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
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.
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 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.