Hardly any manufacturer in the Android cosmos connects camera technology and mobile software systems together as consistently as Samsung. Their smartphone cameras are among the best on Android. They have already brought out the Galaxy Camera, a semi-compact camera with Android OS, the Galaxy NX is a system camera with a mobile network, and with the S4 push the Koreans have recently brought out a true hybrid, which can't decide between the camera and smartphone. Here I asked myself the question: Is the image quality of the S4 Zoom so much better than the "normal" S4? And what about the Galaxy Camera sets it apart when it comes to amateur photographers?
The Galaxy S4 Zoom divides the Android community: some consider it superfluous, others celebrate the innovative fusion of camera and smartphone. There are good arguments on both sides. But what is the picture quality like? How does the S4 Zoom, this Frankenstein phone/camera hybrid, compare to a "real" camera and a "real" smartphone? My colleague Kris and I wanted to know, so we took the three Samsung devices for a little walk to put them through their paces.
The first photo we have taken in bright sunshine in a Berlin park. Here we wanted to get a feel for how to distinguish the three devices, in their representation of details, colors and exposure. For that we decided to shoot in auto mode. To get approximately the same picture, we took the Galaxy Camera and S4 Zoom shots at a slight zoom, because they naturally offer a little more wide angle than the S4. Look at the first picture in this article and you'll understand why.
A note on comparison images: left is always the Galaxy Camera, in the middle is the S4 and the S4 Zoom is on the right.
The differences in contrast and saturation are low between the Galaxy Cam and the Galaxy S4, but the image of the Galaxy Cam shows a distinct tint. The S4 Zoom, however, makes dark areas much brighter. In my opinion, this makes the S4 Zoom produce the most natural image. The S4's effort comes out sharpest in 100-percent view, showing most of the details, here the software did a great job. The Galaxy Cam performed the worst here.
Zoom: digital versus optical
This comparison is pretty unfair because the S4 has no optical zoom and must therefore draw the short straw. However, because the zoom is, for some, a very important purchase factor, we wanted to show you just how much the 4-times digital zoom of the S4 differed from the superior 10-times optical zoom of the S4 Zoom and the 21-times optical zoom of the Galaxy Cam in practice. The photos were all taken from the same location.
The 21-times zoom of the Galaxy Cam does a great job which you can see when we zoomed in on the grassy bank at the other end of the park. On the bright spots, however, the image is overexposed, but details like the foliage in the background are shown with acceptable sharpness. The S4 naturally failed in this area with its 4x digital zoom. In the 100-percent view every detail disappears. No wonder: A digital zoom is not really a zoom, it simply magnifies the image, making it less crisp. Although the S4 Zoom can't match the Galaxy Cam's zoom range, it actually delivered the best image with the most balanced exposure and the best sharpness of detail, albeit with a somewhat exaggerated saturation.
In my previous test of the Galaxy S4 I was surprised by the good macro capability of the camera. The S4 Zoom's macro range had also already impressed me in my test of that device. But our close-up of an immature blackberry brought to light the differences between these devices when tested side-by-side. The color differences were pretty noticeable, especially if you look at the large leaf above and behind the blackberry.
In terms of detail and sharpness, the Galaxy Camera is just behind in this comparison, although it offers the most balanced color reproduction. The S4 brings the most contrast and the sharpest detail, but the image looks slightly over-sharpened here, which might be due to the strong post-production in the device. The most balanced in terms of image contrast and detail is once again provided by the S4 Zoom, but again with a little too much saturation.
If you are hanging out in the park, you'll naturally want to quickly snap a few photos to better remember the beautiful day. Our next task was therefore to make a spontaneous snapshot. This has to be fast and reliable, especially, after all, most are reluctant to let friends shoot endless photos of them and don't want to hang around all day posing, just as Kris didn't. Here we set the camera in automatic mode to see how well they not only determined exposure and white balance, but also how quickly they found the right focus.
In this task the S4 performed the best. The S4 has a crisp, sharp image with many details, the other two have indeed posted decent photos, but in the 100-percent view you can clearly see that both images are not sharp. This time it is the S4 that overdoes it with the saturation, while the Galaxy Cam has a tint. The S4 Zoom has exposed the image this time a little too bright, but has overall the best exposure when you consider the background as well.
The we found a little monster made of stone, covered with colorful mosaics. Even if we are not exactly dealing with Gaudi's splendor here, this creature was still well suited to shoot another comparison picture in the park. This time we were in the shade.
Here the differences between the three cameras are really minimal. At first glance they can hardly be distinguished, but as we look a little closer at equivalent sections of the mosaic pattern, we see the same comparison pattern emerge as before: the S4 has the highest contrast and sharpness thanks to its powerful image processor, the image of the S4 Zoom is more balanced and shows some more realistic detail because it was less over-sharpened. The Galaxy Cam is in the back of the pack here, albeit only marginally.
