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Nokia 808 PureView (unlocked)

Its small display and and Symbian OS are pitfalls, but as a camera phone, the Nokia 808 PureView easily beats all current handsets on the market.

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Following up on its N8 camera phone, Nokia has upped the ante with the 808 PureView. When it was announced at Mobile World Congress in February, we ranked it among the top 5 handsets unveiled at the trade show. Some of the CNET editors who attended felt the 808 stole the show.

Like Nokia's N8, the PureView is also a camera-oriented phone, but it's pretty much the first of its kind in terms of imaging chops. Much has already been said about Nokia's PureView Pro imaging technology -- if you still don't understand what it's about, try reading Nokia's white paper (PDF).

Before we begin, we'd like to set out a disclaimer that this is, by all means, a review of a smartphone, so we have to take other features of the 808 PureView into full consideration.

Editors' note: Because the 808 PureView was reviewed by our companion site CNET Asia, we are publishing this review as an in-depth hands-on article without an official starred rating.

The design of the Nokia 808 PureView can be simply described as solid. Solid in the sense that the construction of the phone is robust and sturdy -- which is really no surprise, seeing Nokia's strong tradition of producing durable handsets like the Nokia 3210. Coupled with the Gorilla Glass display, this phone is built to last.

In fact, when we dropped the review unit accidentally on a friend's foot from waist level and it crash-landed on concrete afterward, the polycarbonate handset escaped unscathed without any scratches or dents. On the other hand, his foot was worse for wear, probably due to the phone's rather hefty 5.96-ounce weight.

Unfortunately, the 4-inch nHD display is too small and has too low a resolution (640x360 pixels) for a smartphone with such an imaging pedigree. It would have been nice to be able to enjoy our shots in at least qHD or 720p glory. By comparison, the Sony Xperia S, a smartphone in the same price range, has a 4.3-inch HD (1,280x720-pixel) display.

On the other hand, an upside of the 808 PureView's screen is Nokia's proprietary ClearBlack display technology, which is touted as giving good readability even under direct sunlight. We found this to be true. Yet, do note that the touch screen tends to retain fingerprints and smudges, so keep a cleaning cloth handy.

In our opinion, the slightly curved edges of the glass are a nice design element, which is reminiscent of the Nokia N9. Overall, it's a refreshing change from the flat and boxy look of some me-too smartphones out there.

We aren't too keen on the bulge on the back. This is due to the gigantic PureView lens adding bulk to the phone's chassis. Measuring almost 18mm (0.7 inch) at its thickest point, the 808 PureView may be a slightly uncomfortable fit in your pocket, especially when you sit down. On the bright side, the phone's narrower girth means that it's suited for one-handed usage.

Interestingly, the extra bulk doesn't result in a top-heavy phone; in fact the 808 PureView felt well-balanced in our hands. It also helps that the ceramiclike finish is easy to keep a grip on, even one-handed (though the ridge on the back could have been more pronounced, or made of a more textured material, to provide more grip while shooting).

You also won't have to worry about scratching the lens, as it's slightly recessed.

Finally, Nokia chose to go with a screen lock slider on the side of the phone, instead of a lock button. A useful feature is that holding the slider down turns on the camera's flash to use as a flashlight, making it a nifty shortcut.

The Nokia 808 PureView runs on the latest Symbian Belle OS, which brings with it a refreshed look and new features such as up to six customizable home screens, improved multitasking, scrolling widgets, and an Android-like dropdown notifications menu.

Yet, our complaints about the OS remain the same as for its predecessor, Anna. We mentioned them in our review of the Nokia E6, but the major disadvantage of getting a Symbian phone is the dearth of apps in the Ovi Store. The number of apps in the Ovi Store is a tenth of what's available in Apple's App Store, there are no dedicated Twitter or Facebook apps in the Ovi Store (so you will have to access these social-networking sites via the Ovi Social widget on the home screen), you won't be able to set the refresh intervals, the only way to update your feed is to access the app, and it doesn't have a notifications feature.

