Hands-on with Nokia’s PureView 808: “You shot that with a PHONE?!”

Daniel Bader

July 14, 2012 3:41pm

It’s hard to take someone seriously when he or she tells you their phone takes better photos than your point-and-shoot. In the case of Nokia’s PureView 808, however, it is most likely true. Capable of taking shots at 38MP, its 41MP sensor is the biggest ever seen on a smartphone. The technology has been worked on quietly for the past five years — which is the reason Nokia launched it on Symbian and not Windows Phone — and could have lasting and important implications for the future of photography.

As the number of people replacing dedicated cameras with smartphone equivalents increases — or rather, the number of people satisfied with the quality of photos from their smartphones — the imaging industry is in for a bit of a shake-up. The iPhone 4S is already the number one “camera” on Flickr, and the gap is widening between Digital SLRs, the “professionals’ choice,” and point-and-shoots. The smartphone is filling in the gap.

Nokia’s PureView 808 is not being released in Canada, and as such will not be available from any carrier. You can, of course, purchase this Symbian Belle-powered pentaband handset from places like Negri Electronics and Expansys, but the prices are exorbitant and the demand is likely very low. Nevertheless, it was a tantalizing prospect for me to try out, courtesy of Nokia Canada, in order to test out just how much better this 41MP camera, which combines 7 pixels into 1 for sharp photos at 3, 5 or 8MP. The compression algorithms are pretty astounding here, showing off not only an unprecedented amount of clarity, but an understanding for how consumers want to use their phones. You want to be able to share a small 3MP or 5MP photo, under 1MB ideally, and maintain every bit of the clarity as the 38MP original.

By and large, the PureView 808 is a camera with a few smartphone bits attached. There is no doubt that at one time Symbian was the, ahem, belle of the ball, but even with Symbian Belle, which improves performance and aesthetics considerably from its Anna predecessor, there isn’t a lot of praise I can heap on it. The phone’s resolution, 640×360, is stuck in 2008, while the dearth of apps available to download from the Nokia Store, as well as the clunky way the operating system deals with notifications, mail accounts and, heaven forbid, cloud syncing, makes the entire experience is just a mess. Though there is a 1Ghz processor inside the thing, it opens and runs apps like molasses.

That being said, the lovely rounded iconography, smooth home screen scrolling (with independent wallpapers, natch) and nice use of fonts makes the outcome a little bit more pleasant. The phone itself is made of a thicker, slightly courser form of the polycarbonate used in the Lumia 800 and 900, and it feels great in the hand. Granted, it’s top-heavy like no other smartphone but it’s excused on account of its enormous camera sensor.

In addition to the f2.4 aperture lens and massive sensor, the phone is equipped, like the N8 before it, with a Xenon flash that does wonders for dark spaces. However, when a flash is not appropriate, the camera still takes some of the best low-light photos I’ve seen from a phone. Due to the sheer amount of detail being taken in through the sensor, and interpolated down to a reasonably sized photo, you can ascertain elements of a scene — at a bar or an outdoor shot at night — that would never be possible on a Galaxy S III or iPhone 4S.

Nokia boasts lossless digital zoom at up to 3x, something that is just not feasible on any other phone. That means you can crop a significant portion of your photo without worrying about pixelation, artifacts or dreaded artificial sharpening remnants ruining the original photo. In practice these are all very real and very accurate claims.

The camera interface is powerful: you can customize basically anything you’d dream of, including ISO, exposure, autofocus, flash settings and more. You also have the ability to take photos in full 34/38MP mode (depending on 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio) or use PureView mode which captures at high resolutions but compresses the photo to 3, 5 or 8MP without losing any of that valuable data.

PureView 808 is also capable of capturing 1080p video at 30fps at 4x digital zoom with no appreciable loss in quality. That’s essentially like having a 4x optical zoom without the distortion. Pretty crazy results.

You can see from the above photo that macro mode is extremely powerful on this device, and that even at 100% crop you can see even the most minute amount of detail. I was also keenly aware of how well it interpreted depth of field, something that many high-end smartphones can’t really achieve.

In the above photo you can see just how clear the is the blue sky, without a hint of distortion or artifacts. In fact, shots taken in scenes with plenty of natural light are comparable to many digital SLRs (in my opinion). The camera takes one a few milliseconds to focus, and can be enabled when the phone is locked by holding down the excellent camera shutter button.

