Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom review

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is a phone… Or is it a camera? It's somewhere between both - a Galaxy S4 mini-alike with a 10x optical zoom compact camera strapped to its rear. Conceptually that's brilliant for snapping shots a step above many a standard smartphone and then sharing them on the go, yet it's equally comedic some of the time: awkwardly holding the Zoom to the face for a phone call being the prime example.

But then the Korean giant might be a fan of comedy: the S4 Zoom conjures the image of that scene in Flight of the Conchords where Jermaine flees muggers trying to steal his "camera phone" - a camera that's literally been glued to a phone. At least now our fictional star could pop to the shops and shell out £440 for a real-life, working phone camera. Or is that camera phone?

Thing is, the S4 Zoom is deadpan serious, without so much a hint of a wink or a smile. It's definitely got the processor power and Android OS heritage behind it, but does its bold concept forge together in practical design terms for a successful all-in-one experience?

Phone camera or camera phone?

The Galaxy S4 Zoom is a real fence-sitter. As part of the S-family it's a phone, but it's leant so heavily to the camera side of things that, to us, it feels more like a 10x optical zoom camera than it does a phone. It sits best in the hand when used as a camera - which is more than can be said when using the S4 Zoom as, y'know, the phone that it's supposed to be.

There are a number of issues to acquiring that comfortable portrait-positioned grip to the phone: the S4 Zoom's shiny, plastic white exterior is slip-slidingly smooth despite the protruding grip; there's the physical lens protrusion which at first gets in the way of the hands, and later becomes a natural rest for the fingers but at the cost of front-lens fingerprints. When turned into the more camera-typical landscape orientation but continued to be used as a phone the protruding lens component continues to get in the way as there's not much physical grip to its side (left when faced from rear) edge and this makes for a more limited hold if you're playing apps that rely on double thumb control.

Those complaints - with the exception of the slip-slide exterior finish - are all but null and void when using the S4 Zoom as a camera. The lens is well positioned for dedicated camera control, while the right hand's thumb is available to push mode buttons and make good use of the touchscreen. Unlike a typical compact camera the S4 Zoom won't stand upright on its side well, but otherwise as a camera with sharing capabilities we're fairly happy - but that's not what this device is supposed to be, and so the weighting assigned to the camera feature-set feels too dominant.

Camera geekery

Most smartphones have tiny imaging sensors that aren't optimal for best quality. The rule of thumb says that the larger the sensor the better the image quality, dependent on the given resolution - and of course super-size sensors aren't plausible to deploy in a smartphone setup on account of cost and, in most cases, the physical distance required from the rear of the lens to provide an ample circle of light to cover the imaging sensor.

The S4 Zoom is a step beyond a typical smartphone as its 1/2.33-inch sensor is the same size as you'd find in the majority of standard compact cameras. Take the iPhone 5, for example, which has a smaller 1/3.2-inch sensor that measures around 5.7mm across the diagonal. The S4 Zoom's sensor measures around 7.7mm across the diagonal due to its larger size. Both models also tout CMOS sensors that use backside illumination (BSI) - which means the wiring is to the far back of the sensor design, in order to open up the light path for a cleaner signal and, in turn, better pictures. So far, so geeky.

READ: iPhone 5 camera review

Then there's resolution to consider. Most smartphones don't break the 13-megapixel boundary at the moment. That's not just down to the processors paired up behind the scenes, it's largely because Sony makes most sensors and it hasn't, yet, produced a higher-resolution option. Like-for-like the 16-megapixel S4 zoom is preferable compared to those 13-megapixel competitors in terms of its light-gathering ability as its pixels are larger by comparison. There are exceptions, however: as the iPhone 5 has half the resolution, but not a sensor that's smaller by half, it has more space per pixel than even the S4 Zoom's larger sensor. Therefore is there a genuine difference offered by the Samsung - are its pictures better?

Image quality

The S4 Zoom's resulting images look great on screen and we've generally been impressed with what the camera can do. It's far sharper throughout the zoom compared to the ill-fated Samsung Galaxy Camera.

READ: Samsung Galaxy Camera review

But the S4 Zoom's shots do raise their share of issues when viewed at full scale. When set to Auto ISO the camera desperately tries to cling on to its lowest ISO 100 sensitivity, even when wholly inappropriate to do so: think 1/6th sec shots where ISO 800 ought to have been used instead as an obvious example. And at this ISO 100 setting there are processing artefacts present: dark "spots" around the edges of subjects being the primary example.

Overexposure is common too and the phone's AMOLED screen can be difficult to gauge exposure when outside in brighter light. Blown-out highlights in backgrounds and some colour fringes - those shadowy, purple/green colours to the edges of subjects - are also visible, while lens flare is prominent when shooting facing to light sources.

But we've managed to get some rich colours - including warm, evening sunlight - straight out of the camera, and there are white balance, exposure compensation and full manual options available should you wish to use them. Controls aren't an issue, that's for sure.

