Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom review: Good point-and-shoot, oddball smartphone

In our tests, the Zoom took better photos in a lot of situations than the usual camera phones, with better detail and lower noise. In automatic mode, the differences between the Zoom, the original S4, and the iPhone 5 generally weren't astounding enough to make most casual photographers jump ship and buy a Zoom.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom camera test
I took the photo of my cupcake first in automatic mode (L), and then using the food-friendly setting. The boost in color and contrast is evident. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Samsung gave the Zoom a focus-assist light, night mode, and indoor presets to counter its typical low-light Achilles' heel. The camera also defaulted to night mode when it detected I was outside at night and photographing city lights, which I found helpful.

There are plenty of editing tools for post-production, but I did notice that Samsung's red-eye removal tool inconveniently won't let you zoom in to fix flaming eyes. I gave up after a handful of failures.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom camera test
The Zoom took some lovely, detailed shots. Click to enlarge. Josh Miller/CNET
Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom camera test
Here's a statue, taken in automatic mode. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom camera test
I captured this portion of the statue with the camera's full zooming range. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom camera test
You can make out the cloth's texture here. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom camera test
I zoomed in to shoot these motorcycles from across a busy street. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom camera test
The Zoom clearly captures text. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

For even more pictures taken with this camera, check out this S4 Zoom photo gallery .

Front camera and video
The 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera took usable photos. The color representation was off at times, with faces often looking vibrant and fleshy in some parts and necrotic and grey in others. Of course, photos will appear a little grainy.

I do like that it can capture 720p HD video this way, which helps with video chats. Still, the image quality won't be as good as if you used a high-quality Webcam. When it comes to main camera videos, the 1080p HD captures played back smoothly. In some clips, colors didn't seem quite as rich indoors as they did outside.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom camera test
A group portrait taken with the front-facing camera. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Versus the Nokia Lumia 1020
There are some significant variables to think about when it comes to comparing these two cameras -- different sensor sizes, different resolutions, and different lenses. There are also different focal ranges and depths of field, which change things like how close you can get to an object to take its photo. And although the Lumia 1020 takes 34 or 38-megapixel photos, they'll resolve to 5-megapixels, which is much smaller if you're e-mailing photos from your phone. (You can still get to the absolutely massive high resolution Lumia photos from your computer.

It bears repeating that in terms of absolute image quality, the Lumia 1020 edges the Zoom, thanks to its larger image sensor and low light proficiency, even when shooting with the native camera in auto mode, rather than with Nokia's fancy Pro Cam app.

When it comes to pocketability, the Lumia 1020 is the far better smartphone camera. But talk about ease of use, and the two swap places. The Lumia 1020's Nokia Pro Cam app -- the source of its 41-megapixel photos and manual settings -- lacks the Zoom's preset modes, which makes Nokia's phone harder for aspiring smartphone photographers to use. It also doesn't go nearly as deep with manual settings, lacking both aperture and color controls.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, Nokia Lumia 1020
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is a beast, even compared with Nokia's robust Lumia 1020. Josh Miller/CNET

The Lumia 1020 also doesn't take extreme close-ups in the Pro Cam app. Even though the Zoom's photos look crisper in preview than they do once they're processed, but at least it's easy to find the macro mode.

Colors are warmer and more yellow with the Zoom, but not necessarily more accurate. Nokia's shallower depth of field means that objects around the focus point tend to blur, an effect not everyone will like.

The Lumia 1020 wins hands down when it comes to low-light shots in auto mode, though the S4 Zoom's night mode sometimes jumps in to automatically assist with evening shots, even if you don't switch to it yourself. Although the Lumia's digital zoom is very impressive when you're cropping pictures, the S4's optical zoom gets you virtually closer to objects much further away.

The Zoom, left, creates much warmer tones that aren't necessarily realistic. The Lumia 1020, right, was the closer color match. Click to enlarge. Josh Miller/CNET

Shot-to-shot time is much shorter on the Zoom as well, under 3 seconds in auto mode compared with the Nokia Pro Cam app's 6-second wait while it saves very high-resolution pics. (Windows phones generally take 2.5 seconds from shot to shot with both auto-focus and flash turned on.)

Putting the phones' body mass aside, I found the Galaxy S4 easier to use, with a wider, more flexible range of controls. The Zoom also took slightly more pleasing images in outdoor shots, and it was easier to get up close without having to crop or resize the photo.

Taken as a whole, I prefer the Zoom's photographic experience for its optical zoom, easy to use preset modes, and still very good smartphone photos. The smartphone's hardware and software specs also make it the more powerful, flexible device than the Windows Phone-running Lumia 1020. But if we're talking about which phone I'd carry around each day, the Lumia once again wins.

