In 2012, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Camera, which offered an Android experience on a digital camera; mashing together the Samsung WB850 with the internals of the Galaxy S3. Adding to the already large Galaxy S4 catalogue, Samsung also released the Galaxy S4 Zoom. In its early days, many users described smartphones as camera phones, which at the time were limited to quite horrible, grainy photos. Many of the point-and-shoot digital cameras still offer more control and quality than a lot of the flagship smartphones. The Galaxy S4 Zoom takes Samsung’s previous Galaxy Camera offering and added actual phone capabilities, making it the first ‘true camera phone.’ Does it succeed?
Design and Build
At first glance, still snug within the confines of the recycled box it came in, the Zoom closely resembles the look and size of the S4 Mini, rather than the flagship SGS4. The Zoom has the same 4.3” Super AMOLED screen with a 540x960px resolution display. The only difference in this department being the fitting of Gorilla Glass 3 on the Zoom. If you’re an owner of either the SGS3 or SGS4 (or any other larger screened devices closer to 5”), then the Zoom’s panel is likely to disappoint. The biggest issue in fitting such a small screen is that it takes away quite a lot of appreciation for those photos users will ultimately be snapping up at every opportunity.
It’s once you remove it from its packaging that you realise the big difference between the two; the large camera stuck to the rear. Dimensions have increased from 124.6×61.3×8.9mm to 125.5×63.5×15.4mm; a full 6.5mm increase in thickness. In addition, the camera also adds to a few extra grams to the overall weight, now at 208g, which is almost double that of the Mini, and similar to the, much larger, Sony Xperia Z Ultra. Unlike the Z Ultra, though, the Zoom can fit into your pocket, although sometimes awkwardly. The Zoom doesn’t have much a premium look about it, Samsung opting for the more plastic look, which is magnified by the addition in its size. In terms of the ports and buttons, a few have been repositioned to better suit the landscape mode, often used when taking photos. The battery is slotted in from the bottom, and clipped in place, as the rear is not removable as with other smartphones in the range.
Hardware and Performance
The internals of the Zoom, again, don’t compare to that of the SGS4. The Zoom sports a Pega-Dual Dual-Core 1.5GHz Cortex-A9 CPU, Mali-400 GPU, 8GB internal storage, and 1.5GB RAM. The battery is an improvement over the 1900mAh on the Mini, the Zoom packing a 2330mAh unit. While the battery is much thicker than the average Samsung packs beneath the cover, it still doesn’t account for the overall extra thickness of the device.
In terms of its performance, the Dual-Core CPU is often sluggish. Selecting apps and menu options often takes a second or two to register, which can cause some level of frustration to those power users out there. Even more annoying is the delay in the lock screen, often taking around two seconds to register you clicking the power or home buttons. This delay causes problems, as you often presume (in this delay) that you click wasn’t recognised, after which time you’ll click it again, only then to see the screen light up, and then lock again thanks to the second click. [Queue face palm]
Battery life, while better than the original Galaxy Camera, isn’t great by any means. The battery may be on par when the device is used primarily as a phone, but once you start using the camera, and adjusting the zoom and focus, the battery life can easily be diminished without too much thought. The difference being a phone that, if stretched to its limits, can eke out a full day before a charge is required, and, when using the camera regular, only lasts between 5 and 7 hours.
While most of the focus on the Galaxy S4 Zoom is placed on the camera, you have to consider the fact that the device is, by default, firstly a phone. That being said, the Zoom packs an above-average camera with 1/2.33” 16MP BSI CMOS sensor, which is large for the average smartphone, but smaller than the average digital camera in this range. The 10x optical zoom (f/3.1-6.3, 24-240mm) takes some great photos, even at distance, when you’re out and about in the sunshine. When the sun fades, however, the zoom becomes less effective (naturally). While not great in low-light, it still much better than the average smartphone, but again falls short of digital cameras. Taking standard photos in low-light isn’t too much of an issue, thanks to its Xenon flash. The Zoom also sports a 1.9MP front-facing camera, but that’s not worth discussing.
