Our First Take
Building on the tremendous success of the Galaxy S4, Samsung—only three months later—has announced three additional S4 models: the S4 Active, S4 Mini, and S4 Zoom. Naturally, as camera nerds, we’re most interested in the S4 Zoom, the first smartphone to boast a 10x optical zoom lens.
Of course, this product is a natural extension of last year's Samsung’s Galaxy Camera, which actually had a more ambitious 21x zoom. But that device was more camera than phone (it couldn’t make calls, after all), and the S4 Zoom is a true hybrid. The Zoom is almost no larger than any other Galaxy phone, and it runs on the latest Android 4.2.2 “Jelly Bean.” It features 3G and 4G LTE radios, GPS, and everything else you’d need in a truly all-in-one device.
Design & Usability
Sleek enough for a phone, but photography handling could be better
The all-important zoom lens collapses nearly flush with the rest of the body when you're not shooting photos. In fact, it protrudes no further than the rounded hand grip on the right side. The body finish is extremely smooth, which isn’t great for stability, but helps let the phone slide easily in and out of your pocket; we could go either way on this design decision.
The rear of the device is dominated by a large touchscreen, as you'd expect. While we don’t always love touch interfaces on cameras—particularly when there's no button-based alternative—it’s a real treat to frame up your shots with this huge, bright panel.
Rather than contenting themselves with the simple addition of a 10x lens, Samsung's designers have gone the extra mile and incorporated an electronic zoom ring around the lens. It’s a great idea, but the action is a little sluggish in practice. In fact, much of the shooting interface had a tendency to slow down from time to time. These were pre-production models though, so we’ll hold off final judgement until the review.
Other small disappointments included the shutter release button, which is way too shallow and doesn’t have a satisfying half-press when locking focus. The zoom ring is also intended to work as a quick shortcut to camera mode from the Android Home screen, but it doesn't always work.
Low-end specs by camera standards, but unheard-of in a phone
The S4 Zoom’s photography chops are on par with a typical travel-zoom camera. Shots are captured by a 16-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch sensor complete with optical image stabilization. Samsung also went out of its way to play up the "Xenon" flash, which is a cut above typical LED smartphone flash emitters; this is a true flash bulb, like you would find on any traditional digital camera.
The remaining specs are fine, if not particularly impressive. But let's not forget that all this is attached to a full-blown 4G phone. Clearly, Samsung is pushing for a paradigm shift here. In fact, having only just written our first impressions of the new Galaxy NX, it almost feels like we’re writing the same article all over again. In a way, the feature set of this phone/camera is potentially unlimited, since new apps can be released to continuously improve its capabilities.
Of the features already included with the phone, the coolest is probably "In-call Photo Share." With this feature, it’s possible to snap a photo while a call is in progress, and automatically transmit that photo to the person on the other end of the line. Other preloaded features include 25 Smart Modes (aka scene modes) and Automatic Smart Mode Suggest, which is a scene-detecting auto mode.
Samsung is fast becoming one of the imaging industry's most innovative companies.
Another day, another impressive product announcement from Samsung: Yesterday the Galaxy NX, today the most plausible camera/phone hybrid we’ve ever used. We get what Samsung is trying to do here, and it’s very exciting. But there are a couple snags that worry us about the S4 Zoom.
The device seems underpowered at times, mostly when it comes to flipping in and out of camera mode. Samsung’s press conference presenters went out of their way to highlight the ease of simply twisting the zoom ring to access shooting functions immediately, but it’s not that easy in practice. Actually, this function only seems to work intermittently.
Full disclosure: The above concerns could simply be the result of imperfections associated with pre-production models. There were a number of test units at our disposal today, and not all of them were running the same firmware.
In addition, since this may not be obvious to those of us that aren’t camera experts: Slapping an optical zoom on a phone doesn't necessarily mean you'll get better images. While this glass is sure to be a cut above your average smartphone lens, there’s a world of difference between the best and worst point-and-shoot zoom lenses. At first glance, images from the S4 Zoom prototypes looked pretty decent, but the small (by broader industry standards) sensor is still inherently limited in what it can accomplish.
Without lab testing, we can't render a final verdict on the camera's ultimate image quality. Still, it's safe to say that serious photographers who are interested in a camera with an Android interface should look into the Galaxy NX instead (provided they don't need their camera to make phone calls).
As is the case with so many First Impressions Reviews, we’re left with a classic case of "too early to tell." Will Samsung improve the software? Are the lens and sensor really any good? What will the pricing be like? There are simply too many unanswered questions at this point. All we know for sure is that Samsung has left as very intrigued, and very excited for the second half of 2013.