Will Android power the camera of the future?
There’s been a dramatic uptick in amateur photography over the past few years — more people want to share more photos, and faster. This has led users to demand more and more from their smartphone cameras, while at the same time cheap DSLRs and the birth of Micro Four Thirds and other interchangeable-lens systems have put stupendously high-quality cameras in the hands of the everyman.
There’s always been a disconnect between these two movements, however, and Samsung wants to be the first to cover all of the bases. The concept is simple — take everything that's good about a standalone camera and combine it with the sharing capabilities of a smartphone. What you should be left with is something that's perfect for sharing quick shots, but not limited by interface, sensor size, or the general lack of options offered by smartphones.
What we actually have is the Samsung Galaxy Camera, a 16-megapixel point-and-shoot camera with a motorized 21x zoom, a 4.8-inch touchscreen, and 3G / Wi-Fi connectivity. It's not the first camera to claim to be "smart" — Samsung itself sells cameras under that banner — but it is one of the first to run an established OS, Android 4.1. Often, when companies attempt to unify two product categories something has to give. Can we really have the best of both worlds?
The Galaxy Camera is a pretty attractive device. It shares a lot of design DNA with Samsung’s regular cameras like the equally-attractive WB150, and apart from its enormous 4.8-inch touchscreen doesn’t look markedly different from anything already on the market. It is very wide compared to regular point-and-shoots, though, measuring over five inches across, a figure that can largely be attributed to the aforementioned screen. At a shade under three inches, it’s not particularly tall, but it is quite thick — 0.75 inches not including either the handgrip or lens. Its optically-stabilized 23mm f/2.8-5.9 lens almost doubles the overall thickness even when closed, and when fully extended is around 3 inches long.
Because of the lightweight body and huge lens, I found that at 7.5x zoom or above the camera would fall forward, and I had to use a tripod rather than just resting it on a flat surface. I wish Samsung had made the body thicker and less wide; it would’ve made for a more comfortable one-handed shooting experience, and also would’ve put some weight behind that massive lens. If you’re coming from a smartphone you won’t have such a bad time, but if you’re used to a point-and-shoot it’ll take some adjustment.
A 16-megapixel sensor may sound impressive, but as you’re probably aware, sensor size is far more important than megapixel count. The Galaxy Camera’s sensor is a 1/2.3" unit, and although it’s backlit (which helps image quality) it’s very small. You’ll find bigger and better sensors in every camera in this price range, and cheaper high-end point-and-shoots like Canon’s high-end S100 have larger 1/1.73" sensors. In fact, Samsung’s sensor is only marginally larger than the one in the Nokia Lumia 920, and is dwarfed by that of another Nokia phone, the 808 PureView.
The Galaxy Camera's sensor is very small for this price range
Aside from the glass of the screen and lens, the Galaxy Camera is an all-plastic affair, but feels well put together and sturdy, and the lightweight construction makes one-handed operation feasible, if not ideal. The built-in handgrip is a little too shallow for my tastes, and although it’s covered in easy-grip soft-touch plastic, the material ends well before the grip joins the front of the camera. That’s where my, and I imagine most people’s, fingers instinctively grip, making it less comfortable than it should’ve been. The edging around the handgrip — which snakes around to meet the rear display — is very pretty and does a good job of joining the aesthetically disparate front and back sections of the camera. Decked out in all-white plastic (there’s also a black edition, although I personally find the white more striking), the Galaxy Camera certainly catches the eye, Samsung has kept the design— and button layout — minimal.
You’ll find just four buttons on the Galaxy Camera: a standby button, a two-stage shutter key, a zoom toggle, and a final side-mounted mechanical key that pops up the built-in xenon Flash. It’s pretty sparse, but that’s because Samsung wants you to use the touchscreen for almost every task. There are even on-screen Android buttons for menu navigation — something Samsung has never done in its previous TouchWiz smartphones.
About the screen: it’s gorgeous and easily the best I’ve seen on a camera. At 4.8 inches, the 720p LCD has fantastic viewing angles and color reproduction, and in my opinion is a better display than Samsung has ever put on a phone. Touch response is on par with the best smartphones, but I can’t help but feel that the Galaxy Camera would’ve been better served by a smaller display. I find enormous smartphones difficult to use, especially with one hand, and the same is true here. A slightly smaller screen would’ve certainly helped with pocketability as well.
