Samsung makes plenty of quality electronics products and we've been taken by many of its smartphones and cameras over the years. Now it's condensed much of that expertise into one phone-camera (or should that camera-phone?): the Galaxy K Zoom.
Although this Android smartphone is not officially billed as the successor to the Galaxy S4 Zoom from last year, that is exactly what we would call it. The K Zoom is all about its 10x optical zoom lens - which is a 24-240mm equivalent - making it part camera, part phone. The K has increased the resolution to 20.7MP, pumped-up the screen resolution, enhanced battery capacity and condensed the design to be more manageable than the S4 Zoom. All sounds rather good.
But sounding good is one thing, actually being good is another thing altogether. Conceptually we think there's a lot right about the K Zoom as a smartphone with enhanced camera features. But in practice does owning a phone that's uncomfortable to hold for the sake of a zoom lens make any sense? We've been living with the Galaxy K Zoom to find out.
Lost In The K-Hole
Different manufacturers have tackled the smartphone camera conundrum in various ways in recent years. We've seen an increase in resolution - such as the Nokia Lumia 1020 - which is one way to negate the need for physical moving parts, so no need for an optical zoom with digital zoom often being ample. The other camp of thought utilises an optical zoom, but via an attachable accessory that's app-controlled - such as Sony with the QX10.
Samsung has foregone those ideas for an all-in-one solution, meaning a more considerable zoom than many competitors with no loss of resolution at any given focal length. However, that means holding the phone feels more like - and here comes the obvious statement moment - holding a camera. As this is meant to be a smartphone first and foremost it feels bizarre to take calls. Even holding it in one or two hands is an oddity due to the protruding lens to the rear - and the camera doesn't need to be in operation for that to be an issue.
As we found with the S4 Zoom, the K Zoom falls into many of the same traps, particularly with practical aspects such as its physical size. It's certainly smaller than the S4 Zoom, which is a positive, but measuring 20.2mm thick at its widest - and that's when the camera is switched off and lens stowed - means it's more than three times the thickness of the Huawei P7, more than double the current flagship models' thickness such as the LG G3 or Samsung's own Galaxy S5, and even almost twice as thick as the hefty Lumia 1020.
For us it's just too big to pocket as a phone and when we have slipped it into a jeans pocket it's proven to be too much of a bulge. We've been walking around with it in a bag for the majority of the time to avoid getting too many looks.
However, we can see why, for some, the K Zoom will make perfectly good sense. The Android operating system (here in version 4.4.2, better known as KitKat) provides all those excellent telephony things - calls, messages, email, apps and so forth - and makes sharing photos directly from the camera so very easy. The simple reason being that you can download all the apps you want from the Google Play store, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Vine and plenty more besides.
We've always praised Samsung for its thought process when it comes to sharing and social as no other camera manufacturer is anywhere near. Whether you want to use Wi-Fi only or insert a microSIM for wireless connectivity (at operator prices, which vary) it's all available here - and that makes the K Zoom quicker and more practical than almost any camera on the market.
For us the device leans more toward the camera side of the market - the "K" rather than "S" namesake is a minor step towards segregation - as we're not convinced its category billing under "smartphones" makes perfect sense.
Whether you want to call it a phone, a camera, or a bit of both, what can't be ignored is just how well the device operates. Under the hood the K Zoom's innards bypass the Galaxy S5 smartphone's UK spec, instead adopting the Exynos 5 Hexa processor that arrived in some derivatives of the Galaxy Note 3 (S9000). That means six cores - 1.3GHz quad-core and 1.7Ghz dual-core - paired with 2GB of RAM and it makes for smooth operation in everything we've thrown at it. Whether that's when diving in and out of the camera application, switching between email to Angry Birds or taking a call, multi-tasking is no problem at all.
The user interface aligns with the Galaxy S5's, which not only means the experience is great but means the K Zoom's £400 price tag is good value. Samsung has rolled out an updated version of its TouchWiz user interface, incorporating the Flipboard-powered My Magazine over the top of the stock Android operating system. My Magazine sits to the left of the home page, so just a swipe away gives you access to personalised news feed, photos and so forth, in a digestible ‘magazine-like" format. If you want to know the full lowdown about TouchWiz, My Magazine and all the ins and outs of Android then take a look at our detailed Samsung Galaxy S5 review.
