Samsung Galaxy Camera – future flash

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The future of all cameras: a compact running on a smartphone operating system with a fantastic feature set plus excellent integration with services such as Dropbox and Facebook – it’s just not quite there yet

When Samsung unveiled this camera just before Christmas, many were a bit confused. Why on earth is it putting a smartphone operating system on a camera? Smartphones with cameras have already become advanced enough now to start killing off the cheap compact camera market – why go there?

Samsung has done something ingenious here and presented us with an effective prototype of how all consumer-grade cameras will one day operate. This camera is essentially a Samsung Galaxy S III (quad-core processor and all) stuck on the back of a 21x zoom, 16.3MP camera.

It borrows a lot of ideas from the Nokia PureView 808 cameraphone, but the Galaxy Camera runs the full Android 4.2 OS (rather than the dead-and-buried Symbian). This means it works as well as any smartphone in the market, running all your favourite apps, games and, of course, photo-editing software.

Best camera OS
For this reason alone it is incredibly flexible – instead of being stuck in Nikon or Canon’s locked-down operating systems, this means your Galaxy Camera already has access to your GPS (and Google Maps), Dropbox (for automatic file storage), Facebook and Instagram (for sharing photos).

No more pulling the memory card out of your compact camera, plugging it into your computer, loading up your graphics editing program, resizing and cropping your images, uploading to Facebook, tagging your friends and pressing save.

The Galaxy Camera (GC) lets you do everything, automatically, as soon as you’ve taken the picture. You can do all the editing you like with on-board photo software (or download your own).

The GC has a built in Micro-SD – so the internal memory of 8GB is expandable to 64GB. It also supports 2G, 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi. While it doesn’t have a built-in cellular radio (so no mobile network calls), its connectivity options mean you can use Skype, Viber and WhatsApp to call and text friends and family.

Sounds good so far? Unfortunately, I call this a prototype because I feel it is exactly that – the processor is powerful, but the glasswork isn’t. But Samsung’s effort here definitely points a very clear arrow about where the camera market is going.

Samsung’s camera-focused rivals better sit up and pay attention, or they risk going the way of the Nintendo and Sony handheld gaming machines – killed off by tablets, phone-tablets and smartphones running mobile operating systems.

Hardware a mixed bag
The trade-off for this impressive piece of hardware is its usability. Cramming a 1.4GHz quad-core processor (as mentioned earlier, basically a Samsung Galaxy S III minus the cell radio) into a compact camera size doesn’t really work. It is heavy and unwieldy.

Most of this processing power is being used on the smartphone features (and whether you need all those features is debatable). Cameras themselves are actually pretty simple devices, requiring little more than a light sensor to record the world, and then a mechanism for processing and recording it to an SD card.

As a result, the Galaxy Camera is much bigger than a lot of compact cameras, and is much heavier than most smartphones at 300g – the Nokia Lumia 920 (a heavy boy itself) is only 185g. Everyone who picked it up for a play was shocked at how heavy it was.

This is because it is pretty well designed on the outside – it is quite attractive, a high-quality build and made out of a hard, cool plastic that feels metallic.

Unfortunately, corners have been cut – the Xenon flash that pops up is very rinky-dink, and when the lenses are fully extended the camera falls over.

The camera falls over
You didn’t misread that – the camera falls over. The body isn’t balanced against the extended lenses, so anyone who wants to set it up on a table or on a timer will need to use a tripod – it simply falls forwards. This is a pretty appalling design failing – a trade-off for getting that 21x zoom.

The entirety of the back of the camera is taken up with a very clear 4.8-inch, 1,280 x 720 screen. While well illuminated and fairly high resolution, the colours represented are a bit dull.

It is great for playing back photos and videos though – superior to most DSLR camera screens. Unfortunately, there is no viewfinder, so the screen is all you have to shoot with and mostly follows smartphone mechanics (touch the screen to focus). The shutter button on the top of the device zooms.

While so far this seems excellent for casual snappers and travellers, the screen itself is among the worst muck magnets I’ve ever seen. Whereas most smartphones are used in a single- or dual-finger prodding motion, the Camera’s screen means that holding it like a camera often means your hands will smear the screen, and I regularly bumped the settings button with my thumb while trying to line up a shot.

As a smartphone, running apps and the like, the power inside the Camera means it never misses a beat in games or any other app. Photo editing is a breeze with minimal delays. If anything, most delays will come from upload/download times on your internet connection.

Battery life issues
Another trade-off is that the camera needs to boot up like a smartphone or computer, which takes a huge 25 seconds. This makes it useless for a camera as any ‘magic moment’ is lost in that time.

However, if you go into settings and use ‘fast power on’ (which lasts for 24 hours), the turn-on time is instant.

However, much like tablets and smartphones’ ‘always on’ usage – this means your camera is continuously burning through your battery charge. If you plan to take this backpacking or into the jungle for multiple days, tough – either turn it off fully each time (and potentially miss the photo of a lifetime) or have it in ‘always on’ mode and potentially have the charge run out before you get back to civilisation.

Given the point of these smartphone-style features is to enhance photography’s mobility and connectivity, this is a pretty tough call for buyers to make.

During testing of ‘always on’ the camera lasted around 24 hours before needing another charge (combination Wi-Fi and 3G). Powering off and on lasted 2-3 days with sporadic usage. This simply does not match up to any dedicated camera of any kind unfortunately.

Photo customer confusion
The Galaxy Camera’s size suggests that it’s a high-end compact camera, similar to a Canon G1X. It isn’t unfortunately, and is probably more akin to the lowest levels of cheap £100-£200 compacts.

If you want to compare it to smartphone cameras – not terribly fair since it has a full optical set and zoom – it thrashes pretty much all of them in day-to-day situations. But then this is a £400 device that can’t make cellphone calls.

It does have two great features for casual snappers. Firstly, it has an incredibly wide field of view at 4.1mm. This is more than almost every other camera out there (professional or not), and means that everything fits in frame – about as much as your eyesight. The 21x optical zoom is also very useful for the opposite reason. Again, the trade-off for these two feature sets is the image quality.

Replacement for compacts?
The Galaxy Camera does offer more options than most low-end compacts. If you keep your camera stuck on auto mode, you may never notice. But the Galaxy becomes very useful once you put it on manual and fiddle with the exposure, shutter speed, aperture and the ISO (digital ‘film speed’).

However, while these attributes hurt it as a still camera, it remains a very good video camera. It takes a good 1080p video, plus its size and weight makes it much easier to lug around and shoot decent video. The huge back screen helps immensely for shooting home videos – and this is where I predict the Galaxy Camera could become a sleeper hit. It is streets ahead of most smartphones when it comes to video quality – but again suffers graininess in low light. In moving images, however, this is less noticeable.

It also has a screw mount on its base, so can easily be attached to a dolly or tripod.

In summary, no£400 seems expensive compared to the compact cameras you can get for the same price from Canon, Nikon and Sony.

You can do almost everything you can on your Android smartphone here except cellphone calling (although you can make voice calls through Skype and Viber) – but you get a pop-up flash, 21x zoom and a huge field of view.

Unfortunately, ramming phone components into a camera has left the device a bit bulkier – and the camera components still aren’t as good as dedicated cameras. Until the price comes down, and the bulkiness is shed, normal users will probably be best sticking to their existing compacts and uploading manually. Nikon and Canon beware.

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