Nokia 808 PureView Hands-On: A Superb Camera (With a Phone Attached)

By Sam Gibbs on at

Nokia's 808 PureView made a big splash and caused a fair bit of controversy at MWC this year. 41 actual megapixels crammed into a cameraphone? It sounds ludicrous, especially when you hear it's running Symbian. The 808 PureView will be out around the start of June, so we grabbed some time with it to see if that beastly sensor is really everything Nokia promises it'll be.

While Symbian doesn't interest us much, we will admit to being fascinated by that camera sensor, which is what this hands-on write-up will mostly focus on. (Pardon the pun.) With Nokia already stating they'll release a Windows Phone 7 version at a later date, consider this a taste of something far greater, to come.

The PureView technology that powers the 808 was born out of a partnership between Nokia and Carl Zeiss, that apparently kicked off five years ago following a drunken conversation in a bar. Zeiss supplied the optics know-how, while Nokia brought that colossal image sensor, plus a bunch of advanced proprietary image processing techniques. The result is a camera phone module that’s pretty massive compared to almost every other phone out there. On paper it should let in more light and best most compact cameras, let alone cameraphones.

 

How it feels

Let's get one thing straight: the 808 isn't exactly thin. It's a chubby phone, complete with a hulking great big bulge to accommodate the impressive camera. In the hand it doesn't feel enormous, but it's pretty top heavy. One nice thing about the camera bulge is that it sits quite pleasantly on your index finger when held in portrait, but there's just no getting over the size of the thing.

The casing is polycarbonate, but it has had a special ceramic coating applied to it, which boosts durability and makes it feel pleasant to the touch. The 808 feels incredibly solid, and doesn't flex or creek at all -- it's certainly doesn't feel cheap or tacky, like other low-end Nokias do.

 

Symbian, why, oh why?

On first appearance Nokia seems to have made a really odd decision to land the 808 with Symbian Belle. Let me specify: Symbian isn't absolutely horrendous, but it's just not what you want from a modern smartphone. The reason behind the platform choice is down to the 808 having been in the works for the best part of five years, and was designed and prototyped before Nokia committed to Windows Phone. Instead of canning it at a late stage and waiting for a Windows Phone-packing PureView to be developed, Nokia decided to finish it up and get it onto the market.

In my limited time playing with the Symbian Belle platform it seemed OK; not on par with Android, iOS or Windows Phone, but decent enough for a "dumbphone." There was a bit of sluggishness when swiping across screens, but it performed snappily enough actually within apps.

 

That camera is damn good

The camera basically is the 808 PureView; everything about the phone is geared up for the camera. In fact, I'd go as far as saying it's almost like a camera with a phone attached, rather than the other way around. The dedicated shutter button will rouse the camera no matter what you're doing or whether the phone is locked. It starts up pretty quickly too, which should make you quick on the draw to capture the moment. Nokia's given the camera a dedicated co-processor, which does all the heavy lifting and makes the camera responsive and snappy. The only slight bit of lag you notice is immediately on saving a full-size photo, but it's only about the same as you experience with the iPhone 4's camera, for instance.

Nokia's camera app is pretty solid, with more options than you can shake a stick at. There are your normal auto and scene modes for macro; portraits; landscapes, and the like, but you can also tweak your photography much, much further than even most compact cameras will allow. With a "customise" option you can play with the ISO; white balance; brightness; contrast; exposure; apply black and white or sepia filters, or even set up some time lapse shooting intervals. There's also a self-timer, plus the ability to shoot in either 16:9 or 4:3. Nokia's sadly not given you any automatic HDR options, but you can shoot 3 or 5 bracketed shots with your choice of exposure steps for you to do your own HDR blending when you're back at base. Of course, you've also got resolution settings for 2, 5 or 8-megapixel shots, or you can unleash the full bore of that 41MP sensor.

Let's chat some more about the 41MP sensor: you're actually not shooting true 41-megapixel stills. Yes, the full sensor is truly 41MP, but due to the way the sensor is used in either landscape or portrait in 16:9, you can only shoot 34 or 38-megapixel images respectively -- not that 30-plus megapixel images aren't huge and detailed enough, of course.

Although you can easily snap full-sized shots with the 808, Nokia recommends sticking with automatic most of the time, which results in oversampled 5MP images for incredibly crisp shots. Auto mode works well on the whole, although I struggled to get the thing to go into macro focus in automatic. A quick tap and you can shoot in full size, which results in some rather enormous images in the 11 - 15MB range. The detail they contain is quite astonishing, especially when you consider it's only a camera phone. We didn't really get a solid opportunity to test real low-light shooting, but the large image sensor size meant indoor shots came out really well. Likewise the xenon flash, which is Nokia's most powerful to date, did the job well within a couple of metres too.

As you can see from the full size images we've uploaded over on our Flickr account, you can zoom right in for details you can't even see with the naked eye. Zooming in reveals text on faraway buildings; the stalks of dandelions or even the woven detail of fabrics -- it can be almost microscopic at times.

There's also Nokia's lossless digital zoom, which works as advertised, giving you a smooth three-times zoom without losing detail. It worked well indoors, but 3x isn't going to get you much closer to those hills in the background. Nokia's re-worked the thinking behind how you zoom with a camera, and instead of the pinch-to-zoom gesture you might expect, you've got a one-finger slide. It means you can do it all with your thumb while holding the phone like a camera, which is so much more intuitive, I found. You can also use the volume rocker to zoom, but the touchscreen works much better in practice.

 

So what does it all mean?

The camera really is as impressive as Nokia's claimed. It produces incredibly crisp and true-to-life 5MP shots, with digital zoom that rivals optical zooms. When you open up the full sensor size, you get incredibly-detailed images that are surprisingly crisp and rich all the way down to actual pixel size.

Nokia's really set the next benchmark for camera phone imaging, and has pretty much made compact cameras and maybe even bridge cameras obsolete. Like I said before (but you may've missed, if you skipped down to the concluding paragraphs), it's almost as if the 808 PureView is a camera with a phone strapped to the back. There's a big compromise though, and that's size. The camera components are massive, and makes the whole phone bigger than we're used to these days.

We're not even going to say that Symbian is a major compromise for the 808 PureView, because we know you won't even consider buying this phone while it's running on that platform. It certainly bodes well for future Lumia Windows Phones with PureView technology though. We know they're in the works, and if they come out anywhere near as well as the 808 PureView, camera manufacturers ought to be scared. We just hope Nokia can put it on a diet first.


Don’t just take my word for it: we’ve uploaded some of our un-edited photos in full resolution to Flickr so you can judge for yourself. Unfortunately Flickr will only let you download them at up to 2048 x 1154 (41MP is just too big it seems), but we’ll rig something up so you can see for yourselves.

Update: Google+ handles the full image sizes so check out my Google+ album to download the full things for yourself (bottom left under options).