To review the Samsung Galaxy Camera, Popular Photography's Dan Bracaglia lends his photographic expertise to talk about the camera from a photog's perspective, while Popular Science's gadget reviewer, Dan Nosowitz, reviews the camera from a gadget-geek's perspective.
Dan Nosowitz: I wasn't optimistic about the Samsung Galaxy Camera. The idea of a camera with a big touchscreen and a full version of Android, complete with 4G LTE connection, is enticing, but I do not care much at all for Samsung's other Galaxy products, which to this point have just been smartphones and tablets. I find their hardware chintzy and their software difficult and confused, as the company insists on mucking up Android (which is really great!) with their slow and bloated skins. Yet to my surprise, the Galaxy Camera is by far my favorite product in the Galaxy line.
As an Android device, it's got pretty much the same guts as a modern Galaxy smartphone. That means a huge 4.8-inch screen, a quad-core processor, a Samsung-ified version of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and 4G LTE connectivity. It even has a microphone, intended to be used while taking video, so theoretically you could ditch your phone, make calls with a VoIP service or Google Voice, and use this as your exclusive camera/phone. And of course it has access to the entire Android app store, which has fairly recently been renamed Google Play. But this is not a Galaxy smartphone with an improved camera; this is a high-end Samsung point-and-shoot with Android.
Using the Galaxy: Performance is pretty good; it's not as fast getting around as the screamingly-fast Nexus 4, but it's certainly not laggy. Android 4.1 is very nice; the Galaxy Camera has all the benefits of Google Now and all kinds of other great Android stuff. The screen is not the best screen I've ever used (not quite as sharp as the iPhone 5 or Nokia Lumia 920), but it is a very good screen, and it is definitely the best screen I've ever used on a camera. I think 4.8 inches is too big for a phone, but man is it awesome on a camera. You can actually share photos with a group on this thing!
Samsung's software is, as always, annoying. It's not as in-your-face with a million new gestures and pop-ups and buzzword-y features that plague its Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note smartphones. It's not wildly different from stock Android but aside from the camera interface, there's not a single thing I like better about the changes Samsung's made. Even the soft buttons (Menu, Home, Back) work differently on this phone than on other Android devices. Why? And the keyboard I think is pretty poor (autocorrect is unhelpful, word recognition isn't good), though it's very easy to download a new keyboard from Google Play.
It's only a little awkward to use as an Android device; I'm not sure exactly how to hold it, as it's thicker than a regular Android phone and also has the lens mount protruding. Dan Bracaglia's solution left his finger sitting on the little door in from of the lens--not good, since that door is notorious on compact cameras for breaking or locking up, rendering the camera useless. But it's not that hard, and I found it pretty capable for browsing Twitter or the web, checking email, and doing most other things you'd do on a smartphone. And that's kind of an achievement in itself; this isn't a skimped, shitty version of Android--it's high-end, just like on a top-tier phone.
I think the camera interface is great; the new stock camera app on Android is innovative and excellent in its own right, but it doesn't offer as many manual controls, so I think Samsung's camera app is a perfect solution for a more capable camera. For someone who's not an expert photographer, I really loved how Samsung guides the user through the app. And everything is done on the touchscreen; the only buttons are a shutter, a zoom toggle, and a flash trigger. That's great for novices who are much more comfortable with navigating menus on a smartphone than navigating the airplane-cockpit-like controls of a DSLR. Everything's right out in the open: you don't have to guess at what a switch means, because it's spelled out on the screen.
The sharing options are easy and intuitive; when you look through photos, the top bar gives you sharing options, and it places your most recently used sharing option in its own little spot up there. For me, that means posting to Instagram is a one-tap affair, right from the camera app. Love it.
Image quality for me is kind of an interesting beast. It will take, without question, the best Instagram photos of any device that actually has Instagram on it. (Yes, I know you can take photos with a DSLR and post them to Instagram. But that's not really what Instagram is about.) It's no question that the Galaxy Camera takes better shots than any smartphone I've ever used.