A smaller screen would've made it easier to handle
Samsung has hidden away the majority of the Galaxy Camera’s ports in a flap on its base. Opening it up reveals the removable 1650mAh battery (which thankfully stays in place even with the flap open), a Micro SIM slot, Micro HDMI port, and space for a microSD card. The lack of a full-sized SD card slot will disappoint many, but the Galaxy Camera does come with 4GB of onboard storage — good for around a thousand 16-megapixel photos — and microSD cards can now be purchased for next to nothing. On the side of the camera there’s a Micro USB port hidden by another small flap, and a single 3.5mm jack for a microphone or headphones.
You can buy the Galaxy Camera outright for $499 / £399 on both sides of the Atlantic, with AT&T and various UK carriers offering pre- and postpaid data SIMs. In the UK, camera outlets like Jessops are bundling in a SIM from mobile carrier Three with 1GB of free data, which should give you enough time to decide whether or not you want to take advantage of the 3G connectivity.
Full of good ideas, but with some additional physical controls it could've been perfect
Samsung’s first attempt at connected camera software isn’t perfect. While its Android 4.1-based suite is full of good ideas, there’s just too much excess baggage.
Starting up the Galaxy Camera for the first time brings up Android’s regular setup screen, prompting you to connect to a Wi-Fi network and sign in with (or setup) your Google account. Next you’ll be asked if you want to sign up for, or sign into, Dropbox, where a bonus 48GB of extra cloud storage (free for two years) is waiting for you. This offer will be familiar to anyone with a Galaxy S III or Galaxy Note, but on a dedicated camera it’s a real game-changer.
If you’ve ever used Dropbox for Android before, nothing has changed. Once you sign in with your account, you’ll be given the option to enable automatic uploads, and once you do so, every photo you take will be stored in the cloud. Uploads were generally as fast as my connection could handle, with my terrible Wi-Fi taking around 24 seconds per 3MB photo and 3G taking around ten. The camera will still keep a copy of your images locally, so it’s up to you to decide what you want to delete or keep. You can manage your Dropbox on the device, but since activating the automatic upload feature I haven’t opened or looked at the Dropbox app once. It’s just easier to manage stuff like that on my laptop. Another thing I haven’t done (apart from for testing purposes) is plug the Galaxy Camera into anything other than a charging cable. It’s a liberating feeling.
When you wake it from sleep, the Galaxy Camera immediately launches into its camera app with the last settings you enabled. In Auto, as with any camera, the software will monitor your scene and adjust the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and white balance to capture what it thinks is the best picture available. Another tap brings up Smart mode, which offers access to a number of options like continuous shooting, smile detection, action, landscape, "beauty face" (which will apparently remove your blemishes, although I’ve been pretty blemish-free for a good decade now), and countless others. None of the settings are revolutionary, but when compared to the slow, text-heavy menus of most cameras, the Galaxy Camera’s bright and simple menus are a huge leap forward.
The Galaxy Camera’s bright and simple menus are a huge leap forward, but expert mode is cumbersome
In the Galaxy Camera’s final mode, Expert, things start to go awry. The interface takes a page out of Apple’s book, mimicking the real-life design of a lens barrel. Strewn across the panel are settings for shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and exposure, while a final gauge displays a light meter. To change each setting, you simply swipe each setting up or down. Although I absolutely hate the UI design, that’s a matter of preference; the real issue here is speed. The lack of physical buttons (aside from a zoom toggle and shutter key) means that you’re forced to tap and swipe far too many times just to change a couple of settings in between shots. It’s really not practical, and led to me abandoning the Expert mode for 90 percent of my photos. I assume that most people that buy this camera won’t venture outside the simple modes, and Samsung has done a good job of making things easy. As long as you’re not trying to do something too complex, using a touchscreen is simply more intuitive than using buttons. Extra points go to Samsung for making the effort to explain virtually every function, mode, and button in plain English — this really is photography for dummies.
In typical Samsung fashion, there are plenty of other "innovative" things going on inside the suite, including filters and voice commands, which — I kid you not — let you shout at the camera to zoom in or out, and even say "cheese" to trigger the shutter. These worked more often than not, but weren’t anywhere near reliable enough to use after the novelty wore off.
