Nokia's enormous efforts with the 808 PureView's 41-megapixel camera pay off in full, but the rest of the phone can't keep up.
The Nokia 808 PureView was an immediate hit at Mobile World Congress in February, for one reason and one reason alone: its jaw-dropping 41-megapixel camera commanded attention. Never intended for U.S. markets, the PureView runs on the Symbian OS, which, for many North Americans in whose lives Symbian has never been a prominent feature, was unimpressive. It has a bulky body (owing to the massive camera module), but a more disappointing, middle-of-the road processor. Never mind that. The handset's unique camera with lossless zoom has generated so much interest that U.S. residents can now order it from Amazon.com for a cool $700.
The secret behind the camera is an extra-large sensor that dwarfs those of regular 5-megapixel and 8-megapixel shooters. The larger lens lets in more light, which in turn lets the PureView capture exponentially more information about an image. The second mobile innovation is camera software that lets more aspiring photographers play around with creative settings, and take photos in 5- or 8-megapixel resolutions so that zoomed-in frames burst with detail. CNET camera editor Josh Goldman describes the technique here.
Remove the camera from the equation and you're left with a pretty good smartphone with an OS that for most in the U.S. is a long-forgotten memory. The PureView technology may be Symbian's swan song here, but it's also a cunning preview of smartphone camera technology that pushes the boundaries of mobile photography in a leap of triumph.
Design and build
How much lumpier does the extra-large camera make Nokia's PureView? Pretty bulky indeed. The camera module is (understandably) bigger than usual and protrudes from the back of the phone. Even without the supersized lens, the 808 PureView would be heavyset, with a 0.55-inch thickness (it's 0.7 inch at its widest point) and 5.96 ounces on the scale. Its otherwise medium stature of 4.9 inches tall and 2.4 inches wide makes the polycarbonate slab feel solid and sturdily built, but it is a brick in the old handbag and fits awkwardly into all but the loosest of pockets.
The PureView comes in white, a popular color for its distinctiveness, but also one that, as in clothing, is susceptible to discoloring. I'm admittedly rough on my things, and dropping the PureView into my purse didn't do it any favors on the cleanliness front. I know firsthand that Nokia thoroughly tests its phones against dirt and corrosives. Luckily, I was able to spit-polish away most of the smudges.
The 808 PureView wins points for its pretty 4-inch AMOLED display technology, which makes colors rich and vibrant. Gorilla Glass also reinforces it against scratches and potentially damaging falls. The PureView has an unusual nHD screen resolution of 640x360 pixels, which is one-ninth of full HD. Needless to say, this is the lower end of the spectrum. In contrast, most mid- to high-end 4-inch AMOLED screens have a 480x800 (WVGA) screen resolution -- like the Pantech Burst or the Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate -- which is about right.
All 16.7 million colors appear on the PureView. While images weren't as sharp as on other phones, photos looked good onscreen, and jagged edges and softness weren't immediately visible. I also liked the screen's deep gloss finish and slight curvature toward the edges. Small touches like that make it plain that Nokia cares about design details.
I'm less enamored of the thin plastic strip below the screen that serves as the physical keyboard controls for the Send, Menu, and Power/End buttons. The Lumia 710 has a similar control strip that I also would have preferred to be on the thicker side. It works, though, and doesn't get in the way. I just happen to prefer a more substantial fingerhold for my buttons.
The PureView gets bonus points for its other external appointments. I love the convenience of a hardware camera shutter button on the right spine, the full HDMI-out port up top, and the slide control to lock and unlock the screen. Slide and hold for two full counts to turn on the (very bright) flashlight. There's also a volume rocker on the right spine and a Micro-USB charging port is up top, right next to the 3.5mm headset jack.
Beneath the back cover (which thankfully pops off without too much force) and beneath the battery are the microSD card and the micro-SIM card slots. I'm not a fan of rebooting my phone every time I need to tinker with the SIM or storage card, but the PureView gets special dispensation in my book for its challenging design. It isn't easy smushing the usual radios and components into a cavity shared with a massive camera module.
I hear that Dolby Digital Plus technology hands out surround sound, if you have the right accessories, which I didn't.
OS and apps
It's been quite a while since we've seen a Symbian OS smartphone here in the U.S., but the operating system that Nokia bought used to be much more prevalent here than it is now. You'll want to know that the PureView, which runs the Symbian Belle variant, can perform the majority of tasks that we associate with smartphones. There's e-mail, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth support, apps and productivity tools, turn-by-turn directions through Nokia Maps and Nokia Drive, and texting. For the most part, the phone performs these basic smartphone functions well.
