With its bulky point-and-shoot camera shape and 10x optical zoom, Samsung's Galaxy S4 Zoom makes for a ridiculously shaped smartphone that defies pocketability. But the mashup device sure can shoot.
In fact, its image quality is on par with a good point-and-shoot camera, and its optical zoom makes it a more flexible camera than any other smartphone's. Unfortunately, the Zoom's awkward and uneasy design disrupts the phone's day-to-day functionality on a fundamental level, even if you're not holding it up to your ear.
Despite its strong photography skills, the Zoom -- which has no U.S. carrier partner (or pricing) yet -- is floundering for an audience. Nokia's smaller 41-megapixel Lumia 1020 edges the Zoom in pure image quality, and casual shooters who aren't willing to give up the convenience of a pocket phone will be happier with the 13-megapixel Samsung Galaxy S4 or 8-megapixel iPhone 5.
Editors' note: Thanks to CNET Senior Editor Joshua Goldman for additional camera testing and analysis.
Craziest 'phone' design ever?
We've seen some out-there phone designs in our time, and the Zoom is right up there. As a smartphone, the Zoom's large lens assembly and hand grip are completely impractical. It uncomfortably stretches out pockets and its 7.3-ounce weight drags on your arm if you hold it for a long time, say, to watch a video or play a game.
Like the LTE version of the Samsung Galaxy Camera that came before it, the Zoom's always-connected data stream lets you easily share and upload photos. However, the phone's bulk also makes it much harder to immerse yourself in the device as you would with a slimmer, more shingle-shaped phone.
And woe unto anyone who attempts using this thing as cell phone without a Bluetooth headset. I tried it at length to see how it felt. Not only did I look utterly ridiculous, my hands got tired of holding the device after 15- and 20-minute calls. (Call quality was actually pretty good; you can read about that part below.)
As a camera, the Zoom works well. The large, round shutter button depresses with the right amount of give, the grip makes it possible to shoot one-handed, and the large zoom wheel turns smoothly without being too loose. Photographers accustomed to resting their thumbs on the camera's back will need to adjust so they don't tap the touch screen. Otherwise, shooting with the Zoom is smooth sailing.
The lens assembly takes up a lot of space on the back, owing to its 24-240mm zoom lens. To the left of the lens are the xenon flash and an autofocus assist light. A microSD card slot and tripod mount populate the left spine (if you're holding the Zoom like a phone), and on the right are the power/lock buttons, volume rocker, and shutter button. The headset jack and IR blaster live up top, with the Micro-USB charging port on the bottom edge.
Like other Galaxy phones, the Zoom navigates with a central Home button flanked by capacitive controls for the menu and Back button. They also do double duty to bring up Google Now cards and recent apps.
One missing element is a charging indicator light, which would go a long way toward letting phone owners know when the Zoom has enough juice to shoot its heart out.
All about the camera
The Zoom is a smartphone, yes, but whether you buy it or not all comes down to its camera controls and image quality. You can fire up the camera and its 16-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor by holding down the shutter button, but you'll need to unlock the phone first.
To get to the shooter faster, you can set a lock-screen shortcut for the camera (as well as any other app). Going one step further, you can also program the Zoom to open the camera when you power it on.
Samsung has learned a thing or two about making its camera app easy to understand and use. There are onscreen controls to flip between front and rear cameras, toggle the flash, and turn on self-timer, geotagging, and autosharing. Icons make it easy to zoom in and out without touching the lens, and other buttons switch to video capture, open mode selection, and take the photo.
Tap an arrow at the bottom of the screen to pop open a long list of filter effects, like sepia, vintage, and fish-eye.
The modes are plentiful, even more so than on the other Galaxy S4 phones. You have auto, of course, and digital dials to set ISO, white balance, contrast, color correction, exposure time, and so on.
A category called Smart Mode bundles 25 presets, including panorama and macro, HDR (which it calls Rich Tone), and settings for night shots, food, action, and smiling tots. If all these are still too confusing, there is -- absurdly -- even a mode to suggest the right mode.
One mode turns out be an editable list of shortcuts for your five favorite modes. It's a convenient way to get what you want quickly, but also seems a bit much. It might be simpler if Samsung just let you reorder and star your favorite modes instead so flagged ones appear at the top of the list.
Another shortcut reveals itself when you turn the zoom lens while on the home screen. Do this, and your onscreen cursor rotates around some common modes.
For the most part, Samsung has made camera app navigation intuitive. And I like how voice dictation, which takes the photo when it hears trigger words like "cheese" and "smile," works with the front-facing camera. I used this feature when I wanted to minimize hand shake.
The Zoom doesn't claim to have the highest megapixel resolution of any smartphone camera or the crispest, clearest fidelity. Yet, in our tests, it produced some excellent images using auto settings, preset modes, and freehand controls. Still and all, the Nokia Lumia 1020 produced the all-around best shots with its larger sensor, cleaner processing, better low-light shots, and solid image stabilization.
Auto mode on the Zoom takes photos with crisp edges, and uses a warmer tone overall that sometimes pumps up yellows. Indoors, it often relies on flash where some other smartphone cameras (like the iPhone 5) do not. The effect is photos with defined faces that and less background detail. The tendency to use flash also created a less atmospheric nighttime scene.
Whether you like this or not is a matter of taste; I personally prefer to see clear faces than worry about blinding my friends with flash. On the other hand, camera phones are increasingly improving low-light performance, which means that the flash should fire less often as smartphone cameras get better.
The Zoom's auto mode sometimes helped out by kicking over to another setting; I noticed this take place with night mode, though not macro.
The Zoom's killer feature is indeed that 10x optical zoom. Most of the time, zoom quality was terrific without much loss in image fidelity. I was really impressed with some images I captured while standing at the bottom of a statue, for example, or across the street. I found Zoom handy for taking photos of objects I couldn't physically get close to in time to capture the moment, like bystanders at CNET's office ping pong tournament (really,) or a scene across a busy intersection.
CNET camera editor Josh Goldman also got some really beautiful artistic shots using the Zoom's lens to blur the background and make the foreground pop.
This camera phone's zoom lens may be on par with other point-and-shoot cameras, but it wasn't absolutely perfect. Sometimes the camera failed to focus on objects, like facial features, no matter how often I tried. Zoom also wasn't great at fulfilling a macro function -- it's easy to get too close.
Speaking of close-ups, I was disappointed that close-ups in auto mode often didn't work. Strangely, a shot looked clear and sharp in freeze frame on the display, but blurry in review. I also noticed a little motion blur at times, even when subjects and I both kept still. The Zoom's image stabilization should cancel out minor hand shaking.
Macro mode presets were terrific, however, yielding rich detail on objects like flowers, textiles, lettering, and more. Even though using Samsung's modes requires premeditation, many of them do have a positive effect. I'm personally much more interested in the kinds of preset boosts you can get with food mode, indoor, and action than settings like best face and best photo that automatically select a more technically correct picture from a series for you to use.
In our tests, the Zoom took better photos in a lot of situations than the usual camera phones, with better detail and lower noise. In automatic mode, the differences between the Zoom, the original S4, and the iPhone 5 generally weren't astounding enough to make most casual photographers jump ship and buy a Zoom.
Samsung gave the Zoom a focus-assist light, night mode, and indoor presets to counter its typical low-light Achilles' heel. The camera also defaulted to night mode when it detected I was outside at night and photographing city lights, which I found helpful.