The PureView works really well when left in fully automatic or popped into one of its eight scene modes, but Nokia's included a Creative mode for those who like more control. You can set up up to three custom groups of settings with choices of sensor mode and resolution, aspect ratio, JPEG quality, color tones (normal, vivid, black-and-white, and sepia), and capture mode (normal, bracketing, interval, and self-timer). There are sliders for saturation, contrast, and sharpness, too.
This mode also gives you control over white balance (though leaving it in auto was safe almost all the time); focus mode (infinity, hyperfocal, close-up, and automatic); ISO sensitivity from 50 to 1600; exposure compensation with a histogram; and the lens' neutral density filter. Though there's no direct control over shutter speed, by turning the ND filter off or on you can speed it up or create a long exposure up to 2.7 seconds.
In general, the PureView's photo quality is excellent for a smartphone, particularly in good lighting. Colors are nice and natural, but if you like colors with a little more punch, the Vivid color mode provides them. Exposure is generally good, though like a compact camera, the PureView tends to blow out highlights. The PureView modes are definitely better than using the full resolution when it comes to challenging lighting, however. There's no HDR mode to help out here either, but you can use the bracketed shooting option to create your own HDR shot with software.
Low-light photos are excellent for a smartphone camera and can compete with higher-end point-and-shoots. You will see noise and artifacts, but for small prints and Web use the results are acceptable. The Xenon flash, which is also used as an AF assist lamp, is blindingly bright. It's nice to have the option, especially as a fill flash for backlit subjects, but it's not something you'll want to use in dark environments.
The PureView's video quality is just as good as its stills. With plenty of light you get excellent results, but in low light things look softer and noisier (though still completely watchable). Zoom is increased to 4x for full HD movies and movement is smooth -- no jerky stops here. Audio quality is great, too.
Shooting performance is fairly fast, on par with a good point-and-shoot. From the lock screen you can press and hold the dedicated shutter release, which launches the camera and fires a shot in about 3 seconds. Shot-to-shot times averaged about a second and although there's no burst-shooting option, you can just hold the shutter down and it will continue to capture pics. Shutter lag is minimal, but the autofocus does need to hunt more in low light.
See even more photos (taken by the phone reviewer, not the camera expert) in this photo shootout versus the iPhone 4S and the Samsung Galaxy S3.
Call quality and data
I tested the quad-band Nokia 808 PureView (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; WCDMA 1700) in San Francisco. The phone is unlocked; I made calls using AT&T's network. I found audio acceptable, with warm, natural tones and no background noise. However, audio sounded as if it were treated with an aural soft focus: voices weren't crisp or distinct, like someone placed a gauzy layer on top of them. As a result, my caller sounded more removed, not immediately in my ear. Some audio distortion made his voice sound pebbled at times.
On his end, my trusty testing partner pronounced call quality one of the best he's heard on a smartphone. Volume was strong, voices were clear, there was no background noise he could hear, and I sounded excellent overall, he said. However, as with most cell phones, my voice distorted on the peaks.
Nokia 808 PureView call quality sample
I tested speakerphone by holding the PureView at waist level. I immediately needed to crank the volume from medium to maximum. Voices sounded smooth, but a little distant and more hollow than on the standard call; however, there wasn't any background noise and I could carry on a conversation in the quiet office. On his end, my test partner lauded the strong call volume and even tones. He didn't hear background noise, speakerphone wasn't particularly echoey, and I sounded natural to his ears. He didn't mind having a long conversation over speakerphone, he said.
An unlocked phone, the 808 PureView runs on AT&T's "3.5G" network, or HSPA+. This is good news, since HSPA+ is a faster version of 3G, and one that AT&T and T-Mobile were able to get designated as a "4G" technology due to its faster speeds. (Now with fast LTE under its belt, AT&T is backing away from those claims.) Although clearly not as fast as 4G LTE, speeds were pretty good in my tests. CNET's mobile site loaded in about 15 seconds, with the desktop site completing loading in about 20 seconds. The desktop version of the New York Times site completed in about 10 seconds as well. Of course, speeds are variable depending on your coverage zone, and can even accelerate or slow down at peak or off-peak times throughout the day.
Processor and battery life
The PureView runs on a 1.3GHz single-core processor; I won't lie, it felt sluggish compared with today's blazing infernos, especially when waiting for keyboards to pop up and apps to load. If you're less exacting, you probably wouldn't describe it as slow.
The 1,400mAh battery has a rated talk time of 11 hours over GSM and 6.5 hours over WCDMA. Standby time ratings come in at 19.4 days over GSM and 22.5 days over WCDMA. CNET will continue to test battery life in our labs and will update this section with findings.
If you're the type to buy a phone for its camera, the Nokia 808 PureView will give you all it's got. A photographer's smartphone, its multiple modes will suit casual shooters while also giving enthusiasts much more structured control. Add in some accessories, like a portable tripod, and you've got a satisfying camera that can also make calls and check your e-mail. While it sounds good in theory, the 808 PureView still won't replace a serious photographer's DSLR, though it will be more conveniently on-hand for relaxed photo opportunities.
Unfortunately, the lower screen resolution and 1GHz processor are markings of a midrange handset, while the price tag says premium. Though Symbian Belle OS may be improved from its predecessors, it still lacks some basic features, like a smarter keyboard, social-networking integration with the address book, and a lot of the polish found in iOS, Android, and even Windows Phone. Unless you're a die-hard Symbian fan, the software will feel clunkier and less powerful for those of you used to these other OSes. Some loyal developers may continue creating new apps and maintaining favorites, but it doesn't help Symbian's argument that Nokia has promised to phase out the OS by 2016.
However, the 808 PureView's strong build quality and willingness to take risks in camera innovation demonstrate Nokia's promise as a continued Windows Phone handset maker, despite shaky financials and a clouded future.