An ode to Nokia

Okay, so this is not exactly an ode, per se. Just something that I felt like writing about Nokia, now that the company has ceased to exist as we know it.

I guess everyone has a story about how their first phone was a Nokia (except for those weirdos who got a BlackBerry) and so do I. My first phone back in 2003 was the Nokia 3315, which was a stylish variation of the Nokia 3310, a phone so tough it’s the only known object that can kill Chuck Norris and Rajinikanth. Simultaneously.

The reason I got the 3315 because my sister had one before me and I loved it so much my parents ended up getting me one so I could leave hers alone. It was a strange silverish-gold color, which now that I think about it, was rather gay. But I loved it, nevertheless.

For two whole months.

Yes, that’s how long I loved that phone, until I came across the Nokia 3530 and suddenly I forgot all about my 3315. It had color screen, which back then was as rare as finding an original Pritam song. It also had GPRS support, which was the mobile version of dialup in terms of speed. You could feel the continents drifting while files downloaded but it was something new and exciting, nonetheless.

Oddly enough, it was the first device I used to go online. I didn’t have a PC while growing up because my parents lived under a giant rock and believed kids shouldn’t have computers, so this was the only way to go online for me back then. Yes, I watched porn on it. It was in GIFs. It got the job done.

That phone was with me for nearly two years, after which I had a major lapse in judgement and got the 2650. I was young and naive back then, so you can’t really blame me for that. It was a mediocre phone and had a design so gay it went for pride parades. Needless to say, it didn’t last long and was quickly replaced by the N-Gage QD in 2005.

The N-Gage QD is by far one of my most favorite Nokia devices of all time and favorite phones I’ve owned. It lacked the quirks of the previous generation N-Gage, such as the side talking feature (and annoyingly, also MP3 playback and 3.5mm headphone jack) but it was epic. It was a gaming device primarily and considering my interest in gaming I enjoyed the hell out of that phone. I still miss the fun I had on that phone nine years ago on today’s phones. (Gameloft may have released many games on mobile since then but the original Asphalt: Urban GT will remain the best.) It was an amazing little device and I wish Nokia had made many more of those.

The QD also stayed around for a couple of years until I had a second momentary lapse in judgment and replaced it with a Sony Ericsson W710i. I won’t dwell on that phone much since it doesn’t concern this post but I wasn’t too fond of it.

The last and final Nokia phone I bought was the 5700 XpressMusic in 2008. It was a sensible choice and was a decent phone but I didn’t particularly like it as such. It stayed with me for two years, but saw use only for about six months until I got a job at Techtree, after which I started using review devices and the phone spent most of the time in a drawer. Eventually it was sold to get an LG Optimus One (lapse in judgement no. 3), but that story is for another day.

Back in the day I was an enormous fan of Nokia phones. I particularly loved the Symbian operating system and how flexible it was. The N-Gage QD was my first smartphone and in a way my first computer. I used the hell out of my phones, probably more than most people would and I loved all of them because they were all lovable devices.

Nokia phones back then had a personality, which you hardly get to see in phones these days, even Nokia’s own. Each phone would have some sort of a quirk, usually in the design. Some designs were particularly outlandish; who can forget phones such as the 3650 with its insane circular keyboard, the 7600 with its oddball square design and rounded corners, the 7280 that looked like a lipstick case, the 6800 where the keyboard split open and turned full QWERTY, the Communicator series and of course, the N-Gage. Many of these weren’t even practical but they had their own individuality. Even today they can stand out among the crowd and get noticed.

You’d expect designs to start off as boring and then over a period of time get exciting but pretty much the exact opposite happened with mobile phones. Unfortunately, the black slabs won and even Nokia eventually had to give up its whimsical designs and try to fit into the same old boring mould as everyone else. And while doing that they completely forgot about the software, which was the same old Symbian S60, once a great operating system, now clearly long in the tooth and with one foot in the grave, begging to be put to rest. Except, Nokia continued to drag it around like a fool until Microsoft came around and threw some money at them.

