Thursday, April 19, 2012

Nokia Lumia 900 phone camera problems

Summary: Various issues people reported in reviews of Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone camera.
A huge spoiler in my excitement about the new Nokia Lumia 900 came from the phone's camera. When ordering the phone, I assumed that Nokia would build it on the Lumia 800 improvements and offer a camera on par with iPhone 4s. I thought it would be difficult to screw up the excellent Carl Zeiss optics given such great specs. Well, was I up for a surprise.

After shooting a few pictures, I could not believe how bad they looked: lots of noise, bad focus, heavy pixelation, white balance way off (especially in low light), the now infamous pink spot, you name it.

After some digging, I found a Nokia community forum thread where people complained about the same issues. I posted a couple of remarks describing my problems and then I did a bit more research. As reviews of the Lumia 900 kept rolling, I kept discovering more and more complains about the Lumia 900's camera performance.

Some reviewers suspect that the issue is not necessarily cause by bad camera, but most likely is due to software (e.g. overly aggressive JPEG compression). I posted several quotes with references to the sources, but the forum moderator removed them because "[they do] not contain any support question, remark or suggestion relevant to the thread". Fine, I'll include them here. Hopefully, they will help potential users to make a more informed decision. As I find more info, I'll keep updating this post for those who struggle with the camera performance. So, here we go.

