At Mobile World Congress this year, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop cast a wary eye over the catalog of shiny new phones introduced by his competitors and posed the challenge, "which ones will you remember?" At the time, I was asking him why the Finnish company he’s in charge of was introducing the 808 PureView with Symbian on board when, by Nokia’s own admission, that operating system was already on its way out. Elop’s laconic response encapsulated this phone’s entire raison d'être: the PureView camera technology is disruptive, memorable, and not something Nokia wanted to keep in its labs any longer.
Headlined by a 41-megapixel sensor, the 808 PureView is the true successor to Nokia's N8, the 12-megapixel cameraphone that has ruled as the undisputed king of phone photography since 2010. As with the N8, the 808’s sensor is larger than average not only in terms of pixel count but physically as well, necessitating a rather comical hump on the phone's back to accommodate the camera assembly. So, before you even pick this handset up, you know you’ll have to compromise on two major things: software ecosystem and physical dimensions. But Nokia’s aware of this too, and its release of the 808 PureView in spite of these hurdles signals just how confident the company is in the device’s camera capabilities. To find out if that bullishness has been justified, read on for my full review.
About as well designed as a phone with an alien camera excrescence can be
Nokia’s PureView camera technology has been in the works for over five years, which is plain to see in the 808 handset’s design. Whereas a 13.9mm thick phone may have been considered slim in 2007, that profile is decidedly plump by modern standards, leading Nokia to taper off everything that doesn’t need it and resulting in the abnormally shaped device you see before you.
The top third of the phone’s back is occupied by the supersized 41-megapixel sensor, Carl Zeiss optics, a Xenon flash, and the phone’s loudspeaker, all of them encased in a chromed-out protrusion from the main case. A plastic cover then slopes off from there into a much more conventional phone shape, with the sides curving nicely toward the front. The congruence between this cover and the shell encircling the handset is great. They fit together perfectly and the finish is the same on both: a matte, grippy texture that’s simultaneously welcoming to the touch and resistant to scuffs. Pop open the cover — which is rigid and thick enough to provide real protection for what lays inside — and you’ll find the 1400mAh battery covering up slots for microSD storage expansion and a Micro SIM card. An NFC antenna is built into the inside of the cover.
Around the front, there’s a 4-inch AMOLED display, sat behind a Gorilla Glass screen. As is now typical, the entire front is glass but for the earpiece opening at the top and a physical bar at the bottom. The latter plays host to the Call Creation, Menu, and Call Termination keys (to use Nokia’s verbiage), and though it’s just one continuous button, distinguishing between the three is never a problem. The headphone jack at the top of the phone is kept company by a pair of ports, one for Micro USB and one for Micro HDMI. Importantly, the 808 PureView will only work with Nokia’s bundled headset or regular headphones — all my usual headsets from various other brands were rejected as unsupported accessories.
A two-stage shutter button was always inevitable with such a camera-centric phone, and the 808 doesn’t disappoint, offering a silvery camera key on its lower right side. It works well, though I tend to steer clear of physical camera buttons for fear of introducing unwanted motion into the capture process. The 808 PureView hasn’t convinced me to change my ways, but there’s little to complain about with its hard input keys, both the camera button and the volume rocker that sits above it are easy to find and operate. Occupying the space between them is a ridged slider that’s used to lock and unlock the phone. As with the rest of the 808 PureView hardware design, it works smoothly and cleanly.
Micro SIM, microSD, Micro USB, Micro HDMI...
Taken in totality, the industrial design of the 808 is typical for a high-end Nokia device. Even with an absurdly large outgrowth on its back, this phone manages to feel cohesive, and while the materials used are in no way unique, they convey a sense of durability and desirability. There’s little, however, that the Nokia designers could have done about the girth or weight (169g) of this handset, two issues that make it harder to use than I would have liked. The big camera bump makes the 808 PureView a little top-heavy, and its presence inside your pocket or bag will rarely go unnoticed. Given enough time, you might well grow used to the unorthodox weight distribution and dimensions, but at least at the start, it’s a jarring experience.
