Samsung Galaxy Camera (EK-GC100) review
The Samsung Galaxy Camera sounds like one of those "why has this not been done before?" ideas on paper. This connected camera runs Google's Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operation system at its core, which, in combination with the camera's 1.4GHz quad core processor, can power apps and movie playback to its 4.8-inch touchscreen, while Wi-Fi and even 3G connectivity - if you add in a micro SIM and bare the brunt of that extra cost from a network - means effortless sharing almost wherever you are. That's not been possible before, at least not from a dedicated camera.
On the camera front there's a 23mm equivalent wide-angle lens that can extend 21x through to a massive 483mm equivalent - that's the kind of near-superzoom territory that's miles ahead of what a smartphone camera can muster.
But with the added physical size implication compared to a standard compact, and a £400 price tag to boot, can the Galaxy Camera - and the clue's in the name - balance out its features to feel like a standalone, take-anywhere camera, or does the merging of two concepts fail to bring out the full potential of either technology?
SGS3 In Disguise
Samsung has already made it big in the world of smartphones, as the Samsung Galaxy S III has proven by not only its abilities but also huge public sales. It's no secret that in the smartphone market the Korean giant is right up there among the industry leaders, whereas uptake of its cameras hasn't been as strong compared to the apparently infallible Japanese makers.
The Samsung Galaxy Camera is, in part, Samsung's answer to this conundrum. Why not merge the two disciplines? That's almost exactly what the Samsung Galaxy Camera is: an SGS3 in disguise, with added camera value.
It's got identical innards to the Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone albeit with an added 21x optical zoom and 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor wangled into its workings. That makes for a more-than-double thickness and near-triple weight when comparing this camera - with the lens retracted in its off position - to that particular smartphone.
It's far from a "cut'n'shut" job though; a lot of work has gone in to making the camera's operation tie in seamlessly with the Android operating system and the variety of features that offers. But it's impossible to ignore the device's physical size. It's big. And unlike Transformers, this "disguise" is one that won't ever get any smaller.
Although big by smartphone standards, to the point that it might be too much to want to always carry in a pocket, it's not that big by compact camera standards in terms of thickness. And let's not forget: this is a camera. Well, sort of, it's like camera 2.0.
It happens to be one of the Galaxy Camera's premier features - that 4.8-inch 1280 x 720 HD screen - that is the culprit of both good and bad, and a significant factor to the body's size. Undoubtedly it looks great in playback and preview, it's equally touch-responsive and fluid in operation as an SGS3 running Jelly Bean, but at 4.8-inches there's no denying it is large.
We do love the screen's resolution and, despite the display being slightly "cold" in its colour balance for camera use - a condition of auto white balance more than the screen itself - it's a lot of real estate to view media. Perhaps a little too far on the multimedia side of things; wouldn't a smaller, SGS3 Mini-sized screen make for a more appealing camera-like package that would have been eminently more pocketable? We think so.
When it does come to power, there's no doubting that the Galaxy Camera has it in abundance. We sat one side by side to an SGS3 at a Samsung launch event and both devices echo one another for the most part. There are obvious differences in the Galaxy Camera's dedicated camera features, while the Galaxy S III has its obvious telephony parts - ie, it can make voice calls and has properly positioned mouth and earpieces. Messages, email and, well, just about anything else you can think of, are one and the same between the two devices - assuming, that is, you willingly insert a micro SIM into the Galaxy Camera.
Perhaps it should have been fully capable on the voice calls front, as we doubt many people will want to account for more than one SIM on basis of cost implication alone.
Apps like Instagram come built-in, while a Dropbox account - complete with 50GB of storage for two years, even without any contract agreement - is also available at no extra charge.
There's also a built-in video editor, complete with transitions, trimmer and the ability to load multiple clips. There's the occasional stutter in playback but, still, it will be enough to rule out the need for a computer for many.
Just for fun you can even talk to the Galaxy Camera. We don't mean like Tom Hanks might, so don't go painting any red faces on that clean white surface, but the camera can genuinely respond to voice commands. Wake it up, zoom in or out, fire off a shot - it's all just another day in the life of Android. Gimmicky, yeah maybe, but it's still a cool party trick.
Jumping around the operating system is super smooth, and a similar experience in the camera department makes for easy shooting.
Settings are split into Auto, Smart and Expert, each of which brings up its own tailored options. For Auto the camera takes control, with a variety of filters available to choose from - as are available in every one of the modes - whether black and white, comic, negative, old photo and so on.
Smart mode is like an advanced auto mode, with shooting options tailored to scenarios: there's macro, landscape, sunset, fireworks, night, best face and a variety of other settings.
Expert mode splits down into the usual PSAM and movie option, with each of the stills options opening up a "virtual lens" overlay with ISO, exposure compensation, aperture and shutter speed dials that can be used to make adjustments. We were a little worried at first that such a method of operation might feel restrictive, but it doesn't - it's just as fluid as the rest of operation. A physical function button may have come in useful, however to work in tandem with all the soft keys.
Just like a normal compact there's a zoom toggle around the shutter button, which doubles up to act as a volume dial when outside the camera app.
