Tech News

Nokia 9 PureView hands-on: All of the cameras and none of the gimmicks

Compared to Samsung’s folding phone and LG’s touchless UI, the Nokia 9 PureView, HMD’s first flagship of 2019, is decidedly simple in its ambitions. It merely wants to take the best possible photos ever recorded by a smartphone.

Actually achieving it, however, isn’t simple at all. The back of the Nokia 9 sports a unique penta-lens array of cameras, plus a sensor and a flash, arranged in a neat hexagonal pattern. Clockwise from top, you get:

  1. 12MP monochrome, f/1.8 
  2. Time of Flight sensor
  3. 12MP monochrome, f/1.8
  4. 12MP RGB, f/1.8
  5. LED flash
  6. 12MP monochrome, f/1.8 (center)
nokia 9 backMichael Simon/IDG

The Nokia 9 has a glass back and lots of cameras.

So there’s no ultra-wide or telephoto lens on the Nokia 9, and in fact, none of the cameras are particularly revolutionary on their own. But they’re not meant to work alone. When you snap a photo with the Nokia 9, all five cameras spring into action to capture up to 240MP of data. The images are then instantaneously fused together into a single 12MP HDR picture (or a giant RAW one). I expected there to be a second or two of processing time due to five cameras individually adjusting exposure and white balance on the fly, but the shutter on the Nokia 9 snaps just as fast as any other smartphone’s.

The results are pretty stunning. HMD showed off some sample shots that easily could have been taken by a high-end DSLR, with incredible color accuracy and exposure, and enough resolution to zoom in many times without losing crispness. Images are so editable, in fact, that HMD has partnered with Adobe to offer an optimized version of Lightroom that you may choose to install during setup. I tested it briefly, and it looks like it would be fine in an emergency. I can’t imagine many photographers plan to do intensive photo editing on their teeny phone screens

I could even see the difference on the quick shots I took on my own. Colors were bright and incredibly accurate. Even on a snowy day through a window, I captured an impressive cityscape with details that went unnoticed in the same pic taken with my Galaxy S9.

nokia 9 bezelsMichael Simon/IDG

The Nokia 9 hides all of its tricks on the back.

The extra depth is due to the Nokia 9’s time-of-flight camera, which gives the phone the ability to capture 1,200 layers of depth when shooting portraits. That means your bokeh shots have realistic blur without the usual computational issues. For example, wisps of hair stay sharply in focus, and background images retain their proper distance and aren’t muddied into a single blur.

A little mid, a little high

Aside from the artistic camera array, the Nokia 9 feels more like a mix of premium and mid-range. The bluish metallic finish on the back of the case also extends to the front, giving it a unique personality amongst the sea of black-clad competitor phones. The camera array is the only element on the back, as the fingerprint sensor now resides under the display.

nokia 9 frontMichael Simon/IDG

That’s not a Pixel 3 I’m holding, it’s a Nokia 9.

The 6-inch OLED HDR10 display is somewhat reminiscent of the Google Pixel 3’s, with rounded corners, no notch, and very visible bezels all around. At 8mm, it’s just thick enough to ensure none of the cameras need a bump, which helps the system blend seamlessly into the enclosure.

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LG G8 ThinQ review: Gimmicks with a capital ‘G’

It’s not enough for LG that the G8 ThinQ has the best processor, a great screen, an impressive battery, and a solid camera. Like nearly every G phone that came before, the G8 also has to be different, and that’s where it gets tripped up.

Had LG focused on the things that matter while undercutting its Samsung and Google rivals, it might have had a hit on its hands. Instead, the LG G8 is filled with gimmicks that might be fun initially, but their persnicketiness and general uselessness ultimately frustrate and cheapen the experience.

That’s a shame, because underneath all of the gimmicks is really good phone. Maybe even a great one.

Mind you, the G8 is still saddled with LG’s overly staid design language and UI deficiencies. But with top-of-the-line specs and gesture navigation, LG’s latest flagship should be able to stand up to the Galaxy S10 or Pixel 3 XL. And it probably would, if not for all of those gimmicks.

