Lumia 1020, a Great Camera Grafted to an Oddball Phone

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For years, every decent photo from a cellphone has earned the same faint praise: "That's a great picture! You know, for a cellphone."

The mediocrity of cellphone pictures hasn't stopped us from hitting our phone's shutter button, of course. Every year, we take billions of photos with our phones, often choosing them over powerful cameras to record even important life events. The cellphone's handiness seems to excuse a long list of photographic disappointments: feeble sensors, no zoom, no real flash, no ability to freeze action and heartbreaking low-light graininess.

Well, good news: Little by little, the world's electronics companies are finally turning their attention to this problem. Some of them try to graft cellphones onto cameras; others try to jam real cameras onto cellphones.

Nokia has taken the latter approach with its new Lumia 1020 cellphone ($300 with a two-year AT&T contract, $660 without). It's a huge Windows Phone 8 phone with an absolutely amazing camera.

Now, Nokia says that this phone has a 41-megapixel camera. But if you think megapixels equal picture quality, you'll be sorely disappointed, both in this camera and any other. The megapixel count really means very little. There have been 2-megapixel cameras that took wonderful photos, and 20-megapixel cameras that took terrible ones. A high megapixel count is primarily a marketing gimmick.

And in any case, any picture you send wirelessly from this phone -- by e-mail, text message, Facebook, Twitter or whatever -- is actually a five-megapixel shot. Which, again, doesn't mean anything good or bad; five is plenty even for a big printout. (The only way to get the full-resolution originals off the phone is to connect the phone to a Mac or PC with a USB cable.)

The high megapixel count is useful in exactly one situation: when you want to crop out much of the scene. If you're starting with 41 megapixels, you can throw away a lot of a photo and still have enough resolution for a big print. The phone's Smart Cam app is made for just that: it lets you create photos from a piece of a larger scene.

In total, the 41-megapixel business is a lot of hot air. What Nokia should really be bubbling about instead is the superiority of this camera's sensor -- its digital film. Compared with the sensors in most phones, this one is huge and especially light sensitive.

You've never seen, or even contemplated, photos this good from a phone. They really are spectacular.

Most of the time, the photos are just as good as what you'd get from a $300 pocket camera (you know, the kind that doesn't also make phone calls). Often, they're better. The low-light shots seem like they came from some kind of "Mission: Impossible" spy gear. And if the subject is close to the lens, the background melts into a delicious blurriness, just as in professional portraits.

Sometimes, though, the photos are worse. Shutter lag (a delay after you press the shutter button) is a problem. There can be distortion at the outer edges of the frame. Some photos are a little "soft."

Furthermore, even this cameraphone doesn't have a true zoom; a three-inch telescoping lens would probably be uncomfortable in your palm when you're on a call. Instead, it has a 3X digital zoom: slide your finger up the screen to magnify the scene. You're not really zooming at all, of course -- just cropping into a smaller area -- but it works well enough.

On most cameras, what you get by way of a flash is really just an LED lamp that momentarily lights up for short-range illumination. On this one, you get an actual flash -- a mini strobe that works much better. Like most Windows Phone devices, this one has a physical shutter button on the edge, too, so it feels like you're holding a real camera. (For $80, you can buy a "camera grip" that adds an extra battery, a more convenient handle and a tripod socket.)

The 1020 also has a superb image stabilizer that comes in handy for videos. This phone's videos really are something: stable, bright, 1080p high definition with crisp stereo sound.

So yes, this is probably the best camera you've ever encountered on a phone. (Unless, of course, you're familiar with the Nokia PureView 808, a predecessor with a similarly great camera but on a now mostly defunct operating system called Symbian.)

But you do pay a price for having such photographic excellence on your phone. Three prices, actually. (And that's not counting the $300 price tag. The 1020 comes with 32 gigabytes of storage, same as the $300 top-of-the-line iPhone. But rival phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Moto X, in their 32-gig flavors, cost $50 less.)

First, this thing is huge: 5.1 by 2.8 by 0.4 inches. It accommodates a big, bright 4.5-inch screen, but still. You feel like you're holding a DVD box up to your ear.

The lens creates a bulge on the back, too. It's slight, but awkward enough to prevent the phone from lying flat. At least Nokia has made good use of this hulking shell by packing in a big battery. It easily gets you through a full day of regular smartphone tasks, although, alas, using the camera slurps down the juice much faster.

The second price you pay: complexity. Nokia has, in its inscrutable Finnish wisdom, decided to break up the camera app into three pieces. The main app is called Nokia Pro Cam. It puts controls like white balance, ISO (light sensitivity), exposure, shutter speed and manual focus (but, oddly, not aperture) right on the touch screen.

A second app, Nokia Smart Cam, performs editing stunts like choosing the best expression for one person in a group from several successive shots, or removing something that wandered into the background. You need a third, Creative Studio, to degrade your shot with color filters, à la Instagram.

The third and biggest price, though, is Windows Phone 8.

Don't misunderstand: Microsoft's phone operating system is gorgeous, logical, fluid and satisfying. You can use your own songs as ringtones; set up a protected mode for children; command the phone with your voice in a basic Siri-like way. Nokia's contributions include a terrific mapping and GPS app and something called Glance, which lets you check the time and battery charge by tapping the screen of the sleeping phone.

(AT&T makes a few gloppy contributions, too -- the usual junkware apps. Fortunately, you can delete them.)

Unfortunately, probably because Microsoft was so late to the app-phone party, Windows Phones are still considered oddballs. Windows Phone owners are generally very enthusiastic; unfortunately, you could probably hold the event in a church basement.

Alas, software companies don't always bother with also-ran phones. Microsoft says that 170,000 apps are available; they include many of the biggies (Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Gmail, Pandora, Evernote, YouTube and most airline apps).

But among the missing are Pinterest, Dropbox, Google Maps, Google Plus, HBO Go, Expedia, Yahoo Messenger, Flipboard, Photoshop Express and Citibank. There's no official Instagram app and no Vine app, either. (A good list of what's missing among the 100 top apps can be found at http://j.mp/13UTJZB.)

Will the chicken-and-egg story of Windows Phone have a happy ending? Nobody knows.

What is clear, though, is that the Nokia Lumia 1020 is a remarkable experiment. Its size and silhouette may make it a little too weird for most people, and Windows Phone's still struggling app catalog may turn off another swath of buyers.

But if you want good photographs from a phone -- man, has this one got your number. When you use the 1020, people don't say, "That's a great picture! You know, for a cellphone."

They say: "That's a great picture. From a cellphone!?"

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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