Our one minor quibble with predictive text input also hasn't changed. Belle does not automatically change lowercase i's to capital letters, nor is it able to predict correctly the words you're trying to type. Users unfamiliar with the Symbian OS may find a high error rate, especially when typing with predictive input turned off.

Athough Belle does not support Wi-Fi tethering, the 808 PureView comes preinstalled with JoikuSpot, an app that allows you to share your 3G connection wirelessly. Other standard bundled apps include Quickoffice, F-Secure Mobile Security, Microsoft Communicator Mobile, and Adobe Reader.

In terms of connectivity, you get the full range of options here: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, DLNA, GPS, and HSDPA up to 14.4Mbps. Additionally, the 808 PureView has NFC capabilities and a dedicated HDMI port.

The 16GB of onboard storage is expandable via a non-hot-swappable microSD card. The battery is removable.

Finally, there's Dolby Digital Plus technology for surround sound, though note that it only works with compatible headphones or speakers plugged in.

Let's face it, the only reason why you're reading this review -- and the 808 PureView's most important selling point -- is its bumper 41-megapixel CMOS sensor. It measures 1/1.2 inches, larger than the N8's and those of most advanced compact cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 and Fujifilm FinePix X10. The 808 PureView also uses renowned Carl Zeiss-branded optics, which features a molded glass aspherical lens.

First, let's look at what the PureView does better than some of the best smartphone cameras out there: it gives the user a lot more control over settings in Creative mode, maintains detail when zoomed in to 100 percent, and has minimal noise even in low-light situations. For more advanced users, you'll get bracketing mode for high-dynamic range (HDR) photography and time lapse recording. Nokia even sells an optional tripod mount adapter for those who are serious about stabilizing the device when shooting. We find shutter lag to be minimal, although there's a little wait of about 1 to 2 seconds while the shot is saved -- especially when shooting at full resolution.

A thoughtful feature is one-finger swipe-to-zoom capability, which is faster than having to press repeatedly on the volume rocker to zoom in. This is particularly useful while recording video (full-HD 1080p by the way), where you swipe upward on the screen to the required crop factor. Once you lift your finger off the screen, the camera zooms in automatically, eliminating jerky movements that result from manual zoom.

At MWC, Vesa Jutila, Nokia's product marketing director of smart devices, said that the mechanical shutter, autofocus system, and ND filter are the only moving parts in the robust camera module, which has gone through rigorous drop tests.

Nokia 808 PureView Color Accuracy
The 808 PureView at the 5-, 8-, and 38-megapixel settings fared well even against the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 (far right). Shawn Low/CNET

Yet, for all those impressive imaging chops, the camera software has a few downsides. For one, there's no burst mode setting, though you can capture sequential shots by holding down the physical shutter button.

You can directly access the camera from the lock screen in less than a second by pressing the hardware shutter button. However, you're limited to shooting in auto mode, with no access to advanced image controls except flash. Also, if your phone is password-protected, you won't be able to preview the photo immediately after snapping it unless you unlock the phone. With Android and iOS, you can preview photos just taken without unlocking, but don't get access to all the other photos in the phone -- a more sensible solution. All this means you may miss out on photo opportunities unless you don't mind having a relatively less secure phone and going without a passcode.

When you preview your photos, there's a quick shortcut to share them on Facebook immediately. Flickr is also integrated, but not Twitter. The quick preview doesn't reorient photos to portrait mode, so if you want to see a portrait photo in full, you'll have to exit the camera app and fire up the gallery. That's annoying.

Also, the gallery app behaves more like a gallery from a digital camera. When zoomed in, you won't be able to flick to the next image unless you manually zoom out first. This is unlike iOS and Android, which let you swipe to the next image (which automatically zooms out the image).

Although the onboard Xenon flash is twice as powerful as the N8's -- so Nokia's Eero Salmelin, head of imaging, told us -- it was a tad heavy-handed. To quote our camera reviewer, Shawn Low, the 808's flash "looked more like a beam from a torch" and "created a pink color cast in images produced."

