Ever since Microsoft’s CEO was replaced by Satya Nadela and their purchase of Nokia’s mobile phone business was almost completely dissolved, I have been patiently waiting for Nokia to rise from the ashes and release a real flagship phone with some amazing camera hardware. The Nokia 9 with it’s five-camera array on the back, could just be the thing I’ve been waiting for! The Finnish brand, HMD Global bought back the Nokia brand in 2016 and has been steadily releasing new Nokia branded Android phones, but most of them haven’t done anything crazy innovative like the old Nokia used to do. That is until now. Just so you know, this review was released after the first update to the Nokia 9 Pureview, so we’ve got some fixes to the issues you may have heard about in earlier reviews. Keep reading to see how this hexagonal five camera array earns back the Nokia PureView moniker.
Hardware and Design
The back of the phone is where the Nokia 9 really shows how unique it is. The 7 circles hold 5 cameras, an LED flash, and the black circle is a “time of flight” sensor which is used to measure the distance a subject is from the camera in order to help create a depth map of the scene. We’ll look at this more when we discuss the cameras in detail below.
Of course we’ve got a great looking glossy blue finish here along with the Nokia, Android One, and Zeiss branding. Unfortunately, this glossy finish is very attractive to fingerprint grease.
Thankfully, the Nokia 9 supports Qi wireless charging just like Nokia started way back with the Nokia Lumia 920 back in 2012. Unfortunately, the backing of the Nokia 9 is so slippery that it will slide right off of my JBL Power Up wireless charging speaker! Be very careful where you set this phone as it certainly may slide off and fall.
The right side of the phone is where the only hardware buttons are. The smaller one is for waking the phone from sleep and powering it down. Double pressing the power button also will launch directly to the camera. The longer one is a volume toggle. The buttons are well made with a nice sturdy tactile feel.
The top edge is where you’ll find the SIM card slot tray. Sorry, there’s no MicroSD card tray in their, so you’ll have to make due with the built-in 128Gb storage.
On the bottom is a lanyard hole, which is a nice touch that we don’t see too often anymore. There’s also a USB-C data/charging port, and a microphone hole.
I love that the screen supports “glance mode” like the old Nokia’s often did. I wish the notification icons were more intelligible though… humans don’t generally speak in icons, so this row of symbols doesn’t really communicate what’s going on as well as it could. The date/time display is nice though, along with the next calendar appointment. I really miss having a weather forcast here like the old Nokia Lumia devices could do.
Another great feature with this screen is that’s it’s got a built-in fingerprint scanner.
I mean, it would be a great feature if it worked as well as the capacitive fingerprint sensors on other phones. It does not. It’s actually the worst in-screen fingerprint scanner among those phones who have implemented this feature. All of them are worse than capacitive sensors, but this one really takes some getting used to. You have to press with just the right amount of pressure in just the right place with just the right amount of ambient lighting. It can be pretty annoying. What’s more is usually you have to press the power button on the side in order to get the fingerprint scanner running. Glance mode isn’t always on and doesn’t always come on when you pick up the phone, so that’s another annoyance.
The Nokia 9 ships with the “Android One” flavor of Android 9.0. This is a version of Android made by Google that is meant to work well on low-end hardware and promises updates for 2-3 years. It cannot be customized by the phone manufacturer and only runs on certain devices. According to the Android One website, it’s supposed to be easy to use, but that’s not true at all. The Android 9 version of Android One is very dependent on non-discover-able touch gestures centered around a “sausage” icon at the bottom center. This is where the home icon normally should be and tapping the sausage will get you to the home screen, unless you’re on the home screen and then it does nothing. Swiping the sausage to the right lets you scroll between open applications, but it doesn’t scroll in a natural way. A good way to do this would have been to allow the entire length from center to right edge to scroll through the entire back-stack of open applications so that the user could easily flip between the first and last open app with one movement, stopping anywhere in between to activate the selected app. That would have been a great way to do this. That’s not how it works though. You swipe all the way to the right edge and then it will periodically flip to the next app. It’s excruciatingly frustrating to control. Swiping the sausage upwards just a little bit reveals a multi-tasking interface where you can much more easily swipe between open applications. But wait, if you swipe up on the little sausage a little more, then a huge grid of application icons files the screen. None of this is intuitive of course. The back button is no longer a left-pointing triangle like Android users are used to. It’s just a tiny thin little “less than” symbol now. Worst of all, there’s still no way to show the notifications tray without doing some awkward hand acrobatics to swipe the top edge of the screen. That’s probably the most-poorly-designed interaction method for a smartphone who’s screen is larger than 3.8″. Beyond the poorly designed launcher in Android One, there’s really practically nothing that Nokia can add. All of the default programs are Google-made. There is a Nokia support app though, and of course the camera software is custom made to work with that special 5-camera array on the back.
That brings us to the camera! This is real reason to buy this phone. The 5 camera array with a time of flight sensor and LED flash hexagonal layout on the back of this phone is very unique in the industry. We’ve got three grey-scale cameras and two RGB color cameras along with Zeiss lenses, but all 5 have the same focal length and the same 12 megapixel resolution.
So why do we need 5 cameras if there’s only 1 difference (greyscale vs. color)? Another difference is their position. The “fake background blur” trick that many phones do these days really doesn’t work very well with only two points of view. Two cameras can’t see around the edges of a subject very well and that’s what’s necessary to make an artificial blur that simulates a narrow depth of field. But five cameras? Well, maybe!
