The Nokia 808 PureView: A Love Story

Posted on 09/20/2012

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The great enabler

Technology: the great enabler. This rings so true when speaking about mobile. Whether it’s by giving people access to banking, furthering education or saving lives, the reach of mobile is incredible. More than any other personal device, there is an element of necessity to a mobile phone, whether it’s a R100 Nokia 1100, the first phone to shift one billion units, or a R8000+ top end Android or iPhone. A mobile allows for basic communication, empowers people as shown in the cases above. What differentiates a mobile phone from other technologies for me is how personal it is, in part due to its mobility and ultimately the primary functionality, connecting you to other people, whether through traditional means or on-line.

But there is another, more romantic side to it: pure geeky gadgetry.

I remember the first time I really got excited about mobile. It was 2004 and I was looking to get an mp3 player, and the iPod was top of my list. A friend of mine advised me to wait since there was going to be a phone coming out that could fill that role and still be, well a phone, and a smartphone at that. It was the Nokia N91. I eventually got the 32GB iPod classic in the end, but I did cross paths with the N91. It was big and cumbersome, it was heavy, it was slow, it was brilliant, in the way that an oddity can be.

Along the way Nokia created some crazy phones in its N-Series line, the N93 and its ‘i’ variant standing out. The next watershed moment would be the N95. Again the moment passed me by, but my cousin got the N95 8GB, and I just remember being so stunned. This was the first truly converged mobile device, the 5MP camera was brilliant for its time, it had GPS, the sliding form factor, the build quality, it was black, it was perfect.

Of course in 2007 something else was looming large over the horizon, the iPhone 2G. Strangely it hardly registered on my radar. I was a bit miffed with Apple at that stage as my iPod had literally just died and was relegated to a gigantic flash drive. The iPhone and its subsequent success, with iterative year on year improvements to it, switched the focus away from pure convergence to user experience. Of course Apple was adding feature upon feature, remember the thrill when the front facing camera came along? For the most part, these features only had to be good enough.

It was left to Nokia to once again excite me. There were rumours and there were leaks, but the first time I laid eyes on the N8, and that camera bump, I was floored. I remember looking through the GSMArena gallery of the preview pictures provided, zooming in to 100% and just marvelling at the quality. This time I was not to be denied and I paid cold hard cash for a phone for the first time since my old Nokia 8210 back in 2003.

Now that is not to say that Nokia is the only company making exciting products. I love some of the stuff that Samsung has done, like making styli cool in 2012, but for me Nokia always had this maverick streak that I found enticing!!

My flying car moment

As a kid, I was a bit into everything, books, sport, even knitting but also completely into science fiction. Sci-fi compliments that ability to dream that we all have as kids and somehow lose as we get older. At this early point in my life, the big thing was the flying car. We were convinced by Year 2000 we would be whizzing around the sky in sleek ultra modern flying cars. But alas it was not to be. Car manufacturers have gotten the sleek and ultra modern bit, but the flying part is proving, much to my chagrin to be beyond them.

My love for out there technology hasn’t changed, and it’s why I’m still drawn to science but also love technology so much. Mobile was the logical culmination, and already there has been some pretty darn cool stuff that has resulted. The screen resolution of a modern day smartphone almost matches that of my laptop, and as has been pointed out time and time again, we hold in our hands more computing power than what put a man on the moon!

The Nokia 808 PureView

But nothing could have prepared me for the Nokia 808 PureView, quite literally my flying car moment. I remember thinking through the live stream, as the details of the device and its camera were revealed, “They did not just do that”. But they did, and it was absolutely bonkers. I was fully in the camp of the skeptics. There had to be some trickery, some kind of sorcery. Then the white paper was released and it all made so much sense. It was clear that Nokia had just pulled the rabbit out of the hat.

A sign of intent

Consider this piece not so much a review but a celebration of an innovation that I believe truly needs to be celebrated. So much has happened in mobile over the last couple of years but I often questioned how much certain developments have truly advanced these technological marvels. Not so much the 808 PureView. From an imaging viewpoint on a mobile PureView is not simply shifting the goal posts but ripping them out of the ground and placing them on a different continent.

It’s still a phone you know

Before really delving into this marvellous piece of technology, it is worth remembering that this is still a phone after all. And yes it is a Symbian smartphone…in 2012. Quite simply Symbian in 2012 is in my eyes an acceptable if somewhat challenging experience. The OS in trying to keep up with the modern platforms driven more by connection rather than converge, is carrying a lot of baggage, a lot of legacy and in some ways is damaged goods. Of course Nokia themselves have given Symbian an end of life timeline and with sales decreasing dramatically the end will come sooner than expected. This doesn’t mean that Symbian devices like the 808 PureView will suddenly fail to function but future prospects particularly developer support will wane.

The 808 PureView is the best Symbian device running on the best version of Symbian. Nokia Belle FP1 takes what Nokia started with the original release of Belle, which ushered Symbian into the present, and gives it a bit of polish here and there. There is still some of that legacy to rub out, and some new features like the drop down menu seem rather incomplete compared to an Android device. Notifications are not quite as good and informative as they could be and there are occasionaly lags here and there, as well as the annoying smart installer for installing Qt applications.

