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Hands-on with Nokia’s 1020 camera killer

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Nokia launched their latest contender for reclaiming market respect on Thursday. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK spent time with the camera killer.

Can a camera save Nokia? At the launch of the new Nokia Lumia 1020 in New York on Thursday, CEO Stephen Elop declared that the device ‚”will bring new meaning to pictures and continues to strengthen Nokia’s leadership in imaging‚”.

As Samsung did with the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4 in New York just four months ago, Nokia made sure the phone was poised for release within days, rather than keeping the market waiting. The further benefit of such readiness is that demo units are readily available for trying out at the launch, and it was possible to stress test a device for several hours on Thursday.

The first and most obvious finding: the camera destroys all in its path. All competitors, that is. While on stage during the launch, Elop cheekily showed a low-light action image as captured by an S4, an iPhone 5 and a Lumia 1020. No prizes for guessing which one was absurdly superior. But then, that’s what one would expect from a showcased demo at a launch.

An hour later, it was possible to make the comparison objectively. In a darkened room with a hip-hop performer making his moves for the camera, I took a flash photo with my S4 and with a Lumia 1020. The Samsung phone gamely captured a slightly blurred image of the dancer perhaps a little better than the version shown by Elop earlier. However, the Nokia rendition of the same scene was absurdly good in comparison. It was as if the dancer had stood still to pose for the pic under lights.

Later, under normal indoor lighting, the Nokia again captured details that had not been noticed before the photo was taken and that were entirely invisible in the S4 version.

To be fair, the S4 is not marketed for having the best camera on a phone, whereas that is the core selling point of the 1020. But the comparisons are still deeply startling.

What makes it all possible? The phone offers a second generation 41 Megapixel sensor, along with Nokia’s PureView technology. The first generation version, the 808 PureView, used Nokia’s old Symbian operating system (OS) and, to accommodate the lens, bulged out to 13,9mm thick. The Lumia 1020 has been slimmed down to 10,4mm.

As with every flagship smartphone, this one also offers a new set of image editing and effects features, but with a difference. Nokia Pro Camera allows the user to zoom into a scene, take a photo, and then – after capturing the image zoom out of the image and reframe it to take into account peripheral scenery that had been missed during the original zoom.

It sounds like trickery, but the experience of actually doing it was more like magic. Less magical and more practical is the ability to change the settings while framing an image, and being able to preview what the image will look like with the changed settings. This allows for near-professional setting up of a shot before it’s taken.

The outstanding quality of both images and videos is made possible, in part, by a process called oversampling, which means that multiple versions of an image can be extracted from the captured scene. Some would compare this to high dynamic range (HDR) used in other flagship phones to combine different versions of the same image, but the end result is dramatically superior on the Lumia.

Oversampling also makes possible a new feature, ‚”dual capture‚”, which creates a hi-resolution and lo-res version of the same image one 38MP and the other 5MP, the latter more appropriate for mailing and sharing.

Is the phone more than a camera?

It shines in specific categories, like sound. As opposed to many high-end phones pushing the quality of pre-recorded music ever higher, the 1020 has also pushed the microphone to a new level. A comparison test with a live band in a small, soundproofed room showed that the S4 simply could not compete in capturing the music.

However, the phone still suffers under the sometimes baffling transition between apps that the Windows Phone 8 operating system (OS) requires.

BlackBerry has shown how it should work with the ‚”Flow‚” functionality in the BlackBerry 10 OS. Samsung has packaged a wider range of compelling new features in the S4, and offers easier access to a wider range of general settings.

But the moment the Lumia 1020 is used for its camera capability, it’s in a league of its own.

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