There were no heckles, boos or crickets for Samsung's reps back at IFA. But it's fair to say that the atmosphere following its unveiling of the Galaxy Camera was as muted as it was polite. It didn't help that most journalists in that meeting room were there primarily to see the Galaxy Note II, which was undoubtedly the show's headline act. It was also worrisome that Nikon had recently released a half-hearted Android camera of its own -- the Coolpix S800c running on lowly Gingerbread. And finally, some folks in the room -- ourselves included -- may have been put off by Samsung's talk of "convergence," in reference to the fact that the Galaxy Camera has a micro-SIM slot for HSPA+ cellular data. After all, the whole notion of converged hardware has lost the sheen it once had. Hybridized, perhaps. Modular, maybe. But please, not a camera-phablet.
Here's the thing, though: the Galaxy Camera is not a converged device. It's a camera, plain and simple. It just happens to be one that's hooked up (in a multitude of ways) to the glorious world of Android. More specifically, we're looking at full-throttle Jelly Bean sitting astride the same optically stabilized 21x zoom lens and almost half-inch 16-megapixel sensor that have already been deployed in Samsung's WB850F WiFi camera. These are components which far exceed anything you'd find in even the most image-conscious smartphone. If you want to put a label on it, it's probably more meaningful to describe all this as software convergence. The same OS and cloud-connected apps that have so radically transformed phones, tablets and TVs are now also being deployed in a camera -- and there's no reason why they shouldn't be just as invigorating in this new role. At the very least, don't dismiss this device as a curiosity until you've read our take on it.
Just so we're clear: the Galaxy Camera has more heft than a regular compact, and it feels nothing like a phone. The 35mm maximum thickness (with the lens closed) means it'll just about fit into a breast pocket or baggy shorts, but the 305g weight may compel you to invest in a case, belt clip or strap. At the very least, you'll want to attach the bundled wrist strap, because even with a Gorilla Glass screen there's no way this camera will withstand a fall -- and its surfaces are scarily smooth indeed.
In fact, the lack of protruding dials and buttons is one of the biggest differences between this and its non-Android cousin, the WB850F. As you'll see later, most camera controls are handled via the huge 4.8-inch touchscreen display, such that the physical realm only includes a power / standby button, pop-up flash button and combined zoom knob and shutter release.
You'll want to attach the bundled wrist strap, because even with a Gorilla Glass screen there's no way this camera will withstand a fall.
Of course, there's also a bunch of ports and other inputs. These include a mic at the top of the camera and a speaker on the left side below the flash button, which together allow you to use the camera like a VOIP phone. On the right side we have a 3.5mm audio jack and a handy micro-USB port for charging the device from the mains or a travel charger. Finally, on the underside of the camera you also get a tripod mount and battery compartment flap, which opens slightly too easily if the device is left to tumble about in your bag. Open that flap and you'll find the SIM slot -- which is, if you have a data plan, provides a uniquely direct way of sharing your photos when you're out of the reach of WiFi.
Sure, that SIM slot is interesting -- but it's just one of many ways to get images in and out of the device. Whereas regular cameras generally shoot on full-size SD cards, the Galaxy Camera can shoot to its own 4GB of internal storage or to a microSD card that can readily be transplanted to a smartphone or tablet with its own data plan. More conveniently, since the Galaxy Camera also has WiFi, you could simply tether it to your smartphone or MiFi -- which is actually how we preferred to use the device. If you happen to own a phone that does WiFi Direct, then you can also beam photos and video straight from the camera at very high data rates. All of these connectivity options boil down to the same question: why would you spend extra for a SIM with a data plan that only works for this camera?
No doubt some professionals and power users will decide to invest in a dedicated SIM, if they're likely to need to file photos over the internet daily and to tight deadlines. Over time, remote control apps for the camera may also be developed that will benefit from a direct cellular data connection -- and frankly it's impossible to anticipate all the ways in which this hyper-connected camera could be put to use. But nevertheless, for regular use the SIM slot feels like an unnecessary expense. One of the biggest joys of this camera for us was actually using it to browse, edit and share photos while at home or in a hotel, in which case the camera was simply connected to the local WiFi network. If a version of the Galaxy Camera without a modem would have been cheaper, then that's a missed opportunity to make the device more mainstream.
