Nokia 808 PureView Review99+
It’s easy to understand our excitement about the camera performance of the Nokia 808 PureView, so we will be making this part of the review much longer than usual, with subsections that highlight the different abilities of the best-in-class PureView camera.
The 41-megapixel sensor is still with 1.4 micron pixels, as on most smartphones and compact cams, but its size is the whopping 1/1.2”, which is 2.5 times bigger than the 1/1.83” one in the previous smartphone record holder - Nokia N8. It’s also much larger than the average sensor used in most compact standalone cameras, thus able to capture more photons on its surface, which makes for excellent low light performance.
Also, the handset has a dedicated ISP attached to the sensor, which is keeping the staggering amount of pixels and frames manageable for the processor. In fact, Nokia said it had to wait until mobile processors reached their current strength, so they are able to cope with the PureView sensor workload. The presence of an in-house ISP explains how we get fluid 1080p video with only a single-core CPU, for example.
Nokia chose to do a gigantic 41MP camera sensor, because it would allow it to not only achieve lossless zoom, but also something called “pixel oversampling” in the PureView camera technology white paper.
Oversampling combines the myriad of neighboring pixels that the gigantic sensor produces, and makes one “super pixel” out of several – seven when in Automatic mode. These pixels are binned together into what Nokia claims is the perfect one, using its proprietary algorithm to keep the highest amount of detail and average out the noise that all of the pixels carry.
That is why the automatic mode, for example, shoots in 5MP, keeping speed and file size in check, but using the staggering amount of info from the 41MP sensor to create a picture Nokia says is times better than your average smartphone or compact camera, because of the pixel oversampling. Naturally, the more you zoom in or the higher the resolution you shoot in, the more of the oversampling effect is lost, that is why Nokia recommends to stick to the Automatic or the 8MP PureView modes.
There were prototypes with optical zoom, but the added bulk and the noise that these solutions produced while zooming into the footage meant a no-go. The big breakthrough came once a Nokia engineer thought about the way satellite imagery is done, and the lab decided to use resolution unheard of for a smartphone, in order to achieve lossless zoom without moving optics, and the associated distortion and aberrations.
In PureView mode you can do up to 3x lossless zoom for stills, while in video mode you can go up to 12x, depending on the video definition. When you shoot in full resolution with the 38 or 34 (16:9) effective megapixels you can’t zoom, of course.
Naturally, the more you zoom in, the more of the pixel oversampling effect is lost, and the table above shows the oversampling ratio at each level of zoom and resolution. Still, the quality lost while zooming in is much less than with that useless interpolation digital zooming brings on other smartphones. Think of it as instead of blowing up a small crappy photo (digital zoom), you just cut a piece of a bigger, quality poster to get the same scene in the Nokia 808 PureView.
Shooting modes - Automatic:
Just like the phone's design, the camera interface also puts function before form, and is pretty Spartan-looking, with only some transparency used for a good measure. There are three modes - Automatic, Scenes and Creative.
The automatic mode is for quick snaps, allowing you to adjust only the flash status. Nokia’s Damian Dinning, its camera guru, explained that they took a bit different approach in automatic mode this time, compared to the Nokia N8. The main goal with the N8 was to achieve more natural looking scene, that profi photographers are so fond of, leading to less appealing for the average user photos at first look, since most cameras strive for jolly, oversaturated colors and higher contrast than what’s in reality, because that’s what consumers like.
This has been repaired in the Nokia 808 PureView 5MP automatic mode, which Damian says produces slightly more appealing colors and contrast than the more professional Creative mode, where the phone switches to strictly natural color reproduction, unless you manually adjust the settings.
Shooting modes - Scenes:
Scenes has a fair amount of preset settings that Nokia deems perfect for different situations that may arise, like Portrait, Night Portrait, Night, Macro, Landscape, Snow, Sports, Spotlight and so on. You get the same 5MP 16:9 shots as in Automatic mode.
Portrait and Night Portrait emphasize on flesh color, for example, focusing on the faces in your subject group, while Snow ups the exposure a bit, so reflective environment like snow, beach sand or ice doesn't get darker than it is, which often happens with high ambient reflectance. Spotlight would be perfect for a concert or a theatre play, where the light shines directly on the performer, and so on. You get to preview how the scene looks like under the various Scenes in the viewfinder.
Scenes takes you one step further than the fully automatic mode, sort of a station on the way to the fully manual, or the so-called Creative mode, yet frankly the Automatic mode is sufficiently intelligent when it comes to choosing settings on the fly depending on the situation.
