AT&T Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom Review
After having been available internationally for some time now, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom has finally found its way to U.S. soil on AT&T’s 4G LTE network. The device packs in a lot of camera and a lot of phone, and its placement in AT&T’s lineup will have the Galaxy S4 Zoom competing directly against the Nokia Lumia 1020, the iPhone 5s, Samsung’s Galaxy Camera, and the Nokia Lumia 1520.
The aim of Samsung in creating the Galaxy S4 Zoom is to craft a phone with better than average camera specs, and the Zoom achieves that lofty goal with features like a Xenon flash, 10X optical zoom, optical image stabilization, and a tripod mount to boot. Running Google’s Android operating system, it’s equally at home as a smartphone, and the device functions competently on either side of the divide, but do the sum of the parts add up to make the Galaxy S4 Zoom an excellent camera phone, and is this the device to buy if you’re a mobile photographer who believes in convergence and want to ditch a standalone camera at home? Read on to find out more.
There’s no other way to put it, but the Galaxy S4 Zoom is essentially a phone glued to a camera, or a camera with a 4G radio crammed into its body and a touchscreen attached to its rear side. Though far more pocketable than the Galaxy Camera on AT&T’s network, the result is that the Galaxy S4 Zoom is a bulky device when looking at it from the perspective of a smartphone, and one that favors camera ergonomics over the slim design of modern smartphones.
Samsung took an interesting design decision with the Zoom in that aesthetically, the Zoom feels more camera than phone. A protruding zoom lens juts out on the back side–the camera side as we’ll call it–that extends further as you zoom in closer to your subject coupled with an ergonomical hand grip aids in using this device as a camera. Other camera-like features include a hole to attach a wrist strap, a trip mount, stereo voice microphones for recording videos, an autofocus assist LED light, and a powerfully strong Xenon flash lamp. It even has a dual-stage dedicated shutter button–press in lightly to focus and lock focus, press in hard to snap the shutter button and capture that precious memory.
Perhaps the jutting lens reminds us that the Galaxy S4 Zoom is a camera first and a phone second, but as an all-in-one master of all trades, the Zoom’s design makes it difficult to transport, especially in the pockets of denim-wearing hipsters. I wear fitted–not skinny jeans–and it was difficult to place and remove the Zoom from my jeans pockets.
The way I would insert the Zoom into my pocket would be with the zoom lens down and the camera grip up, with the lens facing away from my body. This set up creates a small, but noticeable bulge in my pockets, which isn’t a big deal as the overall camera size is small (4.3-inch versus a 5- or 5.7-inch display on some of Samsung’s larger phones) overall.
The problem is when I try to remove the camera to check texts, emails, and other notifications–pulling on the grip portion would result in the lens ring snagging on the inside lip of my jeans pocket. To remove fully, I would have to use my second free hand to pull my pocket outwards a bit so that the Zoom could free itself. And while the metallic-looking zoom ring around the lens is a nice addition that makes the Zoom stylish as a camera, the ring attracts a fair amount of pocket debris, hampering its clean design.
On the front–the phone side–is a crisp, albeit lower qHD resolution, 4.3-inch Super AMOLED display that serves to display the Android operating system coupled with Samsung’s TouchWiz enhancements. In reality, when you’re looking at the device from this angle, it looks like a shrunken down flagship Galaxy S4, and the specs of the phone more closely matches the mid-range Galaxy S4 Mini, a device that shares its namesake with the more powerful and more expensive 2013 flagship phone.
Powered by a dual-core 1.5 GHz processor, 1.5 GB RAM, and with 8 GB of storage that’s augmented either with a 64 GB micro SDXC card (optional) or via the cloud through a plethora of Android apps and services, the Galaxy S4 Zoom is a capable, although not the fastest, smartphone on the market. While it can handle the processing task for light users, heavy and power users will likely notice that the phone will buckle under heavy stress and usage–the more apps you install, the more programs you run, and the more photos you take will result in the phone slowing down to a crawl, which is a rather unfortuante situation as launching the camera can take upwards of 5 seconds when the phone is over taxed.
The end result? The phone just isn’t that capable of a camera if the lag in launching the camera will cause you to miss that spontaneous shot.
Performance & Usability:
Despite its Galaxy S4 namesake borrowed from Samsung’s 2013 flagship, the anemic processing power really shows up in the camera. Often, it would take seconds for the screen to rotate, or for the camera to launch, meaning that you would miss photo opportunities while the camera is loading and the display is trying to orient itself.
This is an unfortunate situation considering that one enhancement that AT&T has added to its version of the Zoom compared to the international and unlocked counterpart is the ability to auto-rotate the home , lock, and app screens between portrait and landscape orientation.
