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

The specialized Zoom is the most flexible smartphone camera, period. But its thick, heavy body is absurd for casual users who just want better pics.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt Editorial Director / CNET Franchises, How-To, Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads CNET Franchises, How-To, and Performance. With over 15 years in journalism, her experience includes mobile phone and software reporting and reviews, and delivering advice on expansive topics ranging from personal finance to travel and home. Jessica got her start at Download.com and holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).

13 min read

With its bulky point-and-shoot camera shape and 10x optical zoom, Samsung's Galaxy S4 Zoom makes for a ridiculously shaped smartphone that defies pocketability. But the mashup device sure can shoot.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom
7.7

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

The Good

The <b>Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom</b>'s advanced controls and preset modes are easy to use. Its top-notch image quality, optical zoom, and a tripod mount make it the most flexible smartphone camera there is. Android 4.2 helps keep the device fresh and connected.

The Bad

Heavy, thick, and asymmetrical, the camera-shaped Zoom is incredibly awkward and uncomfortable to use as a phone.

The Bottom Line

Buy the Zoom if you'd like a flexible two-in-one camera/smartphone, no matter the size. But enthusiasts should stick to standalone shooters, and slimmer smartphones -- like the arguably better Nokia Lumia 1020 -- will satisfy most photo needs.

In fact, its image quality is on par with a good point-and-shoot camera, and its optical zoom makes it a more flexible camera than any other smartphone's. Unfortunately, the Zoom's awkward and uneasy design disrupts the phone's day-to-day functionality on a fundamental level, even if you're not holding it up to your ear.

Despite its strong photography skills, the Zoom -- which has no U.S. carrier partner (or pricing) yet -- is floundering for an audience. Nokia's smaller 41-megapixel Lumia 1020 edges the Zoom in pure image quality, and casual shooters who aren't willing to give up the convenience of a pocket phone will be happier with the 13-megapixel Samsung Galaxy S4 or 8-megapixel iPhone 5.

Editors' note: Thanks to CNET Senior Editor Joshua Goldman for additional camera testing and analysis.

Eyes on Samsung's Galaxy S4 Zoom (pictures)

See all photos

Craziest 'phone' design ever?

We've seen some out-there phone designs in our time, and the Zoom is right up there. As a smartphone, the Zoom's large lens assembly and hand grip are completely impractical. It uncomfortably stretches out pockets and its 7.3-ounce weight drags on your arm if you hold it for a long time, say, to watch a video or play a game.

Like the LTE version of the Samsung Galaxy Camera that came before it, the Zoom's always-connected data stream lets you easily share and upload photos. However, the phone's bulk also makes it much harder to immerse yourself in the device as you would with a slimmer, more shingle-shaped phone.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom
Don't attempt using the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom as a telephone without a Bluetooth headset. Just don't. Josh Miller/CNET

And woe unto anyone who attempts using this thing as cell phone without a Bluetooth headset. I tried it at length to see how it felt. Not only did I look utterly ridiculous, my hands got tired of holding the device after 15- and 20-minute calls. (Call quality was actually pretty good; you can read about that part below.)

As a camera, the Zoom works well. The large, round shutter button depresses with the right amount of give, the grip makes it possible to shoot one-handed, and the large zoom wheel turns smoothly without being too loose. Photographers accustomed to resting their thumbs on the camera's back will need to adjust so they don't tap the touch screen. Otherwise, shooting with the Zoom is smooth sailing.

The lens assembly takes up a lot of space on the back, owing to its 24-240mm zoom lens. To the left of the lens are the xenon flash and an autofocus assist light. A microSD card slot and tripod mount populate the left spine (if you're holding the Zoom like a phone), and on the right are the power/lock buttons, volume rocker, and shutter button. The headset jack and IR blaster live up top, with the Micro-USB charging port on the bottom edge.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom
The Zoom is clearly more camera than phone. Josh Miller/CNET

Like other Galaxy phones, the Zoom navigates with a central Home button flanked by capacitive controls for the menu and Back button. They also do double duty to bring up Google Now cards and recent apps.

One missing element is a charging indicator light, which would go a long way toward letting phone owners know when the Zoom has enough juice to shoot its heart out.

All about the camera

The Zoom is a smartphone, yes, but whether you buy it or not all comes down to its camera controls and image quality. You can fire up the camera and its 16-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor by holding down the shutter button, but you'll need to unlock the phone first.

