PureView vs the Pixel: the 808, Lumia 950/1020 vs the Google Pixel

Having set up expectations that Google's HDR+ computational photography in the new Pixel flagship can be considered 'PureView take II', or thereabouts, I thought it time to put this to the test. So I took three PureView flagships from various eras: Nokia 808, Lumia 1020 and Lumia 950 XL, and pitched them against the new Google Pixel XL. The aim, away from trivial sunny shots (hey, suits me, this is the UK in October!), is to really stretch the pixel combination systems, in reducing noise and finding detail and colour.

950, 1020, 808 and Pixel

Of course, the Nokia 808 PureView (running in 8MP 'Creative' oversampling mode) and Lumia 1020 (running Windows Phone 8.1 and in its default 5MP oversampling mode) are here only for interest sake and for reference, since they're both obsolete in terms of anyone buying them. The Lumia 950 XL here is in its default 8MP PureView oversampling mode, matching the Google Pixel's 8.3MP HDR+ mode. In each case, all photos were snapped at 16:9 aspect ratio, in case you were wondering about some of those resolutions, though that's not that relevant since I'm mainly going to be looking at central detail.

There are also minor differences in terms of how wide angle the optics are in each case, so the 1:1 crops below won't match exactly in terms of framing.

Again, in contrast to other camera phone tests around the web, I'm deliberately trying to make things hard for the phone cameras and I am looking in detail and being picky. Let's see how the phone imaging hardware performs...

Test 1: Landscape, daylight, heavily overcast

My standard suburban landscape scene, with plenty of detail of all kinds. Not a glimmer of sun, thanks to the time of year! Here's the overall scene, as shot by the Nokia 808 (which has the most neutral colours):

Overall scene

Now for some central crops from, in turn, the Nokia 808, Lumia 1020, Lumia 950 XL and Google Pixel XL. Click the device names to grab the individual JPGs, in case you wanted to download and compare them yourself:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
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1:1 crop

There are few surprises above - the original PureView pair do best in terms of a natural, real life look, and don't knock the 1020 for detail, since it doesn't have a 8MP mode and so it's forced to work at 5MP (I guess I could have applied a little PureView zoom but that's hard to judge on the fly). The Lumia 950 and Google Pixel both show signs of sharpening and processing, but then the effect is 'crisper' to most human eyes so you can see why manufacturers do this.

Nokia 808:  9pts; Lumia 1020: 10pts; Lumia 950: 9 pts; Google Pixel: 8pts

Test 2: Landscape (lake), daylight, overcast

Another landscape scene, somewhat prettier, with plenty of detail of all kinds. Here's the overall scene, as shot by the Nokia 808 (which again has the most neutral colours):

Overall scene

Now for some central crops from, in turn, the Nokia 808, Lumia 1020, Lumia 950 XL and Google Pixel XL. Click the device names to grab the individual JPGs, in case you wanted to download and compare them yourself:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Again the original PureView pair do best in terms of a natural, real life look, while the Lumia 950 and Google Pixel both show signs of sharpening and heavy processing, to the detriment of the photo in this case - the Pixel shot in particular has ugly detail when you look up close, as here.

Nokia 808:  10pts; Lumia 1020: 10pts; Lumia 950: 8pts; Google Pixel: 7pts

Test 3: Landscape (lake), overcast, zoomed in

The same lake scene as above, but this time using the native zoom functions on each phone. Here's the overall zoomed scene, as shot by the Nokia 808:

Overall scene

Now for some central crops from, in turn, the Nokia 808, Lumia 1020, Lumia 950 XL and Google Pixel XL. Note that because the latter two have no exact scale in their UI it was hard to judge how far in I'd zoomed, so the framing doesn't match exactly. You'll get an idea of zoom quality though.