Anyway, the Nokia of the past seven years is mostly dull and sad, and not something I want to remember the company by. Instead I’ll remember the great designs that the company had in the past, the ability to think outside the box and do something different even when the competition around you did not, having a user friendly interface on their phones (compared the UI of the 3310 to that of any of the Motorola or Siemens phone from back then and you’ll know), great battery life, build quality that can survive the big bang, and cameras, that even today, take the best photos.

I have been harsh on Nokia in the past few years, only because I saw the company I once loved and respected first turn into a bumbling idiot who had no clue what is happening around them and then turn into Microsoft’s bitch. And now it is being assimilated into Microsoft, which is perhaps the saddest thing that can happen to anyone, especially a company as creative as Nokia.

Anyway, so long, and thanks for all the fish.

Regarding the 41 megapixel sensor on the Nokia 808 PureView

Nokia has just announced the Symbian-based 808 PureView at MWC and as you may already know it has a stonking 41 megapixel sensor. In this post I’ll try to explain briefly how the 41 megapixel sensor makes sense and that how Nokia is not out of its mind. 

In a regular digital camera, the number of “pixels” on the sensor are equivalent to the number of pixels that are found in the final image. That is, each of the pixels on the sensor ends up contributing one pixel to the image. 

In low light conditions, not enough light reaches the pixels on the sensor, which results in noise being visible on the final image. Also, as you add more pixels to a sensor without making it larger, the pixels on the sensor become physically smaller and are hence able to capture less light, resulting in noisy images. 

To take care of this situation, phone manufacturers these days use larger sensors and aperture to get in more light on their high resolution sensor. 

What Nokia has done here is use a 41 megapixel sensor, that despite its high resolution count, isn’t exactly that much larger than most phone camera sensor. Which means that the individual pixels on the sensor are even smaller. So how does it all work? 

It’s simple. What Nokia is doing here is called pixel binning, where they combine multiple pixels on the sensor to create one pixel in the final image. In case of the 808, they are using eight physical pixels on the sensor to create one pixel in the final image. So if you divide the 41 megapixels of the sensor by eight, you get 5 megapixels, which is what the actual resolution of the final image will be. 

So how is this better? The answer is in front of you. When you look at an image on your phone or your PC without zooming it 100%, you are recreating a similar effect as pixel binning. That is, you are using multiple pixels of the final image to fill up a single pixel on your phone’s display or your monitor. Because of this images look sharper and noise-free when zoomed out but when you zoom in at 100%, those things become visible. 

Because Nokia is using the information from 41 megapixel to create a 5 megapixel image, the images will have a lot more detail in them and the noise, although present in the original 41 megapixel image, won’t be visible in the final 5 megapixel image because, to put it simply, it has been zoomed out. 

You can try this effect out right now on your PC. Take an extremely high resolution image and downsize it to a much lower resolution, say, VGA. That image will look much sharper and will be more detailed than the one shot natively at VGA resolution. 

So even though 41 megapixels sounds crazy at first, there is a method to this madness. 

Update 1: One major thing I forgot to mention before is zooming. Most phones these days have digital zoom, which basically takes existing pixels and performs a 200% (2x) zoom on them, resulting in a mess, which gets worse as you continue zooming. On these phones, you are operating on a 1:1 scale, that is each pixel of the sensor contributed one pixel to the final image, so there aren’t many (or any) pixels to spare for zooming.

On the 808, the camera uses eight pixels to produce one pixel in the final image, which means there are plenty of pixels to spare. The camera can crop a small portion of the main image and then zoom it and even then each of the pixels in the final image will be made up of several pixels on the sensor. In fact, there are so many pixels on the 808 that you can zoom up to 3x without seeing a drop in quality. If you do that you will still have two pixels on the sensor making up one pixel in the final image. The quality won’t be great anymore but it will still be a lot better than conventional digital zoom.

For something without optical zoom, this is the best way to zoom on a camera. This is digital zooming done right. 

Update 2: You also have the option of using higher resolutions wherein the pixel binning effect is toned down as you go up. The max resolution is 38 megapixels, where I assume no amount of pixel binning is taking place. I saw a few samples at that resolution and they look pretty good but they’re all in bright sunlight. I’m assuming low light performance at that resolution won’t be so great, in which case it would be best to dial down the resolution. Also, zooming with either not be available or be of poor quality at that resolution.