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Zoom, zoom: Samsung’s Galaxy K Zoom 10x optical camera phone reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 12:41 pm 15/07/2014

Cameras and phones have well and truly merged by now, but has the phone really replaced the camera? Not yet, as far as Samsung is concerned, but that could change with its latest release, the K Zoom, which integrates a 10x optical zoom 20 megapixel camera with — you guessed it — a phone.

Features

Another week, another phone, and this time it’s one that could be mistaken for a camera, especially when you see it.

Yes, it’s the Galaxy K Zoom, Samsung’s follow-up to the Galaxy S4 Zoom, which made its way to Australian shelves last year with the look of a smaller Galaxy S4 strapped to the back of a camera.

This year, the style is different, and so is the technology, with Samsung moving to new hardware across the board.

For starters, there’s a 4.8 inch inch Super AMOLED touchscreen running 1280×720, also known as 720p, and protected with Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 3. With this combination of technology, the screen isn’t the best on the market, but shows a close-to-Retina value of 306 pixels per inch, just 20 below the iPhone 5S.

Tech spec wise, the K Zoom seeks to impress with its own hexa-core processor, a Samsung Exynos chip made up of a quad-core 1.3GHz chip working alongside a dual-core 1.7GHz processor, with 2GB RAM also available here. Storage in the Galaxy K Zoom is set to 8GB internal, but this can easily be upgraded with a microSD card.

Connections are mostly standard, with 802.11a/b/g/n — no ac here, folks — as well as Bluetooth 4.0 with A2DP and LE. Near-Field Communication (NFC), GPS, A-GPS, microUSB for the wired charge and data transfer, and support for up to Category 4 4G LTE meaning downloads as high as 150Mbps are possible from this handset.

The camera is the final thing in this package, and given that this is a camera phone hybrid, probably one of the most important.

As such, you’ll find a 20.7 megapixel sensor here working underneath a 10x optical sensor equivalent to around 24-240mm comparative to a 35mm camera.

A flash is also included, as is support for video capture, with up to Full HD’s 1080p catered for here. Samsung has been generous enough to include a front-facing camera as well, setting that to 2 megapixel.

Buttons are mostly typical fare, especially when compared with other Samsung Galaxy products, with the front facing buttons still built into hardware, unlike many of the Android devices out there: there’s the multi-task soft button on the left, back button on the right, and physical home button in the middle.

Side buttons are mostly the same, with a volume rocker and power button on the right edge, but with a shutter button below these shaped like a thicker version of the thin power button, and in a different colour.

Ports, on the other hand, are exactly what you’ll expect from a Samsung phone, with a 3.5mm headset jack up top and a microUSB port at the very bottom. The microSD card slot can be found on the left edge.

The back of the phone is removable, revealing a replaceable battery and the microSIM slot.

The battery on the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is rated for 2430mAh.

Performance

You probably wouldn’t be surprised if we told you that sales of compact cameras are on the decline, and you only have to look at smartphones to see why: every phone has a camera in it, and since we all have a smartphone, there’s less of a reason to carry around a dedicated camera unless we’re after better quality — like say that from a mirror-less or digital SLR — or need to get closer to our subjects.

With that in mind, Samsung has been investing in camera phone hybrids, that is a phone with more camera than other smartphones.

Last year’s S4 Zoom certainly fit that bill, incorporating a 10x optical shooter in one of its Galaxy S4 bodies, at the time, the S4 Mini. But that was a year ago, and it’s time to do some upgrading, and that brings us to Samsung’s new K Zoom.

Take a look at the K Zoom and there’s a very clear and obvious departure from the S4 Zoom, with a product that looks closer to what Samsung envisioned with Galaxy S5. There’s the similar shape on the front, the same almost ovular home button flanked on each side by a multi-task and back button, and a dimpled texture on the plastic back.

Seriously, this couldn’t be more Galaxy S5 if it tried to be, and we suppose that’s the idea, as Samsung starts to turn all its products into adopting this style.

Pick up the phone and it’s clear that while it’s not an S5, the K Zoom is more a phone and less a camera, a total 180 from the product Samsung produced last year.

There’s still a big camera ring with a zoom lens behind it, but the look is more like that of a phone, with no camera grip, but rather a pronounced lens extrusion from a thick smartphone body.

That change makes the K Zoom a very different beast, as it now feels more like a camera strapped to a phone, different from last year’s phone strapped to a camera body, which was the approach the S4 Zoom took.