From Review of the AT&T Nokia Lumia 900 (WPCentral):
"Where the Lumia 900 camera disappoints is under low-light conditions. Here the front-illuminated sensor shows its weakness versus the preferred back-illuminated sensor (BSI) found on the Apple iPhone 4/4s and HTC Titan, HTC Radar and HTC Titan II. When not using a flash (and even when doing so to lesser extent), image noise is greatly increased resulting in very grainy photos with loss of color and detail. To avoid high noise, you can manually set the Lumia 900’s ISO to 100 or 200 but in doing so, you’ll slow down the exposure speed resulting in a higher chance of image blur from movement of the camera, your subject or both. Because of this, we’re slightly disappointed that Nokia still won’t embrace back-illuminated sensor (BSI) technology. Those sensors can result in more light (photons) hitting the sensor, increasing it from 60% to 90% of the scene. As a result, images in low-light conditions are brighter and have less noise."
From The most disappointing feature of the Lumia 900 is the camera (PhoneDog):
"The camera, which was one of the most glorified features at Nokia's CES press event, is a hot mess. [...] if you aren't outside, the chances of snapping a photo worth keeping are slim. Images begin to suffer from discoloration. If you point the camera at a mostly white surface, you will notice pink spots. In my case, the pink spot is one large, pink splotch that takes up the majority of the viewfinder. That said, once you snap the shot, sometimes the pink spot turns to a dark green tint. Other times, it just disappears completely."
From So my Nokia Lumia 900 is here. I'm not happy (WPCentral):
"Looking at some sample pictures I've seen, it seems like the default camera settings are poorly set. Being a borderline professional photographer and a bit of a camera nerd I would say: For certain it has nothing to do with the lens. Unlikely it has anything to do with the sensor. Problems are with the default camera settings and post processing settings.I would be suprised if Nokia did not improve the settings with a simple patch."
From Nokia Lumia 900 review: Camera (TechRadar):
"It all sounds amazing, but unfortunately the end results don't quite live up to the specs. Contrast and color saturation are above average in most cases, and the Lumia 900 is capable of quite decent outdoor images when the sun is cooperating. We were less enthusiastic about our results shooting indoors, and the dual LED flash didn't seem to do us any favors, either, producing garish results and a lot of red eyes."
From The Great, Bright-Blue Hope (Wired Magazine):
"The 8-megapixel camera (topped by a Carl Zeiss lens) on the rear of the device takes pretty great shots in bright light, on par with similarly specced shooters we’ve reviewed. Performance in low light, however, was less admirable. Shooting pictures in mixed light or in twilight without the dual LED flash caused a large amount of striated noise to show up in the pictures."
From Nokia Lumia 900 vs Apple iPhone 4 (Phone Arena):
"On paper, these two are specifically designed to entice photo enthusiasts thanks to the sensors they’re packing along for the ride, but when it comes down to it, we find the iPhone 4S coming out on top. Essentially, we find it more preferable thanks to its sharper details, natural looking color reproduction, and the fact that it handles exposure significantly better. No doubt that the two can capture some pleasant looking scenery and macro shots, but it’s the iPhone 4S that handles low lighting situations better, since the Nokia Lumia 900’s shots are extremely noisy looking."
From Nokia Lumia 900 or HTC Titan II, is one better than the other? (WPCentral):
"The Lumia 900's camera just under achieves. On paper the Carl Zeiss lens and fast aperture should perform better than it does. To give credit where credit is due, the Lumia 900 does preform nicely outdoors when the lighting is just right. Indoors and when the lighting dims outside is where the Lumia 900's camera begins to fade. I also experienced a little inconsistency with regards to saturation, exposure and focus. Hopefully these issues are software related and can be addressed with an update from Nokia. Otherwise, the Lumia 900's camera won't reach its potential."
From Nokia Lumia 900 for AT&T review: Going all in (GSM Arena):
"The amount of resolved fine detail is not among the best we've seen and there's also lots of noise when viewing the photos at 100% zoom."
From How Nokia Lumia 900 Is Better Than iPhone 4s (And How It Isnt) (iPhone 4s Issues):
"If the Nokia Lumia 900 has any downfalls, it would be two things – the camera and lack of apps. Despite boasting an 8-megapixel shooter with Carl Zeiss lens, we often found the camera software had trouble trying to focus and hence take longer to capture shots. The white balance also wasn’t up to our expectations."
From An iPhone 4S User’s Weekend with the Nokia Lumia 900 (MacLife):
"Unfortunately, the camera is a bit of a weak spot for Nokia here, despite the 8MP sensor which on paper would seem to match wits with the iPhone 4S. It’s a bit of a surprise, considering Nokia devices usually feature better cameras, but clearly they had to cut corners somewhere to get this device to $99.99 with two-year agreement."
From Nokia Lumia 900 – Camera Review (WMPowerUser):
"Despite Nokia’s history with great smartphone cameras, the Lumia 900′s camera falls short of its competitors in many ways. If you’re taking an indoor picture at night, the Lumia 900 suffers from a lot of random blue noise. Anything black and dark in pictures ends up covered with this blue noise, which really reduces the quality of the picture. Nokia turns everything blue for no reason. Outdoor shots were slightly better, but the Lumia 900 fell behind the Samsung Focus S in terms of details when shadows were involved. When I took a picture outside my apartments, the room number in the Focus S’s shot is clearly visible while the Lumia 900 is significantly tougher to read and once again full of noise. [...] The Lumia 900 was better at daytime video recording [...], but indoor video recording at night greatly suffered once again due to that odd blue static. Hopefully Nokia can release a software update to fix some of these issues, but we may have to accept the fact that Samsung can make really great cameras."
From Nokia Lumia 900 Review - Windows Phone with LTE (Anandtech):
"Where the Lumia 900 does seem to struggle is white balance, as pretty much all the Lumias have weird color rendering in the lightbox test with lights on, creating a strange washed out cast. I would wager that this is more an outcome of the older ISP onboard MSM8x55/APQ8055 than anything else, and it's entirely possible that things will get better in later updates as Nokia continues to mess around with the sliders on Qualcomm's ISP. In addition, the preview image sometimes contains the colored center dot chromatic aberration we've seen on other phones, though the lens shading ISP does seem to fix it when you look at the actual captured images. As an aside, this is really another area where eventually moving to dual core SoCs will make a difference - the successors to 8x55 have better ISP."
From Lumia 900 review (The Verge):
"Nokia has a long history of packing terrific optics into its devices, so you would expect that the Lumia would excel in this area. I'm sad to report that it does not. On the device I tested, the rear camera was capable of producing fine photos, though generally the 900 shot somewhat grainy and very washed out images. It's not that those images were particularly bad — they just weren't particularly good. Though the company touts Carl Zeiss optics, I didn't see anything in my results that belied fairly standard smartphone picture-taking capabilities. In fact, the camera software seemed to have real trouble in some settings, with white balance and exposure out of whack compared to my expectations. Additionally, the Lumia 900 produces those dreaded, faint pink spots in the center of the display — particularly visible on bright white surfaces — that we've seen on countless phones. It's not the kind of thing you'd notice in most photos, but you can definitely see a discoloration that shouldn't be there. Now keep in mind, my daily driver is a Galaxy Nexus, which has a relatively poor camera — so this is significant. I went into the Lumia 900 expecting an excellent photo experience, but it's really simply mediocre."