One feature that will cause little debate is the big, bright and extremely rich HD Super Clear LCD. It's only when you start taking photos through a window of this size -- perhaps on a Galaxy S III or a Galaxy Note II -- that you realize how much a large screen helps with framing and composition. Moreover, the 1,280 x 720 panel does a good job of fending off direct sunlight, which means you won't especially miss the presence of an electronic viewfinder -- even though the Galaxy Camera feels almost large enough to have contained one. One unusual omission is auto-brightness, which means you'll occasionally find yourself burning the battery with a stack of lumens that you don't necessarily need.
As you'll see when we delve into the camera's software interface, this huge display is essential for taking creative control of the camera, since pretty much every aspect of an exposure is dictated by tapping the screen. It's also a requisite of making full use of Android -- not only the ability to play back and edit your photos easily, but also having a decently sized onscreen keyboard with which to type in captions, messages and so on. In other words, this heavy, power-hungry component isn't only justified by the photography, but also by what you're going to be doing with your photographs after you've taken them.
All told, the panel on the Galaxy Camera isn't the best we've seen for all-round use, because it's entirely geared towards brightness and outdoor viewing. When displaying text, either the pixel or sub-pixel density makes the characters slightly hazy at their edges. Compared to the HTC One X's LCD panel, for example, the irregular placing of the dots actually makes this look strangely like a PenTile display. However, this component is intended for viewing images rather than words and it does an excellent job.
What do we stack the Galaxy Camera up against? Although it's priced right at the top end of what a compact camera should cost, much of that outlay is going on the display, quad-core processor and connectivity options. If we were to remove these costly elements, we'd end up with the WB850F, which has the same 21x zoom lens and 1/2.33-inch sensor, and which currently sells on Amazon for just $260. This simple fact tells us much of what we need to know: the Galaxy Camera's image quality is going to jar with its $500 price tag.%Gallery-170768%
When we look at the samples, that's exactly what we find. The auto mode often failed to sufficiently correct white balance, leaving us with excessively cold outdoor images and pinky-orange indoor ones. Noise affected pretty much every shot to some degree, even at ISO 100, and it became a serious issue beyond ISO 800 due to the overcrowding of those 16 million pixels on the sub-half-inch CMOS chip. Considering that you can get an APS-C Nikon D5100 with a kit lens and the same resolution for $580 these days, or a pedigree fixed-lens compact like the Fujifilm X10 for $550, or a Sony NEX-5N mirrorless ILC for $480, it's impossible for the Galaxy Camera's relatively cheap photographic components to put up a fight.
On the other hand, you could say that's an uneven contest. After all, aside from Samsung's habitual overpricing of its cameras, the money that goes on the non-photographic aspects of the Galaxy Camera is hardly being wasted -- it's just being invested in a different set of talents. If we shift the comparison to smartphones like the Galaxy S III, it's obvious that the Galaxy Camera is in a different league than any traditional mobile device.
Combined with the long lens, the larger sensor opens up a world of different shot opportunities and also allows some shallow depth of field. It has better dynamic range and tends to capture and preserve more data per shot, even after you correct for the difference in resolution -- for example the 16-megapixel image of the tomatoes above weighed 4.2MB on the Galaxy Camera and only 1.7MB on the 8-megapixel Galaxy S III. Although the video data rate is broadly the same across both devices, at just over 2 MB/s, the optical stabilization in the Galaxy Camera means that data is used to capture detail rather than the chaotic motion of camera wobble, and the resultant video is actually very good. The stabilization also helps with stills -- we were able to pull off 1/10s low-light shots with virtually no visible shake. The only slight issue with video recording is that audio volume dips noticeably when you engage the zoom, which is something you'll hear in the video below.
Ultimately, we have to conclude that image quality is good enough for the intended audience -- people who are more interested in getting up close to a subject and capturing a moment, and then tweaking and sharing the resulting image, rather than creating something particularly polished. Many of the images from this camera will even be deliberately subjected to low-fi filters and effects before they're shared on Instagram and other platforms, so raw quality just isn't going to be what counts.