This review is part of our ongoing roundup of the best Android phones. Go there for reviews of competing products and how we tested them, plus buying advice. 

The design remains the same

If you’ve ever seen the LG G7, you already know what the G8 looks like. It has the same 6.1-inch display, ports, and overall shape, and comes in the same two colors: black and silver. The dedicated Google Assistant button remains. While the G8 is a touch heavier at 167 grams (versus 162 for the G7), the two phones have an extremely similar aesthetic and frame, right down to their unbalanced bezels:

  • G8: 151.9 x 71.8 x 8.4mm
  • G7: 153.2 x 71.9 x 7.9mm

Things are a little different on the back. LG has mounted the camera array horizontally rather than vertically, bringing it more in line with the V40 than with previous ‘G’ phones. It’s also fully encased under the glass, which gives it a sleeker, smoother look compared to other all-glass phones. If not for the fingerprint sensor in the middle, in fact, the back of the G8 would be just as smooth as the front. It’s a good look, and makes the camera bumps on iPhone XS all the more unsightly.

lg g8 g7 compare screen Christopher Hebert/IDG

The LG G8, left, has a OLED display versus the LCD on last year’s G7.

One drawback to all that uninterrupted glass, however, is slipperiness. On several occasions, my G8 slipped off a table that either had an otherwise imperceptible decline or was rattled enough to move the G8. For the first time since I’ve been writing phone reviews, I actually had to send it back because my first review unit fell and cracked. So you’ll probably want to put it in a case, which negates the smoothness of the design. 

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Please, Android phone makers, just give us better cameras, not more dumb gimmicks

We’re barely a week into 2020, and we’ve already got the first smartphone camera gimmick of the year. At last week’s CES in Las Vegas, OnePlus demoed an “invisible camera,” which uses electrochromic glass to create various tints in color to make the camera under the rear glass seem like it’s not there until it’s called into action. It takes its inspiration from the McClaren 720S Spider supercar, and it generated lots of media coverage and undoubtedly long lines at OnePlus’s booth.

Granted it’s a concept of a prototype that’s probably not shipping for many months (if at all), but it shows how most smartphone makers are thinking. Instead of working to make our phones take better pictures, companies are filling out phones with camera gimmicks that are flashy but offer no real benefit.

Not to single out OnePlus: We’re also hearing rumors that Samsung is going to put a 108MP camera in the next Galaxy phone, which is straight-up overkill. LG used to be one of the leaders in smartphone photography, and after filling its phones with gimmick after gimmick, now it’s struggling to take basic night shots.

Just look at the Android camera “innovations” we’ve seen over the past couple of years:

  • Pop-up selfie cams
  • 180-degree flip cameras
  • Under-screen selfie cameras
  • Palm-reading sensors
  • Dual aperture
  • 3D vein mapping

That’s to say nothing of software gimmicks such as AI scene selectors, super slow-mo videos, and AR emojis. Smartphone cameras have distracted users with party tricks, when smartphone makers should be focusing on the one thing that matters: taking great pictures, even if there’s a bump, a notch, or a bezel.

Focus on the camera, not the bump

In basically every smartphone camera ranking, there are three main competitors: Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Pixel, and the latest from Huawei. All three have one thing in common: big camera bumps and no gimmicks.

oneplus concept OnePlus

OnePlus’s concept camera is invisible until you need to use it.

I used to complain about camera bumps, but I learned to stop caring about what the back of my phone looks like. Even if you don’t put a case on it, how often do we look at the back of our phones? Tiny camera bumps, colors, and finishes might make a difference when they’re lined up on a table or rendered on a website, but ultimately, it’s the performance that matters. The best phones build the handset around the camera, not the other way around.

Case in point: The square arrays have a purpose. It’s subtle, but when you zoom in or out using the ultra-wide lens on the iPhone 11 or the zoom on the Pixel 4, you don’t need to reposition your phone to re-center your shot. The image simply zooms accordingly, and whatever was in the center previously is still there. On every other phone, you need to shift your phone ever so slightly. Sure, it only takes a fraction of a  second, but that could be the difference between capturing and missing a moment.

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