Irony: the world’s highest-resolution camera on a device with one of the lowest-resolution screens
640 x 360. That’s the resolution of the Nokia N8, the Nokia E7, the Nokia X7, and, regrettably, the Nokia 808 PureView. The N8 was already behind the Android curve when it came out, what with the Nexus One starting up the move to WVGA (800 x 480), the subsequent E7 and X7 had even less of an excuse, and the 808 is all out of reasons for keeping that resolution. Nokia’s distance from the leaders is best illustrated numerically: the 808 PureView gives you 230,400 dots on the screen, whereas a 720p smartphone such as the HTC One X offers 921,600. Another way in which the 808 falls behind the likes of the One X is in not having a laminated screen — meaning Nokia’s screen has a physical gap between the glass surface and the display panel — which is no big deal until you see the benefits of lamination in person.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The 4-inch AMOLED display on the 808 is of the non-Pentile variety and doesn’t suffer from the same blue tinging when viewed from the side as you’ll find on Samsung panels. Also an improvement on Samsung’s technology is the auto-brightness, which works beautifully on the 808, adjusting gradually and imperceptibly as you move between bright and dark locations. Samsung’s AMOLED phones, including the most recent Galaxy S III, have tended to handle this much less gracefully.
Color reproduction on the 808 PureView is done accurately and faithfully, which is an important factor for a device designed primarily for imaging. Blacks are also what you’d expect from an AMOLED screen — deep and menacing. It’s just really disappointing that Nokia didn’t match that quality with an appropriate resolution. This is a device that can capture 38-megapixel stills and you’re only ever looking at 0.2 of those megapixels at any one time.
Astounding, breathtaking, stupefying...
Choose your favorite exaggerated epithet and apply it to the 808 PureView’s camera. It doesn’t matter what it is, it’ll be true. This phone’s image quality is so far ahead of the competition that it really has no competition. There are two reasons for my unbridled enthusiasm: firstly, at 5 megapixels, the PureView camera delivers, without doubt, the most detailed and natural images of any cameraphone, and secondly, it’s capable of shooting 38-megapixel pictures that match or exceed the quality of most smartphones. Think about that latter point for a moment.
Before I proceed any further, it’s probably a good idea to break down all the megapixel numbers surrounding this handset. There are no less than five different "standard" resolutions you can shoot at, plus there’s the "41MP sensor" label on the device itself. Though that maximum 41-megapixel resolution is not available, Nokia allows you to take photos at 38 or 34 megapixels, with the difference in those two sizes coming down to how the image is cropped — the larger pictures are in a 4:3 ratio and the slightly smaller 34-megapixel ones are in 16:9. So far, so conventional. Where the PureView action kicks in is once you step down to the other three resolution options — 8, 5, or 2 megapixels — with Nokia’s oversampling technology. On a 5-megapixel image, this means taking a 41-megapixel still and using seven adjacent pixels’ imaging data to inform the color of one. The more information each dot has, the more likely it is to accurately reproduce the image you’re trying to capture, while simultaneously reducing digital processing errors that manifest themselves in the form of graininess.
I look at the photos I’ve taken with the 808 PureView and keep asking myself, where is the noise? Nokia, what did you do with the noise? Of course, if you dig around, you’ll find some manifestations of grain and artifacting, and yes, the 808 PureView has a limited dynamic range, but on the whole, this sensor at 5 megapixels is simply untouchable. I say that with respect to any phone challenger, including the elder N8, but it’s also true vis-à-vis most point-and-shoot cameras. The 808 PureView is that good.
Nokia has flipped the mute switch on image noise
Performance at regular res is really only half the story, however. What truly floored me about this camera’s quality were the images I got at the maximum available resolution. In my judgment, the 808 PureView produces better images at 38 megapixels than the HTC One X does at 8 megapixels. That’s Nokia outperforming HTC’s flagship camera system while shooting at nearly five times the resolution. Failing to properly market this technical achievement is probably Nokia’s biggest fault here.
