Samsung is on a mission to build the perfect cameraphone. Low-quality fixed lenses and tiny smartphone sensors are clearly insufficient for photography enthusiasts, but while you always bring your phone to parties, sporting events and trips to the zoo, it's often impractical to haul along a dedicated camera as well. The Galaxy K Zoom is Samsung's response to this dilemma, marrying a 10x optical zoom lens with an otherwise ordinary Android handset. It's hardly the best camera, or the best smartphone, but if you're willing to make some compromises, this may just be the most compelling option yet.
Last year's iteration, the Galaxy S4 Zoom, was significantly underpowered, making for a generally unpleasant experience. The hybrid felt sluggish regardless of whether you were trying to take a picture, surf the web or make a phone call -- it was a weak performer through and through. Fortunately, the K Zoom represents a step up from its 2013 predecessor. It's hardly on par with the Galaxy S5 or flagship phones from other manufacturers, but it's an improvement nonetheless. So if you're looking to step up to a faster device with a similar feature set, you'll get that here.
That said, you could certainly do better than the K Zoom in the sub-$700 price range. Samsung cut corners on specs in order to keep costs in check, and it shows. The device is powered by what the company's calling a hexa-core processor, pairing a quad-core 1.3GHz Cortex-A7 with a dual-core 1.7GHz Cortex-A15 to make up Samsung's Exynos 5 Hexa chipset. That sounds really great, doesn't it? In practice, though, the device still feels sluggish, as I'll explore further in the performance section below. You also get 2GB of RAM, 8 gigs of internal storage and support for up to 64GB microSD cards, which you'll need to add in if you plan on taking advantage of the photo functionality.
Also lacking is the 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display. It sports a 720p resolution, which just doesn't quite cut it in this day and age. The screen size is adequate, and the smaller footprint does help to keep the K Zoom pocketable despite its rear-lens bulge, but Samsung really should have included a 1080p display here. Still, it's a major step up from the S4 Zoom's 4.3-inch, 960 x 540 panel, which, quite frankly, was an incredible disappointment. This year, details look sharp and the screen is bright enough for adjusting settings, verifying focus and reading text even in bright light, but there's definitely still room for improvement.
Design-wise, the K Zoom has a slightly more premium look and feel than its predecessor. It's clearly a hybrid of the Galaxy S4 and S5, with a front that's more akin to the former and a removable, plastic back cover that's nearly identical in appearance to what you get with Samsung's 2014 flagship. It's an attractive mash-up, no doubt, but it definitely lacks the high-end appeal of the HTC One M8, for example. Whereas the S4 Zoom looked more like a camera than a smartphone, with a pronounced grip on the rear, the K Zoom more closely resembles a phone. In fact, until you flip it around to reveal the lens, it looks like a slightly thicker Galaxy S4.
As for the hardware layout, there's a home button below the display; a dedicated shutter button, power toggle and volume rocker on the right side; a headphone jack on the top; a micro-USB connector on the bottom; and a microSD slot on the left side. The microphones are positioned on the left and right of the K Zoom when held horizontally and, just as with the GS4 Zoom, they're arranged in such a way that they can be easily blocked depending on your grip. The 10x, 24-240mm f/3.1-6.3 lens is positioned on the back, along with a slim, horizontal flash. Finally, there's a 2,430mAh battery behind the removable cover with a micro-SIM slot underneath.
Software and user interface
The K Zoom ships with Android 4.4.2 (KitKat) and Samsung's TouchWiz interface. I tested a model that's being sold unlocked in Taiwan, so there are no carrier apps to speak of. You do get Samsung staples like S Voice and Dropbox pre-installed, and you can download more through Samsung Apps. Navigating the phone portion of the K Zoom was a breeze -- the device is clearly powerful enough to handle basic tasks without issue, though I did run into some hiccups when using the camera.
You can launch photo mode by sliding the camera icon from the lock screen, by pressing down on the shutter release for one second or by opening the app directly. The three-tiered lens extends immediately, effectively doubling the K Zoom's thickness at the widest focal length. You can zoom using the volume rocker (left to zoom in and right to zoom out), by pinching on the touchscreen or by using the on-screen zoom toggle. I found the first option to be most effective for still photos, while tapping the screen minimized shake when capturing video. The pinch-to-zoom option was the least precise of the bunch.
The camera includes a variety of shooting modes, including Auto (the default), Pro Suggest (which recommends a selection of filters depending on the scene), Program, Beauty Face, Shot and More (for burst shooting), Panorama, HDR, Night, Continuous Shot and Selfie Alarm (it automatically snaps a shot when it detects your face in the frame). There's also an option to add more modes though the "Manage Modes" panel. Here you can choose from Kids Shot, Macro, Light Trace and Sunset, just to name a few.
