Nokia 808 PureView review: the future of mobile imaging, wrapped in smartphone's past

The Nokia 808 PureView has a 41-megapixel camera sensor. But you knew that. The crystallization of five years of imaging R&D has landed, and the timing couldn't have been better for Nokia. Alongside uncomfortable financial reading, its move to Windows Phone hasn't exactly set the smartphone world alight just yet. It's seemingly established itself as the go-to WinPho choice for American customers thanks to some aggressive pricing, but with news that the next iteration of Windows Phone won't come to the Lumia 900, many will hold out for Nokia's next handset. Whatever that device will be, it's likely to bring the same PureView technology we've got here on the Nokia 808 PureView -- a Symbian-based handset whose software has seen better days. However, OS be damned, it still blew away attendees at this year's Mobile World Congress. Impressive stuff, given that it's the same show where HTC's admirable One series debuted.

That huge sensor is paired with a new five-element Carl Zeiss lens and a refreshed flash with double the strength of the one on the Nokia N8 -- the existing cameraphone champ. But behind the technical bullet points, it's how Nokia maximizes the 41-megapixel sensor, oversampling with those pixels to create improved 5-, 8- , 3- and 2-megapixel images, reducing noise and improving low-light performance. However, when it comes to software, Symbian Belle (with Feature Pack 1 in tow) lags behind the likes of Android, iOS and Windows Phone in user experience and app provision. Similarly, the chunky handset flies in the opposite direction of the trend for slim smartphones. Is that camera module really all Nokia thinks (and hopes) it is? What's more, is Symbian relevant enough for such future-facing goodness? Let's find out.

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Nokia 808 PureView review

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Nokia

Nokia 808 PureView

Pros

  • Best cameraphone ever
  • Superb video and audio recording
  • Screen easily viewable outdoors

Cons

  • Low-res display
  • App store lacks the range and breadth of rivals
  • Symbian Belle OS is temperamental and unintuitive
Summary

The PureView 808 is easily the best cameraphone yet. But if you're obsessed with imaging quality, be prepared to compromise on performance and usability.

Hardware

While the 808 PureView forgoes the N8's metal casing, we can't think of a phone that has a more solid-feeling plastic shell than this. It feels so hardy that if we were to accidentally drop it, the pavement below us might come off worse. Fortunately, the rough matte finish has great purchase in the hand, and the same coating runs across the edge of the phone -- precisely where you'll be grabbing the device while taking photos. That substantial build means the phone's profile tops out at 18mm thick, narrowing to a more acceptable 14mm.

There are two reasons the 808 PureView measures nearly twice as thick as other recent smartphones. First, that sensor needs the extra space, as does the Carl Zeiss lens. Secondly, given the camera-centric gravitas of the whole device, a curvier profile better lends itself to photography. Despite its top-heavy appearance, the weight distribution feels balanced, if slightly biased towards the lens end.

All told, it is, indeed, as bulky as it looks, weighing in at 169g (six ounces) and making a good case for those plastic build materials. The back of the phone wraps around to meet the Gorilla Glass-protected screen, while a plastic strip cuts across the lower half of the battery cover. It gave us something to grip with our fingernails, but could have stood to be a little more substantial. Removing said battery cover will give you access to a swappable (but surprisingly small) 1,400mAh battery, as well as micro-SIM and microSD slots. Fortunately, there's already 16GB of storage built in, but you can expand this to 32GB with a card.

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Other connectivity options include a micro-USB port for charging and data transfer, and a mini-HDMI socket behind a covered door on the phone's top side. That uppermost edge houses both of these and the headphone socket, while the left side is left bare. On the right, the volume rocker and two-stage camera button match the chrome finish on the camera unit, with a phone lock switch making a welcome return. The camera button is a core part of this device, and we're glad to report that it's satisfyingly tactile -- even through Nokia's official case, which cocoons the camera phone in flexible plastic.

Across the bottom of the screen, the typical trio of Symbian buttons are on display: a green dialer button, central home button and red disconnect button. They're all collected into a single strip, which will look familiar to anyone who's seen past Symbian hardware or even the Lumia 710. Above the screen, you'll find the earpiece, light sensor and front-facing camera. The phone's loudspeaker is on the base of the phone, to the right of the lens, which is flanked by the Xenon flash on the other side. The camera itself has a mechanical shutter, which you'll notice when you start taking those solipsistic 41-megapixel self-portraits.

