The Nokia 808 PureView was an immediate hit at Mobile World Congress in February, for one reason and one reason alone: its jaw-dropping 41-megapixel camera commanded attention. Never intended for U.S. markets, the PureView runs on the Symbian OS, which, for many North Americans in whose lives Symbian has never been a prominent feature, was unimpressive. It has a bulky body (owing to the massive camera module), but a more disappointing, middle-of-the road processor. Never mind that. The handset's unique camera with lossless zoom has generated so much interest that U.S. residents can now order it from Amazon.com for a cool $700.
The secret behind the camera is an extra-large sensor that dwarfs those of regular 5-megapixel and 8-megapixel shooters. The larger lens lets in more light, which in turn lets the PureView capture exponentially more information about an image. The second mobile innovation is camera software that lets more aspiring photographers play around with creative settings, and take photos in 5- or 8-megapixel resolutions so that zoomed-in frames burst with detail. CNET camera editor Josh Goldman describes the technique here.
Remove the camera from the equation and you're left with a pretty good smartphone with an OS that for most in the U.S. is a long-forgotten memory. The PureView technology may be Symbian's swan song here, but it's also a cunning preview of smartphone camera technology that pushes the boundaries of mobile photography in a leap of triumph.
Design and build
How much lumpier does the extra-large camera make Nokia's PureView? Pretty bulky indeed. The camera module is (understandably) bigger than usual and protrudes from the back of the phone. Even without the supersized lens, the 808 PureView would be heavyset, with a 0.55-inch thickness (it's 0.7 inch at its widest point) and 5.96 ounces on the scale. Its otherwise medium stature of 4.9 inches tall and 2.4 inches wide makes the polycarbonate slab feel solid and sturdily built, but it is a brick in the old handbag and fits awkwardly into all but the loosest of pockets.
The PureView comes in white, a popular color for its distinctiveness, but also one that, as in clothing, is susceptible to discoloring. I'm admittedly rough on my things, and dropping the PureView into my purse didn't do it any favors on the cleanliness front. I know firsthand that Nokia thoroughly tests its phones against dirt and corrosives. Luckily, I was able to spit-polish away most of the smudges.
The 808 PureView wins points for its pretty 4-inch AMOLED display technology, which makes colors rich and vibrant. Gorilla Glass also reinforces it against scratches and potentially damaging falls. The PureView has an unusual nHD screen resolution of 640x360 pixels, which is one-ninth of full HD. Needless to say, this is the lower end of the spectrum. In contrast, most mid- to high-end 4-inch AMOLED screens have a 480x800 (WVGA) screen resolution -- like the Pantech Burst or the Samsung Galaxy Exhilarate -- which is about right.
All 16.7 million colors appear on the PureView. While images weren't as sharp as on other phones, photos looked good onscreen, and jagged edges and softness weren't immediately visible. I also liked the screen's deep gloss finish and slight curvature toward the edges. Small touches like that make it plain that Nokia cares about design details.
I'm less enamored of the thin plastic strip below the screen that serves as the physical keyboard controls for the Send, Menu, and Power/End buttons. The Lumia 710 has a similar control strip that I also would have preferred to be on the thicker side. It works, though, and doesn't get in the way. I just happen to prefer a more substantial fingerhold for my buttons.
The PureView gets bonus points for its other external appointments. I love the convenience of a hardware camera shutter button on the right spine, the full HDMI-out port up top, and the slide control to lock and unlock the screen. Slide and hold for two full counts to turn on the (very bright) flashlight. There's also a volume rocker on the right spine and a Micro-USB charging port is up top, right next to the 3.5mm headset jack.
Beneath the back cover (which thankfully pops off without too much force) and beneath the battery are the microSD card and the micro-SIM card slots. I'm not a fan of rebooting my phone every time I need to tinker with the SIM or storage card, but the PureView gets special dispensation in my book for its challenging design. It isn't easy smushing the usual radios and components into a cavity shared with a massive camera module.
I hear that Dolby Digital Plus technology hands out surround sound, if you have the right accessories, which I didn't.
