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.
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.