Screen

Nokia continues to use Gorilla Glass on its devices, this time even coating the camera lens with the stuff -- a wise decision. This protection extends across all four inches of the AMOLED screen as well. Unfortunately, the resolution hasn't moved on from the N8, with the same 640 x 360 pixel count now stretched further, which translates to a creaky 184 ppi. It really puts the brakes on enjoying all those pin-sharp images and high-definition video, although the gallery's responsive pinch-to-zoom interface does side-step this a little. It would have been nice to see these pictures on double, if not quadruple the number of pixels, and the screen remains a curious juxtaposition with the high-end camera.

Oddly, while you're able to adjust brightness in settings, the light sensor will continue to adjust the output of the screen -- something we'd prefer to be in control of. At full brightness, the screen seems to take on a subtle bluish-purple tint. One pleasant surprise is the screen's performance outdoors. The Lumia 900 offered a similarly stand-out experience, and again, it seems a sensible development for Nokia's first PureView device -- you'll be wanting to take photos outside, and you'll want to see them immediately. Nokia's ClearBlack screen gave us colors that were predictably realistic and contrast was superb, despite the dearth of pixels.

Camera

Forget the awkward industrial design. Ignore the frustrating mess that is Belle. Take one picture with Nokia's 808 PureView and all will be forgiven. We dare you. It's difficult to relay exactly how thoroughly awesome this camera is and how stupendously phenomenal the resulting shots are. This device instantly obliterates every other cameraphone, while simultaneously giving most dedicated point-and-shoots the proverbial finger. It's that good. So what's the special sauce? How is this possible? Welcome to the world of software photography, where lenses and motors and hardware are replaced with algorithms and code and wizardry.

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Nokia 808 PureView sample shots

As you'd expect, it all starts with a nice sensor. There's been a lot of brouhaha about the 41-megapixel camera aboard the 808 PureView, and rightfully so. Image quality isn't about the number of pixels as much as it is about pixel size. On the one hand, 41 megapixels seems like overkill -- on the other hand, it's what makes the PureView technology possible. Consider this: at 1.4 microns this sensor's pixel size is identical to that of the iPhone 4S. This means that pixel for pixel, this shooter matches the competition -- it just uses five times more pixels per image than an 8-megapixel camera. At 1/1.2 inches (10.82 x 7.52mm), the 808's sensor is physically massive, larger even than the 1/1.7-inch array in Canon's S95 high-end point-and-shoot. Of course, this is all meaningless without a proper lens. Here, the 808 PureView delivers again with an autofocus prime lens made by Carl Zeiss that features five aspherical glass elements (in one group) and a mechanical shutter. The aperture is fixed at f/2.4 but the lens includes a selectable neutral density filter. Unlike most of the competition, the 808 incorporates both a xenon flash for stills and an LED light for video (the latter also being used to assist with autofocus). A dedicated two-stage shutter key rounds out the camera hardware -- we expect any cameraphone worth its salt to have one. This particular button is decent, but the second detent feels a little mushier and harder to press than we'd like. Some of HTC's handsets (like the EVO 3D, myTouch 4G Slide and EVO 4G LTE) have keys offering better tactile feedback. Now let's talk about Nokia's PureView technology. What's the big deal, anyway? How does it work? Let's begin with that 41-megapixel sensor. Capturing this many pixels enables a software trick known as pixel oversampling. Since a final 8- or 5-megapixel photo usually contains enough detail for printing and is easier to store and transmit, it's possible to use those 41 megapixels to zoom in or stabilize the image without resorting to interpolation and losing information. By combining many pixels to create a single higher-quality pixel, oversampling also removes Bayer pattern problems and reduces noise. Better yet, all this applies to video recording. The net result is crisper stills and videos, with less noise and more detail.

Nokia's significantly revised and improved the camera interface on the 808 PureView -- it's simpler and a lot more intuitive than on the N8. The viewfinder is divided into three areas: a vertical stripe on the left edge containing common setting like the flash, EV, white balance and ISO; a vertical stripe on the right edge which contains the stills / video switch, on-screen shutter key and gallery button; finally an automatic / scenes / creative toggle in the middle top. Tapping anywhere in the viewfinder enables touch-to-focus, tapping and holding lets you select the autofocus mode. A finger swipe brings up a frame that's sized by further swiping -- remove your finger and the 808 zooms smoothly to match the zoom level shown in the frame. Neat. Alternatively, the volume rocker doubles as a standard zoom control.