No camera grip on this model means there’s no round shutter button, with that part exchanged for something thin and long and very reminiscent of the power and volume rockers used on the current Galaxy handsets.

Pressing and holding that shutter button won’t launch you into the camera mode either, which is something that has stuck around from the prior model, even though phones from Nokia and Sony let you skip the homescreen and go straight from being locked into taking pictures.

That’s something a subsequent firmware update could fix, and really, it’s not overly important in the grand scheme of things, especially in comparison to actually using the product, so let’s get stuck into that.

A camera heavy phone really has two parts of the performance, with the camera and the phone, so we’ll tackle them one by one.

Before we get stuck into either, however, you need to know that Android 4.4.2 “KitKat” runs here, which means this is both a Google phone and a Google camera, able to get pictures online quickly and easily, while also making phone calls.

Pictures are a big part of what the K Zoom is all about, though, because this phone is more camera than your typical smartphone, integrating a 20.7 megapixel sensor with a 10x optical zoom lens. Yes, that’s proper optical, and while we loved the Nokia Lumia 1020 with its crop-to-zoom 40 megapixel sensor, the K Zoom is all about actual proper zoom.

As such, this means you’ll have a range of 24 to 240mm to work with, with an aperture range of F3.1 at 24mm and f6.3 at the far end, 240mm.

That’s longer than any smartphone you’ll find, and means the difference between taking a photo of someone next to you and someone on the other side of the road, which is something very possible with the K Zoom.

The quality won’t be strong enough to replace a mirror-less or digital SLR, but for the most part, the K Zoom holds its own, with strong colours in day light, some decent blacks at night, and a manual mode for those of you keen to get into the nitty gritty if need be.

Images can be sharp when viewed on the screen, but get them close and you’ll find some obvious floral dotting, putting this camera more in line with what a compact offers than anything professional.

That said, we’re not totally surprised by that, and if you’re heading on holiday, that will probably suit you just fine, as it means the compact can be left at home, getting everything done on the smartphone instead of taking an extra gadget.

There’s also another side to the K Zoom, and that’s the extra emphasis Samsung has placed on photo modes.

For instance, while there’s your regular assortment of photography modes — macro, night, snow, food, panorama, HDR, landscape, waterfall, action freeze, sunset, fireworks, party, and more — there’s also another mode which will grab attention, with “Pro Suggest.”

Pro Suggest tries to act as your professional photography mentor to tell you what you need, ignoring the basic camera modes and suggesting special modes based on your composition, modes which will change the colour or look of the image based on what you’re doing.

In this mode, if you tap to focus, you’ll find a list of options pop up in thumbnail form at the bottom of the screen, suggesting different looks that you can use, changing the style of photo. To get out, you merely press the back button on the phone or on screen and you’ll be sent back to the regular Pro Suggest mode.

Pro Suggest can also have other camera modes downloaded into it with the “Pro Suggest Market,” which has some regular modes you’ll like — text, sunny day, vivid landscape, rainy day, no flash, and countless others — as well as some more peculiar ones such as “cinematic” which also reads as “woman” and “washed out” which also reads as “man.”

We’re not sure quite what Samsung is trying to say about either gender, and probably put this down to one of those lost in translation categorisation things, but it’s still interesting to see, regardless.

If you can't find the mode you want to shoot with, simply download another.

Also helping the K Zoom prove its photographic mettle is “Studio,” which is a creative photography app that comes with the K Zoom, offering a video editor, photo editor, and a collage app similar to what PicFrame and Diptic offer on Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. Basically, this just stops you from buying a collage and photoframe app unless you want something with more frame options.

Moving onto the phone’s actual performance, and while it’s obvious the K Zoom isn’t the flagship Galaxy S5, it’s still no slouch.

The chip inside isn’t the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 like the S5, so you won’t find best in class performance, but with Samsung’s combination of a quad-core and dual-core chip in its Exynos processor, we found a synthetic benchmark of around 15000, under the S5 which clocks in at a little over 23000.

That’s not the same amount of grunt, but it’s still not bad, and with 2GB RAM — Android’s sweet spot — and a very up-to-date version of Android, the K Zoom holds its own pretty well. You may find the odd obvious slow down here and there, with a little lag as you jump between apps, and the occasional sound stutter when you’re listening to music, but for the most part it performs quite well.