Click the device names to grab the individual JPGs, in case you wanted to download and compare them yourself:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
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1:1 crop

Yet again the original PureView pair excel, thanks to the underlying high resolution sensors and the magic of PureView zoom, a.k.a. smart cropping. The Lumia 950 makes as big a mess of digital zoom as always, I just don't understand why Microsoft can't sort this out - when Juha was there he kept saying that it wasn't a priority. I think work should be done at improving the interpolative zoom, every other smartphone does better. The Pixel XL here does well considering that it only has an 8MP sensor, effectively at 16:9, but the 808 and (especially) the 1020 are miles ahead. As you'd expect.

Nokia 808:  9pts; Lumia 1020: 10pts; Lumia 950: 5pts; Google Pixel: 7pts

Test 4: Low light atmosphere/greenery

A nice secluded path junction later in the afternoon on an overcast day. Plenty of atmosphere, I was particularly interested in the handling of really delicate detail, afforded here by the leafy branch that I was focussing on, top-centre. Here's the scene, as shot by the Nokia 808:

Overall scene

Now for some central crops from, in turn, the Nokia 808, Lumia 1020, Lumia 950 XL and Google Pixel XL. Click the device names to grab the individual JPGs, in case you wanted to download and compare them yourself:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
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As you might expect, the straight up, 'purer' oversampling in the Nokia 808 and Lumia 1020 produce stunningly realistic and natural results, while the Lumia 950 shot shows signs that the processing is breaking down under the weight of all the natural detail. The Pixel's processing goes further and there's a very artificial feel to the detail down at 1:1 here. Admittedly I'm pushing phone photography to the extremes here and expecting an awful lot ("Hey, I only wanted a snap for Facebook" might be a reasonable user response!), but the extra clarity and purity is there in the phones with bigger sensors and more capable optics if you care about such things. As I do.

Nokia 808:  10pts; Lumia 1020: 10pts; Lumia 950: 8pts; Google Pixel: 7pts

Test 5: Dusk

A suburban road at dusk, with light levels very low to my eyes. Here's the scene, as shot by the Nokia 808 (which has the most neutral colours) and which even so made the scene lighter than it really was:

Overall scene

Now for some central crops from, in turn, the Nokia 808, Lumia 1020, Lumia 950 XL and Google Pixel XL. Click the device names to grab the individual JPGs, in case you wanted to download and compare them yourself:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

Here the playing field starts to level out a bit. The Nokia 808 lacks OIS and is single shot, so it's a little at sea with an exposure time of around 1/7s. Even my rock steady hands produced blur in the photo once you look closely enough. The Lumia 1020's shot is almost perfect in terms of colour and stability - and, again, I could have zoomed in a little if I wanted to even out the central detail a bit more. The 950 does better here, with its larger aperture and next-gen OIS, an almost perfect low light shot, while the Google Pixel XL does well for a phone camera without OIS, using multiple shots and combining and auto-aligning, but you can see both noise and processing artefacts in the final result.

Nokia 808:  5pts; Lumia 1020: 9pts; Lumia 950: 9pts; Google Pixel: 7pts

Test 6: Candle: delicate indoor lighting

A candle and dim table lamp in the bedroom. The candle was flickering, light levels were low, etc. Here's the scene, as shot by the Nokia 808:

Overall scene

Now for some central crops from, in turn, the Nokia 808, Lumia 1020, Lumia 950 XL and Google Pixel XL. Click the device names to grab the individual JPGs, in case you wanted to download and compare them yourself:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
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1:1 crop

Ah, the king stumbles at last. The mighty Lumia 1020 makes a bit of a mess of the focussing - I tapped in each case on the candle in the viewfinder and the phone claimed it had focus lock, but it's clearly not right. Maybe the flickering flame put it off? Meanwhile the Nokia 808, despite not having OIS, produces a crisp and perfect shot, the Pixel gets very close, with minimal noise, impressively, HDR+ at its best, and the Lumia would win out except that it's introduced a slight red tint to the candle body - maybe that's the way the flame was leaning? I'm awarding a three way tie, anyway!

