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The skeptic’s guide to Nokia’s 808 PureView: Five reasons 41 megapixels are not a gimmick

nokia pureview 808 41 megapixel camera phone

When Nokia smartphone guru Jo Harlow stepped on stage and pitched the 808 PureView at Monday’s Nokia press conference, I could have sworn I was sitting in the audience for a Ron Popeil infomercial. She even slipped in the obligatory “wait for it” before throwing out the hook: 41 megapixels. The gasps from the audience only sealed the deal.

For anyone who has weathered a few press conferences over the years, I could feel the skepticism sink in. 41 megapixels? More than your $300 point-and-shoot camera? More than your $900 DSLR?

While Nokia’s not claiming it’s a replacement for the Canon 5D in your camera bag, it is claiming it’s the most advanced camera phone on the market. And though we haven’t had a chance to shoot side-by-side comparison shots with some of our current favorites, after sniffing this one out thoroughly over the course of three days and even speaking with the team members who developed it, we think Nokia may just be right. Here’s why.

nokia 808 pureview screen shot

It doesn’t use interpolation.

Let’s put this one to rest right away: The 808 PureView can output a 41-megapixel file with zero software interpolation. The only slight asterisk here is that the PureView has been configured to shoot in both 16:9 and 4:3, with the corners of the sensor going unused in either use scenario, producing a 38-megapixel file. It’s the native resolution of the sensor. No algorithms, no scaling, no gimmicks, though you could be forgiven for thinking so with Nokia’s talk about “distilling seven pixels down into one perfect pixel.” Which brings us to our next point:

It uses the resolution wisely.

Yes, Nokia made some wall-sized prints to show off just what the 808 PureView could do, but unless you’re trying to shoot photos for a billboard with a smartphone, you don’t need 41-megapixel files. Nokia knows this. Through what it likes to call “oversampling,” the 808 PureView intelligently collapses seven pixels into one, eliminating defects like digital noise along the way, and turning an obscenely oversized image into one the perfect size for emailing or printing.

nokia-sensor-sizesThe sensor is huge.

Photo buffs know that resolution matters far less than the physical size of a sensor when it comes to aspects like low-light performance, so it should be especially notable that the sensor in the 808 PureView is really, really big for a smartphone. At 1/1.2 inches, it’s significantly bigger than the 1/3.2-inch sensor in the iPhone 4S (which set a high watermark for image quality) and even the 1/1.7-inch sensor in a respectable point-and-shoot like Canon’s G12. While sensor size can be just as misleading as resolution when trying to make conclusions about image quality, it does mean, in absolute terms, that it can swallow a lot plenty of light, a definite prerequisite for turning in anything but a muddy-looking mess in low light.

It’s the next best thing to a zoom.

No major manufacturer has put an optical zoom in a smartphone, and if they’re smart, none likely ever will. The mechanics required to pull it off add both tremendous bulk and an easy failure point for a device that sees as much service as a smartphone, not to mention expense. Meanwhile, the tremendous resolution of the 808 PureView sensor allows it to digitally zoom without the interpolation that usually gives digital zoom a bad rap. If you set the camera to oversample its 41-megapixel images down to 5-megapixels, then zoom in, it will sample fewer pixels from a specific part of the frame, to provide a zoomed effect, but never “stretch” pixels to scale up the photo the way a traditional optical zoom would.

Think of it like making coffee. If you usually dump eight spoonfuls of coffee into the filter to make one pot, you’re going to notice if you cut back and put in four. That’s like digital zoom on a normal digital camera. If you’re used to dumping a whole pound of coffee into the filter, then suddenly take out half, it’s still overkill. You’re going to be wired in the morning either way. That’s like digital zoom on the 808 PureView.

nokia-808-pureview-camera-mode-viewfinder

It was developed by really smart people.

Damian Dinning has worked for Nikon, Kodak and Minolta. He knows more about cameras than either you or I likely ever will, and the Nokia team he worked with spent five years working on the technology in the PureView. Some real talent and R&D time went into building this thing. Engineers tend to be quite modest about their accomplishments, and honest about them to a fault – two reasons companies tend to either muzzle them completely at press events or hover over them with a fleet of well-meaning PR people whenever they speak to the press. Nokia made no such attempt, and having spoken to some of them myself, even the most modest of them are pretty proud of what they’ve accomplished.

Summing up

I’m not suggesting you should buy an 808 PureView. In fact, thanks to the dead-on-arrival Symbian operating system, I would specifically steer you clear of it. But Nokia has already assured us that the same technology that arrived in this camera will arrive in others, and I’m pretty sure this is where all smartphones will be headed as they make the move from supplementing to completely replacing dedicated point-and-shoot cameras. For all its floundering in recent years, I have to give Nokia credit for what’s looking like one of the most exciting smartphone hardware innovations I’ve seen in years.