Samsung is a big name in cameras, and it's an even bigger name in Android devices. Bringing the two together was logical -- perhaps even inevitable. The result is the Samsung Galaxy Camera.
This isn't the first camera I've looked at that runs Android -- that was the Nikon Coolpix S800c -- neither is it the first to run downloaded applications, as the Sony Alpha NEX-5R did that, too. It is the first Android camera from a big name in tablets and phones, however, and that's what makes it interesting.
The Samsung Galaxy Camera is available now for £400.
Galaxy Camera is much more than a phone with a better camera bolted onto the back. For starters, the camera itself has a 16.3-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor that puts out 4,608x3,456-pixel images and has been engineered to draw less power. In front of this, the lens sports a 21x zoom, equivalent to 23-483mm on a conventional 35mm camera. That puts it firmly into the realm of the superzooms.
At the widest end of that range, the maximum aperture stretches to f/2.8. At full telephoto, it's f/5.9, and in either instance the tightest position is f/8.
Sensitivity tops out at ISO 3,200 with compensation of +/-2.0 EV in one-third stops. In manual and shutter priority modes, the shutter speed runs from 16-1/2,000 second, although auto mode won't hold it open for any longer than 1/8 second.
It's got 10GB of built-in flash storage, of which just 3.87GB is available for use, for storing photos and apps. Additional storage is handled by a microSD card.
The really exciting part is what Samsung has done with the operating system. It runs Jelly Bean -- Android 4.1 -- and can be upgraded. The Nikon S800c, on the other hand, ran Gingerbread -- Android 2.3.3 -- which in tech terms is starting to look a bit long in the tooth, now almost two years old.
The 'computer' side of the device will be immediately familiar to anyone who has used an Android tablet or phone before, and as you'd expect you can organise the widgets and icons for your most commonly used apps on the various home screens.
Where Samsung has let its imagination run wild, though, is in the camera app itself.
Faced with the opportunity of a 4.8-inch screen and the challenge of building an Android-based interface that wouldn't intimidate less technical users, it's recreated the best features of both a dSLR and a compact in its software.
It's all controlled by tapping and dragging the screen, without a stylus in sight, as the only physical buttons are the power, shutter release and flash release. The zoom is physical, too, implemented as a regular rocker around the shutter button, but you can tap the screen to both focus and fire the shutter, as well as start video recording.
Various fly-out overlays at the top and bottom of the screen let you set the flash, timer and so on, as well as picking creative filters, such as sketch, sepia and cartoon, all of which are previewed in real time.
The mode selector has been rendered in software, too, allowing you to drag through the various image types you want to capture or switch to one of the manual modes, such as shutter- or aperture-priority.
It's here where Samsung has really pushed out that proverbial boat, with each of the applicable settings, such as speed, aperture, exposure compensation and sensitivity rendered on a series of graphical wheels that you literally drag into new positions like tumblers on a safe. In many ways it's similar to the intuitive i-Function feature on the company's NX lens system.
It also has voice control. This isn't new on tablets -- we've already seen it in Google Voice Search and Apple's Siri -- but it's a first for photography. Switch it on and you can literally tell it to zoom in or out, activate the flash, set the timer, change the mode and so on. The four options for firing the shutter are a particularly nice touch, with regular "capture" and "shoot" commands supplemented by "smile" and "cheese".
Samsung is bundling the Galaxy Camera with a one-month data SIM on the Three network, which you can top up once it expires or swap out for a rival network if you prefer. This is used not only for the browser, email and so on -- you can also use Wi-Fi -- but also sharing your photos using the built-in Instagram, downloaded third-party tools like Twitter and Facebook and, most intriguing of all, Dropbox.
Dropbox support is built-in, and Samsung has bagged a deal to give all Galaxy Camera buyers a free 50GB account for two years. If you already have a Dropbox login, as I do, you can sign in with your regular credentials and your account will be upgraded with an additional 50GB for that length of time.
The reason for bundling so generous an amount is that every picture or movie you shoot is synchronised straight back to your account, so it'll be waiting for you on your PC or Mac when you get back home. It's pretty impressive taking a photo at your desk and seeing it pop up on your computer screen a few seconds later.