Street scene: contrast and motion
Back on the busy main road, we photographed a few passing cars at relatively slow speeds. We chose to focus on the little blue buggy to the left of screen and see how the cameras captured the other details. The situation was further complicated by the high contrast between the shadows in the foreground and the bright facade in the background.
While the Galaxy Cam and the S4 left the foreground in the dark here, the S4 Zoom facade loses its structure in the background. The first two pics here are virtually the same, although the image of the S4 is significantly sharper. The S4 Zoom shows a very different picture and adjusts the dark areas to make them much brighter but the white building facade in the background loses its detail and becomes a bit washed out, and the clouds likewise lose their contrast and definition.
In our internal courtyard we tested the HDR capability of the cameras and lenses for the gloomy shadows and the bright sky above - due to the high contrast range not an easy job for any camera.
Although the Galaxy Cam and S4 Zoom officially have no function called "HDR", they both offer a "Rich Tone" mode, so all three are quite equal to the task. The Galaxy Cam once again has a noticeable tint on the building, this time pinkish, while the color cast in the other two images are pretty realistic. Here the S4 has a nose clearly in front though. The HDR mode picks most of the details out of the dark areas while the S4 Zoom in 100-percent view shows quite a bit of image noise but very little detail. The image of the Galaxy Cam is the least sharp.
For our last comparison, interior low-light, we turned to the good old editorial fruit basket. In our studio we darkened the windows and put the basket in the light shadows. The three cameras had to make do with the little available light. The result is an artificially lightened image in all three.
The cameras were recording in all other situations with plenty of available light, so they automatically selected the lowest ISO values. In this test, however, the image was taken with the Galaxy Cam at ISO 800, while the S4 and S4 Zoom chose ISO 400. It is clear that the S4 delivers not only the darkest image, but also has the clearest picture noise - even more than the Galaxy Camera, despite the half-ISO value. This is due to the smaller image sensor on the S4. Again, the S4 Zoom delivers the best result.
Important technical details
|Galaxy Camera||S4||S4 Zoom|
|Sensor||1/2.3 inch, CMOS||1/3 inch, CMOS||1/2.3 inch, CMOS|
|Maximum Resolution||17 MP||13 MP||16 MP|
|Focal Length||23-483 mm||31 mm||24-240 mm|
|Connectivity||WLAN, Bluetooth, 3G||WLAN, Bluetooth, LTE, NFC||WLAN, Bluetooth, LTE, NFC|
|Operating System||Android 4.1||Android 4.2.2||Android 4.2.2|
|Display||4.8 inch, LCD||5 inch, AMOLED||4.3 inch, AMOLED|
|Price(Amazon)||$340US (8 GB)||$620US (16 GB)||$495US (8 GB)|
In our test rounds there's a winner for me, but all three camera concepts have their strengths. The Galaxy Cam, the oldest of the test equipment and the only one "real" camera was in pretty much all comparisons left behind and could only impress with its powerful 21-times optical zoom. Especially disturbing was the dark color cast or tint, and the disagreeable auto white balance visible in all images. In terms of sharpness and detail the other two devices were both superior to the Galaxy Cam.
The Galaxy S4 did surprisingly well in the test. It could compete in all scenarios and in the HDR and portrait snapshot tests gave the best result, which points to the good software available in the S4. With its digital zoom it really only drops behind on long distance shooting, which is perfectly understandable. The S4 has the strongest automatic image processing and thus provides the most pleasing photos directly "out of camera," with the highest contrast and significant sharpness. In low light, the smaller sensor is quite noticeable and the recordings are darker and have much more noise compared to the other two cameras.
The S4 Zoom delivered the most balanced overall results. Directly from the camera, the images seem sometimes a little dull and pale though. Especially striking is the significantly lighter exposure in dark areas. This is sometimes at the expense of structure and details in very bright areas but works much better when dealing with high contrast shots. Also the S4 Zoom is a bit too generous with saturation in some shooting situations. Nevertheless, it has convinced me most overall.
Make no mistake: our test shows only a small part of the full reality. The Galaxy Cam and the S4 Zoom offer numerous customization options, including an extensive menu with manual settings. All three devices also have an extensive software package with several pre-set shooting modes. Since the average user mostly photographs in the automatic mode and it makes the cameras easier to compare with each other, we have limited ourselves in our test to that mode only.
What remains as a conclusion? All three have their own target group and their own reason for existence. The S4 is an excellent option for anyone who wants a phone first but wants to take some great shots on the fly with a minimal form factor camera. As long as the light is good, the S4 is totally sufficient. The S4 Zoom is for all those who want a camera with proper zoom and manual settings and who still need a smartphone, but do not care for high-end technology because they only use their phone casually. If you don't want a separate camera and phone and don't mind having a little less of the best of both worlds (and don't intend on having your phone in your pocket all the time), this is the device for you. The Galaxy Cam is, as the name implies, a camera with Android OS, which is quite cheap and meets the requirements of leisure snappers, but compared with the others can not quite keep up anymore with it's outdated technology.
If you still want a closer look at the pictures: all test photos can be found on my Google+ profile in original size and with all the EXIF information.