is silly, because everything about this phone signals strength. But still, I often brace it with my thumb. I think the Nokia engineers should loosen those springs a bit.

Naturally, the 8801 boasts lots of bells and whistles. Its 0.5-megapixel camera provides detailed photos. The phone has an FM radio, Bluetooth, and impressive speakers. The telephone quality seems very good. You'd expect nothing less for the price. But if I were spending that much for a phone, I'd want far fewer complaints, too.
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