There's also a music player, an FM radio, YouTube, and a social networking app for Facebook and Twitter. There's a full HTML browser, support for DLNA content sharing to other DLNA devices (like phone-to-TV), and a music store. Shazam, QuickOffice, and Vlingo Voice actions are all preloaded (Vlingo is like Apple's Siri, but predates it.) Other notable apps include a file folder, a file-zip utility, a calculator and clock, tips and offers, a very limited dictionary (that didn't have most of the challenging words I looked up), and a handful of game demos like Angry Birds Magic. Unfortunately, Nokia Music didn't open on the PureView.
I haven't used a Symbian phone in years, and my rustiness showed in getting around. If you're a longtime Symbian fan, the OS will present no problem to you; it may feel like a familiar friend. However, it took me a little ramp-up time to get used to the work flow, though I wouldn't say that the shift was any more pronounced than with learning any other smartphone platform. In fact, I didn't encounter as many hidden features as iOS, Android, and even Windows Phone -- like long presses and double button pushes, for instance.
That said, Symbian Belle isn't as extensible as I'm used to. There is access to social networks, yes, but I didn't see the deep tie-ins to the calendar or address book. You can, however, post photos to social networks. There are ways to sync information across Nokia's stable of services, which is expected, but not any native ways to sync up with Google services, apart from adding e-mail. This makes sense, since Android is a competing platform, but as a user of Android services, I did wish I didn't have to search the Nokia app store for tools and I think all competing Android platforms would ingratiate themselves with users by offering shortcuts to one or two more Google services apart from mail.
While the Nokia store still has apps that run the gamut of productivity and entertainment, there simply isn't the strength in apps that take a smartphone from a phone to an indispensable all-in-one computing, communication, and entertainment tool. (I do like the native Social app, however, which lets you toggle between Facebook and Twitter accounts.) Symbian retains some staunch developer support, though on a global scale the platform is waning, and developers on the whole tend to consolidate on operating systems with brighter futures.
The cramped keyboard drove me nuts and had me wishing for a virtual keyboard like SwiftKey or Swype. Predictive text made an appearance, but not spell-check. I constantly mistyped words and waited in agony for the laggy virtual QWERTY keyboard to catch up. Correcting my log-ins, passwords, and e-mails took a lot of manual attention. Let's call it a profoundly frustrating experience that isn't helped by a slower processor than I'd want. This may not bother all of you, but it could haunt precise typers like me.
One area where Nokia excels is in NFC. In fact, the phone maker was the quiet NFC trailblazer in the U.S. before Samsung started beating the gong. Smart NFC widgets toggle the feature on and off, and a polished tutorial points newcomers in the right direction. What's missing, of course, are opportunities to use NFC here in the States. In the U.S., NFC is an even stickier issue since several viable terminals use the Google Wallet app.
Camera and video
Because of his expertise, I asked CNET's Joshua Goldman to review the PureView's unique camera, and its video capability. His photos are pretty amazing. In all cases, click to see the image enlarged.
The PureView's photo quality lives up to the hype. Yes, the camera does have a 41-megapixel sensor and it is overkill for a smartphone camera -- at least on the surface. While it actually does do pretty well at resolving detail when you use that full resolution, that was never really the point. It's Nokia's oversampling technology that turns those 41 megapixels into 3, 5, or 8 megapixels that's important.
In fact, the default for the camera is its 5-megapixel PureView setting. By using this resolution, you have access to a 3x lossless digital zoom; going up to 8 megapixels reduces zoom to about 2x, while dropping to 3 megapixels increases it to about 3.6x. And it is truly lossless, whereas the digital zooms on other smartphones rely on cropping and interpolation.
The PureView works really well when left in fully automatic or popped into one of its eight scene modes, but Nokia's included a Creative mode for those who like more control. You can set up up to three custom groups of settings with choices of sensor mode and resolution, aspect ratio, JPEG quality, color tones (normal, vivid, black-and-white, and sepia), and capture mode (normal, bracketing, interval, and self-timer). There are sliders for saturation, contrast, and sharpness, too.
This mode also gives you control over white balance (though leaving it in auto was safe almost all the time); focus mode (infinity, hyperfocal, close-up, and automatic); ISO sensitivity from 50 to 1600; exposure compensation with a histogram; and the lens' neutral density filter. Though there's no direct control over shutter speed, by turning the ND filter off or on you can speed it up or create a long exposure up to 2.7 seconds.
In general, the PureView's photo quality is excellent for a smartphone, particularly in good lighting. Colors are nice and natural, but if you like colors with a little more punch, the Vivid color mode provides them. Exposure is generally good, though like a compact camera, the PureView tends to blow out highlights. The PureView modes are definitely better than using the full resolution when it comes to challenging lighting, however. There's no HDR mode to help out here either, but you can use the bracketed shooting option to create your own HDR shot with software.