It’s a nice touch as many folks will likely use the phone in portrait and hold the camera in landscape–given the ergonomics of the grip and shutter button–though the delay in screen rotation makes this an exercise in frustration rather than an ingenious tweak. Switching between camera mode to gallery view to see previously captured shots was also a trying process filled with delays–as much as five seconds by my unscientific test of a fully loaded phone, and the processor really shows that AT&T’s 4G LTE network is truly under utilized.
Even though download speeds are comparable with that on the AT&T Galaxy Note 3 as well as the AT&T Galaxy S4 smartphones, the reality is that apps and files download a bit slower on the Galaxy S4 Zoom in a timed test. It’s unclear if the processor or the reduced amount of RAM is responsible for the tortoise-like performance. Though smartphone usability problems may be a minor quibble for those who are looking at the Galaxy S4 Zoom as a camera, in camera performance the Galaxy S4 Zoom’s under performance is severely highlighted.
The issue starts when you first turn on the screen and arrive at the unlock screen. Usually, when you’re using the camera, you’ll be holding the phone to unlock in landscape mode, which is probably the most comfortable position for the camera given the positioning of the shutter key and the grip. This takes about a second or two for the display to turn on. Then, the screen, which defaults on portrait orientation, has to rotate to landscape orientation.
Depending on how many lock screen apps or widgets you have on this screen, it could take up to two or three seconds to have the screen rotated to landscape mode. Unlocking the device takes another two to three seconds depending on how long you’ve had the phone on before soft reseting and clearing out any memory hogs. Launching the camera takes another second or two.
So from turning on the phone to being ready to take your first shot, you’re looking at at least five to seven seconds. Contrast this experience with the Nokia Lumia 1020, also on AT&T’s network at the same competing price pont, which takes a second or two to launch the camera–you just need to press and hold the camera button for a few seconds, even if your display is off–you’re seeing some great differences in usability and this highlights how much of a resource hog the Android operating system is.
Hopefully, the device will get updated to Android 4.4 KitKat as Google says its latest OS is more efficient and is geared towards phones with lower specs. Additionally, when compared to the Lumia 1020, that device has an optional camera grip accessory that aids in usability in landscape mode. Though the grip makes the Lumia 1020 even larger and more unwieldly to carry around in your pockets, Nokia’s solution is a bit more elegant. The slight hump for the Lumia’s 1020 is more comfortable to hold in smartphone mode and it’s easier to remove from the pockets. The camera grip is also more comfortable as there is more space around the phone for the grip, meaning you won’t accidentally hit any of the capacitive touch smart keys around the display when trying to take a photo with one hand.
And in phone mode, the protruding lens and camera grip on the back of the device makes the Zoom a bit more awkward to use as a smartphone as texting and talking on the device isn’t as comfortable as they would be on a slimmer, flatter device, like a Galaxy S4 Mini or Galaxy S4. Holding the phone to text or send an email isn’t as comfortable as doing the same task on the Galaxy S3 or Galaxy S4 Mini, which has a similar screen size, and holding the phone up to your head to take a call resulted in some weird looks in public as people thought you’re talking into a stand-alone camera.
Where the Zoom really exceeds is in the software department. Powered by Android 4.2.2, the Galaxy S4 Zoom is able to utilize the breadth of Google’s app catalogs and benefit from Google services, like the Gmail app, Google Play Store, YouTube, and other apps. You’ll have access to some popular photo and video editing software on Android, like Google’s Snapseed and the Camera Widget that holds a number of photo apps that AT&T preloaded onto its version of the Zoom. A lot of the smart sensors and features from the Galaxy S4 is carried over, including keeping the screen on if the phone senses you’re looking at the screen. Lock screen widgets, S Beam and NFC transfers, and more are part of the package. However, because of the more limited screen real estate and limited processing power and RAM, you won’t find Samsung’s excellent simultaneous dual-window multitasking on the Zoom, a feature that’s present on the Note 2, S4, and Note 3.
The Galaxy S4 Zoom is designed to fare better than the average smartphone camera, and Samsung’s marketing claims are mostly true. The device benefits from a point-and-shoot sized backside illuminated camera sensor, which is slightly larger than the sensor size on many smartphones, and allows the Zoom to capture more light in darker environments. It has a 16-megapixel resolution with 10X optical zoom, optical image stabilization, an autofocus assist lamp, and Xenon flash.
In reality, performance is good, but not great. When you get over some of the described lags in the phone’s and camera’s performance, you still have images with a fair amount of noise, high levels of over-sharpening. The Zoom is meant to compete more in the entry-level to mid-range compact point-and-shoot segment and isn’t a device that will replace your DSLR or more expensive compact cameras, like Sony’s RX100 Mark II.
