K800i or N73? Neither, thanks!

A reader asked me what I thought of Nokia's N73 and Sony Ericsson's K800i, two fancy mobile phones with autofocus 3.2-megapixel cameras in them, which make them quite different from the awful crunchy fixed-focus phone-cams of old.

(Note: Picture not to scale. I just stuck two press photos together.)

I can't honestly say that I can recommend either of them.

I thought they both looked pretty decent when I started writing this, and I still agree that they're better than run-of-the-mill cameraphones. But I think you'd have to place an unreasonably high premium on single-unit integration to make them really worth having - especially considering how much they cost (immediately when purchased outright, or eventually in service fees).

This isn't to say that either of them are rubbish, though.

Most of the sample pics I can find from the N73 look OK. There are some problems, though. The N73 doesn't seem to have a huge amount of exposure latitude, so you get blown-out highlights in a lot of pictures:

N73 sample

N73 sample

N73 sample

N73 sample

(Click through to the larger versions to see what you're meant to be paying for in these more expensive cam-phones.)

When there's less image brightness variation to worry about, though, it's quite good:

N73 sample

Note that it's doing the standard consumer-camera thing of punching up colour saturation in every image...

N73 sample

...which can sometimes combine with exposure problems in unfortunate ways:

N73 sample

...but, by and large, it seems to be up there with lots of OK cheap compact digicams.

Except for the lack of optical zoom, of course.

One other pitfall in many consumer cameras is that they have lousy light-gathering ability - a high minimum F-number. Since small-sensor digicams also can't do high ISO settings without lots of noise, this can matter a lot for many ordinary medium-to-low-light situations, including most indoor photography.

Nokia don't seem to even publish the F-number for the N73's lens, which is extremely remiss of them; I had to look at the press photo of the lens to read the "2.8/5.6" from around it.

I presume that means it can do f2.8 wide open and f5.6 with an aperture reduction doodad switched in, and that's it. That means max aperture f2.8, focal length 5.6mm (real focal lengths for small-sensor cameras with reasonable field of view are very small; that's why they're usually specified in the marketing bumfodder with "35mm equivalent" focal length specifications, which leave purchasers mystified when they notice that the lens itself has some tiny number printed around it.)

F2.8 is OK, but it means that non-flash indoor shots, even during the day, will be grainy, blurry, or possibly both.

On to the K800i, which gives some great examples of this.

Its F-number is a freakin' secret, too. Again, I had to turn to press pics to find it. F2.8, again (that's what the "1:2.8" around the K800i's lens means).

I'm being careful not to make snap judgements from Flickr pics, because people may have processed them poorly or fiddled unwisely with camera settings. When cameras only have digital zoom, though, it's possible to make truly awful pictures by using lots of said zoom.

K800i sample

Dear god.

Ignoring those sorts of pictures, there are plenty of decent K800i pics, too.

This is pretty good - not horribly crunchy or blurry:

K800i sample

Mildly blown highlights, but they're no biggy.

Here we go again with the highlights, though:

K800i sample

And look at the crunchy stuff and noise reduction artifacts in this, when you view the larger versions:

K800i sample

Then again, this is quite good:

K800i sample

Again, it's got unnaturally high colour saturation (though the reason why consumer cameras do that is that people like these "punchy" results out of the camera, even if they throw detail away), but there's only a little blue fringing on the high-contrast edge at the top of the building, and no horrible distortion or sharpness loss at the edges.

But then again, look at this.

K800i sample

It was obviously not dark when this picture was taken, but look at the big version and you can see that all of the fine detail has been "watercoloured out" by noise reduction, because the camera decided it needed to keep its shutter speed up by cranking the ISO (the EXIF data says only ISO 80; if that's the truth then something really awful is going on...), and then noise-reduced the result.

And bang, there goes most of your resolution.

You can get lost in all the technical bulldust about cameras and ignore the fact that the above picture really is a very good photo, which you unquestionably would not be able to take if your phone was just a phone and that was all you were carrying.

But when your camera deliberately destroys most of the detail in the pictures you take, leaving you with something that can't be printed any bigger than an old 110 negative without looking strangely flat, you may still feel ripped off.

And when there's no zoom, this is more important, because you'll be cropping pictures more often. (The digital zoom crops the picture for you, of course.)

Regarding the deadly combination of low ISO sensitivity and high F numbers, check this out:

K800i sample

It's a daylight shot (unless I, and the camera time stamp, am very much mistaken), but the camera still went to ISO 200 and 1/13th of a second for it, and as a result created a blurry mess.

This comparison figures that the K800i is more like a real camera than the N73 or N93, but their example pictures are pretty bloomin' ordinary. They're what I'd expect from a good compact camera in 2001, at best.