Also somewhat buried in the oversampling talk is the 808 PureView’s lossless zoom ability. Whether you’re shooting video or stills, you can do a pinch-to-zoom gesture to, well, zoom in on the image, but without degrading its quality. You can also control this setting by using the volume rocker or sliding a finger up and down on the display. Unlike conventional digital zoom, Nokia’s method does not upscale the picture. The 808 zooms in by cropping the area of the sensor instead. That does mean that at max zoom you’ll no longer be oversampling, resulting in a slight penalty in low-light conditions, but it’s the best implementation you’re going to find short of an optical zoom. When shooting at 5 megapixels, you’ve got roughly 3x zoom to play around with, while with video, your freedom extends to 4x at 1080p and 6x at 720p.
The 808 PureView extends oversampling to video recording — to the tune of 16 pixels per one "superpixel" — and the beneficent effects of that are clear to see. Video quality from this phone is no less impressive than stills. The default video setting is the maximum 1080p at 30fps, with the average bitrate being just under 20Mbps. That means Nokia’s also going light on compression, a good idea when you’ve got such stupefyingly detailed images to show off.
Beyond imaging, the 808 is also the first device to include Nokia’s new Rich Recording audio feature, which is claimed to keep recording undistorted stereo sound at up to 145dB. I couldn’t get that high during my testing — mostly because any environment louder than 90dB starts to get uncomfortable for humans pretty quickly — but at least that’ll be a reassuring thing to note for concert-going types. Nokia’s promise with Rich Recording is broader than merely surviving loud noises, of course, with the company suggesting the 808 can pick up a wider range of frequencies than most and thereby generate the most natural aural experience. I can’t say that I’ve noticed a massive difference between this handset and most others, but the sound recordings have indeed been consistently good.
The biggest downside to video on this phone is processing. Nokia openly admits that it couldn’t implement PureView previously because it couldn’t get enough horsepower and, sadly, it’s still not got enough in the 1.3GHz single-core chip that it’s chosen. On numerous occasions I’ve seen video stutter as the 808’s processor can’t keep up with the massive workload put on it by Nokia’s trailblazing camera tech. Similar processing delays are present when capturing 38-megapixel stills, though obviously that’s far less of a problem since it doesn’t affect the final output. Also less than perfect is the continuous autofocus during video, which is okay with more distant subjects but struggles to recognize things nearby — you can, and should, override it using the tap-to-focus option. These things are irritations, undoubtedly, but there’s so much good about this camera that I’m willing to overlook the infrequent hiccup.
You’ll find no gimmicks here
On the software front, the 808 PureView’s camera takes care of the basics and throws in a couple of nice extras. Aside from the beginner-friendly Automatic and Scene modes, there are three user-defined presets that let you customize contrast, saturation, sharpness and other settings, plus the usual ISO and exposure adjustments. When reviewing pictures, you get a handy cropping tool and a set of very decent editing and auto-correction options. As with the default Windows Phone behavior, the 808 PureView’s camera can be launched right from sleep mode by holding down the physical camera key. It’s a fully-featured software suite, even if it can’t quite match up to HTC’s excellent ImageSense.
Battery life, reception, and audio
It seems I’m saying this with every phone review, but the battery life of this handset will be strongly dependant on how you use it. When left to idle, the 808 PureView can survive for days, even while constantly displaying the time on its sleep screen. On the other hand, start cranking out 1080p videos or shooting with the Xenon flash and you could exhaust the entire battery between breakfast and lunch. As has been a consistent hallmark of Symbian phones, the 808 PureView is usually very efficient with its energy, making the somewhat small 1400mAh battery last longer than it should, but there’s little you can do to stop intensive processing tasks from devouring it. As noted above, the 808’s 1.3GHz processor is barely powerful enough to keep up with the rigors of PureView oversampling, guaranteeing that you’ll be running it at full throttle any time you get trigger-happy with the shutter button. Games and video playback have less of an impact, though you obviously won’t be taxing this phone with the likes of Infinity Blade or Shadowgun. Typically, I got through about a day and a half between needing to recharge the 808.
