Setting aside the smartphone: two weeks with Samsung's Galaxy Camera

Exploring the world with the hottest cameras and smartphones, I've grown accustomed to drawing discreet glances from curious gadget enthusiasts. In Tokyo, it was Canon's EOS M camera that netted polite peeks. In Hong Kong, it was the Galaxy Note II. From the moment I exposed the striking Galaxy Camera in Bangkok, however, those subtle scans turned into full-on stares, with several courageous passersby even inquiring about the latest Android-based Samsung device dangling from a strap around my wrist.

"Is that a phone or a camera?" Well, it's certainly not the best camera, nor is it a passable "phone," but for this early adopter, at least, it was poised to replace both. When Samsung first revealed its Jelly Bean-powered superzoom hybrid at IFA, the challenge became clear -- there wasn't room in my life for two Galaxy gadgets, but a 21x zoom-equipped all-in-one sounded mighty promising. After I finally unpacked it, the 4.8-inch, touchscreen-equipped, 16.1-megapixel shooter didn't leave my side once during the next two weeks.

It streamed music in the gym, downloaded email on the go, and provided walking directions and historical context as I explored Thailand. But the Galaxy Camera's impressive zoom also brought me far closer to the action than even the most powerful camera phone, and a micro-SIM from iPhoneTrip enabled instant uploads to Dropbox and Instagram far from the nearest open hotspot. As you may have gathered from our review, the Galaxy Camera wasn't designed to replace anyone's smartphone, and with the jumbo footprint and mediocre battery upping the inconvenience factor, could such a device feasibly become your one and only? You'll find the answer after the break.

A camera in a smartphone's world

Countless point-and-shoots pack touchscreen displays and impressive optical zoom specs. Only one runs Jelly Bean. You might argue that Android gives Samsung a major leg up over competitors, and you'd be right. But that's just part of the story here. The Galaxy Camera delivers full Android functionality at tremendous expense -- beyond the $500 price tag.

Perhaps most significant is the device's size. It's far thicker than most compact cameras on the market today, making it difficult to carry around at all times. In fact, you could tape a Galaxy S III to the back of a point-and-shoot and still end up with a thinner profile. I was able to force my snow white camera into my jeans pocket when necessary, but both removing it and popping it back in was always a struggle, and since I don't wear a watch, I often turned to my smartphone-equipped girlfriend for an update on the current time.

Battery life is another major setback. Fortunately, it uses the same pack as the Galaxy S II, so you could reasonably expect to find a replacement in any corner of the globe. I came upon one easily for about 20 bucks at an electronics market in Bangkok, and although the salesperson was convinced that it wouldn't work, the Galaxy Camera booted up just fine when paired with the same 1,650mAh battery that ships with the company's former flagship smartphone. With two fully charged batteries, I had no problem making it through a full day of heavy shooting, navigating, email and web browsing. It's hard to believe that Samsung couldn't have packed in a larger cell, however, which would have made longevity a non-issue.

DNP Setting aside the smartphone two weeks with Samsung's Galaxy Camera

Running Android also makes the Galaxy less stable than your run-of-the-mill pocket cam. Instagram seemed to crash on a daily basis, but even the device's own dedicated camera app locked up frequently, requiring a reboot. Casual users may consider this to be little more than a moderate nuisance, but I found the frequent freezes to be incredibly frustrating, after they caused me to miss several interesting shots.

With Skype, it can make calls, too

I was convinced that I'd be able to make it through this two-week trial without making a single phone call, relying on SMS and email instead. Well, I was dead wrong. A flight check-in issue required several calls to the airline, a late-night fast food craving was only satisfied after ringing a nearby McDonald's, and upon landing at JFK in New York, my ride would have never arrived without a call to confirm that I was ready and waiting in pickup area A.

Fortunately, like any camera, the Galaxy has a mic (primarily tasked with capturing audio during video shoots) and a speaker (for reviewing clips) -- two critical components for making voice calls. Missing, however, is the Android phone app, making it impossible to place calls without adding on an application like Skype. Fortunately, the VoIP program generally works well over 3G, assuming of course that you don't mind using the Camera as a speakerphone, or adding your own headset.

Unlike standard voice options, Skype can be very inexpensive, especially for calls to international numbers and while roaming abroad. You'll need a solid internet connection to take advantage, though, and lag or data inconsistencies during many of my calls left the person on the other end terribly confused. Receiving incoming calls is also a challenge, though a bit of SMS coordination over Google Voice made it easy enough to schedule chats, or to communicate via text.

I wasn't able to use 2G networks, which meant no connectivity whatsoever whenever I ventured more than a few miles from a major city.

In some areas, your smartphone may be able to snag a connection while the Galaxy Camera cannot. When it comes to transmitting high-resolution images or HD video clips, the exclusion of EDGE compatibility may not seem to be much of a setback, but it does present a disadvantage when you're only looking to update your location on a map or load a few messages. I wasn't able to use 2G networks, which meant no connectivity whatsoever whenever I ventured more than a few miles from a major city. Most of the time, 3G was available, but being able to hop on the EDGE network would be better than having absolutely no access at all.

Will your next camera run Android?

The Galaxy Camera is still very young, and while dedicated apps are likely in the works, we haven't seen anything compelling come to light just yet. If you don't mind handing over cash for a data plan (AT&T's $10 monthly data add-on is a reasonable option), built-in 3G connectivity is a unique and valuable proposition, while WiFi paired with hundreds of thousands of powerful Android apps makes the device worthy of your consideration, too. Duplicated functionality remains the biggest challenge for Samsung, however, considering that the target audience for a $500 pocketable camera is likely to overlap with the current Android user base.

It's easy enough to keep your data synced between the Camera and a smartphone once you add in a Google account, so while many of the device's features are already available to Android phone owners, adding the camera generally won't complicate your digital life. It could also serve as an excellent companion for an iPhone or Windows Phone, providing access to Android-only apps without the need to add a second smartphone or a tablet. Still, if you're serious about your photography and care little about sharing your pictures instantly on the web, that $500 would be much better spent on a dedicated shooter with more respectable specifications and a slimmer design, to boot.%Gallery-170768%

Ultimately, my two-week Galaxy Camera experiment was a success, but boy was I eager to power up my Galaxy S III after that 14-day period came to an end. Though the device was able to replace all but the calling features of my smartphone, its footprint (and significant weight) made it inconvenient and uncomfortable to keep by my side day and night. Having a 21x superzoom around at all times was advantageous, however, and I was able to snag plenty of shots that would have been impossible with the fixed lens in any handset. As the adage goes, "the best camera is the one you have with you," and if it's your only device running Android, you'll never want to leave it behind.