Samsung’s Galaxy brand is about to extend past the whole smartphone and tablet thing, marrying the screen and processor technology from its phones to a new breed of camera that lets you jump online and share right after you’ve snapped the shot.
At the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, we saw the first cameras to be shown that ran on Google’s Android operating system, potentially opening up the world of Android apps to a device that could take quality pictures, not just images from yet another smartphone camera.
Think of the potential: high-quality Instagram images, Photoshop editing on the camera, and tweeting with a capable camera.
Now at the end of 2012, Samsung has released its first attempt at this new area, and while it’s the third camera we’ve heard of to incorporate Android, it’s the first to bring with it an insanely recent version of Google’s operating system, with Samsung equipping it with Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean,” which is so new that it’s not even on most of Samsung’s phones and tablets.
There are more smarts to this camera than just the operating system, though, with Samsung literally combining a smartphone and a camera to make this device.
There’s the 4.8 inch 720p HD Super AMOLED screen sitting on the back, and a quad-core Exynos CPU sitting underneath alongside 1GB of RAM.
Those specs are literally found on the 3G Galaxy S3, and this camera even supports WiFi 802.11 b/g/n, a microSIM for connecting over 3G, Bluetooth, microSD, and a GPS, cementing our belief that Samsung pretty much just strapped a phone to the back of a camera.
That camera is obviously different from the one inside a smartphone, however, supporting optical zoom, something no smartphone has had before this. The lens in the Galaxy Camera is of the 21x variety, supporting a whopping 23-481mm when compared to a traditional 35mm camera, and shooting on a 16.3 megapixel sensor.
RAW functionality isn’t expected here, but ISO is supported from 100 to 3200, as well as Full HD 1080p video capture with a stereo microphone and 8GB of internal memory that can be expanded easily through the microSD slot.
A pop-up flash is included, activated by a button on one side, and the zooming can be done through the ring around the shutter. You can turn the camera on and off at the power button on the top.
Charging the device is handled through the microUSB port on the side of the camera, another mainstay from its smartphone heritage, close to the 3.5mm headset jack.
Underneath the camera is a tripod screw hole, as well as a door that opens up to reveal the 3G microSIM slot, microSD slot, battery, and a proprietary HDMI port.
Upon first glance, the Galaxy Camera is the sort of gadget that you would expect from Apple: it’s a camera with an operating system that supports the apps you know and love.
If you’re a fan of social networking apps, you can share your images shot in a high resolution and with more reach, thanks to a long lens. Emails can be received on the device, as can messages from Google Chat, Skype, and even SMS sent directly to a phone.
In the hands, this isn’t a small device by any stretch of the imagination. With a screen nearing the five inch mark, the Galaxy Camera features one of the biggest touchscreen displays we’ve seen on a compact, and this adds to the size.
While the lens does fold into the camera, it’s not the flat slate that a smartphone is, and there’s still a camera grip and reasonably thick lens protruding from the camera, so you can’t just pocket this and hope for the best. No, you’ll want to throw this in hand luggage or a backpack, since it tends to make pocket look clumpy, weighing them down with a body that’s as heavy as the iPad Mini.
The Galaxy Camera is a little front heavy, something you’ll notice if you switch the camera on when it’s standing up and it leans forward, settling on the lens that has just automatically come out.
Using it is more or less like using a Samsung phone, and if you’re at all familiar with the Galaxy range of smartphones – especially the S3 – you’ll be at home on this device. The power button on top lets you into the camera, and the controls – which are almost completely touchscreen based – will allow you to wander through the operating system and change camera modes, switch into manual, and swipe to and from photos you’ve taken.
You can even login using your Google account and download more apps, as well as jump online with Twitter, Facebook, and more, provided you have 3G or WiFi access.
Or you can just touch the camera app on either the menu or one of the widgetised home-screens, or depress the shutter button and throw yourself into the camera mode, which will load up the auto mode so you can get shooting quickly.
Two other modes are available, with the “Smart” scene selection, which allows you to pick special modes such as a continuous shooting mode, fireworks, sunset, and macro modes.
Manual is the other mode that’s supported, with program (P), shutter-priority (S), aperture-priority (A), and manual (M), with the settings able to be changed using an on-screen lens with the values dialed in with a quick flick up or down on each part of the screen.
Video is also supported, with either 720p HD or 1080p Full HD modes on offer, and a quick video mode allowing you to jump in and start recording, snapping the occasional still simultaneously, or a more controlled manual video mode with exposure control.
Image quality isn’t bad for the camera, though it certainly doesn’t compete with advanced point and shoots, even though the Galaxy Camera has features one could say are “advanced,” even if they’re not advanced in areas like low-light or RAW support.