From 8 Days Of Nokia Lumia 900, Day 5: Camera Quality (Paul Thurrott's Supersite for Windows):
"It’s no contest. The iPhone 4S photos are superior, across the board. You really have to look at them, and zoom in the same way with each, but in every single scene I shot, an iPhone version of the photo was superior to the Lumia shots, with crisper details, better color, and less pixelation. Not once did the Lumia come out ahead."
From Nokia Lumia 900 (AT&T Wireless) Review (Laptop Magazine):
"Unfortunately, while you can unlock the camera quickly by long pressing the shutter button, we noticed lag when taking photos. A half-second delay prevented us from capturing the exact group shot we wanted of fidgety kids. The Lumia 900 also had trouble with dim lighting compared with the iPhone 4S; images looked considerably darker and grainier with a blue cast. The dual-LED flash helped but often resulted in subjects with red-eye."
From The Nokia Lumia 900 review (ARS Technica):
"The problem with tying the shutter to the tap-to-focus is that it can be hard to time pictures, especially since the lapse varies depending on the lighting situation. Being able to focus with the camera button is nice, but you don't get to choose what the camera is focusing on. While there are only a few situations that will be hampered by this divide, our problem could be solved by including a setting that lets us untie the shutter from tap-to-focus. [...] The camera has a separate macro focus setting, but we had little luck using it to improve our shots. [...] We noticed the flash seems to trigger in inappropriate situations when the phone could take a perfectly fine picture without it. In the photos of the rainbow mannequin, the flash-less photo appears a bit more washed out, but it was serviceable and more color-accurate. Low-light situations are where the difference between the Lumia 900 and the iPhone 4S cameras emerge. The Lumia 900 was desperate to trigger a flash on the tabletop hockey game in a dim bar, but the situation couldn't really benefit. The setting produces noise in both photos at the top right corner, but the Lumia 900's is more exaggerated, with noise throughout and an unrealistic blue cast to the picture. We tried out the macro setting in the Lumia 900 on a few occasions, but it did little to produce a good macro shot. Even at moderately close ranges, the phone couldn't bring the subject into as good a level of focus as the iPhone."
From Nokia Lumia 900 review (BGR):
"Considering Nokia’s pedigree, I was absolutely shocked the first time I used the camera on the Lumia 900. To put it plainly, as good as the hardware design is on the Lumia 900 is as bad as I found the camera to be. [...] I found that the Lumia 900′s camera takes very poor images [...]. Colors were washed out and didn’t pop at all like they do on the iPhone. The edges of objects were extremely blurry rather than sharp and clear like they are on the HTC One S I have been testing. I also had a great deal of trouble focusing on objects at close range. Even when I tapped on an item to focus on it and snap a picture, the phone still focused on something in the background instead. Macro mode did nothing to resolve the issue. I’m hoping some of these issues will be fixed in upcoming software updates. Considering the quality of images taken using other Nokia handsets, I have to imagine these are not problems with the optics or other camera hardware Nokia used in the Lumia 900."
From Nokia Lumia 900 Review (Ubergizmo):
"Unfortunately, the Lumia 900 does not take the best photos and videos. In my tests, I found that the iPhone 4S, or the Samsung Galaxy S2 (or Galaxy Note) can easily beat the Nokia Lumia 900 in this area."
From It’s Big, It’s Blue, It’s Windows, but Can It Beat Rival Phones? (All Things D):
"The camera, despite having the same resolution as the new iPhone, took notably worse pictures of the same scenes in my tests. To my eye, colors were oversaturated, and details were less sharp."
From A clash of the titans this time round as Samsung's Galaxy Note locks horns with the Nokia Lumia 900 (Know Your Mobile):
"We had high hopes for Nokia's Windows Phone cameras considering the company's history of producing some of the best camera phones. However, it has failed to deliver and Samsung has stepped up to the plate with the Galaxy Note's setup."
From HTC beats Nokia in the camera game with the Titan II (review & gallery) (ZDNet):
"I thought the Nokia Lumia 900 with 8 megapixel camera and Carl Zeiss optics would blow away all the other Windows Phone devices, but sadly it just doesn’t impress me that much. I know megapixels really don’t define the camera, but when combined with a decent aperature and optics the HTC Titan II beats the Lumia 900 in the camera game. It is not just the camera on the Titan II that impresses, but the camera software enhancements that HTC provides help push it past the Lumia 900. You will find panorama mode, burst mode, many different scene choices, red eye reduction, image stabilization, and more."
From Review: Nokia Lumia 900 is the Premium Windows Phone We've Been Waiting (Complex):
"Camera focusing issues: Seems like Nokia’s shutterbug suffers from nearsightedness. Up close shots are money, but the auto focus struggles to frame objects when taking distant photos. It’s great having a dedicated button that automatically triggers the focus, but the feature makes it difficult to time snapshots and there’s no way of setting the focus on a particular background figure."
From Nokia Lumia 900 review (Pocket-lint):
"Our test shots were on the whole good, but we still got mixed results. Basically the more light you have the better the shots. Inside and the flash can be overbearing if your subject is too close, and without the flash the pictures can be noisy. Get the right lighting and the results are very good indeed. [...] The Lumia 900 can take great photos, just don't expect to produce perfect results every time."
From HTC One X vs Nokia Lumia 900 head-to-head review (
"The Lumia 900 doesn't do the basics nearly as well with the One X, with its photos regularly appearing washed out."
From Nokia Lumia 900 camera shoot-out vs. iPhone 4 (photos) (C|Net):
[Okay, in this shoout-out, Lumia 900 does okay. I'm including this report for comparison. - AD]
From Не как у всех. Обзор смартфона Nokia Lumia 900 (Вести.ru):
Качество снимков весьма неровное — от великолепного в подходящих условиях освещения и при удачном срабатывании фото-автоматики, до весьма посредственного. Четкость при максимальном увеличении нормальная, а вот цвета зачастую весьма далеки от правды. Во флагманских смартфонах других производителей камеры бывают лучше, достаточно упомянуть iPhone 4S, Samsung Galaxy S III или HTC One X. Видео (съемка Full HD не поддерживается, максимум 720p) получается качественное и с большим битрейтом (до 14 Мбит/с), но страдает время от времени от той же недостоверности цветов, а также от мечущегося автофокуса.
Here are some forums discussing the camera (and other) issues with Lumia 900: UPDATES:
If you struggle with Lumia's camera performance, try these recommendations:
Camera Tip: Taking better photos with your new Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone
How to take better photos with your Lumia 900 (read comments)

