Lumia 950 XL vs my red Nokia 808 PureView

How does the Lumia 950 XL compare with my red version of the King of Smartphone Cameras, the Nokia 808 PureView, a several years old device I recently rediscovered? I'll let you in on how happy I am working with both - or maybe not always as happy...

This post is not just about picture quality, it's about practicality as well - ease of use, how fast it starts, shot to shot time, swift changing of the settings. And although the Lumia 950 XL does an outstanding job in capturing images, it definitely underperforms in the aspects I just mentioned. In fact, it's one of the reasons I'm using my Nokia 808 PureView with more enthusiasm than ever. 

The Lumia 950 XL is slow in many ways
Let me focus on a few things I simply don't like when using the Lumia 950 XL as a smartphone camera. Apart from its size which I started to find cumbersome - but that's me, since I even loved working with the 1520 back then, and modern day smartphone flagships as quite large anyway.

First of all, start time of the Lumia 950 XL camera is a bit slow. It's okay if you're not in any kind of hurry and just want to capture a beautful scene in front of you, it's somewhat underwhelming when you want to capture something really fast. Luckily, you can even start the camera without unlocking the device first. 

Menu buttons blocking the screen
After opening the camera application, you'll still see the Microsoft menu buttons on the right hand side of your screen when you're in 16:9 aspect ratio. I complained about the fact it couldn't actually see the full size of what I was capturing and got the answer "it was easy to swipe the buttons away from the side".

Quite frankly: I don't want to see any menu button hampering my display when I'm taking a picture. If I'd want to see those buttons, please enable me to swipe them in the display - don't make me have to swipe them out every single time, or at least make them transparant. It's too time consuming this way.

Changing the settings
Changing the settings is easy at first. Guess we all know the versatile menu where one can change white balance, manual focus, ISO, shutter time and exposure correction. In the top of your screen you can choose to activate the flash or HDR (the concept of "rich recording" was killed somewhere along the way). 

But after all is set to your desire and you change your scene from 16:9 to 4:3 for instance, all special settings are gone. The app simply resets everything you thought you needed for your shot. Same goes for when you change the way you save your shot.

When you choose to capture not just the 19MP but also the 8MP/DNG result, all your other settings are gone. Why someone thought we just don't need the 19MP/DNG option is beyond me anyway. And about wasting time: shot to shot time can be disastrous - I noticed even up to a few seconds lag before the camera was firing the next shot.

What about other smartphone brands?
It's not like any smartphone producer simply "nailed" the camera user interface. To name but a few, Samsung is pretty good, Sony more elaborate and quite complicated. Both offer an "easy" and "pro" menu though. Apple's camera interface is straightforward but does the job for millions without complaints. Google's own camera UI is way too simple. I won't go into the dedicated photography apps here, of course there are a few that will give you a much more professional feel working with them.

So it's always somewhere between straightforward and complicated, the latter when the producer wants to offer more options to change the settings, usually making it way more cumbersome to work with. So am I really going to start about this now four year old smartphone again? Yes, because there is no denying Nokia came very close with the camera UI of the 808 PureView. It's not only the amazing picture quality, it's the swiftness with which I can change its settings as well.

Thing is, when I got the 808 PureView in 2012 I wasn't experienced enough to fully grasp what I was enabled to work with. Now I miss many of its options on every other smartphone, including the Lumia that once tried so hard to copy the 808 PureView. 

Nokia 808 PureView: versatile custom presets
I have three different customs presets enabling me to program and quickly change to my preferred settings - like one for PureView, one for Full resoltion and one for shooting b/w. Within each of these custom settings, it's extremely fast to change from PureView (8MP, 5MP or 3MP) to Full resolution (34/38MP), change the aspect ratio (4:3/16:9), JPG quality (normal or superfine), Colour tones (normal, vivid, sepia, black and white), capture mode (normal, bracketing, interval or self-timer). You'll even find sliders to change saturation, contrast and sharpness. It will even show you which exact settings you are using, and you can change every single setting without losing the rest

If you look one step further you can activate a viewfinder grid, enable camera sounds and video stabilization, the focus assist lamp and "capture when phone is locked". It simply offers just about everything in an incredibly simple and effective user interface - only thing missing are RAW (which I don't miss) and the classic 3:2 aspect ratio (which I hardly ever see in a smartphone). Oh and if you touch the screen longer, you can change focus mode (from macro to infinity).

