Cameras are in trouble. Manufacturers have been quietly panicking for the past several years as sales continue to decline in the wake of the smartphone boom. Like the beeper, the PDA, and the MP3 player, point-and-shoot cameras will soon be rendered obsolete by smartphones.
At least, Samsung sure seems to think so. The Korean manufacturing giant has gone so far as to release a series of hybrid Android-powered cameras in the past year that combine the go-everywhere connectivity of a smartphone with the form factor and image quality of a regular camera.
From the Galaxy Camera to the Galaxy NX, Samsung has been aggressively testing the market, trying to find the sweet spot that satisfies both avid photographers and a rising tide of smartphone users eager to improve their Instagram snaps.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is yet another volley aimed at the heart of this diabolical Venn diagram, though its design leans more towards the smartphone paradigm than previous efforts. The S4 Zoom is precisely what its name suggests: A Galaxy S4 Mini with a 10x optical zoom lens permanently attached. To help you wield such a contraption, the camera also has a more pronounced grip and an actual shutter button, giving the S4 Zoom a leg up on its smartphone competition.
The result is not merely a camera that runs on Android, but a true phone-camera hybrid. It's a technological mullet of smooth plastic curves and hard cuts without transition—camera in the front, smartphone in the back. When I shot with the S4 Zoom purely as a camera or took it out to answer a quick text or e-mail, nobody gave me a second thought. It was only when I took a picture and flipped the phone over to upload the shot that the S4 Zoom drew people in. And even then, most people just wanted to know where I got such a fancy case for my phone.
Truthfully, that description isn't far off. The S4 Zoom feels like Samsung simply wrapped the S4 Mini in a bulky plastic case with a lens attached. That's a smart departure from the camera-centric design of the Galaxy Camera, especially considering 95% of the time I used the S4 Zoom to do phone things.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the zoom lens never goes away. Even when the device is turned off, the zoom and grip add around a half-inch of thickness to the body. You can fit it in a normal pair of jeans, but not without some extra effort. As useful as it can be to have a 10x zoom for the times you want to use your phone as a true camera, the novelty wears off the moment you can't easily slip it back in your pocket.
In a world where phone displays are already exceeding six inches, a little discomfort in the name of improved usability certainly isn't a non-starter—but it's still a constant annoyance. While it's already full-on winter here in Boston, I imagine the S4 Zoom would be far less convenient in the summer, when the presence of a jacket pocket isn't a given. If you carry a bag or purse with you everywhere, the equation might be a little more forgiving, but it's still nowhere near as pocket-friendly as your standard ultra-slim smartphone.
A Galaxy Far, Far From Perfect
The S4 Zoom's reach exceeds its grasp
In order to get a feel for how the Galaxy S4 Zoom could fit into my life, I used it as my only phone for two weeks. In that time, the S4 Zoom was my primary camera as well.
While I have access to a lot of great cameras at work, for day-to-day snapshots I prefer to simply use my smartphone. I'm a big stickler for image quality and I greatly prefer the reliability of system cameras, but even I would rather not be weighed down by their bulk. As such, I had high hopes for a device that would let me leave the camera at home and hopefully improve on the iffy quality my smartphone normally produces.
In using the S4 Zoom I found that, as a phone, it works as well as any other Samsung Galaxy device. The AMOLED display is predictably bright and vibrant, Android is a robust mobile OS, and 4G LTE connectivity makes sharing photos a breeze. Still, the Zoom's odd shape caused some major issues.
First, your case selection is pretty limited—not a good thing given how expensive this would be to fix after a drop. Second, the shape of the device also precludes many one-size-fits-all accessories. Despite its big zoom lens, the S4 Zoom fit in the windshield-mounted cradle I have in my car... as long as the screen was facing away from me. While I'm sure that's great news for selfie fanatics, it did nothing for me when I needed to navigate around Boston's cow paths.
Samsung has included a redesigned camera app that offers a little more control than you'd find on a standard Galaxy S4 Mini. Using "Expert" mode unlocks camera staples like exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, and shutter/aperture control, but the only physical control is the dial around the lens itself. This means that if you want to change any settings, you have to either rely on the touchscreen or change grips entirely to work the lens ring.
The basic functions we take for granted on the average point-and-shoot camera—from powering it on, to zooming, to changing the shooting parameters—are awkward tasks with the S4 Zoom, just as they are as with any other smartphone. You can speed things up a little with certain hardware shortcuts (holding down the shutter button to go directly to the camera app, for example), but you still have to unlock your phone before you can take a shot.
What's worse, all the advantages of the S4 Zoom's design are rendered moot if you move beyond Samsung's suite of proprietary apps. The S4 Zoom's unique hardware separates it from every other smartphone on the market, but that also means that third-party applications have to specifically code in support for those features.
When using Instagram (v4.2.6), for example, the optical zoom and dedicated shutter button don't work at all. The only exception we could find is Paper Artist, which is included by default on most Samsung phones. This could be an Android problem, or it could be a Samsung problem; the bottom line is it doesn't work, and it's a huge knock against the viability of the S4 Zoom.
From an image quality perspective, the S4 Zoom is good, but not much better than what we've seen from recent flagship smartphones. The images are similar to what you get from a $250 point-and-shoot camera with a bog standard 1/2.3-inch sensor.
Samsung could've included a larger, Sony RX100-style 1-inch sensor and offered near-DSLR image quality, but that would've resulted in a larger lens with much less optical zoom. While I'm sure Samsung has loads of focus group data backing up its decision to shoot for a 10x optical zoom, personally I'm not interested in dealing with the daily discomfort of the Zoom's shape unless I get a significant step up in image quality.
Close, but not quite
After two weeks with the S4 Zoom in my pocket, it still doesn't feel like an essential part of my life. The addition of optical zoom has made some new and different smartphone shots possible, but the majority of the time, the physical size of the lens was a hindrance to all the other things I needed the S4 Zoom to be.
Still, every devil has his Faust—for anybody already dual-wielding a smartphone and point-and-shoot, the S4 Zoom is a no-brainer that will make your life easier. The rest of us will have to weigh the benefits of a healthy 10x zoom against having a phone that may simply not fit in your pocket.
Smartphones will continue to be an integral part of our lives, and the cameras they include are definitely in need of improvement. But the key to unlocking this particular puzzle is improving photography without detracting from the convenience that has made smartphones so popular.
The S4's zoom lens is a welcome addition to the smartphone photography experience, but the few times you'll be truly glad you have the reach don't outweigh the countless times you'll wish your phone was just shaped like everything else. Add in the fact that the zoom isn't even functional on most major third-party applications, and the S4 Zoom simply doesn't add up.