Performance and battery life
There may well be some users who want to use the Galaxy Camera as their primary Android device -- perhaps alongside a small-screened smartphone that isn't great for typing and other non-phone tasks. In that scenario, battery life will be important in exactly the same way as it is on a smartphone or tablet, so we ran our usual looped-video rundown test. Due to a network issue at the time, we disabled cellular data but left WiFi and GPS switched on.
As it turns out, battery life is limited enough that you'll probably want to ration wireless connectivity and only use it as when you need it. With a duration of just six hours and 40 minutes, the Galaxy Camera doesn't last nearly as long as the GS III with WiFi, GPS and cellular data enabled. The gap between the 1,650mAh and 2,100mAh batteries is a big one, and it's likely that the GS III's HD Super AMOLED panel is also more power efficient, in part thanks to its lower brightness.
Bear in mind that you'll need to divvy up that battery capacity between Android usage and actual photography. We were able to drain the battery in just four hours after snapping 115 photos and three minutes of HD video, alongside some heavy editing and sharing over WiFi tethering and WiFi direct. Reducing the amount of browsing and general screen use made a huge difference, especially when we powered off the screen between each shot. This approach gave us 146 shots and 6 minutes of HD video and we still had 40 percent of the battery left. Depending on how you're likely to use the Galaxy Camera, you can count on either charging it every day like a power-hungry smartphone, or carrying a USB power pack or spare battery. Fortunately, the battery is identical to that in the original Galaxy S II, so buying $10 spares should be a cinch.
The upside of all of this wattage is that you're getting an extremely fast and fluid widescreen Jelly Bean experience. We had one crash, and a couple of strange slow-downs, but for the most part every aspect of the camera ran as quickly as the GS III. The processor also allows you to launch the camera app and take a shot within two seconds of tapping the button. It can also pull off a confirmed four frames-per-second at full-res with fixed focus and a maximum burst of 20 shots.
Galaxy S III
Galaxy Note II
Vellamo 2 HTML5
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms)
GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt HD C24Z16 Offscreen (fps)
Lower SunSpider scores are better. Scores in brackets were recorded before a recent update.
Let's get back to that original question: why bother having Android on a camera? When it's implemented properly, as Samsung has achieved here, the answer to that question is something you feel as soon as you switch on the device. Instead of some clunky traditional camera interface, you'll be welcomed by your own, deliciously customizable environment. Favorite shots can be deployed as wallpaper; slideshow widgets can cycle through your recent photos and those of your friends; your most commonly used image editing and sharing apps can be positioned where you need them; the default keyboard can even be switched to one of your choice, making it easier to tag, rename and caption photos you intend to put online.
You feel more creative and more connected to photography.
The overall effect is to make you feel more creative and more connected to photography, to the point where Samsung's marketing about a "new visual communication era" actually has a ring of truth to it. It's hard to explain, but there's just something fundamentally different and exciting about looking at people's Instagram shots on a device that is so powerfully equipped for taking pictures of your own, with no other hardware or file transfers getting in the way.
On a side note, it would have been nice to use the zoom within the Instagram app, especially since Samsung said the app was being tweaked to allow that, but there's no sign of such a feature. Twiddling the zoom now only changes device volume, as it does anywhere except within Samsung's own camera app.
That's right -- there's no "camera mode" as such. To take a shot you simply launch the camera app, whose icon is permanently positioned on the lower-left corner of each home screen. Alternatively, you can press the shutter release to get the same effect. Either way, it takes less than two seconds for the lens protector to flip open, the barrel to pop out and for the camera to be able to focus and pull off a shot. The shooting interface itself is simple and uncluttered, but heavily geared towards auto and scene-based photography.
The main controls are located on the left side of the screen, which displays the current mode, a dial for choosing a different mode, as well as onscreen triggers for movie recording and shutter release (which behaves identically to the physical shutter release but is sometimes more convenient). Auto mode is pretty good, but we found that it often misjudged color balance and tended towards overexposure. Any discontent with Auto's results will lead you to the second easy-to-use mode, known as Smart. This brings together no fewer than 15 separate shooting styles -- not just scene-based profiles (e.g., Macro, Silhouette, Landscape), but also capture modes (Continuous Shot, Best Shot, HDR / Rich Tone), stitching options (Panorama, Best face) and effects (like Beauty face, which claims to smooth out imperfections). This might sound bewildering, but it quickly makes sense to organize things this way, and more importantly each Smart mode is pretty effective at getting the result you're looking for.