It still works as a phone, and now that the K Zoom looks like a phone, you won’t look strange for holding a camera to the side of your head to make calls, unlike its S4 Zoom brother.

Mobile performance is also decent, with top 4G speeds ranging from 20 to 40Mbps in our tests, with more possible dependent on the network you’re on, while the battery lasts only a day for regular activities.

Use the camera for a few hours at a time and the battery won’t even hit the full day we experienced, but by and large, for most people, it’s a day of life with a charge at night.

If you don’t use the camera or screen much, you might get a little more, but if you don’t use either, we have to wonder why you’re considering a phone that’s built as a camera phone.

One thing did throw us off when very so often, there appears to be a pretty major glitch that stops you from using the phone for a good thirty seconds or so, and we’re not sure why, but if this happens, wait that up-to-a-minute time and the phone will return to being usable.

But that glitch is just the starting point, showing the K Zoom isn’t everything it could be, and it even misses out on some of the positives of the previous model.

One of these is the tripod mount which has disappeared on this incarnation. Over on the S4 Zoom, Samsung had provided a small tripod thread for people to mount their camera, but as we’ve previously mentioned, the K Zoom is more phone than camera, and so that feature has been removed.

Also missing in action is the rotation ring around the lens which in the S4 Zoom allowed you to change modes very quickly or zoom the lens when you were in the camera mode.

Since the K Zoom doesn’t have a ring you can control, modes have to be switched through the touchscreen and zoom has to be performed either by pressing the volume rocker or by pinching and zooming with your fingers, neither of which is as fluid as fiddling with the ring around the lens.

Samsung has also kept the dock locked on this version, making it next to impossible to change the icons and shortcuts at the bottom of the phone. It’s a move that we’ve never agreed with, and while Samsung has never given an official explanation for this practise, it did remove the lock recently on its Galaxy S5, so hopefully it will fix this later on.

Heft is still very present on this handset, an issue that’s part and parcel of the package given that it has a thickness of 16mm, twice the thickness of the Galaxy S5. It’s heavier, too, tacking on close to 60 grams, bringing the weight of the handset up to 200 grams and making it one of the chunkiest smartphones you can bring in your pocket.

There are also little things that surprise us, such as the inclusion of only 8GB storage, making a microSD a must have purchase if you plan to take more than 150 photos, which you most definitely well. There’s no infrared port either, a staple on the multimedia rich Galaxy models, and yet not found here.

And there’s not a lick of 4K, which really surprises us, especially when you consider that the camera on offer in the K Zoom is technically better, but lacks the ultra high definition goodness found in its flagship S5 brother.

Given that the K Zoom is a camera, we’re surprised by this. We really are.

Last year's Galaxy S4 Zoom on the left, the Galaxy K Zoom (this review) in the middle, and the Galaxy S5 on the right.

Conclusion

Samsung’s update to its hybrid Galaxy S4 Zoom camera phone is, like that model, an interesting beast. On the one hand, it provides one of the best pocketable cameras you can find around, and pairs it with some otherwise decent smartphone innards, most of which will suit everyone out there.

On the other hand, it’s still very chunky, and if you carry it in your pocket, you’ll feel it as you walk, lending itself better to a handbag or backpack. The software glitches also don’t help much either, and some of the missing camera features — like a proper grip, shutter button, and tripod mount — set itself apart from other cameras, as well.

But keep in mind, this is a phone, and a phone that can replace your camera.

One important questions readers might have is if this is a better camera than what you’ll find on the Galaxy S5? The answer to that is yes, and without question, and the software even goes a long way to suggest that Samsung is even thinking about the K Zoom more like a connected camera — one of those new fandangled “smart cameras” — than just an ordinary one. But is it a better phone? That remains to be seen.

Basically, if you’re struggling to work out what you want with the K Zoom, it’s worth going in store and trying it out, to see if you like the heft of the handset, because it is noticeable.

If you can live with the weight, the K Zoom offers up more camera than the S5 can lay claim to, and it’s not a bad phone either.

 

Price (RRP)

$749

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

One of the most versatile smartphone cameras you'll find today; Looks more phone-like than the last Samsung camera-phone hybrid; Supports fast 4G connectivity;

Product Cons

Chunky; No infrared; The odd performance glitch here and there holds up the phone; Shutter button doesn't go right into the camera like it does on other phones;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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