Nokia 808 PureView review: Nokia 808 PureView

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CNET Editors' Rating

2.5 stars OK

Average User Rating

4.5 stars 17 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Excellent camera that's comparable with compacts; Snapper performs well in low light; Good screen readability under direct sunlight; Robust build; MicroSD card slot.

The Bad Extremely sluggish web browsing; Symbian OS lags behind the competition; Ovi Store needs more apps; Low-resolution display; Hefty and bulky.

The Bottom Line The Nokia 808 PureView's 41-megapixel camera is a rocket strapped to a rollerskate. It easily trumps all the better smart phone cameras, including the iPhone 4S and the HTC One X. But the Symbian operating system is less easy to use than Android or iOS and has fewer apps. Web browsing is also woefully sluggish.

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The Nokia 808 PureView is probably the most powerful camera phone ever but it's powered by an operating system that's heading for the history books. Its big boast is a gigantic 41-megapixel snapper. But when you pair that with the Symbian OS, it's the camera phone equivalent of a pushbike carrying a howitzer.

Nokia purists will point out that Symbian is technically a very powerful and capable OS -- which is technically speaking true. On the measure of most importance to most people -- ease of use -- it's been blown out of the water by Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

Beyond the 808's headline-grabbing megapixel count, there's a lot of cool camera technology to get excited about here. But even dyed-in-the-wool Nokia fans may baulk at the whopping price tag. Amazon is offering this curio for pre-order, SIM-free for an eye-watering £500 .

Should I buy the Nokia 808 PureView?

The Nokia 808 PureView feels like a proof-of-concept device -- to the point where we were surprised at CNET Towers to see it destined for sale at all. Despite making it out of Espoo and into retail packaging, the phone remains hamstrung by an OS that Nokia has very publicly given the boot .

Our favourite Finns aren't spending truckloads of money investing in the future of Symbian as once they did. Oh no. Nokia's energy is now being poured into hardware and apps for Microsoft's Windows Phone OS. So that's the first caveat: if you purchase the 808 PureView, you're buying yesteryear's software. Don't expect lots of OS updates or scores of new apps to be developed.

Nokia 808 PureView controls
The on-screen controls are more intuitive than the menus found on most standalone cameras.

Secondly, Symbian -- even this latest incarnation, known as Belle -- is less polished and easy to use than iOS or Android. Belle is a lot better than Symbian iterations of old. Android users may even experience a spot of déjà vu as they swipe around its multiple home screens, eyeballing widgets and apps. But dig down and the surface polish soon rubs off. You're effectively trading usability for that amazing camera.

This is a phone for Nokia purists who've been in a deep and meaningful relationship with Symbian for years. If you just want a basic telephone with a really good camera attached to it, the 808 PureView similarly won't disappoint (assuming you don't balk at the expense).

If you're hoping to be able to pick the 808 PureView up on contract, you're out of luck. None of the UK's mobile operators will be selling it , so if you're desperate to pocket the PureView, prepare to shell out DSLR prices to bag one.

Photographers will rightly be intrigued by the PureView technology but Nokia has indicated it will bring the technology to its Windows Phone line of smart phones in. So it may be worth waiting for a Lumia PureView to land.

41-megapixel camera

The 808 looks like it might ignite another camera arms race -- hopefully one that's sensibly focused on the size of the sensor, rather than just the quantity of megapixels.

The dust has only just settled on the megapixel war between actual cameras, while smart phone snappers have levelled off at around 8 megapixels. Yet the PureView is branded with a ludicrously large megapixel count. Even 'proper' cameras don't have 41 megapixels, except those that even pros wish they could afford. That's why it's worth noting the postage stamp-sized 1/1.2-inch sensor.

Most phones have a sensor smaller than a pinkie fingernail -- that's why your budget blower serves up grainy, distorted camera phone fodder. The PureView's super-sized sensor means less distortion, less grain and more crisp, glorious detail. It also gifts the PureView a longer focal length (8.02mm) than many camera phones. Add in its large f/2.4 aperture and, if you're focusing on something in the foreground of a scene, the PureView will produce seriously impressive shallow depth of field too (if you want to sound like a real pro, this is known as a 'bokeh' effect).

You may be wondering what the point of a 41 megapixel photos on a phone is but that's the wrong question to ask. The size of the sensor enables a technique called 'pixel oversampling', whereby a lot of visual information is condensed down into fewer but 'truer' pixels. The result is extremely sharply detailed shots, while unsightly grain is banished back to the 70s where it belongs.