Some users report much better results when using third-party camera apps:
Widespread camera "focus" issues with the Lumia 900

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Nokia Lumia 900 phone review

Summary: Impressions from the first few days with Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone.
I have been using my new Nokia Lumia 900 Windows Phone for a few days, so want to share my first impressions.
First, some background.

Nokia Lumia 900 is my first smart phone. I spent a few weeks (okay, a couple of months) researching phones and this is what I figured out (I hope this info helps those looking for the first smart phone).

iPhone 4s offers the best overall quality (and camera in particular). Unfortunately, it is expensive (even with a 2-year plan): it would cost me close to $500 for two phones (for me and my wife, including the CA tax on the full price), and I'm not the kind of guy, who shells $500 on cell phones.

Samsung Galaxy S II seems to be the best overall Android phone (again, among other things, I am particularly interested in camera performance), but it also is not cheap. Besides, among the three platforms (iOS, Android and Windows Phone), I like Android the least.

I like the Windows Phone Metro interface, so when Amazon Wireless offered a $19.99 promotion on Nokia Lumia 900 (for AT&T plan upgrades), I took it. With Nokia's $100 credit, I will make about $160 on two phones, so for a cheapskate like me, this was a no-brainer.

My phone came with a free Micro USB Universal Car Charger (thanks, Amazon):
I also ordered Skinomi TechSkin Screen Protector:
The screen protector was easy to install. I noticed several small bubbles, but they disappeared after a couple of days. In addition to protecting the screen, the screen protector makes fingerprints less visible.

And I got a skin case (available in multiple colors):
The case is easy to put on and take off. It makes the phone slightly bulkier, but I hope it will be useful if the phone gets dropped.

Now, back to the phone. Here are my first impressions (before I forget).

Nokia Lumia 900 is a bit bigger than I expected (size-wise, my ideal phone is Samsung Focus Flash 4G), but the size is not overwhelming. It's a pleasure to hold the device in the hand.

I was not sure which phone color to pick. Read a few praises for the cyan version, but decided to stay with the classic black. I'm glad I did. When I saw the cyan at an AT&T store, I was not impressed (it's not bad, mind you, but not my kind of cyan). Now, if a white version were available (it is not, yet, but should be soon), I would get one of the two phones in white.

Despite lower screen resolution (800x480 vs. 960x640 in iPhone 4s), the display looks awesome, even when zoomed. Excellent colors.

The device is quite fast. I have read a few posts lamenting lack of support for dual-core processors in Windows Phone-based devices, but so far, single-core processor performance have been just fine. In fact, it seems to me that Lumia 900 is more responsive (when loading Web pages and using apps) than my top-of-the-line desktop. I'm using the phone over 4G and WiFi (there is no LTE coverage in my area, yet).

I LOVE WINDOWS PHONE OS!!! It took me a couple of hours and a few introductory articles to figure out the basics, but since I have no experience with smart phones, I suspect it would take a similar effort to switch to iOS or Android. The Metro interface looks clean and modern. Very user friendly. I'm not convinced that tiles are appropriate for a desktop OS, but they work great on a mobile phone. Home screen with customized tiles looks very pleasing.