I think every smartphone producing company should get the 808 PureView and have a good look at how the Nokia imaging team - most of them have left the building by now - designed its UI back then. It's brilliant in its simplicity. It still is among the fastest cameras around, not just in terms of starting up but also concerning changing settings and shot to shot time. The amount of settings it offers is unparallelled. It was a revolution back in 2012 and I think it still hasn't been surpassed. I really hope Damian Dinning, Eero Salmelin, Juha Alakarhu, Ari Partinen and Kristina Björknas are reading this.

Picture quality
Now that I got that out of the way, let's have a look at quite a few sample shots from a few different scenes to compare them. But how? Full resolution on the Lumia 950 XL is 19MP max, so half the size of what I can get from the 808 PureView. Both offer 8MP "PureView" as well, so let's start with that. You'll see the 808 PureView first, 950 XLsecond, followed by crops in the same order.

View from the office

Table in sunlight

Metro station Waterlooplein Amsterdam

Bottles in a dark bar

Conclusion so far
The 808 PureView might be a lot easier to handle, there is no doubt in my mind I prefer the results coming from the Lumia 950 XL - in fact, I'm surprised to see these results, I didn't really expect it to perform this much better. Some will probably complain about "oversharpening" and the unmistakable "yellow tinting", but if it's detail you're after, the Lumia 950 XL simply performs better in general and especially in lowlight situations like in the last two shots.

But I have a few more shots to compare. Both devices were on maximum resolution, so 38MP and 19MP. I won't go into  "resizing" the originals this time, I just want to show the difference in detail you may expect from these different devices in "full resolution". Here we go. Again, Nokia 808 PureView first, Lumia 950 XL second.


View on a small pond

As you can see all people appear to have gone in the second crop - not much I can do about that I'm afraid, all shots were captured in the same time span (never noticed the people when capturing these shots anyway).

At the flower shop

Conclusion so far (II)
This is a matter of personal preference as well I guess, but if it's details you're after, it's probably hard to beat the 808 PureView with its massive 42MP sensor. Again, it's obvious the Lumia 950 XL has a different opinion on colors than the 808 PureView has (although one could set the 808 to "vivid" as well and probably get comparable results). Details do sometimes tend to get a bit noisy on the 808 PureView though. Like in the second example, the crop from the far end with the people in it. But I notice the same in a relative close shot: the glass in the last example looks a lot cleaner coming from the Lumia 950 XL.

Lumia 950 XL resized to 8MP
In my last selection you'll see two scenes I captured in 19MP with the Lumia 950 XL and which I resized to around 8MP, to compare with the 8MP results I got from the 808 PureView. All were captured during a short trip to Amsterdam and again you'll see the 808 PureView first and 950 XL second.

From a store near Waterlooplein

Bike at a canal bridge

Final conclusion
In case you were wondering why I wrote about "my red version of the 808 PureView" you might understand now. It's only after working on a comparison like this that I actually see the results - like when you're reading, I discover the differences when I add the crops to this post. And to be totally honest with you, I can't come to any other conclusion than that my red Nokia 808 PureView is not the "gem" I hoped it would be. So I changed the title and introduction of this post.

I'm not desperately trying to defend the capacities of the Nokia 808 PureView in general, I simply never saw results this underwhelming coming from it. So my conclusion isn't just that the Lumia 950 XL really does an outstanding job in general. I think i have to conclude my red 808 PureView is not as good as I expected it to be. I'm not going to sell it yet though - I still like its high resolution results, I love its fast user interface and I adore its black and white results. But no doubt, this particular device is no longer King.

My next comparison will be between the Lumia 950 XL and the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. If you like what I'm doing here, please consider making a donation, since this site doesn't support itself.. There's a button on the right hand side of this page and I will add you to the list of sponsors. Thank you very much in advance!