From January to June 2013, Japanese manufacturers shipped 30 million digital cameras — 43 percent less than in the same period last year. And compact camera sales fell 50 percent over the same period. Sales are plummeting because more of us use our smartphones to take pictures. The smartphone camera is always with us and it’s simple to share the results in seconds by cellular or WiFi.
So not surprisingly, the camera is becoming the next area of competition for the smartphone manufacturers. After all, we’ve had competition in screen size and resolution, the operating system, the number of apps, and battery life. So improving the camera is becoming a clear way of getting your product to stand apart, for at least a few months.
Nokia has been touting its new Pure View camera technology that claims to be so good, that it says you can leave your regular camera at home. I’ve been trying the new Nokia 1020 smartphone that incorporates this technology. So just how good is it and can it really replace your stand-alone camera?
The phone is available exclusively from AT&T and costs $300, the same as other premium phones with a two-year contract. The phone looks much like other Lumina models running Microsoft’s Phone 7. It has a sleek, modern look, with a smooth and solid matte plastic case with a solid premium feel. It’s available in white, black or yellow. It has a superb 4.5-inch Amoled display with a non-replaceable battery. It’s one of the few displays that works with gloved hands.
What’s unique to the 1020 is a black circular aluminum bulge on its back, about the diameter and thickness of a silver dollar, and it houses the camera, including its lens, shutter and a conventional xenon camera flash. You enter the camera mode simply by holding down the camera button on the side of the phone.
The camera has a larger than normal sensor for a phone and a six-element f/2.2 lens to provide better sharpness. The camera takes two images at once, a 5 megapixel and a 38 oversampled megapixel. The latter is not equivalent to a super high res DSLR image. Nokia uses the high resolution to over sample the image and reconstruct an image with larger and fewer pixels. The result is greater sharpness than other phone cameras, including when you zoom. The camera also compensates for shake or movement during exposure.
I tested the camera by shooting scores of images, mostly outdoors of distant buildings and landscapes with lots of fine detail. I enlarged the images and examined the small details and compared them to images from my iPhone 5 and from my Leica D-Lux 5, a premium pocketsize camera that’s equivalent to the Panasonic LX-3. The results, while impressive, were far less sharp and less grainy than the stand alone camera.
But the 1020 images were still sharp and crisp, with vibrant colors, and better than any other phone camera I‘ve used. As good as the iPhone 5 is, the Nokia 1020 was substantially sharper and worked especially well under dim lighting, although some of the flash images were slightly red. The 1020’s performance is more equivalent to a decent $100 to $150 digital camera, but with some limitations on flexibility, such as zooming, flash range and ease of use.
The camera also lets you make manual adjustments for flash, focus, ISO, shutter speed, white balance and exposure, using a series on-screen pointers moved by your finger along arcs, each representing a variable. But one of the annoyances was that my finger often touched the part of the display with the Bing search soft button, bringing up the browser while I was trying to take a picture. This should be automatically turned off when you are in camera mode. Also, the method of reviewing the images is less intuitive than on Android or the iPhone.
The images are generally larger in size than other phones, which means you are more likely to tap into your carrier’s data allotment, if you choose to send or move them in their hi-res mode by cellular. Instead, I used Bluetooth to transfer images between the phone and my computer.
Other than the camera, the phone is much like other Nokia Lumina models, which I like a lot, and has several excellent Nokia-developed apps. The Phone 7 OS is easy to learn and fun to use. Adding such a high quality camera makes the 1020 one of the best choices for a phone with a high performance camera. And, yes, Nokia has delivered on its promise to provide a built-in camera that replaces a stand-alone camera, but I would qualify that to an entry-level model.
Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer" published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to email@example.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.
Caption: You enter the camera mode on the Nokia 1020 simply by holding down the camera button on the side of the phone.