When Nokia announced the 808 it was, perhaps, the most exciting development in mobile phones for some time. Perhaps, the most exciting development since the first camera was attached to a mobile phone.
The problem was, as many saw it, that Symbian is an outdated OS and this was just another sign of how out of touch Nokia is with what the general public wants. But the interest in the camera has continued, and it really is one of the most remarkable advances in camera phones. So how does it all stack up, and crucially, is it worth the massive £500 asking price.
You can't miss the 808, it's a substantial bit of kit. There's a decent-sized bulge at the rear that houses the camera gubbins but it actually looks, and feels, very natural in your hand. The camera bulge gives the phone a way to rest on your hand, plus it makes the screen tilt toward you when it's on a desk. It's certainly not iPhone thin, but it's still a manageable handset.
What it is not, is light. At 169g, you really feel this phone in your hand when you're using it. It's not a disaster though, and while it does become a bit of pain to hold up for long periods, it's incredibly well balanced and has a solid and well-built feel.
On the top of the phone, you'll find a USB socket for charging and data transfer as well as a headphone socket and mini-HDMI output for displaying your photos and video on TV in HD.
On the right of the phone there is a volume rocker, which doubles as a zoom control when in the camera. There's a lock key, which you slide down to unlock, this is a really nice system, and is much less of pain than a key combination. And finally, on the bottom right, a dedicated camera button.
On the front, there are hardware controls, a power button - which, in Nokia style, allows you to access a phone menu to put the phone in offline mode - a home key and, in retro style there's a green "call" button. Pressing this jumps you in to the recent calls menu. Likewise, the power button is also a "hang up" button. It's old school, but we really like it.
Flip off the back cover and you'll find a removable battery, and beneath it, a micro-SIM and a microSD socket. There's also NFC built-in, and the receiver is located in the removable back cover.
Email and Google contacts
Email support on the 808 is on the whole very good. You'd hope so too: it was never a strength back in Nokia N95 days, although there were always options for getting your Gmail or Exchange messages. Now, there's a swanky email app with access to pretty much every provider's services with minimal configuration. We added two Gmail accounts and a Hotmail address with no problems at all. Email isn't presented in the most beautiful way, but it's functional and simple.
Another nice feature is that each email account generates a widget on the home screens so you can see your most recent mail. This won't appeal to everyone, but it saves you doing it yourself and it's actually quite useful.
The one big problem we noted - and the one that separates this phone from an iOS or Android device - is contacts sync. The built-in mail app doesn't have the option to download contacts for Gmail, Hotmail et al. The only way to get the phone to give you access to your Google contacts is either to add that account as an Exchange mail server, or to set up a separate sync via the phone's settings. This isn't hugely complex, and uses SyncML to operate. The problem comes with accessing calendars, which again, can be done through exchange, but not - at least for Google - via SyncML.
This isn't a huge deal, and we got our phone downloading our precious contacts in no time at all. But this is one of the things that people will argue makes the 808 less attractive as a phone.
The last big Nokia phone was probably the N95. You might remember it, it's the phone that did everything the current iPhone does, but in 2007. That phone ran Symbian S60, a perfectly capable operating system, but one that didn't have the ability to handle touch interfaces. Since then, Nokia has messed about trying to make Symbian into a credible touch-sensitive OS. Well, the good news is, with Belle, it has succeeded. Sadly, this has all come about just as Nokia has dumped Symbian for Windows Phone.
Of course, Symbian is still struggling in some ways. App support is decent enough, but many apps are paid-for and expensive. They also lack any of the glamour or graphical prowess of an Android or iPhone app. For example, we used TweetS60 as our Twitter client. It looks the same as it did in 2009, and while it's functional, it's about a million miles away from being pretty or stylish.
Other than that, things are good with the OS. It's responsive to the capacitive touch screen. It's a little jittery, but perfectly usable. Flicking around the home screens is responsive enough too and the menus all work well. This is a decent power phone, with 512MB of RAM and a 1.3GHz processor. These specs aren't top end but don't forget, Symbian has much more sensible requirements than Android does, with its absurd quad-core processors and gigabytes of RAM.
Pretty much everything you need is built-in. There's a social app, which gives you access to Twitter and Facebook. The Twitter bit is usable; the Facebook bit is sluggish and annoying, so much like ALL Facebook apps then.
The web browser is functional, but not especially joyous to use. It's a bit slower than the Android and iOS stock browsers, but on 3G you're unlikely ever to notice. There is also a CNN app, Shazam, QuickOffice, JoikuSpot - to make the phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot - and YouTube all pre-installed.