I’m a keen amateur photographer, but have never shelled out an exorbitant amount of money for a camera. Over the past year I’ve dropped Galaxy Camera money ($499 or so) on a camera twice: first on a Nikon D3100, and again on a Sony NEX-F3. Before that I used an ancient Nikon D40 and a $200 Sony point-and-shoot bought more for how cute it looked than any illusions of professional image quality. I’m more than familiar with the high-end options on the market, but have always used entry-level gear to get the job done. That said, I was very disappointed by the quality of the images the Galaxy Camera produced.
The built-in lens produces fairly soft images, and the dynamic range (the distance between the brightest and darkest parts of an image) is pretty poor when compared to other cameras in this price range. Like many ultra-zoom lenses, when you’re zoomed all the way in or out you’ll find the picture is distorted — the center of the image will either bulge in or out. It’s not terrible, but many cameras have algorithms to automatically correct the distortion, which makes the omission here disappointing to say the least.
The lens / sensor combo also results in a large depth of field. Blurring out the unnecessary parts of your composition gives the entire image more depth and reality, and it’s sorely missed here. Another thing other cameras handle better is white balance. Especially under incandescent light (the sort that regular bulbs produce), my images took on an a very yellow tinge when I shot in Auto of Smart mode. Unlike many cameras, there’s no way to change the white balance unless you’re in full-blown Expert mode, which is just insane. I consider this a basic function — white balance is often the difference between a good and a bad photo — and for Samsung to bury it in this way, especially when its automatic algorithm isn’t up to scratch, is unforgivable.
ISO performance fares a little better. It ranges from ISO100 to ISO3200 in doubling steps, and retains a decent amount of detail all the way up to the maximum setting. Of course, you start to lose the finer details as you increase the ISO, particularly in poorly-lit scenes, but your images will certainly be good enough for sharing. I’d have liked to see Samsung push the envelope a little in this area, but given the degradation at ISO3200 it’s likely that the images would be pretty ugly at ISO6400. The zoom itself, distortion aside, is smooth and fairly fast, and the optical image stabilization system does a very good job at keeping the camera steady and your images blur-free.
The built-in xenon flash works as you’d expect. It’s powerful enough and produces a fairly evenly-lit scene as long as you’re at least a yard or so away. As I mentioned before, it pops out of the camera housing when you trigger its mechanical button. One nice thing about this system is you won’t ever have the flash fire when you don’t want it to — the camera software is unable to trigger the flash unless you’ve already popped it up yourself.
I don't need a high-end camera, I just need a better camera than this
The Samsung Galaxy Camera performs like an average point-and-shoot
Perhaps the most stark contrast between the Galaxy Camera and other point-and-shoots is the all-around speed of operation. Launching the camera from standby generally takes a couple of seconds, which is better than cheap point-and-shoots (which don’t have a standby mode as such), but slower than many smartphones and mid-range cameras. Shutter lag is virtually non-existent, and you’ll be able to capture about a shot every two seconds (including refocusing). There is a continuous mode that snaps 20 photos in five seconds, but if you’re looking to capture a moment you may be better off using the Best photo mode — continuous mode will dump all 20 images onto your storage, while Best photo takes eight at the same speed and lets you choose which ones to save.
Video benefits immensely from optical image stabilization
I came away most impressed by the Galaxy Camer's video capabilities, though, which seem to benefit immensely from optical image stabilization. In Auto mode it can capture 1080p or 720p video at 30fps and saves them as .mp4 files encoded with the H.264 codec. A 1080p video should take up around 100MB per minute, while 720p video runs at around 60MB per minute. That’s pretty efficient compression, but if you’re planning on shooting a lot of video you’ll want to invest in a microSD card — there’s not enough space in the internal memory for even an hour of 1080p video. There is a more frugal ‘sharing’ setting, which shoots at — wait for it — 320 x 240 pixels. If you have a lot of friends that want to view movies on their 2004 Razrs, the Galaxy Camera has you covered.
Jumping into Expert mode will provide you with a far more extensive range of video options, along with white balance and exposure changes that you won’t be able to access in other modes. As well as the above settings, you can shoot at 60fps (which will give you very smooth video) at either 720p or 480p, and there’s also a regular 30fps option for 480p video. I understand Samsung’s reasoning for shuttering away some of these settings from regular users (seeing seven different options for video quality would definitely turn a lot of people off venturing into the menus again) but hiding both the 480p settings is bizarre to me. 480p is definitely okay for sharing to YouTube or Facebook, and with an average filesize of 24MB per minute, it’s far more practical as well.
