Not that long ago, phone cameras were something exciting and novel. I can still remember the “exciting” 0.3 MP camera that came with my Nokia 5140. The idea of having a camera inside a phone was in itself groundbreaking, and no one seemed to care about the quality, which was poor even by the standards back then.
Today, things are pretty much the opposite. Modern smartphones come with exquisite cameras (like the one I’ve recently reviewed on the Nokia Lumia 920), and anything less than a fully-fledged, high-quality and feature-rich camera makes users snicker with contempt. And since smartphones have become so common, the old-fashioned compact camera has been pushed to the sidelines. After all, why carry a second device around when you have a fully capable camera with you anyway?
Camera companies have been trying to break this streak in all sorts of creative ways, with one of the latest ones being the Samsung Galaxy Camera. Granted, Samsung is not exactly a struggling camera company, which makes the Galaxy Camera an even more impressing feat. Running Android 4.1.1 (Jelly Bean), the Galaxy Camera is the exact opposite of what we’re used to seeing today. Instead of a smartphone camera, it’s a camera smartphone (without the actual phone capabilities).
How does this work? Does it really have anything to offer that your plain old smartphone doesn’t? We took the Samsung Galaxy camera for a test drive to find all that out. And as usual, one of you will get extremely lucky and win this $430 camera for free!
The Samsung Galaxy Camera and other Android digital cameras
Surprisingly, the market is not overflowing with cameras which run on Android OS. Whether this is because serious camera companies don’t want to mess with Android, or due to a general diminishing interest in compact cameras, only three Android cameras have been launched to date, and one of them is no longer available (as far as I could see).
The first Android camera to launch was the Nikon Coolpix S800c ($250-$350). This is a 16 MP, Wi-Fi only device with 10X optical zoom and a 3.5-inch screen, which runs Android 2.3. Looking at Amazon prices, it can be had for almost $200 less than the Galaxy Camera, but is also inferior to it in almost every possible aspect.
The other Android camera comes from Polaroid. The Polaroid SC1630 Android HD Smart Camera was announced 18 months ago, and while it’s possible to find mentions and reviews of it around the Web, the camera itself is absent both from Polaroid’s own website, and from Amazon. When announced, the Polaroid SC1630 was a 16 MP device with Wi-Fi connectivity and a micro SIM slot, 3X optical zoom, and a 3.2-inch display. The price at the time of the announcement was set to $300.
Both these models seem old next to the Samsung Galaxy Camera, leaving it as pretty much the only player in the field. But when push comes to shove, does the Galaxy Camera have anything to offer than a new Galaxy S4 smartphone doesn’t?
What’s In The Box?
The Samsung Galaxy Camera comes packed like a smartphone. Similar in both shape and size to a smartphone box, I would have forgotten it was holding a camera unless it said so boldly on the the box. Then again, this effect is most likely intentional.
Inside the box, other than the camera itself, the accessories also resemble those you might get with a new smartphone, every one of them in bright white to go with the camera. The Samsung Galaxy Camera comes with a 1650 mAh removable battery, a micro USB cable, a wall plug for USB charging, a pair of earbuds with three sets of extra tips, a hand strap for easier handling, and a manual.
The camera doesn’t come with a micro SD card, but it does come with 4GB of internal storage, so you might not even need one, at least to start with. If you win this camera, however, you’ll also get a bonus 2GB micro SD card as part of the package. Who said we weren’t generous?
The camera itself, when turned around, looks exactly like a smartphone, complete with the plastic display protector everyone likes to remove.
Design & Hardware
Samsung’s latest phones have come under fire for lack of design innovation, and for looking like toys next to competitors such as the HTC One, the Sony Xperia Z, and the various Nokia Lumia devices. If this gave you the impression that Samsung doesn’t care about design, you can now promptly forget it.
The Samsung Galaxy Camera is a fetching piece of hardware that catches your eye while its still in the box. At 300 g, it’s about 2-3 times heavier than a smartphone, and is naturally much bulkier than one, but is better looking than any Galaxy smartphone I ever laid my eyes on.
The camera is relatively small (71 x 129 x 19 mm), and is very easy to hold and handle. The right side of the camera is shaped into a handle, with a textured finish that makes it easier to grip without it slipping out of your hand. This same handle houses the micro USB jack, the headphone jack, and a lanyard loop for the strap.
The top of the camera is where you’ll find the power button, the zoom controls, the shutter button, and a tiny microphone. The top also houses the camera’s pop-out flash which, when closed, is completely flush with the camera’s surface, and almost unnoticeable.
Do you often have to struggle with your camera’s flash going off when you don’t need it? This is not going to happen with the Galaxy Camera. As long as the flash is safely tucked in its house, you never have to worry about it popping out on its own. To put flash into auto mode and have it go off when the camera deems fit, all you have to do is release the flash using the designated hardware button. There are no settings to play with, which is a relief. Below the flash button, you’ll find a small speaker.
