Samsung Galaxy K Zoom review: Half phone, half camera -- and not brilliant at either

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MSRP: $560.00

The Good The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom's impressive 10x optical zoom gets you up close with your subject without losing image quality. It has plenty of power for most tasks and it has the latest Android software too.

The Bad It's bulky and heavy, making it awkward for everyday use, while its overall image quality doesn't particularly impress and it has a disappointingly low resolution display.

The Bottom Line If you absolutely must have a phone with an optical zoom, the K Zoom is basically your only option. It's bulky though, and the pictures it takes aren't any better than the Galaxy S5's. You'll be far better off with a cheap Android phone and a decent compact digital camera.

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7.0 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7

Smartphone cameras have come on in leaps and bounds. Gone are the days of blurry, low-resolution shots of your dog -- phones are now able to capture shots that you'd struggle to tell weren't taken on a dSLR.

The one thing most phones still fall down on, however, is zoom. Digital zoom is the standard, which simply means it enlarges the image artificially, cropping into what's already been captured and dramatically losing quality. Not so with the Galaxy K Zoom. This 4.8-inch Android phone comes with an impressive 10x optical zoom lens stuck on the back, rather like last year's Galaxy S4 Zoom .

Inside it is a 20.7-megapixel image sensor, along with optical image stabilisation for steady, blur-free shots even at full zoom. Combine that with its six-core processor, Android KitKat software and Galaxy stylings and you may be looking at the shutterbug's dream phone. Less impressive, however, is its chunky proportions and its 720p display.

The phone is on sale now in the UK for £400 off-contract, directly from Samsung's online store, and for AU$749 in Australia. Samsung has said the K Zoom will not be released in the US, but for the purposes of comparison, a rough conversion (after subtracting sales tax) would be $560.

Design and display

The K Zoom can be mistaken for two completely different products, depending on which side you look at. From the front (and by "front", I mean the screen that faces you), it looks exactly like any other Samsung Galaxy phone. The white body has a silver edge, with the usual physical home button on the bottom and the chrome-effect speaker grille at the top. If you've laid eyes on any of Samsung's phones from the past few years, the design will be immediately familiar.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Turn it around and it becomes a camera, with almost no hint as to its smartphone skills. The large, bulging circle that is the optical zoom, along with the wide flash makes it look pretty much like any other compact camera. The design has been tweaked from its predecessor, the S4 Zoom, and I'm rather glad. Gone is the unpleasant bulging battery grip and the shiny plastic body, which made it very awkward to hold. Instead, the battery is incorporated into the whole body and it has a similar dotted finish on the back to the Galaxy S5 . It feels like a normal phone when you hold it up to make a call.

The bulge may have gone, but it's still far from small. The body is 20mm thick at its fattest point, which you'll certainly notice if you're trying to cram it into your skinny jeans. It weighs a hefty 200g, making it a more cumbersome beast than the S5, which was 145g and 8.1mm thick. If you're already used to carrying your camera in a separate bag, its size won't be an issue for you. Its bulky proportions do make it more unwieldy as an everyday phone, however.

A couple of other notable changes from its predecessor is the smaller shutter button on the edge and the removal of the tripod screw mount on the bottom. The latter is a blow, as it means you'll need a smartphone clamp for your tripod if you want to do longer-exposure low-light shots. The zoom ring has been removed from the front as well. The zoom is now operated by the volume up and down buttons. It's less awkward to zoom, but the motors still take around 4 seconds to zoom in completely, which is quite slow.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The K Zoom has a 4.8-inch display, which is plenty of room to properly frame your shots and poke around at the various on-screen camera settings. Samsung has given it an unimpressive 1,280x720-pixel resolution, which gives you a pixel density of 305 pixels per inch. That's a big step below the 431ppi of the Galaxy S5 and it shows -- icon edges and small text don't have the same clarity to them on the K Zoom that they do on the S5.

I find Samsung's choice of display somewhat baffling. High resolution displays are particularly useful when it comes to viewing images, as the extra pixels help make everything look much sharper. Given the K Zoom is designed with imaging as its chief concern, it would make a lot more sense to slap in a full HD 1080p display. It's bright at least (I found it easy to see under strong sunlight) and bold enough to do justice to Instagram.

The phone comes with 8GB of built-in storage as standard which is enough room to get you started. Once you start snapping hundreds of high-resolution photos and shooting reams of video, you'll quickly find the space running out. Luckily there's a microSD card slot on the side, so you can expand its storage when you need to.

The K Zoom as a camera

The K Zoom has some impressive photography credentials. At its heart is a 20.7-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor that's physically larger than the one in the Galaxy S5. A larger sensor means more light can hit it, which should result in nicer photos overall -- at least, that's the theory.

The K Zoom's trump card is the 10x optical zoom. If you're not sure why optical zoom is important, let me explain: digital zoom like you find on the S5 "zooms in" on an image by simply cropping into it, artificially making an area larger. It therefore fails to capture a lot of detail. Optical zoom, however, uses moving lenses to zoom in, as you would with a magnifying glass. It captures the zoomed-in image using all of the sensor, therefore maintaining image quality.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The zoom on the K is the equivalent of having a 240mm telephoto lens on the front of your phone. It allows you to shoot small details on objects from a distance -- if you're off to Africa to see the lions, this may come in handy if you don't fancy losing a limb or two. It has optical image stabilisation on board too, so even at maximum zoom, it's not difficult to keep the shot steady and blur-free.

Shooting on the phone is as straightforward as it is on any other phone. Fire the camera up, whack it in Auto mode and off you go. There are a whole load of scene modes to choose from, including such standards as panorama, burst and HDR. It doesn't have the same always-on HDR as the S5 -- it instead takes multiple pictures in a quick burst and combines them in-camera, which takes slightly longer.

All shots actually take rather longer on the K Zoom than they do on the S5. The auto-focus isn't as fast and processing each image takes longer, meaning it has a shot-to-shot time of around 2 seconds, which isn't brilliant. Using scene modes like HDR requires a longer wait while it processes each shot.

Image quality

Given that the K Zoom has a larger, higher-resolution image sensor than the S5, you'd imagine it would have the flagship phone beaten hands down when it comes to photo quality. In my tests, however, I didn't find that to be the case.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom camera test Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Samsung Galaxy S5 camera comparison Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On my first shot of St Paul's, the exposure is good, with plenty of detail in the shadows and no washed-out clouds. The auto white balance hasn't done well at all however, making the shot look extremely cold. There's plenty of detail on St Paul's in the middle, but towards the edges -- particularly on the buildings on the left -- there's much less detail, looking almost blurred. The Galaxy S5, by comparison, had more natural colour tones.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom camera test Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Samsung Galaxy S5 camera comparison Andrew Hoyle/CNET

With HDR mode enabled, the K Zoom achieved a much warmer shot.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom camera test Andrew Hoyle/CNET
Samsung Galaxy S5 camera comparison Andrew Hoyle/CNET

It's the zoom lens that really sets the K Zoom apart. Zooming in on the roof of St Paul's, the K's shot is far more detailed than the S5's, which has had to crop in to its sensor, reducing the quality of the image.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom camera test Andrew Hoyle/CNET

That zoom also means you can spy on passing wildlife. Coo!

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom camera test Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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