In certain situations the large sensor also enables 'lossless zoom' -- in other words, you can zoom in as you're framing your shot and won't lose any detail (Nokia avoids the crude option of upscaling, which most camera phones with a digital zoom resort to), thereby saving the shoe leather of walking closer to your subject. If you're shooting at maximum resolution, you can't zoom in at all, but with such a high-res pic, you'll be able to zoom in retrospectively and crop various shots from this gigantic canvas -- like a cookie cutter stamping biscuits from a sheet of dough.

If that wasn't enough, the 808 uses Carl Zeiss-branded optics, which feature a molded glass aspherical lens. And you get a large Xenon flash that promises to be a powerful light for you in dark places.

Nokia 808 PureView landscape
The case bulges to accommodate the camera but the 808 has a well-balanced design.

If you want to snap at the absolute maximum resolution, the 808 PureView can capture 38 or 34-megapixel images, depending on the aspect ratio you choose (4:3 or 16:9). Of course, you don't have to shoot in this mode all the time. Indeed, for most people a 38-megapixel photo would be madness unless you were planning to print a wall-sized poster for your bedroom.

The PureView offers more sensible megapixel modes including 8, 5 and 2, which are far more suitable for everyday snaps and quick mobile uploads. The default photo mode is 5 megapixels.

At these lower megapixel modes, Nokia says results are superior to your average 5 or 2-megapixel camera phone because its cunning pixel oversampling technique kicks in. The lossless zoom is also a boon on these modes.

So the PureView philosophy in a nutshell is a larger sensor, better optics and pixel oversampling producing purer, clearer and (when you want them) very high-resolution images.

The phone itself is chunky but not oversized. Nokia has done a pretty good job of minimising the bulge factor of the camera lens, which swells out smoothly from the top of the phone, without unbalancing the design. You won't have to worry too much about scratching the lens either as it's slightly recessed and surrounded by a shiny metal plate.

The handset is pretty heavy though. After one snapping session, its heft left me with handache. On the plus side, the weight makes it easier to keep the camera steady as you shoot.

Interestingly, the extra bulk doesn't result in a top-heavy phone. In fact, the 808 PureView felt well balanced in the hand. It also helps that the ceramic-like finish is grippy, especially for one-handed use. The finger ridge on the back could have been more pronounced, or made of a textured material, to provide better grip while shooting though.

Nokia 808 PureView sensor
The massive image sensor is the trick behind cramming 41 megapixels onto a mobile phone.

Camera controls

The PureView offers greater manual control than lots of camera phones -- you certainly get more sliders and settings than Apple's iPhone offers. Despite all these controls, Nokia has managed to keep things fairly simple. It's certainly simpler than many 'proper cameras' and definitely more straightforward than a dSLR.

There are three basic modes to choose from: Automatic, Scenes and Creative. The Automatic mode does what it says on the tin -- it lets you treat the PureView as a point-and-shoot camera so you can get snapping in the default 5-megapixel mode, with the camera making all the decisions.

The Scenes mode takes back some control, letting you give the camera a nudge in the right direction by allowing you to specify whether you're snapping a landscape, a portrait, a night-time shot, or choose from a number of scene types.

Nokia 808 PureView camera options
The Nokia 808 PureView offers more manual camera control than any other phone snapper I can think of.

You're able to take proper manual control via the Creative setting. Here, you can customise the ISO level, exposure, contrast, saturation and sharpness, as well as select the aspect ratio, type of scene you're shooting and more. Simple on-screen sliders alter things like the contrast of your image and you can see the results instantly as you smoothly adjust the sliders with a fingertip.

The manual controls are designed by people used to designing specifically for the touchscreen of a phone, so the sliders and buttons are much more intuitive than the menus of most proper cameras.

There are also a few basic effects you can add to shots -- including sepia and black and white -- seeing them overlaid in real time over the image before you tap the shutter.

When you're happy with the look of your picture, you can save your settings as one of three custom modes. Whenever you're in that situation again, simply tap on the saved settings and you can instantly start shooting with the camera set up just how you like it.

Talking of shooting, you can either tap a shutter button on screen or use the dedicated camera key on the top edge of the phone, which gives finer-grained control. You can also use the volume rocker key to zoom in and out before snapping, or just slide your finger up and down on the screen.

Once you've snapped a shot, the now universally accepted reverse-pinch gesture lets you zoom in on all the little details caught by Nokia's big sensor.