Taking a closer look at the bottom side of the camera, you’ll find a magic compartment containing all sorts of slots and connectors. The entire compartment is opened and locked using the small plastic slider. Alternatively, you can gain access only to the HDMI port by removing its little plastic door.
The compartment’s main area holds the camera’s battery, with micro SD and micro SIM slots resting just above it. The camera can accept your phone’s micro SIM card, which allows you to enjoy data connection when Wi-Fi is not available, at which point you’re left wondering whether its really a camera, or actually a phone. While it’s fast and easy to upload photos via Wi-Fi, wireless transfer is a bit more of a hassle, requiring an additional client.
The Galaxy Camera has an impressive 21X optical zoom, which we’ll get into later on, but the sheer length of the lens barrel when zoomed all the way will topple the camera over if you put it down on the table. The only reason it’s not doing so in the picture below is because I’m holding its back with my hand.
Before turning it on, the camera’s display looks very much like a smartphone someone glued onto a compact camera, and this impression doesn’t change much when the camera is turned on. The 4.8-inch LCD screen boasts a 1280×720 pixel resolution, and is shielded by Gorilla Glass 2.
Since all the controls are software-based, the back end of the camera is completely devoid of any buttons or switches, leaving a relatively small bezel for the large screen. The lack of hardware buttons is nice, but toggling obvious things such as volume requires a trip into the settings, which is not as nice. It also means that some of the screen is taken up by Android’s home, back and menu buttons, similar to the Nexus 4.
Using The Galaxy Camera
As important as hardware and specs are, there’s nothing in the Galaxy Camera you can’t find in other, more conventional cameras. When reviewing the Galaxy Camera, the million dollar question is, can Android make it as a camera OS, or will it feel unnatural and tacked on?
When you first turn the Galaxy Camera on, it’s almost indistinguishable from a Samsung smartphone. One of the most annoying things about a new camera, especially from a new company, I the need to learn a new interface. None of that here. If you know how to use Android, you know how to use the Galaxy Camera.
Yes, it’s bulkier and heavier to hold than a phone, but it’s set up to automatically fold in the lens when not using the camera app. This makes it much easier to handle when browsing and editing photos, using apps, or even playing games. The way the Galaxy Camera is designed, it’s possible to place it on the table when the lens is closed, and use the screen comfortably and stably.
Just like any other Android device, the camera revolves around apps, the most important of which being, naturally, the camera app. Unlike other cameras, The Galaxy Camera comes with Dropbox, Instagram, and several photo editors built right in.
The camera app is bursting with features, all packed into an intuitive interface, giving you as much control over the product as you want to have (within the limits of a compact camera). When launching the camera app, you can either leave it on Auto mode, choose one of the Smart modes, or delve into Expert mode.
In Auto mode, you don’t have to deal with any settings, but can turn flash on and off, set a timer, control video quality, activate share mode, and turn on voice recognition. Voice recognition is the gem of the lot, making it possible to control every basic function of the camera completely hands free. These include taking a picture, zooming in and out, changing modes and switching to the gallery, as demonstrated below. You can also use the voice feature to set a 10-seconds timer, and toggle the flash on and off when its hardware is popped out.
Touch the arrow at the bottom to bring up 13 different filters which are applied to photos before you even take them. Just point the camera around, and see what the photo would look like through that filter.
Smart mode includes 15 different modes: Beauty face, Best photo, Continuous shot, Best face, Landscape, Macro, Action freeze, Rich tone, Panorama, Waterfall, Silhouette, Sunset, Night, Fireworks, and Light race. While some of these are seldom useful, if at all, others, such as Best photo, Best face, Continuous shot, and Macro, are excellent features you’ll find yourself using daily.
If you’re interested in a more fine-tuned control, this is also possible via Expert mode. Here, you can control such things as EV (exposure value), ISO (sensitivity), shutter speed, and aperture.
Other than the camera app, the app you’re going to use most often is the gallery. The gallery is organized by folders, which you can easily create, delete, and move photos between. I won’t try to list all the gallery’s features as this might take all day, but rest assured there’s pretty much nothing you can’t do with this camera’s gallery.
This includes a slideshow mode, photo sharing, face tagging, photo organizing, and even photo editing. Speaking of photo editing, the Galaxy Camera comes with not one, but two different photo editors: Photo Wizard and Paper Artist. Photo Wizard is your conventional photo editor and includes features such as cropping and resizing, brightness, contrast and saturation adjustments, a pile of mild photo effects, and plenty of frames, stickers, grids, and even a drawing feature.