READ: Samsung Galaxy S5 review
We're rather fond of the 4.8-inch display too. It's bright and colourful, which is typical of Samsung's choice of colour palette, and while the 1280 x 720 pixel resolution isn't up to current flagship smartphone standards, but it's beyond even pro cameras in the resolution stakes.
Pictures Of You
The real reason to buy the K Zoom is its camera. As a point-and-shoot snapper its autofocus functions just fine - it's snappy from either a half depression of the shutter/camera-activation button, or press the screen for focus and, by dragging away from the focus area's corner, a separate exposure metering point.
Although we find the zoom/volume buttons misplaced to control the lens, it's possible to pinch to zoom on the screen which works just fine and feels intuitive enough for a smartphone. You can hear the lens whirring as it mechanically moves through its zoom range as a result, while a 240mm-480mm equivalent digital zoom extension is also available, which offers lower resolution output when utilised activated.
There are loads of shooting modes on offer, of which a number can be hidden away to simplify the visual arrangement. You might find things like Kids Shot and Selfie Alarm aren't modes you want so simply uncheck them and that's that - out of sight, out of mind. The options can't be reordered on screen, however, so we found scrolling through 11 options to reach Manual exposure was a bit unnecessary. A small quibble.
The lack of aperture priority or shutter priority modes feels amiss in our view, as there are all kinds of additional controls available in the settings such as focus area, macro, drive mode and many more. Up to three can be dragged into a quick-select box to the side of the screen which is useful too.
In good light we didn't have an issue freezing tennis players striking the ball, but additional control outside of full manual control - i.e. shutter priority - would have been preferable for maximum control. The Continuous Shot mode did a decent job of reeling off frames consecutively with a finger held to the screen though.
Resulting image quality is reasonable, as the 1/2.3in sensor is the same size as found in many dedicated compact cameras, but it's not without issues. The choice for such a high resolution means smaller "pixels" on the sensor's surface and that brings with it some processing issues - look at the finer details and you'll see what are known as processing artefacts, such as darker "spots" appearing. Subjects often have a glowing edge, which is down to the limitations of these optics.
Cameras also need good light to work at their best. Without it they need to "boost" the signal received (known as increasing the ISO), which means more image noise - red, green and blue flecks - and softer results. The baseline ISO 100 results are fine, but push into the mid ISO 800 settings and results lack sharpness, while the maximum ISO 3200 settings lack colour and detail.
Overall, as a camera the Galaxy K Zoom does a job, putting itself on par with equivalent dedicated compacts of a similar ilk. Although we don't really understand why the resolution has been increased above and beyond the S4 Zoom - given the optical zoom, there's little merit to such large images destined for social networks and the internet.
The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom feels like an echo of the earlier Galaxy S4 Zoom, albeit with some welcome improvements such as snappy autofocus and a better screen. However our sentiments remain much the same as before: as a smartphone there's a limited audience for this product in our view.
Which might sound at odds with the various positives we can reel off about this phone. It's fast in use, really powerful and opens the door to quickly sharing images via Wi-Fi or 3G/4G (the latter only if you have a microSIM and credit/contract). The 24-240mm equivalent lens and 20.7-megapixel sensor holds up about as well as a dedicated equivalent compact, despite some limitations to image quality overall, while the various shooting modes mean you can be point-and-shoot snapper or more considered manual meticulist.
So what's the problem? It's down to the design and physical size. Holding a camera up to your ear just feels like a bum note. If you're going to fork out £400 on a smartphone of this scale in this day and age then you need fat pockets - and we don't just mean deep ones to cover the asking price, they need to be wide too.
On the flip side, treated as a dedicated camera alternative and there are enough positives. As the "Galaxy Camera Mini" we might take a different stance, but the K Zoom is trying to be both camera and phone - and it fails to quite deliver the full potential of either.