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Tech Lab

Nokia smartphone has a smarter camera

You know those gorgeous pictures you’ve taken with your smartphone? Well, they’re lousy.

Yes, I exaggerate, but only a little. Snapshots may look excellent on the phone’s screen or when posted on Facebook. But try zooming in for a close-up or enlarging a favorite scene, and the once-sharp images start looking as granular as Carson Beach.

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Unless you’ve just scored the latest device from embattled Finnish phone maker Nokia Corp. Its new Lumia 1020 packs a remarkable 41-megapixel camera that sticks out from the back of the device like a miniature hockey puck. But photography buffs won’t mind the odd shape; in exchange they’ll get the sharpest and most sophisticated camera ever built into a phone.

A Windows Phone, at that. Nokia is committed to Microsoft Corp.’s late-to-the-party smartphone software, and there is evidence it is starting to pay off. Nokia sold 7.4 million Windows Phone units in the second quarter, up from 5.6 million in the first quarter. But only 500,000 of these phones were sold in North America. Clearly, Americans continue to scorn Windows Phone, even though it’s excellent. So, what is it going to take?

More and better phones, perhaps. In the “more” department, Nokia has brought out the Lumia 521, an entry-level smartphone that costs $159.99 by T-Mobile US Inc. AT&T Inc. sells the virtually identical Lumia 520 for $99.99. In both cases, you’re paying the full price. There’s no two-year contract; you just buy a separate prepaid voice and data plan. While these phones feature small, low-quality screens and limited data storage capacity, they‘re excellent choices for thrifty shoppers.

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As for something better, here comes the Lumia 1020. Available only through AT&T Inc., it carries a more-than-premium price of $299.99 with a two-year contract. It is lighter than Nokia’s previous flagship phone, last year’s Lumia 928, and thinner, too, except for the camera. Battery life is decent, but not awe-inspiring. After streaming a four-hour movie via Netflix, I had 30 percent power left.

The 1020 retains the 928’s dual-core processor and 4.5-inch screen; its battery is built-in and unswappable, and there is no slot for adding external flash memory. The new phone does get twice as much random-access memory for running software — two gigabytes instead of just one. But since Windows Phone runs fast even on the cheapest phones, I saw no difference in performance.

Until I started using the camera. It’s a remarkable beast that produces far crisper images than any other smartphone. There is the high megapixel count, of course. But Nokia also uses an image sensor that is much larger than you’ll find in other phones. The image sensor is like the film in an old-school camera. The bigger it is, the more light it absorbs from the lens. So using a larger sensor gives you sharper, more colorful pictures, and also improves the camera’s performance in low-light situations.

The cameras used by the Globe’s photographers have sensors that are about 55 times larger than the one in an iPhone 5. Therefore the shots are far sharper, so they can be blown up, printed, and dropped on your lawn. Well, the sensor inside the Nokia camera is still tiny, but it is more than five times bigger than the iPhone’s.

And the results are dazzling. On other smartphones, I never use the digital zoom function because the results look so fuzzy. With the 1020, things got a little blurry at maximum zoom, but at moderate zoom settings, images remained stilletto sharp. Also, the pictures still looked excellent when blown up on a large computer screen.

The 1020’s near-professional quality is supported by near-professional software and accessories.

Its flash unit is a real xenon flashtube, not just the glowing white LED lamp found on other phones.

Its control software is deliciously comprehensive. With a few finger swipes, you can adjust shutter speed, color balance, exposure levels, and even manually focus the lens.

And since the 1020’s photos weigh in at over 10 megabytes — too large for e-mail — the camera automatically makes a smaller 1-meg copy of each shot, for easy sharing with friends.

With a price that’s $100 higher than the average high-end smartphone, and its unpopular Windows Phone software, you probably won’t encounter many people who have bought Nokia’s newest phone. But if you do, ask them to show you their vacation photos. They’ll be gorgeous.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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