The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is a phone/camera hybrid, much like the Lumia 1020. Unlike the 1020, the S4 Zoom’s bulky form-factor puts it more on the ‘camera’ side of the equation.
Worse still, it doesn’t really deliver on either promise. The camera is fantastic compared to other phones, but it’s not better enough to make up for its ridiculous girth and mediocre phone hardware. Thanks to its large size we’d expect it to go take on dedicated cameras, rather than smartphones, and it doesn’t really stand up to the task.
Design & comfort
Measuring 2.5cm thick at the lens and about 1.9cm at the grip, the S4 Zoom is large even in camera-terms. It’s easy to not even realize that it’s a phone until it’s flipped over. From the screen-side it just looks like a Galaxy S4 Mini with its rounded edges, silver trim and hardware Home button.
Unlike the Mini, the S4 Zoom is uncomfortably large. The protruding lens and grip actually make it a more difficult fit in the pocket than the much-larger Galaxy Note 3. It’s so fat that it actually caused us a little trouble when walking up stairs while it was tucked away.
To be fair, holding and using the S4 Zoom was fine, both as a camera and as a phone. It’s surprisingly light, but not applaudably so, and the lens didn’t really get in the way of the screen interface. It’s just impossible to store anywhere on your person without discomfort.
Being a phone
Using the S4 Zoom for only a few minutes gives the distinct impression that Samsung kind of forgot the ‘smartphone’ part of this smartphone/camera hybrid. Despite boasting similar specs to the reliable S4 Mini, the 1.5GHz dual-core CPU and 1.5GB of RAM in the S4 Zoom just doesn’t cut it.
It is incredibly slow. Moving between menu screens was jerky and app loading time ranged from annoying to almost laughable. It even took a good five seconds to load the on-screen keyboard in apps that required it.
Not since the iNQ Cloud Touch two years ago have we experienced such a laggy device.
The display itself is fine enough. From what we can tell it’s the exact same 540 x 960 Super AMOLED panel we saw on the Galaxy S4 Mini. You’ll get good colors and passable sharpness, but it’s not HD.
One major gripe is storage. The one thing that we’d expect in abundance from a specialty camera phone is limited. With just 8GB on-board, only 5GB of which is available to the user, the S4 Zoom won’t last too long before you need to dump photos somewhere. There’s a MicroSD slot for up to 64GB of added space, but buying extra memory can add anywhere up to $70 extra depending on where you buy it.
The lack of 4G LTE seems peculiar. Obviously the main internet functions of the S4 Zoom would focus around uploading and viewing pictures, but this can be time-consuming on a 3G network. Even though the supported-3G here is HSPA+ – among the fastest 3G you can get – 4G would be more suited to the task.
Being a camera
Having failed the comfort test and failed as a phone, the S4 Zoom needs to make up for everything with its 16MP camera. It doesn’t.
The camera is good; it’s actually the best smartphone camera we’ve used, beating out the Nokia Lumia 1020 in a recent camera showdown; but it’s not good enough to make up for all its faults.
Shots came out incredibly clear and detailed. Colors were mostly accurate except for an occasional greenish hue and the auto-focus worked very quickly. It even captured moving objects with little-to-no blur if the lighting was good.
For the experienced photo-snapper it also has a bunch of options for tweaking the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, WB (light source) and metering.
Video capture was absolutely fantastic. In this department the S4 Zoom really can take on dedicated cameras. We wish the rest of the camera experience were this impressive.
There’s also a camera shutter button that when pressed launches the camera app, as well as doing its normal job. Unfortunately it doesn’t activate the camera when the phone is locked, so it still takes a while to get a quick shot off in a hurry.
Still doesn’t cut it
In all respects the S4 Zoom’s camera is the best smartphone camera we’ve ever used, except as we’ve discussed it’s not really a smartphone first. This device’s phone experience was so lack-lustre and its design is so big that it should really be competing against dedicated cameras and not against smartphones.
Against dedicated cameras it doesn’t do so well. It’s bigger and more expensive than a lot of superior shooters.
If you’re after great photos then you should just buy a camera and avoid the S4 Zoom. If you’re after a smartphone with a great camera then you should get a top-range handset and avoid the pain of a laggy device that won’t fit in your pocket. The Lumia 1020 is a great option or, if you’re after an Android: the LG G2, Galaxy Note 3, Galaxy S4 and HTC One are all awesome options.
Battery life is not a problem. We easily got a full day, even when going photo-crazy. We initially thought this was thanks to the thick profile allowing for a larger battery, but it’s a pretty standard size at 2330mAh. It seems Samsung has done its work here delivering high quality pics with little power usage.
Admittedly, the xenon flash does drain resources noticeably, but this is no surprise. Just make sure that you keep an eye on the battery icon if you’re taking shots at night.
The S4 Zoom tries too hard to be two different things and fails at both. As a phone it offers a frustrating, laggy user experience and as a camera its bulk and merely-OK camera (compared to dedicated shooters) aren’t offset by the novelty of having a phone pasted to the back.
We love what Samsung is trying to do here and hope to see more of it in the future. We feel like Nokia went with a similar notion and proved that it could be done with the Lumia 1020, but Samsung’s even-more-camera-centric approach just hasn’t worked.