Okay, the 5 cameras didn’t really do too well with the background blur masking after all. Sure it’s better than everything else out there, but the edges are still seriously messy and honestly unacceptable especially for any photography enthusiast. By the way, the Nokia 9 nicely supports non-destructive depth map blurring, so after you take a picture you can add or remove the background blur in the JPGs. Depth maps are not saved with the DNG files unfortunately. Also, there is no way to extract the depth maps as an alpha channel so that you could use it as a starting point to make an actually good mask for layering the image.
Nokia won’t tell us exactly how the 5 cameras are being used, so we’re forced to guess.
Light.co is another one of Nokia’s partners that has helped with building this camera array, but they use multiple cameras of different focal lengths and stack the images for digital zooming and depth of field simulation purposes. I don’t think that’s what’s going on with the Nokia 9.
I’m pretty sure the 5 cameras are being used for median stacking which is a technique of combining multiple images in order to reduce noise. The Nokia 9 DNG photos are very noise-free, so this could certainly be the case. My other guess would be that the three grey-scale camera images might be tuned towards different light color spectrums. Having one whole camera sensor to absorb the red light, another for green, and another for blue could be really great for reducing noise as well.
Another idea might be to have the different cameras bracket the exposures so that each one absorbs different amounts of light, but that doesn’t really make sense if they’re all the same sensors they’re going to have the same light sensitivity. ISO settings are mainly just a matter of changing the gain on the data a sensor receives. Also, bracketed exposures for increased dynamic range doesn’t seem to be something that this camera is good at.
The camera software is not particularly impressive. There are lots of unintelligible icons that you’ll have to figure out, but the worded modes along the bottom are nicely customizable. You can remove and re-order these modes in the settings, which is great! Reducing the clutter by removing features I have no interest in using is an excellent option.
In the settings behind the hamburger button you can turn on DNG mode. It’s called “RAW files support”, but that’s not what it actually is. If “RAW files support” actually gave us RAW data from the 5 cameras and 1 time-of-flight sensor, then we’d get 6 DNG files; one from each sensor. In reality, the Nokia 9 is processing the 5 camera images into a single data-set first. That’s what’s saved as a DNG file. Then on top of that you get an even-more processed JPG image which adds automatic HDR-style filtering, extra sharpening, as well as the depth map channel. Yes, the depth map data is saved with the JPG, not the DNG, and not as a separate file!
Let’s check out some samples though. Most of these were shot in DNG mode with some lite adjustments in Adobe Camera Raw and downsampled to 1920px for the web here. You can see the full-resolution samples on Flickr.
I’ve found that in some cases, the Nokia 9 can take amazing photos, while other times, it’s a struggle.
This sunset photo I found to to be practically perfect. The detail is great, there’s very little to no noise, it’s got smooth natural bokeh (not the fake bokeh), and we’ve got detail throughout the dynamic range.
In other instances we often get completely washed out highlights. The above was taken with the flash on. Notice how it wasn’t able to freeze movement either as some motion blur is apparent. I still wish some new phones would include the Xenon flash that the old Nokia Lumia 1020, 808 PureView, and even N8 used to have.
When we compare the Nokia 9 Pureview to other cameras, the results get interesting. Firstly, it’s obvious how heavily processed the Nokia 9 JPGs are. In the first row above is a 100% crop showing the difference between the un-edited DNG file on the left and the processed JPG file on the right. Sometimes you’ll notice a little too much sharpening in the JPG files as well as a little too much HDR filter processing. Using ACR or Lightroom to post-process the DNG file will just about always give you better results or at least much more control.
You’ll also notice above how little noise there is in the Nokia 9 Pureview’s DNG file compared to the others. Even the Nikon D750 at 800 ISO has more noise than the Nokia 9 Pureview’s DNG image. That’s pretty impressive! Of course, the Nokia Lumia 1020 and Huawei Mate 20 Pro have much more detail, but they also have more noise. You can see the full resolution comparison samples on Flickr.
The front-facing camera has a respectable 20 Megapixel resolution, but it has similar problems with dynamic range as you can see below.
The 3320 mAh battery keeps the Nokia 9 going pretty nicely for about a day. A few years ago that would have been totally fine, but today some flagship phones have greatly increased the battery life capabilities, so that makes the Nokia 9 Pureview a little below average.
It would seem that the big thing about the Nokia 9 Pureview’s multi-camera array is its extremely clean low-noise images. That can be a really great thing. Unfortunately, the camera lacks in other areas such as dynamic range where highlights often get blown out. The LED flash is unusable compared to the Xenon flash of the original Nokia 808 Pureview, Nokia Lumia 1020 Pureview, and even the Nokia N8 from 2010. The depth sensing and fake background blurring filter is better than most of the other phones that try to do this, but it’s still unreliable and unacceptable to anyone who cares about image quality. I would still consider the Nokia 9 worthy of the Pureview moniker due to how little noise there can be in some of the pictures, but I feel like I would have preferred multiple focal length lens/camera combinations.
As a smartphone, the Nokia 9 Pureview is pretty good for the $599 price range it runs for. It nicely supports voice over WiFi and voice over LTE. The Qi wireless charging support is great. It’s a beautiful phone. Unfortunately, it’s hard to justify the need for five cameras on the back when the image quality is a bit unpredictable and especially when processing the images is so slow.