The top 10 Nokia 808 PureView questions - and answers

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The announcement of the Nokia 808 PureView certainly seemed to attract attention from all quarters. Along with a number of common questions. I tried to answer them with my ever-growing news story and in the comments, but I thought it might be useful to bring the questions together in one FAQ that you can enjoy and point others to?

So the Nokia 808 PureView is the successor to the N8?

No. Actually, it's the successor to the Nokia N93 (and N93i), from 2006! That was the only Nokia smartphone to feature a camera with optical zoom and its enforced dimensions got Nokia's engineers thinking. Clearly there were huge benefits to having a usable zoom facility in a consumer smartphone, but not if it involved a bulky, heavy, noisy and inefficient optical zoom. Hence the change in thinking towards using a high number of megapixels to provide virtual zoom. The fact that it took five years to perfect the system is due to the speed needed in the electronics to process the huge images in real time - the necessary chips simply weren't available in 2007.

N93, with original optical zoom, back in 2006

You've always said that high numbers of megapixels don't matter, so what's so great about a phone with a 41 megapixel sensor?

What's great about the new sensor isn't that it can provide 38 megapixel 4:3 stills (though it can, if you're that perverse), but that it can provide superbly noise-free 5 megapixel images. Which brings us right back to the megapixel myth, since 5mp is enough for almost everybody. The other 808 PureView trick is to use that large megapixel count for virtually zooming in (by 3x) without losing any detail, since the 5mp image you're capturing will still be lower resolution than the portion of the sensor being used.

Why 38 megapixels? I thought the sensor was 41?

As per the relevant diagram, there are a few pixels not used in the appropriate (4:3 or 16:9) slice of the sensor. In fact, it's somewhat amazing to note that as many pixels are simply binned as physically unusable on this sensor as made up the whole of the original N93's chip!

Won't 38 megapixel images be huge in terms of disk space?

No, between 6MB and 10MB, depending on what you're shooting. Not in any way prohibitive in today's multi-Gigabyte world. And again, I should emphasise that 99% of 808 PureView photos will be shot in the 'pure' 5 megapixel mode, i.e. the default, where each will simply be created as a perfectly shot 1MB JPG in the usual way.

808 being handled

Why is there still a big hump on the back? I thought 'thin' was 'in'?

Light, as you may have gathered, likes to travel in straight lines. OK, so we bend it a little bit in the lenses of our cameras, but thereafter it's a straight run until it hits the physical pixels of a sensor. For PureView to work, a large sensor was needed (1/1.2" optical format) and for any sensible field of view, this means that the lens assembly has to be a certain distance from the sensor. Which means that there has to be something of a hump.

Incidentally, this is also how you can usually tell that some competing smartphones have a smallish sensor - it's simply impossible to have a large camera sensor and no hump.

What does 1/1.2" mean?

It's 'optical format'. Don't worry about it - in practice it means that the 808 sensor has roughly a 14mm diagonal. What's important is that this is 2.5 times the size of the sensor in the N8, which in turn is three times bigger than that in the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S II.

What's this Rich Recording all about? I thought the N86 and N8 could already capture CD quality audio?

They can, with their high quality digital microphones. But they're limited in dynamic response - take even an N8 to a rock concert and you'll get some audio loss for the loudest notes - usually the bass drum. Using custom hardware and software (including Dolby Surround Sound and HAAC), a vastly wider range of noise amplitudes can be handled on the 808 PureView, from a whisper up to a hovering harrier jump jet 50 feet away. Apparently - one I'll have to put to the test, obviously!

Surely nHD resolution in a 4" screen is a fail for a photo and video centric smartphone in 2012?

I'm sure Nokia would have gone for a higher screen resolution had it been practical to implement. But it was caught between a rock and a hard place - Symbian is still being updated, but within the confines of the nHD (360 x 640) resolution, whereas Windows Phone offered slightly higher resolution (480 x 800) but didn't have the low level support for all Nokia's custom camera hardware. Yet.

Another possible option might have been to have 'pixel doubled' the main OS and used a 720 x 1280 screen (as used on the latest Galaxy Nexus, etc), using the higher resolution for camera and gallery functions. But then Web would have had to have been tinkered with too, to avoid complaints. And then every other app, one by one - and clearly there would have been a lot of work needed, just for this one, somewhat niche device.

In practice, the 808 PureView screen will be near identical to that in the current E7, which I have in front of me. Note that although the pixel density is relatively low, at under 200 pixels per inch, the display is RGB, rather than pentile, as used in many competing phones. Although I can just about see the pixels on the 4" screen if I look closely, the overall clarity and contrast of the display do partially make up for the lowish raw resolution. In practice, I don't see resolution as being a showstopper for most potential buyers.


What processor is used for all this image oversampling/processing?

Nokia has designed a custom graphics processor that sits beside the 808's camera module and handles the real time oversampling. This is separate to the phone's main GPU, which is then free to handle normal UI acceleration duties. And both are distinct from the phone's main CPU, of course.

Will Nokia Belle Feature Pack 1 be making its way over to the N8 and other Symbian handsets?

Although no official announcement has been made yet, I'd be very surprised if most of these devices didn't get it in some form. In part, compatibility is determined by the size of the internal ROM - those with 512MB only, like the N8, may not make the cut. Watch for news in a few months time.

Why is the speaker still on the camera hump, where it's easy to mute it by covering it?

The positioning does still seem a little crazy, though perhaps internal component space is tight, as it was on the N8. Remember that the N8 and 808 have larger speakers (with greater need for 'reflex' air and with power amplifiers) and maybe this was indeed the only possible location - within the already large camera hump?

Why Symbian for this new flagship? Isn't it dead?

As explained above, Windows Phone isn't yet in a state where the advanced Nokia camera hardware could be integrated. In this sense, the 808 PureView is both a last 'hurrah' for Symbian in an otherwise hostile smartphone world and a testbed device for Nokia's phone camera technology, showing what can be done. I have absolutely no doubt that we'll see PureView integrated into other Nokia hardware over the next three years. On Windows Phone, perhaps on Series 40 and (maybe) even on a lower end Symbian phone?

Note that not all PureView implementations need to go to the 41 megapixel extreme shown here, I'd guess that a half-size version, with 15 megapixel, 1/1.8" sensor and 2x virtual zoom but with much slimmer profile, should be possible too.

When will the 808 be available?

"2nd quarter 2012" apparently. Hopefully May, in three months time.

Will the 808 PureView sell?

Yes, the 808 is definitely a 'niche' smartphone, but the continuing sales of the N8 shows that it's a popular niche. It seems people really do appreciate having a great camera in their phone, one that can take good snaps even indoors in dim artificial light - who knew?(!) I'm sure the 808 PureView will sell in the millions, worldwide, but don't expect many millions.

From Nokia's point of view, it's a flagship imaging device in exactly the same category as the original N93 (bringing this FAQ full circle!) - the 808 PureView shows what the company can do in this area and we can expect all this technology to ripple out to other devices (and other companies, patents permitting?) in due course.

Eagle eyed observers will have counted 14 questions, not 10.... I thought it best to allow some flexibility - after all, I'll lay odds that you lot will raise more questions, so my '10' would have been busted anyway! 8-)

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 28 Feb 2012