There’s one final setting available in all modes, which Samsung’s made a fair bit of noise about in its advertising campaign for the Galaxy Camera. Titled simply "Slow motion," it sets the camera to capture video at 120fps before saving the footage at 30fps, which produces, aptly, slow-motion video that’s four times slower than real life. It’s limited to one resolution, 768 x 512, which is likely down to the extreme processing demands involved. Because it’s capturing frames faster, you’ll need to be in a very well-lit area to make the most of the feature, but it’s a nifty parlor trick nonetheless. Switching into Expert mode when capturing slow-motion video is definitely recommended, as you’ll be able to artificially increase the exposure by a couple of notches, enabling you to capture video with a little less light.
Relative video prowess aside, the Samsung Galaxy Camera performs like an average point-and-shoot. If you’ve dropped a couple hundred dollars on a camera in the past year, it’s unlikely to be a step up in quality from what you’re used to. It certainly outperforms the current crop of smartphones in image quality — niche cases like Nokia’s 808 PureView excluded — but falls well short of more focused (and cheaper) efforts from Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, and others. But there’s a reason why Samsung’s camera is priced alongside superior shooters, and it’s safe to say that the bulk of the Galaxy Camera’s asking price is for the smart, not the camera.
In addition to Dropbox integration, the Galaxy Camera has a number of built-in apps for you to choose from, as well as access to the entire Google Play store. Probably the biggest inclusion out-of-the-box is Instagram, but the experience on offer here isn’t perfect. For one, the app is locked into portrait mode, and is very touch-heavy. That means that while trying to take a photo you’ll have to cradle the inch-thick camera in one hand while making sure not to smudgy your filthy fingers all over the lens. It’s not ideal, to say the least, and even a modicum of optimization here would’ve gone a long way. Another thing to note about Instagram is that it can’t access the camera’s zoom function, and the same is true for almost every third-party app I tested, apart from Paper Artist, a Samsung-ified version of the popular Paper Camera app made by the same developer. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from taking a zoomed-in photo in the regular camera app and then opening it in Instagram or whatever app you please, but that’s the sort of annoyance a hybrid product like this should be eradicating. This minor annoyance is made worse by the fact that when you’re not in the camera app the zoom toggle sets the volume up and down, a fact I constantly forgot, resulting in many an unwanted bleep. For what it’s worth, Samsung has said that Instagram will soon support zooming through an update.
A huge benefit Android has over the proprietary OSes of other cameras is editing. While many cameras have some basic retouching features, there aren’t many that have access to the sort of photo- and video-modification apps you can find in the Play store. Indeed, the first time you turn on your camera you’ll see a pair of Samsung-approved photo and video apps waiting for you. The Photo Wizard app offers virtually everything you’d want from a touch-based editor, but the Video Editor app, terrible themes aside, is completely forgettable. Luckily there are some more robust options in the Play store that you can combine to get a decent on-device experience. Once you’re happy with your modified image or video a quick tap of an on-screen button will let you share it with any app or service you want, including Dropbox.
You’ll also have access to a thousands of other apps and games, if that’s what you want from your camera. Skype is a good example; there’s been a small amount of confusion around what exactly this product can and can’t do with its Micro SIM, but it definitely can’t make cellular calls out of the box. If you’re really set on using the Galaxy Camera as a makeshift phone, you could always download a VOIP app. Skype calls worked just fine through the regular Android app, but I was stuck in speakerphone mode — there’s no ‘earpiece’ to speak of. Likewise, although I was able to see friends just fine while attempting video calls there’s no secondary camera, so I was stuck sharing a view of the wall behind my desk. Talking of sharing, you’ll also be able to broadcast live video on the go with apps like Livestream (as you can with virtually any Android device), which is nice. These apps can’t take full advantage of the Galaxy Camera’s enhanced sensor, however, as the compression used by VOIP and mobile streaming services kills fine details anyway.
