It's rare that we have to put news about a smartphone in our photography hub, but that's just what Nokia has merited today with the introduction of the PureView 808. The headline spec is that the brand new camera sensor inside it is composed of 41 million pixels, however as you might have surmised, this handset doesn't take full 41-megapixel stills. Instead, it oversamples — taking the image data from seven neighboring pixels and consolidating it into one pixel's worth — and generates pictures roughly 5 megapixels in size. That's still plenty of dots for most uses, and the image quality you can obtain from such a system is frankly ridiculous. Nokia showed me poster-sized samples captured with the 808 PureView (printed entirely unprocessed) that basically had zero noise in them.
Update: Nokia has clarified to say that you are able to take true 38- and 35-megapixel photos with the 808 PureView. It's just that their pixel-level quality will pretty much suck, with Nokia admitting that it added those options as a sort of creative mode more than anything else. To get the real quality, you'll want to benefit from the oversampling technique and downsize to 3-, 5- or 8-megapixel shots.
Physically, the camera module is quite an imposing beast, measuring approximately a centimeter in width, height and depth. That's the reason for the massive hump on the back of the 808 PureView — in the hand, it feels bulkier than the similarly photo-centric N8, although the devices do differ quite significantly in design. The 808 has a larger 4-inch screen with nHD (640 x 360) resolution and features a more ergonomically-minded case, rounding its edges and offering a softer, grippier surface. The key specs on the processing side of things include 512MB of RAM and a 1.3GHz single-core SoC.
If you're thinking that such a low-res display won't cut it in the modern smartphone world, things get worse once you look at the operating system: it's Symbian Belle. Nokia can say as much as it wants about the steady rate of improvement in Symbian, it's still not an OS we'd recommend any sane person use for extended periods of time. You can notice lag in basic UI navigation and scrolling, which immediately hampers the user experience. There are instant sharing options to Facebook and Flickr in the camera app and the accompanying gallery app does a fine job of browsing through pictures quickly, but overall the software remains this phone's biggest problem.
On the positive side of things, you're getting 1080p video at a quality unlikely to soon be matched by another phone plus the best set of optics yet seen on a smartphone (according to Nokia). The lens for the 808 PureView has been co-developed by Nokia and Carl Zeiss, who have been working together for a long time. Ultimately, the 808 looks likely to be a fantastic cameraphone, but a niche device for those looking for smartphones with extra capabilities.
The best news of all, then, may well be Nokia's assertion that it would be "reasonable to expect" other platforms to get in on the PureView action. Windows Phone would be the most obvious beneficiary should Nokia opt to follow through on these words and use its giant new sensor on another mobile platform.