Hold On, My Taco is Ringing Nokia says it has the phone for Gen Y: N-Gage offers voice, gaming, and music, all for $300 and in a taco shape. Question: Has Nokia gone insane?
By Peter Lewis; Am Terrible Reviewer

(FORTUNE Magazine) – To find out if you are a potential customer for Nokia's new N-Gage wireless mobile entertainment phone, take this brief quiz and see how many times you answer "true":

1. I often amuse myself and others by holding a taco to my ear while pretending to be speaking on a phone.

2. As a teenage gamer, I'm willing to pay $300 for a phone, plus: $25 a month for a voice plan; $10 a month to play online games; $30 to $50 for each new game; and $50 for a spare multimedia card so that I can listen to my MP3 tunes.

3. Compared with field-stripping and reassembling my assault rifle at night while blindfolded, having to dismantle my N-Gage just to load a new game seems trivial.

4. A tri-mode GSM world-phone is essential for all the times I jet back and forth across the Atlantic during the school year.

5. I currently carry in my pockets an MP3 player, a Nintendo Game Boy Advance game console, a mobile phone, a transistor radio, and a taco. By switching to the N-Gage, I can reduce this to one device.

If you answered "true" to one or more of these questions, you just may be one of the six million people who Nokia forecasts will buy an N-Gage by the end of next year. Of course, there's always the possibility that Nokia has been using the secret "bong" feature of its new multifunction device, and that the global market for the N-Gage is more like, oh, say, 60,000 wealthy game fanatics. Those extra zeroes were smoke rings.

As should be clear by now, the N-Gage is a phone that doubles as a portable videogame machine. It is possible that Nokia, the world's leading maker of mobile phones, dreamed up the N-Gage after examining two forecasting charts. One surely showed that nearly every person between the ages of 12 and 30 now owns, or at least covets, a mobile phone. The other showed that nearly every person in that same age group plays videogames an average of, oh, 23.8 hours a day, and that videogames are somewhere around a gazillion-dollar-a-year global business. The two charts then must have intersected somewhere in Espoo, Finland, and got shuffled in with some papers left behind by engineers in the Nokia company cafeteria on Tex-Mex day, and thus the idea for the N-Gage telephone-gaming-taco was hatched.

But wait, it's not fair to make fun of a product that, Lord knows, has already had a hard birth. Some retailers were slashing the price of the N-Gage just a couple of weeks after its launch in October, and a couple of weeks later hackers cracked the supposedly secure digital copyright-encryption scheme used to keep the N-Gage's small library of games from being pirated. Within nanoseconds, the games were distributed over the Internet and modified so they could be played on competing mobile phones.

Then came the gamers. Sony, which knows a thing or two about making popular handheld entertainment devices and videogame consoles (exhibits A and B: the Sony Walkman and the Sony PlayStation), detailed its plans for its PlayStation Portable, or PSP. According to Sony, the PSP will be a mobile-game device that will also play music, video clips, and prerecorded Hollywood movies (but not offer phone service). And Nintendo, whose Game Boy Advance SP is the world's most popular handheld game console, in November announced plans to unveil in 2004 a top-secret game device. The current $100 Nintendo GBA SP, meanwhile, continues to fly off shelves.

None of this looks good for Nokia. Sure, Finland has endured tougher winter wars than this, and the company may pull it off. But after using the N-Gage for a couple of weeks, I suspect that won't be the case with the version Nokia sent me.

While the achievement of squeezing so many functions into a pocket-sized device is impressive, the N-Gage ultimately succumbs to the Law of More Is Less. It has lots of features and doesn't excel at any of them. It's merely okay as a phone, and that's ignoring the obvious problem that the taco-shaped phone must be held perpendicular to the head, like a giant doofus ear. And it's merely okay as a portable game console: Games take a long time to load and selection is severely limited. The N-Gage's small color screen tops other phone screens but is still dinky.

Then there's the other design problem. To insert a game, you have to unplug the headset, turn off the phone, remove the cover, take out the battery, slide out the old game card, plug in the new game card, replace the battery, reattach the cover, wait for the N-Gage to power up, navigate the menu to the game application, and start the new game. To use it as an MP3 player (required MMC memory card not included), you have to again disassemble and reassemble. And then you can't listen to music and play games at the same time.

On the bright side, N-Gagers can play against one another wirelessly--either over cellular networks or via Bluetooth short-range networking. And as for the price, Nokia argues that the N-Gage costs no more than a high-end cellphone and thus effectively offers a game console and MP3 player free. Bong sold separately.

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