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41MP Nokia 808 smartphone hints at pixel-combining future for small sensor cameras

By dpreview staff on Feb 27, 2012 at 20:56 GMT

Nokia has made the startling announcement that it has created a 41MP smartphone, the Nokia 808 PureView. Interestingly, in most shooting modes the camera will output 3, 5MP or 8MP stills, rather than offering its full resolution - promising greater quality and offering some clever features. And this isn't a trade-show concept model, this is a product that will be offered to the public, though details of when and in which countries haven't been announced. What's interesting isn't so much the pixel count as how it's used, so we took a closer look.

The first thing to realize is that this isn't a standard 1/3.2" mobile phone sensor, it's an unusual and remarkably large 1/1.2" type (five times larger). In fact, it's almost three times the size of the sensors in most compact cameras. As a result, its photosites are the same size as those in most 8.2MP cameraphone but the 808 doesn't try to create an image of the same quality, 5 times bigger. Instead it oversamples the image and then combines pixels (using proprietary algorithms Nokia says optimize detail retention) down to a smaller size (though there is a special 'creative' shooting mode if you want the full resolution - 38MP at 4:3 aspect ratio, 36MP at 16:9).

Diagram showing the size of the Nokia 808 PureView's 1/1.2" sensor in comparison to those used in various compact cameras and mobile phones. A Four Thirds sensor is included for scale.

This pixel-combination means that noise (which occurs randomly) is averaged-out across multiple pixels (around 7-to-1 in the 5MP mode). The high native pixel count also means that it's possible to effectively 'zoom' by cropping into the center of the image and reducing the number of pixels you average together. Consequently the 808 can offer a roughly 2.8x 'zoom,' while maintaining 5MP output, despite having a fixed lens. The image quality will drop (since the noise is no longer being averaged out), but it does mean you get a roughly 28-78mm equivalent zoom, without the need to have moving lens elements, making the process fast and silent. It also means the lens' 15cm minimum focusing distance is maintained.

And, although the benefits of pixel-binning are lost as you magnify-in, because its photosites are the same size as contemporary 8MP phones, the resulting 5MP should offer the same pixel-level quality even at full magnification.

The same process allows 1080p video to be shot with a 4x cropping zoom.

Much like the Panasonic LX and GH cameras, the Nokia 808 uses an over-sized sensor to maximize the area used to offer different aspect-ratio images.

Despite the large sensor and comparatively large f/2.4 aperture, you won't get much control over depth of field (it'll be equivalent to setting an APS-C DSLR's kit lens to 18mm f/5.6). The depth-of-field control is reduced still further when magnified-in, because it doesn't gain the shallower depth of field that longer physical focal lengths usually bring. So, while it's an improvement over most phones, we wouldn't put much faith in the Nokia white paper's talk of bokeh.

The interesting thing for us, though, is not the Panasonic-esque multi-aspect-ratio use of the sensor, nor the astonishing pixel count, it's the idea of using that high pixel count to offer lower noise or non-interpolated digital zooming, while maintaining a constant image size. As Nokia's blog points out:

'5Mpix-6Mpix is more than enough for viewing images on PC, TV, online or smartphones. After all, how often do we print images bigger than even A4? [It] isn’t about shooting pictures the size of billboards! Instead, it’s about creating amazing pictures at normal, manageable sizes.'

And that's something that might be interesting to see in future compact cameras - models that will concentrate on output of a sensible size so that the user can easily get the benefit of them oversampling the scene.

Click here to read Nokia's blog post about the 808 PureView, which includes more detail about the phone's other features.

And click here to read the company's white-paper on the technology underpinning it.

Nokia 808 PureView lens and sensor specifications

  • Carl Zeiss Optics
  • Focal length: 8.02mm
  • 35mm equivalent focal length: 26mm, 16:9 | 28mm, 4:3
  • F-number: f/2.4
  • Focus range: 15cm – Infinity (throughout the zoom range)
  • Construction:
    • 5 elements, 1 group. All lens surfaces are aspherical
    • One high-index, low-dispersion glass mould lens
    • Mechanical shutter with neutral density filter
  • Optical format: 1/1.2”
  • Total number of pixels: 7728 x 5368
  • Pixel Size: 1.4um

Nokia's sample images:

ISO 800 - 5.0MP, 4:3
ISO 114 - 5.3MP, 16:9
ISO 58 - 38.4MP, 4:3 note the extremely close focus distance required to offer such shallow depth-of-field
I own it
I want it
I had it
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Total comments: 667
By Hump (Feb 27, 2012)

Impressive. Seems like a great way to get rid of unwanted noise. I wonder how (camera) companies will react.

By Undah (Feb 27, 2012)

Can't wait to get one! Even if it doesn't officially get released here, I'll be buying from Europe. It has all the cell technologies so will work anywhere in the world. Nokia is back!

Here's the offical release:

By diforbes (Feb 27, 2012)

It's the end of the world as we know it . . . :-)

Antonio Rojilla
By Antonio Rojilla (Feb 27, 2012)

Too bad it won't use Android. Not that I don't like Symbian, but with the just announced Ubuntu for Android and this cameraphone I'd be in heaven.

