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.
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.