The Nokia 808 PureView is probably the most powerful camera phone ever but it's powered by an operating system that's heading for the history books. Its big boast is a gigantic 41-megapixel snapper. But when you pair that with the Symbian OS, it's the camera phone equivalent of a pushbike carrying a howitzer.
Nokia purists will point out that Symbian is technically a very powerful and capable OS -- which is technically speaking true. On the measure of most importance to most people -- ease of use -- it's been blown out of the water by Apple's iOS and Google's Android.
Beyond the 808's headline-grabbing megapixel count, there's a lot of cool camera technology to get excited about here. But even dyed-in-the-wool Nokia fans may baulk at the whopping price tag. Amazon is offering this curio for pre-order, SIM-free for an eye-watering £500.
Should I buy the Nokia 808 PureView?
The Nokia 808 PureView feels like a proof-of-concept device -- to the point where we were surprised at CNET Towers to see it destined for sale at all. Despite making it out of Espoo and into retail packaging, the phone remains hamstrung by an OS that Nokia has very publicly given the boot.
Our favourite Finns aren't spending truckloads of money investing in the future of Symbian as once they did. Oh no. Nokia's energy is now being poured into hardware and apps for Microsoft's Windows Phone OS. So that's the first caveat: if you purchase the 808 PureView, you're buying yesteryear's software. Don't expect lots of OS updates or scores of new apps to be developed.
Secondly, Symbian -- even this latest incarnation, known as Belle -- is less polished and easy to use than iOS or Android. Belle is a lot better than Symbian iterations of old. Android users may even experience a spot of déjà vu as they swipe around its multiple home screens, eyeballing widgets and apps. But dig down and the surface polish soon rubs off. You're effectively trading usability for that amazing camera.
This is a phone for Nokia purists who've been in a deep and meaningful relationship with Symbian for years. If you just want a basic telephone with a really good camera attached to it, the 808 PureView similarly won't disappoint (assuming you don't balk at the expense).
If you're hoping to be able to pick the 808 PureView up on contract, you're out of luck. None of the UK's mobile operators will be selling it, so if you're desperate to pocket the PureView, prepare to shell out DSLR prices to bag one.
Photographers will rightly be intrigued by the PureView technology but Nokia has indicated it will bring the technology to its Windows Phone line of smart phones in. So it may be worth waiting for a Lumia PureView to land.
The 808 looks like it might ignite another camera arms race -- hopefully one that's sensibly focused on the size of the sensor, rather than just the quantity of megapixels.
The dust has only just settled on the megapixel war between actual cameras, while smart phone snappers have levelled off at around 8 megapixels. Yet the PureView is branded with a ludicrously large megapixel count. Even 'proper' cameras don't have 41 megapixels, except those that even pros wish they could afford. That's why it's worth noting the postage stamp-sized 1/1.2-inch sensor.
Most phones have a sensor smaller than a pinkie fingernail -- that's why your budget blower serves up grainy, distorted camera phone fodder. The PureView's super-sized sensor means less distortion, less grain and more crisp, glorious detail. It also gifts the PureView a longer focal length (8.02mm) than many camera phones. Add in its large f/2.4 aperture and, if you're focusing on something in the foreground of a scene, the PureView will produce seriously impressive shallow depth of field too (if you want to sound like a real pro, this is known as a 'bokeh' effect).
You may be wondering what the point of a 41 megapixel photos on a phone is but that's the wrong question to ask. The size of the sensor enables a technique called 'pixel oversampling', whereby a lot of visual information is condensed down into fewer but 'truer' pixels. The result is extremely sharply detailed shots, while unsightly grain is banished back to the 70s where it belongs.
In certain situations the large sensor also enables 'lossless zoom' -- in other words, you can zoom in as you're framing your shot and won't lose any detail (Nokia avoids the crude option of upscaling, which most camera phones with a digital zoom resort to), thereby saving the shoe leather of walking closer to your subject. If you're shooting at maximum resolution, you can't zoom in at all, but with such a high-res pic, you'll be able to zoom in retrospectively and crop various shots from this gigantic canvas -- like a cookie cutter stamping biscuits from a sheet of dough.
If that wasn't enough, the 808 uses Carl Zeiss-branded optics, which feature a molded glass aspherical lens. And you get a large Xenon flash that promises to be a powerful light for you in dark places.