Size: But the camera is too big. For me, a camera's physical size is second only to image quality as the most important element, and then only barely second. The Galaxy Camera is not pocketable. (I do wear skinny-ish jeans, but I can't imagine what kind of pockets could comfortably hold it.) I actually like the hardware design a lot; it's all plastic, but, unlike Galaxy smartphones, doesn't feel cheap at all. It feels really well-constructed, sturdily and simply designed without getting too basic. It's one of the most attractive gadgets Samsung's ever made, frankly, but I would much rather it had a slightly smaller screen in return for a smaller footprint. Dan Bracaglia noted that the weight also has the benefit of stabilizing the camera; light cameras can sometimes move around too much, and he thinks Samsung "nailed" the weight.
That size means I have the camera in my bag rather than my pocket. When I'm out and about and see something I want to shoot, it's just faster and easier to snag my phone out of my pocket than fish around in my bag. And unlike a DSLR, which takes photos that are in a completely different league than my phone, the Galaxy Camera is merely "better" than my phone. I found myself not always bothering; if I can get a B- photo with my phone, who cares about a B+ photo from the Galaxy Camera? It's not like I'm going for an A-level photo from my DSLR.
Price: And that brings us to the most salient point in this whole review: who is the Galaxy Camera for? Its image quality is not wildly improved from a nice $200 point-and-shoot, though it is certainly a superior product, thanks to its connectivity, interface, and bonus access to all of Android. At $500, the camera is right at the very top of the price pyramid for compacts; in fact, for that price, you could snag any of several very nice mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras from Sony, Olympus, or Panasonic, or even a low-end DSLR like last year's Nikon D3100. All of those cameras would thoroughly trounce the Galaxy Camera on image quality, but they're also less capable in a lot of ways.
The other problem is that to get the full benefit of the Galaxy Camera, you really need to spring for the 4G LTE plan--yeah, yet another monthly bill. So it's not even just $500--it'll be several times that over the course of its life.
That puts us in the weird position of having a gadget that's really cool that we can't really recommend to anyone. It's much better than a phone's camera, but the device as a whole is very similar, so do you really need both, especially at this price?
In Conclusion: What's most interesting about the Galaxy Camera is how obvious it now is that this is what consumer cameras will look like in the future. A mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses but with this kind of connectivity and interface? That would be amazing. It's so much easier and faster to use for non-professionals than the more traditional camera control schemes, and the sharing options are the wave of the present and future. Of course you should be able to instantly upload photos to the cloud, to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, to email them to your friends and family, to edit them in a mobile version of Photoshop. The Galaxy Camera isn't quite right for most people, but it's so close. Someone's going to do this right, and soon, so let's just consider the Galaxy Camera a sneak preview.
On page two, read Dan Bracaglia's take on how the Galaxy Camera is as a camera.
Dan Bracaglia: The general idea of camera connectivity is something I can get behind, and frankly, as a camera field tester, I am surprised that this level of connectivity has taken so long to get to the consumer level. And of all the consumer electronics companies out there, it makes sense that it was Samsung to take the first real stab at this kind of hybrid device. Despite all that, I was uneasy about a smartphone/camera--it wasn't until I played with it in person at Photokina that I started to get excited about the Galaxy Camera.
So, from a camera specs perspective, the Galaxy Camera is pretty much an average compact shooter. It offers up a 16 MP 1/2.3-inch backside illuminated sensor, 21x optical zoom with a 35mm equivalent of 23-483mm. That sensor is actually a bit small compared to other high-end compacts like the Canon S110, and much smaller than the Sony RX100's massive sensor. That'll affect image quality, and that sacrifice was largely made to make room for the huge 21x optical zoom.
The zoom was probably the feature, outside of the connectivity, that most impressed me with this camera. When zoomed out to the 35mm equivalent, the lens is a reasonably fast f/2.8, but by the time you’re zoomed all the way in, you’re looking at a fairly lackluster f/5.9 low aperture. I like the huge zoom--it definitely separates this camera from any smartphone camera--but I might rather have cut back on it and had a larger sensor.
The image stablization on this camera is damned impressive. Even when zoomed in all the way, I had no issue getting a clear shot--in daylight, mind you.
The camera features a tiny, run-of-the-mill xenon flash, which does a terrific job of blowing out subjects at a close distance. Placing a small piece of masking tape over the flash and compensating for the slight loss of light via exposure compensation can help with this problem, though whether most people that buy this camera will know to do that is anyone's guess.
