Review: Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom

David Phelan takes a look at Samsung's new phone-camera

Appropriately enough for a phone that’s trying to be a camera, so all about image, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom turns out to be an optical illusion. Hold it up with the display facing you and it looks just like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini. There’s the screen, home button and familiar Samsung chrome edging.

But turn it sideways and the slim profile you’d find on the Mini, or just about any other smartphone, is replaced by the bulge of the zoom lens at one end and the hand grip at another. Turn it round completely and it looks like a compact camera.

But the Galaxy S4 Zoom is trying to be both. So it has a socket for a tripod, enormous flash and dedicated shutter button (camera) alongside a 4.3in screen that shows a regular Android interface (phone).

It’s a convincingly specced phone: it doesn’t have the latest quad-core processor of the Samsung Galaxy S4 or the Sony Xperia Z but the dual-core chip and decent amount of operating memory mean it works well. There are some Samsung specialities like S Translator (where you speak in one language and it translates it to another and speaks it back to you)

which prove that this is a serious phone. But some features from the flagship Samsung Galaxy S4 like the wellness extras to measure your activity or the onscreen windows which respond before you actually touch them are missing here.

The truth is this is a phone you will want only if you’re a dedicated snapper. It’s perfectly competent at the other things a smartphone does, from GPS to email, Android apps to, you know, making calls.

But though the extra bulk that the lens on the back adds isn’t enough to make it uncomfortable in your pocket, it is a little unwieldy as a phone – especially if you’ve got used to super-slim smarties like the iPhone 5 or Huawei Ascend P6.

But if you do love taking photos on your phone this is a cracking gadget. The camera sensor, at 16 megapixels, outstrips rivals easily. And the sensor is bigger than most of the competition so the pixels have a better time at sucking in light. More importantly, there’s that 10x optical zoom. Other cameraphones use digital zooms – which merely means you’re cropping the centre of the photograph, so an 8MP image quickly becomes the equivalent of a 2MP picture as you zoom in. The pixellation is horrible.

But here there’s a proper, capable optical zoom. You control it by turning the zoom lens ring. It’s a little slower to zoom than I’d have liked, but the effect is startling different from any other phone.

Then there’s the Samsung camera software. Samsung also makes standalone cameras, many of them highly proficient and all keenly priced. Some of that knowhow is fed in here, with plenty of scene settings and even one option to ask the camera to choose its most likely scene options depending on the light. So three thumbnails appear to tell you that you might like to treat it as a macro, landscape or night shot, say.

Want more? There’s an expert mode with lens barrel effect where you can choose aperture or shutter priority. Want less? There’s an auto option. The results are strong, with plenty of detail – as you’d expect.

This is a niche phone. Don’t expect every phone to have a galumphing, extendable lens on its back. But if you want a camera that lets you easily upload images to Facebook or elsewhere using either wi-fi or the mobile phone network – and lets you make calls into the bargain – this is a splendid choice.