Nokia 808: 9pts; Lumia 1020: 5pts; Lumia 950: 9pts; Google Pixel: 9pts

Test 7: Low light, humans

My famous party/family indoor shot, lit by living room lighting and the phone camera's flash only. I'm deliberately moving too, to make it realistic. Here's the scene, as shot by the Nokia 808:

Overall scene

Now for some central crops from, in turn, the Nokia 808, Lumia 1020, Lumia 950 XL and Google Pixel XL. Click the device names to grab the individual JPGs, in case you wanted to download and compare them yourself:

1:1 crop
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The Nokia 808, with the brightest flash and biggest sensor, nails the shot, as you'd expect, with the Lumia 1020 not far behind, albeit with the usual yellowish cast to proceedings. Whatever others say in the tech press, indoors with moving subjects IS Xenon territory, which is why real cameras always have Xenon flash. The Lumia 950 uses its triple LED flash and processing tricks to try and pull a usable photo together, but it's too blurred if I'm honest. What's perhaps surprising is that the Google Pixel gets a much crisper shot than the 950, thanks mainly to using a much quicker shutter time (1/117s) - perhaps the HDR+ software detected the movement and deliberately went for just the one quick frame rather than multiple shots or a longer exposure? Anyway, surprisingly good for the Pixel - the lighting is actually pretty accurate to ambient conditions (i.e. the LED flash didn't make much difference) but you could always brighten the image up later, with good results.

Nokia 808: 10pts; Lumia 1020: 9pts; Lumia 950: 5pts; Google Pixel: 8pts

Test 8: Low light macro

By popular request, a macro test, also in low light, deliberately, to try and stretch the phone cameras. Here's the scene, of a small photo frame exhibit of a pop band in my daughter's room, as shot by the Nokia 808 (again making the room light level looking a lot brighter than things were in reality):

Overall scene

Amazingly, even the Lumia 1020 and 808 managed to focus, even though the distance to the frame was only around 7 inches. (Usually any macros need shooting from a little further away but with some PureView zoom.)

Now for some central crops from, in turn, the Nokia 808, Lumia 1020, Lumia 950 XL and Google Pixel XL. Click the device names to grab the individual JPGs, in case you wanted to download and compare them yourself:

1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop
1:1 crop

The Nokia 808's lack of OIS shows here, with blurred details thanks to handshake, plus a little extra noise because the exposure couldn't be longer. The Lumia 1020 nails the detail and focus, but I have to dock it a point because of the usual slight yellow cast. The Lumia 950 does better and I don't think this shot could be snapped better. The Pixel's HDR+ does its best to reduce noise and auto-align multiple exposures, but as you can see the result is noisier and more processed than from the Lumia 950.

Nokia 808: 6pts; Lumia 1020: 9pts; Lumia 950: 10pts; Google Pixel: 6pts

Verdict

As ever, adding up the points gives us an idea of a 'winner' - though your own eyes will be the ultimate judge, of course:

  1. Nokia Lumia 1020: 72pts
  2. Nokia 808: 68pts
  3. Lumia 950: 63pts
  4. Google Pixel: 59pts

Now, I've already shown in several articles here on AAWP and AAS that the Lumia 950 is normally right up there with the 808 and 1020 overall - when factoring in more 'normal' photos, sunny conditions, objects, and so on. But under the trickier conditions and expectations here, my old adage 'physics wins' is proved true again. If I was heading out to snap anything under any lighting then the Luima 1020 would still be my camera phone of choice. Or the 808, but then the apps aren't there to upload the results anymore, so....(!)

Really interesting is how the brand new Google Pixel stacked up. I'd already expected that it would do pretty well, thanks to some very fast image processing from multiple shots, and here it matched the Lumia 950 score for score throughout my challenging test. So hats off to Google for coming out of the gate (in the consumer world, anyway) with a camera phone that'll do as well as the current 2016 smartphone champions in terms of imaging. That none of the 2015 or 2016 crop can really get close to the classic Nokia PureView pair (from 2012 and 2013) when shooting in tricky conditions is somewhat tragic, considering how the 808 and 1020 were both abandoned in terms of support and development after their initial release.

Oh well. Comments welcome!

Published by Steve Litchfield at 8:37 UTC, October 21st

Section: Articles
Categories: Comment, Hardware
Platforms: General, Symbian^3, General, Windows Phone 8