Nokia Brings A Camera To A Smartphone Fight

Nokia today revealed its next flagship smartphone, the Lumia 920. It's critical to the company's return to relevance and big money-making. And the secret ingredient in its sales sauce might not be what you think.

It's sporting Windows Phone 8, which has wowed critics and done a lot to remind us that there's more to life than iOS. But its clean-designed predecessor, Windows Phone 7, didn't really attract buyers by the tens of millions, nor did it dent the smartphone dominance of iOS and Google. The Windows 8 phone device could benefit from Microsoft's bigger transformation, but it's hard to imagine that putting much of a dent in Apple or Android, either.

Then there's the beautiful design, which will do a lot to convince buyers it's worth their dollars, and its neat tricks such as wireless charging, but, remember, the Palm Pre had an admirable OS and UI, lovely design, and wireless charging too, and none of that stopped you from just now thinking "Palm what, now?"

Instead what Nokia seems to be banking on is its camera. We all use our phones to snap and share photos now, rather than carrying compact cameras everywhere. The compact camera market is very ill but far from dead, and Samsung's rather desperate Galaxy Camera shows us how the tech will live on for a few years yet. But think about the last hundred casual photos you took: Most of them will be via your phone, we bet. Professional users are trying this trick too. And Flickr statistics show that the iPhone 4 is still vying for the most popular device used to take pictures on the service, competing with serious DSLR cameras.

So Nokia's bringing its PureView system to make the camera on the new Lumia 920 outperform its peers. Rather intelligently, Nokia's noted it's not all about megapixels—we've long pointed out that megapixels are a complete distraction. Instead it's all about capturing light, which is all that the very best cameras do well.

Nokia's used a larger sensor for the 8 megapixel shooter in the phone, so it performs better in lower light (more area per pixel to capture the photons shooting out from the scene in front of the camera) and should have a lower digital noise performance. It has floating optics to make image stabilization better than the mere digital trick that some image stabilization systems use, often to less satisfying results. Overall Nokia notes the camera captures "five to ten times" the amount of light than any peer smartphone camera, which means its images will be really a knockout.

And since we often use our smartphone cameras to capture those fleeting moments of joy in the bar or nightclub, or at sunset (check out Instagram's sunset shots...) or in the low light setting of a child blowing out their birthday cake candles, then the PureView system is aiming at the right idea.

But will it tempt consumers? Will they line up in electronics stores and listen to a sales person talk about the iPhone, the top line Samsung, or HTC Android units and the Lumia ... and among all the data about them (screen tech, operating system, the number of apps available, storage, UI, OS and other perks like NFC, wireless charging or its own-brand maps solution) and choose Nokia's because it has a great camera?

The PureView system is indeed a great innovation, and a welcome one, but it's an innovation on a subsystem of a device that already fits well within the lines of an established model. Nokia's added a number of other tweaks alongside the camera, including its City Lens augmented reality system, its own maps, and wireless charging. But these are also subsystem innovations, and Apple, Google, and the rest are also innovating the subsystems of their already successful phones all the time.

Don't get us wrong—the Lumia 920, along with its simpler partner the 820, are slick, admirable devices with innovative features. Nokia's even trying a little hyperbolic PR by calling them the "most innovative smartphones." But the big questions is whether that innovation is doled out in the right portions to the functions consumers care about.

[Image: Flickr user bareform]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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9 Comments

  • Vandenhuevelvicky

    Nielsen Online SiteCensus AJAXaub niet genoeg bij me weg gehaaldaub

  • ritrits

    The Image is an Iphone4 in the hope that if not better atleast it could be like Iphone4...For me there used to be a brand called NOKIA...

  • Roydell2b

    The author of article works for Apple.

    Nokia's phone might not make a dent
    In the Android dominated smart phone market or even IPhone.

    Android is the dominant mobile platform not iOS. He writes as If apple is dominant.

  • ritrits

    Its simple, people who have used disgusting phones like N97 and N97mini will not bet again with their money when there are other practical better phones with no hanging, no dead battery and no freezing touch screens...

  • Saurabhr8here

    Had this been an iPhone, everyone would have been going crazy over the 'new' camera technology and the author would've predicted ultimate success. Since its a non-Apple phone, the statements come with 'ifs and buts'. "Its a great technology, but ...". Its a shame :(. And FYI, I use an iPhone 4S.

  • SparkstoneTechnology

    I completely agree - why is everyone so down on Nokia?  -  I would have snapped up their other Pureview offering (the 808) had it not been for the outdated Symbian operating system.  But they've made a bold move now by going all out on the Windows OS and with their own team of UI guys adding to the mix, I really think they're on to a winner. 

    I'm fed up with all these so called tech expert journalists slating Nokia, and when they also talk about the lack of apps available on the Windows OS my response would be, look at the quality of the apps that you can have on WP compared to most of the cr*p that is available on the Android Market. 

    With Samsung and HTC also releasing Windows Phones, this Xmas will see an explosion of WP8 devices on the market and app developers will not want to miss the boat, particularly as their apps will work on Windows Surface and Windows 8 desktop machines as well.

  • Nerdscentral

    People are down on Nokia because it is using Windows 8 - simple really. Windows is not sexy.