Having said that, the meat and potatoes of the OS works and delivers a more than useable experience. Symbian diehards that haven’t been swayed too much by the glitz and glamour of Android and iOS, or the promise of Windows Phones will feel right at home. Those like me who still hanker after true convergence, not just good enough convergence will forgive the oddities that are part of the package with Symbian. But those well versed in or drawn by the Web 2.0 world of services in the cloud might be advised to look elsewhere or seriously thinking about how much they are willing to sacrifice to wield the power of the 808 PureView.

The hardware on the 808 PureView is superb, it is gadget heaven filled with odds and ends including my favourite, the FM Transmitter. The device is generally stable and speedy, has a great screen, is solid in the hand, and at the end of the day feels like a phone.

A Purer View?

The 808 PureView in action

With the trivialties out of the way, just what exactly is PureView? So much emphasis has been placed on the imaging capabilities of this device that it is easy to think of it as a camera with a smartphone OS tacked on. PureView was five years in the making, a mission by Nokia’s camera gurus to solve some self-imposed quandaries in the phone industry. Phones are pocketable devices and as such miniaturization is a desired trait. So even as screen sizes get bigger, manufactures are always looking for a millimetre here and there, whether it’s in the depth, width or height of the device. Slim is a feature. With slimness one of the features that are constrained is the camera. Cameras by their nature gather and interpret light. It follows simply that the bigger the camera module, the better (potentially) the camera. It is why no matter how much sorcery a device is loaded with, a sexy slim touch screen slab will never match the might of a full frame SLR. Even point and shoot cameras though now matched in sensor size and technology, still best smartphones when we want to get closer to a subject with sacrificing vantage point.

So these are the aspects of mobile photography that PureView in the 808, now called Phase 1, aims to improve quality and zoom in a constrained form factor. And how is it achieved? By loading the device with the biggest and highest resolution sensor ever seen on a mobile device and a bit of trickery in post capture processing that is ingenious in its simplicity once you wrap your head around it. It just needed technology to catch up!

The 808 PureView is blessed with a 41 MP 1/1.2” sensor. That is huge. While optical format might not be the easier measure in the world, in real terms it is significantly bigger that anything in a mobile device, even the still class leading Nokia N8. The 808 can capture stills in 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratios and due to the circular sensor actually takes 34MP and 38MP respectively. These resolutions WILL impress people. The 808, due to the quality optics and the monster sensor is still very capable despite behaving like a regular cameraphone in full resolution mode due to the high pixel density and standard 1.4µm pixels. As you will see in my samples, these images are superb still particularly when you start cropping and reframing.

But when you first fire up the 808s camera, it is not in full resolution mode but rather set to 5MP resolution. And with good reason too. Full resolution requires deep knowledge about getting the most out of your camera, and it is in standard resolutions that PureView takes centre stage. PureView refers to what happens to images when the camera is set to put out images of regular resolution 2MP (3MP in 4:3), 5MP and 8MP. There are no wasted pixels here, but Nokia uses oversampling as a technique to collate data from adjoining pixels to remove poor data points and generate images that in good light are so free of noise it is scarcely believe that the output is from a mobile. As the final output size drops, so the degree of oversampling increases, and so does the purity of the image but at the expense of raw detail.

Zoom on a mobile device, a few exceptions here and there, is handled digitally. This means the image is cropped and then blown up to the original size, introducing digital artefacts. With an abundance of pixels on offer on the 808, digital zoom is lossless. PureView oversampling is also employed until the final resolution of the image is reached, where the actually area of the sensor being used is truly 2Mp, 3MP, 5MP or 8MP. This present the wonderfully  ridiculous situation where before the zoom limit is reached the pixels are still being oversampled meaning overall image quality is improved despite employing what is technically digital zoom.

These benefits of oversampling and lossless zoom transition on a technical level even more dramatically to video where there is a greater degree of oversampling and more zoom levels available.

Big world, little world

As I said, the 808 PureView while proudly wearing it’s 41MP badge, is primed for use in PureView mode. Full resolution mode on the 808 PureView is called creative mode. It takes a skilled photographer to harness the power; it’s like wielding a powerful weapon. This is where the WOW factor of this camera is. The pair of images below literally floored people when I showed them the comparison. I found that almost zero noise didn’t excite people almost as much as bewitching detail. Hey, what do you know, size still matters.

I took this shot from the sixth floor of my office, balanced precariously, hands not too steady and trying to avoid getting any of the window in the frame. It’s a daytime view of Johannesburg CBD.

34 megapixels of Johannesburg CBD as seen from WITS University

Now consider this crop. This is a 696X477 crop from the above image. Nelly’s Hair Salon (try and find it in the image above) is at least 400m from my office building as the crow flies. There is a bit of noise in the image but the amount of detail the 808 has resolved here is simply staggering

I still look out of my vantage point and marvel that I have never been able to make out that text. Ever.