When the Galaxy Camera is on it's ready to go in little time. But there are delays: it takes over two seconds to jump from Android into camera app, closer to three before focus is made, while it only takes around four seconds from what we'll call "medium off" before it's ready to shoot.
Like a smartphone the Galaxy Camera goes to sleep in order to minimise battery drain, but even when switching the device off it takes a period of time before it's fully off. A "proper" switch off leaves the camera in this semi-ready state, which, after a given period of time, will switch to a full off. From this "cold start" - the same as pulling the battery from the device - it takes a lot longer to fire up. A full 27 seconds - laden with sparkly logos and even some chap who's peering down a telescope like it's the beginning of a movie - before it's ready to fire a shot. Which, as any camera head will tell you, is an awfully long time to wait.
Battery life as a whole was a big question we had before use, as the Galaxy Camera shares the same battery as the SGS3.
Results aren't too bad. It holds up well when in the operating system - we watched a 90-minute documentary over Wi-Fi via Netflix and there was still about 75 per cent life left after - but drains faster in the camera mode, likely due to the added strain of a mechanical shutter's demands. Avoid leaving the screen on unnecessarily and the Galaxy Camera does match up to an equivalent compact, so it's capable enough.
However, if you're playing games or watching files on a journey and then expect to get a full life out of the camera too, then it'd be a good idea to grab a second battery.
Storage is handled with 3.5GB of spare internal space - there are gigabytes more, but this space is eaten up by on-board installs - and if you want extra then the microSD slot can cater for cards up toSDXC 64GB versions.
In use, the Galaxy Camera's touchscreen is responsive, which makes light work of placing a single focus point over a subject using a finger. In good light it can acquire focus with ease, and fast - though the focus point's single size could do with more size options to cater for finer, pinpoint focusing.
We had some issues with long zoom shots not acquiring focus as accurately, and close-up or "macro" focus can be a bit hit and miss too.
Dimmer conditions make use of an AF lamp to assist, which works well for the most part, though more difficult contrasting edges can fool the system to fail.
And to the clincher - just what is image quality like? It's a mixed bag unfortunately, for a variety of reasons that we'll come to address below.
At the heart of the camera is a 16-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch sensor - much the same as you'll find in many other compact cameras. It's a peg above what a smaller sensor in a smartphone would be capable of, but then it has to contend with optical and processing issues that affect final image quality.
At the 23mm wide-angle setting and at the lowest ISO 100 sensitivity we're happy with the resulting shots. There's enough detail present through the majority of the frame, though processing does seem to make green colours "pop" a bit too much and when viewed at full scale, the finer details lack.
It has to be said that the 4.8-inch display on the Galaxy Camera makes everything look rather spectacular and it's only when checking out images at on a computer, at full size that some more apparent issues rear their heads.
There are some colour fringes (chromatic aberrations) towards the subjects' edges, which show up as purple/blue "drop shadows" and beyond the lowest ISO setting the processing digs its heels in and renders images far softer than we would like.
The zoom, too, exacerbates the softness issue. The longer the zoom, the softer the image, coupled with an autofocus system that, so it would seem, lacks pinpoint accuracy to what it's relaying back to the screen during use. At the 4.8-inch scale these issues aren't so prominent, but at full size they become a problem.
ISO 400 (483mm equivalent) - 100 per cent crop
Smartphones tend to have wide-medium angle lenses and are programmed to avoid, where possible, raising the ISO sensitivity. Such small sensors don't cope so well in low light, which ought be an advantage of the Galaxy Camera's larger sensor size. On the one hand we're definitely impressed with how the processing system more or less eradicates the presence of colour noise and even the higher ISO shots don't have an unusable amount of noise. On the other hand, the overall lack of sharpness is prevalent to the point that shots just aren't workable at full scale.
Yes we're impressed with the operating system, the connectivity potential and the all-singing, all-dancing non-camera features, but as the camera that it bills itself, there are disappointments from resulting image quality.
In the small "Android camera" sector, which currently has competition only from the Nikon Coolpix S800c, there's no doubt that the Galaxy Camera is a step above in most regards. But it's trying to do too much, and in doing so it overlooks what's most important: the images.
The Samsung Galaxy Camera delights yet confounds. In many respects it's a breath of fresh air that succeeds in camera connectivity to a degree way, way beyond anything else out there.
The £400 price point may sound a lot - and it is - but it's about £100 less than the Samsung Galaxy S III smartphone for a device that's, well, better specified depending on which way you look at it. It also buries the Nikon Coolpix S800c's chances of any Android dominance by outperforming it at almost every level. And we love all the Samsung's power and multimedia playback possibilities too.
But this is meant to be a camera at its core. And as a camera it can't produce images worthy of its £400 price tag because the lens has sharpness issues and image processing doesn't help either.
There's too much going on for successful cohesion. It's like Samsung's taken all its best possible devices and thrown them in a pot with the belief that it would make for the greatest camera ever. It could have, but it hasn't.
We'd like to see a smaller-bodied and optically improved device, possibly with a yet larger sensor at the expense of some zoom.
There's a huge amount of potential here and we don't doubt that a future Galaxy Camera will hit the nail on the head. But as it stands the first of its kind hits both nail and the thumb.