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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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Most interesting...
By Shadowself on 2/27/2012 4:35:13 PM , Rating: 2
People on this site were slamming Nikon for coming out with a 36 MP camera as its high end prosumer camera. Posters were saying that the optics really didn't support that pixel density. Additionally, that at approximately 4.9 microns per pixel the pixels were getting too small and would introduce too much noise.

Then this phone camera comes out and people praise it. Yet the pixel pitch is only 1.4 microns -- less than one third the linear size of the Nikon's sensor and less than 1/12th the area!

Let's not even get into the quality of the optics and how many aspheric lenses are involved.

If any sensor, with today's technology, is overkill this one absolutely is.

RE: Most interesting...
By TSS on 2/27/2012 4:44:53 PM , Rating: 3
My thought's exactly. This "smartphone-camera" is nothing more then the smartphone equivalent of compensating for a small penis.

A good camera is made by the lens moreso then the sensor. And as soon as i saw that tiny little thing, i can't take this phone serious as a camera.

Yes, it works fine as a replacement for the disposable camera. Probably better for the enviroment, too. But there's not going to be any difference between a 10MP sensor and a 41MP sensor on a smartphone.

If you wanna be a photographer, Just get a Canon. If you wanna be a hipster, just get an Iphone.

Oh btw, the scaled pictures look aweful. Just look at the guy in the green shirt's hands, they're jagged and blurry from the scaling. If you're gonna post samples, post the original source file or don't post anything at all. Those pictures tell me nothing. Other then i'd expected the colors to be more vibrant, but once again, that can be due to scaling.

RE: Most interesting...
By Mint on 3/9/2012 2:24:47 PM , Rating: 2
You really didn't pay attention to the details, nor do you have much of a grasp about the physics of photography.

No, a good camera is NOT made by the lens moreso than the sensor. If you take an indoor picture on a 1/3.2" sensor with the perfect lens, it will have terrible quality compared to an average lens on a 1/1.2" sensor. Lenses have a limit on how much light they can let in for a given focal length.

Unless Nokia really screwed up with the lens, or the sensor has other drawbacks, a picture on this cameraphone downsampled to 10MP will blow away one from a Canon ultracompact. Only when digital zoom is used on this phone will a Canon have a chance.

RE: Most interesting...
By SPOOFE on 2/27/2012 5:22:30 PM , Rating: 2
Posters were saying that the optics really didn't support that pixel density.

And at apertures above f/5.6-f/8 or so, most optics won't. What's the narrowest available aperture for Nokia's super-cameraphone, now? :)

RE: Most interesting...
By TakinYourPoints on 2/27/2012 11:12:21 PM , Rating: 2
People here are praising it because it is in a phone. This product is terrible. Get a real camera and a real smartphone if you want it, not a single device that is mediocre or worse at both.

RE: Most interesting...
By jvillaro on 2/28/2012 7:26:06 PM , Rating: 2
"This product is terrible"
Really? They just announced what is essentially the best camera phone on the market and by all accounts of dedicated photo enthusiast bloggers and writers probably better than any P&S camera and you think this product is terrible?
You seriously have issues man.

RE: Most interesting...
By TakinYourPoints on 2/29/2012 2:53:29 AM , Rating: 2
Symbian is a dead end. Judge it on the whole, not one component. Put this in a WP7 device and it'll be worth talking about.

RE: Most interesting...
By SPOOFE on 2/29/2012 3:10:12 PM , Rating: 2
Note that you're judging it based off one component, too. :)

RE: Most interesting...
By TakinYourPoints on 3/1/2012 2:18:18 AM , Rating: 2
The operating system and ecosystem around it is a pretty simple one to judge a product on. :)

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