Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom review: Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

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CNET Editors' Rating

3 stars Good

Average User Rating

3.5 stars 4 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Unique optical zoom; Decent overall image quality; Good low-light photos.

The Bad Chubby body makes it very cumbersome to carry around; Poor performance from dual-core processor; Low-resolution screen; Zoom ring is awkward to use; Annoying sound when zooming while filming.

The Bottom Line The Galaxy S4 Zoom is the only smart phone with an optical zoom -- a 10x one, in front of an impressive 16-megapixel sensor. Far from being the ideal camera phone though, it's let down by its fat, awkward body, unimpressive performance and low-resolution screen. Unless you crave that zoom, there are much better all-round camera phones.

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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.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom with zoom extended
It is a phone, but it sure looks like a camera.

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 .

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom LED flash
There's a decent LED flash too.

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.

Design

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.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom screen
The front. No wait, the back. No, I was right -- it's the front.

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.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom lens
Just like a Samsung compact camera.

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 Galaxy S4 Zoom
There are loads of scene modes to choose from.

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.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom
It can recommend scene 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.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom
You can manually control individual settings if you feel brave enough.

Image quality

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Where to Buy

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

Part Number: SM-C1010ZWABTU

Typical Price: £440.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Service Provider not specified
  • Weight 208 g
  • Diagonal Size 4.3 in
  • Sensor Resolution 16 pixels
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