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Is it a phone? Is it a camera? It's Samsung's new Galaxy S4 Zoom (hands-on)

/ Updated: 20 June 2013 11:56 pm BST

LONDON -- The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is arguably more camera than phone. It takes the body and smartphone features of the S4 and marries it with a larger sensor and 10x optical zoom, turning what was already a superb camera phone into more of a phone-camera.

There are compromises, though: its 4.3-inch, 960x540-pixel display and 1.5GHz dual-core processor are much less impressive specs than the standard Galaxy S4. Here's hoping the camera tech it's wielding more than makes up for it.

Samsung hasn't given any word on pricing or availability as yet, but check back for more news as it happens.

Samsung's Galaxy S4s

Design
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 regular 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, though, and it looks just like you're holding a standard Galaxy S4. 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 the phone. Even by compact digital camera standards, it's somewhat 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 than the credit-card-size 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 Zoom as a camera
The S4 Zoom is the only phone -- and it 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 sleeping 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, which can also be set to control different functions or bring up menus. Twist it during a phone call and it'll allow you to snap a shot and instantly send it to whoever you're speaking to via MMS.

Behind the epic zoom barrel is a 16-megapixel backside illuminated CMOS sensor. It's physically bigger than the sensors you'll find inside regular smartphones -- the S4 included -- although not as big as the ones you'll get inside an average dSLR. A bigger sensor means that more light can hit it, which should greatly improve image quality. We'll be putting its skills to the test in the full review soon.

Samsung has bundled in 25 different scene modes to choose from, including "HDR," "panorama," and "night." You can have the phone suggest the best mode for the scene or simply leave it in auto mode for a hassle-free experience.

The screen is a 4.3-inch affair with a disappointing 960x540-pixel resolution. That's a big step down from the full HD display found on the S4 and particularly irritating given the phone's imaging focus, where more pixels will help show off a clearer image. Still, it at least seemed fairly bright and bold in my hands-on time.

The Zoom as a phone
Stuffed inside the body is 1.5GHz dual-core processor -- again, a disappointing downgrade from the monstrous quad-core brute (octo-core in some places) in the true S4. Editing such high-resolution photos and videos would undoubtedly be made a whole lot smoother with a faster chip so I'm not happy to see a lesser chip in place. Again, we'll see how it performs in the review.

It's running Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, the most recent version of Google's mobile operating system. The interface has been tweaked slightly to make it easier to access camera functions -- similar to the layout you'll see on the Galaxy Camera -- but otherwise things are much the same.

There's 8GB of internal storage as standard, of which 5GB is available for use. That's not going to last long once you start snapping away at full resolution, so you'll need to make use of the microSD card slot. The battery is a fairly capacious 2,330mAh affair, which can be removed via a slot on the side.

Outlook
With its bigger sensor, higher resolution, and 10x optical zoom, the Galaxy S4 Zoom may well be the dedicated shutterbug's phone of choice. It certainly sets a bar for Nokia's rumored EOS camera phone to clear. But its significantly increased size over the standard Galaxy S4, together with its pared-down phone specs, means that it's not likely to find its way into everyone's pockets.

Discuss Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

Quick Specifications See All

  • Service Provider not specified
  • Diagonal Size 4.3 in
  • Weight 208 g
  • Sensors Accelerometer, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, magnetometer, gyro sensor
  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Additional Features (PB) DLNA Certified
    Face Unlock
    Face tag
    Group Play function
    In-Call Photo Share function
    S Beam
    Samsung Link (AllShare Play)
    Screen capture
    Smart stay
    Text-to-Speech (text recognition)
    Zoom Ring control
    sharing media via DLNA
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