Samsung Galaxy S4 zoom review: Lights, Camera, Android!
Still camera interface and features
The Samsung Galaxy S4 zoom features a 1/2.3" 16MP image sensor and an optically stabilized 10x zoom lens. It's more or less what you can expect in a midrange point-and-shoot, but quite impressive for a smartphone.
The camera interface is the latest generation of what debuted on the Galaxy Camera and was later adapted by the Galaxy S4. It offers a host of features, for both casual and advanced users, and navigates carefully between them so it doesn't confuse newcomers.
The camera starts in automatic mode by default, but you can make it start in the last used mode instead. The right column of the viewfinder displays the battery charge, the virtual still and video camera shutters and the mode selection button.
In the top left is the back/front-facing camera toggle plus some essential indicators like flash mode. The right arrow brings out additional settings, the selection can be customized. At the bottom you get the gallery shortcut with a thumbnail of the last photo taken, along with an up arrow that brings out a selection of color effects with live preview.
The Galaxy S4 zoom lives up to its name with 10x optical zoom. You can control it either with the lens ring or with the onscreen + and - buttons. Here's just how close to your subject you can get using the zoom.
And here's what that looks like in full resolution:
The Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) is turned on in Auto mode, in fact there's no option to disable it. If you go to one of the more advanced modes a button will appear in the settings menu, but we recommend keeping it on as it removes hand shake. OIS works for both the still and video camera.
The mode selection button is the gateway to most of the functionality of the S4 zoom camera - single taps will switch between Auto, Smart, Expert and My mode, while a press and hold brings out the settings for the current mode.
Smart mode is like the one you get on the Galaxy S4, but with many more options. There's burst shot, Best face, HDR, Macro, Panorama, Eraser (lets you remove moving objects), Sound & shot (records ambient sound with the photo, but is hard to share), Drama shot (creates a composite of multiple photos), Animated photo (creates an animated GIF) and so on and so forth. There are also specific modes like Baby and Food.
These modes can be selected from a grid or from a carousel. The grid is quicker, but the carousel offers descriptive text, which is a good way to learn what each mode does.
Smart suggest is a new addition to the interface. It automatically picks the three options it thinks are most appropriate for the current scene and leaves the final choice to you. For example, if it's dark it will suggest Night mode or Fireworks, if it sees you're focusing from a close distance it will offer Macro, for landscape shots it will suggest Landscape and Panorama and so on.
In Auto mode, the S4 zoom will also try to guess the best setting. An icon in the top right corner shows its guess and in case it's wrong, you can always go to Smart mode and pick manually.
Expert mode is geared toward more experienced photographers that can choose the appropriate aperture, shutter speed and ISO for the shot on their own. The interface presents these options as lens control rings on the display, but you can't use the actual lens ring for any of them.
For the aperture you get two options, which depend on the zoom level - at 1x it's either F3.1 or F8.8 and at 10x zoom it's between F6.3 and F17.8.
The selected major settings (shutter speed, aperture, exposure and ISO) are displayed at the top of the screen where they are easily visible. You can tap on one of them (if it's available in the current mode) and adjust it. Also, these settings show up in Smart mode too and while you can't modify them (they are selected automatically), you can make note of them if you're learning what settings work best in a situation.
You can tweak a lot more - sharpness, EV, metering, drive (for automatic exposure bracketing) and so on. You can choose between Manual, Program and Custom modes on Expert depending on how much control you want over the settings.
And don't get intimidated by all this camera lingo, the Info button is always available to give you a brief description of what each feature does. Plus, each individual setting brings up its own info popup.
Finally, there's My Mode, which lets you star up to five options from both Smart and Expert modes, so you don't have to dig through the long menus, and save time for frequently used modes.
The Settings menu of the camera reveals yet more functionality. One particularly interesting option is Remote Viewfinder - you install the app on a smartphone and the Galaxy S4 zoom will beam the viewfinder image and camera controls over Wi-Fi (the S4 zoom turns into a Wi-Fi hotspot for the pairing).
Other sharing options include Samsung's proprietary Share shot, Buddy photo share and ChatON photo share.
Finally, there are options for the AF/shutter sound volume, rule-of-thirds gridlines, viewfinder brightness (independent from the global screen setting), AF light (turns on the LED light to focus in the dark) and GPS tag and Contextual file name (it uses the GPS to detect where you are, the file name will include the name of the place, down to the name of the street, where applicable).
The lens ring is useful even outside the camera - if you rotate it, the S4 zoom displays a quick launcher that gets you directly into one of several pre-selected modes - Auto, Beauty face, Landscape, Macro, Animated photo and Night, or you can launch the gallery. You just rotate the lens ring to the desired mode and wait a second. If you take several seconds to pick the camera won't launch automatically, you have to tap the shutter key once you finally make a decision.
The 1/2.3" sensor of the Samsung Galaxy S4 zoom is bigger than what most smartphones have and the 16MP resolution isn't that much higher than current 13MP shooters, which means per-pixel image quality should be better. The higher-quality optics should help a lot too.
Photos do indeed have a good amount of fine detail, despite having a wide-angle lens (24mm in 35mm equivalent). Phones like the Galaxy S4 have narrower lenses, which helps them pack more fine detail but fit less of the scene.
Anyway, despite the relatively big sensor, the S4 zoom's photos have some noise in them, which inevitably leads to loss of fine detail due to the noise reduction. At the wide end of the lens, there's some corner softness (which is par for the course when it comes to point-and-shoot cameras).
There are noticeable oversharpening halos too. On the up side, colors are accurate and the dynamic range is fairly good. If you're shooting against the sun, you can use the HDR mode to boost it even further.
The S4 zoom can shoot panoramas and does a pretty good job of the stitching with only minor artifacts, but we were very disappointed by the resolution, which is under 500px vertically. You can get it up to about 900px if you hold the phone vertically, but then the panorama doesn't cover 360°. The Galaxy S4, in comparison, can churn out impressive 60MP panoramas.
Photo quality comparison
The Samsung Galaxy S4 zoom can go head to head in our Photo compare tool with its bigger siblings - last year's Galaxy Camera and this year's Galaxy NX - plus a wide range of phones we've tested. Don't forget that you can use the scaling option to eliminate the difference in resolution.
The Samsung Galaxy S4 zoom can record 1080p videos at the standard 30fps or you can go to 60fps at 720p, which offers fluid motion for action-packed scenes. This mode is quite rare on phones, but can really make a difference.
The camera can push the framerate even further and do 120fps slow-mo videos (but resolution drops to 768 x 512).
You can use touch focus and zoom during video recording and snap stills too. Here's a video that goes from 1x zoom to 10x and back. Keep in mind that without optical image stabilization videos can be quite shaky even without zoom, with 10x zoom it would be a mess. The Galaxy S4 zoom, however, manages to keep the shot steady even as we pan around.
The video camera shares the still camera interface, but there are a few options specific to the camcorder. One is to enable Quiet zoom during video recording, so you can zoom without noise from the mechanism being captured in the recording, and Windcut, which tries to reduce noise in windy situations.
Check out a 1080p sample recoded with the Samsung Galaxy S4 zoom.
During video recording you can also snap stills, but they come out with 4MP resolution (4:3 aspect ratio). Here's one:
Video quality comparison
The Samsung Galaxy S4 zoom records 1080p video, just like all current flagship smartphones, but its bigger sensor and better optics should give it an advantage. Check out how it stacks up in our Video compare tool.