Samsung Galaxy Camera review: An OK camera, but a very good gadget

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MSRP: $499.00

The Good The Samsung Galaxy Camera's feature set is tough to beat, combining the power of a high-end Android OS 4.1 Jelly Bean device with a giant HD-resolution touch screen and the 21x zoom and 16-megapixel resolution of a compact camera.

The Bad If you're looking for great picture quality for the Galaxy Camera's $500 price tag, you're probably going to be disappointed. Its battery life is fairly short. To get the most from it, you'll want to pay for a monthly data plan.

The Bottom Line Outside of its relatively high cost of ownership and average point-and-shoot picture quality, the Samsung Galaxy Camera definitely delivers the shoot-and-share experience of a smartphone with the features of a compact camera.

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7.6 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 7
  • Image quality 7

Editors' note: For clarification, a portion of the review regarding Android app support for the zoom lens has been updated with additional information from testing.

As the first camera available in the U.S. with a data plan and the second that uses the Android OS, the Samsung Galaxy Camera (its actual model number is EK-GC100) certainly deserves some attention. The combination of a standalone camera with mobile broadband access (it's initially available from AT&T's HSPA+ network) is pretty great for those who love the shoot-and-share capabilities of their phone, but want the flexibility of a zoom lens and improved photo and video quality.

This could likely be accomplished without the Android OS, but then you wouldn't get access to a whole world of apps. The camera's interface is basically an app, just like the camera on any smartphone or tablet. You can load the Galaxy up with apps for shooting and editing, and, well, whatever you want, really. This, of course, includes your pick of social-networking apps as well as cloud storage and sharing services. There is also the possibility that third-party developers will make apps to take advantage of this camera's capabilities.

Now, while all of that is well and good, its main purpose is still being a camera and at that, it's fairly average for a point-and-shoot. In fact, the 21x zoom wide-angle lens and 16-megapixel backside-illuminated sensor are the same specs as you'd get with Samsung's WB850F Wi-Fi camera. That camera is currently priced at about $330 or less; the Galaxy is $499.99, and that's without a data plan.

Sarah Tew/CNET

AT&T doesn't require a data plan to purchase the camera, but if you've got an AT&T Mobile Share plan, you can add it to your devices for $10 a month. Otherwise, you can get 250MB of data for $15 a month, 3GB for $30, or 5GB for $50. That seems steep for a device you might not use as frequently as you would a tablet or laptop (and perhaps a pay-as-you-go option would be a better fit). But, since the Galaxy Camera can be used for more than taking photos and videos, you can use that data for e-mail, streaming movies and music, VoIP calls, etc. However, none of this makes its photo and video quality any better than the WB850F, which, while better than a smartphone, is average for its class.

Photo quality
Like many point-and-shoots, the more light you have when shooting with the Galaxy, the better your photos will be. If you're considering this for daylight shooting, you'll likely be very satisfied with the results. Likewise, if you're looking for better low-light shots than a smartphone. Regardless of lighting, though, the results when viewed at full size are not impressive, with noise and artifacts, and subjects looking soft and lacking fine details.

Subjects do get noticeably softer as you increase ISO, too, which means with less light you'll lose sharpness and fine details, and things start to look flat. (They definitely benefit from some light post-shoot sharpening if you're going to be using them at small sizes.)

On the other hand, the f2.8 lens and the back-illuminated CMOS sensor keep the camera from immediately ratcheting up ISO, so you can take low-light photos (at least at the wide end of the lens) with better results than with some competing models. Basically, if you're considering this for its online-sharing capabilities and don't typically make large prints above 8x10s, regularly enlarge and heavily crop pictures, or view them at large sizes on screen, it's a fine choice and you will do better than using a smartphone.

Video quality is very good and the optical image stabilization is certainly nice to have if you're tired of the shaky clips from your smartphone. However, like its photos, video does get softer and noisier the less light you have. The zoom does work while recording movies, but it was a bit jerky when moving in and out. Also, the mic is right next to the shutter release, so it picks up any finger movement or snapping of the zoom lever. One thing that's cool, though, is that there's a headphone jack on the right side that can also be used with a microphone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Editors' note: We recently updated our testing methodology to provide slightly more-real-world performance, so the results aren't necessarily comparable with previous testing. Until we're finished refining our procedures we will not be posting comparative performance charts.

Much like the photo quality, for $500 you might expect shooting performance to be faster than an average point-and-shoot with a CMOS sensor. It is not.

Assuming you did an initial startup of the camera, it sits in standby until you're ready to use it. From standby to first capture takes about 3.2 seconds, mostly because of the lens unfolding. From shot to shot it takes on average 1.7 seconds, but that time jumps to 4.2 seconds when using the flash. Shutter lag -- the time it takes from pressing the shutter release to capture without prefocusing -- is 0.4 second in bright lighting and 0.7 second in dim. In very low light the lag increases to 0.9 second.

The camera does have a continuous shooting option that can fire off up to 20 shots at up to 4 frames per second. That's pretty good, and you can start shooting another burst almost as soon as you release the shutter button. Focus and exposure are set with the first shot, though, so if you're shooting a fast-moving subject, chances are good that not all of your shots will be in focus.

Sarah Tew/CNET

As for the device's overall performance, it's nice and fast. The 1.4GHz quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM kept everything relatively zippy. And while I occasionally experienced brief freezes while flipping through my photos, it was nothing like the slowdowns and stalls of the Nikon Coolpix S800c. It can certainly act as a media player and does just about everything a smartphone can outside of making phone calls.

Design and features
The other Android camera currently available, Nikon's Coolpix S800c, feels a lot like an inexpensive point-and-shoot with an old smartphone slapped on the back. Nikon's camera interface and the use of an old version of the Android OS didn't help things, either, making it already feel dated. The Galaxy, on the other hand, feels like a high-end compact camera with a fresh, snappy interface that you'd expect from a new Android device.