Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom review

Pros

  • Good camera
  • Superb optical zoom
  • Good quality flash

Cons

  • Only average phone capability
  • Unwieldy hardware design
  • Disappointing screen resolution

If you’ve got a leading brand name, you capitalise on it – and Samsung has certainly done that with the Galaxy S4 brand. We’ve seen the Galaxy S4, the S4 Mini, S4 Active, and now the S4 Zoom. The Zoom is perhaps the most incongruous of the Galaxy S4 follow ups, as it’s an attempt to meld a quality digital camera with Galaxy S4 handset goodies.

Reviewers like myself spend a fair bit of time noting that handset cameras are, on the whole, not good for much more than the odd snap for Twitter, Facebook or handset wallpaper. Maybe the way to make us happy is to combine a phone with a 16-megapixel camera that has 10x optical zoom. Well, Samsung has done just that, and while it might seem like a good idea on paper, this is not a marriage made in heaven.

The size and shape of the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom is a real problem – it simply isn’t pocket-friendly at all. The Zoom’s 4.3in screen means that, front on, it is closer to the S4 Mini (with its 4.3in screen, and dimensions of 124.6 x 61.3 x 8.9 mm) than the S4 (which has a 5in screen, and measures 136.6 x 69.8 x 7.9 mm). But that’s deceptive – with the camera lens fully retracted the S4 Zoom is 15.4mm thick at its thinnest, and a gargantuan 27mm at its thickest. This is no handset to snuggle into a tight pocket.

The uneven back and generally thick design feels all wrong except for when you are taking photos in landscape format. In this case, the protruding grip is useful for lending stability to the hold – but at all other times the ergonomics are awful. Even when shooting in portrait mode, this device is uncomfortable to hold.

Holding the Galaxy S4 Zoom to your ear for making voice calls feels all wrong. Holding it in widescreen mode for gaming is okay, but not great – those bulges on the back are annoying. In tall screen mode, smaller hands may have difficulty wrapping round the phone for one-handed texting or other screen tapping, and here the camera lens is the main problem. The Zoom is also relatively heavy at 208 grams, and you probably wouldn’t want to drop it onto a hard surface too often – that lens looks solid but it’s quite vulnerable.

At least the Galaxy S4 Zoom sits fairly well on a table or desk. The hand-grip is slightly shallower than the lens, so the screen is at a slight angle that makes it easy to view. It does look odd, though, raised up almost as if it is hanging in mid-air.

Compare all this to the design of the other top table cameraphone, the 41-megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020, which looks – and handles – much more like a standard handset.

As for the rest of the design, well, obviously the back of this handset can’t be removed – but it isn’t a sealed unit. There’s a hinged flap running all along the bottom edge. Lift that and you can slip a microSIM in place, and by sliding a secondary cover it is easy to pop out the battery. It’s quite a neat arrangement.

As a phone, the S4 Zoom has some good credentials and some disappointments. That 4.3in screen delivers 540 x 960 pixels, putting it rather a way behind the bleeding edge. The Super AMOLED looks good though, and I found it perfectly readable.

Android 4.2 is here, and sitting on top is Samsung’s TouchWiz interface. Samsung has taken its usual tack of adding lots of apps and features to Android. The “S” apps are here – S Memo, S Planner, S Translator, and S Voice, along with Samsung’s WatchON and ChatON. Samsung’s love for Flipboard continues and that’s here, too.

Photo Suggest overlays photos onto a Google map, offering you, we quote: “Pictures of exciting new places… based on your nearby favourites/places to visit.” I’m not sure the local gasworks that popped up near my home fits the bill, but the idea is not a terrible one.

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All this Samsung add-on extravagance means that the headline 8GB of internal storage is shrunk down to an actual 5GB. However, there’s a microSD card slot on the left edge under a hinged cover, so you can add more storage and save photos and videos there.

Raw power is provided by a 1.5GHz dual-core processor assisted by 1.5GB of RAM. It isn’t at the forefront of phone tech, but it does a good enough job. Importantly for photographers, snaps save quickly, so you don’t feel you are waiting an age for the handset to catch up with you.

As a camera, the 16-megapixel Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom does an impressive job. Its 1/2.33in sensor is a few levels above the usual for a smartphone, and that’s crucial in terms of image quality. Optical zoom is as rare as hen’s teeth for a mobile but it’s here, and 10x zoom at that. There’s an awkward zoom ring around the base of the lens which is a bit silly in my view – I gravitated to the on-screen zoom buttons almost immediately.

On the positive side, there’s a physical shutter button which feels very firm under the fingers. There’s a little tripod mount, too. A good range of more than 20 preset scene modes is included, and you can switch to manual mode really easily.

The Xenon flash is a cut above the nonsense that many handsets have for a flash. The sample images you can see above and below – click on them to view the full-size pic – were taken indoors in a dull room (with the top one fully zoomed out, and the one below zoomed in to the max, 10x). The flash decided it was needed, and the results are remarkably good. An experienced photographer who knows their stuff will find things to grumble about, but no more so than with many compact cameras, and most people will find the results better than good.

Verdict

What we have here is a shooter with a quality that’s compatible with many compact cameras, combined with a phone that’s edging to the good side of mid-range. However, for me, it’s not a winning combination. The camera is difficult to complain about, and the handset does its job well enough. But the ergonomics of use only really work well when you’re taking photos.

The rest of the time this is a heavy, unwieldy phone that’s difficult to pocket and could be tricky to use one-handed. The whole is, sadly, not greater than the sum of its parts.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

Network

GSM multi band; HSPA multi band

Processor

1.5GHz dual-core

Ram

1.5GB

Memory

8GB

Memory expansion

microSD

Display

4.3in, 960 x 540 pixels

Main camera

16-megapixel, 10x optical zoom

Front camera

1.9-megapixel

NFC

Yes

Wi-Fi

Yes

GPS

Yes

FM radio

No

Battery

2,330mAh

Size

125.5 x 63.5 x 27.0 mm

Weight

208g

OS

Android 4.2