The Nokia N8: Imaging champion with a five year legacy

Published by at

This morning's announcement of the Nokia N8 marks, for me, the end point of a five year journey that Nokia has taken us on in the smartphone world. Yes, other manufacturers pop up in this field every now and then, but Nokia's path has been more consistent. Read on for more, including my thoughts on how the N8 finally replaces every previous smartphone camera champion. Xenon flash, stereo audio capture, intelligent digital zoom and more...

Starting out in the smartphone world with the Nokia 9500, I had to put up with VGA stills from its camera. That's right, double-take needed, I said VGA. 640 by 480 pixels. I tried to kid myself that these snaps were acceptable, but putting them up on a desktop monitor showed the blocky, ugly truth. Moving through the Sony Ericsson P800, which wasn't much better, I migrated to the Nokia 6630, the start of my modern allegiance to S60. A surprisingly good (for its time) 1.3 megapixel camera, I finally had a phone which could produce stills which didn't look too bad on the 15" monitor of the time, nor when printed at 6" by 4". These stills represented the starting point for my smartphone convergence journey to totally replace my Olympus standalone 'compact' camera (and Sony camcorder). With today's N8 announcement, we've come a long way....!

Now, don't get the wrong impression, I'm as much against megapixels for their own sake as the next person. I even wrote a whole series here on All About Symbian debunking a set of popular camera phone myths. But there has been a progression in all areas of smartphone cameras, championed by Nokia, over the years. At each stage, the designers had to take on the current state of the art in miniature camera optics and sensors, balancing their attributes (including cost) in the context of a smartphone that could be profitably sold, reliable and (hopefully) inspiring.

N82 5mp camera and Xenon flash

This Nokia arguably managed with a sequence of devices that all made their mark in different ways:

  Nokia 3650 (etc) Nokia 6630 Nokia N70 Nokia N90 Nokia N73 Nokia N93 Nokia N82 Nokia N86 8MP Nokia N8
Year 2002 2004 2005 2005  2006 2006 2007 2009 2010
Resolution (in megapixels)  0.3  1.3  2.0 2.0  3.2  3.2  5.0  8.0  12.0
Flash technology used None  None  LED LED  LED  LED  Xenon Dual LED Xenon
Screen resolution (viewfinder, playback) 176 x 208 176 x 208 176 x 208 352 x 416 240 x 320 240 x 320 240 x 320 240 x 320 360 x 640
Extras, comments ...  ...  First two megapixel camera phone, a taster of what was to come and a great all purpose smartphone of high build quality The first glimpse of Nokia's innovative transformer ideas - and the first use of a Carl Zeiss lens in a phone. Add in a really high resolution screen and you ended up with a design classic - though it wasn't liked by service engineers!  Aimed fairly and squarely at the smartphone mass market, this was rugged and relatively inexpensive, and yet had an utterly fabulous 3 megapixel camera. It set the bar for an entire year for cameraphones. Super-niche camera-centric device with transformer form factor. Unique for both its genuine optical zoom and its forward facing stereo microphones, enabling VGA video capture with stereo audio track - superb sound, only recently bettered by the N86 Indestructible camera-centric design renowned for its superb Xenon flash - still the best in the smartphone world until the N8 hits the streets, I suspect. Limited for general use though because of small and artificially dim screen backlight, and because of restrictive keypad  Conceived by the guy who thought up the N82, and in many ways a spiritual successor, this had a great sensor, variable aperture, wide angle lens, intelligent digital zoom and digital microphone for superlative audio. Shame about the use of dual LED flash though Building on all the devices to the left is the N8, as you'll read below. Can this really be the ultimate camera-toting smartphone? Time will tell! 

In table form above, the specification bumps are quite obvious, but by now you'll be appreciating that great photos are about more than simply having higher numbers. Looking at the new N8, I have some delights and some concerns:


  • Xenon flash - the only camera flash technology worthy of the word 'flash' - the last couple of years of poor LED-lit party shots can be safely forgotten - see my feature on this

  • Stereo audio recording (one mike on front, one on back - more on this later in the week)
  • HD video capture. Watch this space for video samples.
  • The same intelligent digital zoom in video mode as the N86 - no blockiness - almost as good as optical zoom.

  • Large OLED screen - vivid viewfinding and photo viewing in most light conditions - not perfect in bright sunlight, but not as bad as plain TFT screens


  • Exposed camera glass - a mechanical protector will be sorely missed - see my feature
  • 12 megapixel maximum resolution (meaning small sensor pixels inside the device)
  • Fixed aperture lens - though, in fairness, the use of Xenon flash will mean that getting more light onto the sensor in dim conditions is unlikely to be a huge problem. The N8 will have to work harder in very bright sunlight, to avoid over-exposure.

Five delights and three concerns then. Unlike some other sites on the web, I'm going to reserve judgement on the N8 until I've tested a production device with production software (and thus camera algorithms) - still another 3 or 4 months away.

Nokia N8 camera

Of the camera champions listed above, there are a huge number of people still clinging to the N82 and N86 - can the N8 tempt them from their 2008/2009 favourite? I don't expect images from the N8 to be that much better than the best from each of those two units - but I do expect it to roll many of the strengths of each into the one hardware choice. Now you really won't have to choose between Xenon flash or higher number of megapixels, between dim LCD screen (that, admittedly, did rather well in sunlight) and bright OLED, you can opt for the N8 and get (mostly) the best of both worlds, plus all the modern niceties of Nokia and Symbian^3 - and with a comparatively small number of caveats.

It's early days for the N8 - it has only just been announced. But it's fair to say that I'm very excited about testing it in the depths of the (hopefully long and hot) UK summer this year.

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 27 April 2010


Nokia's demo video showing HD video capture