This week, Nokia grandly unveiled its latest Windows Phone 8 flagship, the Lumia 920. It was an effort to reintroduce Nokia once again to the smartphone buying public and make the case that its technological prowess was second to none. The most important part of that argument is undoubtedly the Lumia 920's "PureView" camera. That case was utterly undermined by Nokia itself six hours after the unveiling, when we discovered that the promotional video that appeared to feature the new camera technology was faked. Nokia officially apologized for the deception and then was later forced to apologize again when still photos pulled from the same video were also revealed to be fakes.
The apologies were needed, but the damage was done. The headline feature for Nokia's headline phone has been flagged by controversy, putting a cloud over the launch and casting doubt on the very thing that was supposed to have been Nokia's biggest strength.
Nokia obviously wants to stem the tide of criticism and turn the conversation back to the quality of its camera instead of the legitimacy of its promotional video. In what we imagine was the first step in that effort, the company invited us to meet with them last night to test out the Nokia Lumia 920 for ourselves in a real-world situation. Unfortunately, Nokia could only demonstrate one of the two faked features to us, but it did offer us the full, untouched JPEGs out of the camera to publish online for the first time.
PureView originated as Nokia's branding for its crazy 808 PureView Symbian phone, which takes photos at 41 megapixels and then uses that information to reduce the images down to a more manageable size. The results are stunning, but that's not the same technology in the Lumia 920.
Instead, "PureView" has now become a more generic term for Nokia's camera technology, applied to any device which Nokia believes is a step above the competition. Nokia tells us that "It's about the benefits, it's not about the spec." On the Lumia 920, the main technical advantage is the Optical Image Stabilization technology (OIS) that "floats" the lens on springs. That enables video that's less shaky and taking low-light images in situations where other phones would produce very dark images.
Nokia has posted actual images that came from a prototype Lumia 920 on its Conversations Blog, but with all the controversy it wanted to show definitively that those photos were real. So we met Nokia at the same spot in Central Park where they were shot and took the same photos with the same device of the same Nokia engineer ourselves, along with a few others. Unfortunately, Nokia said that the software for taking video with OIS wasn't yet completed, so we weren't able to test that. In fact, if you look at the full images below, you'll note that the EXIF data on the Nokia 920 images are all wrong. This was most definitely a prototype. (Astute observers will note that it's not just Microsoft that has software work to finish so that the 920 can be released).
After getting that disappointment settled, we set out to take our shots, armed with the Nokia Lumia 920, Samsung Galaxy S III, iPhone 4S, HTC One X, Nokia Lumia 900, and Nokia 808 PureView. We shot images with and without flash and used the default Auto settings for most of the images — though on the One X and Galaxy S III we also tried a "night" mode (the images presented here are those without flash).
The results? The Lumia 920 takes very good low-light images, the OIS compensates for enough hand shake to take in light to create a photo in situations where you'd expect none are possible. In near darkness, we will say that it took a relatively steady hand to get a shot without camera shake — but that's a very small complaint. While we were getting blur on the 920, we were getting vastly darker and grainier images on the rest.
The Lumia 920 takes very good low-light images
As you can see in the gallery below, both the Galaxy S III and One X comported themselves slightly better when switching to night mode, but none of the cameras we tried took in as much light as the Lumia 920 with any combination of settings or flash. It wasn't in the same class as a shot taken with a DSLR, of course, but given the more diluted meaning of "PureView," we didn't expect it to be.
If we had to pick one complaint about the low-light performance from the Lumia 920's camera, it would be that the resulting image is almost too bright. Nokia could dial it back a bit, tweaking the software to keep the shutter open for a shorter period of time to reduce blur even more.
Nokia's hardware deserved much better than what Nokia's marketing team did to it
The prototype Nokia Lumia 920 certainly features the kind of camera technology that deserves some hype. It's just too bad that Nokia decided to lie when it was hyping it. We're hoping that the Optical Image Stabilization on video will be equally impressive on production hardware — but it's much harder to take it on faith that it will be after all the recent drama. That's a pity, because everything we experienced last night makes us think that Nokia's hardware deserved much better than what Nokia's marketing team did to it. We won't have a definitive answer until the phone ships, and we still don't know when that is.