It’s amazing how much cell-phone cameras have changed over the years. A decade ago, I excitedly purchased my first phone with a built-in camera, the Sony Ericsson T610, whose 0.1-megapixel camera took tiny, grainy color photos that seemed awesome at the time. A day ago, I started playing around with the Nokia Lumia 1020, which includes a staggering 41-megapixel sensor capable of snapping sharp, bright, intensely detailed images.
The Lumia 1020 ($300 with a two-year contract), runs Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 operating software and will be available Friday in the U.S. through AT&T. It’s actually the second Nokia smartphone with this size camera lens, but it’s the first clearly intended for the U.S. market due to its wireless carrier subsidization.
My quick take? While it’s far from the best all-around smartphone, it should appeal to consumers interested in ditching a point-and-shoot camera, and should inspire other manufacturers to roll out similarly high-resolution lenses in future phones.
The camera is certainly the first thing you notice when you turn the handset over. It was all I could focus on, as its components, which include a Carl Zeiss lens and bright xenon flash, protrude significantly from the rear of the handset. It’s encased in a raised, flat-topped black circle about 1.5 inches in diameter. This means the phone sits awkwardly when you place it on its back, propped up somewhat by the camera bulge.
On the front, the Lumia 1020 has a bright, large (4.5 inches in diameter) touch screen, which looks great straight on but is difficult to see properly from some side angles—which may make it harder to show your photos to friends on the phone itself.
The included Nokia Pro Camera app has all the basic features you’d expect, allowing you to adjust light sensitivity, exposure, focus, shutter speed, flash, and white balance. You can adjust these settings easily by tapping icons at the top of the screen to pull up a circular slider control, or swipe a finger to the left of the virtual shutter button to pull up all the settings at once within concentric circles.
Despite the wow factor of a 41-megapixel sensor, the phone doesn’t actually take 41-megapixel images. Rather, it takes 34-megapixel photos in a 16:9 aspect ratio, and 38-megapixel photos in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Nokia explains in a white paper that the corners of the round camera sensor aren’t used to capture images in part because they aren’t necessary to take images in either rectangular aspect ratio.
Perhaps in an effort to cut down on shaky images, there’s only 3x digital zoom, meaning you can’t zoom in all that far before taking a shot. Fortunately, after taking a photo you can get right in there and check out extremely fine details. Sometimes this is a good thing: I took some beautifully clear shots of flies flitting around flowers that I wouldn’t have been able to capture with my iPhone. Other times, it’s not so great: I don’t really need to see my individual pores or under-eye lines in a photo.
Taking numerous high-resolution shots in a row can be a tedious process, as the phone needs time to process each one. And while the resulting files can be fairly large, there’s 32 gigabytes of included storage space on the phone, and users get another seven gigabytes of online storage.
One of the biggest annoyances I encountered was that the handset often did a poor job of automatically determining the best white-balance setting. Both inside my office, which has a combination of fluorescent lighting and filtered skylights, and outside on a cloudy day, auto-balanced images often looked too yellow.
I had good luck taking photos in low light, though, where I captured some fairly bright, colorful photos that didn’t look washed out by the flash.
Of course, the Lumia 1020 is also a smartphone, so it does have plenty of other features that seem decent at first glance. Windows Phone 8 is a solid, feature-filled, easy-to-navigate operating system, and felt fairly speedy overall. The phone itself felt sturdy (though admittedly large in my small hands).
But at $300—much more than you’d pay for many Android or iPhone models—you have to offer something really special to convince customers to shell out. Most of us will be content to stick with less expensive, more well-rounded handsets. Yet for a select few shoppers, the high-resolution camera on the Lumia 1020 will make it worth the cost.