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Switched On: The camera phone

Switched On: The camera phone
Ross Rubin
Ross Rubin|August 4, 2013 6:03 PM

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

In that human-behavior lab known as the New York City subway, a vacationing family recently sought to get in a group self-portrait on their last day in the Big Apple. But the rocking train kept thwarting the capture of their jostled bodies. To frame the picture, they tried trading the quality of their smartphone's rear camera for the one above the phone's display so they could better preview the picture, but still had trouble composing the shot. Finally, a local passenger riding with them stepped in and offered to take their photo, which he did to their expressions of gratitude.

The incident served as an illustration of the often precarious situations in which we use our smartphone cameras. Had their phone been Nokia's Lumia 1020 and the stranger not intervened, the 41 megapixels of light-capturing prowess might have gone for naught as the family would've had to rely on the phone's middling front-facing camera.

And that would have been a shaky shame. Nokia's marketing push of equating cropping with zoom may be off-putting to purists. Nonetheless, the phone's image quality is astounding. It captures vivid colors and stable images in low light that vastly exceed those of any other cameraphone, even as many have stepped up their imaging games. The 1020's shooter is such a signature feature that the company is displaying it in stores with its circular, rear imaging hump facing customers.

Since adopting Windows Phone as its strategic smartphone operating system, Nokia has made great progress in stepping up the pace of its smartphone production.

Since adopting Windows Phone as its strategic smartphone operating system, Nokia has made great progress in stepping up the pace of its smartphone production. In fact, recent comments by Nokia executives have indicated that it wants Microsoft to increase the frequency of Windows Phone releases to keep up. But the recovering phone giant still has a knack for stealing its own thunder. The industrial design of the Lumia 800 first appeared in the MeeGo-based N9 and the 41-megapixel camera of the Lumia 1020 appeared (in fatter form) in the Symbian-based PureView 808, but implementing the latter on Windows Phone has had pros and cons.

On one hand, even Microsoft has been in step with Nokia on scaling back marketing of the now Windows Phone benefits to let its imaging system, complete with mechanical shutter and Xenon flash, take center stage. (Similar toning down of OS benefits took place with the introduction of the Galaxy S 4 and HTC One as the versions of Android they ran were both old news.) Nokia integrated its imaging interface well with its now-strategic operating system and has seen the launch of a few key imaging apps such as Vine that would have been more difficult to attract to Symbian. These include Hipstamatic, which can share to Instagram, but it's a sore point that the hottest image-sharing app is something even the Lumia 1020's high resolution can't yet capture.

The Lumia 1020 isn't quite a one-trick pony; Nokia made enhancements to its sound recording as well. But the weight of focus on one feature -- impressive as it may be -- with a downplaying of a still-evolving app ecosystem recalls an era of feature phones that was kind to Nokia. That, plus its outlier $299 subsidized price point, begs the question -- which customers will it attract?

It is the phone for advanced amateur and pro photographers when they are not carrying a device like a Canon G series or Nikon Coolpix P7000; Nokia clearly catered to that crowd with its battery grip accessory. Beyond that, the 1020's impact will more likely be felt in subsequent Lumias that offer a portion of its rich visual feast in a more affordable menu option at a more upscale Windows Phone restaurant.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.
Switched On: The camera phone