Paper Artist is a different beast altogether, turning your mundane photos into all kinds of drawings. The app comes with 34 different filters, which you can apply to existing photos, or shoot through as you go. This way, the preview you see on the screen already has the filter applied to it.
Aside from these apps, the Galaxy Camera is just like any other Android device, and can run any app you can get on Google Play. It’s powerful enough to run games such as Temple Run 2 smoothly, and comfortable enough to read emails on, engage on social networks, and browse the Web. With its 1GB of RAM, I wouldn’t use it as my main browsing device, but it’s powerful enough to handle the occasional Google search. At times, the device did hang or get a little less responsive, reminding me that it’s not a smartphone after all.
The photos you can take with the Galaxy Camera are obviously not breathtaking next to an SLR, but are they actually better than what you can produce with Samsung’s flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S4? Let’s find out.
Galaxy Camera vs. Galaxy S4
Before we look at some sample pictures, some obvious hardware differences should be mentioned. The Galaxy Camera is a 16 MP, 4608×3456 pixels camera with 21X optical zoom and the ability to shoot 1080p videos at 30 frames per second. The Galaxy S4 has a 13 MP, 4128×3096 camera, with no optical zoom and the ability to shoot 1080p videos at 30 frames per second. As you can see, the basic hardware differences are not huge, and in fact, they’re not always noticeable in simple photos.
Aside from the Galaxy Camera’s lens being much wider than the S4′s, the difference in quality is minute. It becomes much more noticeable in more complex photos with more troublesome lighting, such as this one.
It’s easy to see how much clearer and sharper the top photo is, as well as the significant difference in depth of field. By comparison, the Galaxy S4 photo seems washed-out, and almost colorless. By playing around with some photo editors, however, many of these changes can be fixed.
So where does the Galaxy Camera really shine? In zoom and macro. If you’ve ever tried taking cat pictures, you probably know they get up and leave as soon as you approach them with the camera. With the Galaxy Camera, you no longer have to approach them. The following photo was taken sitting 2-3 meters away from my cat.
The Galaxy Camera is also capable of intense macro shots that the Galaxy S4 could not come close to, not even having a macro mode in its camera.
Another significant difference lies in the display. While the displays themselves are not very different, with the S4′s being slightly better in specs, the world looks much brighter and more colorful when looked at through the Galaxy Camera.
Looking at the available Smart modes in each camera, it’s obvious that the Galaxy S4 is meant to be a fun accessory. It’s also pretty obvious that Samsung had some new ideas since the Galaxy S4 came out, adding options such as Eraser mode and Sight & Sound mode, which are absent from the Galaxy Camera. On the other hand, the Galaxy S4 is missing basic features such as continuous shot, macro mode, and many of the Galaxy Camera’s different scene modes.
Living With The Galaxy Camera
So does the Galaxy Camera have anything to offer that your smartphone doesn’t? In one word, yes. It absolutely does. Aside from the slightly to significantly superior photos it can produce specs wise, its also much easier to use as a camera, a fact the helps it yield much better photos. The optical zoom is to die for, and the Android interface boosts the whole thing into a completely different arena.
After all, why do we love using out smartphones as cameras? One, they’re available. And they will always be more available than a compact camera, no matter how compact it is. And two, they’re connected. Took a photo you like? Wham! It’s on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, email, and the list goes on. Took photos you like on your camera? Most chances they’re going to stay there until you feel like sorting through them.
The Galaxy Camera combines the best of both worlds, bringing the familiar Android interface into a camera, which can run any app, share any photo, and even impressively edit them on the spot. It’s even capable of editing videos. It can upload your photos automatically, geo-tag them with GPS, and pretty much do anything your smartphone can do, and more. I even managed to make a Skype call through the camera, with excellent audio and video on both sides.
While it is heavier than a smartphone, it does weigh only 300g, and can easily fit anywhere a Galaxy Note II can. It’s easy to whip out of your pocket or bag for some photos, and then tuck it in again and forget all about it.
Should You Buy The Samsung Galaxy Camera?
If you love your smartphone’s camera, and want to take things up a notch without losing any of the functions you love, the Galaxy Camera is perfect for you. Don’t expect miracles out of it — it’s not a dSLR, after all — but if a compact is what you’re looking for, you’re in for a treat.
How do I win the Samsung Galaxy Camera?
We have a new giveaway procedure in place, which will hopefully make participating much easier. You may enter using your Facebook credentials (which will require you to sign into Facebook) or by submitting your name and email address. You’ll receive one entry simply by doing so.
After that, you’ll also be offered various methods to earn additional entries. They range from sharing a link to this giveaway on social networks; to commenting or visiting a specific page. The more you participate, the higher your chances of winning!
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This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, June 28th. The winner will be selected at random and informed via email.