There were times when I did have trouble focusing on a particular macro object. As you can see from the above shot, the lens wanted to focus on the stucco behind the nail, and while it did so with a aplomb, and a close DoF, it wasn’t able to lock onto the object I really wanted to get at. Either way, the amount of detail picked up on the wall is just astounding. Note that these photos were taken at 8MP PureView mode, not the full 41MP.

Lastly you can see just how well the PureView 808 picks up details in low light situations with only the slightest amount of artifacting. In fact, compared to other high-end smartphones, I would say that the PureView is free of artifacts, though there are some to be perceived if you look closely.

The PureView 808 isn’t going to win any awards for design or software — it’s hefty, clunky and kind of a brick — but it is certainly exciting for what it foreshadows. The next few years will be fought over iterative hardware jumps — quad-core, DDR3, HD — but imaging is an area ripe for innovation. We’ve already seen the beginning of such a revolution with burst mode on the HTC One series and Galaxy S III, and we’re looking forward to what Microsoft comes up with in the next version of Windows Phone.

Nokia, which just bought Scalado, is going to have a lot of influence over that next link in the smartphone chain. PureView is a technology that we’ve been promised will come to Windows Phone sooner than later, and judging by what I see in the PureView 808, it’s one of the most exciting promises we’ve heard in a while.

To learn more about Nokia’s PureView 808, head on over to the PureView portal.

  • kris

    as a camera its pureview as a phone its purepoo

    cant wait till this tech evolves to other devices

  • Sai

    I’m still saying DAAAYUUUM. That it’s a PHONE with 41 MP camera..

  • ELNY

    I don’t get something tho…if the phone has been in development for 5 yrs, why couldnt they just update the internals and slap WP7 on it? I get this was more of an idea to test this camera out but I still don’t get why they wouldn’t pimp it out and make some real money? Is Nokia in the business of losing money or something?

    • Peter Shelton

      They will, but all the development was done with symbian, it will take a massive amount of code change to make this camera compatible with windows phone 7 or 8, and the just wanted to show the tech off before they could ship the windows phone version.

    • freestaterocker

      The camera has a dedicated processor for imaging, in addition to the *1.3* GHz processor that runs the phone. The trick lies in getting the dedicated imaging processor to communicate with the WP camera software. Making one final Symbian device allows them to get the tech to market faster, as well as giving Symbian fans (yes, they DO exist) one last device to cover. Also, if I’m not mistaken, the 808 is the only native Symbian Belle device. Doing what you suggest would be the equivalent of google releasing ICS only as an update for existing devices, and never commissioning Samsung to build the galaxy nexus.

    • Thilan

      It wasn’t that it didn’t have good enough hardware for WP7…it was that WP7 was not powerful enough yet to be able to do what Symbian could with the 808 camera hardware. Symbian is actually a good OS…but the UI sucks.

    • Daniel J. Prado

      The truth is, WP7 or any other OS, are just not capable enough to manage themselves and the MASSIVE amount of processing needed to calculate the PureView algorithm without sucking up the battery. Symbian is the only OS that needs so little hardware to function correctly that it can take PureView like if nothing was happening while compressing those 41MP into the beautiful 8MP pics it delivers.

  • kenypowa

    only if this runs Android 4.1…it will be the best phone ever made.

  • Nathen

    So now they want you to buy the PHONE because its a CAMERA ?

    WTF is wrong with these people ? Make the PHONE a more enjoyable PHONE ! forget the CAMERA BS.

    With $200-$300 you can buy a Digital Camera now a days that Phones Can’t touch and they are just that GREAT Cameras that excel in what they are designed for. Especially the Video quality and LOW LIGHT shots of these Cameras.

    No PHONE, NO PHONE will ever give you that, if it did it would cost more then the PHONE and the Camera Combined.

    • stylinred

      @Nathen the only camera that can arguably beat the 808 in quality (that is compact camera) is the Sony RX100 which is just released and the specs are quite similar however the RX100 is bigger and costs the same however we’ve yet to see comparisons between the two so we won’t know if the RX100 matches/loses/bests the 808

    • c

      they should just put a mobile chip in a camera then and edit the GUI to have a dialer as well. that would be pretty cool actually

      by the way, you’re disturbingly too upset about this..