There's also a mode called Virtual Tour, which creates a walking photo tour of your surroundings. I could see this being useful for realtors and the like, but with poor in-camera stitching, the results are hardly professional. You even get a "Manual" mode, which lets you select the ISO, shutter speed and aperture, though oddly you're only able to choose from the largest or smallest aperture available -- nothing in between.
A main camera settings page enables more granular options. Here you can select the resolution, aspect ratio, compression quality, white balance, focus, drive mode, timer, flash mode (also accessible from the main shooting screen) and image effects. You can also activate geotagging, which tags each image with your GPS coordinates while also adding the nearest street to the filename, making it easy to identify shots from a specific location on the fly.
Camera and image quality
Let's assume you're buying the K Zoom because you like to take pictures. Besides the 20.7-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch sensor, which is on par with many lower-end point-and-shoots, the phone offers one distinguishing feature over similar handsets: a 10x optical zoom lens. You get less than half the range of the Galaxy Camera 2, which includes a 21x lens, but the 24-240mm range is still plenty generous, and far more versatile than what you'll get on any current mainstream smartphone. That lens will let you zoom in very close to your subject, making for much more interesting Facebook posts and Instagrams.
Speaking of Instagram, you still can't zoom directly from within the app. When we spoke to Samsung reps following the launch of the first Galaxy Camera, we were told full compatibility was on the way. That was nearly two years ago, so it's probably safe to assume the tried-and-true method of capturing a photo first and then pulling it up in the Instagram app is going to be your only option for the life of this device. It's hardly a dealbreaker, but considering instant social sharing is part of the K Zoom's appeal, it's disappointing nonetheless.
Getting into photo mode is also quite a hassle. Other cameras are ready to start shooting as soon as you hit the power button, but the K Zoom defaults to the home screen. Of course, you'll probably be using this primarily as a phone, so that would be our preference too, but it does add a few seconds between when you decide you want to take a picture and when the camera's ready to capture. If you're looking to photograph a quick-moving subject, you'll probably miss the shot. For selfies (there's also a front-facing camera), shots of your food and the like, that's not the end of the world, but considering it could take five seconds or longer just to snap an image, you're bound to find this inconvenient at some point.
That brings me to another annoyance. The K Zoom defaults to a 16:9 aspect ratio, matching the phone's display. Shots fill the screen entirely, which looks most natural on the device. But when you go to share photos or view them on a computer, you'll probably be a bit frustrated, as I was after a few hours of shooting in the wrong format (as you'll see in some samples below). At 15.1 megapixels, 16:9 photos also don't take full advantage of the 4:3 sensor. You'll need to switch into that mode to capture at the full 20 megapixels. There are also options to shoot at 3:2 (17.9MP) and 1:1 (8.3MP), if you prefer. For video, you can choose from 1080p at 60 or 30 frames per second, 720p at 60 or 30 fps or VGA.
Not that video is the K Zoom's strong suit. Video quality is generally rather poor, particularly at longer focal lengths, where improved image stabilization would have come in handy. You can tap to focus and expose, as you can when capturing stills, but brightness levels were often exaggerated, depending on the scene. Additionally, the camera reduces the microphone volume slightly whenever you zoom in or out, likely to avoid capturing sound from the lens motor. It's effective in that regard, but the result is noticeably inconsistent audio.
Image quality is also hit or miss. Because of the large maximum aperture range, the lens performs much better at the wide angle than when you're zoomed all the way in. The result is much sharper images at 24mm than you'll get at 240mm, particularly when you're shooting indoors, at night or on a cloudy day, as I did on my trip to the Taipei Zoo. The K Zoom's biggest asset is its zoom lens, but image quality will suffer if you try to take full advantage.
Assuming you plan to share images on social media straight from the camera, you'll probably use the K Zoom to capture your food. Generally, the food photos I captured were properly exposed with good color balance (often a challenge in dim restaurants) and reasonable sharpness. Shooting in Auto, the camera opted for an exposure of f/6.0 and 1/32 second with a sensitivity of ISO 400. The image is mostly noise-free at a wider view, so it should be fine for sharing, though noise is clearly visible in the 1:1 inset.
The first few images I captured, including this one, the one above and the one below, were shot at the K Zoom's default aspect ratio of 16:9. You can switch to a more common ratio very quickly through the settings menu, though, which I'd recommend if you plan on sharing your photos. The image is roughly 1/2 stop underexposed, at f/4.9 and 1/20 second with a sensitivity of ISO 125. Text is legible, though you can see some artifacts in the 1:1 inset.