If you want to snap at the absolute maximum resolution, the 808 PureView can capture 38 or 34-megapixel images, depending on the aspect ratio you choose (4:3 or 16:9). Of course, you don't have to shoot in this mode all the time. Indeed, for most people a 38-megapixel photo would be madness unless you were planning to print a wall-sized poster for your bedroom.
The PureView offers more sensible megapixel modes including 8, 5 and 2, which are far more suitable for everyday snaps and quick mobile uploads. The default photo mode is 5 megapixels.
At these lower megapixel modes, Nokia says results are superior to your average 5 or 2-megapixel camera phone because its cunning pixel oversampling technique kicks in. The lossless zoom is also a boon on these modes.
So the PureView philosophy in a nutshell is a larger sensor, better optics and pixel oversampling producing purer, clearer and (when you want them) very high-resolution images.
The phone itself is chunky but not oversized. Nokia has done a pretty good job of minimising the bulge factor of the camera lens, which swells out smoothly from the top of the phone, without unbalancing the design. You won't have to worry too much about scratching the lens either as it's slightly recessed and surrounded by a shiny metal plate.
The handset is pretty heavy though. After one snapping session, its heft left me with handache. On the plus side, the weight makes it easier to keep the camera steady as you shoot.
Interestingly, the extra bulk doesn't result in a top-heavy phone. In fact, the 808 PureView felt well balanced in the hand. It also helps that the ceramic-like finish is grippy, especially for one-handed use. The finger ridge on the back could have been more pronounced, or made of a textured material, to provide better grip while shooting though.
The PureView offers greater manual control than lots of camera phones -- you certainly get more sliders and settings than Apple's iPhone offers. Despite all these controls, Nokia has managed to keep things fairly simple. It's certainly simpler than many 'proper cameras' and definitely more straightforward than a dSLR.
There are three basic modes to choose from: Automatic, Scenes and Creative. The Automatic mode does what it says on the tin -- it lets you treat the PureView as a point-and-shoot camera so you can get snapping in the default 5-megapixel mode, with the camera making all the decisions.
The Scenes mode takes back some control, letting you give the camera a nudge in the right direction by allowing you to specify whether you're snapping a landscape, a portrait, a night-time shot, or choose from a number of scene types.
You're able to take proper manual control via the Creative setting. Here, you can customise the ISO level, exposure, contrast, saturation and sharpness, as well as select the aspect ratio, type of scene you're shooting and more. Simple on-screen sliders alter things like the contrast of your image and you can see the results instantly as you smoothly adjust the sliders with a fingertip.
The manual controls are designed by people used to designing specifically for the touchscreen of a phone, so the sliders and buttons are much more intuitive than the menus of most proper cameras.
There are also a few basic effects you can add to shots -- including sepia and black and white -- seeing them overlaid in real time over the image before you tap the shutter.
When you're happy with the look of your picture, you can save your settings as one of three custom modes. Whenever you're in that situation again, simply tap on the saved settings and you can instantly start shooting with the camera set up just how you like it.
Talking of shooting, you can either tap a shutter button on screen or use the dedicated camera key on the top edge of the phone, which gives finer-grained control. You can also use the volume rocker key to zoom in and out before snapping, or just slide your finger up and down on the screen.
Once you've snapped a shot, the now universally accepted reverse-pinch gesture lets you zoom in on all the little details caught by Nokia's big sensor.
The PureView's zoom isn't an optical zoom like you'd find on many proper cameras. Instead, Nokia has drawn on the size of the sensor to offer the aforementioned lossless zoom. One thing to note is that at the highest resolution, you can't zoom in any more as the sensor's scope is entirely maxed out -- and Nokia has eschewed image-degrading options such as upscaling.
Nokia's thinking is that at the top end of the resolution, the size of the image you're creating is so large you'll be able to scale and crop it after you've imported it to your computer -- to produce a variety of different shots.
For more advanced users, the PureView also offers a bracketing mode for high dynamic range (HDR) photography and time-lapse recording. Nokia even sells an optional tripod mount adaptor for those who are serious about stabilising the device when shooting. Shutter lag is minimal, although there's a little wait of about 1 to 2 seconds while the shot is saved -- especially when shooting at full resolution.
