Picture This: A Phone to Replace My Camera

Using Nokia’s 808 PureView Reveals Great Photos and a Few Software Shortfalls

Anyone who knows me will be aware that I take a lot of photographs. I try to snap something every day and over the last six years I’ve ended up with nearly 40,000 pictures. They’re all labelled, tagged and uploaded to the Web so friends and family can see what I’m up to.

Even though I’m privileged enough to try almost every new high-end phone that comes to market, none of them has ever delivered consistently good enough performance to replace my trusty digital still camera. There’s no question that there’s been some great progress in the past 12 months. The Apple iPhone 4S, HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S III all deserve a mention but they’ve never displaced my camera.

So I was pretty excited when I first learned of the Nokia 808 PureView earlier this year. Having had my hands on it for the past few weeks, I have to be honest and say that I mainly use it as a “connected camera” rather than a phone. My experience with the other aspects of the device only reinforced my view that Nokia’s decision to abandon Symbian was definitely the right one. There’s no question that there’s now a huge gap between Symbian and rival platforms like Android, iOS and Windows Phone. Of course, Symbian is suffering from Nokia’s decision to wind down investment in the platform, but its age is clearly showing and it’s not surprising that I found many simple tasks quite frustrating.

However, the 808 PureView is all about the camera, so that’s where I focused most of my attention. I expect to see the imaging technology moved to the Lumia platform as some point, so the 808 PureView is an excellent “beta” product to evaluate the new possibilities that a 41-megapixel sensor offers.

Overall, I felt the device was an adequate replacement for my digital still camera. Now, this might sound like faint praise, but I assure you it’s quite an amazing achievement. I felt so confident with it that I even took it on holiday with me and used it as my primary means of taking pictures for the entire two-week break. Depending on a camera-phone for something as important as a family holiday is a pretty big deal, especially for someone who takes a lot of pictures.

A key feature for me was the quick access to the camera by pressing the dedicated camera button, even when the device is locked. It underlines the importance of a hardware button for the camera, and its absence is noticeable on some competing devices, such as the Galaxy S III.

I tried the camera out in various conditions. Obviously, bright holiday sunlight made it very easy to capture excellent pictures. Low light was more of a challenge, but the 808 PureView still produced some good results. The biggest challenge was the frequency with which I had problems with red eye. This is clearly a trade-off between a decent flash and unwanted effects in some conditions, and in many cases I was able to fix them with the built in red-eye removal software.

As well as red-eye correction, the 808 PureView offers a selection of other image editing functions, but Nokia must widen these functions before people consider PureView devices as true replacements for mid-range digital cameras, or in some cases, as superior to high-end smartphones.

For example, the Scenes menu could do with a few more options. Top of my list would be “sunset”, as I use this feature a lot on my camera when I’m on holiday. And the editing tools lack a tool to straighten pictures. This is particularly useful when trying to straighten a wonky horizon, as shown in one of the images below. Apple’s iPhoto on the iPhone supports this and I find it really useful.

I had some difficulties getting good close-up shots when using the macro mode. It seems the camera struggled to focus close up, and I often got better results with the automatic mode and a judicious crop. I’ve seen people have had similar problems in other reviews, so I wonder whether this is a characteristic of the complex sensor that Nokia is using. Nevertheless, I was very pleased with the pictures below of a flower and a slug.

These may be seen as quibbles in the face of an amazing piece of technology from Nokia. The images below are testament to the sheer feat of engineering involved. However, the sensor is only one part of the process of taking a picture. Nokia will have to ensure the rest of the experience, especially on Windows Phone devices, matches image quality.

The other concern I have is how much value ordinary buyers will place on what is likely to be a bulkier and more expensive device than a cheap camera. More and more we find consumers are happy with technology that is “good enough”. A good example of this is navigation software. If it gets you from A to B then it’s good enough, even if a richer experience is available elsewhere. This is a challenge Nokia faces with its maps and location services and it’d be a shame if similar sentiments result in Nokia — and Carl Zeiss — not getting the rewards they deserve from PureView technology.

Click on the images below for larger samples. I’ve not included the full-resolution versions as some of them are huge. Contact us if you’d like uncompressed examples.