Nokia 9 PureView hands-on: All of the cameras and none of the gimmicks

The photographer's phone has arrived.

nokia 9 cameras
Michael Simon/IDG

Compared to Samsung's folding phone and LG's touchless UI, the Nokia 9 PureView, HMD's first flagship of 2019, is decidedly simple in its ambitions. It merely wants to take the best possible photos ever recorded by a smartphone.

Actually achieving it, however, isn't simple at all. The back of the Nokia 9 sports a unique penta-lens array of cameras, plus a sensor and a flash, arranged in a neat hexagonal pattern. Clockwise from top, you get:

  1. 12MP monochrome, f/1.8 
  2. Time of Flight sensor
  3. 12MP monochrome, f/1.8
  4. 12MP RGB, f/1.8
  5. LED flash
  6. 12MP monochrome, f/1.8 (center)
nokia 9 back Michael Simon/IDG

The Nokia 9 has a glass back and lots of cameras.

So there's no ultra-wide or telephoto lens on the Nokia 9, and in fact, none of the cameras are particularly revolutionary on their own. But they're not meant to work alone. When you snap a photo with the Nokia 9, all five cameras spring into action to capture up to 240MP of data. The images are then instantaneously fused together into a single 12MP HDR picture (or a giant RAW one). I expected there to be a second or two of processing time due to five cameras individually adjusting exposure and white balance on the fly, but the shutter on the Nokia 9 snaps just as fast as any other smartphone's.

The results are pretty stunning. HMD showed off some sample shots that easily could have been taken by a high-end DSLR, with incredible color accuracy and exposure, and enough resolution to zoom in many times without losing crispness. Images are so editable, in fact, that HMD has partnered with Adobe to offer an optimized version of Lightroom that you may choose to install during setup. I tested it briefly, and it looks like it would be fine in an emergency. I can't imagine many photographers plan to do intensive photo editing on their teeny phone screens

I could even see the difference on the quick shots I took on my own. Colors were bright and incredibly accurate. Even on a snowy day through a window, I captured an impressive cityscape with details that went unnoticed in the same pic taken with my Galaxy S9.

nokia 9 bezels Michael Simon/IDG

The Nokia 9 hides all of its tricks on the back.

The extra depth is due to the Nokia 9's time-of-flight camera, which gives the phone the ability to capture 1,200 layers of depth when shooting portraits. That means your bokeh shots have realistic blur without the usual computational issues. For example, wisps of hair stay sharply in focus, and background images retain their proper distance and aren't muddied into a single blur.

A little mid, a little high

Aside from the artistic camera array, the Nokia 9 feels more like a mix of premium and mid-range. The bluish metallic finish on the back of the case also extends to the front, giving it a unique personality amongst the sea of black-clad competitor phones. The camera array is the only element on the back, as the fingerprint sensor now resides under the display.

nokia 9 front Michael Simon/IDG

That's not a Pixel 3 I'm holding, it's a Nokia 9.

The 6-inch OLED HDR10 display is somewhat reminiscent of the Google Pixel 3's, with rounded corners, no notch, and very visible bezels all around. At 8mm, it's just thick enough to ensure none of the cameras need a bump, which helps the system blend seamlessly into the enclosure.

HMD didn't show off any cases for the Nokia 9, however, and I have to wonder how they will work. Will there be a giant cutout for the whole array, or six individual circles for the cameras and flash? I asked but Nokia didn't say, and my guess is either solution will be less than ideal.

While the cameras might get all of the attention on the Nokia 9, the heavy lifting is done by the Snapdragon 845 processor. Qualcomm says no other phone uses as much of the chip as the Nokia 9 does, most notably the full Spectra 280 Image Signal Processor. The optimizations are also evident when you're not shooting photos, thanks to Android One Pie edition.

nokia 9 snap Michael Simon/IDG

The camera app on the Nokia 9 isn't stock Android—it's better.

Like the rest of Nokia's lineup, the Nokia 9 runs a near-stock version of Android on its 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, and 3,320mAh battery. Those specs are plenty for Android One. The only main visual difference between what you get on the Pixel and what you get on the Nokia 9 is the camera app, which has several features not found in Google's camera, including an excellent manual mode.

It seems like every smartphone these days boasts its camera is the best, but the Nokia 9 just might be able to justify it, even without a gimmick. Nokia says the phone will be available on a limited basis in the U.S. If you can get your hands on one it'll cost less than $700, or about $140 per camera, whichever way you want to look at it.

  
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