So what do images taken with the 808 PureView look like? Stunning, detailed, vibrant, and noise-free.

Automatic mode takes care of everything for you, while scenes mode provides a choice between various presets (like portrait, landscape, night and macro) -- both modes capture 8-megapixel photos with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Creative mode is for photography buffs and offers full control over every possible adjustment, including time lapse. Best of all, in this mode Nokia lets you choose between taking full-resolution pictures and snapping PureView shots (eight, five or three megapixels) at standard or wide aspect ratios. Full-resolution images are actually 38 megapixels (7152 x 5368) at 4:3 and 34 megapixels (7728 x 4354) at 16:9. Overall, there isn't much to complain about in terms of camera interface -- it's probably the most polished app on the handset. We'd like to see a setting to disable face detection (it's always on) and a fix for the gallery, which is stuck in landscape when accessed from within the shooter. There's no panorama or bona fide HDR mode (the camera supports bracketing, but doesn't combine the results).

Nokia 808 PureView review the future of mobile imaging, wrapped in the smartphone past

So what do images taken with the 808 PureView look like? Stunning, detailed, vibrant and noise-free. The sweet spot appears to be 8-megapixel PureView shots with little to no zoom -- this provides the ideal conditions for pixel oversampling to do its magic. When zooming in all the way or when taking pictures at full-resolution (thus revealing the sensor's original pixels) we noticed a bit less detail and a touch more noise. Even then, the results surpass that of capable shooters, like the One X, when compared pixel for pixel, which speaks volumes about the quality of the sensor and optics. In our tests, exposure was spot on and low-light performance was spectacular -- white balance, despite being usually accurate, was sometimes off when snapping photos in artificial light (like under fluorescents).

Videos captured with the 808 PureView are just as incredibly amazing as the stills. The camera records 1080p and 720p HD video at up to 30fps with selectable continuous autofocus and stereo audio. The resulting videos clock in at a healthy 20Mbps and benefit from the same pixel oversampling trickery (lossless zoom and image stabilization) as the PureView shots. Not only is video performance absolutely superb -- easily beating the competition -- sound quality is another strong point thanks to Nokia's Rich Recording technology, which uses MEMS digital microphones and enables clear, distortion-free audio capture at levels up to 140-145dBs.

It's clear that Nokia's 808 PureView represents a revolution in terms of stills and video performance -- not just for cameraphones, but for the entire imaging industry. This (along with Lytro's light field technology) is the dawn of software photography, where hardware still matters but is kept simple, compact, reliable and affordable. We'd be surprised if pixel oversampling doesn't make its way into point-and-shoots and eventually even mirrorless and reflex interchangeable lens cameras -- just imagine this technology being combined with a full-size sensor and ultra-fast prime lens. In the more immediate future it's likely that PureView will play an important role in Nokia's next-generation Windows Phone 8 handsets. We can't wait.

Update: Here's a ZIP file containing Myriam's original 808 PureView images. As some have pointed out in the comments, the picture taken with the One X in the comparison shot above was strangely under-exposed, but we found a second, identical, properly exposed photo so we updated the comparison shot.

Software

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Anyone that comes to the 808 PureView from a similarly Symbian device will wave away many of our complaints about Belle FP1, but that doesn't make them any less valid. Symbian Belle feels old. The notion that, on its release, a truckload of new widgets was a core feature is laughably tragic. And though a drop-down menu, adjustable widgets and incremental feature additions make this less pronounced, all is not well. WiFi hotspot internet sharing is now doable through the third-party app, but this wasn't easy. The freeware version of JoikuSpot comes pre-installed, but was unwilling to work with several of our SIM cards. Similarly, installing apps takes several times longer than we've grown used to on the likes of Windows Phone and Android. Like BlackBerry devices, be prepared to reset the phone for some apps. We also had to set aside around half an hour pottering around apps, while downloads languished and installations stalled and often terminated.

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Nokia 808 PureView screen shots

Nokia Maps stands out, as the Espoo cartographers prove they know exactly what we want from mapping software.

On the surface, navigation around home screens is generally responsive and slick, with a nice transitional animation between each screen -- these can all be customized with a specific photo. The photo widget is worth noting, by the by, as you can assign a plethora of images to cycle through. It'll refresh the photos shown when you transition between screens. The app drawer is also responsive to your swipes, with a new list or icon view that bounces at the top and bottom of the respective views. You can either sort alphabetically, or customize for your heavy-use apps and drag them to the top. Folders can be added to categorize apps, and it was something we did soon after setting up our test device, as there are several settings options taking up space that could otherwise be dedicated to standalone apps. It's impossible to drag and drop items into these, however, and you'll have to laboriously "tag" each icon with the respective folder name.