I switched over to Program mode for this shot, manually adjusting the sensitivity to ISO 3200 in order to capture sharp details in a dim room with a focal length of 240mm -- in Auto, this f/6.3, 1/80-second capture would have been a blurry mess. The camera's noise reduction filter stepped in here, effectively removing some noise, but flattening details in the process.
Typically, the K Zoom will top out at ISO 400 when you're shooting in Auto mode, regardless of whether or not the situation requires a higher sensitivity. Details are surprisingly sharp in this f/4.4, 1/18-second handheld exposure, though noise is clearly visible in the 1:1 insets.
A 1/40-second exposure (at f/6.3) was clearly insufficient for this handheld shot at the camera's maximum focal length of 240mm. Additionally, the K Zoom overexposed the scene slightly, washing out details in the trees in the background and the bear in the foreground. At ISO 160, noise is visible in the 1:1 inset, and details are soft due to blur. More sophisticated image stabilization would have been a huge asset here.
This f/6.3, 1/40-second image is very slightly overexposed, with few washed-out details. Colors are accurate and details are reasonably sharp, with artifacts visible only in the 1:1 inset. The camera opted for a sensitivity of ISO 125 for this capture -- noise is only barely visible when viewing the shot at 100 percent.
This is one of the K Zoom's most successful captures. It's properly exposed at f/4.7 and 1/90 second, and a sensitivity of ISO 100 helped to minimize noise, even when viewed at a 1:1 ratio. Colors are accurate and details are perfectly sharp for sharing on social media.
This final frame, also at ISO 100, was captured at f/4.6 and 1/54 second, yielding sharp details. Some elements are slightly overexposed, such as the man's white shirt and the Chinese portion of the Taipei Zoo sign, but the vegetation is spot-on, with accurate colors throughout.
Performance and battery life
The K Zoom is hands-down a better camera and a better smartphone than the Galaxy S4 Zoom. Performance is significantly improved -- the K Zoom is definitely in an entirely different class. It's not, however, anywhere near as capable as flagship smartphones like the Galaxy S5, LG G3 and HTC One M8. Not that it needs to be. The Zoom handles basic tasks and apps with ease, and while it's sluggish in camera mode at times, the biggest performance-related issue has to do with battery life.
Galaxy K Zoom
Galaxy S4 Zoom
3DMark IS Unlimited
SunSpider 1.0.2 (ms)
GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider: Lower scores are better; results compiled on Chrome.
On the surface, the K Zoom's 2,430mAh battery performs very well. In our formal rundown test, the phone lasted for nearly 10 hours of 720p video playback with the display fixed at 50 percent. That's actually on par with the Galaxy S5, which delivered roughly the same longevity with this particular test. That phone has a 2,800mAh cell on board, but it's powering a much larger (5.1-inch) 1080p display. So, if you're planning to use the Zoom for email, web browsing and consuming media, you should be able to make it through an entire day.
Capturing content is an entirely different story. My planned full-day outing was cut short when the battery died at 3:17 in the afternoon, having been chugging along since just before 9 o'clock that morning. During those six and a half hours, I spent about two hours shooting more than 350 photos and 15 minutes of HD video, an hour navigating Taipei using Google Maps, a few minutes uploading pictures to Instagram and Hangouts and the rest of the time idling, with the phone in standby mode in my pocket.
The depletion rate ranged from 10 percent per hour when using the K Zoom for ordinary smartphone activities to 60 percent when capturing 1080p video, so if you're planning to shoot for more than an hour or so each day, you'll absolutely need to bring along an extra battery. Assuming you'll use the K Zoom as you would your current smartphone, capturing only the occasional still photo or video clip each day, you should do alright, but if you expect to snap hundreds of pictures each day on vacation, as many photographers do, the battery's performance is unacceptable.
Samsung has yet to announce US pricing and availability for the K Zoom, but it's now available in Europe and select countries in Asia. In the UK, the phone is priced at £400, while elsewhere in Europe it can be had for €499. Considering both of those prices come in around $680, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect the Zoom to run upwards of 600 bucks if it ever hits American shores. That's a lot of cash for a smartphone that lacks flagship specs.
With image quality on par with a sub-$200 camera (and inferior performance), you'll probably be better off buying a separate camera and smartphone. There's clearly appeal to having a two-in-one device like the K Zoom, and while Samsung's made progress here, the hybrid Galaxy isn't quite ready for prime time.
Update: The original version of this review implied that the Galaxy K Zoom excludes image stabilization. Instead, OIS is present, but it's generally ineffective. Additionally, while Instagram is still unable to access the 10x optical zoom, an updated version of the Vine app has on-screen zoom controls and is able to take full advantage of the lens.