By Michael Fisher | August 14, 2013 4:51 PM
Shortly after meeting him in person for the first time at IFA 2012, I sat in a Berlin bar with Managing Editor Anton D. Nagy and we talked about our hopes for the future of smartphones. He’d just given me a gander at his prize Nokia 808 PureView, and despite its bulk and its dated software platform, I wanted it. More precisely: I wanted a Windows Phone version of it.
Fast forward to MWC 2013. Anton and I were again sharing a couple end-of-the-day drinks, this time in a hotel room in Barcelona, and talking about our expectations for that show on a special-edition episode of the Pocketnow Live. At that time, the rumor mill had us partially convinced that Nokia was planning to unveil that “Windows Phone 808″ -the manifestation of our geekiest photo-phone fantasies- at that very MWC, and we were pretty excited for it.
As it turned out, though, we were in for a lot more waiting. The most exciting thing to come out of the Nokia camp at MWC 2013 was the Lumia 720, and so we were forced to spend months salivating along with the rest of you. Day after day we pined away, until the Microsoft section of the Pocketnow Weekly podcast had become almost totally devoted to rumors of the “EOS,” the “Nokia 909,” and the “Lumia 1020.”
The waiting finally came to an end a few weeks back, as the world’s most anticipated camera-centric smartphone launched to much acclaim on AT&T. Our own coverage of the device reflected our frenzied excitement after months of waiting for a “true PureView” Windows Phone, with our typical full review augmented by a bevy of feature articles and comparisons, and even a few photo collections in the form of editorials and forum threads. Our resident photography expert and Microsoft maven Adam Z. Lein also took our yellowest-ever review-unit for a spin, penning an excellent tutorial on how to take amazing photos with the device.
But amid all this excitement and hoopla, an undercurrent of disappointment slowly became apparent in the comment sections of tech sites like ours. Some 808 PureView owners were busily comparing photo samples side by side with the new Lumia 1020 – and they weren’t too pleased with the results. Yes, the 1020′s camera offered such improvements as optical image stabilization and an enhanced UI, but the photos it churned out seemed inferior to those of its forerunner through certain eyes. Perhaps fueled by a desire to save the 808 from an early retirement, or by the belief that Nokia was somehow duping the populace into wasting money on an inferior product, these folks grew louder and more numerous – until finally our curiosity was piqued and we could take it no longer.
A little over a week ago, Anton sent his 808 PureView from Romania to the States, and since then I’ve been busily snapping as many photos and videos as possible, side-by-side with the Lumia 1020. While we’ve done our best to extract meaningful data from these comparisons, Pocketnow isn’t necessarily a photo-centric site. So we condensed our findings into an easily-digestible ten-minute video based on the 5MP sample photos from each phone. If you’re looking for the quick fix on what sets these smartphone cameras apart, look no further than here:
But some people like the deep-dive: the side-by-side shots untainted by transitions or background music. Others like to go eyeballs-on with raw photo samples and 100% crops. And still others can’t get away with watching YouTube videos at work. For all you folks, then, here’s Nokia Lumia 1020 vs Nokia 808, Editorial Edition: the written result of spending over a week shooting PureView against PureView.
In come circles, it’s a commonly held belief that Nokia simply bolted the 808 camera module onto the back of a Lumia 920 for its first true-PureView Windows Phone. That conjecture is appealing in its simplicity, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. The camera module adorning the Lumia 1020′s backside may be 41MP in resolution, and it may bear the PureView branding, but that’s about as far as the similarity goes.
Some of those variations will be invisible to all but the most advanced end-users. It’s debatable whether the increase in lens elements from 5 to 6 has a detectable effect on the camera’s output, for example – a debate still underway in some Lumia 920-vs-Lumia 925 comment threads out there. But many of those differences do have a significant impact on the 1020′s optical performance.
The 1020 does lag behind in some areas. Its lack of a dedicated image processor, for example -a Windows Phone limitation- is almost definitely the reason for the Lumia’s long (3-4 second) save time between photos. While the newer phone’s image processing algorithms are software-updateable as a result, that advantage doesn’t completely nullify the inconvenience of a processing delay, especially when you’re trying to take many photos in quick succession. Either as a result of this or the 1020′s low-light optimization (or both), the phone defaults to higher ISO settings in most circumstances, resulting in more noise. And the lack of an ND filter on the 1020 means you’ll want to be careful with those sunset shots, as there’s a heightened risk of damaging your camera’s sensor when pointing it right at old Sol up there.
But there are definitely plus-sides to the 1020′s hardware, as well. Probably the most significant positive change here is the addition of optical image stabilization. The 1020′s camera module “floats” on a collection of ball bearings driven by tiny motors controlled by the phone’s gyro, limiting more shakes and jostles than software stabilization ever could. We’ve included some shortened and side-by-side samples in the video comparison above, but for those who prefer uncut examples, we’ve included six (two phones shooting three separate environments) in the video section below to demonstrate the difference in bounce and bump.
Listing all the differences between the viewfinders of the 808 and 1020 would take many articles this size – and not just because of the dueling interface concepts of Windows Phone-vs-Symbian. Nokia’s custom software for the 808 allows for plenty of customization, but it does so using the same tired toggle-heavy approach that characterizes the rest of that platform.