Close-ups and macro images are surprisingly detailed, with very sharp images that could be usable to nature photographers and food bloggers, allowing you to get up close and personal with the nitty gritty details.
Regular shots are sharp enough upon first glance, but once you get close to any of these, you see the sensor create a slightly blurry recreation of what you were photographing, similar to what we see from low-end shooters and smartphone cameras.
Essentially, the Galaxy Camera isn’t here to take the place of Samsung’s EX series cameras, imaging devices designed to offer sharp and high-speed shooting in a compact form.
Rather, the Galaxy Camera is a connected camera, offering a long lens while allowing you to share to any network you want, taking the whole notion of social photography to the next level by letting you determine what level of connectivity you need.
But while Samsung’s Galaxy Camera is an interesting interpretation of connected photography, it carries with it some rather troublesome annoyances.
One of these is the battery life, and there’s no other way of saying this, but it’s just not good. If you just shoot casually, you might able to manage a day or two of life out of it.
But if you decide to take advantage of the 3G and WiFi connectivity you’re buying it for, you’ll find the first-generation Galaxy Camera lasts roughly five to six hours, not much in the grand scheme of things.
Over on the battery side of things, Samsung is using its left over Galaxy S2 batteries, which don’t have as much juice as their S3 counterparts, the very batteries designed for the massive 4.8 inch screen and quad-core chip, not including the camera section itself.
Because of this, you don’t get a lot of juice from a single charge, especially if you’re sending images and videos from your camera to the web or using the big touchscreen often.
There is an upside, however, to Samsung’s choice of batteries, and that comes in the form of replacements.
Since the Galaxy S2 is now an older phone, you can grab the replacement batteries relatively inexpensively. A quick search on eBay yields S2 batteries from about $20, making these possibly the least expensive camera battery we’ve come across, and if you’re considering taking this camera on holiday, we’d suggest having one or two extra with you.
Another issue stems from its speed, and while the camera is relatively snappy when you want to fire a shot if you’re already in the camera mode, it’s disturbingly less so if you’re pulling it back from standby.
Provided you’ve used the camera in the past few minutes, coming back from standby is a snappy thing, but once the phone has been left unused for a longer period of time, you could be waiting ten to twenty seconds to get back into shooting.
Not all apps will like the Galaxy Camera, either. This isn’t Samsung’s fault mind you, but one of the main reasons you’ll end up choosing the Samsung Galaxy Camera over other shooters is its ability to take advantage of downloadable apps.
Compatbility for apps found on Google’s Play Store are a bit of a hit and miss here, with loose functionality offered: you can always take a picture, but optical zoom may not work.
We tried to get it working in quite a few apps, including Instagram, Vignette, Camera Zoom FX, Pano, Cymera, Pudding Camera, and Paper Camera, with only the latter of these – Paper Camera – actually supporting the optical zoom.
Hopefully, app developers will come on board and support the zoom, because as it happens right now, you need to take the photo using Samsung’s built-in camera app and then process it through a specific app in order to use the zoom.
It’s also a relatively bulky camera, not helped by the massive 4.8 inch screen. That big screen sure can be useful, but not for throwing in your pocket, and while we like how it feels, complete with a big grip for your right hand, it’s not the slimmest camera on the market.
Oh, and there’s no phone support, which is surprising given that the camera supports practically everything else found in the Galaxy S3, including text messaging.
We’re guessing the hardware can probably make phone calls, but the feature has been removed from the operating system so as not to make the Galaxy Camera appear as an inexpensive alternative to its smartphones. Plus, you’d look pretty silly holding one of these up to your ears.
That said, this reviewer would give it a go with a wired or Bluetooth headset as our dedicated handset, since we tweet and send messages more than we call up people.
The Samsung Galaxy Camera is certainly a unique proposition, and while we like it a lot, it won’t be for everyone.
Socialites who just have to share the latest thing will love it, and hipsters looking for a better camera than what’s offered by their iPhone and Galaxy handsets will more than likely find it awesome. Even bloggers and journalists can really get into it, using the camera for more than just pictures and cutting down the gadgets they really need to, well, less.
Certainly, anyone going overseas on holiday could find it extraordinarily useful, since you can Skype on it, send messages, and handle almost everything that you normally would on a smartphone, except with a semi-decent camera.
We’re into it, and since it allows us to automatically backup images to Dropbox, tweet them, and even email them directly to family and friends, it makes a lot of sense to us.
But as we said, it’s not for everyone, so if you think you need a better camera that truly connects your photos to your online social world, we’d take a look at Samsung’s option.