Review: The Codepope has a good look at the Nokia NGage QD

by Codepope | posted on 25 May 2004

The original Nokia NGage was a bit of a design joke. If any other manufacturer had produced a hand held game console which required you to disassemble it before you could change game, they would have been laughed out of the trade shows. That the Nokia NGage was a phone from Nokia too at least kept things down to a mild tittering, but Nokia heard that, and listened. Enter the Nokia NGage QD; is it enough to save the gaming phone?


The QD is being punted as the "low end, fewer features" version of the NGage, with the original still being marketed along side it. When you pick both up in your hands though, I give good odds, you'd pick the QD as the more expensive machine, just on feel alone. The QD is more compact than the original NGage and a little thicker, which plays for the positive when you are holding it in your hands. That feeling is added to by the rubberized strip that runs around the QD. It makes it much more holdable.

It feels much nicer, and looks way cooler, and for some reason loads games faster than on the original so the first stop was to play some games.

Now, I'm a Tony Hawks skateboarding fan, and this was one of the original titles on the NGage. It plays identically on the QD. It is instructive at this point to compare implementations of Tony Hawks on the different consoles to get a feel for the power of the NGage as a gaming machine. If we start by comparing it with Nintendo Gameboy Advance version, the NGage graphically kicks the GBA version into touch. The GBA version is an isometrically projected game (old school gamers, think Ant Attack on the Spectrum), where the NGage gives you a three dimensional shaded view, more akin to what you'd see on a Playstation 1 game. That's pretty good going for a handheld, but it is only a slim lead over the competition.

When I say "the competition", I mean the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP. Both these are pencilled in to arrive next year. The Nintendo DS is right on top of the NGage in terms of gaming power. The Sony PSP is closer to a Playstation 2 than the Playstation 1. Where both these units win out though is in screen size; the PSP for example sports a widescreen aspect ratio display, partly because it's built to play back movies.

That's something that isn't going to happen on the QD. It's screen is (gaming wise) an unconventional portrait orientation, which is functional but takes some getting used to. The display is good enough for games, with a fast enough refresh that you can play for a fair while. Now while I'm having another play, let me take you through the changes on the Nokia QD.

The most important change with the QD is the position of the SD slot. On the original, it was, for those of you who haven't seen: "remove the battery cover, remove the battery, and there's the SD card in a SIM style holder, slide out, slide new SD card in, put battery back, slide the back on, and power up again - " and that's how you change a game. How it ever got past the first focus group is beyond me.

On the QD, that's all gone. Now the rubber strip covers an external SD slot. Slide the SD card in and out - well, apart from memory cards which you have to "unmount" from the QD interface, but at least you aren't powering the phone down. The actual mechanism misses any positive lock though, and what the QD really needs is more than one SD slot and a click lock mechanism to help retrieve cards.

What's gone from the QD that was in the original? Well the FM Radio isn't there. That is no big loss; I want a phone with a built in DAB radio (are you listening Nokia). The MP3 player isn't there; no big loss, given the messing around with mounting and unmounting SD cards. As a phone, it now comes in a US and European model where the original was triband GSM; that's a pity but I suspect the change was more to distinguish the QD from the original, rather than any technical issue. The data connector from the original is also missing, but that would have been a bit of a squeeze to get in.

The keypad layout is mostly the same, except that where the joypad on the original was clickable in to select things on the QD, the click is moved to its own button. This is easier to manipulate and avoids clicking while playing. This actually adds to a slight dissonance in the user interface, with one more button which can be pressed to possibly OK something on the display. A bit more refinement to the UI may be in order before the NGage QD becomes more intuitive. The actual keypad on the QD is much denser with no spacing between the keys, and more suited to the small form factor. It also feels more positive than the original NGage. This keypad though is one of the weaknesses of the NGage as a platform for committed gamers. For them, the keypad is an instinctive thing, partly position, partly space around they keys, partly different feel. All the game play buttons on the NGage though come from assignments to the numeric pad which has two differently shaped keys but isn't as simple as the classic Nintendo A/B buttons, and there's no shoulder buttons on the NGage to fill out the other place you can have keys on a handheld.

That said, the NGage QD is definitely playable and I was quite pleased with the ability for the phone to pause the ongoing game when a phone call comes in. It was also rather amusing to find that while I was taking the call, I could restart the game and carry on playing and noticing that the games sound effects and music mix into the call. I couldn't convince anyone I was on my skateboard while they were talking to me. The only problem with this slick integration is that it does seem to have a few issues; occasionally, the game would fail to resume, announcing "Out Of Memory" and demanding a power cycle before it would play again. Hopefully this can be a firmware fixable problem.

Now, the NGage and QD are Bluetooth enabled, GPRS capable devices, and this is where Nokia hope their USP is, in online gaming. But, online gaming is hard to get right, and near area gaming over Bluetooth is even harder to get right.

For example, Tony Hawk's Skateboarding gets it right, with player on player over Bluetooth; two player competitive games. But then look at a new release like Sims Bustin' Out, a sad footnote in the Sims legacy - being an overgrown RPG and a strange one; apparently you can get a bed and a fridge in your pockets without wincing. On SBO the use of Bluetooth is limited to auctioning things between handsets. It has all the smell of a game company seeing "Nokia requirements" for a game and getting the junior coders to knock something up to cover the "Uses bluetooth" requirement.

The other problem with Bluetooth gaming is that you do need a friend with an NGage and a copy of the same game near by. That's statistically unlikely, but if you are lucky enough to find that friend, you can have great fun. The GPRS side of the NGage could overcome that limitation with NGage Arena as gaming service you can log into and ... And this is where bitter disappointment hits. NGage Arena is basically a download/scores shop. There's no player to player gaming there with current releases, and future releases promise little more than "Rankings" as an NGage Arena feature. GPRS is only useful apparently as a static download system, so you can't play another player directly. For example in Tony Hawks, your competitive option is to play against the shadow of another player on a timed course. It hardly sets the blood racing. And there's no easy way to see how much GPRS you are using, so it may be expensive gaming too.

Overall, the NGage QD does address many of the design issues which plague the original NGage. It's smaller, seems to perform faster, nicer to hold, and feels like a better product all over. Having spent some time with it, I have grown to like it, and found myself reaching for it when I want to play a game.

What its real problem is I suspect is that no one asked the "Do people want fire nasally installed?" question. Do people want full on gaming built into their phone, eating the power from the same battery, so that when they've run down the battery on their games machine, they also lose power to their phone?

Or are they going to get a phone that's a phone and pick up a Game Boy? That question is moot right now, because the NGage is a powerful little handheld, but not for long. November this year, Nintendo roll out the Nintendo DS, with wireless communications, followed next year by the arrival of the Sony PSP also with wireless support. That gives Nokia nine months at best to impress people with the games on the NGage.

The QD is a step in the right direction, but it does leave me wondering whether what I'd really like is QD level gaming but without all the phone nonsense and pseudo-online gaming; just the Bluetooth would do then. I can hear a noise coming from Nokia. I think someone's screaming "Aren't these games players ever happy!" Of course we aren't. Gamers are the most demanding technology consumers out there; didn't anyone warn Nokia? Oh and when do we get some new games?

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