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Technology / Software

Nokia’s 41mp smartphone camera: hype over substance

Of all the announcements made at Mobile World Congress so far, Nokia’s Pureview 808 camera-based smart phone has drawn the most interest. A pretty doddering smartphone spec-wise, it has nonetheless created a buzz surrounding the 41-megapixel camera attached to it.

For some reason, this has caused hyperbole to run off the chart amongst technology journalists who should know better. Nokia’s marketing machine has pulled a bigger coup than Steve Jobs in his heyday.

So why is the hype unjustified?

1) Nokia’s new Pureview 808 smartphone’s camera has a 41megapixel sensor. It goes on sale on in April for around £400. Canon’s new 1DX professional SLR camera goes on sale in March for around £5,000 (not including lenses). It has an 18-megapixel sensor. It is probably the most high end piece of photographic equipment you can buy outside of a science lab.

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2) Nokia’s Pureview 808 mobile phone is equipped with a sensor size of 25mm x 12.7mm. The Canon 1DX will have a sensor size of 36 mm x 24mm.

3) If you like maths, divide the megapixels by the sensor area. Then think about the physics of light and photography.

4) It’s best we don’t go into details concerning the optics or electronics of the two devices. One device is a serious camera and the other is a phone.

For those that are a bit confused, and still reading, we are referring to a phone company, Nokia, taking the mickey – the final punch line in the long running megapixel joke in the camera industry.

The average consumer barely needs 8mp in their camera. Anything above that is pointless. You could argue that even professional photographers don’t need much more than 10-15mp.

The megapixel race kicked off at the turn of the century as a marketing ploy for camera makers to provide a point of difference for their devices to the casual consumer who has no knowledge of camera technology.

In actuality, the glass in the optics, the quality of the sensor and the electronics behind the processing of the image are what produces the decent image – but these things are too difficult to explain to the customer quickly looking for a £100 Cybershot to take on holiday. A simple number, much as MHz was once used to differentiate PCs, is much easier.

Cameras on smartphones are for amateurs. That is a fact. A 41 megapixel smartphone camera will still be of no use to pros and is over-the-top for amateurs. 41 megapixels does not make the image look any better than a Lumia 800 or an iPhone 4S (the two camera phones I currently rate the highest).

I am perfectly comfortable sitting here – without having so much as touched the device, let alone reviewed it – that it will take a picture no better than any decent smartphone on the market – and probably worse; given the unnecessary complexity of the non-specialised electronics Nokia will have had to include.

The laws of physics dictate this is so. Light passing through the tiny phone-camera lenses on the front of the camera (admittedly Carl Zeiss lens, but still tiny), hitting the tiny phone-based sensor with the ridiculously densely packed pixel count means it can’t be good. It will be a noisy, low quality mess.

As Nokia’s own whitepaper puts it:

"The main way to build smaller cameras over the years has been to reduce the pixel size. These have shrunk just over the past 6 years from 2.2 microns, to 1.75 microns, to 1.4 microns (which is where most compact digital cameras and smartphones are today). Some new products are on the way with 1.1 micron pixels. But here’s the problem. The smaller the pixel, the less photons each pixel is able to collect. Less photons, less image quality. There’s also more visual noise in images/videos, and various other knock on effects. In our experience, when new, smaller pixel size sensors are first released, they tend to be worse than the previous generation. While others jump in, banking on pixel numbers instead of performance, we prefer to skip early iterations."

Nokia of course claims to have solved this problem. A problem that none of the dedicated camera makers have been able to solve over the last 10 years.

Apparently we are expected to believe that a mobile phone maker has trumped them all with what Nokia calls ‘pixel oversampling’. As Nokia puts it: ‘Pixel oversampling combines many pixels to create a single (super) pixel.’

Wait a minute – combining several pixels into one larger pixel…. why not just lower the megapixel count?

Nokia claims it is so the image can be zoomed in digitally without the requirement for optical zoom in the lenses itself.

Think about the logic here – Nokia have ramped up the megapixel count on their sensor, so they can lower it again through post processing by the phone’s hardware. Is this a company trying to make a device as difficult to build as possible?

At the most basic level of construction logic, Nokia isn’t a camera maker. Canon and Nikon have been doing this stuff for 50 years, and foresaw no need to go to the heights of 41 megapixels for their specialised, photography only devices. Nor did any of their rivals in the compact market.

It’s not that these companies have been caught napping by Nokia’s ‘thinking outside the box’. They are not sitting in their offices in panic mode, humiliated by the fact that they have been upstaged by a Finnish phone company.

Nikon and Canon spend millions per year on R&D to ensure their devices remain the elite. They’ve considered this megapixel vs. photo quality problem daily, for more than 10 years. They’ve looked at it from the SLR level. They’ve looked at it with compact digital cameras. They have no doubt looked at the smartphone market in the same way.

Smartphones, and especially the iPhone 4 have indeed stolen some compact camera market share; scaring the death out of the compact camera makers. The iPhone 4S’ photo quality, while poor by stand-alone camera standards, is enough for most users – plus it is combined with GPS and internet functionality which allows easy social photo sharing.

Indeed, these features have started to reverse-pollinate their way into the digital camera market. So yes, there is a market, perhaps, for a cross-over high end camera-phone – relatively speaking. Nokia learned that with its own legendary Nokia N8 – a phone famous for the quality of its camera and still in use by many aficionados today.

But let’s get back to the practicalities of the Pureview 808, assuming it works as Nokia claims it will.

As a rough guide (obviously settings can be changed on any device) an 8 megapixel image is around a 3.5MB JPEG file. This would mean each image taken with the Pureview 808 would be around 15-20MB. 10 photos are then 200MB, and so on.

Who wants giant JPEG files of their children at the beach, or a night on the town, especially if they don’t look any better than the 3 megabyte pictures? The average user now has to buy photo editing software to downscale these photos to 300kb so they can email their photos to friends.

Fortunate then that the hard disk is 16GB – expandable further with microSD cards. microSD also reminds you who its aimed at – its a smartphone first and a camera second. Most cameras use compact flash and full size SD cards.

Nokia now claims these files will only end up being saved at around 8 megapixels – which then begs the question again – why go past 8 megapixels in the first place?

As I mentioned earlier, I doubt photography aficionado’s will go for the device – not just because of its technology limitations, but because for £400 you can actually buy a mid to low-end SLR. Hell, you can buy 2 dedicated, high spec, compact cameras for that price.

I could go on about its capabilities as a phone – and about how multi-tasking devices never function as well as specialised devices. But unfortunately its phone functionality was hardly a focus of Nokia’s press conference – which doesn’t bode well. For a start, the phone is running Symbian, the operating system CEO Steven Elop described as ‘a burning platform’ last year, and which has been dumped in favour of Windows Phone. This strikes me as bizarre.

This product stinks of a ‘proof of concept’ tech demo – if it hadn’t received a release date and some pricing I would’ve assumed it would become vapourware. Perhaps it will only get a limited release.

If I was a Nokia shareholder and they were releasing this kind of niche-at-best product, I would be furious.Given how badly the company is performing as a smartphone manufacturer, it might be an idea for Nokia to start focusing on building better phones and getting Microsoft Windows Phone 7.5 Mango’s market share past 5%.

For Nokia’s whitepaper click here
This article is from the CBROnline archive: some formatting and images may not be present.