Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is a flexible two-in-one camera/smartphone, no matter its size. Enthusiasts should stick to stand-alone shooters, though, and there are slimmer phones for most photo needs.

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With its bulky point-and-shoot camera shape and 10x optical zoom, Samsung's Galaxy S4 Zoom makes for a ridiculously shaped smartphone that defies pocketability. But the mash-up device sure can shoot.

In fact, its image quality is on par with a good point-and-shoot camera, and its optical zoom makes it a more flexible camera than any other smartphone's. Unfortunately, the Zoom's awkward and uneasy design disrupts the phone's day-to-day functionality on a fundamental level, even if you're not holding it up to your ear.

Craziest "phone" design ever?

We've seen some out-there phone designs in our time, and the Zoom is right up there. As a smartphone, the Zoom's large lens assembly and hand grip are completely impractical. It uncomfortably stretches out pockets, and its 207g weight drags on your arm if you hold it for a long time, say, to watch a video or play a game.

Don't attempt to use the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom as a telephone without a Bluetooth headset. Just don't.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

The lens assembly takes up a lot of space on the back, owing to its 24-240mm zoom lens. To the left of the lens are the xenon flash and autofocus assist light. A microSD card slot and tripod mount populate the left spine (if you're holding the Zoom like a phone), and on the right are the power/lock buttons, volume rocker and shutter button. The headset jack and IR blaster live up top, with the micro-USB charging port on the bottom edge.

The Zoom is clearly more camera than phone.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Like other Galaxy phones, the Zoom navigates with a central home button, flanked by capacitive controls for the menu and back button. They also do double duty to bring up Google Now cards and recent apps.

All about the camera

The Zoom is a smartphone, yes, but whether you buy it or not all comes down to its camera controls and image quality. You can fire up the camera and its 16-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor by holding down the shutter button, but you'll need to unlock the phone first.

Samsung has learned a thing or two about making its camera app easy to understand and use. There are on-screen controls to flip between front and rear cameras, toggle the flash and turn on self-timer, geotagging and autosharing. Icons make it easy to zoom in and out without touching the lens, and other buttons switch to video capture, open mode selection and take the photo.

The Zoom's native camera interface has tappable controls.
(Credit: Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)

Image quality

The Zoom doesn't claim to have the highest megapixel resolution of any smartphone camera or the crispest, clearest fidelity. Yet, in our tests, it produced some excellent images using auto settings, preset modes and freehand controls. Still and all, the Nokia Lumia 1020 produced the all-around best shots, with its larger sensor, cleaner processing, better low-light shots and solid image stabilisation.

Auto mode on the Zoom takes photos with crisp edges and uses a warmer tone overall that sometimes pumps up yellows. Indoors, it often relies on flash, where some other smartphone cameras (like the iPhone 5) do not. The effect is photos with defined faces and less background detail. The tendency to use flash also created a less atmospheric night-time scene.

Taken indoors with flash.
(Credit: Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)

The Zoom's killer feature is indeed that 10x optical zoom. Most of the time, zoom quality was terrific without much loss in image fidelity. I was really impressed with some images I captured while standing at the bottom of a statue, for example, or across the street. I found Zoom handy for taking photos of objects I couldn't physically get close to in time to capture the moment, like bystanders at CNET's office ping pong tournament (really) or a scene across a busy intersection.

In our tests, the Zoom took better photos than the usual camera phones in a lot of situations, with better detail and lower noise. In automatic mode, the differences between the Zoom, the original S4 and the iPhone 5 generally weren't astounding enough to make most casual photographers jump ship and buy a Zoom.

I took the photo of my cupcake first in automatic mode (L) and then using the food-friendly setting. The boost in colour and contrast is evident.
(Credit: Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)

For even more pictures taken with this camera, check out this S4 Zoom photo gallery.

Front camera and video

The 1.9-megapixel front-facing camera took usable photos. The colour representation was off at times, with faces often looking vibrant and fleshy in some parts and necrotic and grey in others. Of course, photos will appear a little grainy.

A group portrait taken with the front-facing camera.
(Credit: Jessica Dolcourt/CNET)

Versus the Nokia Lumia 1020

There are some significant variables to think about when it comes to comparing these two cameras — different sensor sizes, different resolutions and different lenses. There are also different focal ranges and depths of field, which change things like how close you can get to an object to take its photo. And although the Lumia 1020 takes 34- or 38-megapixel photos, they'll resolve to 5-megapixels, which is much smaller if you're emailing photos from your phone. (You can still get to the absolutely massive high-resolution Lumia photos from your computer.)

It bears repeating that in terms of absolute image quality, the Lumia 1020 edges the Zoom, thanks to its larger image sensor and low-light proficiency, even when shooting with the native camera in auto mode rather than with Nokia's fancy Pro Cam app.

When it comes to pocketability, the Lumia 1020 is the far better smartphone camera. But talk about ease of use, and the two swap places. The Lumia 1020's Nokia Pro Cam app — the source of its 41-megapixel photos and manual settings — lacks the Zoom's preset modes, which makes Nokia's phone harder for aspiring smartphone photographers to use. It also doesn't go nearly as deep with manual settings, lacking both aperture and colour controls.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is a beast, even compared with Nokia's robust Lumia 1020.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Taken as a whole, I prefer the Zoom's photographic experience for its optical zoom, easy to use preset modes and still very good smartphone photos. The smartphone's hardware and software specs also make it the more powerful, flexible device than the Windows Phone-running Lumia 1020. But if we're talking about which phone I'd carry around each day, the Lumia once again wins.


The 1.5GHz dual-core processor is noticeably slower than the Galaxy S4's 1.9GHz quad-core chip, but you won't wait too long where navigation counts: booting up the phone, loading the camera app and switching from app to app. Games and videos will play just fine, but perhaps not with quite the same gusto as the GS4.

Compared with the original Galaxy S4, the S4 Zoom trades off screen size, display resolution and chipset clock speed to keep total costs in check, so you'll notice that the screen is smaller and not quite as sharp and that the phone is a bit less zippy.

Battery and more

The Zoom's 2330mAh ticker should last you all day in theory, but I noticed that the battery drained a little quicker than I expected. Then again, I also had the screen at maximum brightness for much of the time and had been using it heavily during a very short period during this testing process.

Buy it or skip it?

On paper, the Zoom has all the elements of a really great smartphone: a recent Android version, hardware goodies like a fast processor and the advanced camera. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and the Zoom's bulky shape is enough to be a deal breaker. Also, if don't need quite as much photographic control, the Lumia 1020, Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5 are the slimmer, more practical picks that don't sacrifice much in terms of quality. In many cases, in fact, the Lumia 1020 surpasses the Zoom.


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Pining posted a comment   

Does anybody actually hold a phone the way your opening picture displays a lady holding this item?

What a ridiculous photo. Bodes REALLY well for an unbiased report!!


Will1505 posted a reply   

The lens actually sticks out quite a bit, so holding it like you normally would might be more uncomfortable that what is shown

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User Reviews / Comments  Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

  • Pining


    "Does anybody actually hold a phone the way your opening picture displays a lady holding this item?

    What a ridiculous photo. Bodes REALLY well for an unbiased report!!"

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