Professional photographer Chase Jarvis popularized the phrase, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.” For many of us nowadays, that camera is our smartphone, and it’s easy to see why.
Smartphones let you instantly share memories with family and friends. They make for one less gadget to carry. And the imaging technology in phones is getting good enough to replace traditional point-and-shoot cameras. But even so, there are still a few areas where digital cameras hold an advantage, with zoom being one of them.
Samsung is looking to address that issue with its Galaxy S4 Zoom. Available now from AT&T for $200 with a two-year contract, the Android-based smartphone features a 16-megapixel camera with 10x optical zoom. But before I go any further, it might be helpful to know the difference between digital and optical zoom.
Digital zoom is what’s used on most camera phones today. Right now, when you take a photo with your smartphone, you probably use the pinch gesture or onscreen controls when you want to zoom in on a subject. This action crops and enlarges the photo and is done through software.
On the other hand, digital cameras use optical zoom where the lens physically moves to get closer to a subject. The advantage here is you get better image quality, whereas digital zoom degrades it, since it magnifies the pixels in a picture. But it’s difficult to pack an optical zoom into a phone without making it clunky, and the Galaxy S4 Zoom proves that point. Bottom line: Don’t go ditching your camera or current phone just yet.
Just how big is the Galaxy S4 Zoom? In all, the smartphone-camera hybrid measures 4.94 by 2.5 inches by 1.06 inches and weighs 9.9 ounces. No one would ever accuse the Nokia Lumia 1020 of being a miniscule phone (the handset measures 5.1 by 2.8 by .40 inches and weighs 5.5 ounces), but at least it’s slim and generally flat.
Meanwhile, the protruding lens and handgrip on the back of the Galaxy S4 Zoom makes it difficult to carry in a pants pocket, and makes it unwieldy as a phone.
To test the camera features, I took the Galaxy S4 Zoom and my iPhone 5 with me on a day trip to Point Reyes National Seashore over the weekend, which offered plenty of photo opportunities.
For example, during a cliffside hike on the Chimney Rock Trail, I could see some elephant seals sunbathing on the beach below. From where I stood, they looked like brown blobs, but using the Galaxy S4 Zoom, I was able to zoom up to 10 times and got a clear shot of the sleeping creatures. (By the way, have you ever heard an elephant seal snore? It’s pretty hilarious.) Without moving positions, I took the same photo using the iPhone 5, but I wasn’t able to crop in as close, and the details were not as sharp.
Similarly, on the hike back to my car, I saw a deer about 50 feet away from me. With the Galaxy S4 Zoom, I was able to zoom close enough to capture some of the details on the deer’s face. With the iPhone, I could really only make out the silhouette of the animal.
To zoom, you can adjust the camera lens ring on the back of the device, but it’s quicker and easier if you use the onscreen controls. That said, I felt like Samsung could have streamlined some of the controls and features better.
For example, I wish there were a way to program the volume rocker to act as zoom in/out buttons when in camera mode. Also, while there is a dedicated camera key, you can’t use it to launch the camera app unless the phone is unlocked. As an alternative, you can place a shortcut to the camera on the lock screen.
Samsung’s camera app offers plenty of editing tools and shooting modes. There’s Automatic mode where it automatically chooses the best settings for you. Most of the time, I just kept the camera in Automatic mode, and I was happy with the outcome. Pictures looked clear, and colors were generally accurate and bright. You can check out some of the photos I took in the gallery below.
If you know your way around a camera, you can switch to Expert mode, and manually change things like ISO, exposure and shutter speed. The Galaxy S4 Zoom also has a function called Smart mode, which offers presets for different picture types, such as sunset, fireworks and food. I played around with a bunch of these, and found they worked pretty well.
The Macro setting allowed me to capture close-up details of some flowers. I also used Night mode to capture some street scenes of San Francisco at around seven in the evening. And while the Galaxy S4 Zoom delivered clearer and more detailed pictures than my iPhone 5, I thought the Nokia Lumia 1020’s 41-megapixel camera offered better low-light performance.
One other note about the Lumia 1020: Though it doesn’t have optical zoom, the phone offers technology that allows you to zoom in on an object up to three times at high resolution. And as my colleague Lauren Goode pointed out in her review, she didn’t notice any pixelation or loss of detail when using zoom.
As a phone, the Galaxy S4 Zoom’s feature set lines up with other midrange Android phones. It’s running Android Jelly Bean version 4.2 (the most current version is KitKat 4.4), has a dual-core processor and 16 gigabytes of internal memory with a microSD expansion slot.
In general, I thought the Galaxy S4 Zoom performed smoothly, and call quality was clear. I didn’t do a formal battery test, but with moderate use, I was able to go through a full workday before needing to recharge. I did notice, however, with heavy camera use, the battery drained a lot quicker.
While the phone’s optical zoom allowed me to capture several images I wasn’t able to get with my iPhone 5, it comes at the expense of a bulky design that makes it awkward to use as phone. For most people, the trade off of usability for some better-looking photos isn’t going to be worth it. Only those who want high-end camera features in their mobile device should consider the Galaxy S4 Zoom. Even then, there are better alternatives, like the Nokia Lumia 1020.