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Do you need 41 megapixels? Our Nokia Lumia 1020 camera review
Peter M Ferenczi | Published: Aug 30, 2013 at 16:35 UTC368
Design & Hardware
Any discussion of the 1020 has to start with the 41 million photosites that Nokia has packed onto its sensor. Historically, camera phone improvements have been a question of increasing resolution within a relatively fixed sensor size (very small) while improving the sensor technology enough with each generation to offset the pixel-level loss of quality due to shrinking photosites. Nokia bucks the trend by greatly increasing sensor size: at 1/1.5 inches, the 1020’s sensor area is roughly quadruple that of most phones (though it’s a bit smaller than the mammoth in its predecessor, the 808). It’s larger than the sensors in many enthusiast compact cameras. All that sensor acreage means the 1020’s photosites are actually approximately the same size as those of the Samsung Galaxy S4’s well-regarded camera, despite the Nokia’s stratospheric resolution.
What’s all that resolution good for? Obviously, it means the 1020 can capture a lot of detail, but that’s not the biggest story here. The 1020 can save both the full resolution image and a downsampled 5MP version that’s still plenty big for digital sharing and most prints (the 808 forced you to choose which to keep). Because each of those five million pixels is the average of seven actual photosites, the output is higher quality than what you’d expect from a straight 5MP sensor. That is especially noticeable at higher ISOs.
But Nokia also takes advantage of its big, high-resolution sensor to offer a true novelty: a digital zoom that doesn’t suck. “Digital zoom” traditionally means cropping the image and then upsampling it to the camera’s native resolution. Since you can’t create image data from thin air, heavy upsampling results in the soft, detail-impoverished images we’ve come to expect from digital zooming. The 1020’s high native resolution means that even with some cropping (zoom) applied, the image is still downsampled through most of the zoom range. You get a 2.7X zoom ratio (a 74mm equivalent in 4:3 mode) before the cropped image hits 5MP. We've had a closer look at the performance of the Lumia 1020's digital zoom in the image quality section of this review.
The 1020’s true multi-aspect ratio implementation means it records a wider image in 16:9 mode than in the more common 4:3 ratio, giving the wide shots a more panoramic feel. This also explains why the maximum resolutions (38MP in 4:3, 34MP in 16:9) are lower than the total resolution of the sensor — the camera never uses the whole sensor at the same time. Nokia is the only phone maker we know of that uses multi-aspect ratio sensors: everyone else simply crops a native 4:3 sensor to get “wider” formats that aren’t really wider, just shorter.
Speaking of wide, the 1020’s lens manages an unusually wide field of view. There’s been a general trend toward wider lenses on phones, with many models coming in at or just above a 28mm equivalent. This is already pretty wide, and is better suited for landscapes than flattering portraits. In 4:3 mode (the old TV aspect ratio that’s native on pretty much every other phone camera and most dedicated compact cameras), the 1020 hits a slightly wider 27mm equivalent. But in 16:9 mode, Nokia’s lens reaches out to a positively panoramic 25mm equivalent, delivering an angle of view wider than most any phone on the market. People who always want to cram more in the frame will love this. Ordinarily, we’d now insert a warning about how this wide angle lens is less ideal for photographers who like to get in close with their subject, particularly portraits, but the 1020’s zoom makes this complaint moot.
The size of the 1020’s sensor should ensure a substantial advantage over the competition in low light situations, but that’s not the only trick up the imaging block’s sleeve. It also features an image stabilized lens that helps soak up hand movement, increasing the odds of avoiding blur when the camera has to use lower shutter speeds that would otherwise invite unsteady hands to ruin a shot. Nokia’s 920 was the first phone with true optical image stabilization, and though the similarly-equipped HTC One arrived soon after, this remains a rare feature. When it works well, it’s like having an invisible tripod.
The 1020’s fast F2.2 lens also helps in the low light stakes. It’s a negligible quarter-stop slower than the fastest F2.0 phone lenses. Happily, this isn’t quite the distinction it once was, as more phone makers deploy faster lenses for a low-light advantage with no performance penalties.
The primacy of the 1020’s camera is evident in the phone’s design. The lens, flash and focus light rise out of the back of the device on a round protuberance of black plastic. This imaging mesa is centerline-mounted toward the top of the body, so your fingers won’t get in the way of either the lens or the flash. The bulge shouldn’t bother most people, but it does prevent the phone from lying flat on a table and makes it a snugger fit in a tight pocket. In tight jeans, it can look like you’re packing a miniature tin of chewing tobacco.
The 1020’s design is otherwise familiar to anyone who’s handled a Lumia phone. A plastic (or as Nokia prefers, polycarbonate) unibody with rounded sides and flat-topped ends feels robust and high quality while making for a fairly secure grip. In addition to more staid black and white body color options, the 1020 comes in a yellow variant that, with the black screen bezel and imaging bump, produces a dramatic hornet color scheme. This color option isn’t the best for low-profile shooting, but it does look pretty cool (these colors also give the 1020 a submersible vibe, but don’t be fooled). Nokia claims that because its polycarbonate bodies are made of colored material rather than being painted or plated, scratches won’t show as much. Our yellow 1020 didn’t acquire any visible scars during the review period: that doesn’t necessarily prove anything (we don’t drop test, at least not on purpose), but the theory makes sense.
The volume rocker and power button are on the right side of the phone. For mobile photographers the most important button is the shutter release, something many phones omit all together. The 1020 happily features Nokia’s usual two-stage shutter button, which allows you to half-press to lock focus and then squeeze all the way to take a picture with minimal lag.
While the 1020’s photographic ergonomics are pretty good, you can turn the phone into something that handles better than many dedicated cameras with the optional grip accessory. For $80 you get an eminently grab-able grip that clips onto the phone, adding a larger shutter button and an integrated battery that substantially extends operating life.
On the one hand, we love this thing: it makes the 1020 feel like a real camera. On the other hand, well, it makes the 1020 feel like a real camera. With the grip attached, the phone is larger and bulkier than many compact cameras. It’ll fit in a jacket or cargo pocket, but it certainly isn’t riding in your jeans. Purse-carriers will be less bothered: the grip adds size, but not much weight. The other consideration is that while the 1020 is still perfectly able to take and make calls with the grip attached, you’ll look pretty silly talking to it (and it’s a bit of a chore to get the phone in and out, so you can’t count on popping the grip off in jiffy). If none of that dissuades you, it’s safe to say that you’ll really enjoy using the 1020 with the grip. But we think that in this case, “you” is a niche market.
The 1020’s front sports a Gorilla Glass-covered 4.5 inch display. It’s amazing that this screen is on the small side in comparison with the titanic displays that are becoming the norm in the Android world, but it’s still plenty big. Its 1280 x 768 resolution produces a pixel density of 334 ppi: this is a little better, both in terms of overall resolution and pixel density, than Apple’s Retina displays, but it falls short of the full-HD screens that have recently entered the market. In real world use, the difference is slight but noticeable in aliasing around text.
In fact, a harder-to-quantify display feature has an arguably greater impact on everyday usability: sunlight visibility. In this respect, the 1020 is a champ, retaining remarkable readability and color saturation on glaring summer days. Ironically, the screen’s image quality seems to drop off in very low light: whatever technique Nokia uses to conserve power in dim ambient lighting gives the display a strangely grainy look.