Smart phone cameras have improved dramatically in just a short few years. Gone are the days of blurry VGA-quality pics -- some phones now pack megapixel counts higher than you'd find in most pro digital SLR cameras. The built-in software, too, now allows you to create effects that were once only in the dreams of professional photographers with hugely expensive kit.
Phone cameras are still limited by size though. It's not possible to fit pro cameras' massive sensors and huge lenses into something that slides neatly into your jeans. Samsung thinks it has the perfect compromise -- a 4.3-inch phone boasting a 16-megapixel sensor and a 10x optical zoom. The Galaxy S4 Zoom is the only smart phone, in fact, that has an optical zoom.
"Compromise" is very much the theme of the S4 Zoom though. It has lower specs than the standard S4 in every other respect, but still costs an eye-watering £440 SIM-free. Does the optical zoom make it worth it?
The Galaxy S4 Zoom is available now, for free on monthly contracts starting at £27.
Should I buy the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom?
Are you a dedicated shutterbug who regularly debates whether your phone or compact camera should go with you in your pocket? If you are, the S4 Zoom should be on your radar. The 10x optical zoom lens and 16-megapixel sensor, make it an undeniably impressive camera phone.
If you've always wanted a phone with a good zoom, the S4 Zoom is
currently out on its own. The only alternative phone that puts as much emphasis on the camera is
the Nokia Lumia 1020.
It doesn't have an optical zoom, but it packs enough megapixels -- 41 of them, amazingly -- to let
you crop into your pictures without losing much quality. For everyday photography though, the normal Galaxy S4 packs a brilliant snapper -- again, without
the zoom -- and doesn't skimp on the specs elsewhere.
If you're not completely obsessed with zooming, you should probably look elsewhere though. The S4 Zoom's fat body is extremely awkward to use as an everyday phone. The big barrel makes the phone more of a hassle to cram into your pocket than wide-but-thin phones like the Galaxy Mega.
Those of you hoping for a fully fledged S4 with a better camera will be sorely disappointed too. It's packing a dual-, rather than quad-core chip that didn't impress in my tests, while the screen has a surprisingly low resolution for a phone designed for imaging.
If you want an Internet-enabled camera -- but not a phone -- with Android apps for quick editing and uploading, the Samsung Galaxy Camera will be more up your street, but again, it's not perfect.
Here's an interesting philosophical conundrum: which is the front and which is the back? The front of a camera is where the lens is, but the front of a phone is the screen. It's definitely half and half, but as the S4 Zoom is named after a phone, and you can make calls with it, I'm going to refer to it as a phone, so the screen is the front. (The Galaxy Camera would be the other way round, of course.)
From the back then, the S4 Zoom looks like any standard compact digital camera. There's really nothing there that indicates that a phone lurks within. A chunky hand grip is off to one side and the enormous lens barrel sits on the other.
Look at the Zoom from the front and it looks just like you're holding the Galaxy S4 Mini. There's the same chrome-effect edging, and the same physical home button on the bottom. Of course, once you wrap your hand around it, the illusion of it being a true S4 is quickly shattered.
Given its camera hardware, it's not surprising that the Zoom is a much chunkier beast than a phone. Even by compact digital camera standards, it's extremely bulky. It will slide into a pocket -- just -- making it considerably more portable than any dSLR or compact system camera. Even so, you'll have a more difficult time pocketing it in than the credit-card sized snappers around.
If you're a truly dedicated shutterbug who never leaves home without a camera slung around your neck, this is probably a practical solution. For the majority of you though, the increased bulk will likely make it too unwieldy an option for everyday use.
The S4 Zoom as a camera
The S4 Zoom is the only phone -- and 'phone' is stretching the definition -- that packs in an optical, as well as a digital zoom. The focal length starts at 24mm, which is quite a wide angle -- allowing you to capture more of a scene in one picture. It zooms to 10x, which should be more than enough magnification to get a lovely shot of that mopey zoo lion, without needing to get close enough for it to bite your arm clean off.
The zoom is controlled by a ring around the barrel or using on screen buttons. I found twisting the ring difficult to do quickly, resulting in a very clunky zoom motion -- particularly important when zooming during video (I found the the on-screen icons best here). When you zoom in when recording, however, the sound of the motors whirring will severely drown out the sound in your scene.
Other camera-specific hardware includes a physical shutter button on the right and a screw mount on the bottom for plonking the Zoom on any normal tripod. The S4 Zoom's sheer bulk does mean it's more comfortable to hold for taking photos than the standard S4 is -- that chunky battery compartment is easy to wrap your fingers round. There's also a little hole for popping in a lanyard if you're nervous about dropping it.
Behind the epic zoom barrel is a 16-megapixel, backside-illuminated CMOS sensor. It's physically bigger than the sensors you'll find inside normal smart phones -- the S4 included -- although not as big as the one inside an average digital SLR. A larger sensor typically means that more light can hit it, which should greatly improve image quality.
The image detail is certainly better than the S4 -- you can digitally zoom in with less reduction in image quality than you can with a phone -- but overall exposure and colours didn't really differ. Skip ahead to the 'Image quality' section to see more information about the results.
Samsung has bundled in a whole host of camera software for the zoom. 25 different scene modes are available, including 'HDR', 'panorama' and 'night', as well as more unusual ones like Drama shot, which combines multiple images of a moving subject into an action sequence photo. Turn on scene suggest to have the camera recommend a choice of modes, depending on the conditions.