BTW, it is taking too much for the big camera companies to integrate a mobile OS -Android, Symbian, Maemo or whatever it is called now- in at least some of their models. How come you can't put this Nokia's phone hardware -antenna, Wi-Fi, GPS- inside a D800??? There should be space somewhere...

Rage Joe
By Rage Joe (Feb 28, 2012)

You should check the new Nokia Belle OS version, as it is something else than the earlier ones, pretty much comparable with Ardroid.

1 upvote
By Nismo350Z (Feb 28, 2012)

Having a nice interface is almost pointless if there aren't enough apps to run on it. The camera is nice, but the device as a whole is still a phone and mini-computer.

Comment edited 4 minutes after posting
1 upvote
Jon Rty
By Jon Rty (Feb 28, 2012)

Having hundreds of thousand of apps is pointless. Having the apps you need is what matters, so it's a case to case matter. The OS is very capable, the UI quite nice, and it doesn't take long to check if the apps you need are there for Symbian.

Antonio Rojilla
By Antonio Rojilla (Feb 28, 2012)

Well, it seems some of you that replied to me (and whoever upvoted you) didn't read the part where I said that it is not that I don't like Symbian but that I would like it to be Android for the newly announced Ubuntu for Android... Which was half my comment.

I'm a Ubuntu user since 2004, that's why I want Ubuntu for Android (and this is how it is called, not Ubuntu for Symbian nor Ubuntu for iOS, so it must be Android, at least for now).

By Nismo350Z (Feb 29, 2012)

@Jon Rty
I said 'enough apps' and not the hundreds/thousands most people like you would be quick to say without reading carefully. A popular platform generally will have enough software developers interested in creating the apps you need. It's also inherent that there will be useless apps created.

By epdm2be (Feb 29, 2012)

@ Nismo350Z: Look even if you forget that this is a phone. As a pocket camera this device is very interesting. Because it has a large 'viewfinder' WITH a polarising filter (Clear Black Display). This is probably the most practical P&S and compact HD-video device to date.

@ Antonio Rojilla: Please stop drooling about Android. Nokia had Meego which is technically superior than Android and also Linux-based. I admit that they shouldn't have threwn out the baby with the bathwater but we'll never know why they took such draconian measures (to save the company).

Nonetheless. A full HD pocket vidcam with fantastic P&S features, polarised viewfinder, free worldwide GPS navigation and advanced audio-recorder. I also wonder what I can expect with Dolby Headphone technology. I mean perhaps this device might even turn out to be a superior MP3-player too :-)

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 50 seconds after posting
Antonio Rojilla
By Antonio Rojilla (Mar 1, 2012)

@epdm2be Please... learn to read! I said TWICE that it is not that I don't like Symbian BUT that I want Android for Ubuntu for Android. Ok, this is the third time... is it that hard to understand? Do you guys ever heard about reading comprehension? Amazing...

Brian Mosley
By Brian Mosley (Feb 27, 2012)

Well, the results speak for themselves. Very impressive.

1 upvote
By makofoto (Feb 27, 2012)

Wow ... ! I bought an iPhone 4S just because of it's camera ... but hmmm ... I really don't like the Nokia's OS

By epdm2be (Feb 29, 2012)

Get over it. All these phone OSes don't matter as long as they do what you want. With regards to 'the Nokia OS' their latest iteration is completely different than an admittedly ultracheap Nokia 5230. Especially the N97 made a bad reputation for Nokia but from the N8 onwards both the devices and the OS are pretty good (with some nice surprises like FM-transmitter, free worldwide navigation, 2-way callrecording, full bluetoothtransfers+NFC etc...)

By Sosua (Feb 27, 2012)

The future is coming...

Hopefully the sensor finds its way into ios and Android phones.

By epdm2be (Feb 29, 2012)

I doubt it. Unless Nokia sells it to other parties.

The 'others' will however come soon with 16Mpixel phones. Either way, as has been written here. It does mean the end of cheap compact P&S camera's. Because no matter what smartphone you'll choose. Even downscaling a 16MP pic from a future HTC or Samsung phone might give good results.

The fact is that 2012 will bring the true convergence of multimedia-phone and camera (both still and Full HD). That's not bad, isn't it?

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
By intruder61 (Feb 27, 2012)

perhaps Nokia can sell this sensor to Fuji to put it in the X10 :)

By Mssimo (Feb 27, 2012)

but they would have to change the firmware so that the white orbs show up the same way.

J Patagonia
By J Patagonia (Feb 27, 2012)

Fantastic idea!

By keeponkeepingon (Feb 27, 2012)

One word.... WANT!

Any chance this will cross the pond to the USA any time soon?

1 upvote
By wallbergrep (Feb 27, 2012)

In the US you have to buy it over Amazon or some dealer contract free.

By Oelph (Feb 27, 2012)

Hurrah! Thank you for quickly covering this exciting announcement. I'd love to see something like the Olympus XZ-1 use this technology with the control ring around the lens used for 'zooming'.

I was coming to the end of my contract with my Android phone, contemplating getting an iPhone 4s as a pocket cam, but this looks so much better.

Comment edited 46 seconds after posting
Bill McClung
By Bill McClung (Feb 27, 2012)

One word ........ WOW!

Total comments: 667