I linked the phone with my Google and Microsoft Live accounts. There was a glitch with Google, so I had to use a workaround to get to my Gmail inbox (the problem went away in a day or so). Email and calendar interfaces are very nice. I use Google Calendar Sync to push updates between my Google account and Outlook, and it works very well.

I took the phone to the AT&T store to complete activation and got the contacts moved from my old phone. Lumia merged my contacts with contacts at Google and Facebook. Finding contacts now is very easy. I really like the feature that allows me to link multiple contacts.

Support for international keyboards came as a pleasant surprise. It took a couple of clicks taps to enable the Russian keyboard. Much easier than I had expected. Great job, Microsoft!

The free Nokia Drive (GPS navigation) app that comes with the phone is quite good, as long as you do not need lane assistance or text to speech. It does not spell out names of the streets, but it gives accurate and timely instructions. I did not have any problem using turn by turn navigation.

I had a bit of a trouble trying to find some apps when using Marketplace on the phone. In particular, I could not find Skype via the phone, even though it was available on the Marketplace website (could be because it was still in beta). Being able to push and install apps from Marketplace on the web (as opposed to the phone) helped.

I have been looking for the left and right arrow keys on the keyboard (so that I could move the cursor in the text fields), until I found an article explaining how to move the cursor. If you need to know: tap on the text field approximately where you want the cursor to move, and if you miss the exact spot (since fingers on small screens are not precise), hold it until you see a cursor marker above the finger, then just drag it to the left or right until it moves to the desired position. Smart, but not very intuitive.

I wish that the Back, Home, and Search buttons were illuminated in sync with the screen. Now, if you use the phone in the dark, you do not see them unless you press one of the buttons. They are not that difficult to find, but it may take a few attempts in the dark, so making the buttons visible would be helpful.

I installed a few apps (Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Flickr, and more), but several apps were not available for Windows Phone. In particular, my credit union only offers apps for iPhone and Android. So does Mint. I will cover apps and shortcuts in a separate post.

As a long-term Zune user (and heavy podcast listener), I wondered how Windows Phone would deal with my existing music collection and podcast subscriptions. After initial hiccup, it seemed to have worked fine. Nokia synced my collections and subscriptions with my computer. I have not tried to use it concurrently with my classic Zune, yet.

I wish there were an option to select all email messages in the inbox via one tap (instead of manually checking each group).

I also wish I did not have to go through the hoops to view battery indicator.

Call quality is decent. Signal strength is similar to what I had before Lumia. Battery life is as expected. Upon initial and (probably incomplete) charge, it lasted all day of heavy use (I was configuring the phone, installing apps, learning features, etc).

Now, the bad part: despite very promising specs, Lumia 900's camera is disappointing (to put it nicely): lots of noise, bad colors in low light, white balance is off, etc. It may be a software issue, but since Nokia keeps quiet on this topic, it's not clear whether this problem is acknowledged and/or will be addressed. This issue deserves special attention -- at least for those of us who care about camera performance -- so I'll cover it in a separate post.

See also:
Windows Phone site at Microsoft
Get Started with Windows Phone
Microsoft Answers for Windows Phone
Windows Phone: Feature Suggestions
Nokia Lumia 900: your questions answered
Nokia Lumia 900 Facebook page
"I can't even think about switching phones without these apps." Windows Phone 7, a Nokia Lumia 800 and the Essential Apps
72 Windows Phone 7 tips and tricks

UPDATE (Apr 22, 2012): I was using Nokia Drive as a primary GPS navigation system on a recent trip to Bay Area, and about a mile before I needed to make a turn on a freeway, my phone froze: the GPS screen got locked in the same position, the phone did not respond to any actions, I had to press and hold the power button for about 10 seconds to perform hard reboot. Once I realized that my position on the GPS display was not moving, I have passed my exit, and it took me about 20 minutes to return to the route. Can't say if this was an issue with the phone (hardware), Nokia Drive app, Windows Phone OS, or any combination of the three.

A few other observations. Accidentally dropped the phone from about 3 feet on a concrete floor; it's good that it was in a case; no damage detected. It's easy to accidentally tap the Search button when using the camera. Calendar reminder does not have an option to snooze to be reminded again in whatever minutes before start (as Outlook does). Still no option to change the playback speed when listening to podcasts. Answering a call is a two-step process; I wish it required one tap. I had to look for and watch a short video to learn that to close an app, you need to tap the Back key. There is no increasing ring volume option (i.e. when the ringer starts at low volume and gradually increases to the specified level); seriously? I have been using this feature in every cheap non-smart phone I ever had; come on Nokia/Microsoft. I cannot find a way to switch into a meeting mode (i.e. change ring to vibration) in a single step (a shortcut would be nice).