Low-light photos are excellent for a smartphone camera and can compete with higher-end point-and-shoots. You will see noise and artifacts, but for small prints and Web use the results are acceptable. The Xenon flash, which is also used as an AF assist lamp, is blindingly bright. It's nice to have the option, especially as a fill flash for backlit subjects, but it's not something you'll want to use in dark environments.
The PureView's video quality is just as good as its stills. With plenty of light you get excellent results, but in low light things look softer and noisier (though still completely watchable). Zoom is increased to 4x for full HD movies and movement is smooth -- no jerky stops here. Audio quality is great, too.
Shooting performance is fairly fast, on par with a good point-and-shoot. From the lock screen you can press and hold the dedicated shutter release, which launches the camera and fires a shot in about 3 seconds. Shot-to-shot times averaged about a second and although there's no burst-shooting option, you can just hold the shutter down and it will continue to capture pics. Shutter lag is minimal, but the autofocus does need to hunt more in low light.
See even more photos (taken by the phone reviewer, not the camera expert) in this photo shootout versus the iPhone 4S and the Samsung Galaxy S3.
Call quality and data
I tested the quad-band Nokia 808 PureView (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; WCDMA 1700) in San Francisco. The phone is unlocked; I made calls using AT&T's network. I found audio acceptable, with warm, natural tones and no background noise. However, audio sounded as if it were treated with an aural soft focus: voices weren't crisp or distinct, like someone placed a gauzy layer on top of them. As a result, my caller sounded more removed, not immediately in my ear. Some audio distortion made his voice sound pebbled at times.
On his end, my trusty testing partner pronounced call quality one of the best he's heard on a smartphone. Volume was strong, voices were clear, there was no background noise he could hear, and I sounded excellent overall, he said. However, as with most cell phones, my voice distorted on the peaks.
Nokia 808 PureView call quality sample Listen now:
I tested speakerphone by holding the PureView at waist level. I immediately needed to crank the volume from medium to maximum. Voices sounded smooth, but a little distant and more hollow than on the standard call; however, there wasn't any background noise and I could carry on a conversation in the quiet office. On his end, my test partner lauded the strong call volume and even tones. He didn't hear background noise, speakerphone wasn't particularly echoey, and I sounded natural to his ears. He didn't mind having a long conversation over speakerphone, he said.
An unlocked phone, the 808 PureView runs on AT&T's "3.5G" network, or HSPA+. This is good news, since HSPA+ is a faster version of 3G, and one that AT&T and T-Mobile were able to get designated as a "4G" technology due to its faster speeds. (Now with fast LTE under its belt, AT&T is backing away from those claims.) Although clearly not as fast as 4G LTE, speeds were pretty good in my tests. CNET's mobile site loaded in about 15 seconds, with the desktop site completing loading in about 20 seconds. The desktop version of the New York Times site completed in about 10 seconds as well. Of course, speeds are variable depending on your coverage zone, and can even accelerate or slow down at peak or off-peak times throughout the day.
Processor and battery life
The PureView runs on a 1.3GHz single-core processor; I won't lie, it felt sluggish compared with today's blazing infernos, especially when waiting for keyboards to pop up and apps to load. If you're less exacting, you probably wouldn't describe it as slow.
The 1,400mAh battery has a rated talk time of 11 hours over GSM and 6.5 hours over WCDMA. Standby time ratings come in at 19.4 days over GSM and 22.5 days over WCDMA. CNET will continue to test battery life in our labs and will update this section with findings.
If you're the type to buy a phone for its camera, the Nokia 808 PureView will give you all it's got. A photographer's smartphone, its multiple modes will suit casual shooters while also giving enthusiasts much more structured control. Add in some accessories, like a portable tripod, and you've got a satisfying camera that can also make calls and check your e-mail. While it sounds good in theory, the 808 PureView still won't replace a serious photographer's DSLR, though it will be more conveniently on-hand for relaxed photo opportunities.
Unfortunately, the lower screen resolution and 1GHz processor are markings of a midrange handset, while the price tag says premium. Though Symbian Belle OS may be improved from its predecessors, it still lacks some basic features, like a smarter keyboard, social-networking integration with the address book, and a lot of the polish found in iOS, Android, and even Windows Phone. Unless you're a die-hard Symbian fan, the software will feel clunkier and less powerful for those of you used to these other OSes. Some loyal developers may continue creating new apps and maintaining favorites, but it doesn't help Symbian's argument that Nokia has promised to phase out the OS by 2016.
However, the 808 PureView's strong build quality and willingness to take risks in camera innovation demonstrate Nokia's promise as a continued Windows Phone handset maker, despite shaky financials and a clouded future.