The sluggishness in the Zoom’s performance is observed throughout general use, and is especially troublesome when taking photos. To open the camera app, you could use the icon on the main menu, or you can ‘simply’ use the dedicated camera button. Unfortunately, the button only triggers after holding the button down for at least 1.5s, after which you can feel a slight vibration confirming your action. After waiting another few seconds the app opens and you’re presented with an interface similar to that of your average Galaxy smartphone. Once the app is running, it activates the lens. This process alone makes it quite difficult to classify the Zoom as a point-and-shoot device. There are other smartphones available on the market that can perform this activity much faster, while being able to use the dedicated camera button even when the screen is locked. Shutter lag is quite a sore point on the Zoom, complicating matter while you’re trying to keep the camera as steady as possible (when not using a tripod) while it processes your shot.
Despite being fully capable of full 1080p HD video capturing, filming isn’t a strong point for the Zoom. In fact, unless you’re filming normal video, without zoom and any of the other features, you’re better off trying something else. Zooming in while filming causes too many undesired results, in that it cannot focus on the zoomed in area fast enough, the zoom itself isn’t smooth, and during playback you can hear each time you used the zoom function, including the lens trying to find its focus. Using zoom to take photos poses the same issues, but can be ignored if the end image is of good quality.
To get that perfect photo, Samsung has updated the camera app on the Zoom, providing a host of automatic and manual selections. The first is a very basic Auto mode; a simple point-and-shoot option, which handles most adjustments, with users only able to set the flash and resolution. In Smart mode, users can set the type of image they’ll be taking, including Night, Sunset, Silhouette, Sound & Shot, Eraser, Drama, Animated Photo, Waterfall, Panorama, Rich tone (HDR), Action Freeze, Party/Indoor, Food, Macro, Snow, Dawn, Landscape, Kids Shot, Best Face, Continuous Shot, Best Photo, Beauty Face, Smart Mode Suggest, Light Trace, and, finally, Fireworks. There are 26 options in Smart Mode in total, which can take some time to scroll through. For those more advanced users, there’s the Expert Mode. This gives you access to the Program, Colour Wizard and Manual Mode settings. Choosing the manual mode gives you the most choice and customisation, being able to set the ISO, shutter speed, white balance, etc. Adjusting these settings, however, poses the most headaches, having to go back into the Mode selection menu, then selecting Expert mode, even to adjust the smallest of changes. Nokia’s Pro Cam app is an example of how a good camera app can be developed to make adjusting any setting quite easily.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is a proper camera phone, attaching a point-and-shoot, optical camera to a smartphone, but, unfortunately, doesn’t scream high-end performance on either side of the spectrum. At an RRP of R5,999 (available for R4,999 in some stores), a fair bit amount more than the RRP for the S4 Mini at R4,499. Comparing the 10x optical zoom to any other smartphone available on the market, you’ll find no competitor comes close. With a 16MP BSI CMOS sensor, the Zoom doesn’t compare to the Nokia Lumia 1020 (41MP), or even the Sony Xperia Z1 (20.5MP), and ultimately delivers lesser image quality, especially in low-light environments. The optical zoom alone cannot justify the extra weight and size of the Zoom.
There’s still quite a fair amount to love about the Zoom in that it offers normal smartphone functionality without compromise. It doesn’t even look ridiculous making phone calls. Sorting out a few technical issues (battery life) and with a little more research into provide a more sleek and lightweight option, as well as packing a larger 5” display with proper flagship internals; definitely something I’ll look forward to.
Subsequently, Samsung has launched two new Android camera variants, the Galaxy Camera 2 and the Galaxy NX. Although they don’t offer the same phone capabilities, they do offer a lot more in the way of camera performance.
You can find the full specifications here.