Samsung Galaxy S 4 Zoom is an awkward smart phone with a surprisingly disappointing camera

The iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy Note 3 have better cameras

Published: November 21, 2013 02:45 PM
Photo: Samsung

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Our camera experts had high expectations for the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, among the first smart phones with an optical zoom lens (10x) on its camera. Most phones have a digital zoom, which merely magnifies images that may not be all that great in the first place. So you can imagine our surprise when the phone's 16-megapixel camera actually did worse than other top-scoring smart-phone cameras in our tests, including the iPhone 5s and  Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Even the Zoom's sibling, the Samsung Galaxy S4, takes better still images.

The Galaxy S4 Zoom's not much of a phone, either. Its camera-focused ergonomics, which include the telescoping zoom lens and a bulging grip, make the phone too bulky for most pockets and awkward to hold as a smart phone. It measures 2.5 x 4.9 x 1.1 inches and weighs significantly more than most phones, at 7.3 ounces.

In other respects the phone (available from AT&T for $530 or $100 with a two-year contract) is on a par with Samsung's mid-range Galaxy S4 Mini. It shares the Mini's 4.3-inch display and moderate-speed 1.5-GHz dual-core Exynos 4212 processor, but the Zoom's 2,330mAh Lithium Ion battery has an additional 4 mAh of capacity. The details:

The phone

Fancy features. The phone's TouchWiz interface, which sits atop an earlier generation of the Android OS (Jelly Bean, version 4.2), provides easy access to many of the features that help make Samsung phones easy to master and fun to use. You can reach the customizable Quick Settings menu with a single pull of the notifications bar, or wirelessly beam photos and other content between compatible devices via Samsung's trademark "S" features.

The phone also supports Smart Stay, which prevents the screen from timing out while you're looking at it. And there are a host of useful Samsung preloads, ranging from S Memo to a voice-activated translator app. The Zoom's calendar has abundant viewing options for keeping tabs on your scheduled events, including year, week, day, list and tasks.

Decent display. In my informal tests, the Galaxy S4 Zoom's AMOLED display seemed responsive, while colors of images and graphic elements appeared vibrant. The screen's 256-pixel-per-inch resolution, far from the sharpest I've seen, competently presented text and images with adequate sharpness. More important, I could make out most text and menu options when using the phone in bright sunlight.

Battle of the Bulges. The phone's retractable zoom lens and camera grip, which bulge out about a little more than half an inch from the phone's already thick case, make one-handed operation a challenge—particularly when you hold the phone with your right hand. It's easy to accidentally launch apps if you grip the phone a little too tight. The phone's camera grip, which is as smooth and slippery as the rest of the phone's body, offered little help steadying the camera. (You'll want to use the included strap to avoid dropping it.)

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The camera

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

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