Shooting modes – Creative:
Here you can unleash the full potential of the 41MP PureView camera, and manually set it at full 38MP resolution in 4:3, or 34MP in 16:9 ratios. Alternatively, you can use the PureView mode in 3, 5 and 8MP with 4:3, and 2, 5 and 8MP with 16:9 aspect ratios, while setting the JPEG quality output as Normal or Superfine.
A very handy feature of the Creative regime are the three custom mode buttons C1, C2 and C3 – they remember the last combination of settings you've made, so you can quickly set up three macros that suit your photographic needs for the moment, and are very easy to get to quickly.
Here you can set different levels for saturation, contrast and sharpness with the provided sliders. The next details you can tinker with are the color tones - Normal, Vivid, Sepia and B&W. The Vivid mode is roughly what you get from most consumer cameras and smartphones, with higher than normal saturation and contrast, which makes for extremely eye-pleasing results, yet nothing gaudy as so often is the case.
The last variable while in Creative mode is Capture - there is the usual Self-timer at 2, 10 and 30 seconds, then comes Interval capture. Interval shooting allows you to fix the phone somewhere, and tell it to shoot 2-1500 pictures in 5 seconds to 30 minutes intervals – perfect for time-lapse photography.
Bracketing - you can take 3 or 5 images with a preset range of exposure adjustments, such as -0.3/+0.3, -0.7/+0.7, -1/+1, and -2/+2 steps. Sadly, you have to combine them yourself, or use an app, as there is no HDR mode out of the box. Of notable absence is a Panorama mode in the camera interface, too, something that comes by default now with Android 4.0, for example, but you can turn to Ovi Store for help.
Last, but not least, you are still left with many variables accessible via five shortcuts on the left side of the viewfinder in Creative mode. These are the flash mode, exposure adjustment (which brings up a handy histogram to help you choose the correct setting), white balance (cloudy, sunny, incandescent, fluorescent and automatic), ISO (50-1600), and the ND filter (on/off and automatic).
Neutral Density (ND) filter built-in, which is one of the few moving parts in the camera body, and sometimes kicks in to prevent overexposure in bright light scenarios. The good thing is that it can also be turned on and off manually to achieve effects like motion blur during longer exposure/slow shutter times, making for beautiful waterfall or wave shots, for example.
A feature worth mentioning here is the sleep-to-snap mode, which allows you to press the dedicated shutter key while the phone is locked, go into the camera app, and immediately take a photo, all for about a second or two, like on the Sony Xperia NXT phones. Focusing and taking a shot are almost instant, save for the Full Resolution mode, which takes a second or two, depending on the lighting conditions.
Finally, for continuous shooting you simply hold the physical shutter key, and the phone takes one snap after another every second or so until you release it. Still, the speed of capture here is much less compared to the zero shutter lag Android flagships this season, which can take multiple photos per second, so it can hardly be called burst mode.
And after the lengthy interface review, we come to the juiciest part – the picture quality. Nokia recommends shooting in the Automatic mode, which gets you 5MP photos with 16:9 aspect ratio. The Automatic mode is the perfect one for the casual photographer, since the resulting pics are less than 1MB, compared to the 2-3MB in 8MP, or 10-12MB at full resolution. These 5MP ones are easy to post on Facebook, Flickr, or shoot with an email, and the phone provides these sharing options. Yet you can still get high quality prints up to 10.2/5.7” (26/14.6cm) from them, if that’s your thing.
Still, we know you are itching to see the big resolutions as well, so after taking the shot in automatic mode, we took it in 8MP PureView and one with the full 38MP resolution. For added perspective, we covered some of the shots with a Panasonic DMC-GF2 in fully automatic mode as well – a good 12MP consumer camera on which we had 14-40mm lens kit.
Photos are simply great, and no other phone comes even close to what the Nokia 808 PureView is able to photograph. From the stunning amount of detail, through the excellent color reproduction, to the spot-on exposure and white balance even in mean lighting conditions, the sharp and clean shots below speak for themselves. We’d recommend shooting Automatic or turning on the Vivid mode, if you think colors are too natural for your taste, then you’d have the perfect vacation shot without any need for post-processing. Speaking of which, shots with the full resolution are simply a treasure trove for plugging into Photoshop, and making wonders out of all the photographic info hidden in them.