OS and apps
It's been quite a while since we've seen a Symbian OS smartphone here in the U.S., but the operating system that Nokia bought used to be much more prevalent here than it is now. You'll want to know that the PureView, which runs the Symbian Belle variant, can perform the majority of tasks that we associate with smartphones. There's e-mail, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth support, apps and productivity tools, turn-by-turn directions through Nokia Maps and Nokia Drive, and texting. For the most part, the phone performs these basic smartphone functions well.
There's also a music player, an FM radio, YouTube, and a social networking app for Facebook and Twitter. There's a full HTML browser, support for DLNA content sharing to other DLNA devices (like phone-to-TV), and a music store. Shazam, QuickOffice, and Vlingo Voice actions are all preloaded (Vlingo is like Apple's Siri, but predates it.) Other notable apps include a file folder, a file-zip utility, a calculator and clock, tips and offers, a very limited dictionary (that didn't have most of the challenging words I looked up), and a handful of game demos like Angry Birds Magic. Unfortunately, Nokia Music didn't open on the PureView.
I haven't used a Symbian phone in years, and my rustiness showed in getting around. If you're a longtime Symbian fan, the OS will present no problem to you; it may feel like a familiar friend. However, it took me a little ramp-up time to get used to the work flow, though I wouldn't say that the shift was any more pronounced than with learning any other smartphone platform. In fact, I didn't encounter as many hidden features as iOS, Android, and even Windows Phone -- like long presses and double button pushes, for instance.
That said, Symbian Belle isn't as extensible as I'm used to. There is access to social networks, yes, but I didn't see the deep tie-ins to the calendar or address book. You can, however, post photos to social networks. There are ways to sync information across Nokia's stable of services, which is expected, but not any native ways to sync up with Google services, apart from adding e-mail. This makes sense, since Android is a competing platform, but as a user of Android services, I did wish I didn't have to search the Nokia app store for tools and I think all competing Android platforms would ingratiate themselves with users by offering shortcuts to one or two more Google services apart from mail.
While the Nokia store still has apps that run the gamut of productivity and entertainment, there simply isn't the strength in apps that take a smartphone from a phone to an indispensable all-in-one computing, communication, and entertainment tool. (I do like the native Social app, however, which lets you toggle between Facebook and Twitter accounts.) Symbian retains some staunch developer support, though on a global scale the platform is waning, and developers on the whole tend to consolidate on operating systems with brighter futures.
The cramped keyboard drove me nuts and had me wishing for a virtual keyboard like SwiftKey or Swype. Predictive text made an appearance, but not spell-check. I constantly mistyped words and waited in agony for the laggy virtual QWERTY keyboard to catch up. Correcting my log-ins, passwords, and e-mails took a lot of manual attention. Let's call it a profoundly frustrating experience that isn't helped by a slower processor than I'd want. This may not bother all of you, but it could haunt precise typers like me.
One area where Nokia excels is in NFC. In fact, the phone maker was the quiet NFC trailblazer in the U.S. before Samsung started beating the gong. Smart NFC widgets toggle the feature on and off, and a polished tutorial points newcomers in the right direction. What's missing, of course, are opportunities to use NFC here in the States. In the U.S., NFC is an even stickier issue since several viable terminals use the Google Wallet app.
Camera and video
Because of his expertise, I asked CNET's Joshua Goldman to review the PureView's unique camera, and its video capability. His photos are pretty amazing. In all cases, click to see the image enlarged.
The PureView's photo quality lives up to the hype. Yes, the camera does have a 41-megapixel sensor and it is overkill for a smartphone camera -- at least on the surface. While it actually does do pretty well at resolving detail when you use that full resolution, that was never really the point. It's Nokia's oversampling technology that turns those 41 megapixels into 3, 5, or 8 megapixels that's important.
In fact, the default for the camera is its 5-megapixel PureView setting. By using this resolution, you have access to a 3x lossless digital zoom; going up to 8 megapixels reduces zoom to about 2x, while dropping to 3 megapixels increases it to about 3.6x. And it is truly lossless, whereas the digital zooms on other smartphones rely on cropping and interpolation.