Finally, if you're still not satisfied with what Smart mode can do, then you'll need to resort to the least intuitive of the three modes: Expert, which obliterates the screen with a range of onscreen dials covering P / S / A / M mode, ISO, exposure compensation, aperture and shutter speed. Depending on which priority mode you pick, one or more of these dials will be greyed out and inaccessible, because it's under the camera's control. In full Manual, the exposure compensation dial will be inaccessible and used to display the degree to which, by the camera's reckoning, you are over- or under-exposing. Overall, it's a logical system that stays faithful to how proper cameras work, and it's essential for creative control, but compared to physical dials it's still very tricky to hit good manual settings quickly or in response to changing conditions -- not least because the preview of the shot is obscured by all the dials and, well, there's just so much tapping.
When it comes to looking back at your shots, the stock gallery app is no different to that on Samsung's latest smartphones and tablets, but it proves its worth on this device. When you're looking at a single image, there are just four main image-related buttons along the top right of the screen and they're all well thought out. The Share button brings up a list of all the installed apps that can be used to share or exploit a photo -- for example, if you install Evernote on the camera then this button will give you the option of creating a note out of the photo you're looking at. The second button is a shortcut to the method of sharing you used last -- so if you mostly use Facebook to share a picture, then the second button will likely be the Facebook logo. The third button is a quick and painless Delete, while the fourth button brings up an extensive menu that covers pretty much everything else you'd want to do with a photo: including basic crop, rotate and rename functions, and opening the photo in one of the two bundled editing apps to carry out more complicated refinements (there's Photo Wizard which is smart and easy to use, or Paper Artist which is for mostly gimmicky effects). Of course, you can use any app you like to tailor your images -- the entire Android ecosystem is at your disposal.
It's hard to go back to the closed-off, one-trick ways of a traditional shooter.
It should be clear by now that the software on this camera isn't just a bonus -- it's the Galaxy Camera's defining feature, and it's so engrossing that it's hard to go back to the closed-off, one-trick ways of a traditional shooter. But things hopefully won't stop there: now that Samsung has signaled its willingness to let third-party developers design apps specifically for this camera module, we can envisage a multitude of ways in which it could be made better suited to a range of niche users -- from tech bloggers to realtors, location scouts and untold others who'll want automated scripts for resizing, watermarking and filing photos; remote control apps; and who knows what else. Of course, that'll only happen if the popularity of this camera reaches a tipping point. And, as we've seen by now, there are serious limitations to this device -- namely its price, image quality and battery life -- that may prevent that from happening.
This is a tricky thing to evaluate. On the one hand, if we had $500 to spend on a camera of this size, we'd be more likely to spend it on a sophisticated mirrorless model that delivers better image quality. Alternatively, if we needed a cheap compact, we might opt for the Samsung WB850F, which has WiFi connectivity and the same lens and sensor as the Galaxy Camera, but costs half the price. The fact that we're paying so much money to dupe expensive components already used in smartphones, and that we'd have to spend at least $10 per month extra to get a basic data plan and make use of that SIM slot, all weighs heavily against the Galaxy Camera as a practical purchase.
If the device were smaller and lighter, perhaps with a 4.3-inch panel and a shorter zoom, and if it was priced only slightly higher than a regular non-Android compact (perhaps at $300 or $350), we could imagine it being more mainstream. But alas, that's not what we're looking at right now.
On the other hand, it wouldn't be right to just dismiss something that is so much fun to use. The combination of decent compact camera hardware and the latest version of Android is not only powerful; it's also seriously enjoyable, and it may result in the casual photographer spending far more time perfecting and sharing their pictures than they ever did before. We see it like this: Unless you're a dedicated hobbyist or you're taking photographs for your job, the creativity involved in editing and sharing a photo tends to be a fragile thing. The slightest inconvenience in switching out an SD card, or the boredom of waiting for a file to transfer, could be enough to make someone quit the task at hand and do something more urgent. So, if you've got a wad of notes to spare and you're intent on preserving and sharing the type of photos and videos that even the best smartphone can't achieve, the Galaxy Camera is bound to be rewarding.
(Note: you can find the full sample images of Thailand here.)
Zach Honig contributed to this review.