Having set up expectations that Google's HDR+ computational photography in the new Pixel flagship can be considered 'PureView take II', or thereabouts, I thought it time to put this to the test. So I took three PureView flagships from various eras: Nokia 808, Lumia 1020 and Lumia 950 XL, and pitched them against the new Google Pixel XL. The aim, away from trivial sunny shots (hey, suits me, this is the UK in October!), is to really stretch the pixel combination systems, in reducing noise and finding detail and colour.
Recent Features - Hardware
Although it's somewhat galling to read of imaging advancements in the smartphone world that aren't being made by Nokia engineers huddled in a chilly Finland, it's worth putting into context where smartphone imaging seems to be settling and where this fits into the existing spectrum of phone cameras, with specific reference to classic Nokias of the past. You see, powered by ever faster chipsets, 'computational photography' is indeed where imaging has ended up and, on the whole, for the benefit of all.
The recent stories surrounding the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, with it catching fire and even exploding, ostensibly due to over-ambitious use of space inside the phone applying pressure to the internal Li-Ion battery, caused me to mull over features in many past smartphones that seem - in hindsight - designed to specifically avoid a 'Note 7' style Lithium accident. Using the example of the Nokia 808 PureView and Lumia 640 XL, I show how such an accident is far, far less likely.
Did you know that your Lumia smartphone had an equaliser built-in? Possibly. But did you know that a) it doesn't only work with Groove Music, it works system wide, and b) it also works with the speaker on your phone and not just headphones? While this wouldn't be that notable on phones with a decent enough speaker, the Lumia 950 XL, in particular, has an unpleasantly tinny component (I went into detail here). Begging the question, can a little tweaking save the day?
Having already looked at the zoom facility in the new Apple iPhone 7 Plus, compared to the PureView zoom in the existing Lumia 1020 and 950 smartphones, the next logical (and, seemingly, much anticipated) comparison is to look at photos taken without using the small aperture telephoto lens. In other words, does the regular iPhone 7 camera trump that in the existing world champion, the Microsoft Lumia 950? The raw physics and specs suggest that, even though it's newer, it's going to have a hard time.
Although at first glance this is something of a mismatch, at least in terms of mindshare in the mainstream, with a little bit of a trailing wind and some update-love from HP, the Windows 10 Mobile-powered Elite X3 could well be a contender, albeit not in the High Street for consumers. But this is AAWP and as a Windows 10 Mobile enthusiast you're probably not bothered about buying your next phone in a shop? In which case here's my hands-on head to head with these two latest high spec offerings - the Apple iPhone 7 Plus and the HP Elite X3.
With the Nokia 808 and Lumia 1020, the way of the future was set in terms of handling zoom on a smartphone - do it digitally, whether by smart cropping into a high resolution array as on the Nokia pair, or by using a high dynamic range sensor and some really smart interpolative zoom, as on the likes of the recent Samsung Galaxy flagships. But along comes Apple (with some ex-Nokia help) to break the rules, using a two-lens, two-sensor solution in the iPhone 7 Plus - one of which is a 2x telephoto. Gulp.
Having complained about the limited capabilities of the HP Elite X3 camera in my initial tests, and having wondered where the claimed '16MP' camera resolution was, a little hardware delving reveals that this hardware may be constrained by the optics specified by HP. Or you could just say that the original figure was exagerated - though I do have a well known precedent for this!
I've done numerous pixel-level image quality features in the past on AAWP - but I look at images at 'social' resolutions much more rarely. In this case, a family day out to Hughendon Manor, taking both the established Lumia 1020 and the newer Lumia 950 along for the ride. The mission? Not to shoot images and look at pixels, but to quickly capture a wide range of subjects and lighting in the most pleasing manner at the Manor. (Ahem - I'll get my coat....)
As an industry watcher, the world of smartphones has never been more competitive or better value. It's also duller than ditchwater. And, apparently, growth has now stopped and sales are in decline... With IFA 2016 just over in Germany, where yet another batch of almost identical 5" touch slabs were announced, I'm tempted to suggest that now really is the time to look for character in our smartphones. Where are the USPs? Are they now relegated to older, almost retro, devices, while new products fall over themselves to stay anonymous?