Smartphone cameras are incredibly portable, but they lack the ability to take the kind of high-quality images a point-and-shoot can. With its new Galaxy S4 Zoom, though, Samsung is looking to close the gap between convenience and quality. This variation of the best-selling Galaxy S4 includes a smaller 4.3-inch display, but packs a 16-megapixel rear camera with a massive 10x optical zoom and myriad camera specific features. So is the S4 Zoom the ultimate camera phone?
The Galaxy S4 Zoom looks like Samsung glued the front of a Galaxy S4 Mini to the back of a Galaxy Camera and called it a day. Up front, the S4 Zoom sports the same 4.3-inch display as the S4 Mini, as well as a physical home button and capacitive back and settings buttons. Like the standard S4, the Zoom is also ringed in chrome, although it juts out slightly to accommodate the dedicated camera button.
Also making their home on the Zoom's right side are the power button and the volume rocker. On the left side are a tripod mount and a microSD card slot. Along the top edge reside a headphone jack and a built-in IR blaster for using the Zoom as a TV remote. On the bottom sits a microUSB port and a plastic cover that pops off to reveal the handset's removable battery and SIM card.
The S4 Zoom's back side plays host to its silver 10x optical zoom lens and xenon flash. We appreciated the molded finger grip, as it made the Zoom far more comfortable to hold while shooting photos. The only problem with the S4 Zoom's design -- aside from its bulk -- is deciding on which side you want to rest the phone. Do you put it display side down, and risk scratching the screen, or lens side down and chance scratching the lens cover? The S4 Zoom's large 10x lens prevents it from laying flat on a table and makes it slightly difficult to comfortably wrap your fingers around the back phone.
Due to its 10x zoom lens, the Galaxy S4 Zoom, at 4.9 x 2.5 x 1.06 inches and 7.3 ounces, is one of the thickest and heaviest smartphones on the market. It's nearly 3 ounces heavier than the original S4 (4.6 ounces). Its closest rival, the Nokia Lumia 1020, meanwhile, measures 5.1 x 2.8 x 0.41 inches and weighs a more reasonable 5.6 ounces.
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Display and Audio
Despite sporting a smaller 4.3-inch 960 x 540 qHD display than the standard S4's 5-inch 1080p Super AMOLED offering, we actually preferred the Zoom's screen, as it offered richer, more vibrant colors than its sibling. While watching a trailer for "Elysium" we were struck by how gorgeous a scene of Earth shot from outer space looked on the Zoom compared to the S4. When placed side-by-side, the Zoom's display made the S4's look muddy.
The Zoom also managed to beat the standard S4 in the screen brightness department by a hair, with the Zoom coming in at 463 lux and the standard S4 coming in at 460. Still, both handsets crushed the category average of 386 lux, as well as the Nokia Lumia 1020's rating of 441 lux.
Audio from the Galaxy S4 Zoom's speakers sounded surprisingly crisp when compared to the standard Galaxy S4. While listening to Kanye West's "On Sight," the rapper's voice came through clearer on the Zoom. On more relaxed tunes such as TV on the Radio's "Will Do," we found that instruments such as bells rang out more realistically than on the standard S4. That said, the Zoom's audio was slightly lower than its big brother.
In general, the S4 Zoom's camera performed decently when in auto. The handset's 10x lens allowed us to zoom in farther than the Lumia's 6x lens, giving us the ability to view subjects in greater detail. At points, however, some images looked a bit washed out compared to the Lumia 1020 while using Auto mode.
For such a photo-centric device, though, we wish the camera were faster. It took about 4 seconds to launch the S4 Zoom's camera app from both the Zoom-ring and by holding down the dedicated camera button. We also noted a roughly 2-second lag between photos before the camera was ready to shoot again, which compares unfavorably to leading phones like the iPhone and HTC One, both of which shoot pictures in under a second.
Low-light performance was satisfactory, though nowhere near as good as the Lumia, which still managed to capture an image of a young woman even when shooting in a dark room. The Galaxy S4 Zoom's xenon flash also seemed a bit uneven in our photos, covering only certain areas of the image compared to the Lumia 1020, which covered our entire subject.
In a separate photo, we zoomed in on a single flower from a few feet away, and were surprised to see a spider's web stretched across two of the flower's petals. We were also able to see the spider's web when we shot a photo of it using the Lumia 1020, but only after first noticing it in the Galaxy S4 Zoom's image. The S4 Zoom's photos also offered brighter colors than the Lumia 1020's. That, however, is a result of the Lumia 1020's camera trying to keep brighter colors from appearing blown out by keeping every color a bit darker.
