Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom review

Compact camera meets Android phone. Digital Foundry investigates.

In a world where phones are getting lighter and thinner, can superior optics and a 10x zoom justify the new Samsung's bulky form-factor?

In the decade or so since camera phones first appeared, manufacturers have tried all manner of tricks to convince us that they constitute a genuine replacement for our dedicated point-and-shoot hardware. From the first sub-VGA offerings to the more recent megapixel behemoths touted by the likes of Sony and Nokia, we've seen convergence in action - but the results haven't always been encouraging.

The need to cram optics into increasingly thin frames means that trade-offs are inevitable; although mobile image capture has come on leaps and bounds of late, no photography expert would ever seriously recommend picking a phone over a proper camera. That's something which Samsung wants to change.

The Korean giant dipped its toe into these waters with last year's Galaxy Camera, which ran Android and boasted a 4.8-inch screen but could only connect via Wi-Fi and couldn't make calls. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is the next logical step; this is a camera with full cellular capability, meaning that it's connected at all times. That of course opens up all kinds of possibilities, such as photos instantly being uploaded to the cloud, or high-quality snaps being pushed to the likes of Instagram and Twitter in double-quick time.

However, the inclusion of the Galaxy S4 Zoom's Samsung-made 24-240mm lens - which has 10x optical zoom and can shoot 16 megapixel images - means this was never going to be your typical handset. The phone is bulky and heavy, with a thickness of 15.4mm and a weight of 208 grammes. To give you an idea of just how large this device is, it's almost twice as thick as the Nexus 4 and weighs almost as much as the original Nintendo 3DS.

In purely physical terms then, this is a beast. However, you'd be surprised at how quickly you become accustomed to that additional weight in your pocket - even if you're transitioning from a thin phone like the aforementioned Nexus 4 or the iPhone 5.

Getting to grips with the Galaxy S4 Zoom is another learning process; the back of the device simply isn't designed to be held like a phone, and instead takes its inspiration from a typical point-and-shoot camera, complete with a "bump" chin to grip during image capture. In fact, when placed face-down on a table, you'd be hard-pushed to even identify it as a product which makes and receives phone calls.

Like many of Samsung's Galaxy phones, the S4 Zoom bucks recent trends by including a user-removable battery which resides beneath a door on the base of the phone. The 2330 mAh power cell allowed us to get through an entire day of use before it needed topping up, although if you really hammer the camera and xenon flash you should expect less impressive results.

Although it proudly carries the Galaxy S4 branding, this handset isn't quite in the same league as Samsung's flagship mobile. Instead of a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor, it is equipped with a dual-core 1.5 GHz Cortex A9, accompanied by 1.5GB of RAM (as opposed to 2GB in the Galaxy S4). The screen is also something of a backwards step, measuring 4.3-inches from corner to corner and boasting a sub-HD resolution of 960x540 pixels. On the plus side, it's a Super AMOLED panel, which means bold colours, realistic blacks, great viewing angles and decent performance in direct sunlight.

"While it carries the S4 branding, but the processing tech within the Zoom is clearly at least a generation behind Samsung's flagship."

With Android 4.2.2 on board, the Galaxy S4 Zoom is at least on the cutting edge when it comes to software. Samsung's TouchWiz user interface is present too, which means you get all manner of exclusive apps - some of which double-up core elements of the Android OS. S Voice is a challenger to Google Now (which is hidden behind a long-press of the Home button), while Chat On and S Planner replicate functionality which is already present in stock Android.

The need to create and sign into a separate Samsung account to access Samsung's own app store means that you're a slave to two masters here; it's a relatively minor annoyance and certainly isn't exclusive to Samsung's phones (HTC and Sony have similar frameworks in place), but it makes you crave the simplicity of a Nexus device - or even Apple's singular sign-in process.

With internal specs which are closer to the Galaxy S4 Mini than the thoroughbred Galaxy S4, it's unwise to expect too much from this photo-centric handset. Moving around the UI is relatively smooth, but we noticed that having a lot of applications running at once seriously impacts the phone's performance. Screen touches are missed, animations become jerky and there are large pauses to endure when moving between apps. This is not a cutting-edge handset, and the benchmark tests below show just how far behind its illustrious sibling the Galaxy S4 Zoom is. The results seem to suggest that the phone is a close match for the Galaxy S3, but it's worth remembering that the S3 is pushing more pixels thanks to its 720x1280 pixel HD screen.

"The benchmarks aren't kind to the S4 Zoom compared with the latest and greatest Android smartphones - a state of affairs reflected in general interface performance."

