Killed By iPhone, Symbian’s Last Gasp Is Nokia’s Crazy 41 Megapixel Smartphone [MWC 2012]

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BARCELONA, MOBILE WORLD CONGRESS 2012 — As a company, Nokia has embraced Windows Phone as their long-term smartphone strategy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some Symbian execs rattling around inside the company, and today, they’ve given us the PureView 808, a Symbian-driven smartphone with a laugh-out-loud claim: a 41 megapixel camera.

Does it really have that many megapixels? It seems so. Does it take nice pictures? Absolutely. But there’s a lot more going on here than just megapixels, and it’s doubtful anyone with an iPhone 4S will be clamoring for one.

First, some background information on camera sensors. Marketers would have you believe the more megapixels you have in a camera, the better quality the pictures will be. This is a lie: after a certain point, the opposite is true, and many top-of-the-line SLR cameras will top out at around 10MP.

Why? When you cram more pixels onto a sensor, they have to become smaller, and when they become smaller, they become less light sensitive, and thus, your images become noisier. You can adjust by making the sensor bigger, or by letting more light into the camera with your optics, but especially in smartphones, there’s only so much you can do.

By all accounts, a 41MP sensor in a smartphone should result in images that look like they puked static all over themselves in anything but the ideal lighting conditions afforded by doing your photography work on the surface of the sun. The PureView 808 gets around this though with some clever algorithms and a huge frickin’ sensor and lens that allow much more light through than most smartphones.

Here’s how it works. Nokia’s PureView 808 camera first captures a full 41 megapixels of information. That image is extremely noisy, and a lot of those pixels are just worthless, but what Nokia’s algorithm then does is merge 8 pixels into 1, outputting a filtered 5MP image that contains one “perfect” pixel.

Nokia says the technology is based off of satellite imaging technology, which makes a lot of sense. And it actually is fairly impressive in person, specifically when it comes to zooming in: after you take an image, you can zoom in to examine details with less degradation in quality than, say an iPhone 4S.

But there are a lot of design trade-offs here. For one thing, a full third of the back of the device is taken up by a huge Carl Zeiss lens, which bulges protuberantly. We’re convinced this huge lens is probably the more important factor when it comes to the PureView 808’s image quality: by being so big, it’s letting in a lot more light than an iPhone or Android phone, but it’s also a lot thicker and fatter.

Then there’s the fact that it’s debuted on a Symbian phone, which Nokia itself has labeled a dead end. Nokia claims the PureView 808’s camera will come to Windows Phones eventually, but right now, it’s an innovative new feature found only on an operating system that will soon be as dead as BeOS.

The PureView 808’s 41MP sensor isn’t just hype, nor is it entirely marketing bullshit based upon the credo that more pixels equals more better. It really does take quite nice pictures, and the way Nokia has leveraged satellite technology and some clever algorithms to take the data from a nigh-unusable camera resolution and make high-quality, ultra-zoomable 5MP images out of them is theoretically pretty neat. But you’re never going to be able to fit this sensor into an iPhone, and honestly, the image quality isn’t so impressive as to make the design trade-offs worth it for 99% of people out there.

The iPhone 4S already has an incredible camera, and the iPhone 5’s should be even better. If you care about mobile photography, you’ll be better off any day embracing iOS’s incredible app library than a chunky novelty phone built on the decaying ruins of the Sybmian OS. If for some reason you feel differently, though, the PureView 808 should be on sale in May for about 450 Euros.