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Holidays will never be the same: Samsung’s first true camera-phone reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 10:54 am 03/12/2013

Phones have had cameras for a long time, but these have been phones with cameras inside of them. If you’re looking for a camera first with a phone inside, Samsung has the answer with the Galaxy S4 Zoom, a camera with 10x optical zoom and a 4G phone inside.

Features

A phone with a dedicated camera complete with optical zoom in it? Samsung might have made the photographer’s dream with this one, taking the looks of the S4 and not just shrinking them down from 5 inches to 4.3, but also stuffing it into the body of a camera.

So what’s inside this hybrid camera-phone device that makes it so special?

For starters, there’s dual-core 1.5GHz Cortex A9 processor paired with 1.5GB RAM and 8GB storage, though the latter of this can be upgraded with a microSD slot, with as much as 64GB of storage. Android 4.2 “Jelly Bean” runs with this, with the Australian version of Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay to Android, just like on the Samsung Galaxy S4, S4 Active, Galaxy Note 3, and any other smartphone released from April onwards from Samsung.

Connectivity options are similar to the S4 range, and include infrared support for using the camera-phone like a remote control, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n, DLNA, Near-Field Communication, microUSB, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, and the ability to connect to 4G LTE networks.

The screen, as mentioned earlier on, is a 4.3 inch touchscreen display relying on Super AMOLED technology, and showing a resolution of 960×540, also known as quarter-HD, with roughly 256 pixels per inch. This display is protected by the third generation of Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass technology, though, so it should hold its own against the occasional scratch and set of keys.

Interestingly, the camera is one of the more important parts of this phone, since it’s literally a phone inside of a camera.

As such, there is a 16 megapixel (in 4:3 mode) autofocus camera here, with 10x optical that can be controlled by a ring around the camera, equivalent technically to 24-240mm. Optical image stabilisation is included in the package, as is a flash, with video able to be recorded at Full HD 1080p 30fps.

A front-facing camera is also included — because selfies are important, but hard to take when you can’t see the screen — and for that, Samsung has provided a 1.9 megapixel camera.

With regard to buttons, there are slightly more on this device than on other smartphones, due to the fact that the S4 Zoom is primarily a camera and then a phone. As such, you’ll find the regular Samsung smartphone home button, flanked on each side by menu and back soft buttons, while the right edge has both the power button and volume rocker for the phone, and large shutter button for the camera.

Zoom is handled by the camera ring, which allows you to get up close and personal with your subject from a distance.

Ports are also easily accessed on this camera-phone, too, with a 3.5mm jack at the top of the phone, microSD slot on the left side of the device, and microUSB at the very bottom, sitting inside a flap that covers the removable 2330mAh battery and microSIM slot.

A tripod mount is also included on the phone, covered by white piece of plastic, as well as a set of holes which can be tied with a camera strap.

Performance

Boy, Samsung sure experiments with some neat ideas.

Last year (2012), the company made headlines when it blended half a mobile phone and a camera to make the Galaxy Camera, what was essentially a Galaxy S3 with a camera strapped to the back, and yet no ability to make phone calls.

This year, Samsung is changing the formula slightly, capitalising on the idea that people might want a smartphone with a decent camera. You can take pictures from afar, surf the web, social network, and hey, even make phone calls, because in the Galaxy S4 Zoom, Samsung is taking some of the features and design of the Galaxy S4 Mini and strapping it to the back of a compact camera.

The idea makes sense to us: dedicated compact cameras are beginning to fade away, especially as every smartphone gets a camera inside, many of them decent, so a smartphone with a dedicated camera complete with 10x optical makes even more sense, and we can see people who love to take pictures with their phone jumping all over this concept.

Pick it up, though, and you’ll see that it feels just like a camera, with an extruded lens, long flash, small grip with shutter button up top, and yet a 4.3 inch touchscreen on the back for both the phone and the camera.

Despite the overall chunk and heft the Galaxy S4 Zoom has, the camera-phone is still relatively easy to hold, no doubt due to the placement of the lens.

By holding the lens with your thumb and forefinger and letting the phone rest in your hand, the device maintains a comfortable handhold, which is better than we expected, because this style of device — a camera with a working phone installed at the back — hasn’t been quite attempted before.