This means you could get away with never removing the microSD card from your Galaxy Camera, by simply wiping its contents every time the sync is complete.
So, it performs pretty well as a piece of networked hardware, but is it any good as a camera?
It's easy to focus, quick to zoom and responds in a snappy manner to taps of the on-screen shutter button or a press of the hardware equivalent. I was very happy to see this, as when we tried the Galaxy Camera at the IFA trade show earlier this year, it was very sluggish. Samsung has really sharpened it up since then.
Image stabilisation is very effective and makes it possible to take sharp, focused shots at 1/50 second without the use of a tripod.
Macro performance is particularly strong, setting a wide aperture to very effectively drop off the level of focus in short order both behind and in front of your subject. The resulting blur is even and attractive.
Minimum focusing distance in macro mode is a little lacklustre, however, at 10cm, and you can't set the macro from further away and zoom in to your subject to avoid shadows. When shooting in regular modes you'll need to be 80cm or more from your subject.
In overcast conditions, when shooting in auto mode, some of my skies were bleached out. In regular use, there was also some differentiation between the clarity of the result captured at the centre and edges of the frame and, more seriously, considerable colour fringing along sharp contrasts -- in particular where branches ran across an overcast sky, as you can see below.
Low light performance is good, and even when you push it to the limit -- ISO 3,200 -- the level of grain, while fairly significant, doesn't impact the level of detail to such a degree that you lose finer elements, like the whiskers and fur on the cat below.
Still life test
The still life test is performed under studio lights, ambient light, and with the aid of the onboard flash, in each instance using auto settings wherever possible.
The best result was achieved under studio lighting, as is the case with most cameras, with the Galaxy Camera producing a very balanced result. Colours were accurate, and with sensitivity pinned at ISO 100 the result was largely grain-free. There was also a clear distinction between similar tones, such as the inside and outer rim of the white cup at the back of the scene.
When relying on ambient light the results were very cold and the colours lacked the vibrancy of the frame shot under studio lights. In order to capture sufficient light, the camera slowed down the exposure to 1/10 second and increased sensitivity to ISO 800, and as a result introduced a level of grain that impacted the clarity of the result when compared directly with the previous shot.
Enabling the onboard flash brought back the punchy colours and reduced the sensitivity to ISO 100 again. In some parts of the image the flash had caused the colours to be burned out, however, including the forehead of the toy polar bear and the front of the paint pot lids.
A key benefit of that huge 4.8-inch screen is the fact you can edit videos on the camera, using either the bundled Video Editor app or a third-party alternative downloaded from the Google Play Store or Samsung Apps. So, I was expecting it to put in a good performance and, apart from the fact there's no wind cut option, it didn't disappoint.
The optical zoom stays in play when you're filming, and even at the full 21x telephoto the optical image stabilisation does an excellent job of smoothing out minor hand movements, letting through only those that are sufficient to have qualified as deliberate.
Compensation for changing light levels is both fast and very smooth without any evidence of stepping, and the recorded footage is delivered in full 1080p HD resolution at 30fps.
Whether this is a camera with tablet features, or a tablet with a decent camera strapped to the back will depend very much on how you choose to use it.
Samsung's vision is that you'll take it on your travels, download an app to help you find the sights, use a map app to get to them, snap them using the camera app, edit them in-situ using the bundled graphics and video apps and share them directly with friends by 3G or Wi-Fi. It's a big ask of any camera, but in this case it actually delivers.
The marriage of the two core functions -- tablet and camera -- is successful, and neither one has a detrimental impact on the other. Further, the opportunity afforded by its Android foundation to re-think the camera interface is one that Samsung has grabbed with both hands, with excellent results.
The camera itself is good. It's not the best you could buy for the money -- particularly not now the excellent Samsung EX2F is getting cheaper -- but as a package this is the best of the two Android cameras currently available. Buying a better dedicated, non-Android camera would mean you'd miss out on the most compelling features here.
In that respect, the Galaxy Camera is a unique proposition, and one that's easy to recommend. It already feels mature and stable and, considering its extra features, pretty good value, too.