Galaxy S4 Zoom review: great camera, average phone

Galaxy Zoom_Taking pic far

It’s amazing the type of gadgets they come up with. Samsung in particular is well-known for dropping devices on us that we don’t really need. Like this one, the very cumbersome Galaxy S4 Zoom, the world’s most obvious camera phone.

So the S4 Zoom, what’s it all about? It’s like an S4 Mini strapped to a 16MP auto-focus camera. It almost seems a trifle rude of Samsung to add the word “S4” to the Zoom, as the performance of this curiosity is well below-par. Whereas the S4 is a speed demon, the S4 Zoom is sluggish. While the S4 is sleek if not too plastic in form, the S4 Zoom is cumbersome beyond all rational explanation. Why did Samsung make this? It’s not as if we needed this gap in the market.

Released way back in June 2013, Samsung said that “people” wanted to capture images at the highest possible resolution. If so, those people would carry a dedicated OIS camera with them. But it’s 2013 and our penchant for needless crap is higher than ever before. Not that the S4 Zoom is a bad phone, it just offers underwhelming performance combined with a very chunky frame. It’s also listed at US$474 (R4 740) on Amazon, this makes it a high-end phone – pity it’s so cumbersome to hold.

Camera Phone FOTC

The only camera phone that really matters
There were a few things to love about the S4 Zoom, but it’s a one-trick pony, and I can’t recommend it over other US$500 smartphones. For an extra US$100, you’ll get the HTC One which has a damn decent camera. Or for close to the same price, there’s Sony’s Xperia Z which is undoubtedly still the best phone of 2013. So why would anyone want the S4 Zoom? It’s simple: the camera’s great. As a phone, it’s average.

Zoom Ring

It’s an odd duck, the S4. It never fails to get stares from random passersby who then pick up the Zoom going “ooooh hark at this. Is it a camera or a phone?” is the usual response. I just stare blankly at them and think back to the last episode of Breaking Bad (it was a great one this week) for comfort.

So, to activate the 16MP camera, I press the dedicated shot button located on the big-ass end of the S4 Zoom. After three long uncomfortable seconds, the 10x optical zoom lens springs to life. Three seconds is too long, I want it to be instant, but it’s not. It’s a dual-core 1.5Ghz CPU so I don’t really see what the issue is, the lens should spring to life in a second. It’s not even a minor gripe, it’s a massive oversight. If Samsung wants us to use the S4 Zoom in any meaningful way, it should be ready in an instant. When I want to take a picture of a duck, say, I now know that I have to account for software lag. So the image is already ruined in my mind. I wish it was instant. It’s not.

Galaxy Zoom_android watermark

When the lens activates though, the images are a sight to behold. These are the most crisp and sharp mobile phone images I’ve yet seen. Colours are rich, dark images are beautifully realised and even when zoomed in, most images are still as picture perfect as they where when zoomed out. It’s best to show you by example, so I’ve included some of my favourite shots below.

Sample shots from the S4 Zoom
left right

Camera Phone Fotc

Stop Sign

It's the richness and clarity that makes each image so colourful. Most smartphones would fail to pick up this much detail.


Beautiful Cape Town looks the part through this lens.

Night Shot

If it wasn't for this light, it would have been pitch black, but the S4 Zoom still managed to snap off the best night shot I've seen (for a mobile phone).

Macro, Desk, Kloof

A "real" lens makes a marked difference. Macro shots are loaded with details other phones would miss.

Who's A Good Boy?

This guy/girl.

S4 Zoom Main 3

S4 Zoom Main 1

S4 Zoom Main 2

Galaxy Zoom_taking Pic Far Watermark

Galaxy Zoom_taking Pic Far

Galaxy Zoom_android Watermark

Galaxy Zoom_side On Watermark

See, it looks great. There’s no doubt there. Once the camera is up and running, the level of detail you can capture is astonishing. I had a great time with it, especially with the Zoom Ring, something I’ve never really seen on any phone before. The S4 Zoom has a manual zoom ring that is fairly slick and above all, works well. I twist the ring, the phone zooms in. The Zoom Ring isn’t just limited to focusing in and out though. No, twisting it in a browsers magnifies the page, and turning it on the homes or app screen pulls up a scene selector which isn’t as handy or as useful as I thought it would be.

Galaxy Zoom_side on watermark

Everything about the lens is top class. It’s paired with a Xenon flash, a 1.9MP front-facing camera, a 1/2.33″ sensor size. For those unfamiliar with this number, a 1/2.33″ is the sensor size for most standard digital cameras. That’s a first then. The lens on the S4 Zoom is as good as any bog-standard digital camera, which is indeed something special. Samsung’s done its homework and delivered a high-quality digital camera lens and Frankenstein’d it onto a smart phone. More so, it’s very comfortable to hold.

There are also a bunch of modes to select once the camera kicks in. Auto, Smart, Expert and My Mode. I only ever used Auto, I couldn’t really figure out the numbers and F-stops in Expert and Smart mode didn’t seem to make a lick of difference to my shots. With a lens this good, every shot is top-notch, regardless of the software mode. My Mode simply lets you select a bunch of software options from Smart mode. I’m sure some will find this useful. I didn’t. I just turned on the camera and took shot after shot. How’s the phone though?

S4 Lite

As a separate entity from the camera, the S4 Zoom underwhelms. No one expects a 1.5Ghz CPU to astound, but it doesn’t have to be this sluggish. Nothing really responds to the touch like it does on the S4. Opening an app seems to take ages, even a simple game like Dots chugs as it initially loads. This is the one of the poorest homes for Android 4.2.2 I’ve yet come across. Comparing this hardware to the S4’s is unfair (there’s 8 cores in the S4), but I’ve used phones like LG’s Optimus G Pro which is far cheaper and much faster. Then again, no other phone comes with an actual digital camera glued to it.

The S4 Zoom is heavy at 208g. By comparison, the S4 is a mere 130g and the iPhone 5 112g. It’s a monster in both weight and size. Using the phone in landscape is practically impossible as well because the Zoom Ring becomes an ergonomic nightmare when the device is turned on its side. It’s difficult to hold, and it should be comfortable.

The battery life is very respectable though. I took a lot of pictures, used the S4 Zoom to the fullest its social media capabilities could allow and still it managed to survive a full day. So roughly 14 hours. The battery slides into the bottom of an enormous compartment on the bottom of the phone. Kind of like a real digital camera. This is also where the microSD card goes.

One last word on the sluggish behaviour: it really did affect every part of the S4 Zoom. Even apps that were already running in the background would take 2-3 second to load, which after coming off other phones is a real pain. It’s really a question of why, because the phone is jam-packed with decent hardware. So while it may look like an S4 Mini in front, it behaves more like an older S3. It’s an extremely average Android device and if you’ve seen a Samsung smartphone, you’ll be instantly familiar with the S4 Zoom.

Verdict: The S4 Zoom has the best smartphone camera performance yet. When the lens is up and running, it looks and behaves like a real digital camera. The pictures are fantastic and if you want a proper phone/camera (phamra?) the S4 Zoom is your only choice. If you just want a phone though, there are hundreds of options I’d recommend over this clunky device. The phone portion (Android, gaming, social media) is too slow, especially at this price. If Samsung drops the price US$100 (R1000), then the S4 Zoom would be an easier smartphone to recommend.

Score: 6/10

Concords image via

Steven Norris: grumpy curmudgeon


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