A full-fat version of this piece is now available over at The Verge, I highly recommend that over this slightly hastily-written post.
The Nokia 808 PureView is one of the most exciting phones I’ve used in a long time. So much so that, despite it’s well-detailed flaws, I’m going to be buying one. Unless you’ve had your head in the sand (or perhaps just don’t follow technology news closely) you’ll already know why: its camera.
Nokia’s PureView sensor is a 41-megapixel behemoth which makes the 808 top-heavy, ridiculously thick, and a chore to use. However, It also happens to perform better than any smartphone camera on the market by such a large margin it’s almost upsetting for me to compare the resulting images with Apple and Samsung’s best efforts side-by-side.
A pretty innocuous British pint of beer. Quite a nice shot, I think you’ll agree, but that’s only half (or perhaps a sixth?) of the story.
Zoomed out, you can see the incredible amount of detail the PureView managed to capture from around a foot away. But there’s more detail to be found here.
This is the same photo at 100 percent crop (which means this is a pixel-perfect rendition of what the camera captured).
From Vlad Savov’s review:
I look at the photos I’ve taken with the 808 PureView and keep asking myself, where is the noise? Nokia, what did you do with the noise?
The level of detail Nokia’s sensor offers up is just astounding. That’s what makes the 808 — to quote Stephen Elop, Nokia’s CEO — a truly “memorable” and “disruptive” device. I’m going to put the theatrics to one side now and just throw a ton of photos out there.
The Shard, London’s tallest building:
Some more 100 percent crop magic:
The Shard’s (not quite complete) peak was over 1,000 feet away from me:
Incidentally, while showing off the PureView’s technical achievement, the Shard photo also highlights it’s main weakness — take a look at the cloud to the right and you’ll see it has a disappointingly narrow dynamic range. It’s by no means worse than any other smartphone camera, but its this range, or rather lack of, that distinguishes the PureView from entry-level SLRs that it would otherwise be able to compete with.
We’ve had quite a few requests over at The Verge for some low-light samples from the camera. I thought I’d give a quick demonstration of how the PureView handles extremely low-light situations.
The above image was taken without flash. For comparison, this is what the iPhone 4S managed seconds later:
The 808 PureView has a ton of other tricks up its sleeve: it can record 1080p video and zoom without losing quality, simply by using a far smaller area of the sensor (1080p video consists of approximately 2 megapixels).
You can also use this crop zoom when in eight, four, or two megapixel mode to get much closer to your subject without noticeably affecting image quality. It can also capture beautiful smaller shots by aggregating the contents of up to seven pixels into one, like so:
I think it’s pretty clear by now that Nokia is sitting on a breathtaking advance in smartphone imaging. Unfortunately it has gifted it, at least initially, to a phone that doesn’t deserve it.
So, where does Nokia go from here? There’s little doubt that it’s hard at work integrating one of its sensors into a Windows Phone 8 device, but I find it difficult to see how the company will solve the ergonomic issues it presents. There’s no chance you’ll see the 41-megapixel PureView in even a reasonably-thin phone anytime soon: the sensor is around a 10mm thick without a lens in front of it.
I’m not sure if Nokia can find a way to shrink its process down without degrading image quality. The megapixel count is unimportant, but a smaller sensor would capture less light, which would inevitably result in worse photos. The amount of light you can put on the sensor will always affect image quality, and no amount of technology will ever change that.
Whether someone will have the balls, or the incentive, to try and match Nokia’s effort here is debatable. In my humble opinion, the PureView sensor will be pinnacle of mobile imagery for a long time to come — perhaps forever. And that’s why I have to get it in its raw, initial form