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Phone is a mobile photographer's wet dream, but poor decisions abound with this one

Leave it to Finnish phonemaker Nokia Oyj. (HEL:NOK1V) to offer up one of the most consecutively exciting and frustrating smartphone announcements in the last couple months.  The company today showed off an amazing 41 MP smartphone, but then smashed the public's dreams, revealing that it would carry a variety of the soon-to-be-defunct Symbian OS and would only launch in Europe (for now).

I. Redefining the Smartphone as a Camera

The camera was among the first features to define what we today know as a "smartphone".  Before apps and app markets took off, before smartphones became the next generation of MP3 players, there were camera phones.

In the smartphone era, some phones -- such as Apple, Inc.'s (AAPLiPhone 4S -- offer pretty good images.  But most of these phones pack small 5 or 8 megapixel sensors.  Some -- like Sony Corp. (TYO:6758) have promised 16 MP (or greater) sensors, but such wonders have thus far not been available to U.S. consumers (for example, the 16 MP Sony Ericsson S6006 saw release in early 2011 -- but only in Japan).

But Nokia has wowed the world with its "Pure" announcement.  Today at the 2012 Mobile World Congress it unveiled an unprecedented imaging vision -- a 41-megapixel smartphone, dubbed the Nokia PureView 808.

First, the bad news: the cutting edge smartphone doesn't run Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) latest and greatest Windows Phone 7.5 ("Mango"), it instead runs Nokia's soon-to-be-defunct Nokia Belle (formerly Symbian Belle) operating system.  It seems silly to pack an OS of the past in a phone of the future, but at least the Belle release takes a fair bucket of polish to the old homely Symbian, which long stood as the world's most-used smartphone operating system.

The new phone packs a decent overall spec and price-point (weak points highlighted in red, strengths in green):

Nokia Pure
(Click picture to view in full screen)


II. A Superb Sensor

To understand a bit better what the phone's resolution number means, consider the 41 MP to be a "raw" metric of sorts.  While you can take 34MP images when shooting 16:9 images (7728×4354), or 38MP at 4:3 (7152×5368), there's also an "oversampling" setting, which in essence pre-converts your photos down to a more digestible resolution, taking 7 pixels and merging them into a single improved pixel.  In that sense, the new camera can act as a 5 MP camera "on steroids" with two resolutions.

Here's a white paper [PDF] on the technology.

The CMOS image sensor itself is a relatively massive 10x7mm (0.3937x0.2756 inches). Unfortunately the aperture is a fixed f/2.4 -- one place where even the best smartphone camera optics lag digital cameras.

For the non-photography inclined, the f-setting stands for the aperture settings.  This essentially fixes you to a large depth of field, but limits your artistic expression.  (A pretty good crash course on aperture settings and depth of field can be found here.)

Here are some (scaled) sample images from the insane sensor:

Nokia PureView 808

Nokia PureView 808
(Click picture to view in full screen)

Engadget has a full gallery up online.  Or grab some sample images [zip; large] direct from Nokia.

Now, back to the last piece of bad news -- the phone is set to launch in Europe in May 2012, but no U.S. release date has been announced.  U.S. photography buffs may consider an import, but for the rest of us, we can only hope that Nokia trickles down this marvelous lens/flash package into a high-end U.S.-available Windows Phone.  If it does that, it may have an international hit on its hands.

Launch colors will be red, black, and white.

Sources: Nokia [press release], [blog], Engadget [Image Gallery



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RE: Hype or something else?
By BZDTemp on 2/27/2012 3:20:40 PM , Rating: 2
I'd say from looking at the big pictures (the zip-file) that image quality looks good. Of course they aren't low light pictures but still I will certainly say this is more than just marketing.


RE: Hype or something else?
By haukionkannel on 2/27/2012 4:03:48 PM , Rating: 2
Small sensor and high resolution normally means that you need a lot of light to get goos pictures, but all in all this seems a little bit overshot :-)


RE: Hype or something else?
By GulWestfale on 2/27/2012 5:12:00 PM , Rating: 3
from what i understand, nokia's goal here was to make the digital zoom worth using.
while with a conventional digital zoom the phone (or computer) simply blows up the image, thus destroying detail and sharpness; with this phone you could take a normal 5MP image but when zooming in on a part of the photo, the phone could show you the enlarged portion at a good resolution, since it did take the pic with more detail than is normal.

it's essentially a neat trick to get around the problem of having no zoom lens on a fairly flat phone, and the digital zoom being worthless. it takes a high-res pic, shows you a lower res one, and then shows details under zoom at the original, 41MP high res.

but you are right, this many pixels on such a small sensor is asking for trouble. my own sony a35 has 'only' 16MP on an APS-C sensor. two and a half times as many pixels on a tiny sensor like that, and you are bound to lose some detail and introduce noise.

on top of that, symbian is de facto dead, and the phone's built-in screen is so low-res, it makes you wonder why they bothered.