Also fantastic is the built-in FM radio, which has RDS and sounds cracking - with a decent signal. There's even an FM transmitter, to send your music from the phone to a nearby radio. Just tell the phone what frequency you want to send on, and then tune in your radio. There's also a DLNA server, to allow you to send video, photos and music to a DLNA receiver and a "big screen" option, to present video on your TV.
Nokia Drive is also included, which we're a bit indifferent too - Google Maps Navigation trumps it - but it's a fantastic addition to an already feature-packed phone.
There's no denying it. The camera in the 808 is every bit as impressive as the high megapixel count suggests. Of course, there have been a lot of cameras on phones that claim to have 5 or 8-megapixel sensors, but produce images that don't stand up to the hype. This isn't the case here, and the Pureview camera is really incredible.
At the most basic level, there are two modes of operation for the camera. You can take either 38-megapixel images - yes, the sensor is 41-megapixel, but you're not given access to all of them - or you can shoot an 8, 5 or 3-megapixel image. This mode is called Pureview, and is really how Nokia sees the future of camera phones - indeed, it has said that similar tech will make its way on to Windows Phone devices.
Nokia says that the 808 is really designed to take normal resolution images at, say, 8-megapixels, but to give you lots of benefits of the larger sensor. So, for example, you get a digital zoom that, unlike other digital zooms, is lossless. This means that the camera can get you close to the action, without the need for complex lens arrangements that are, for the most part, impractical for a camera phone.
Of course, if you shoot full-resolution images you can always crop them later to take advantage of that large image canvas. This is essentially the same as shooting in Pureview, although you won't have access to any of the technology that Nokia uses to downsample images. More than likely, this won't be a problem.
You get a proper flash too. It's xenon, so it's bright and will do a decent job in dark conditions, as well as working well as a fill-in when you have strong backlighting. There is also an LED light which is used as a focus guide, video light and even a torch - hold down the unlock slider, and it comes on to guide you in the dark. This is truly the best of all worlds, and we have to say we're impressed by how good both the flash and LED light are.
Shooting modes are pretty comprehensive. The choices are automatic, scenes and creative. Scenes allow you to capture fast motion, close ups, portraits, night scenes and people at night and there are spotlight and snow modes too. In creative, you have full control over the whole thing. There are colour modes for normal, vivid, sepia and black & white. You can capture images using bracketing, interval and self-timer modes and you can adjust saturation, contrast and sharpness manually too.
So, how do photos look. For the most part, they're utterly brilliant. For a start, most of the images that come out of the 808 look like they've come from a decent compact camera. Sometimes, they even have enough depth of field to convince us that they might have been taken with an SLR.
Detail certainly isn't a problem either, there's plenty of it on 8-megapixel photos. If you look at a fullsize 38-megapixel shot, then you might see some noise and slightly soft detail, but this is at the very extreme end, and usually only in slightly low lighting. However you look at it, photos from this camera are simply stunning.
Colour seemed a little too vivid at times, but shots are mostly quite pleasing in this regard. Some of our close-up photos of flowers saw a little too much colour, and not enough detail. We also noticed that these shots were also a tiny bit over-exposed. There is some exposure correction, and there's an ND filter too, which means you get some way to reduce the amount of light hitting the sensor, so don't have to reduce ISO.
We tested some of the auto modes too. The high-speed shutter of the sports mode produced okay results, but motion wasn't completely frozen in our test. The close-up mode is a star of the show though. Shots are brilliant and utterly jammed full of detail. You can use the full-sized capture mode here though, all photos are downsized to 8-megapixels. They're also wide aspect.
Photos do sometimes come out looking a bit as if they were shot on a camera phone though. This is noticeable when photographing in to bright light. In these cases, you'll see a very washed-out photo, with light bleeding across the image. While this is not great, it also doesn't happen all that often.
You can record video at several sizes up to 1080p (360p and 720p). Frame rates go from 15fps all the way up to 30fps. There are various scene modes too, from sports through to low-light.
Video quality was actually very good indeed. We thought the colours looked a bit muted, but there's an option to tweak the colour mode, so you could pump the colour a bit if you were so inclined. Motion was smooth too, which is the most important thing really. If we were to be critical, we'd say that there is a slight softness to video, more so than a lot of other premium mobiles we've used for video. It's not unpleasant though.
Focusing, it has to be said, is brilliant. We've used full blown camcorders that focus slower and hunt around more. What we especially like is that you can touch the screen to get the camera to focus. This means that you can pull from one thing in shot, to another, which gives a very advanced feel to the camera. Again, most domestic camcorders don't offer this feature, so it's fabulous to see it here, and it works well.