An almost accidental beneficiary of the enlarged camera compartment on this PureView handset is its loudspeaker, which is tucked in just to the side of the Carl Zeiss lens. It produces very loud and clear sound, reaching deeper frequencies than the vast majority of smartphones. It lacks some definition, you won’t confuse it for one of Nokia’s Play 360 speakers, but it does just about as well as the integrated speakers in the 2011 iMac. Considering the difference in size between the two, that’s a laudable feat. The loudspeaker’s impressive output is underlined by a ridiculously strong vibration function and also carried over to the earpiece at the front. Through a combination of unerringly great reception — no dropped calls, never even the hint of a connection issue — and a decent choice in hardware, the 808 PureView delivers extremely lucid, natural tones during phone calls. Being pentaband makes this phone compatible with pretty much any form of 3G you care to throw at it as well.
Incompatible with third-party headsets
As noted earlier, the 808 PureView is not compatible with third-party headsets. You’ll have to either use Nokia’s bundled pair of in-ear buds or plug in a set of headphones. I struggle to understand this decision, as incompatibility with common accessories is the sort of uncharming trait usually reserved for Apple hardware, but the good news is that the headset Nokia includes in the 808 PureView box is of a high quality. Distinguishing between the left and right bud isn’t the easiest thing in the world, since the labels are tiny and almost completely obscured from view, but once you learn that the right one has the microphone and call answering button on it, you’ll be alright. Annoyingly, that button can’t be used to pause and resume music. In the absence of lockscreen music controls, you’re stuck having to unlock the 808 every time you want to change track.
The battery's small, but well used
The Symbian effect: when great hardware is rendered useless by terrible software
The lack of easily accessible media controls is just the tip of a very large and very terrible iceberg of trouble that lies beneath the 808’s Gorilla Glass screen. It used to be called Symbian, but nowadays even Nokia has grown embarrassed of the name and redubbed its latest version "Nokia Belle." Symbian’s sad demise from the world’s dominant mobile operating system to a tired punchline was mostly down to Nokia’s failure to properly transition the software from its keyboard-centric roots to a new touchscreen era. The N97 was the poster child of these misguided efforts, with the N8, E7 and every other subsequent device being hamstrung by the same persistent issues. The 808 PureView is, disappointingly, no different.
If you thought the browser on the N8 was bad, just wait till you get your hands on the 808. The first time I visited The Verge on Nokia’s latest handset, it failed to render even the mobile version of our site properly and populated the page with lists of links and text. Subsequent attempts got me through to our usual desktop view, but the appropriate fonts were not loaded, line spacing was all over the place, and the site layout was basically busted. Adding insult to injury, all this ugly rendering was happening in what felt like slow motion.
Calling scrolling slow would be paying it an unearned compliment
Actions like scrolling or pinch-to-zoom feel like requests you’re filing with a clerk somewhere in a bureaucratic dystopia — to be carried out at some indeterminate time in the future. Completing this slow-motion train wreck is the only thing worse than unresponsive operation: a complete crash of the entire phone. To achieve this ignoble feat, you just need to go to a content-rich site like The Verge, flip to landscape mode, and try to scroll around. Works every time. Or, if you’re looking at it from the perspective of someone who actually wants to use the browser, it fails to work every time. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to ponder perspectives and other deep and meaningful topics while swapping this handset’s battery in and out. In short, the experience of using the web on the 808 PureView is so horrible as to force me to advise against it completely.
In a fit of desperation, undoubtedly sparked by the 808’s excellent camera, you might be thinking that it’s okay for your phone not to have a browser. If it makes calls and takes awesome pictures, what else do you need, right? Well, if you’re truly capable of limiting yourself strictly to the phone dialer and the camera and gallery apps, that might just pan out as a potential usage scenario. Nokia’s done a fine job of keeping performance swift in those apps, whether you’re capturing or reviewing images. But stray, even for a moment, into other activities and you’ll clash with an endless series of short loading windows.
