Living with a 41-megapixel 808 PureView: Symbian's heroic last stand
808 state: The Nokia smartphone that REFUSES TO DIE
Review Last year Nokia released to the world a mobile phone that is still unique. It's a smartphone with a 41-megapixel camera sensor, scooping up more detail than some professional DSLRs: it's the 808 PureView.
When I say "released", that’s a little misleading. This showpiece won the Best New Phone gong at last year’s Mobile World Congress, but it was hard to buy. Since the phone ran Symbian OS, it was considered toxic by carriers, and it was not distributed in the UK.
So for the past year the 808 has had a crepuscular presence. It’s lived on, in a spooky afterlife: Nokia wanted you to know about it, and prominently placed the thing on the front page of its main website – but it did not want you to actually buy it. Nokia had already transferred some 3,000 Symbian engineers to Accenture, and last February cancelled all Symbian devices on its phone road map bar the 808.
Yet, something unexpected has happened. The 808 as been quietly receiving lots of loving care and attention. Regular updates and tweaks have continued from the Other Side, including a major overhaul of the OS late last year. Every update is expected to be the last. But still they keep coming, and if anything, the pace is accelerating.
Over the past few weeks I’ve attempted to live with an 808 PureView. And it’s been an interesting and surprising experience. This is the first Symbian phone I’ve used regularly in four years and it isn’t quite how I remembered Symbian.
There are some very sound reasons for giving you an extended look at the 808 today. The 808’s camera remains utterly unique to a phone – a showpiece for a unique technology that is expected to arrive on Nokia’s Lumia Windows-powered phones, perhaps later this year. And since our authoritative real-world 808 camera review last October, the user experience has changed substantially. In addition, falling prices mean you can pick one up for under £300. What does this get you? And what must you be aware of – what pitfalls lie in wait?
Because it’s the user experience that’s changed, rather than the camera, I’ll focus on what’s new and the state of the apps world; so think of this as complementary to last year’s camera work-out. But I should stress, as if it isn’t obvious, that the main reason for owning and using an 808 is because of the camera. There’s no two ways about it: the 808 is a powerful camera wrapped around a phone.
So briefly, let’s recap what this gets you.
The photographic hardware in a nutshell
The 808 uses a gigantic 41-megapixel sensor to deliver images with a maximum resolution of 38Mp (7152 x 5368 pixels). That’s not the default mode; pictures can be snapped at 5Mp (which is what you see when you first open the Camera app), 3Mp, 8Mp or the full 38Mp. Clever software algorithms oversample the sensor data to refine the image into a lower resolution. The results are, in most situations, the best on any camera phone.
As an example of the detail available, from North London I was able to see the Kentish Flats Offshore Wind Farm, an array of wind turbines off the Kent coast, some 40 miles away. This picture was taken from a disused railway viaduct that’s part of the Parkland Walk, at Muswell Hill, in PureView 38Mp mode.
In typical real world usage, the 808 defies many limitations of smartphone cameras. There’s a great showcase of images at the 808 fan blog PureView Club. Here are a few of mine, far less impressive, but examples of challenging shots taken at ‘ordinary’ (eg, 5Mp or 8Mp) resolution.
The shot of the Hotel Porta Fira in Barcelona, outside the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress, might be expected to show aggressive sharpening when you zoom in. It doesn’t.
The photograph of the Starflyer, a 150m-high chair-flyer fairground ride, poses two challenges: it was taken into the Sun, with distant, fast-moving objects. You can expect glare to ruin such images, but not here, and the detail of the "flyers" is perfectly adequate. It’s helped by the 808 camera's infinity focus. As with the hotel, it is a standard 5.3Mp point and snap image.
What's it like taking a photo into the Sun's glare?
Picking out the detail on the image
The detail is also apparent in this indoor 38MP – not great light.
An indoor shot in not the best lighting conditions
Now here’s that picture in detail.
A simple crop of the green wheel shot
I found the 808 was beaten only by Nokia’s 920 at dusk or in low light. In such conditions, the 808 performs pretty well, as you can see.
The 808 shuns the usual single or dual LED flashlight, and instead uses a proper Xenon flash: this creates much brighter photos with more colour and detail and less noise. I’m less enamoured of Xenon flash than most camera-phone enthusiasts, but that’s partly because I don’t like the results of flash photography, full stop.