There was some focus hunting, it seemed to us that the Nokia was a little too lively in its response, meaning that shots that were static sometimes went in and out of focus, but it didn't seem to be a huge problem. You can switch constant AF off if you want, but that seems to lock touch focus too, which is a shame.
You can also zoom while recording video. Again, this is digital, but the quality is brilliant, aided by that over-sized sensor. The motion of zooming in is really smooth too, so you can do it while recording and it looks good! The volume buttons on the handset control the zoom, and we found it easy to do, with little accidental camera movement, as you don't have to press the buttons all that hard.
There's a digital stabiliser too, which adds some anti-shake wizardry to your video. Because of the large sensor, this should be reasonably free of image degradation. Our tests certainly seem to look a lot better than other digital stabilisation we've seen. Certainly the phone needs this, because it's small and (reasonably) light, so shakes are easily transmitted to the recorded images.
It's a phone!
With all the camera talk, it's so easy to forget that the 808 is also a fully-featured smartphone too. Crucially though, we made and received calls on it, and utterly loved it. This isn't a phone you want to hold to your head for long periods, because it is very heavy indeed, but when you do, call quality is excellent, with plenty of volume. We struggled a bit to line the earpiece up with our ear, but we could still hear well and calls were super-clear.
Text messaging is less stellar. The on-screen keyboard is fine. Although the phone is narrow, even our largish fingers seemed able to hit the keys. Predictive text is here, but it's not amazing, and auto-correct seems to be missing in action. Android and iOS devices both manage this better, to be honest, but it's certainly a usable system. It will certainly suit those who can type without making spelling mistakes and who find interference bothersome.
The 808 comes with Dolby Digtial Plus, which allows you to send Dolby soundtracks in to a TV or AV system from the phone. Which is very cool, although mostly not all that useful. There's also Dolby Mobile, which is supposed to improve the sound of music when you're on the go. We didn't much like it, to be honest.
That said, the music player and the audio quality are both unbelievably good. We listened on some mid-price headphones and the music quality really blew us away. Bass is powerful, but never at the expense of the mid and high frequencies. It is truly a brilliant music player.
Plus, the music app is good. Album art is bold and takes centre stage. There's also a coverflow-style interface, which we don't really think adds much, but it works well enough.
The biggest problem we had was that every pair of headphones we tried with an in-line remote and microphone failed to work on the 808. We had to use an adaptor to make the phone accept that there were headphones plugged in. Although most Android phones don't support the in-line microphone - only that stupid fruit phone really does - they still allow you to use the headphones for music playback. Non-inline headphones should be fine.
Despite a fairl low-resolution screen, the 808 looks great pretty much all of the time. It's a bright and incredibly vivid display that, for the most part, has more than enough detail. Indeed, we're particularly amazed at how well it comes outdoors in bright light. It's impressive stuff.
The only problem is that, with a camera that produces 38-megapixel images from a 41-megapixel sensor, the low resolution of 360x640 means that you won't ever be able to see the detail in images. This could make composition and focusing hard. In practice, it's a non-problem, but it's worth pointing out anyway.
For most day-to-day use, the screen is fabulous, and it's only really in the web browser that we really felt the distinct lack of resolution. But, even then, it's manageable.
Once charged, like Nokia phones of old, you can expect the battery in the 808 to last a couple of days. Use the camera and screen a lot, and that might drop, but we've been very impressed with how long it lasts on a single charge. But then Symbian has always been a bit better at this than other operating systems.
The battery, being removable, could also be augmented by another, spare cell, should you wish. Nokia could even do an extended power pack, to bring the rest of the rear case in line with the camera bulge.
There will no doubt be people who will tell you that Symbian is out-classed by Android and iOS. In terms of apps, and perhaps the quality of the developer ecosystem, they are probably correct. But the fact is, the 808 comes to you as a feature-complete phone, with some lovely extras and the best camera ever fitted to a mobile phone.
Almost everything about the 808 is well designed, and it comes from Symbian being a well-established and solid operating system. Sure, there are some irritations, like the SMS system being a bit clunky, and there are still menus in Symbian that make absolutely no logical sense whatsoever.
The 808 was never intended to be an iPhone or an Android handset. It was a technology showcase for something that will start appearing in all manner of new phones, and beyond, over the next few years. Assuming Nokia can survive the current storm. Like all of the company's hardware, it's excellently constructed and feels like it could last 100 years.