The only time there are issues with the Nokia 808 PureView is in Close-up mode, or when you try to focus on a nearby object. Nokia says focus is from 15cm to Infinity, but you’ll have issues focusing on anything closer than 20-25cm, and in excellent lighting at that, as with that great macro shot we did by the seaside. On the other hand, with the lossless zoom you can always focus from further away, and zoom in on the subject with similar effect, yet it won't be as good as the macro that the iPhone 4S or the Galaxy S III produce.
Indoor and low-light shots:
With the Nokia 808 PureView we finally have a phone that produces excellent results in low light. The sensor is so big, that more than enough photons get in even as light gets dimmer, and only at full-res photos in low light one can start noticing the noise. Moreover it is the preferable luminance noise, rather than the splotches produced by most smartphones and compacts. That solution is in line with Nokia’s strategy to let some noise in to avoid doing any software noise reduction and smear even a modicum of detail, which experts agree is the correct path to take. Indoor and low-light pictures are a great achievement indeed. We get clean, well-defined shots even when the light goes all the way down. The Xenon flash is twice more powerful than the one in the Nokia N8 even, and provides great illumination up to 12 feet.
With night shots, sometimes the phone chooses too slow of a shutter speed, so in your typical “holding with two hands and bated breath” scenario, the shots get less clear than they should be, as you can see in the night shots of the cathedral, compared to the bulkier, but steady Panasonic. As a rule of thumb you can manually up the ISO a notch in Creative mode to get the best results for night shots - maybe a little noisier, but sharper - since otherwise the phone will most likely choose a slower shutter speed, and there is no way to set that manually.
Video is shot in 1080p Full HD in Automatic mode, with consistent 30fps and sports continuous autofocus, which can be toggled on and off even while filming. Clips are recorded in the popular MPEG-4 format with 20Mbps.
Video capture has Scenes mode too, with Low Light, Spotlight, Sports and Snow settings – that last one should be used at the beach as well, or anywhere there is a lot of ambient reflectance.
The Creative mode from the pics is present for shooting video, and allows for 1080p, 720p and 360p definition settings, with 15, 24, 25 or 30fps. In the default 1080p mode you have four times lossless zoom, which becomes 6x if shooting at 720p, and the whopping 12x lossless zoom at the screen’s nHD 640x360 resolution.
Another setting is the color tone – we get the default Normal, and also Vivid, Sepia and B&W. Saturation, sharpness and contrast levels can be adjusted with individual sliders before video capture in Creative mode as well. There is digital video stabilization in Preferences that is off by default.
The automatic mode shoots excellent, fluid videos as you can see below, with an incredible amount of detail, zippy exposure adjustment while panning around, and very natural color reproduction. Yet, we would get into creative mode and bump the color saturation a notch to get the perfect imagery.
The only trouble we saw was with the overzealous continuous autofocus (CAF) which constantly adjusts something while panning around, and is on by default in all modes. Yet when you bring something closer than 20-25cm the phone can’t hook onto it, but keeps focusing on the background, instead of the nearby object front and center. This is easily overcome with the Touch Focus feature, which turns off CAF the second you tap on the screen, and focuses on the object of your choosing. The downside is that you have to tap again to switch focus to the background, or turn on CAF on the fly.
Nokia Rich Recording is the new name of the 128kbps stereo sound with 48kHz sampling while capturing video, which is touted to be with CD quality, very clean thanks to the noise-canceling mics, and with a strong volume. Nokia says the microphones are able to capture clean more frequencies than any other mobile solution available. It can also capture very loud sounds - the astonishing 140dB - meaning that you will still be able to record crisp sound without distortions on your next night out clubbing or at a concert. In fact, it’s the best stereo audio we’ve ever recorded with a smartphone, but don’t take our word for it, just listen to the samples.
Symbian’s music player is pretty good looking and versatile with its Cover Flow-like album art, song categorization, a few equalizer presets, and in this phone with Dolby Mobile surround sound in headset mode.
The tune progress bar and the controls are large enough to allow easy finger operation, yet not overly so to look ugly. The loudspeaker is pretty great, very strong and with a clear output, carrying over that commendable tradition from the Nokia N8.
The video player, while with the most basic interface imaginable, runs everything, including DivX/Xvid and MKV files out of the box, and up to 1080p definition. It’s another story whether Full HD is needed on this 360x640 screen. At least the AMOLED technology with its flashy colors makes video more enjoyable to watch.
Just like the Nokia N8, there is a pretty capable photo editor on the phone, allowing you to do basic and not so basic alterations to your pictures. You can crop, resize, stitch, post-process colors, contrast and so on, as well as add frames, text, clipart, and multiple color effects.