The 808's imaging tech serves you well in video, too, with excellent software-powered stabilisation of the footage as you move the handset while recording – but it cannot match the steadiness of the 920 and professional cams, which isolate the sensor module on gyroscopes.
The 808 also has the superb HAAC (High Amplitude Audio Capture), which Nokia developed with microphone manufacturers. This captures distortion-free audio at deafening volumes, up to 140dB (A white paper can be found here [PDF].) Naturally, it records in stereo.
The 808 handles zooming quite beautifully on still or moving images. You swipe up gently from the edge of the screen for a preview frame inside the viewfinder, and let go. If you’re taking a video, the zoom in and out is quite smooth.
Steve Litchfield, the Herodotus of the Symbian world, has a great comparison of the 808 alongside the Samsung Galaxy S4, here. The competition is pretty fierce from Samsung, and I doubt S4 owners are going to complain much about their excellent camera. But Sammy's highly aggressive sharpening of photographs takes its toll on image detail.
With the 808, there are great results almost every time, partly thanks to the camera's controls. The 808 flicks instantly between three modes: automatically adjusted settings; settings for specific scenes, such as snowy, spotlit, nighttime, close-up and landscape shots; and “creative mode” that lets you take full 38Mp photos.
The 808 has spawned such an enthusiastic following on the web, and there are a number of specialist camera apps available for it. For example, this one provides a burst shot mode, a timer and other stuff, and here’s a third-party HDR app. (Of course, you can argue that what the 808 is doing with every photo is HDR - distilling lots of pixels into a few good ones.)
And once you know what you’re doing, you can take photos like this one – without carrying around a proper camera with you.
Modern Symbian: It's not iOS, it's Android, but it was an embarrassment
Symbian devices dominated the first era of smartphones, but by 2011 it had become an embarrassment. The iPhone and Android operating systems appear to have been designed as mobile touchscreen computers first with phone functionality added on – the emphasis was on ease of use, a fluid graphics-intensive touch-friendly user interface, and web browsing.
Symbian’s traditional fortes, such as low power consumption, were no longer important – the market now demanded performance, features and ease-of-use over long battery life. Even before the arrival of CEO Stephen Elop, Nokia had realised this shift, and anointed its homegrown Linux (Maemo, then Meego) as its modern successor. But that project couldn’t deliver in time.
Elop made a rapid conversion to Windows Phone, which left Symbian withering on the vine and withering far more rapidly than Nokia anticipated. Rather than selling 150 million units over a two-year period from February 2011 as Nokia had hoped, Symbian-mobe sales fell off a cliff.
In 2011 Nokia disowned itself of both the Symbian brand (it became “Nokia Anna” and the subsequent update “Nokia Belle”) and the labourforce: some 3,000 Symbian developers at Nokia were transferred to Accenture. The following February, it torched everything on the roadmap except the 808 PureView. Most Accenture-bound developers were let go or reassigned.
Nokia had actually planned for a touchscreen tablet future in the late 1990s – and by 2001 had a very rich and flexible interface and stack of applications - but it failed to turn the work into reality. (See our special report Nokia’s Great Lost Platform for that story in depth.)
By 2006 all Nokia had left were variations, evolutions if you like, of work inspired by the 1990s-era, one-handed Navikey interface. Symbian gained a menu-driven interface that used two soft (on-screen) buttons, a non-radical design that avoided alarming Nokia customers. The Finnish company's smartphones were pretending to be dumb phones. Then the Apple iPhone came along, and what Nokia needed was a radical new-look system. It struggled to make Symbian even half-way decent.
The Anna and Belle updates finally gave Symbian a modern makeover. Belle in particular gave the OS a user experience much more similar to Android, and finally released the interface from its crippling legacy design. How does it work in practice?
Belle features an on-screen back key, inspired by Android, that takes you back to the home screen; popup menus in the user interface were finally banished in almost all situations.
The 808 PureView was released with a special variant of Belle, and late last year a formidable bunch of changes including, incredibly for 2012, Symbian’s first multitouch on-screen keyboard. These updates are now available for all Symbian^3 devices, including the N8. But the stream of updates hasn’t ceased: camera tweaks, Skydrive support, uploading to Facebook and Flickr, and Nokia Music support have all been added in the past few weeks.
So what do all these updates mean in practice? It’s not all plain sailing, but it’s much better to use.