Don't fancy using the presets? Flick it into manual mode and you're able to tune individual settings like shutter speed, aperture and ISO speeds. It's more difficult to use of course, so will only be for those of you with a basic understanding of photography. You do get a live view of the scene that changes according to what settings you've chosen though, so it's a good way of learning how different apertures affect a scene.
With a bigger sensor stuffed inside, you'd be right to expect greatly improved quality over standard phone cameras. While the images were definitely good by most phone standards, I didn't find them to be particularly more sharp or more evenly exposed than the Galaxy S4.
On my first shot of London's monstrous Shard building, the S4 Zoom displayed a more even overall exposure than the S4. At full screen though, I found that the detail on the windows of the Shard weren't particularly crisp on the Zoom and there was quite a bit of image noise visible in the darker parts of the blue sky -- something not as noticeable on the S4's image.
Image noise crept into the skies behind the Queen Victoria memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. Both the S4 and the Zoom suffered somewhat from noise here, although both cameras did a good job at exposing for the scene.
Getting up close with the subject is where the Zoom really plays its trump card though. There's really no competition between the Zoom's optical zooming against the S4's digital crop zoom. The S4 Zoom is able to maintain full image quality when zoomed in, giving some room to digitally crop further.
The image quality might not be hugely impressive compared to dedicated cameras, but the ability to zoom like this will no doubt be a huge draw to enthusiastic nature photographers among you.
It did quite well in low light too. The Zoom's effort in my low-light scene was not only brighter, but suffered less from image noise. It also has a xenon, rather than LED flash. It wasn't quite as bright as the S4's but it was less harsh, giving a more natural ambience to the dark scene.
It can shoot video in 1080p, and you're able to use the full length of the zoom while recording. As previously mentioned though, it can be fiddly and does make a racket that the camera will pick up. Video quality was generally quite good. Certainly comparable to the S4, but with the bonus of being able to sneak closer to your subject.
The S4 Zoom as a phone
The S4 Zoom is running Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, almost the most recent version of Google's mobile operating system. The interface is basically the same that you'll find on any of the other phones in the S4 range. There are multiple homescreens to fill up with apps and widgets, while other apps are kept in a separate app list.
Some features from the S4, such as S Health, aren't here, nor is the ability to show two apps on screen at once -- the screen is probably a little too small for this. Even with fewer added features, there's still a whole heap of bundled bits which can be confusing. There are multiple app stores, email clients and web browsers, while the settings menu is so vast it's had to be split into four categories. If you're new to the world of Android, it'll take some getting used to.
The 4.3-inch screen has a disappointing 960x540-pixel resolution, for a density of 256 pixels per inch. That's a major step down from the 440ppi Full HD display found on the S4 and particularly irritating given the phone's imaging focus, where more pixels will help show off a clearer image. It's sharp enough to keep fine text looking clear though, so don't expect a fuzzy display.
It's quite bright, and has satisfyingly deep black levels and rich colours. It might not have the pixel density to square up to its bigger brothers, but it will at least make your photos look lovely and colourful.
There's 8GB of internal storage as standard, of which 5GB is available for use. That's not going to last long once you start snapping away at full resolution, so you'll need to make use of the microSD card slot. You can set all photos and videos to save to the card and, thanks to a software update from Samsung, you're able to install some apps to the card too.
Processor and performance
Stuffed inside the body is a 1.5GHz dual-core processor -- again, a precipitous downgrade from the monstrous quad-core brute (octo-core in some places) in the true S4. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn't perform well in my benchmark tests.
It achieved 1,176 in the Geekbench test. By comparison, the similarly specced Galaxy S4 Mini did better at 1,875, while the standard S4 racked up a blistering 3,087. Similarly, on the Quadrant test, the Zoom achieved 4,420, putting it alongside older phones such as the HTC One X.
It's a real shame that Samsung hasn't packed in more potent hardware, as editing high-resolution snaps can be quite demanding of the mediocre processor. Editing photos in Snapseed was doable, but I've certainly had a more snappy experience on other, more powerful phones.
It was just about able to cope with playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, although the gameplay often became quite stuttery -- something of a problem when you're trying to hightail it away from pursuing police. The even more demanding N.O.V.A 3 was too much to even load properly.
It does have enough power for the everyday essentials, though. Navigating around the Android interface was fairly responsive and you won't notice its lack of power when posting updates to Twitter or Facebook.
With a chunky 2,330mAh battery stuffed inside, the S4 Zoom should be able to keep going for a decent amount of time away from a plug. Indeed, I found it to be pretty long-lasting when using it primarily as a phone. If you're fairly cautious, you shouldn't struggle to eke out a day of use.
As with all phones though, actual times will depend entirely on how you use it. Taking lots of photos with the flash on and zooming in and out will quickly deplete your precious power. Spend the morning snapping away and you'll almost certainly need to top it up at lunchtime.
If you want to maximise your shooting time away from the power, keep screen brightness turned down, avoid streaming music over 3G and turn off Bluetooth. Even so, if you're heading out to a bar after a full day of use, you'd be wise to keep an external battery pack such as the Mophie Juice Pack Duo if you want power for Spotify on your way home.
With its massive sensor, impressive megapixel count and 10x optical zoom, the Galaxy S4 Zoom may seem like the shutterbug's phone of choice. It's certainly the only phone to opt for right now if you value zooming in on things above anything else, although its image quality in general isn't significantly better than other high-end smart phones.
Its significantly increased size over the standard Galaxy S4, together with its pared-down specs, means it's definitely not a good choice for an everyday phone.