RE: Hype or something else?
By zodiacfml on 2/28/2012 4:01:17 AM , Rating: 2
+1

That's basically it.

The pixel size though, is comparable to current smartphones so they're not losing any.

Hmm...this is going to be an expensive P&S with less dynamic range.


RE: Hype or something else?
By MozeeToby on 2/27/2012 4:05:59 PM , Rating: 2
A sensor size of 10x7mm is ludicrous for a camera-phone, that alone is going to produce much better picture than we've all come to expect from phones. The latest iPhone for example has a 1/3.2" sensor, which puts its sensor area at ~12mm^2, less than a quarter what this phone has. Very generally, a bigger sensor means more light per pixel, which means less noise, faster shutter speeds, and less blurring.

Why the crammed 41 MP into the thing is a mystery to me, beyond it being for marketing purposes. Unless their 'combine 7 pixels into 1' technology also works to reduce salt and pepper noise on longer exposures.


RE: Hype or something else?
By haukionkannel on 2/28/2012 2:46:34 PM , Rating: 2
True... I did't read the sensor size. That is really big sensor! I does help picture guality very much, even more in low ligh...
Canon G1 X has 18.7 x 14mm sensor and that is highend "poket" camera that cost 750 euros... For pheno this is big, it is big even compared to normal poket cameras...
Holy bat cow!


RE: Hype or something else?
By nafhan on 2/27/2012 4:46:16 PM , Rating: 2
I took a look at the samples, too. They're actually acceptable quality, but, as you alluded, outdoors with good daylight is basically best case scenario. Not to downplay, though, as two phones back (for me) that was all I could expect at 1.3MP! Technology advancement = awesome.

Also... Unless they've done something cool with the storage, saving a 13MB/38MP picture onto the phone's internal or SD card will be SLOW, which would limit using this thing for action shots (such as the examples), and may be the main reason for defaulting to 5MP.


RE: Hype or something else?
By JasonMick (blog) on 2/27/2012 5:12:53 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
I took a look at the samples, too. They're actually acceptable quality, but, as you alluded, outdoors with good daylight is basically best case scenario. Not to downplay, though, as two phones back (for me) that was all I could expect at 1.3MP! Technology advancement = awesome.

Also... Unless they've done something cool with the storage, saving a 13MB/38MP picture onto the phone's internal or SD card will be SLOW, which would limit using this thing for action shots (such as the examples), and may be the main reason for defaulting to 5MP.

As the above op stated, the sensor on this phone is almost four times the size of the one found in the iPhone 4S, which is currently considered a leader in the phone camera pack. In other words, it can soak up a lot of light.

The problem is likely that you have limited ISO settings and the firmware is limited in shutter-speed flexibility. These settings mean that even this superphone likely will lag behind current-gen point and shoots.

Still with the massive (for a phone) sensor size, I'd imagine this will get much better INDOOR pictures (assuming proper higher ISO settings) than other phones.

FWIW, the images looked pretty good -- nice reduction in noise and they were slightly underexposed, which is typically what you want, as you can adjust it post-mortem versus overexposure.


RE: Hype or something else?
By nafhan on 2/27/2012 5:23:59 PM , Rating: 2
Not arguing with that. Mainly, I was trying to make the point that scenarios where you'd want to actually take a 38MP picture with this would probably never happen.


RE: Hype or something else?
By jvillaro on 2/28/2012 6:58:14 PM , Rating: 2
It does have an option for taking 38mp pictures (they demoed it) but that isn't the best use for it. It shines when it takes that amount of pixels and do the algorithms to oversample and get a 5 or 8 mp picture that essentially as perfect as you could get on a phone and can zoom the hell in to it and get incredible detail.


RE: Hype or something else?
By jvillaro on 2/28/2012 6:48:57 PM , Rating: 2
Look at the rest of the gallery from Nokia. There's a picture taken at night of the dancers in carnival at Rio. It has low light conditions and they actually moving (dancing) and the photo is superb.


"You can bet that Sony built a long-term business plan about being successful in Japan and that business plan is crumbling." -- Peter Moore, 24 hours before his Microsoft resignation














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