The old warhorse, updated
Many of the old complaints against Symbian, such as its reliance on an archaic menu-driven interface, are no longer valid. The Belle update, when it finally and belatedly emerged last year, removed many of these flaws. The 808 was equipped with a decent 1.3GHz ARM11 processor core, Broadcom BCM2763 graphics processor and memory – rather than the constrained resources and cheap CPUs that were depressing features of many late-period Symbian devices.
The basics of communicating, and general housekeeping, are now handled very slickly. The way in which users can make voice calls and send texts is as good or better than any of the more modern rival phone interfaces - although previewing an SMS requires a third-party app.
One single addition alone - instant Spotlight-style search available from the home screen - goes a huge way in making the device very usable: finding the settings in Symbian had become a nightmare, but now locating a contact or a setting is fairly instant.
Nokia Belle's handy mail widget allows you to delete mails from the home screen (left); the third-party utility Belle Extra Buttons gives you a configurable pop-up with a swipe (right).
The once notorious on-screen widgets of information and configuration controls - an emblem of iPhone-era Symbian’s suckiness - now work very well. Nokia includes an impressive pack giving you very rapid access to a button to turn off Wi-Fi and 3G, for example, and a nicely functional email viewer, comparable to Android widgets in all but the amount of detail on offer. (The 808’s 640x380 screen is the constraint, here.) Generally, the widgets "just work".
I saw no lags in the image gallery or music playing applications, which are huge improvements and well up to snuff, although Gallery lumps everything in one continuous view for simplicity.
So the 808 PureView isn’t quite the horror of old. What else does it give you, other than the camera?
The main draw has to be the call quality and battery life, the latter of which comfortably lasts into a second day of operation. Just as designed, this is a deterministic system with no surprises. Overnight it will drain one or two per cent of the battery. Even with push email switched on I get well into a second day of use; if I throttle back email I often get a third day – all on a now modest 1350mAh battery.
The phone can juggle dozens of running applications at any one time, and if they need to run in the background – for example, syncing with Evernote - they’ll do so without overly draining the battery.
The phone's communications stack is a very well debugged – as it should be after a decade of running 3G. And it’s now bang up to date with high-quality voice calls. As a bonus, the version of VoIP client Skype for Symbian is probably the most parsimonious out there, in terms of power consumption. It lacks chat messaging and video calling, alas.
And the final highlight is Nokia’s outstanding mapping software, which it continued to update. This works offline, too. Nokia recently added a version of its superb public transport search app (look for "Public Transit") to Belle, but I found it fairly buggy – asking for "transport near me" just sent it into a spin.
What else? The quality of music playback is outstanding. Apple Mac users will need to use a third-party app called DoubleTwist to transfer files to the handset, but it’s a passable kludge that leaves iTunes playlists intact.
But that’s about it for the good news.
In daily use, you get the satisfaction of using an absolutely beautifully made device. A huge amount of care went into the design and build quality. It looks bulbous and unbalanced, but it’s far from uncomfortable, largely because it's narrower than today’s Android slabs. The downside is unavoidable: an app ecosystem that was poor in 2011 and very patchy today.
Meet the app store that time forgot
Many thousands of apps found on Apple’s iTunes store or Google Play marketplace are obviously absent from Symbian's arena of third-party software. That didn’t bother me so much. It’s just that by and large you will find a very mixed bag in terms of programs available. (See the box-out titled "Surviving Symbian" below.)
There are some real gems in the Symbian online app store – a superb Evernote client called Notekeeper was more than adequate, for example. And there’s a thoroughly slick and modern-looking Twitter client, the Qt-based Tweetian. But much else is woefully inadequate – or simply isn’t there at all.
The BBC’s iPlayer arrived on Symbian first, but hasn’t been kept up to date. Forget about Instagram. Most disappointing of all is the social networking widget. Again, Nokia predicted the web social boom very early, in 2002, but could never turn this foresight into products. Its engineers consistently produced the worse social software in the world. Here the gap is filled with a "Nokia Social" widget that does the basics of Twitter and Facebook – but very, very slowly.
The downsides include a display that is 640 x 380 pixels, which feels not quite right. And Symbian never could quite get the keyboard right, either. Oh, for a Swiftkey on-screen keyboard for the 808 – I’m not the only owner who’d pay a premium.
Surviving Symbian Belle
So, you’re tempted by the 808 and can leave the fancy tech wizardry stuff to a Nexus or Kindle Fire or an iPad Mini. You know you’re getting an amazing camera, first-class Maps app, and almost certainly the best mobile telephone anyone is carrying on your bus. But if the 808 PureView is to be your main phone how are you going to fill the gaps? Can it do so at all? Here’s a survival guide.