Overall, the most I'd pay for the camera portion of either of these cam-phones, in today's market, is $US100. OK, there's the one-device convenience factor that might make the camera worth much more to you - but you can buy really excellent compact cameras for $US300, these days, and the over-the-counter price for the K800i is, what, $US500? The Nokia's not much cheaper.

Given that there's an embarrassment of choices in the ultra-compact-under-$US200 market sector these days (go nuts with the DPReview comparator...), I really couldn't justify paying any significant premium for a camera of the quality of the ones in these phones.

I mean, you can pay less than $US200 and get a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX8 (combined review of it and its siblings here) these days. That's got not only real zoom, but also a proper optical image stabiliser, not just one of those phoney baloney high-ISO modes, which Sony brazenly try to palm off on you with the K800i.

Yes, these cam-phones do beat the hell out of old-style fixed-focus cameraphones with no flash, plastic lenses and webcam sensors. But so does a Box Brownie.

11 Responses to “K800i or N73? Neither, thanks!”

  1. chiefnewo Says:

    I checked out that DPReview comparator and found a couple of interesting cameras, but is there any online place in Australia to buy them at roughly their equivalent $US price? One camera was US$89 but a quick google suggested it was AU$750 here.

  2. Daniel Rutter Says:

    I think Dirt Cheap Cameras really are about as cheap as (honest) dealers get in Australia, but they don't have a really big range, and still aren't that cheap for some cameras.

    Dot Com Deals is associated with Dirt Cheap, but provides a general local price comparison. They also have a wider range of camera gear, including lenses.

    The last three cameras I've bought I've got from DigitalRev on eBay, though. They're a Hong Kong company with some kind of local representative who may or may not screw you on warranties. Their prices, however, are excellent.

  3. phrantic Says:

    I must admit I'm surprised to see you even considering cameraphones in the realm of ordinary cameras. They're still very much behind.

    Or is it that too many people are actually buying a phone for it's camera these days? The N73 has a hell of a lot going for it, even without the camera. Series 60 smartphones are almost as useful as PDAs. Buy it for that reason. The camera is just a bonus - it's much better than it's predecessors, but there's still some ground to be made up, yet.

    Take the (marginally better by most accounts) camera out of the K800i, and it's nothing to write home about. Which is a shame, because that means the key reason to buy one (aside from the James Bond coolness factor) is it's camera. Which is no reason at all.

  4. fnaah Says:

    The nokia, at least, promises one thing I still haven't been able to do effectively - take a picture and post it straight to the web, without the intermediary step of finding an internet-connected computer (with suitable media reader).

    Perhaps I need to examine my motives for wanting to do this, but if I want to pollute my own little corner of the internet with pictures of randomly amusing things that the world presents to me, I think I should be able to do it.

  5. phrantic Says:

    Yes, the N73 has Nokia's blogging software on it, but there are bucketloads of alternative options that work with most blogging sites and/or flickr. ShoZu is pretty cool.

  6. Bernard Says:

    "2.8/5.6" means that it is a 5.6mm lens with an aperture of f:2.8, assuming that the lens is labeled the same way as other Zeiss lenses.

  7. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Bernard - I bet you're right. I'll amend the post. Thanks!

  8. FLea Says:

    My main camera of choice is still my Minolta SRT-200... so yes, my last cell phone purchase did truly consider the camera aspect - for those "oh i wish i had a camera" moments... but little did I know even a cheap brownie or a disposable would have been better for the impulse shooting. The work I have to go through to get a decent shot is not warranted for what I bought it for.. though I have made some good shots from it. At least it doubles as an mp3 player...

  9. southatneil Says:

    Dot Com Deals is not associated with Dirt Cheap Cameras, that was my old site http://www.camerastores.com.au which is no longer online, http://www.dotcomdeals.com.au is one of my new site that offers not only cheap prices but service you expect from the most trusted brick and mortar retailers.

    Thanks for the link anyway Dan, hope you had a great Christmas and wishing you all the best for 2007.
    I will let you know when we can give you a lens for review.
    Cheers Neil

  10. Rofa Says:

    I certainly agree that neither of these two cameraphones, or any other cameraphone on the market today (and possibly ever) can seriously compete with a REAL camera -- even a decent compact one -- but I think that's kind of beside the point.

    The point, in my opinion, is that I don't have to keep BOTH a phone AND a camera with me, just in case I want to take a casual picture of something. Not the keyword "casual" there. With this I mean situations like, "Hey, a cat that looks like a fire hydrant! Wacky, I gotta show this to my friends!", or "Damn, I can't decide on which tie to buy. Let's take a picture of it and show my wife. She always has opinions about these things."

    And if I want a cameraphone, I might as well buy one with as good a camera as possible. Which would probably be one of the two mentioned, for example.

    Besides, the N73 isn't really that much more expensive than any new Nokia smartphone. For instance, in Finland, the N73, without subscription, can be had for approx. 430 Eur, whereas the E60 -- a smartphone without a camera is around 390 Eur.

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