At the higher ISO sensitivities - the full range is ISO 100-3200 - the S4 Zoom continues to fare rather well. Colour saturation is lost and there's an increase in processing artefacts and image noise, but still a reasonable level of detail on offer throughout the range - which is more than can be said for plenty of smartphones with small sensors that take a turn for the worse far quicker.

In context many of these issues are commonplace in dedicated compact cameras too, so the S4 Zoom stands up well against like-for-like snappers - but with a phone price.

Optical vs digital

What really makes the S4 Zoom's pictures stand out is its 24-240mm equivalent optical zoom. We've looked at plenty of snaps taken with the camera and, despite them being good enough, they're not a distinct cut above compared to a standard camera phone that you may imagine. It's the breadth of what the zoom lens adds that sets the camera apart and using it just like a camera - with the physical zoom control, or on-screen plus and minus zoom buttons - feels natural. The optical image stabilisation is also excellent and can be actively felt in action during preview.

But the zoom lens is not without issue. The close-focus distance is limited, particularly even with just a little zoom utilised, while successful focus is hit and miss at the longer focal lengths - sometimes it'll be a green square, other times a red one which can be a frustration. Otherwise focus tends to be reasonably swift, though not as lightning fast as some compact cameras of today.

Nokia is the main competitor when it comes to zoom, as the latest Lumia 1020 opts for a wholly different approach: its 2/3-inch 41-megapixel sensor can deliver 38-megapixel stills at its widest-angle and then uses digital zoom by utilising a smaller portion of the sensor to crop into an image. It's a clever idea, but one with limits, particularly by comparison to the Samsung: at 4x zoom the Lumia's resolution will dip to 9.5MP, and at 8x it's less than 5MP, so it can't uphold resolution at the longer zoom equivalents like the S4 Zoom can. For some that won't be a problem as 5MP is still well within the limits of file sizes to share for web use - but it's not a patch on 16MP.

READ: Nokia Lumia 1020: First camera test in New York City

Of course the Lumia 1020 doesn't have a protruding lens to its rear and there's no compromise to its design as a phone. That's the play: a phone with a clever camera that knows it's still a phone, or a phone with a physical optical zoom that loses sight of its phone origins.

It's an Android phone

Forget about the camera component for the moment and the S4 Zoom's Android interface has a lot going for it. The touchscreen is responsive and even though the 540 x 960 resolution 4.3-inch OLED panel isn't anywhere near the most resolute out there, at this scale it's more than enough for the job and would equate to a 1,555k-dot screen - which is well beyond what most compact cameras have on offer.

Samsung does like its software, and there's a boatload of Samsung Apps on board - many of which will probably never get used. But when it comes to personal apps and customisable widgets - calendars, notes, clock, Google Now and plenty more - not only is there plenty on offer from Google Play, but screens can be arranged in fully customisable ways from positioning to widget sizes.

Navigation is controlled by a physical home button with two soft keys to its side for jumping back and opening a menu to create folders, add apps/widgets and make other edits. It's a little different from the layout of some other Android devices where a display all soft key sits in place of the S4 Zoom's edit button, but we think both layouts work well. And when it camera mode an accidental press of one of these buttons will raise an alert rather than automatically jumping out of the camera app.

Battery life will deliver mixed results depending on what you do with the phone. Use it lightly and you can get between 7-9-hours of 3G and Wi-Fi use. We used the camera to shoot around 150 shots in an afternoon alongside additional phone use before the low battery alert popped up. Not bad, and if you're not snap-happy then the 2330mAh battery capacity is larger than the standard Galaxy S4 Mini, so ought to last out longer by comparison.

As a phone all the on-the-go 3G and/or Wi-Fi sharing is nothing out of the ordinary. But when it comes to sharing pictures - including any awesome zoomed-in ones you might have taken - the S4 Zoom is leaps beyond any camera manufacturer.

Verdict

As a phone the S4 Zoom has us equally as charmed as the S4 Mini - it's snappy, great to use, has plenty enough power and is a decent size. As a camera the S4 Zoom performs like a reasonable 16MP, 10x optical zoom compact camera too. Married together and the potential of both sides opens up: there's no need to switch between two products so no waste of precious bag or pocket space, while using apps, snapping shots and sharing on the go are just a few finger taps away.

But it's the S4 Zoom's design - something that we're not sure any phone with a protruding optical zoom could ever quite pull off - that throws all those positives into disarray. It pushes and pulls between a great concept and an impossible delivery: the Galaxy S4 Zoom is a phone first and foremost. With that in mind it's the physicality of the optical zoom that makes holding and using it like a phone just plain weird; it's too much of a design compromise for it to feel like a phone should. If it was billed as a Galaxy Camera Mini we might have a different stance. But it isn't, this is an S-series, and due to that we feel it's S-eriously short of the mark.

READ: Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini hands-on

Concept is one thing, delivery is another. For us the S4 Zoom doesn't converge at the right point and with competition from Nokia - the Lumia 1020 opts for a larger, higher resolution sensor for digital zoom without the physical bulk - the S4 Zoom's life looks to be limited. Despite its positives - and there definitely are some - we just keep on returning to the fact that we don't want to hold a camera up to our ears.