Pixel Perfect

By way of comparison I thought I would use an image of the same scene to illustrate just why the camera by default shoots in 5MP PureView mode. Have a look at the City Press billboard in the shot. While there is a lot more detail in the 34MP shot above, the 5MP PureView is just so unbelievabley sharp. And just compare the sky in both shots. The PureView image is quite simply as close to pixel perfect as any mobile phone has ever gotten. And since I look at this scene on a daily basis I can tell you with 100% certainty that the colours are spot on.

Pixel perfection.

Here are a few more PureView images:

Overturned fire truck (2MP)

Happy friends (5MP)

Driving feet: a variation on a classic mobile shot (8MP)

Up Close and Personal

PureView mode truly brings zoom capabilities to a useable level on phones, whether it’s getting close in on distant scenes or perhaps composing a pleasing macro set up. On the other side of my building, away from the CBD facing north, is the South African Breweries offices. The building has a clock facing my office and I have never been able to capture it in any great detail. Here are two samples

First is a 2MP shot taking in the whole scene with the wide angle lens on the 808 PureView.

South African Breweries across the road from WITS

Now with full zoom

I make that 10:20, almost tea time!

Incredible!

And here at the Spar Ladis Challenge held in Pretoria on 25th August at SuperSport park showing zoom capabilities at 5MP.

A nice view at the finish area:

Before zoom

And a closer look:

After zoom

Light it Up!

With that gigantic sensor, coupled with oversampling, the 808 PureView will clearly have better than average low light performance. It is also blessed with a xenon flash that manages to outdo the one found on the N8. This is the one area where I felt the 808 PureView could do better but that is something that constrains all phones unfortunately.

The sensor does gather an impressive amount of light

And the flash is equally impressive

Beauty in Motion

Video on the 808 PureView is equally stunning in 1080p resolution. But be warned that the file size are massive!

To be honest I am quite rubbish at shooting video coupled with my very unsteady hands, but the video output I got out of the device was better than anything I have managed on any other.

And where to from here

While I said this was not a review as such, I will offer up my brief conclusion of how I see the 808 PureView as a complete smartphone. While I am perfectly happy with Symbian and rather deft at dealing with its nuances I can appreciate that it is something of a relic today. Sales will continue as the mobile world transitions, nothing disappears immediately but it is on its way out. The 808 PureView is surely the last of the greats, and what a way to go out, what a bang! Having said that I don’t think I could have recommended this device to anyone I know, whether for straight up cash or on a contract. A few people have asked me for advice on smartphone purchases since the 808 has been released and the sum total I have recommended this device to is zero. The price tag of this device makes it difficult to sell itself as just a camera, so one really has to harness it as a smartphone and from that respect there are just too many caveats.

Away from all the serious stuff, I can’t help but go back to the wide eyed young me. Technology was always something that piqued my inquisitive mind and made me want to dream a little. It is interesting that we are now in product launch season, the Lumia 920, a few Motorola RAZRs, iPhone 5 and just yesterday, HTCs stunning Windows Phone 8 contenders have been launched in the past two weeks. While the Nokia and HTC devices are beautiful, the iPhone a mark of precision, and all devices are current in terms of hardware specifications I can’t say I was blown away by any of those devices. To that mix you can also throw in the Galaxy S3 and the One X from earlier in the year. In some ways, and expectedly, after the boom of 2011, hardware has plateaued. Improvements year on year will be iterative; faster, thinner devices with marginally better screens than before and tweaked camera performance. The closest that I got to a jaw dropping moment was the optical image stabilisation and floating lens assembly of the Lumia 920 that earned it the PureView badge.

None of those device launches though came close to matching shock and awe that preceded the 808 PureView announcement. It  is in my view a standout moment in the last few years of mobile, even if it is on a device that sadly is not anywhere as desirable as the likes of the Galaxy S3 and iPhone 5, record breaking devices in their own right.

The all seeing eye: a 0.5MP crop from a 38MP image

So where to now for this technology? Surely its place is in the future where it will live on in other devices? While the 808 PureView presents the current upper ceiling for what can be achieved in most scenarios from an imaging perspective on a mobile, PureView Phase II, to be seen in the upcoming Lumia 920, does show that there is still scope for development. PureView Phase II tackles low light performance which was the one weak spot on the 808, compensated for by the wonderful flash. The Lumia 920s floating lens assembly detects movement of the device in hand, natural even for the steadiest handed photographer and compensates for it. This allows longer exposure times and lower ISO values, allowing for better illuminated images with less noise and motion blur even without the use of a tripod.

While the two phases do enhance video I have noticed that there has been a strong emphasis on stills performance thus far. Perhaps at the start of 2013 we could see PureView Phase III with video capture being given special treatment. Then towards the end of the year, conveniently when I’m due an upgraded we could see an uncompromising PureView device to rule them all; two parts 808, one part Lumia 920, one part (probably) PureView Phase III Lumia 9XX.

Could it be? A boy can only dream. For now though, it is worth celebrating the brilliance of what Nokia achieved the 808 PureView.

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