Review: Nokia 808 PureView

The Nokia 808 PureView is the most exciting smartphone on the market that you shouldn’t buy.

The phone generated a ton of buzz at February’s Mobile World Congress, not because it sports a stunning display or has the latest software features — in fact, the 808 PureView runs on Symbian, an outdated operating system Nokia has openly dismissed in favor of Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS.

The 808 PureView is captivating because of one feature, and one feature alone: the on-board 41-megapixel camera.

Most highest-end smartphones, including Apple’s iPhone 4S, Samsung’s Galaxy S III, and HTC’s One X, have 8-megapixel cameras. Compared to those cameras, a 41-megapixel camera sensor seems totally over-the-top and unnecessary. But what Nokia has developed with its homegrown PureView imaging technology is, by far, the best camera I’ve seen on a smartphone.

That doesn’t mean it’s a good phone. It’s actually a pretty terrible phone with an outstanding camera. You should only consider buying the 808 PureView if you really love mobile phone photography. Even then, you’re probably better off waiting until Nokia’s PureView technology comes paired with a better OS, like Windows Phone (and Nokia confirmed to Neowin Sunday that PureView will arrive in its Windows-powered Lumia phones “very soon”). Also consider that, in the U.S., the phone is currently only available as an unlocked device for AT&T and T-Mobile networks at the high, unsubsidized price of $700.

The 808 PureView is no shining example of industrial design. With its giant camera protruding awkwardly from the back of the shell, it’s chunky and top-heavy. It’s a full 13.9 millimeters thick. Holding the 5.96-ounce 808 PureView brings back memories of the old Nokia bricks of the early 2000s.

Speaking of ancient history, Nokia has a long record of building truly awesome camera packages into its smartphones — big sensors, Carl Zeiss optics and full-featured imaging software — the most recent examples being last year’s N9, and the N8 before that.

The curved edges and matte polycarbonate back make the phone easy to grip, an important quality for a phone dedicated to shooting photos.

As much as I initially balked at the PureView 808’s heft and strangely shaped back, I quickly grew accustomed to holding it. The curved edges and matte polycarbonate back make the phone easy to grip, an important quality for a phone dedicated to shooting photos.

Along the right side of the phone, there’s a volume rocker, a spring-loaded lock/unlock switch, and a dedicated camera button. On the top, you get a headphone jack, a micro USB port, and a micro HDMI port.

The phone’s 4-inch display features edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass, with the exception of dedicated buttons for the menu, making a call, and ending a call. It’s only a 640×360 pixel screen, so if you’re used to an iPhone’s Retina display, you’ll be sorely disappointed. It’s an unfortunate drawback considering the device is centered around digital imaging.

It may not be the best device for viewing photos, but it completely outperforms other smartphones in actual photo-taking.

More megapixels doesn’t always mean you’re going to have better photos, but in this case, it absolutely does. The 808 PureView combines a high-end Carl Zeiss lens and advanced software to produce images that look significantly better than other smartphone cameras (yes, even the iPhone) and is comparable to point-and-shoots.

One thing to note: You don’t actually shoot 41-megapixel photos. In fact, the highest resolution photo you can take is a 38-megapixel photo at 4:3 aspect ratio in full-resolution sensor mode. The way the PureView technology works is that it uses pixel oversampling, essentially packing up to seven pixels worth of data into one pixel area. The results? Sharp, clear images with little to no noise. And the 41-megapixel sensor also makes it possible to zoom into photos 3x without losing any of the clarity.

Most of the time, I was shooting in PureView mode at 8 megapixels and getting just-as-impressive photos as I saw with full resolution. The only advantage to shooting in full resolution mode is that you can zoom in more without losing details in the image. The Camera app, which you use to take all of your photos, is designed specifically for the PureView camera. And it’s the best app on the Symbian platform, showing a lot more maturity than apps like Mail and Maps. It’s clear that the PureView team spent a lot of time making the camera software user-friendly.

Once you launch the Camera app — by pressing the dedicated camera button or by tapping the app icon — you’re taken to a screen with four sections. The majority of the screen is where you’ll see what you’re shooting. At the middle-top, there’s a Setting icon where you can switch between Automatic, Scenes, and Creative mode. A left-hand sidebar shows you the more detailed settings controls, and a right-hand sidebar has a Camera/Video toggle, a soft shutter button, and a thumbnail that takes you to your photo gallery.

If you want to pick up the 808 PureView and just start shooting, Nokia’s made that easy. The Camera’s Automatic mode worked great in well-lit settings and performed decently in low-light situations (you can turn off the automatic xenon flash). But if you want to have more control over your images, the Scenes and Creative modes offer a ton of photo settings.

It does take a bit of time fussing around with the software to get the hang of it, but once you do, it’s almost as fun as using a DSLR. For example, in Creative mode, you can adjust the exposure from -4 to +4, set the white balance, choose an ISO, and toggle a neutral density filter.

There are also four focus modes: Infinity, Hyperfocal, Close-up, and Automatic. The Scenes mode is a bit more simple. You choose from a variety of scenes, such as close-up (or macro), portrait, or night, and the app does the work for you. With all of the setting options, it’s not hard to figure out ways to make your low-light, action, or macro photos turn out well.

Video performance was great. It captures 1080p video at 30 frames per second. Here’s a sample — keep in mind that it’s been compressed for viewing on the web.

In the week that I used the 808 PureView, I would lock the phone while in the Camera app. That way, whenever I wanted to take a photo, I could quickly unlock the screen and just press the camera button. It helped that the shutter was fast and the battery lasted long enough for a full day of shooting.

The only recurring problem I had with the 808 PureView’s camera was focusing photos. On many occasions, the camera would not focus where I tapped on the screen. In close-up mode, this was especially problematic. I ended up having to take several photos of the same setting until it focused on the intended spot.

Though the 808 PureView’s camera rises above the flock, the rest of the user experience is mired in misery. Symbian, renamed “Nokia Belle” for this particular smartphone, is an outdated, glitchy piece of a software nightmare. The Symbian experience? In one word: Frustrating. In two words: Extremely frustrating.

The web browser fumbles when loading content-rich sites, pinch-to-zoom is a pain, and everything just slow. Setting up my Gmail account was impossible — the phone repeatedly said it could not connect to Gmail, even though all of my information was entered correctly. The Symbian keyboard was hard enough to type my e-mail address on; I couldn’t imagine having to compose a lengthy communique with it.

If you are already familiar with Symbian, take great comfort in its many quirks, and don’t want to make the switch to a more intuitive, better mobile OS (even Nokia knows Symbian is terribly outdated) then the 808 PureView might be a decent upgrade. And if you’re a diehard mobile photography fiend with an extra $700 to spend, and you already own a separate phone you can use as your day-to-day handset, then the 808 PureView could be a fun device to show off to your friends.

So that accounts for, what, 20 people? The rest of us should wait until PureView technology shows up in Windows Phone devices, which should happen in the near future. Then you’ll get to use an OS that doesn’t make you want to smash your phone — and its awesome camera — against a table.

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