While the camera is able to retain a fair amount of details, images captured with the Galaxy S4 Zoom appears to be oversharpened. The camera’s software sharpens lines to make them appear straighter and curves appear to be smoother. This makes the images captured with the camera to look really pleasing at first glance, but you do loose a bit of details as a result of over sharpening and zooming in closer, the processing work looks a bit weird if you were to crop your images. Still, the over sharpening isn’t noticeable for the average consumer, who may appreciate the sharpening to make images look more pleasing. Overall, despite oversharpening, images appear to be softer in focus, likely an issue with the lens. The camera benefits from a number of different camera modes and has a menu that’s similar to that found on the Galaxy Camera and the Galaxy S4. The Auto mode picks the best settings for your shot while more advanced photogs can delve deeper into manual modes with P, A, S, M dias. The usual Smart modes are also there, which optimizes image rendering and camera performance for certain scenes, such as Snow, Dawn, Macro, Food, Indoor, HDR (called Rich Tone on Samsung’s cameras), Animated Photo, Sound & Shot, Eraser, Drama, and more.
There are a couple of nuances with the Smart modes that are a bit puzzling. For instance, in some modes–like Drama and Macro–users cannot use the Zoom’s 10X optical zoom. Other modes like Rich Tone, which is Samsung’s branding for HDR, and Night really slow down the camera due to processing. It would take a good three to four seconds for the camera to capture and stitch together an HDR shot, which is rather unfortunate given that the Galaxy Camera’s quad-core Exynos processor can handle HDR much quicker, in about half the time. And while the Night mode helps to capture an image with little light and without the aid for a flash, you do have to hold the camera steady as the camera will take a few photos with different exposures, similar to HDR mode, and stitch them together to get a brighter image.
Comparing Night mode on the Galaxy S4 Zoom versus the Nokia Lumia 1020, I find that the Lumia 1020 is able to take shots much quicker and that camera doesn’t need to do the multiple exposure and stitching that’s done on the Samsung. However, I find that the Lumia 1020′s images came out too bright sometimes, and the resulting image doesn’t necessarily reflect the natural ambiance or mood of the scene at the time whereas the Zoom is able to capture details in the dark while still retaining the ambiance of the setting. It really is a matter of personal preference. Additionally, if you’re concerned with cropping and noise level, the Lumia has less noise than the Zoom in low light performance, which is achieved through a larger sensor size on the Lumia coupled with oversampling in PureView mode.
If you need to use the flash, performance is rather good. The Xenon flash on the Zoom is able to achieve accurate color reproduction and Samsung’s auto white balance is able to give skin tones a nice color, unlike the Nokia Lumia which turns skin tones orange with the flash.
Additionally, the flash on the Zoom does enough to illuminate people in a night portrait shot while still allowing the natural ambiance and night lights in the background to still show up on your captured image, rather than washing the background scenery out.
In terms of the front-facing camera for vacationers who may want to take self-portraits, my only complaint is that the lens on the front-facing camera isn’t wide enough. That means that your head alone will take up most of the picture with little room for the background scenery. And if you’re traveling with a small group of friends, forget about trying to squeeze more than two heads together with a selfie.
In terms of the camera design in usability, a complaint is that there are no flat edges for the camera, other than the screen side, so that means you can’t stand the camera up on a shelf, table, or flat surface and use the timer mode to get a group shot with yourself in it. To do this, you’ll like have to rely on a tripod. On the Lumia, the beauty is that you do have a flat bottom edge where the speaker is, and you can try to do a timed group shot, but the problem with the Lumia is that the timer caps out at around 2 or 3 seconds, which is far too short of a time period for you to set up the camera, hit the shutter and make sure the camera doesn’t topple over, and then get in on the picture with your group.
At the end of the day though, if you’re a soccer mom or doting dad, the Galaxy S4 Zoom is pocketable and still allows you to get in close to the action while standing back far away. The 10X optical zoom, optical image stabilization, and Xenon flash really highlight this camera’s performance compared to a standard smartphone camera, and Android and 4G LTE connectivity will allow you to readily upload and share moments with your friends and loved ones.
More professional shooters looking at camera phones will likely want to explore other options, but the Zoom fills its role as a mass-market device that converges the power of a long zoom lens and the popular Android OS.
The Galaxy S4 Zoom could record videos in 1080p. Using a 64 GB SanDisk micro SDXC card, I find that though videos were generally acceptable, a problem is that sometimes the audio would get out of sync with the video feed. It happens on occassion and wasn’t a big problem with every video shot, and I am not sure if it’s a fault of the camera or the memory card itself. Additionally, when recording video, if you’re using the zoom ring around the lens to zoom in and out, you’ll hear the mechanical zoom sound in your video. If this is of concern, you should zoom in to the correct focal length before commencing video recording.