Galaxy S4 Zoom Xperia Z Galaxy S4 HTC One Nexus 4 Galaxy S3
Quadrant Standard 4546 7175 12346 12488 4906 5127
AnTuTu Benchmark 10480 20694 23578 24374 10580 11950
Geekbench 2 1197 2181 3109 2816 2263 1716
GFX Bench Egypt On-Screen/ Off-Screen 17fps/ 16fps 32fps/ 32fps 41fps/ 41fps 31fps/ 34fps 39fps/ 31fps 16fps/ 16fps
GFX Bench T-Rex On-Screen/ Off-Screen 7fps/ 4fps 13fps/ 13fps 15fps/ 15fps 13fps/ 15fps 19fps/ 12fps 4fps/ 6fps
3D Mark Ice Storm 720p/ 1080p 3151/ 2372 10114/ 5853 10454/ 6730 10054/ 6297 11019/ 6400 3225/ 2321

You'd assume that the lack of processing grunt would impact the Galaxy S4 Zoom's aptitude for gaming, but we were pleasantly surprised by how well modern 3D titles ran on the phone. Our traditional test subjects- After Burner Climax, Dead Trigger and Real Racing 3 - all run at a swift pace, and only occasionally fall foul of stuttering frame-rates. The handset may well lack horsepower but it seems that the sub-HD display reduces the burden on the outdated graphics tech. However, the lumpy back and massive camera lens make it awkward to cradle in your palms during prolonged gameplay sessions.

The Galaxy S4 Zoom possesses its fair share of faults, then - but its reason for being pulls it back from the brink. Compared to some of the cameras we've witnessed on mobile phones throughout the past decade the one showcased here is fantastic. The 1/2.33-inch BSI CMOS sensor produces detailed, accurate snaps and shoots relatively quickly, although there is a slight pause when firing up the camera application itself.

Granted, it's not quite in the same class as dedicated compact cameras retailing for around the same amount of cash (or indeed less) but the fact that the Galaxy S4 Zoom marries top-notch image capture with the full Android 4.2 experience is enough to tip the balance. Throw in HD video recording at 60fps (720p) and 30fps (720p and 1080p) and you've got a device which runs dangerously close to putting your digicam totally out of commission. Shots can be shared online incredibly quickly and pretty much anywhere - subject to you having a decent network signal, of course. To complement the massive rear-facing camera there's also a front-facing 1.9-megapixel lens, which is used mainly for video calling but still takes relatively decent still snaps.

"Gaming performance can't compare to the S4 or HTC One but the lower pixel density display means the GPU copes better than expected."

Samsung's camera software is decent enough, with auto mode picking the best shooting settings almost all of the time. For those who crave a little more control, the expert shooting mode allows you to manually tinker with elements such as white balance, aperture, shutter speed and so on. The suite of options may leave professional photographers wanting, but casual shooters will find more than enough to keep them busy - although the touch-based interface can sometimes make selecting the correct option feel harder than it should be.

With just 8GB of onboard flash storage - of which you have access to around 5GB - you might find that your photovisual pursuits swallow up most of the available space in double-quick time, leaving little room for app downloads. To solve this issue Samsung has kindly included a pre-installed Dropbox application which grants 50GB of cloud storage for two years from the point of activation - it doesn't matter if you're already a Dropbox member, because as soon as you sign into your existing account it is automatically upgraded.

There's also a MicroSD card slot which accepts media up to 64GB in size, giving you a potential storage total of approximately 72GB. Throw other cloud storage services into the mix - such as Google's Picasa and Box - and it's unlikely that you'll ever realistically run out of space.

"Deciding whether or not the Galaxy S4 Zoom is the phone for you boils down to how much you're willing to give up in order to have a high-quality, internet-connected camera in your pocket at all times."

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: the Digital Foundry verdict

Given that device makers are obsessed with creating the thinnest, lightest hardware imaginable, the Galaxy S4 Zoom seems like a hilarious step backwards in time. At first glance, it just looks like someone has stuck a touchscreen onto the back of a traditional point-and-shoot. However, during our time with the device we can't help but feel that it scratches an itch that doesn't really exist. The vast majority of mobile phone cameras produce lacklustre results, and even the best ones tend to only perform well in select shooting conditions. While the Galaxy S4 Zoom's lens isn't going to thrill seasoned photographers, the fact that it's in your pocket (causing an unsightly bulge, we might add) at all times means you'll never miss an image capture opportunity again. There's no fear of the moment being ruined thanks to fussy autofocus, overzealous compression or poor lighting.

Of course, such photographic accomplishment comes with considerable caveats. The Galaxy S4 Zoom's internal tech is last year's news, and if you're upgrading from a quad-core handset you may find the lack of power exasperating. The large nature of the camera also causes issues: the phone is chunky and the motorised lens mechanism is unlikely to survive an impromptu collision with a concrete floor or paving slab. Of course, this rule applies to any other digital camera with an optical lens, but when that tech is attached to a mobile phone which is on your person 24 hours a day, the chances of an accidental drop are dramatically increased.

Deciding whether or not the Galaxy S4 Zoom is the phone for you boils down to how much you're willing to give up in order to have a high-quality, net-connected camera in your pocket at all times. When the concept works, it soars - photo quality is excellent and being free of the need to copy snaps over to your PC from an SD card is incredibly liberating - but when it falls short, you're left with a phone that showcases outdated architecture, a low-res screen and causes your pocket to sag in a very unappealing manner.

Review handset kindly provided by www.mobilefun.co.uk.

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