Nokia PureView 808: have camera phones finally grown up?

Thomas Curtis looks at the Nokia 808 PureView, a smartphone with a 41 megapixel camera - is it marketing fluff or have Nokia raised the bar for what we expect a smart phone camera to be capable of?

First things first I am, not what I would say in any way shape or form a photographer by hobby or nature. Sure, I take pictures with my phone camera at jaunty angles, apply filters but I consider that to be so far removed from photography as swimming is from walking in space. Prior to using this phone I had little idea, let alone appreciation of photographic mainstays such as ISO settings or exposure.

But, perhaps that’s the horrific beauty of the smartphone camera, we’ve been mollycoddled into accepting the mediocre camera technology for a long, long time.

A smartphone with a 41 megapixel sensor

 

 

In the future when we look back at the visual record of humanity there will be a noticeable dip in photograph quality over the last twelve years. This is because we transitioned from film to digital cameras that in short were far from good enough, I remember my first .5 megapixel digital camera that used a 2 mb smartmedia card. Half a mega pixel, compared with an average of between 10 and 15 megapixels for your ordinary film cameras of similar age. This issue was greatly increased with the advent of the camera phone, as the sheer astonishment of the fact that you could now have a camera on your phone precluded discussions on image quality.

And so for a long time poor quality sensors were attached to sub par optics and we had to like it or lump it (or in the case of the general populace, not care). That began to change with the advent of the Smartphone, people were beginning to expect more out of their hardware which meant that manufacturers soon began adding ever larger headline grabbing megapixel cameras to their products.

From a two mega pixel camera on the first iPhone in 2007, to eight on the latest generation, the smartphone hydra that is HTC has more than sixteen smartphones currently on sale equipped with a range of cameras from three to sixteen megapixels. The list goes on, but although the photographs get bigger, the quality often does not rise with the megapixels, this is to do with the sensor. A sensor is the most important part of a camera, as its the technology that converts the light hitting the camera into digital signals and they can be assessed on a variety of metrics like dynamic range, low light sensitivity or signal to noise ratio. To be brief, most sensors in smartphones today are, photographically speaking, a tad rubbish.

This meant that, until recently any dedicated camera provider could happily point to the pictures taken by a mobile phone and laugh at the quality. If you want a picture that you could print out and hang on a wall, it would seem that you have only one option, get a ‘real’ camera. The mobile industry evolves at a breakneck pace, phones that are king of the hill are often made obsolete within six months. Device manufacturers are keenly aware that they need to innovate and offer new features to maintain consumer interest and to convince those who have not joined the smartphone world to finally invest.

One way to achieve adoption is the realisation that the consumer might just want a decent camera and that they can use that to rapidly increase sales. After all if a consumer wants a camera and a smartphone but can only afford one, they will always go with the phone. It’s a decision that no doubt horrifies point and shoot camera providers as the combination of portability, availability and sheer convenience that a camera phone provides ensures that most people have no need for a dedicated device.

And so the iPhone 4S has by all accounts both a decent sensor and optics, enabling it to take some very good pictures. So too does the Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One X meaning that soon even mid tier smartphones will have more than passable picture taking equipment on board.

However there was one manufacturer that always seem to produce a phone with class leading camera technology, Nokia. This is thanks to high quality sensors and its partnership with Carl Zeiss which has provided Nokia with industry leading optics that enable products such as the the N95 and N8 to be used as photographic reference benchmarks.

That all changes today, with the device I have in my hand, the Nokia PureView 808, remember how I said an image quality is derived from the size and quality of the sensor?

This phone has a 41 megapixel sensor.…….it also runs Symbian Belle ‘Feature Pack’ One.

This is a phone that makes no sense to anyone familiar with Nokia’s present economic woes, it is an incredibly expensive, balls out ultra camera phone that has no support from mobile operators and is running an operating system with one update left before its taken behind the cow shed and shot.

Hyperbole aside, the PureView technology is nothing short of phenomenal it uses the huge sensor which, incidentally is big enough, so there is quite a bulge at the top of the case (and, incidentally creates a great finger rest when held in portrait mode.) to oversample images captured meaning that it can create a five megapixel shot of incredible quality. This not a evolution, its a quantum leap in what you think is possible on a smartphone and its a damn shame that it’s connected to an operating system that is past its best.

Lets get one thing straight, Symbian Belle FP1 is the best version of Symbian to date. It feels like Nokia has put a lot of effort to drag the operating system into the present. However on a usability level Symbian Belle is confusing and sometimes downright bizarre in how it implements actions.

An example, is Power save mode – a great concept that helps eek out battery life. When things are looking bad for the battery, the phone will pop up asking if you want to enable it – great. However it doesn’t switch off, automatically even if you have a full battery. The logical solution is to go to the settings > phone > phone management > power saving. But you would be wrong, as all that is contained in that menu is the setting that determines if the phone should ask you if you want power saving mode enabled. What about a long press on the power button? That switches the phone off without asking for confirmation from the user, great. The actual solution is a quick press of the power button (difficult as its physical) and then you can switch power saving off and get back fast mobile data access.

On a software front, most of the apps I use have versions or fairly decent alternatives available, Tweetian is a great twitter app that seems to be actively maintained. The default browser however, is shocking; taking an age to display pages and to add insult to injury it has incredibly poor text rendering. Thankfully, Opera is available for Symbian and whilst not perfect, it is a damn site better than default browser. As we’re on the subject of performance, it brings me neatly to a further issue, namely the hardware powering the PureView. At the heart of the device is a 1.3Ghz single core cpu coupled with 512mb of ram and whilst it does a fine job most of the time, there are certain moments where it doesn’t keep pace with the user. Multitasking is available but having more than five apps open and the system begins to lag, beyond ten and out of memory errors rear their ugly head. But I can forgive the slight stutter here and there, what I have major issues with is the screen, chiefly its resolution of just 340 x 640 and just 184 DPI. Considering the quality of the photos and videos taken, it seems baffling that Nokia could not equip this device with a screen worthy of the 41 megapixel sensor.

So in review, fantastic, game changing camera technology, woeful operating system and mediocre hardware specifications. But you know what? I don’t care. I can live with a clunky OS and so so performance when the focal point of the product is so damn good.

In short, the 808 PureView feels much like the embodiment of Nokia: maddening, infuriating, yet stunningly brilliant. Thomas Curtis looks at the Nokia 808 PureView, a smartphone with a 41 megapixel camera – is it marketing fluff or have Nokia raised the bar for what we expect a smart phone camera to be capable of?