For all the loving care and attention to it, Nokia’s Webkit-based browser remains a sore point – rotten to the very end, and slow and poor at rendering pages. The built-in messaging client only handles one Exchange ActiveSync account at a time. This is going to hit users harder than it used to, as many people have multiple email accounts. There’s still no unified inbox, let alone basic features such as flagging messages. So much for the support that Microsoft’s Elop promised here in 2009.
I found the default mail app to be horribly temperamental – often refusing to sync on demand at all. Which is odd, because if you give it a schedule, it faithfully fetches the mail on time. Looking around the forums, this wasn't a widespread complaint. And the OS no longer supports CalDev calendars, which combined with the one-ActiveSync limit proved to be my biggest productivity hit: I simply rely on more than one calendar. You have to use the in-built calendar and sync and backup to a local desktop.
For web browsing Opera Mobile will do, but it can’t match the rendering quality of its rivals, and the phone can't match the blistering pace of modern mobile hardware. For IMAP and POP email, the venerable ProfiMail is probably manadatory. ProfiMail was the best-of-breed IMAP client just four years ago and the best mobile email client outside the BlackBerry world. Today, it still has many features absent in other smartphones – custom rules and alerts, fine control over fetching IMAP, and scheduling; but what it doesn’t have is a unified inbox.
Social networking software poses a problem too, as you really don’t want to use Nokia Social. I ended up usng Tweetian for tweets and being pretty happy with it. A portmanteau client called Gravity is available that does Twitter, Facebook and RSS, but it needs scaling down for the 808 PureView – the fonts it uses looked gigantic. It’s hard to see anyone else matching the functionality of this well-regarded app. fMobi seems to be the preferred Facebook client of choice. For other online services, you'll need to use their mobile-friendly websites: eBay probably being the biggest service-without-an-app.
Extra Buttons is a third-party utility that probably made the most difference. It adds, as the name implies, extra buttons to system icons creating a Swiss Army Knife of useful functions: popup folders (reminiscent of the old Mac OS’s popup folders), and all kinds of system function shortcuts and app shortcuts. You can even now swipe the bar to invoke a function, such as the multitasker.
There’s also a brilliant context-aware app called Situations, originally developed in house by Nokia but now spun out. Based on rules encompassing a range of criteria - such as where you are, or the time of day, or your battery level - it can perform certain actions. These include changing network settings, the screen brightness, launching and closing apps, or sending an SMS. So, leave the house and it will turn off the Wi-Fi. Drop it in your car holder to turn on "drive mode", and tell people via SMS you’re in the car. Motorola has a similar app for Android, called Smart Actions, but the Nokia version was first.
I found myself using the 808 at weekends and in downtime when I didn't need to check email or social media feeds, and was positively surprised by the ease of use.
So what’s the value proposition for the 808? Good, dedicated cameras can be found for under £200, and good, modern phones for under £99. You’ll pay a little more for a new 808 or less if you take a risk on eBay. But if you opt for using two separate devices, you've got to remember to keep them both charged and in your pockets.
As the cliché goes, the best camera in the world is the one at your fingertips – and I've taken terrific pictures that I wouldn’t have snapped otherwise taken – because I simply wouldn’t have had a dedicated camera with me, merely an ordinary smartphone. And the 808 is no ordinary smartphone.
If this whets your appetite for the PureView's tech, then luckily we won’t have to wait long for it to arrive in other Nokia handsets. This discussion of camera shortcomings in Windows Phone 8 shows how far ahead the 808 is today.
Alas, I found the 808 couldn’t hack it for me as the sole "work phone", largely because of the slow browsing and lack of calendar sync. But then I have a work BlackBerry and can call on a tablet for the fancy stuff.
The market looks very different now to 2007 when the iPhone was launched, and affordable small tablets do this "fancy stuff" (email, browsing, social media) better than a phone – that could be a justification alone for choosing a device that specialises in one or two things. ®
Many thanks to Symbian guru Steve Litchfield for tips and steers.
To get up-to-date features and user interface changes, start with the Belle Feature Pack 2 review. Also see how to get the most from the 808 PureView camera, how to double your battery life, and how to use scene modes.
The PureView Club has regular updates on accessories, interesting usage cases and showcases some of the most striking 808 photos.