We then compared a photo of a young man on a bright day taken with the iPhone 5, HTC One, Galaxy S4, Lumia 1020 and S4 Zoom with each camera set to auto to see which took the best shots. Compared to the competition, the S4 Zoom performed surprisingly poorly. Details were blurrier than those found on the iPhone 5, though colors were more even on the Samsung. And while the Zoom managed to beat out the standard Galaxy S4 and HTC One in terms of both image quality and color, it was the Nokia Lumia 1020 that offered the best details of our subject. Individual strands of hair in his beard were easily visible, and colors were fairly accurate.
Of course, if you want to improve image quality you can always dig into the Zoom's granular controls. Although, that can take quite a while if you're not a camera aficionado, and by the time the camera's set for the best image, you may have already missed your shot.
A 1080p video taken using the S4 Zoom's rear camera looked clear and colorful. We were especially happy to see that the Zoom-ring was usable while recording video, allowing us to zoom in and out on the fly.
The Zoom's 2-megapixel front camera can also pull its own weight. An image of a young man offered fine details, including the creases in his forehead, as well as individual hairs in his beard. Colors were spot on and, unlike photos taken using the front-facing cameras found on other handsets, there was no apparent distortion.
Let's face it, you're not interested in the Galaxy S4 Zoom for its ability to control your TV. You're looking into this handset because of what it's packing around back, namely its 16-megapixel camera with 10x optical zoom lens. For those keeping score at home, that's far fewer megapixels than the Nokia Lumia 1020, which has a 41-MP sensor.
The Zoom's camera app can be accessed by tapping the camera app icon, holding down the dedicated physical camera button or using the Zoom-ring control. This last function lets you twist the zoom lens left or right and select from up to six shooting modes: Auto, Night, Animated Photo, Macro, Landscape and Beauty Face.
The camera app lets you shoot both stills and videos, and choose from four different shooting modes: Auto, Smart, Expert and My Mode. Auto mode is the most straightforward option and controls all of the camera's settings for you. Smart mode lets you select from 25 different preset options such as Drama Shot, Fireworks, Night, Best Photo, Continuous Shot, Best Face, Kid Shot, Landscape, Dawn, Snow, Food and a host of others.
Expert mode lets users manually adjust many of the Galaxy S4 Zoom's camera functions. There are a ton of options, as well as a slick tutorial that explains how adjusting each setting will affect your photos. Options include Program, Manual and Color Wizard. Program adjusts the camera's shutter speed automatically, but lets you set the white balance, ISO, EV and number of photos taken per second. The Lumia 1020 also offers a similar number of features and tutorials, but you have to use different camera apps.
On the S4 Zoom, Manual lets you control all the camera's settings, including shutter speed and Aperture. Color Wizard gives users the ability to adjust their image's color by manipulating the EV, color saturation, contrast and sharpness. The My Mode function lets you quickly choose between five preset shooting modes including Beauty Face, Landscape, Macro, Animated Photo and Night. We tended to stick with the Manual mode, as it gave us the ability to meter the amount of light we wanted to let into the camera's lens.
Perhaps one of the coolest features of the S4 Zoom is its In-Call Photo Share option. This function allows users to capture an image while talking on the phone with a friend and send it to the caller via text, all without having to hang up. To send a photo, simply press the photo share button on the call screen, snap a photo and press send. After a few seconds, the image will show up as a text message on the caller's phone. When we sent a photo to a caller, our image appeared in about 3 seconds.
Operating System and UI
As with other variants of the Galaxy S4, the S4 Zoom comes loaded with Android 4.2.2 and the Samsung's TouchWiz overlay. The handset's lock screen allows for users to unlock up to five default shortcuts for the Phone, Messaging, Google Now, Internet and Camera apps. The S4 Zoom's notifications drawer includes a selection of 16 quick settings that can be overwhelming at first, but can be easily organized or pared down.
The home screen features the same default azure wallpaper you'll find on other versions of the S4, as well as the standard AccuWeather widget and Google search bar. Below that are shortcuts to the phone's Email, Internet, Samsung Apps and Play Store apps. At the bottom of the screen are the ever-present Phone, Contacts, Messaging, Camera and Apps shortcuts.
Other widgets include S Travel, which is little more than a glorified ad for TripAdvisor; S Planner and the appropriately camera-shaped Camera Studio, which serves as a one-stop shop for all your camera-related apps.
Unlike the standard Galaxy S4 and the Galaxy S4 Active, the Galaxy S4 Zoom lacks a Multi Window feature. Other features left out of the S4 Zoom include Smart Pause, which automatically freezes a video if you look away from the screen, and Air View, which lets you hover your finger over an email or calendar event to get a short preview of what's in the message.