Across the app selection, Nokia Maps stands out yet again, as the Espoo cartographers prove they know exactly what we want from mapping software. Even here, there's a faint whiff of Symbian's aging status, with minimal app integration to share your location. Still, you'll be able to check in with several major social networks including Facebook, Foursquare and even Sina -- although this courtesy extends to an announcement post only. Another nice touch is the fact that location-tagged photos will automatically populate the map wherever you took them. Nokia's Public Transit app separates route planning for metropolitan hubs that have their train and bus routes mapped out. There's a lightweight selection of underwhelming pre-installed games. Arguably the richest of the bunch, Asphalt 6, stutters during play despite the humble screen resolution. The number of appealing titles in Nokia's store means you won't be shopping for a new game all that often -- a criticism that can be leveled at its app store in general.

While there are icons for both Facebook and Twitter, these are merely integrated into Nokia's Social app, with no native applications for either. Also, they bear tedious interfaces compared with the Facebook and Twitter apps you'll find on competing platforms. You won't be able to see images posted to these, and you'll have to tap through links to take a look.

Nokia continues to roll out NFC functions, with a handful of apps and features appearing on the 808 PureView. These range from useful contact and data-sharing between compatible devices to the quaint NFC iteration Angry Birds -- although why Nokia couldn't afford to bundle the full version of Angry Birds Magic baffles us. There's also a gentle NFC tutorial to guide you around what the device has to offer, although it's largely a hub of links to web-based content.

Video support is surprisingly broad, with support for most codecs necessary to play our various sample videos. Here's another caveat, though: where's your Netflix or Lovefilm account going to live?

Keyboard

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While this is the best native keyboard Symbian's got to offer, it makes the iPhone's appear positively forward-looking in comparison, to say nothing of Android's well-rounded stock offering and SwiftKey (an Engadget staff favorite). While Swype is free to download, this is one of the least intuitive iterations we've used in some time -- an odd mix of the Swype we're used to and some poor touchscreen sensitivity and excess keys. Suffice to say, we soon returned to stock. The issue is partly due to the key arrangement, a rigid grid of letters and symbols, with none of the off-center spacing seen on rival mobile OSes and your PC keyboard. Despite Symbian Belle's new additions, this keyboard remains old and difficult to steer. Conversely, selecting text to copy and paste is easy to pull off, and we always seemed to highlight exactly what we intended to.

Browser

Giving some credit to that 1.3GHz processor, the web browser on the 808 PureView is faster and more capable than any Symbian device that came before it. Still, it trails the performance of other phones that are half the price. Page scrolls are a stuttering affair, and crashes are a regular occurrence. Throw in a media-rich site and you'll have signed the browser's death warrant. Design-wise, the address bar now disappears once a page is loaded -- necessary given that screen-size is at a premium at this resolution -- while the menu bar is decked out with five icons, including a new quick-access tabbed browser option. Even the obscurity-bound Meego-powered Nokia N9 handled browsing with more aplomb. Could you imagine a Meego PureView cameraphone? As we played with the 808 PureView, we imagined this tech on almost every other mobile OS -- the disappointing user experience of Symbian pervades everything you do with the phone, detracting from all that camera magic. We'd have been willing to wait a few more months if it meant tighter app integration, faster transition between programs and a better (even just average) browsing experience.

Battery life and performance

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With that optical cannon on the back and a relatively meek AMOLED display -- how does a modest 1,400mAh battery fare? In short, well. Understandably, the camera component takes a fair bit of power to capture 34- and 38-megapixel images, let alone oversample and churn out polished 5-megapixel masterpieces. In a day of shooting, we found the camera lasted through a day of social network usage, map queries, intermittent web browsing and snapping over 100 images at various resolutions. On our video rundown test, we enabled WiFi without connecting to a network, and tried to fix brightness at 50 percent (as mentioned earlier, the light sensor still interferes). The 808 PureView offered us eight hours and 40 minutes of playback, which was a pleasant surprise. Viewing, cropping and editing images will naturally impinge on how much mileage you'll get from a single charge. However, Nokia's stylish Universal Charger (more on that in a moment) offers some relief, and there's also the option of purchasing a spare juicepack. Unlike Samsung's recent NFC-equipped phones, the Nokia 808 PureView keeps its near-field hardware on the casing, so you'll be able to swap the battery without issue.

