The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom has many of the features of a stand-alone camera, as Terry Sullivan highlighted in a hands-on review based on a visit to Samsung's labs last summer. Here is a deeper assessment of these features, incorporating findings from our labs.
So-so image quality. Besides a 10x optical zoom, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom has a 16-megapixel camera, a fairly large Xenon flash, and an optical image stabilizer, which should improve your chances of taking better pictures under low-light conditions. We found the image stabilizer did an admirable job thwarting the blurring effects of camera shake, which become more pronounced in low-light conditions. And the flash did a solid job illuminating subjects evenly at close range.
Yet overall image quality for stills and videos, confirmed by tests under a wide variety of lighting conditions, was merely good, as in good enough for Facebook posts but a stretch for more demanding uses such as viewing on an HDTV. In contrast, stills and videos taken with an iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (which scored excellent for stills, and very good for video) appear noticeably better almost anywhere you watch them. There are more phones in our Ratings that beat the Galaxy S4 Zoom in still-image quality, including sister Galaxy phones from Samsung.
Disappointing zoom. Our expectation in having a real optical zoom lens was that it would offer stellar up-close performance for photos and videos, since it was using real lenses to bring images closer. But that advantage was lost because of the lackluster performance of the camera itself. And optical zoom isn't the only way to get great close-ups. For instance, the Nokia Lumia 1020 has a 38-megapixel camera that captures images with astounding detail so that images remain sharp even when you crop them to get "up close."
Clunky controls. The Samsung includes a zoom ring positioned around the lens that you can turn to zoom in and out. But we found it unresponsive and slow. You can also zoom by touching a virtual control on the touch-screen, which works better. But these virtual controls, which are positioned on the left side of the display, are a bit difficult to use.
Funky auto-focus. We had another quibble: The camera’s default focus mode, Center AF, did a decent job focusing on subjects in the center of the frame. Focusing on subjects near the edge of the frame proved more of a challenge, but switching to Multi AF mode in those instances solved the problem.
Camera settings galore. There are lots of intriguing scene modes and shooting features on this phone that are also on other Samsung Galaxy models. And that's a very good thing. It includes more than two dozen scene modes, including Smart Mode Suggestion, which offers three scene modes from which to choose depending on subject matter and lighting. It also has one called Drama Shot, which merges continuous shots of moving objects into a single composed image. And if you want to add sound to your photo, you can shoot in Sound & Shot mode. So, while the hardware features on this camera may not set this camera apart from other phones, it does offer a lot of useful and versatile shooting modes.
Bottom line. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is the disappointing offspring of a so-so stand-alone camera joined with a mid-level smart phone. The resulting camera-centric design hampers the device's phone functionality, while the high cost of a cellular contract makes it too expensive to buy mainly for a camera. If you need a top-notch smart phone with a solid camera, you'll find many better choices in our Ratings.
—Mike Gikas and Terry Sullivan