The other specs

If you're wondering exactly how the S4 Zoom lines up with Nokia's Lumia 1020, you'll find the specs rundown here:


Phone Nokia Lumia 1020 Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom
OS Windows Phone 8 Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
U.S. carrier AT&T TBA
Camera 41 megapixels 16 megapixels
Zoom 3x digital 10x optical
Sensor size 1/1.5-inch
BSI CMOS
1/2.3-inch
BSI CMOS
Aperture F 2.2 F 3.1-F 6.3
Focal range 26mm 24-240mm
Front-facing camera 1.2-megapixels 1.9-megapixels
Video recording 1080p HD rear;
720p HD front
1080p HD rear;
720p HD front
Processor 1.5GHz dual-core
Qualcomm Snapdragon S4
1.5GHz dual-core
Pega-Dual +XMM6262
Screen 4.5-inch AMOLED 4.3 Super AMOLED
Resolution 1,280x768; 331ppi 960x540; 256ppi
Dimensions (inches) 5.1 x 2.8 x 0.5* 5 x 2.5 x 0.61*
Weight (ounces) 5.6 7.3
Battery 2,000mAh, embedded 2,330mAh, removable
Internal storage 32GB 8GB
Expansion slot No Yes, up to 64GB
4G LTE LTE
RAM 2GB Not listed
Bluetooth version 3.0 4.0
NFC Yes Yes
*At their slimmest points. The Lumia's camera mount extends 0.5 inch; The Zoom's is 2 inches away from the face.

Compared with the original Galaxy S4, the S4 Zoom trades off screen size, display resolution, and chipset clock speed to keep total costs in check, so you'll notice that the screen is smaller and not quite as sharp, and that the phone is a bit less zippy.

Performance

Call quality
I tested the GSM Zoom's call quality in San Francisco using an unlocked phone and an AT&T SIM card. Audio was mostly strong, with a few foibles. I heard a faint, persistent white noise during calls. Voices were natural and warm, and volume was strong at about three-fourths of the total capacity. This contrasts with other Samsung phones like the S4, which requires maximum volume and an extra software volume bump at times. I would like volume to be a little sharper, however, and I did get the weird impression of slightly varying volume.

On his end of the line, my main test partner said I sounded natural and pleasantly loud. Voices were clear and sharp, without any distortion whatsoever. There was the barest hint of white noise.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone was also very clear and usable when I held the Zoom at waist level. Volume remained steady, background noise disappeared, and amazingly for a speakerphones, I didn't hear any echo.

My caller still heard the quiet crackle of white noise, but also gave volume levels a thumbs-up and agreed that Samsung got echo under control.

Processor and data speeds
I tested the unlocked, global version of the Galaxy S4 Zoom, using an AT&T SIM card. This particular handset achieved 4G HSPA+ speeds, but not LTE. If the Zoom comes to the U.S., it will be with an LTE radio.

I measured data and processor results with the Speedtest.net and Quadrant apps. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Speeds held steady in the range of 3-5Mbps down and about 1Mbps up. I'd expect LTE speeds to be much faster, in the double digits. As it stands, I uploaded dozens of photos to Dropbox using both HSPA+ and Wi-Fi, and downloaded plenty of items onto the phone. Even at the slower speeds, I was still able to move a lot of data.

The 1.5GHz dual-core processor is noticeably slower than the Galaxy S4's 1.9GHz quad-core chip, but you won't wait too long where navigation counts: booting up the phone, loading the camera app, and switching from app to app. Games and videos will play just fine, but perhaps not with quite the same gusto as the GS4.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom (Unlocked)
Download CNET mobile app (3.7MB) 16.5 seconds
Load up CNET mobile app 7.6 seconds
CNET mobile site load 7.4 seconds
CNET desktop site load 14.8 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 22.5 seconds
Camera boot time 2.4 seconds using icon;
2.7 with key
Camera, shot-to-shot time 2.5 seconds with autofocus, flash

Battery and more
The Zoom's 2,330mAh ticker should last you all day in theory, but I noticed that the battery drained a little quicker than I expected. Then again, I also had the screen at maximum brightness for much of the time and had been using it heavily during a very short period during this testing process.

In general, smartphone batteries usually last a full workday before needing a daily charge, but longevity will, of course, depend on how much and how often you use the phone. Streaming content demands the most resources as a rule. We'll continue to probe battery capacity and will update this section with results from further lab tests.

Buy it or skip it?

On paper, the Zoom has all the elements of a really great smartphone: a recent Android version, hardware goodies like a fast processor, and the advanced camera. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and the Zoom's bulky shape is enough to be a deal breaker. Also, if don't need quite as much photographic control, the Lumia 1020, Galaxy S4, and iPhone 5 are the slimmer, more practical picks that don't sacrifice much in terms of quality. In many cases, in fact, the Lumia 1020 surpasses the Zoom.

On the other side of the spectrum, Samsung's Galaxy Camera NX lures advanced photographers with its LTE or Wi-Fi connectivity and some seriously promising imaging chops for new device buyers.

That said, if you're undeterred, the question of the Zoom will come down to carrier availability (sometime in the fourth quarter for U.S. users) and price.

Hold out for the Galaxy S4 Zoom if you:
-Crave a true optical zoom lens for your smartphone
-Carry a point-and-shoot camera, and want an Android two-in-one device instead
-Seek more advanced image controls than your average smartphone
-Feel comfortable investing in what it likely a more expensive phone
-Do not mind a heavier handset

Skip it if you:
-Want a slim, light smartphone, not a camera that makes calls
-Rarely or never venture past automatic mode
-Don't want to buy a Bluetooth headset

What you'll pay

    Pricing is currently unavailable.

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    Where to Buy

    Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

    Part Number: GALAXYS4ZOOMULK Released: Jul. 8, 2013

    Please visit Samsung for additional models

    Quick Specifications See All

    • Release date Jul. 8, 2013
    • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
    • Service Provider not specified
    • Weight 7.33 oz
    • Diagonal Size 4.3 in
    • Sensor Resolution 16 pixels
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