The devil is in the detail and there's an astonishing level of it in the finished pictures. Open the gallery and you'll see a grid of your shots, which you can then tap on to open a snap. Because the quick preview doesn't re-orient photos to portrait mode, if you want to see a portrait photo in full, you'll have to exit the camera app and fire up the gallery, which is a mild annoyance.
You zoom into a photo with the usual pinching gesture of your fingertips. And keep pinching. And keep pinching -- pictures are so detailed you can zoom in on really small details captured in the background of your shots.
The extra detail means you can crop a picture on the phone -- using the crop icon that appears below each shot -- and still have it come out a decent size for printing or sharing online. There's a quick shortcut to share pics on Facebook immediately. Flickr is also integrated, but not Twitter.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so how tasty are PureView photos? Well, in short, very sweet indeed. Here's a taster of what the camera can do in the default automatic mode, shooting at 5 megapixels:
Here's a shot that shows off the 808's strengths in producing great shallow depth of field:
If you want to see what a super-high resolution image looks like, click on the shot below:
Here's a crop taken from the last photo:
Lossless zoom can't be used on the max-resolution mode, but if you snap at one of the lower megapixel modes, any zooming you do before taking a shot won't cause the image to degrade:
In Creative mode you can also tweak settings such as saturation and contrast:
Based on image quality, the 808 is simply unbeatable among smart phones at the moment. Its low light performance -- a situation which many smart phone cameras struggle with -- blows the competition away. It also produced images with pleasing colour, without being overly saturated (unless you manually bump up the saturation like the shot above).
So how does it fare against two of the best camera phones around?
Nokia 808 PureView vs iPhone 4S vs HTC One X
Here's a series of shots comparing the PureView's lens with the iPhone 4S and the HTC One X -- click on each image to enlarge.
All three camera phones produce some cracking shots but Nokia's lens sneaks ahead with the truest colours, the least noise (especially in low light), and the shallowest depth of field. If you're after super-high res images, the PureView is the clear choice.
Nokia's camera phone is also excellent at snapping in pitch-dark conditions -- as this flash-lit shot shows:
For all its impressive imaging chops, the PureView camera software has a few downsides. For one, there's no burst mode setting, though you can capture sequential shots by holding down the physical shutter button.
While you can shoot at full resolution and then crop the photo, the trade-off is more noise because the oversampling feature will not be utilised. As such, it's probably best to shoot on the default 5-megapixel setting -- or at 8 megapixels -- unless you plan on printing out a life-sized poster.
The PureView also records at up to 1080p resolution high-definition video, with the same array of scene modes, manual options and saved custom set-ups.
Test results produced some really sumptuous footage.
You can zoom silently while filming, but once again, it's not quite a proper zoom.
An HDMI port on the top edge of the 808 PureView lets you watch your video on your HD TV.
Design and build quality
Weighing a hefty 169g, the design of the Nokia 808 PureView can be simply described as solid. The construction of the phone is robust and sturdy. Coupled with the Gorilla Glass display, this phone is built to last. While it's chunky, the phone's narrower girth means it's well suited to one-handed usage.
The 4-inch 360x640-pixel resolution screen is on the low side for a smart phone with such an imaging pedigree. It would have been better to be able to enjoy photos in at least 720p glory. By comparison, the Sony Xperia S has a 4.3-inch 720x1,280-pixel display, while HTC's One X offers 4.7 inches of screen at a resolution of 1,280x720 pixels.
One upside of the 808's screen is Nokia's proprietary ClearBlack display technology, which is touted to give good readability under direct sunlight. This turns out to be true here. The touchscreen has a tendency to retain fingerprints and smudges though.
The slightly curved edges of the glass are a neat design element, which is reminiscent of the Nokia N9. Overall, it's a refreshing change from the flat and boxy look of some me-too smart phones out there.
Nokia chose to go with a screen lock slider on the side of the phone instead of a lock button, which is a useful feature. Holding the slider down turns on the flash to use it as a torchlight, making it a nifty shortcut.
On the front is a long plastic button that incorporates the power key, call answer and decline keys and a back/menu key.
Finally, there's Dolby Digital Plus technology for surround sound, although it only works with compatible headphones or speakers. Nokia has also included NFC tech -- which supports contactless mobile payments.
