Nokia 808 PureView camera test at Royal Ascot

The Nokia 808 PureView is an intriguing phone. On the one hand it features the Symbian operating system that has been formally discontinued, while on the other it is a phone that features an eye-popping 41-megapixel camera. But it's no normal sensor - it's around five times as large as the sensor found in the iPhone 4S or Samsung Galaxy S3.

As you can imagine that will leave many with a dilemma. The question is, with a near-redundant OS, is the PureView worth the cash for its camera alone?

Wanting to find out for ourselves, we put the Nokia 808 PureView to the test at Royal Ascot to see if it could cope with the hustle and bustle of the racing, the large crowds, and, oh yeah, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, before we get to work on our full Nokia 808 PureView review. 

The setup

We used the 808 PureView over three days, capturing all the excitement of the racing we could. For the majority of the test the camera was set to "full resolution" which equates to an effective 38-megapixel resolution when using the 4:3 aspect ratio, or 34-megapixels at 16:9. Why no 41-megapixels? The way the light falls on the sensor means the outer-most corners can't be used as they'd be too soft and blurred.

JPEG quality was set to Super Fine throughout the two days (there is a normal setting too), and the ISO and white balance settings were also set to Auto. Although the 808 won't capture raw files, you can manually select from ISO 50-1600 and there are the usual white balance presets too.

"Zooming" with the 808 PureView

In both full resolution modes you are unable to zoom in on the camera as, just like other camera phones, there is no optical zoom mechanism. This means shots are a medium-wide-angle 28mm equivalent - great for capturing bustling scenes.

Those looking for a more traditional camera phone experience can opt for the "PureView" setting, which lets you snap at 8, 5, and 2-megapixel resolutions. But here you can zoom in by up to 2.8x - which equates to around 28-79mm - by either pinching or using an on-screen slider to get in closer on the action. In any other camera phone this kind of digital zoom would result in a lower quality image, but the boffins at Nokia have made full use of the 808's sensor size.

To explain: an 8-megapixel PureView shot may use around four of the sensor-level pixels for each one rendered in the image. Zoom in on screen and the resolution doesn't drop; it's still the same 8-megapixels but the camera simply uses less sensor-level pixels. Clever stuff Nokia.

Day one

On day one of our test we were in the Grandstand. That meant we could get up close to the parade paddock and see the horses before the races.

A big selling point of the 808 PureView is that you can take a huge resolution image of a scene and then still have room to crop in after to get what you want.

A good example of this in action is shown by the two images below. The first is of a very crowded scene, however as the second picture shows, cropped at 100 per cent, Her Majesty the Queen, who isn't even noticeable in the first picture, can be easily seen in the second. Okay, so it might not be the most detailed result but we'd wager that a dedicated compact camera would perform no better.

Full image reduced to 555px wide

Original image cropped to 555px at 100 per cent

Another good example is the packed-out bandstand scene below. Zooming it tells you tell lots of different stories with plenty of clarity:

Full image reduced to 555px wide

 

Original image cropped to 555px at 100 per cent

As we found over the course of the day, it's the post-shot crop mode that enhances the PureView 808's capabilities. Much like the PureView mode's "zoom", the ability to crop after taking a shot also functions by "pinching" the image or using an on-screen slider. The aspect ratio is maintained, though you can also pull individual edges by pressing at the corners of the crop box.

Whether using the full-size image or a cropped shot we were impressed by the 808's picture quality. Colours are rich and vivid, however as we've experienced with Nokia's Lumia range the camera can be confused by the changing light. Some of our pictures are overly dark for no apparent reason, and yet the next picture taken in the same location seconds later could be vastly different. 

It's nothing that can't be corrected in-camera but it's something that should be noted. More advanced snappers can make use of the +/- exposure compensation option.

Day two

Back to the races for a second day and the light wasn't as good as the first. However the shots were still okay.

The highlight of the day was getting close to the Royal Procession and snapping a shot of the Queen (main pic above). As you can see from the lead picture, the shot is a little blurry, but this is because of several factors, all worth bearing in mind. The first is that we had taken a shot of 5 seconds beforehand and hadn't opted for "Sports Mode" as the queen zipped past. Second, the procession was moving fast, so we had to turn quickly to get the shot before she was gone. 

Considering that the camera did well, but we would have expected better.

Day two also gave us a chance to snap some people with the 808 PureView. As well as seeing how well it coped with skin tones - although we aren't sure you would want to zoom in that close to Pocket-lint Editor Chris Hall (see the gallery) - this was also an opportunity to get the most out of the sensor's size.

The 808 PureView's sensor is so much larger than what you'd find in a normal camera phone, or even most dedicated high-end compact cameras, it enhances that "soft background" shallow depth of field effect.

As well as the f/2.4 Carl Zeiss lens, the PureView even has a built-in ND (neutral density) filter to help you make the most of the aperture in brighter conditions. However the lack of aperture control seems an oddity - one that we'd like to see rectified.

Day three

Royal Ascot is finished and the marquees are already starting to be dismantled. That gave as a better chance to take pictures of some of the signs to see how well the camera phone copes with text, details, and to test it against the iPhone 4S. 

iPhone 4S (left) vs Nokia 808 PureView (right)

In our quick test above you can see that the iPhone 4S results in a brighter image with more vivid and accurate colours, but that the 808 PureView holds far more detail. The auto white balance may be a little off, but that's something that can be corrected.

The Nokia 808 PureView: Original image cropped to 555px at 100 per cent

 

The Apple iPhone 4S: Original image cropped to 555px at 100 per cent

Zoom into the image and there's no doubt that the 808 PureView wins hands down. Just check out the amount of detail on one of the signs at in the 100 per cent crop. 

Conclusions

On the camera side of things there is no doubting that the Nokia 808 PureView delivers the goods, however not without some issues.

Five years ago when the PureView project was started Symbian was king of the crop. But now Nokia is turning its back on the once popular mobile OS it means you are unlikely to want to use this as a phone. It also means no decent camera plug-ins like Android, iOS and WP8 have available.

For many that raises the question of why wouldn't you spend the same amount of money on a dedicated camera instead? Preferably one with a significant zoom. Yes you won't be able to instantly share the images as you can with the 808 nor are most compacts as easy to fit in your pocket, but the results might be more consistent.

On the other hand a large-sensor compact camera in a similar league to the 808 PureView's sensor will set you back around £400 or more.

What the 808 PureView certainly shows us though is that camera phones are about to get even more impressive in the coming years. If Nokia can translate the technological advances it has learnt here into a Windows Phone device in the future, something it has said it is already working on, then that should give it a very strong selling point in the future. 

For now however, as impressive as the camera on the 808 PureView is, for many this will be a proof of concept rather than their next phone.

But as for the camera market, well, it's about time the dedicated camera makers started to quake in their boots. Nokia has the potential to uproot some of the lower-spec models with this sensor technology, albeit not necessarily in the form of the 808.