To get to the shooter faster, you can set a lock-screen shortcut for the camera (as well as any other app). Going one step further, you can also program the Zoom to open the camera when you power it on.

You can open the camera faster with a lock-screen shortcut. Another setting unlocks the phone to the camera app. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Samsung has learned a thing or two about making its camera app easy to understand and use. There are onscreen controls to flip between front and rear cameras, toggle the flash, and turn on self-timer, geotagging, and autosharing. Icons make it easy to zoom in and out without touching the lens, and other buttons switch to video capture, open mode selection, and take the photo.

Tap an arrow at the bottom of the screen to pop open a long list of filter effects, like sepia, vintage, and fish-eye.

The Zoom's native camera interface has tappable controls. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The modes are plentiful, even more so than on the other Galaxy S4 phones. You have auto, of course, and digital dials to set ISO, white balance, contrast, color correction, exposure time, and so on.

A category called Smart Mode bundles 25 presets, including panorama and macro, HDR (which it calls Rich Tone), and settings for night shots, food, action, and smiling tots. If all these are still too confusing, there is -- absurdly -- even a mode to suggest the right mode.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom
Using the Galaxy S4 Zoom. Josh Miller/CNET

One mode turns out be an editable list of shortcuts for your five favorite modes. It's a convenient way to get what you want quickly, but also seems a bit much. It might be simpler if Samsung just let you reorder and star your favorite modes instead so flagged ones appear at the top of the list.

Another shortcut reveals itself when you turn the zoom lens while on the home screen. Do this, and your onscreen cursor rotates around some common modes.

For the most part, Samsung has made camera app navigation intuitive. And I like how voice dictation, which takes the photo when it hears trigger words like "cheese" and "smile," works with the front-facing camera. I used this feature when I wanted to minimize hand shake.

Image quality
The Zoom doesn't claim to have the highest megapixel resolution of any smartphone camera or the crispest, clearest fidelity. Yet, in our tests, it produced some excellent images using auto settings, preset modes, and freehand controls. Still and all, the Nokia Lumia 1020 produced the all-around best shots with its larger sensor, cleaner processing, better low-light shots, and solid image stabilization.

Auto mode on the Zoom takes photos with crisp edges, and uses a warmer tone overall that sometimes pumps up yellows. Indoors, it often relies on flash where some other smartphone cameras (like the iPhone 5) do not. The effect is photos with defined faces that and less background detail. The tendency to use flash also created a less atmospheric nighttime scene.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom camera test
Taken indoors with flash. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Whether you like this or not is a matter of taste; I personally prefer to see clear faces than worry about blinding my friends with flash. On the other hand, camera phones are increasingly improving low-light performance, which means that the flash should fire less often as smartphone cameras get better.

The Zoom's auto mode sometimes helped out by kicking over to another setting; I noticed this take place with night mode, though not macro.

The Zoom's killer feature is indeed that 10x optical zoom. Most of the time, zoom quality was terrific without much loss in image fidelity. I was really impressed with some images I captured while standing at the bottom of a statue, for example, or across the street. I found Zoom handy for taking photos of objects I couldn't physically get close to in time to capture the moment, like bystanders at CNET's office ping pong tournament (really,) or a scene across a busy intersection.

CNET camera editor Josh Goldman also got some really beautiful artistic shots using the Zoom's lens to blur the background and make the foreground pop.

Testing the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom's 16-megapixel shooter (pictures)

See all photos

This camera phone's zoom lens may be on par with other point-and-shoot cameras, but it wasn't absolutely perfect. Sometimes the camera failed to focus on objects, like facial features, no matter how often I tried. Zoom also wasn't great at fulfilling a macro function -- it's easy to get too close.

Speaking of close-ups, I was disappointed that close-ups in auto mode often didn't work. Strangely, a shot looked clear and sharp in freeze frame on the display, but blurry in review. I also noticed a little motion blur at times, even when subjects and I both kept still. The Zoom's image stabilization should cancel out minor hand shaking.

Must-see: Samsung Galaxy S4 shootout versus Lumia 1020, others

Macro mode presets were terrific, however, yielding rich detail on objects like flowers, textiles, lettering, and more. Even though using Samsung's modes requires premeditation, many of them do have a positive effect. I'm personally much more interested in the kinds of preset boosts you can get with food mode, indoor, and action than settings like best face and best photo that automatically select a more technically correct picture from a series for you to use.

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


Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom
7.7

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 9
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