Android has so much potential
You can technically use Skype to make voice calls
Even if many of the Android apps in the store — and all of the games, in my opinion — are superfluous to requirements here, the flexibility offered by Android is a killer feature. While other smart cameras will allow you to post your images to Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr, that’s often where the sharing stops. With Android, you can rest easy knowing that if a new photo app or social service appears, or even if you’re not interested in using Dropbox and prefer using SkyDrive or SugarSync, you’re almost certainly catered for. Most of these cloud storage apps have the option to auto-upload your photos, as well. That means a lot when you’re dropping $499.99 on a camera.
This always-connected world definitely has its downsides, though. As an Android user, when I first signed into my Galaxy Cam it imported all of your apps and media onto the device. That meant I not only had a lot of unwanted apps wasting precious storage space, but was also inundated by Google Talk messages, emails, calendar events, and other miscellaneous reminders. Of course, I was able to switch off all of the notifications without too much trouble — Samsung even includes a "Blocking Mode" specifically for this purpose — but with so many Android users out there, and not all of them as technically proficient as me, it’s likely to irritate a lot of people.
All these smarts come at a cost: battery life
There’s also the issue of battery life. Samsung says it’s good for seven hours or so of continuous use, or 340 shots. That’s not bad for the point-and-shoot category. However, unlike your average camera, Samsung’s Galaxy Camera doesn’t really switches off as standard; like a phone, tapping on its power button just puts it into standby mode, and it’ll continue to go about its business, downloading your emails, uploading photos and videos, until you turn it on again or it runs out of battery. The result is a pretty poor out-of-the-box experience, as I found it only lasted a couple of days before running out of battery.
Samsung obviously knew this would be an issue, and has a Smart Network mode that switches off wireless connectivity whenever the screen is off. With that setting enabled, the camera lasts for at least a week on standby. That’s a lot more acceptable, but if, like me, you’re use to leaving your camera in a bag for weeks on end, you’ll need to start remembering to power it all the way down when you’re finished using it. Apart from enabling the power-saving options by default (or at least managing background data more efficiently), I’m not sure what Samsung could’ve done differently here. If you want a camera as smart as this, it has to come at the expense of battery life. Perhaps we just need to be retrained, just as we were when we moved from cellphones to smartphones, to expect our devices to last less time on a single charge.
One final matter of contention: sometimes, powering on the camera from standby mode sometimes results in a lengthy 4-5 second wait for it to unlock. Apart from that the device is incredibly snappy, and given the intermittent nature of the fault I hope that it’s something that can be fixed with software.
Other companies need to take this idea and run with it
As a proof of concept, the Galaxy Camera is one of the most effective I’ve ever seen. Almost every idea that Samsung has tried here is not only good but works exactly as you’d expect it to. The only issue with the software is there’s too much of it. I can’t imagine a situation where I’d ever want to read a book on my camera — can you? And that's just one of many useless diversions left in Samsung’s first Android camera attempt.
That said, going back to using a NEX-F3 was a truly painful experience — the tiny non-touchscreen, the convoluted menus, the endless plugging and unplugging of SD cards; it all seems so unnecessary now. I’m persisting with Sony’s old-fashioned camera because the difference in image quality is so large it’s insurmountable, and no amount of apps and trickery will ever be able to fix that.
Other manufacturers need to take note, though: Samsung has just taught you how to make a smart camera. These sort of devices have to provide automatic cloud storage options, they have to let you plug into any social network you want, and they have to allow you to install additional apps so you can switch to whatever new image sharing, editing, or viewing platform you want. That’s the standard that Samsung has set here. Is Google’s Android the only way to achieve that feature-set? Perhaps not. I can’t help but feel Samsung would have been better off forgoing the full Google experience in exchange for a more focused, tweaked version of Android that has access to a curated, camera-focused store. At the very least some of the applications should’ve been suppressed, as there’s way too much going on when you first take the Galaxy Camera out of the box. It’d be a far better experience for the end user, that’s for sure.
If not Samsung itself, then another manufacturer needs to take what Samsung has started and finish it. While there’s no substitute for the dedicated dials of a DSLR, the addition of a touchscreen and cloud backup would be a killer feature, and the more consumer-friendly interchangeable-lens systems and high-end point-and-shoots would benefit from the whole suite of smart camera features.
As for the Galaxy Camera, it’s a $200 point-and-shoot with some fantastic sharing and editing features — is that worth the $300 premium? Probably not, especially if you have a smartphone with a capable camera.
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