    • Nathan

      Bro, the best camera is the one that’s with you. Tell me how many people will spend $200-300 on a digital camera that they might not always bring with them and use. I’d rather get a phone with an amazing camera because it is convenient, and user-friendly. Which one of those digital camera’s can share your photo directly to Facebook, G+ and Twitter?

      I’ve missed magical moments trying to take a camera out of my bag rather than use my phone to take a quick snap. Sometimes, that’s what you want! A fantastic camera right in your pocket. The amazing camera also happens to be your phone!

    • Stoli89

      I thought the Sony RX-100 uses multi-frame noise reduction, as opposed to Nokia’s proprietary oversampling technology. For a compact camera, it also has a slightly smaller sensor than the 800 PureView (1 in. vs 1.2 in.). Nevertheless, it will be an interesting comparison.

  • Piff

    You might be right Nathan, but why carry 2 or more devices when you can carry just 1.

  • M McClell

    My last phone was Symbian, and I enjoyed the interface: my only problem was the lack of popular apps for the system. I’ve just switched to an Android because Nokia announced earlier this year that they were dropping Symbian. That’s the only odd part of this phone, to me.

  • Sean

    A lot of people view this as a phone with an amazing camera. I view it as an amazing camera with a phone. As such I am extremely.impressed with what Nokia have accomplished. Now give me a WP8 lunia version please

    • KC

      Say it with me now L-U-M-I-A. Not Lunia. Though looney-a might a term worth coining for Nokia if Windows/Windows Phone 8 flops as bad as Windows Phone 7.X did. Nokia should not have thrown all their eggs in one basket with Microsoft. Microsoft has NEVER in the past 20 years been successful in mobile and they’ve been pushing Metro now for 6 years and still no one wants to buy it. It’s not looking like it is going to go over well on PCs and with the idiotic decision to make Windows Phone 7.X completely non-upgradable, and Windows 8 apps completely incompatible with Windows Phone 8 meaning that everyone who has a Lumia or Focus (all 6 of you) will be moaning an complaining this fall that no more apps are being released for the old phones and all you got was a stupid new homescreen for your beta testing efforts. Surprise, the real smart phone beta test WAS Windows Phone 7.X. Microsoft couldn’t be handling this worse if they were TRYING to screw up their chance at making a dent in the smart phone market!

    • phreezerburn

      Adding to an old thread but too bad…

      If we (those who purchase 100 phones for our customers and not merely 1 or two at best) see a Nokia 1000 Win8 bearing the autosync/backup features being discussed in the developer forum and a 41MP camera able to hit a winner in low light then Nokia & MS will have sent this one into the parking lot. iPhones are near useless on a work site outside of an Otterbox Defender, period. They ARE made of glass and frail as a 110 year old lady. Their range is also abysmal so while they might be of fashionable use to a city dweller, they fall over dead to those of us forking out phones to people who need one to work without fail outside of the urban sprawl.

  • Kaedin

    first I was all like “ooooooo aaaaahhh”
    then i see it’s Symbian and now I’m all like “ugh”

  • captain67

    Daniel is an Apple fanboy, so you know if he says it’s even better than the iPhone 4s, than it must be one hell of a camera. Personally, I dislike iPhones, but their one redeeming quality has always been the camera, so what does that tell you.

  • Huck Finn

    You guys take crap photos mobile syrup…..DoF can be achieved by phones such as the ONE S and ONE X, also the iPhone can achieve it as well…this is the fox news of the mobile world.

  • Jeff

    I’m sorry, but when most competitor’s phones are running a better OS and at a lower price point, there will be very few who split hairs over Megapixel count. If you’re going to use it as a camera you’ve got options at the DSLR range at about that price point! Otherwise why not get the phone that has more processing power, better screen and better OS?

    Unless you’re producing giant prints anything more than 8MP really isn’t all that useful. But you should buy it because, you know, BIG NUMBERS. I’m sorry, I like the idea, but as a sellable product, I don’t think it will help stop Nokia’s freefall.

    • freestaterocker

      The point is the lossless zoom. Something no other smartphone currently available is capable of.

  • stylinred

    I purchased this phone from France last week and got it in a couple days

    I LOVE IT, I had the Nokia N8 previously and the size is basically the same (1mm difference) so I didn’t have an issue with the size in all honesty I don’t see why anyone would.

