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Samsung Galaxy Camera EK-GC100 review

CamerasReviews
7/10
by Jim Fisher, Sascha Segan, 29 Nov 2012Reviews
Samsung Galaxy Camera EK-GC100 review

Samsung is ahead of the curve when it comes to connected cameras. The company built an excellent Wi-Fi implementation into both point-and-shoots like its WB850F, and advanced interchangeable lens cameras like the NX1000. At the same time, it leads the pack in Android handset development with the likes of the Galaxy S III smartphone.

So it's only logical that Samsung would eventually combine a camera and an Android media player into one device. The resulting 16-megapixel Samsung Galaxy Camera (which retails at £399.99) is a bit of a Frankenstein product – it's very large for a camera, even one with a 21x zoom lens, and thick when compared to a phone.

The Galaxy Camera offers 3G connectivity, it lets you use photo apps like Instagram, and it lets you fling Angry Birds at disgruntled pigs – but no, it doesn't make phone calls. And despite its ambitious design, there are shortcomings here.

Design and features

The Galaxy Camera is big. It's bigger than any compact superzoom I've used, and it's bigger than an interchangeable lens camera like the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5. It measures 130 x 19 x 70mm (WxDxH), and it's no featherweight at 310 grams. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, which has a shorter zoom lens but a much larger 1in image sensor, is only 100 x 35 x 60mm (WxDxH) and 240 grams in weight.

The main reason for the size of the Galaxy is the huge 4.8in, 16:9 widescreen display. Most rear LCDs top out at 3in with a 4:3 ratio. It's astounding how much difference this makes in terms of using the camera compared to a run-of-the-mill point-and-shoot. One downside to the big screen is that it doesn't look quite as sharp as the displays on the best digital cameras. Even though it's 1,280 x 720 and thus 921k dots in resolution, just like the LCD found on the Nikon Coolpix S9300, the larger screen size reduces the pixel density.

The first question that popped into my mind when I picked up the Galaxy Camera was, oddly enough: "Where does my thumb go?" The big touch-sensitive LCD occupies almost the entirety of the Galaxy's backside. I have thick fingers and was worried that holding the camera normally would result in accidentally changing settings. Thankfully this proved not to be the case, as the bezel is just wide enough so my right thumb can rest against it when shooting without accidentally setting off the touch-shutter. Due to the overall size of the camera I ended up taking photos with both hands, resting my left hand near the lens as I would with a compact interchangeable lens camera or SLR.

Physical controls are non-existent. This is not a device well-suited for shutterbugs who demand quick control over settings. There's a zoom rocker built into the shutter control, a Power button, and a button to raise the flash. To lower it, you simply push it down into the body. All shooting controls – ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed, Shooting Mode, Exposure Compensation, and the like – are adjusted via the touch-sensitive LCD.

The controls are big enough on the screen to make them usable, but they are no substitute for real physical controls. That's a shame, as there is more than enough room on the front of the body for a simple control wheel, and the top has plenty of space for a Mode Dial or EV Compensation dial. Advanced shooters will appreciate the ability to add a grid overlay to the live view display, not unlike those found on now-ancient manual focusing screens. I opted for a 3 x 3 grid, but there are also 4 x 4, 2 x 2, and diagonal patterns.

If you're the type to leave your camera in auto, or simply use your phone for all of your camera needs, chances are you'll seldom venture out of automatic mode. That's why Samsung has built a number of "smart scene" modes. You can scroll through presets that best capture fireworks, night scenes, fast action, macro objects, panoramic views, and more. For group shots, there's a special Best Face mode – it takes five images in succession and lets you mix and match the best expressions from people in the shot – so you can salvage a good family photo, even if uncle Fred had his eyes closed in half the shots.

You can fire the shutter by pressing a physical button, but you can also touch a big onscreen camera icon to shoot a photo. There's a box that lets you know where the camera is focusing, but you can override this by touching the area of the frame on which you'd like to focus. If you feel like controlling the shutter with your voice you can make it take a photo by saying "cheese," or "shoot," and activate a 10 second self-timer by simply saying "timer."

The default camera app gives you full control over the 21x (23-483mm equivalent) zoom lens. Having such a powerful zoom is one of the biggest advantages that the camera holds over smartphone cameras. The iPhone 5 and its ilk feature fixed lenses that don't cover as wide an angle as this lens, and couldn't dream about zooming in to capture close detail. Macro focusing is supported, and while you can't butt the lens right up against your subject, you can focus on objects about 1.5in from the front element when using the Smart Macro scene mode. If you just activate macro shooting in Program mode, you'll be limited to a 2in close focus.