By contrast, the Lumia 1020′s Pro Camera software is pretty, it’s powerful, and thanks to its many tutorials and usability cues, it’s much easier to manipulate. More importantly, users have the option to manually adjust settings they can’t on the 808, like shutter speed and focus. This opens the door to much more finely-honed shots … and honestly, it makes taking pictures a lot more fun when you realize just how much possibility there is to play with. Yes, some of the newer software is a bit on the slow side; Nokia still has some optimization to do to smooth out the rougher edges of its new apps. But when you take add-ons like the Smart Camera and the Windows Store’s wide catalog of custom Lenses into account, shooting pictures with the Lumia 1020 is a much more enjoyable experience overall than on the 808.
We took the 808 and 1020 out on the town for a photo-shooting binge over the course of about a week, trying to snap shots in a wide array of lighting conditions. We shot most photos using equivalent automatic settings on each device, and favored the 5MP “distilled” pictures for most of our comparisons. We know that’ll rile the feathers of the pro photographers out there, but there’s a reason for it: the average user will be spending most of his or her time shooting photos in this mode. Five-megapixel images -even PureView ones- are much more manageable than their full-size 30+MP counterparts; in the case of the 1020, even getting the latter type off the phone requires a cable. So our focus will remain on the more-common pics here.
We’ve included the photos below so you can draw your own conclusions, but there is a notable trend in terms of how the groups compare. The 808 has long been lauded as a champion of authenticity, and for good reason: its photos reproduce the color of the real world better than almost any other device out there. The 1020, due either to hardware challenges or a conscious effort on Nokia’s part to make its photos “pop,” generates pictures much higher in saturation and sharpness.
The result, when combined with the 1020′s aforementioned tendency to ramp up the ISO and its uncertain white balance behavior, are photos which look absolutely stunning on their own -as we said in the full review, this is the best modern smartphone camera you’ll find in the States- but which, next to the 808′s results, seem noisy, too-sharp, and somewhat artificial.
Now, if you’re someone like me, who always adds a dash more color and bumps up the sharpness maybe a little too much on his photos, the 1020 will suit you just fine. Shooting with the Lumia 1020 is a lot like putting on polarized sunglasses and deciding it looks better than real life, which is something I do pretty often. So my tacky tastes and I love the Lumia. If you’re someone of more subtle sensibilities, though, you’ll probably find the 808′s photos more authentic. Because, by and large, they are.
Indoor Photos: Lumia 1020
Indoor Photos: 808 PureView
Besides the differences in noise level and color saturation, of particular note in the indoor section is the disparity in low-light performance. Here, it becomes evident just how much focus Nokia has placed on low-light capabilities since the 808 debuted: the 1020 may not quite reach the legendary illumination capabilities of the 920, but it still delivers outstanding results compared to the 808 on automatic settings with no flash. Here, the saturation and sharpness work to its advantage.
While it’s possible to mimic the 1020′s low-light performance by using manual settings to force longer exposure time on the 808, the latter’s lack of OIS means it’s more susceptible to motion, and thus more prone to blur. Both of the below photos were taken with long exposures in a very, very dim bathroom. The 1020′s shot, though grainy, is at least clear thanks to the hardware stabilization; the 808′s isn’t.
Outdoor Photos: Lumia 1020
Outdoor Photos: 808 PureView
Outdoors, the differences in sharpness and saturation are much more apparent. Whether you’re a fan of authenticity or vibrance, the difference in tone between these two shots of the same scene is rather striking:
We know YouTube is hardly the proper venue for comparing video quality, folks, and we apologize for the unavoidable loss of quality the service’s compression entails. Until we engage an alternate video-hosting service, though, YouTube is what we’re working with. The bright side: most people sharing video on social networks use YouTube to do it, so these results should be identical to what the average-Joe uploader sees.
As you take in these samples, watch for the Lumia 1020′s more aggressive image stabilization, faster auto-focus, and ability to focus on closer objects than the 808. Also keep an ear out for sound quality variations between these phones, in both silent and noisy environments: the 1020′s Rich Recording software can be heard doing its work in the train drive-bys.
Again, if you’d prefer a more cohesive video comparison, click on the video comparison at the top of this article.
Raw Samples & Crops
These raw images (7712 x 4352 Lumia, 7728 x 4354 PureView 808) and 100% crops are included for the benefit of those who like to study every pixel. We encourage you, once again, to draw your own conclusions as to which you prefer.
In porting the PureView experience from the 808 to the 1020, Nokia consumerized the camera. The 1020 definitely reflects that compromise somewhat: its images are sharper but noisier, its camera app is slower, it packs a smaller sensor, and it lacks a dedicated image processor and an ND filter. But in exchange, you get that optical image stabilization and supreme low-light performance, bundled into a package that’s thinner, running on a modern software platform that provides a much richer shooting experience.
Ultimately, we think the 1020 gets close enough to the performance of the 808 to earn the “true PureView” name, while also bringing many more features to the table that average buyers will appreciate. The 808′s results will probably still be more pleasing to the eye of a professional photographer, but the tradeoff -being stuck on a dead-end platform with far fewer features- doesn’t really seem worth it. Given the choice, we think most folks would go for the 1020, and at the end of the day, that’s the one we’d recommend to a modern-day buyer.
Adam Z. Lein, Anton D. Nagy, and Taylor Martin contributed to this feature.