While the standard Galaxy S4's keyboard is generally comfortable to use, the S4 Zoom feels cramped as a result of the handset's smaller screen. Typing with two hands is out of the question, and one-handed typing requires a deliberate touch. The included haptic feedback setting made typing slightly better, though it couldn't make up for the keyboard's small size. Things were much easier when we used the Swype-like continuous input feature, which allows you to swipe from one letter to another to spell a word. Unlike the larger S4, the Zoom does not include a dedicated number row above the alphabetic keyboard, a small letdown.
Gesture and Motion Controls
For the S4 Zoom, Samsung has cut down on a host of motion and gesture control options made available with the original S4. In addition to the Air View feature, Samsung has also done away with Palm Motion, which let you pause songs by covering the screen with your hand.
The S4 Zoom also lacks the S4's Air Gesture functionality, which gives users the option to move their hand over the smartphone's sensor to perform certain tasks such as check status, change Web pages and answer incoming calls. The S4 Zoom does, however, include the ability to lift the handset and put it to your ear to automatically answer calls, or mute an incoming call by placing the Zoom face down on a flat surface.
One of the apps included with the Galaxy S4 Zoom is the Samsung's S Health, which lets you monitor your overall health based on your body weight, the surrounding humidity and your level of activity. Another is S Translate, which gives users the ability to read text from languages they otherwise wouldn't understand by reading and translating them into English. Other apps loaded on the S4 Zoom include DropBox, Group Play, Samsung Hub and Apps, the Siri-like S Voice, S Memo, TripAdvisor and more.
Like its brethren, the S4 Zoom features a built-in IR blaster, as well as Samsung's WatchOn and Samsung Hub apps. To control your TV using the S4 Zoom, you simply have to pair the handset with your TV and cable box using the WatchOn app. It's a relatively straightforward process that takes almost no time to complete. Once you're all set up, you can change the channel from your phone, search for your favorite shows and sporting events and share shows via your social media network of choice.
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With its 1.5-GHz dual-core processor and 1.5GB of RAM, the Galaxy S4 Zoom is a step down from the quad-core Galaxy S4, but is certainly quick enough to handle the most demanding tasks with ease. Apps opened and closed without hesitation and games such as "Super Monsters Ate My Condo!" ran smoothly.
On the Quadrant test, a synthetic benchmark that measures a handset's overall performance, the S4 Zoom pulled in a score of 4,499, about 1,000 points lower than the smartphone category average. The Zoom's score was also well off the S4's mark of 12,251. That handset, however, packs a more powerful 1.9-GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor and 2GB of RAM.
The S4 Zoom also performed below average on the 3DMark Ice Storm benchmark, bringing in a score of 3,175 versus the category average of 8,195. The standard Galaxy S4, on the other hand, obliterated the Zoom, with its score of 10,842.
Not surprisingly, the S4 Zoom faltered on the 3DMark Ice Storm Extreme benchmark, scoring just 2,377 to the category average's 4,932. The standard Galaxy S4, once again came out on top with its score of 6,559.
On the LAPTOP Battery Test, (Web surfing over a device's data connection with the display brightness set to 40 percent), the Galaxy S4 Zoom's 2,330 mAh removable battery lasted a lackluster 5 hours and 9 minutes, nearly an hour less than the smartphone category average. The standard regular Galaxy S4, on the other hand, lasted 6 hours and 14 minutes with its standard 2,600 mAH battery. The Nokia Lumia 1020's 2,000 mAh battery lasted a slightly longer 6:33 on AT&T's 4G LTE network.
The difference between the two scores, beyond the fact that both handsets have differing battery sizes, is that the Zoom, which is only being made available in Europe, ran on AT&T's HSPA+21 network, while the standard S4 ran on T-Mobile's LTE network.
Unfortunately, the Zoom cannot access AT&T's LTE network, which is especially unfortunate, as uploading photos will take that much longer over HSPA.
The Galaxy S4 Zoom is a unique smartphone that offers a solid camera experience with a wide zoom. Unfortunately, because the handset isn't sold in the U.S., you'll have to shell out about $680 to get one of your own. Additionally, images shot in Auto mode didn't look as good as we expected. Connectivity on the Zoom is also limited to HSPA+ 21 -- no LTE here. If you're looking for a handset with a powerful camera that's stylish and currently available in the States, we suggest the Nokia Lumia 1020. If you want a smartphone that offers a powerful optical zoom lens, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is worth checking out.