Better get used to that loading animation, you’ll be seeing a lot of it
Nearly everything you do with the 808 PureView takes time to load. Try to open up the Nokia Store, loading... enter a picture gallery for the first time, loading... turn on a preloaded app like Microsoft’s OneNote, even more loading. There are pesky little delays, stutters, and pauses in animation everywhere you look.
A great example of this is what happens when you unplug the phone from mass storage mode. It can take up to half a minute for your downloaded apps to refresh themselves and stop appearing as "Miscellaneous" links on the homescreen. The same goes for your image gallery, which, like those apps, needs to wait for the handset’s storage to reset itself. The pervasive feeling of sluggishness in using this phone is so oppressive that it discourages you from trying new apps or exploring the various interface and widget options.
The first two requirements of any mobile operating system are that it be responsive and stable. Nokia Belle fails on both counts, courtesy of the unqualified disaster that is its web browser and the constant stop-start nature of its interactions.
Visually and under the hood, Belle is a major update to Symbian Anna, bringing Nokia’s abandonware close to its likely final look and feel. The past couple of years of Nokia trying to figure out touchscreens have resulted in a weird mashup of Harmattan and Android UI elements. The slide-down notifications tray is ripped straight out of Google’s mobile OS, while the toggle icons at the top of it feature the same rounded square motif that was ubiquitous on the MeeGo-powered Nokia N9. Only problem is that the N9 was a delight for the senses because of its smooth and fluid operation, whereas the 808 PureView is the diametric opposite.
A few other software foibles come to mind. Firstly, when typing in text, you can’t simply press the Enter key to move on to the next field or confirm an entry. You’ll usually need to pull the keyboard down in order to find the necessary onscreen prompt you must tap to continue. Secondly, the email client doesn’t have a threaded conversation view. You can sort emails by subject, but that then takes precedence over date sorting and rearranges conversations alphabetically. And thirdly, I encountered a weird bug when answering calls with the phone locked. When concluding the call, I would see the homescreen displayed for a few seconds, not responding to any input, before the lockscreen comes back as before the call. It didn’t happen after every call, but it was yet another dent in this operating system’s already tattered reputation.
You think Windows Phone's got problems? It's a Rolls Royce compared to this
The short and bittersweet conclusion is this: Nokia has produced the greatest cameraphone ever and saddled it with the most antiquated and frustrating OS it could find. You’ll be as astonished by the 808 PureView’s image quality as you will be by Nokia’s audacity in shipping a phone with a dead end operating system that should have been retired from duty years ago.
A careful reading of this review will reveal that I haven’t once referred to the 808 PureView as a smartphone. Smartphones are supposed to let you take your email and web browsing on the move with you, whereas the 808 does the first of those things poorly and the second atrociously. Lacking in compelling apps, staring into an abyss of negligible future support, and being fundamentally unpleasant to use, Symbian in 2012 is a sick joke played at the user’s expense.
And yet, the one standout feature on the 808 PureView is so vastly ahead of anything we’ve seen before as to almost drown out the software complaints. Not only does this phone have the best image quality at 5 megapixels, it can even produce good results at 38 megapixels. You won’t understand the thrill of exploring such enormously detailed pictures until you’ve tried it out for yourself. For my part, I can say that the 808 PureView delighted and surprised me in a way that I’ve not enjoyed since the time I moved from a 17-inch SXGA monitor to a 22-inch 1080p panel. The technological leap here is nothing short of exhilarating.
Even as it reaches terminal velocity in its descent from the cellphone market mountaintop, Nokia retains its signature ability to produce truly iconic devices. The 808 PureView raises the bar for cameraphones, but comes with a great many flaws as well, with the end result being a mediocre product. Still, it’s one that we’re unlikely to forget for years to come.