As we've also seen in our camera shootout, the 808 PureView loses out on minimum focusing distance for macro shots. Nokia's lead program manager of imaging experience, Damian Dinning, pointed out in his comment that "the 808 uses the widest-angle optics of any smartphone when used in its default fully optimized 16:9 aspect ratio. This does create something of a trade-off in close-ups."

That's where the PureView's "lossless zoom" technology comes in, in the form of "close-up scene mode as a full-time option, touch AF in any mode, or close-up focus mode in creative [mode] accessed via a long touch of the viewfinder screen," Dinning wrote. He went on to note the reduced depth of field in the end result as a result of the larger sensor size.

What he neglected to mention is that this method also reduces the effective area of the sensor used (depending on the amount of zoom), which results in a trade-off in oversampling. For instance, if you zoomed in completely while shooting at 5 megapixels, you would be shooting pixel-for-pixel and there would be no oversampling to speak of. Shawn has done a comparison of shooting in the various modes.

Although you can shoot at full resolution (38 megapixels for 4:3 and 34 megapixels for 16:9 aspect ratio) and then crop the photo, the tradeoff is more noise because the oversampling feature will not be used.

As such, it's probably best to shoot on the default 5-megapixel setting -- or at 8 megapixels -- unless you plan on printing out a life-size poster.

The 808 PureView's 1.3GHz single-core processor isn't exactly the snappiest in the market (especially with quad-core smartphones being released), but the phone was relatively responsive overall. The 512MB of RAM was also sufficient for multitasking, and we didn't experience any major lag while using the handset except for when saving pictures, as mentioned earlier. This is especially noticeable when taking full-size 38-megapixel shots.

For extra processing power, the 808's camera module has a special companion processor that handles part of the workload before sending it to the graphics processor. This process may explain the lag we experienced.

The 808 PureView's 1,400mAh battery lasted us a full day with average usage, with Wi-Fi and GPS turned off and two e-mail accounts set on push. Due to the limitations of Ovi Social, we were unable to use our standard test settings of Twitter and Facebook at 2-hour refresh intervals.

We expect that if you're going to be spending a day (or night) out and taking lots of pictures, especially with flash, it's probably safer to bring a spare battery or an external charger along.

Reception was generally fine, although we ended a few calls unintentionally when the screen did not turn off and our cheek accidentally touched the "end call" onscreen button. This didn't happen every time, so we don't think you should be overly concerned about it.

To make a long story short, the Nokia 808 Pureview has near-perfect imaging chops for a mobile phone, but does a so-so job at being a communication device -- something important to the average person.

Smartphones such as the iPhone 4S, HTC One X, and Samsung Galaxy S III are popular not only because of their competent cameras, but also because of the ecosystem (apps, camera-related accessories, and so on), broad user base, and intuitive UI. These elements are sorely lacking in the Symbian OS, which is why it's the 808 PureView's stumbling block on the way to mainstream success.

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop has previously announced that the company will stay committed to Symbian only until 2016. At MWC in February, Nokia's then-EVP of Sales, Colin Giles, declined to comment on what's next for Symbian after Belle but stated that innovation on the platform will continue.

However, once the PureView Pro technology is brought to the Windows Phone platform, we would say the smartphone-OS big boys had better watch their backs.

The 808 PureView isn't a smartphone for the masses. For the more discerning photography enthusiasts who are looking for a compact camera replacement -- and current N8 users -- though, it's a different matter entirely. Let's face it, you probably skipped right to the part about the camera and ignored the rest of the review. If you just want a camera that can also be used to make calls and send and receive e-mails, then the Nokia 808 PureView fulfills this purpose very well.

At $839 Singapore dollars (U.S. $654) without operator subsidies, it's pretty expensive considering you can get a high-end smartphone with a modern OS at that price. But if it means saving on buying a dedicated digicam, it could be worth the price to some.

Our review unit was the black version, but the 808 PureView comes in white and red as well. Do check with your carrier for availability as the red version is not available in Singapore.

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