Unfortunately, not all Android camera apps support zooming. If you're a fan of Instagram, Pixlr-o-matic, or Retro Camera, you'll be left shooting the camera at its widest focal length. Of course, you can shoot a zoomed-in photo using the standard camera app and later add filters using your favourite retro camera filter program, but it would be nice to see these apps updated to support zoom control. Social networking apps that use the default Android camera like Foursquare do not face this limitation – they just take you into the full-feature application and allow you to snap away.

There are a few Samsung-specific Android apps installed that will aid in photo sharing. While most users will likely share photos via Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter – all available for download via the Google Play store – users with multiple Samsung devices will be interested in AllShare Play and Group Cast.

AllShare Play is a DLNA server that makes it possible to push your photos and videos to Samsung devices, your PC, and other connected devices. Group Cast lets other devices on your current Wi-Fi network connect to the Galaxy Camera, via a password, to see your photos and videos. Device-to-device sharing is also supported via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct, both accessible from the camera application.

Android apps and networking

The Galaxy Camera is one of the weirder Android devices we've tested recently. Remove the camera, and you actually have a fun, sprightly little Android tablet, on par with a top smartphone and superior to all of Samsung's Galaxy Player handhelds.

The Galaxy Camera uses a quad-core Samsung Exynos 4412 processor running at 1.4GHz. It's fast, comparable on benchmarks to the Nvidia Tegra 3 we've seen in devices like the Google Nexus 7. In real-life use, the Galaxy Camera sped through menus and apps, and multitasking didn't bog it down. The UI speed improvements in Android 4.1 seem to have helped here as well. The quad-core processor shined in apps like Samsung's video editor, where applying filters to 1080p video was a swift process. Data entry was easy enough with the standard Samsung touch keyboard.

The Galaxy Camera is a fully card-carrying member of the Android universe. The device comes with Google Play on board, and every app we downloaded worked well. It can't do voice calling or SMS, but it can do everything else an Android-powered phone does, including running Skype. Gmail? No problem. Want to download an office suite? Go for it. The back of this camera also makes a lovely Kindle, with sharp text and smooth page turns. One of the most surreal moments we had here was watching "Arrested Development" streaming on Netflix on the back of a camera. It all works well.

Music files, as well as H.264, MPEG4, and XVID video files, played with ease at resolutions up to 1080p. The Galaxy Camera has a single tinny speaker that makes the whole device vibrate at top volume; a better idea is to use the 3.5mm headphone jack on the right hand side, or connect a Bluetooth headset.

As we were playing with the Galaxy Camera, with its sharp 4.8in, 1,280 x 720 screen and speedy quad-core processor, we kept thinking of Samsung's less-impressive Galaxy Player 4.2. Why can't Samsung's standalone handheld be this pretty and this powerful?

You may not want to use the Galaxy Camera as your primary Android device, though. Its 4 hours and 40 minutes of video playback time with the screen at maximum brightness falls short of the Galaxy Player 4.2 (almost 7 hours) and the Apple iPod touch (4 hours and 55 minutes). More importantly, it's best to save that battery for shooting photos, so it's there when you need it.

The Galaxy Camera features Wi-Fi 802.11n networking on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, as well as 3G, but not 4G LTE support. Hooking up to a 5GHz Wi-Fi network makes a huge difference here. Connected to a fast corporate network, we got an average of 23.1Mbps down and 26.3Mbps up on 5GHz. On 2.4GHz Wi-Fi with the same backhaul, speeds dropped to 3.7Mbps down and 0.5Mbps up.

Upload speeds are especially relevant here because the Galaxy Camera creates huge files, which you may then want to post on the Internet. An average 16-megapixel Galaxy Camera shot is about 3.4MB, while a minute-long 1080p video is a horrifying 100MB.

Without further compression, that photo will upload in about a second at our 5GHz speed, in 54 seconds at our 2.4GHz speed, and a minute and a half via 3G (which we tested on HSPA+ 21). As for that huge video, it would take 30 seconds to upload at 5GHz, 26 minutes at 2.4GHz, and 43 minutes with 3G – never mind busting your data plan's cap.

Obviously many files will be compressed further before uploading them to the Internet. But that doesn't change the fact that the 3G connection here is relatively slow and expensive. Our advice, as usual, is to tether the Galaxy Camera to a faster smartphone via Wi-Fi – preferably 5GHz if possible.