    Just a note to Daniel its actually got a 1.3ghz processor

    you can also Influence shutter speed with the camera up to 2.7seconds

    you guys should check out the Flickr group with other user photos it definitely is amazing

    In regards to the Screen the resolution is 360×640 but its a full RGB screen with CBD AMOLED you can notice very slightly the weaknesses of that resolution on a 4″ screen if you try hard but the screen works great and in direct sunlight that we’ve been having in Vancouver lately I can still see whats on the screen without issue
    And there’s no problems with viewing websites as some are led to believe, In fact im reading this on my 808 now…

    As for the OS its not for everyone but for me its great and I don’t get why North American reviewers hate it so… maybe because its not made in america? who knows give it a try (although I guess we Canadians can’t anymore….)

    • robinottawa

      So how did you get a company in France to ship it here? Amazon will say, sorry, can’t ship it to Canada. I’d like to buy one.

  • S2556

    That is pretty impressive however I would never buy one. The 8mp shooter on the GS3 is good enough for me. I am sure there is a market for it though

  • blackprince

    Pureview, Multi-core, HD Screen, Removeable Media, Windows Phone 8. Ultimate Superphone!!I can’t wait.

  • youngwolf

    How about going to a concert and take back some great memories. With a crystal sound and no distortion. There is an app for that. No, there isn’t!!! Nokia 808 has Rich Recording meaning that your favorite concert not only will look better(thanks to PureView technology) than any other clip filmed by your friends but will also have a sound unheard of on any other smartphone. A sound that you will listen & enjoy.

  • Petri_

    This is out of stock now here in Finland. Or actually stock with all retailers seems to have negative balance… meaning waiting time until mid August. So, there seems to be hign need for a device like this – and Symbian seems not be the dealbraker either.

    Anyone can give a tip online store where I get it now? Don’t want to wait a other month… :)

    • stylinred

      You can order it from Amazon.fr for 569 EUR currently even cheaper than when I ordered it 1 week ago!

  • stylinred

    just a note the amazon.fr pricing includes local Value Added Tax; that tax is removed when shipping outside of France so the actual price dor us Canadians is much less

    • freestaterocker

      Do they have it in red? I happen to love the styling. I hope they recycle the design for WP like they did with N8-L800

    • stylinred

      Nobody seems to have it in Red which is odd…

  • youngwolf

    No other smartphone has: FM transmitter (you know that your music can be played through the sound system on any car; no accessories required), HDMI port, USB OTG, NFC, DLNA and free sat nav. Nokia 808 will be my next phone. No doubt about that.

  • N. Okia

    put one of those camera lenses in your highest-end WP8 device Nokia and you’ll have customers :V

  • Techie

    Why are they Running Symbian on this phone when they are pushing WP7 ? FAIL, all though the camera is nice …

    • Thilan

      They’re running Symbian because WP7 is too crappy in its current form to be able to take advantage of the camera hardware.

  • dangerous

    I got mine yesterday. I love the weight,design, looks. It feels great in the hand like you are getting something for your money. This feel is better, more comfortable than the credit card feel. The hump and camera look is hot! Stand next to me with your iPhone and I’ll make you cry looking at this huge sensor. Belle is like Android without animation. The camera I’ve waited for all my life, its fantastic and easy to use even in creative mode as it gives you predone settings to use or change. The looks,camera, sound quality for phone,recording ability,video capability overs shadows how many cores you have that Intel days is a waste anyway. This is worth the money. Take care of it like a precious baby. Leather belt case with soft padding inside….its precious.

  • Someone

    I have the phone. It is not clunky and “kinda like a brick.” After reading a lot of reviews, I was pleasantly surprised at how thin and elegant it really was.

    Also, Symbian <3

  • robinottawa

    I checked with Nokia and they do NOT provide warranty for this phone as it has not been released here. I have 2 question I hope you can help with:

    1) why doesn’t Nokia cover any of their products in any country?

    2) what do you do if you buy it from France or US and it doesn’t work after a few months?

    Thanks

  • thecozz

    CRap, why review the camera??? we all know the camera rocks. this site should be reviewing how well it works on canadian networks, particularly roger.

  • thecozz

    Anyone using 808 with rogers? I am in ontario. I may buy this phone today. been drooling over it a long time.

    Any compatability issues i should be aware of with this phone and rogers?

    I found a used one ehre in toronto, but the guys says he bought it in malasia or somewhere like that, will make any difference?