Monday, February 27, 2012

Forty-One Megapixels... In a Phone

Nokia has always been something of an engineering firm first and a software firm second. Actually, they're more like a software company third of fourth. Which is of course the reason why they had their ass handed to them when Apple released the iPhone with last-generation hardware powering next-generation software.

Still, you can't argue that Nokia hasn't produced some badass handsets in its time. The Nokia N-Series phones were, even during the iPhone's early days, the undisputed masters of cool tech.

Now with their Windows Phone partnership well under way, Nokia appears to have found some of its mojo and has gone and done something absolute wacky: they have released a phone, a phone, with a 41-megapixel sensor in it.

The Nokia 808 PureView is packing both the largest and highest resolution sensor ever in a phone. Nokia is treating this as a pretty big product launch and is making sure that everyone understands their logic, which isn't bad logic. Basically, combined with great optics, those forty-one million pixels are sampled at various rates to achieve different resolutions based on what you want.

That said, whenever you see a company instituting a "trick," it usually turns out to be a complete gimmick. To Nokia's great credit, this does not appear to be the case. The full-resolution images of 38Mp are impressive because they reveal optics that are only slightly behind the resolving power of the sensor. Obviously, contrast is a bit low, and edges are soft, but what were you expecting from a lens the size of Polly Pocket's dinner plates?

Truly impressive is the amount of noise at full-resolution. Namely, there's very little. When downsized to something more reasonable, such as 12Mp, the noise fades significantly and you were left with what are the absolute best color transitions ever from a camera phone.

At the link I provided earlier, Nokia has posted three demo shots. Obviously, as with all demo shots, these are staged for maximum impact, but even with that taken into consideration, these are amazing photos. Colors are rich, reds and blues are deep and powerful, noise levels are very low, and the detail from such a small lens is impressive. Nokia should be very proud of their engineers.

The comparison that I posted above considers one of their demo shots. The full-res photo is soft and a little washed out, but it handles the bright light of the sun very well. But when downsized to 12Mp, the impression of it being a camera phone absolutely disappears. It now looks like a high-end P&S camera. The dark blue sky, which I am hoping was not specifically touched up in Photoshop or any shenanigans like that, looks great. This is where the tiny sensor would devastate with noise levels, and the phone passes with flying colors.

I was a huge Nokia fan, and in many ways still am, and would love to own this phone. Unfortunately, they put their lot in with Microsoft, and I am in an absolutely monogamous relationship with Android. Even worse, this phone doesn't even use Windows Phone! It uses the now-officially-dead Symbian OS. So while this camera is impressive, it is a dead-end product, an orphan, a tech-demo, released simply because they can.

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