Video: The Samsung Galaxy is capable of 1080p (or 720p) capture at 30 fps, but with no option for 24 fps. Considering the small size of the sensor, and the slow lens, getting any real cinematic shallow depth of field is virtually impossible. But the image stabilization does do a decent job during video capture of producing a shake-free shot. You can also shoot at 60 fps at 720p or 480p, which is a nifty feature.
Image Quality: Image quality and noise is about what you’d expect coming from a camera with a 1/2.3-inch sensor. It offers the following ISO’s: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and 3200. My personal rule of thumb for shooting with any camera is to never venture higher than the second highest ISO. In the case of the Galaxy Camera, that’s only a meager ISO 1600. And even at ISO 1600, the images look noisy when viewed at full resolution. At ISO 3200, unless you're sending it right to Instagram or grey-scaling the image, forget about it.
Interface: I spent about half my time with the camera shooting on Auto mode and the other half shooting on manual or “Expert Mode.” Auto mode does a pretty terrific job in most situations of nailing the exposure. “Expert Mode” allows you to choose between Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and manual mode. Seeing as controls like these in a compact are pretty rare, I was impressed to find them here. The interface is a series of concentric part-circle dials that looks sort of like a side view of a lens. It'll let you adjust shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and more, depending on how manual your mode is. It's definitely an intuitive way to adjust these settings, and Samsung is good at guiding novices through the process. But for experts, it's a bit slow--it'll take a couple taps and swipes to adjust, say, your ISO, whereas on other cameras, you can just twist a physical knob.
Speaking of things that are slow, when the camera is fully shut off, it occasionally took an incredibly long time to fire back up. That meant that I missed a couple of shots while testing it. Oddly, sometimes it'd fire up super fast, sometimes slow, with no obvious reason why. But I do like the smartphone-esque “Sleep Mode,” in which you just tap the power button to unlock it super fast, with all your previous settings, rather than booting it up after it's been powered down.
It should be noted that during testing I completely ignored Samsung’s “Smart Modes,” as I do with most compacts I test. Generally speaking, these modes do a decent job of what they claim, but as the editor of a photography magazine, I tend to warn folks away from sticking to them. Why learn the 18 modes on the back of your camera when you can learn the basics of exposures, get the photo you want, and know how you got it? I realize that many people, specifically non-photographers may disagree with me on this.
It's also worth noting that the huge touchscreen and access to Android apps gives the Galaxy Camera on-camera editing abilities that completely outstrip any other camera on the market. Samsung includes both a photo and video editor; the photo editor is pretty capable, though of course there are about a million photo editing apps in the app store.
Battery: It’s no secret that 4G drains battery, but the battery is actually fairly good--you'll get about a full day of average use, about the same as any 4G smartphone. Any more than that, and you’re going to need a second battery, but since it uses the same 1650mAh battery as Samsung smartphones, they're easy to find and very inexpensive (about $15 at Amazon).
In terms of storage, the Galaxy Camera offers 4GB of internal memory, which I think is actually a great idea. That'll hold about all the photos you need, without having to mess around with removable cards, and it should be able to access the storage much faster. For bonus storage, it features a microSD card slot, which is kind of lame. MicroSD cards, compared to SD, are expensive, easy to lose, and much less common. Your laptop probably has an SD card slot, but for microSD, chances are you'll need an adapter. MicroSD might be standard for smartphones, because you hardly ever remove the storage from a smartphone, but it's not well-suited for cameras.
In Conclusion: This camera marks an incredible important leap forward for photography and it's only a matter of time before more companies jump on this bandwagon. And, to be fair, I actually like this camera much more than I thought I would--but I can't imagine to whom I'd recommend it. Its firepower is beyond overkill for an avid Instagrammer, considering no one views Instagrams on anything larger than a smartphone screen (though once Instagram pushes web profiles, my opinion on this may change). Anyone looking for a solid compact who doesn’t care or is reluctant to pay a monthly 4G fee is better off turning to Canon and grabbing something like an S110. And the lack of really solid image quality, no RAW capture and mediocre low-light performance will surely cause most professional or serious photographers to ignore this camera all together. Conceptually brilliant, this forward-thinking camera deserves a footnote in the history of photography, and not much more.
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