The PureView's zoom isn't an optical zoom like you'd find on many proper cameras. Instead, Nokia has drawn on the size of the sensor to offer the aforementioned lossless zoom. One thing to note is that at the highest resolution, you can't zoom in any more as the sensor's scope is entirely maxed out -- and Nokia has eschewed image-degrading options such as upscaling.

Nokia's thinking is that at the top end of the resolution, the size of the image you're creating is so large you'll be able to scale and crop it after you've imported it to your computer -- to produce a variety of different shots.

For more advanced users, the PureView also offers a bracketing mode for high dynamic range (HDR) photography and time-lapse recording. Nokia even sells an optional tripod mount adaptor for those who are serious about stabilising the device when shooting. Shutter lag is minimal, although there's a little wait of about 1 to 2 seconds while the shot is saved -- especially when shooting at full resolution.

Nokia 808 PureView side
Nokia has done a good job of integrating the bulge of the lens into the handset's design.

Picture quality

The devil is in the detail and there's an astonishing level of it in the finished pictures. Open the gallery and you'll see a grid of your shots, which you can then tap on to open a snap. Because the quick preview doesn't re-orient photos to portrait mode, if you want to see a portrait photo in full, you'll have to exit the camera app and fire up the gallery, which is a mild annoyance.

You zoom into a photo with the usual pinching gesture of your fingertips. And keep pinching. And keep pinching -- pictures are so detailed you can zoom in on really small details captured in the background of your shots.

The extra detail means you can crop a picture on the phone -- using the crop icon that appears below each shot -- and still have it come out a decent size for printing or sharing online. There's a quick shortcut to share pics on Facebook immediately. Flickr is also integrated, but not Twitter.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so how tasty are PureView photos? Well, in short, very sweet indeed. Here's a taster of what the camera can do in the default automatic mode, shooting at 5 megapixels:

Nokia 808 Pureview camera
Although shot on an overcast day there's still lots of detail in this shot (click image to enlarge).
Nokia 808 Pureview camera
The very strong colours of these flowers are complemented by stunning levels of macro detail (click image to enlarge).
Nokia 808 Pureview camera
This shot of a speedometer is good enough to make it into the Toyota catalogue (click image to enlarge).
Nokia 808 Pureview camera
More strong colours captured in another stunningly crisp close up (click image to enlarge).

Here's a shot that shows off the 808's strengths in producing great shallow depth of field:

Nokia 808 Pureview camera
A shot this good looks like it could easily have been snapped with a proper camera (click image to enlarge).

If you want to see what a super-high resolution image looks like, click on the shot below:

Nokia 808 Pureview camera
This image uses the full extent of the 808's sensor -- click it to enlarge and zoom into the distant detail.

Here's a crop taken from the last photo:

Nokia 808 Pureview camera
Look closely at this picture and the one above -- these people were in the distant background of the first shot (click image to enlarge).

Lossless zoom can't be used on the max-resolution mode, but if you snap at one of the lower megapixel modes, any zooming you do before taking a shot won't cause the image to degrade:

Nokia 808 Pureview camera
A shot of London's The Shard taken using Nokia's lossless zoom -- the bluish tinge is because I was manually tweaking the scene options (click image to enlarge).
Nokia 808 Pureview camera
Another lossless zoom -- this time taking in people walking down on the street (click image to enlarge).

In Creative mode you can also tweak settings such as saturation and contrast:

Nokia 808 Pureview camera
This shot of The Shard has been desaturated using the PureView's Creative mode (click image to enlarge).
Nokia 808 Pureview camera
And here's the converse: a shot of The Shard with saturation levels bumped up via the PureView's Creative mode (click image to enlarge).

Based on image quality, the 808 is simply unbeatable among smart phones at the moment. Its low light performance -- a situation which many smart phone cameras struggle with -- blows the competition away. It also produced images with pleasing colour, without being overly saturated (unless you manually bump up the saturation like the shot above).

So how does it fare against two of the best camera phones around?

Nokia 808 PureView vs iPhone 4S vs HTC One X

Here's a series of shots comparing the PureView's lens with the iPhone 4S and the HTC One X -- click on each image to enlarge.

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Where to Buy

Nokia 808 PureView (unlocked)

Part Number: 808PUREVIEW
Pricing is currently unavailable.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Talk Time Up to 660 min (2G)
    Up to 390 min (3G)
  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Combined with With digital camera / digital player / FM radio
  • Service Provider Unlocked
  • Weight 169 g
  • Diagonal Size 4 in
  • Sensor Resolution 41 pixels
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