OS and performance
The 808 runs Symbian Belle -- the latest version of this very-long-in-the-tooth OS which, in recent years, has had a surface makeover and now offers a simple interface of rounded square icons.
This refreshed look is a big improvement on Symbian iterations of old. New features include up to six customisable home screens, improved multi-tasking, scrolling widgets and an Android-like drop-down notifications menu. Android fans may even experience a spot of déjà vu as they swipe around.
But the surface polish does not extend to the whole experience. If you're not super techie -- or well versed in Symbian's foibles -- the 808 PureView will soon become frustrating.
There are fewer apps in the Symbian Ovi store than rival platforms -- amounting to a tenth of the number in Apple's app store. My PureView review sample came pre-loaded with a selection of apps -- including an edition of Angry Birds, Let's Golf! 2, Nokia Drive and Quickoffice. I was able to find a Twitter client but no dedicated Facebook app (although you can link your Facebook account to Nokia's Social widget).
The phone has a 1.3GHz processor with 512MB of RAM and 16GB of memory. You can expand the storage with a microSD memory card (via a slot inside the phone), should your super-high res snaps fill up the onboard storage.
The single-core processor is certainly not the snappiest in the market (especially with quad-core smart phones being released). While the camera is smooth and slick to operate, doing other tasks on the 808 causes the phone to drag its feet. Widgets often display a loading swirl and web browsing is a headache.
Browsing full-fat HTML5 websites seems beyond the 808. The screen slows to such a crawl it's all but unusable. Even those websites that should be less taxing can be sporadically unresponsive, as if they're working the processor way too hard. Try browsing a rich PDF -- you basically can't, or not without tearing your hair out in frustration.
There's no Adobe Flash support so embedded videos and other Flash content won't be visible -- and you can't always rely on there being an app to get around this lack. The pre-loaded YouTube app is just a shortcut to a mobile site, so even when using this I came across videos that can't be played on the device.
The camera was generally snappy, although there can be a small lag when saving pictures. This is especially noticeable when taking full-sized 38-megapixel shots. For extra processing power, the 808's camera module features a special companion processor that handles part of the workload before sending it to the graphics chip. This process may explain the lag.
The 808's 1,400mAh battery is rated by Nokia as being good for up to 6.5 hours of 3G talk time, or up to 540 hours on standby.
I found the battery easily lasted a full day with average usage but if you're going to be spending a day out taking lots of pictures, especially with flash, best bring an external charger along. The battery is removable so you can carry a spare.
Call quality was good -- I had no trouble hearing the person I was speaking to nor they me, and I didn't experience any dropped calls during testing. The volume can be turned up nice and loud. The 808's front speaker can pump out a pretty decent noise.
The Nokia 808 PureView's most compelling feature -- some might say it's only feature -- is its 41 megapixel camera. This clever technology lives up to the hype and can turn out some truly stunning shots, beating all current smart phones known for their imaging prowess, including the iPhone 4S and the HTC One X.
As a camera, the PureView scores five out of five. But it's a smart phone, and as a smart phone the PureView has loads of drawbacks -- the biggest being it's tethered to the Symbian OS. The iPhone 4S, One X and Samsung Galaxy S3 are popular not only because of their competent cameras, but also due to their apps and intuitive user interfaces. Symbian falls short on ease of use, variety of apps and slickness of interface. It's also yesterday's software -- heading for tomorrow's history books.
Even setting aside this gnomic, dying OS, the PureView is woefully under-powered for web browsing -- becoming chronically unresponsive and dragging its feet on basic smart phone tasks that really shouldn't be that taxing.
All of these drawbacks explain the PureView's low overall score. Despite its cracking camera, the vast majority of smart phone buyers are better off spending their money on a device like the iPhone 4S -- which has an excellent camera but is also an excellent smart phone.
If the PureView Pro technology is brought to the Windows Phone platform the combination of an elegant, simple-to-use interface and Nokia's impressive camera kit could make for a very compelling combination.
For now, the failings of Symbian probably won't matter to the minority of people who will buy the 808 -- Nokia purists and the more discerning photography enthusiasts who are looking for a compact camera replacement and don't mind spending a whack of cash to get it. If you just want a camera that has the ability to make calls and send/receive emails, the 808 will fulfill this purpose very well.
Additional writing by Rich Trenholm.