The middle chassis of this smartphone is metal that is colored a light bronze-tan on the 8GB version of the N81, and bright blue on the microSD version. The front of the device is solid black, while the back is an absolutely beautiful subtle brown with metallic flakes. This is a nice change from the typical Plum color that Nokia has been using lately, and I hope that it continues. On the right hand side of the phone are the camera button, the volume rocker, and one of the stereo speakers. The left side of the device is barren, save for the other stereo speaker. On the top of the device are the power button (which I found to be a bit too difficult to press) and the keylock switch. This spring loaded keylock switch is merely pushed to the right to activate it, and then it slides back to the left. The 3.5mm audio jack is also located at the top center of the N81 8GB.
The front of the Nokia N81 features the front-facing VGA camera for video calls, when supported by the network. The display is a generous 2.4", 16.7 million color screen with 240 x 320 pixel resolution. This display is very bright, though thanks to the glossy layer, not easily viewed in direct sunlight. The screen is flush mounted with the front of the phone, which prevents gunk from building up in the corners, and makes keeping it clean a simpler task.
The bottom third of the front of the N81 is occupied by the key cluster. There are a whopping 11 buttons here, not counting the d-pad. The left and right softkeys are located at the top, with the S60 menu key and 'c' button directly below. The end and send keys have been moved to the side edges, flanking the d-pad. Surrounding the d-pad are the four dedicated music playback buttons. These music buttons are active in all menus of the phone, allowing you to easily control the music no matter what screen you're currently in. There is a small horizontal silver button to the right of the d-pad that serves as the Multimedia Key. Pressing this key once will take you to Nokia's new carousel multimedia menu, while long-pressing it will take you directly to the music player. At the top of the front face there are also two keys that are only using for gaming and for zooming when viewing photos. Sliding the front face up reveals the numeric keypad, which is a single membrane separated horizontally into four rows.