Sample Images & Videos
The below sample images and videos were either captured with the international Galaxy S4 Zoom or with the AT&T branded model. In a side-by-side test of images, I couldn’t tell any noticeable differences between the cameras in terms of image rendering and performance.
In general, optical image stabilization, or OIS, works well for videos and does assist with handheld photos when taken in good light and with the zoom extended–it’s harder to get a blur-free shot with that level of zoom without the assistance of OIS. However, when there is more limited amount of light and when no flash is employed–like the image above with the door handle and iron gate or the photo with the squashes at a market outside at nighttime–OIS on the Galaxy S4 Zoom doesn’t work as well as OIS on the Lumia 1020. When you zoom into these photos, you’ll still notice a fair amount of blur as a result of a shakily held camera. The below shot of the handle and iron gate was captured with the Lumia 1020′s camera. Because of a better OIS implementation, the Lumia is able to achieve the same shot with less noise (lower ISO), and less blur. The image is also a bit brighter in terms of being lit than the image on the Galaxy S4 Zoom, though the Zoom’s lighting is probably closer to the real lighting of that scene.
Call quality for the Galaxy S4 Zoom is on par with many other phones, and voice was both clear and warm on both ends of the call. The downside with using this convergence device is that when you’re holding the Zoom to your head and talking on the phone in public, many people around you who notice this will give you funny looks as it’s odd to see someone talking into a camera. In terms of data, the Zoom is capable of handling AT&T’s 4G LTE speeds, which is growing in footprint. AT&T promises speeds up to 10X faster than 3G speeds, and I got speeds around 10-20 Mbps downloads and 2-15 Mbps on the upload. Pure speed numbers may be one thing.
In reality, though the clocked mobile broadband speeds on 4G LTE were similar to other devices in AT&T’s portfolio–HTC One, Galaxy S4, and iPhone 5–actual speeds were a bit slower. It took longer for apps to download and finish installing on the Zoom compared to the Galaxy S4, and photos downloaded and saved slower on the Zoom compared to the iPhone. This is likely a result of the more conservative dual-core processor and RAM utilized on the Zoom than the faster processors on these other flagship phones.
Battery kife for the Galaxy S4 Zoom is decent. With a 2330 mAh battery, I am able to squeeze a little over a working day with moderate use of the phone, which includes making a few short calls, sending between 20-50 texts, and sporadically check emails, social network feeds, and browse the Internet for the latest news along with capturing a few images. For events or occassions when I know I will want to capture a lot of photos or video footage, I would definitely carry around a spare battery as backup. When compared to larger phones with larger batteries, the Galaxy S4 Zoom doesn’t have as much stamina as the Galaxy S4 or the Galaxy Note 3.
I would recommend carrying a spare battery if you’re out all day–if you deplete the battery then you can’t even make a call in an emergency as a drawback of convergence–or a charging cable if you will be near a power outlet at some point during the day. I am not sure if the AT&T version is wired differently than the international version, but on my unlocked Galaxy S4 Zoom unit, a problem I typically encountered is that if I use a non-Samsung charger, sometimes during the night the battery wouldn’t charge, or it would only charge a few percent. On the AT&T model, using non-Samsung chargers, I did not encounter this issue and the battery charged fine overnight, regardless of the charger or charging cable I have around the house.
Display: 4.3-inch qHD Super AMOLED display Processor: Dual-core 1.5 GHz RAM: 1.5 GB RAM Memory: 8 GB storage, micro SDXC card for expanded storage Camera: 1.9-megapixel front-facing and rear 16-megapixel camera with 10X optical zoom and OIS
The Galaxy S4 Zoom is a versatile device that allows users to ditch their telephoto zooms and smartphones for an all-in-one device that can still fit into your pockets. As a jack of all trades device, the Galaxy S4 Zoom excels at its photographic ability providing mobile photographers with additional features to help them capture the best moments of life, aided by a 10X optical zoom that provides an equivalent focal range of 24-240 mm, optical image stabilization that helps with night shots when not using a tripod and for recording handheld videos, a high resolution sensor that captures more light, and the best of the Android ecosystem.
It really should be a device that makes everyone happy, but unfortunately to make the device appealing and affordable, Samsung may have cut a few corners. Softer focus, sluggish performance, and a design that may be ergonomic for a camera but not quite as comfortable for use as a smartphone are some of the biggest flaws of the Galaxy S4 Zoom.
In the Zoom, though, AT&T offers more choice for its customers. Customers worried about pure image quality and low light performance may want to consider the Lumia 1020. For the average consumer who wants Android and the rich app ecosystem, the ability to get up close and personal with a 10X zoom, and a bright Xenon flash for night time portraits, the Zoom will definitely be a more mass market camera phone, granted you have pockets large enough to accommodate its girth.