Performance

The Galaxy Camera can wake from standby and take an in-focus photo in about 2.9 seconds. Unfortunately, this is on the slow side. The longer startup time can prevent you from capturing a candid moment, and you can forget about a quick start if the camera is completely powered down. It takes a while for Android to boot, and you'll have to suffer through splash screens during the process. It's best to think of the device more like a phone than a camera in this respect. Just leave it in standby mode in between photos.

The camera does better in terms of shot-to-shot time. You can capture a burst of 20 shots at 3.8 frames per second, with virtually no recovery time required between bursts. However, shutter lag is an unimpressive four tenths of a second, which is more on par with a low end point-and-shoot than a £400 camera.

I used Imatest to check the Galaxy Camera's sharpness and noise control. Its lens manages 1,770 lines per picture height at its widest setting, just shy of the 1,800 lines required for a sharp image. Noise is kept under 1.5 per cent through ISO 800, and detail is actually pretty good at that setting and at ISO 1600 – noise hits 1.6 per cent there.

Even though the Samsung WB850F produces sharper images at lower ISO settings, the Galaxy Camera does a better job at capturing fine detail when the ISO is bumped up to 800 or 1600. Its top ISO setting of 3200 should be avoided, as images are very noisy and lacking in detail there.

Check out the photo below, which is of our standard test scene using the Galaxy Camera at its lowest ISO and widest focal length:

And here's a 100 per cent crop of that test shot, which shows you the level of detail that the camera's 16-megapixel sensor can capture:

Video quality is a bit disappointing. The camera captures 1080p30 or 720p30 footage at a very high bitrate, and the footage is sharp and detailed. When you zoom in or out while recording there is a jerky, stuttering effect – although to its credit, the noise of the lens moving in or out isn't audible on the soundtrack. Refocusing takes longer than we've seen on other cameras, and on occasion the white balance was somewhat incorrect, but that adjusted itself fairly quickly.

There are only a few ports to speak of, including a micro-USB connector for charging and computer connectivity and a headset jack that supports headphones with a built-in mic. There's 8GB of memory built-in, and a microSD card slot. The Galaxy Camera had no problems using a 64GB card.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Camera appeals to a very specific type of photographer. If getting your photos online moments after they're shot is of paramount importance, then the always-on 3G data connectivity and Android operating system will be a boon to your photography.

Even though it can't keep up with less expensive point-and-shoot cameras in terms of pure image quality and physical control options, the Galaxy Camera is capable of capturing images which are much better than the tiny lenses and sensors that are built into smartphones can manage. However, the Galaxy’s convenience comes at a price – using 3G to upload images and video could be tough on your data allowance. Also, because the Galaxy Camera doesn't make phone calls, it still doesn't replace your cell phone as a single carry-everywhere device.

If you're put off by the lack of physical controls on the Galaxy, but are still interested in a connected camera, there are options. You'll just have to live with Wi-Fi connectivity only, but of course you can mitigate that by also using a smartphone with hotspot mode. The Samsung NX1000 delivers images that are on par with an SLR, but lets you push photos directly to social networking sites or to your smartphone via Wi-Fi – and with its compact zoom lens, it's not that much thicker than the Galaxy Camera.

If you don't mind a point-and-shoot, the Samsung WB850F delivers the same Wi-Fi implementation as the NX1000, but its high-ISO image quality lags behind both that and the Galaxy Camera. On the upside, it’s close to half the price of the NX1000 and Galaxy.

Overall, the points against the Galaxy Camera – its image quality relative to price, bulkiness, control issues, and somewhat disappointing video quality – all add up to take the shine off the device. While integrating Android apps such as Instagram into the Galaxy Camera is a great idea, it's a concept which is still riding the bleeding edge.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Product

Samsung Galaxy Camera EK-GC100

Interface Ports

micro USB, micro HDMI, Mic, Headphone

Sensor Type

CMOS

Megapixels

16 MP

Battery Type Supported

Lithium Ion

Recycle Time

0.26 seconds

LCD Dots

921000

LCD Size

4.8in

Touchscreen

Yes

Media Format

microSD

Maximum ISO

3200

Type

Superzoom

GPS

Yes

Optical Zoom

21x

Boot Time

2.9 seconds

35mm Equivalent (Wide)

23 mm

Dimensions & Weight

130 x 19 x 70mm (WxDxH), 310 grams

Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated)

0 feet

Video Resolution

720p, 1080p

Lines Per Picture Height

1770

LCD Aspect Ratio

16:9

Image Stabilisation

Optical

35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto)

483mm

Shutter Lag

0.4 seconds

Sensor Size

4.6 x 6.2 (1/2.3")mm

Viewfinder Type

None

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