Android used here relies on Jelly Bean, and if you’ve ever seen a Samsung from this year, operating of the phone is no different.

There’s a shortcut dock, multiple homescreens, widgets, application menu, dropdown notification bar, and everything else you can run on Android.

In a way, it’s like the Galaxy Camera, except smaller and with a phone inside, but given that this is a camera first and then a phone, we might as well start with the optics and make our way to the telecommunications, because the camera is a big reason as to why someone would want this handset.

Controlling the camera is easy enough, though not all apps will work with these controls, similar to what we found when Samsung launched its Galaxy Camera last year.

You can switch the camera on either by running the camera app on the phone (conveniently located on the shortcut dock) or by pressing down hard on the shutter button. Conversely, if you rotate the ring around the lens, Samsung will load up a mode selector to let you jump straight into a camera mode without any fuss.

Once you’re in the camera, it’s just like using any other camera, except with a slight twist: instead of finding a zoom button or even using the volume button to zoom, you rotate the lens ring to activate the 10x optical zoom.

This change of controls means a traditional hand hold for the camera is still possible, though because of the 15mm thickness, can be a little uncomfortable.

The manual mode lets you use the touchscreen to change the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and more.

Regardless, the camera is easy to use, and surprisingly quick, with shots possible in automatic modes, various scene modes, and even a few manual modes with aperture, shutter, and ISO control. While the manual mode is a nice touch, the aperture control only consists of two apertures, so don’t expect much here.

There’s also a colour change mode which adds a colour filter to whatever you’re shooting, making it possible to make the scene warmer or colder in the camera.

Not all apps will work with this camera natively, though, and you shouldn’t expect Instagram (for instance) to pick up on the zoom controls, because third party apps just don’t seem to recognise these controls.

Rather, if you plan on using zoom with apps that don’t yet support Samsung’s special control wheel, take the picture first and then run it through your app of choice.

Image quality from the camera is decent, though not superb, but some great shots are possible, and we found the macro surprisingly impressive.

Up close, there’s some obvious pixilation and artefacts that can be noticed, but for most people, the 16 megapixel in 4:3 and 12 megapixel in 16:9 will produce solid colours, great depth, and a better image than any other Android smartphone out there.

A different image shot on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom (100 percent crop). Full image, and a few other examples, can be found in the gallery.

But remember, this isn’t just a camera; it’s also a phone, and it’s not bad at performing this duty.

For starters, the 4G LTE connectivity is pretty good, managing some high speeds in our tests across the Telstra network in Sydney.

Mobile phone calls and SMS are possible here too, more than what you could do in the Galaxy Camera, and Samsung has also included it’s updated gesture-keyboard based on SwiftKey’s technology, too.

The inclusion of a dual-core processor has no doubt had an impact on the battery life, and you can find between one day and a day and a half of life.

We’d suggest charging nightly, but generally we found that if you don’t use you phone and camera often — regular work day with web surfing, streaming music, email, social networking, phone calls, messages, etc — you’ll get a day and a half, and if you use the camera-phone like a dedicated camera while still making calls and doing that whole mobile life thing, the life is closer to a day.

That said, a day to a day and a half isn’t bad for a phone, especially one with a dedicated camera inside, so we were quite surprised here.

There some downsides to Samsung’s first real camera-phone, however, and these generally come from the sacrifices Samsung has made to keep this device small, as well as the obvious one that you’ll find from using a real cameraphone.

That obvious issue is that when you’re using the phone as a phone, everyone else will just see you holding a camera up to your head and talking into it.

This has the potential to make you look a little strange because, well, you’re talking into a camera, and that’s all people can see. If the opinions of complete strangers doesn’t matter to you, no need to worry, but if you’re a little concerned about what you look like in day-to-day life, that’s just something you’ll have to keep in mind.

At least it’s better than publicly talking into a shoe, though we’re sure Maxwell Smart will disagree there.

Another problem with the design extends from the fact that, yes, this is a camera with a phone in it, and that’s the overall chunk and heft the S4 zoom carries with it.

Make no mistake, this is not a small phone, and as we discovered testing it in different jeans, pockets just aren’t too fond of the heft, especially if the owner of the pants likes to wear those skinny jeans.

