There are two ways to look at the Nokia N86 8MP:
2) It’s Nokia’s flagship cameraphone, the rightful successor to the awesome Nokia N82, now packing an 8 megapixel sensor and a wide angle, variable aperture Carl Zeiss lens.
Maybe it’s a little bit of both?
There’s absolutely no doubt that the N86 is a worthy upgrade to the N95, but as a mobile photography enthusiast, I was expecting more from the camera, especially in terms of usability!
The N86 features an 8 megapixel sensor, a Carl Zeiss lens, fast auto-focus with macro, a dual LED flash, and an active lens cover. There’s also geo-tagging, panorama-stitching, face detection, manual settings, and VGA video recording.
The result? It’s been a mixed bag. While the N86 definitely takes excellent pictures overall (slide show), it’s been a frustrating experience.
On one hand the N86 exhibits great color balance and exposure, surely thanks to the superior optics and proven image processing algorithms. But strangely, the level of detail is more akin to that of a decent 5 megapixel phone.
Beyond the minor differences in time-of-day and perspective, pay attention to the smaller “no parking” sign and the building edges in the background, which appear more blurry and jagged with the N86.
Here’s an uncorrected night shot made first with the N86, second with the C905a, and third with the Memoir (click to enlarge):
Clearly, the Memoir (bottom) is the king of the hill – sure there’s more noise, but there’s also more light. The C905a (middle) fares relatively well except for color balance, while the N86 (top) lacks definition.
Note that since the N86 features a wide angle lens, I decided to move closer to the street, hence the slightly different perspective.
Contrary to the competition and the N82, which include a xenon flash, the N86 is only equipped with a dual LED flash. This is rather unfortunate – although modern LEDs have come a long way, there’s still no substitute for xenon, especially with moving subjects.
Here’s an unaltered picture taken using the flash, first with the N86, second with the C905a, and third with the Memoir (click to enlarge):
Obviously, xenon is preferable to LEDs – sure, the C905a (middle) looks overexposed, but the Memoir (bottom) nails it, even preserving the background.
Startup time is fast, but the 2-stage shutter button is too small and too stiff, often resulting in shaky shots. The familiar interface feels clunky, and retains flaws dating back to the original N95 – such as resetting preferences (like the flash) each time the camera is started.
But the worst usability issue is a change in autofocus behavior that Nokia introduced a few firmware revisions ago.
Instead of always focusing in the center of the viewfinder, letting you re-frame the subject between the first and second detent of the shutter button, the N86 picks the area of the shot that it thinks you’re focusing on. Problem is, it generally selects the wrong part of in the picture…
Take a look at this video demonstration:
Yes, it’s extremely annoying and remains a deal-breaker for me!
In terms of video recording, the N86 handles 640×480 pixels (VGA) at 30 fps. There’s no initial autofocus, but the default focus is optimized for portraits, which is a reasonable compromise (same as the N95).
One of the nice tricks of the N86 is that it provides image stabilization for video recording without any reduction in quality. However, it’s prone to dropping frames right after initiating capture.
Here is a sample video (download original):
As a smartphone, the N86 is packed with features like an OLED screen, quick processor, tri-band 3G, WiFi, GPS, and the latest and greatest iteration of S60v3. It’s possibly the finest Nseries device in terms of build quality, thanks in part to the glass front and metal bezel.
As a cameraphone, the N86 is really nice, but it’s just not good enough. I was hoping for more from Nokia, and I’m going to hang on to my beloved Memoir for now :)