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Android-driven Samsung Galaxy Camera: Fad or future?

Is the Samsung Galaxy Camera the tipping point for a new market, or just a fad waiting to pass?

Samsung Galaxy Camera
Does Samsung see something in connected digital cameras that others do not?
Sarah Tew/CNET

Part digital camera, part smartphone, the 4G Android-powered Samsung Galaxy Camera could be the start of a new generation of digital cameras. And as of this week, both Verizon and AT&T sell it.

On the one hand, Samsung could find some advantage in branching into the digital camera realm early before the trend really takes off. On the other, reaching outside its core technologies into new territory could prove a major misstep for the Korean electronics giant.

Touted as the first 4G LTE camera in the world, the Galaxy Camera deserves a bit of attention. With features such as a 16-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor, 21x optical zoom, and full Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, it's a wonderful experience, at least on paper.

Just think about how cool it is upload your photos and videos directly to the Internet, browse the Web, and download Angry Birds from a point-and-shoot!

Yet the Galaxy Camera doesn't come cheap when you add up the price of the device and tack on the cost of connecting to the carrier's network. And if you buy a large-screen smartphone with a strong camera from your carrier, do you really need a second Android camera device?

Price is key
Many Galaxy Camera reviews echo the same sentiment in that its price tag -- $500 on AT&T and $550 on Verizon -- is high for what you get. Educated consumers and photography enthusiasts will no doubt understand that you can get more camera for the money if you buy a point-and-shoot from traditional camera manufacturers, like Canon, Nikon, and Olympus.

When it comes down to it, what are you really getting? Not astounding photo quality, according to CNET reviewer Joshua Goldman, who calls its photos just average. In fact, he suggests that for photography alone, you find the same specs from Samsung's WB850F Wi-Fi camera, which costs $330.

I may be wrong here, but I can't see that many people will be willing to spend $500 or more for Samsung's camera.

And then there's that pesky access fee to use it over 4G, and sharing photos immediately is the main reason you'd want something like the Galaxy Camera, isn't it? Sure, it's just $5 per month on Verizon and $10 on AT&T to get 4G, but that money adds to the total cost of the device over time.

How important is an always-active Internet connection, anyway? One need only glance at the success of the Wi-Fi-only Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 to see that Wi-Fi is sufficient for a large segment of consumers.

I suspect that resourceful buyers will opt for a less expensive compact digital camera, an Eye-Fi card for getting online, and/or a smartphone. With so many other options to choose from at that price point, I foresee the Galaxy Camera sitting on shelves this season.

A grand experiment?
At the very least, the Samsung camera, like the Nokia 808 PureView's 41-megapixel camera bulge, proves that more can be done on a smartphone OS. Samsung also has a habit of extending its brand in as many ways as possible.

It's fair to see if extending the Galaxy brand to an Android camera could get Samsung loyalists excited. After all, it seems to be working with the niche Samsung Galaxy Note 2 "phablet."

Colors are bright and vivid, but not entirely accurate, according to CNET's Joshua Goldman. Joshua Goldman/CNET

There's no doubt that non-smartphone Android devices, and connected cameras in particular, will become an important trend. Samsung's attempt isn't even the first Android-based camera. Nikon recently released one of its own, the Coolpix S800c, though Nikon's try offers an older Android 2.3 Gingerbread experience.

Samsung, for its part, gives users access to Google Play and thousands of apps. Don't like the apps that come preloaded on the Galaxy Camera? Swap them out for Instagram, Viddy, and others. Of course, e-mailing or uploading those photos to social networks is a main draw, too. Android users should, for the most part, be able to do many of the same things they do with a Galaxy smartphone or tablet. Though just because you can play games on your shooter doesn't mean you should.

Who's it for?
Fellow Android bloggers and enthusiasts agree that the Galaxy Camera is a cool idea but not something that anyone needs. The idea of a connected digital camera that runs Android appeals to me as I prepare for CES. I love the thought of being able to capture photos and videos from the show floor and getting them online in a timely, effortless manner. Looking beyond January, however, it's harder for me to justify owning one.

In trying to determine the target audience for the Galaxy Camera, I came up with a rather short list. I can certainly see the appeal for a real estate agent, an insurance agent, or someone who spends time in the field. Others who come to mind are construction workers, sports recruiters, landscaping, and emergency service workers.

Save for the last one, it's hard to imagine this being a simple matter of want outweighing need. That said, the more I consider the Samsung Galaxy Camera for myself, the more it feels like a want. Yes, I want to show my friends and family what this camera does, and ASAP, but I don't need to. I also wanted to show everyone how cool the 3D video was on my Sprint Evo 3D, but that party trick didn't last long.

Using the Samsung Galaxy Camera's touch-screen controls. Sarah Tew/CNET

Another option is that you take the road that some tablet-seekers do. Buy a simple flip phone to handle calls, and do everything else on a device with a bigger feature set, like an Android camera, for instance.

On the horizon
Fad or future, we'll soon find out just how big of a deal it is for a digital camera to have Android and 4G LTE connectivity. January's Consumer Electronics Show is just around the corner, and more Android cameras are sure to be on the menu. I'm curious if other smartphone-makers will soon jump into the same waters as Samsung, and even more curious is the traditional camera-makers latch onto Android.

As a side note, I hope to learn whatever became of Polaroid's Android-based digital camera from last year's event. Did it see something that Samsung didn't?

Now playing: Watch this: Samsung's Android-powered Galaxy Camera

If I were able to help shape the future of the Galaxy Camera or connected, Android-based digital cameras, I would do these things: first, strip out the full Google Play and limit the capabilities.

Take a Kindle approach and create a user-friendly experience with access to select, if not preloaded, applications. A vetted storefront with handpicked or highlighted titles is really all that matters. Provide cloud-based storage and sharing options, and the software situation is all but done.

In terms of hardware, I would continue to make the best camera as possible in terms of sensor size and rendering quality, without worrying as much about the "smart" aspects. Android should take over only to apply filters, share, or upload. It would also help to include microSD expansion slot, NFC, MHL, or DLNA connectivity.

Start with a more reasonable price tag in mind and work as much as you can into the device as possible. Do all of this, and the Facebook generation will love you.

Your turn now
Does the idea of a 4G LTE digital camera appeal to you, even if you have to pay a monthly service fee? What about cameras that have Android under the hood? I would love to hear your thoughts on the Samsung Galaxy Camera, and your dream connected camera.