Symbian is ready for retirement. It's had its run, and while there's still plenty of clever ways to augment what it can do, why go through the hassle?

We're going to split our comments on performance in two here. First, Symbian is ready for retirement. It's had its run, and while there's still plenty of clever ways to augment what it can do, why go through the hassle? We hope we're less than a year away from a Windows Phone 8 device packing a similar optical wonder, because we soon fell into frustration with Symbian Belle, with its often tortuous menu navigation and temperament. The phone automatically stores images and installed apps on the mounted drive, which means that when we plugged in the phone to transfer images or simply give the phone a quick top-up, many apps came crashing down, disappearing outright as the phone spiraled into panic.

On the camera side, however, it's a marvel. The camera app launches swiftly from the lock screen, thanks to that single-core 1.3GHz processor, and capture follows about a second afterwards. You'll find the full-resolution stills will take a few seconds to store -- understandable, given that file sizes skirt around 12MB per shot. At oversampled (and lower) resolutions, however, pictures are quicker, if perhaps not even close to the speeds seen on the One X or Galaxy S III's burst modes. Navigating around your creations is easily accomplished and the phone is willing to scroll around hundreds of images with ease. They're all fixed in date order, and although there is a tagging system to add some sort of classification, it's such a long-winded way of organizing that we soon gave up. Interestingly, there were more gallery options on preceding Nokia devices, which makes it a curious oversight that there are literally no menu options on its latest phone. You'll have to select each unwanted photo individually if you want to delete. We found it easier to fill the phone up with photos, connect to a PC and delete in batches, but it remains another niggle of the Belle OS.

Nokia still continues to deliver on voice call quality, with crisp calls augmented by an extra noise-cancelling mic. The Nokia 808 PureView is a world-friendly slice of camera phone, with pentaband 3G connectivity up to 14.4 Mbps down and 5.76 Mbps up -- making a strong case to replace both your smartphone and your point-and-shoot on that upcoming holiday.

Accessories

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The 808 PureView won't be alone when it hits stores. Alongside our review model, Nokia delivered a smorgasbord of accessories to augment its new cameraphone, including a tripod adapter, rubberized case, micro-HDMI cable reel and that new universal portable USB charger.

The tripod adapter is a spring-loaded bracket that's happy to grip onto the device whether it's in the case or not. This can then be attached to a (small-fixture) tripod, stabilizing the cameraphone when you're seeking out the crispest images, or looking to make the most of the full-resolution mode -- those extra pixels are prone to blurring.

The hard cover wraps around the back of the phone, the sides and just around the lip of the front side. While it's not as pleasing to the touch as the phone's own finish, it's a snug fit and the plastic casing adds a bit more rigidity to the shutter key. The other ports are left open to access, while the case includes a tethered cover for the lens component which satisfyingly clicks into place.

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Nokia 808 PureView accessories

Surprisingly, perhaps, it's Nokia's universal portable charger that we're most enamored with. Measuring 170mm length-wise, the pod can be charged through the micro-USB port at one end. Four LED lights indicate exactly how much of the 2,200mAh battery is full, while the USB port at the other end can connect to any device capable of using its 950mA output. It's not limited to Nokia hardware or even smartphones, although the color selection and polycarbonate design seem best suited for Nokia's own Lumia range. We like the idea of carrying this around in lieu of a spare battery, especially with the portable charger's larger capacity.

Rounding out the accessory selection is a 3-meter HDMI cable that's admittedly less visually interesting, but does what it promises to and can be stored away in a flexible pouch.

Wrap-up

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The Nokia 808 PureView is the best cameraphone out there, but you'll have to be willing to forgo the simplicity, function and comfort of competing smartphones if you intend to own it. You also have to be seriously imaging-obsessed to handle this as your daily driver. While Nokia has made some effort to make image sharing painless, these features are still limited, with constrained options and an OS that often collapses under the weight of even moderate demands. In general, you might hear reviewers toss around clichés like "setting new benchmarks" and "peerless results," but in this case, all these platitudes ring true. The 808's low-noise shots, even in dim light, and its lossless digital zoom features roar. Throw in the superb video- and audio-recording performance and you have a clear cameraphone champion. The problem is, it's one that demands a more capable and (future-facing) operating system.

Myriam Joire and Zach Honig contributed to this review.