Welcome to Part 2 of the Smartphone Camera Showdown, where I’m testing out the Nokia Lumia 1020 and the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: the two top cameras on the smartphone market. They were lent to me by AT&T, after I expressed a desire to do away with my camera entirely, in favour of a smartphone that can carry its weight as a semi-professional camera.
In this episode of the Smartphone Camera Showdown, I am reviewing the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom; evaluating both its camera capabilities, as well as its usability as a smartphone, and ability to sync with my Macbook Air laptop – which is renowned for not always playing nicely with non-Apple devices.
For a little history on why I’ve decided to do away with my “real” camera, check out my review of the Nokia Lumia 1020 in Part 1 of this series.
Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom Basics
I had never heard of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom until AT&T introduced it to me. I was initially confused by it; it looks like a camera – is it really also a smartphone? I was unsure, but willing to give it a try.
The 16 megapixel camera is nothing to sneeze at, but Samsung’s specialty (and where it exceeds many dedicated cameras) is the 10x optical zoom. One look at the large protruding lens gives you an idea of just how capable this camera is.
Initial Impressions and Usability
One of the first things I noticed about the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom was the removable battery. Glory hallelujah! Batteries are usually the first thing to go on phones, and they’re almost impossible to replace on most. With the Samsung, just chuck in a new (or extra) battery, and you can keep snapping and tapping.
Photographers will also appreciate the Micro SD slot to take and share pictures easily.
For better or worse, the Samsung doesn’t really feel or look like a smartphone. It’s heavier than most, and the lens – although a photographer’s wet dream (for a smartphone) – makes it awkward to hold and use as a smartphone, and you don’t know how to put it down – on the lens, or the screen.
However the heavier weight also makes it much nicer to use as a camera, and it feels a bit more durable than most smartphones.
Despite a great screen resolution and larger screen size than the iPhone, the icons and writing are really small. It’s difficult to edit text, and I feel like I’m bound to go blind with the weeny font.
However the intuitive text program gets quite good at anticipating what I’m trying to write based on my writing habits, so it makes tapping out a text quite easy.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is an Android phone, which is the most flexible and customizable of smartphone operating systems. There are tons of free high quality apps, and I believe Google is in bed with Android, so if you’re a fan of Google systems, you’re in for a treat.
I’m a smart girl and pretty good with technology; but I don’t speak Android, and thus using the Samsung wasn’t quite as intuitive as I had hoped. This is nothing that a little time in the saddle won’t solve, however.
Usability With Mac
Although Samsung smartphones should be friendlier to sync with Mac computers than the Nokia Windows 8 phone was, I fought with the Samsung for the better part of a day to make it work.
You use Kies to sync everything, and although it might be a solid syncing system once you’ve got it set up, it can be a bit problematic.
For example, instead of just syncing music with my iTunes folder, Kies found all the music on my computer and added it before I could stop it; and editing the collection back down to my iTunes songs was so onerous I gave up. (I was giving the phone back to AT&T after all).
Even then, with only 12gigs of space on the phone, I had no hope of fitting my music on – and Kies (or rather, I) was in a bad mood when I tried. There may be settings to fix all of this, but they eluded me off the top and I simply lost the patience to find solutions. If I owned the Samsung I’m sure I could hack my way through, but I just couldn’t be bothered.
The big problem – and one that fellow Samsung users confirmed was not just my problem – is that the USB cord supplied by Samsung doesn’t work. It recognized the phone maybe 15% of the time, and was so finicky I almost threw the entire thing out the window. When I used a different cord (ironically the cord supplied with the Nokia Lumia 1020), it connected more reliably, but still not 100%.
Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom Camera
Ultimately with enough time and patience, I can find solutions to the above problems and wrap my head around Android and Samsung functionality. Let’s see what the camera can do.
Because the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom looks and feels like a camera, it’s probably the most enjoyable to hold and use as a camera of any smartphone on the market. The 10x optical (yes! 10x optical!) zoom lens is a treat to use, complete with the ability to twist the lens itself to make the zoom work.
Picture Quality and Options
The 16 megapixel Samsung takes full, wide-angle shots. Pictures come out at about 5MB in size, which leaves room for editing and cropping without losing too much size and resolution.
I particularly like the voice-activated options: just hold the camera and say “cheese” or “shoot” or a few other voice commands and it automatically takes the shot. This is especially useful for shots requiring you to hold the camera steady, since pushing a shutter button often creates movement.
And for extra steady or timed shots, you can attach a tripod; glory be.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom camera has all the customizability that a semi-pro photographer might like, such as white balance, exposure, ISO, shutter speed, aperture, metering, and more.
It also has 25 different modes for taking pictures, including motion blur, dawn, dusk, three different night effects, silhouettes, indoor parties….the list goes on and on. In fact, the selection is so wide, it’s a little overwhelming – but you can choose your favourite five modes and store them for quicker access since there’s no easy way to select from the larger range of modes other than to scroll slowly through them.
The Bad News
If you don’t have a tripod handy, like all smartphones there’s no way to rest it on its own to use timed features or hold the camera extra steady.
And similar to other smartphones (perhaps even more so since the Samsung’s lens protrudes even when the camera is off), you’ve got to be vigilant about cleaning off the lens before shooting, since it’s likely to have greasy handprints on it.
I’m a point-and-shoot sort of gal, especially when it comes to getting shots on the fly. And sadly, I found many of the automatic shots taken with the Samsung came out a bit over-exposed and flat. (You’ll see this is especially apparent when I compare the Samsung and Nokia head-to-head in an upcoming post).
Lastly, I’m a little disappointed with the front-facing camera; selfies are really difficult as it doesn’t produce a wide enough angle to get it right easily. This shot below took me five tries (and it still doesn’t look that great); getting three people in a shot was futile.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is obviously a very capable device that looks and feels great as a camera.
But after testing it for a few weeks, I still don’t feel like I can use even half of the options available to me. Between the Android operating system not being the most intuitive, and the camera shooting modes being overwhelmingly varied, and the trouble customizing Kies to my needs for seamless syncing, I just need more time with this smartphone and camera to be comfortable with it. This frustrates me, since I should have been able to “get it” much quicker than I have.
Then again, a more complicated device is probably a sign of a more capable one in the long run.
Then again, sometimes – and this is a highly arguable point – less is more.