With a thickness of 15.4mm, the Galaxy S4 Zoom isn’t exactly in line to win awards for how much of a diet it’s been able to go on, especially with a weight of 208 grams.

Remember that the S4 Zoom is technically a camera with a small phone installed at the back, similar to last year’s Galaxy Camera, except with the phone part of the device actually enabled.

Because of this whole “phone-in-a-camera” design, you’re getting a slimmed down camera with a phone in it, and that means dealing with the thickness and weight of a camera, rather than that of a phone, with much of that thickness coming from the optical zoom, because unlike every other smartphone out there, the S4 Zoom isn’t reliant on the pixelated uselessness that is digital zoom.

The remaining issues with the S4 Zoom come from Samsung installing a small phone into the camera, and we need to get this out of the way early on: just because this is called the “S4 Zoom” doesn’t mean you’re getting an S4 inside a zoomable camera. Far from it, in fact.

The specs are different, the screen is different, the performance is different, and about the only things that the S4 Zoom shares in common with the other S4 models is the design and colour choice of the phone section, and some of the connectivity options.

Move past this, and the S4 Zoom shares more in common with the S3, with a similar style of processor (Cortex-A9) with less cores activated, resulting in lower performance that you can really see.

Hit the camera button and the camera doesn’t always activate. Apps take a little longer to switch to, and there may be times that you just get a little tired of waiting for the program you’ve selected to switch on.

It can be a little like that in the S4 Zoom, and the benchmarks more or less tell you that this device performs under what last year’s Galaxy S3 could do, which is something we expected from the dual-core chip against the S3’s quad-core variant. Overall, this just isn’t a fast device.

The screen quality also leaves something to be desired, and definitely doesn’t mesh with the S4’s Full HD image quality, dropping to well below it with a quarter-HD resolution of 960×540 on a 4.3 inch screen.

We don’t expect Full HD on a 4.3 inch display, and it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but high definition would be nice, and while the 256 pixels per inch screen is nice and relatively clear (albeit 70 pixels below the quality of the iPhone 5S), it’s still not quite up to the 440 pixels per inch in the Galaxy S4.

There is another thing that links the S4 Zoom to the other models in the S4 line, though, and it’s not a positive thing: the bugs.

Yes, those pesky shortcut dock and gallery bugs are present here, at least in our Australian review model. It might be something that other countries don’t have, but Australians definitely see it in the local edition of Samsung TouchWiz, and that includes the inability to run the gallery without it crashing — useful on a camera-phone, no doubt — and the fact that you can’t change a single icon or shortcut in the dock.

We’ve noted in the past that it’s best to download a different gallery app to get around the gallery failures of Samsung’s TouchWiz issues for Australians, and as for the shortcut dock, you’ll need a different launcher. We skipped the different launcher in our review, but downloaded Gallery ICS to complete our review, mostly because Samsung’s own gallery app just refused to work, and crashed frequently, just like it did on the S4 and Galaxy Note 3.

A fix would be appreciated for these issues, Samsung. The S4 has been out since April, and it’s December now. Surely that’s enough time to work out what’s going on here.

Image shot on the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom.

Conclusion

It’s easily one of the more unique concepts we’ve seen to come out of a company’s R&D labs, and is really the first time we’ve seen a phone make the camera the true priority. So does it work?

The answer is yes, though be prepared for the massive chunk that the camera-phone leaves in your pocket.

That said, using it garnered more attention than we expected, with many people intrigued by the combination of a camera with 10x optical and a smartphone. And that’s kind of what it is: a mediocre phone with a decent camera inside.

If you’re someone who wants a camera first with a phone in it, and if you take a lot of pictures on the go, the S4 Zoom is a great choice, but make sure you have the pockets for it.

Price (RRP)

$699

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Battery is removable; 4G speeds are excellent; Battery isn't bad at all; Includes a tripod mount; Camera has a lot of modes to choose from; Infrared port included, effectively turning this into a cameraphone that doubles as a remote;

Product Cons

You'll look a little... odd... holding a camera to your head when you want to call someone; Not a very fast phone performance-wise; Very chunky and not made for all pants; Low res screen is pretty well under what has been used in the S4 name before; Still exhibits regular Australian TouchWiz problems with shortcut dock and gallery;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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