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The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom: What makes a phone camera great?
Sometimes, I get a press release that’s so keyed in to my personal areas of interest that I wonder if it’s a fake… a description and product artwork that were thrown together solely to goad me into mentioning this company.
Thus, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom, a new phone which was announced early this morning. It appears to be a device I’ve long hoped to see: a smartphone that doesn’t care about being the thinnest and lightest thing on the market, so long as it provides bang for the bulk.
The “bang” in question is photography. Phone cameras have hit a real brick wall of engineering recently. Users have come to rely upon them to take “real” photos, even using their phones to document key life moments. And yet, phone camera lenses, image sensors and illuminators must still fit into a device no thicker than a pencil.
“To hell with that,” said Samsung (in Korean, I expect). The S4 Zoom is a little more than a half an inch thick.
Oh, the horror! Who on earth has a pocket that can hold something the size of a deck of playing cards!?
No, no… it’s fine! And its thickness means that the S4 Zoom can be designed with real camera components. It has a proper 10x optical zoom that covers a range from 24-240mm (in film camera terms), optical image stabilization, and a “real” Xenon flash, mated to a 16 megapixel image sensor.
I have no technical details on the sensor, but its size and other specs lead me to believe it’s a conventional pocket-camera image sensor. If so, then it’ll be much larger than what you’d find inside a typical phone, which would mean wider dynamic range, better low light performance, and lower noise.
And the S4 Zoom’s simplest feature might be its most appealing one: it’s laid out like a camera, with a a fat shutter button right where you’d expect it to be. You won’t need to hold this phone like a butterfly, and you’re likely to be able to snap a shot at the perfect moment.
There are a few “oh, dears” in the specifications chart, however. Its widest aperture is just f3.1 (closing to a maximum of f6.3 at top zoom). It’ll need to rely on its high ISO range (or its powerful flash) to take decent photos in low light.
I see other problems on the “smartphone” side of features table. My ears perked up when I saw “Galaxy S4″ in the name; I figured the S4 Zoom would be built around the company’s current flagship phone.
Alas, no. Though it’s an Android 4.2 smartphone, it’s something much less than a flagship device. It has a teensy 8 gigabytes of onboard storage, with only about 5 of that available to the user. You can expand storage to as much as 64 gigs thanks to its built-in microSD slot, but Android can’t use that space for apps. So the user will need to be verrrryyyy conservative about installing software.
The dual-core CPU isn’t as powerful as the US S4′s quad-core screamer.
The real bummer is the screen. The flagship S4′s screen is a remarkable 1080 x 1920 pixels. The S4 Zoom’s is a nostalgic 540×960.
My initial excitement over this phone might have been moot, anyway. The Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom was announced only for the Asian market. The company hasn’t said anything about future US availability.
Why even write about it, then? Well, because it’s still a terrific idea. I don’t think consumers value thin phones as highly as phone designers believe they do. Declining sales of budget cameras worldwide points definitively to the conclusion that consumers are, at least in part, already buying “cameras with phone features.”
So why not sacrifice a slim profile as a means toward creating a phone that takes better photos and is easier to handle while doing so? It seems like a no-brainer.
Though obviously it’s an easy choice for Samsung to make. They’re “manufacturers who dabble in design”, which means it’s in their nature to maintain a wide range of products. Apple is a company of “designers who manufacture things”; the company will always focus on making a single “right” product instead of spreading its bets across multiple devices.
It’s a lovely coincidence that this announcement would appear today, of all days. When I received Samsung’s press release, I was filling a bag with a half-dozen phones and preparing to head into the city to shoot my standard series of test photos.
(Yes, dear readers, full reviews of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 are imminent).
I don’t know if I’ll ever have an opportunity to try the S4 Zoom. But I hope that one winds up in the hands of every phone design team, and it provokes a new direction for phone design. Because yes, there’s that Brick Wall Of Engineering that I mentioned earlier.
As I keep testing more and more phones, the importance of certain camera features becomes clearer and clearer. Here are the features that make a phone camera great, in order of value:
A fast, f2.0 lens or better. Though it would be an overreach to say that a phone with a f2.0 lens will always outperform one with a f2.4, in my side-by-side tests, a wider aperture is the consistent key to taking great photos in less-than-good light, and taking usable photos in bad light. And even in good lighting, a wide aperture means you can get “big camera” style bokeh — that attractive effect where your kids standing close to the lens are sharp, and the distracting background is a little blurry.A lower megapixel count. As with the maximum aperture, blanket statements are dangerous but I expect a phone that shoots 8 megapixel images to take better pictures than one that shoots 12, due to the fact that each individual pixel sensor is larger and more responsive. Pixel binning is another desirable “megapixels for image quality” trade. Each pixel that the HTC One’s four megapixel camera writes to a JPEG file is informed by four pixels of information coming off of the image sensor. So it can produce images with less noise and a wider effective range of tones, and it performs better in low light.Optical image stabilization. If you have the first two features, then a lens that reduces the effects of shaky hands is a big plus. It can take sharp photos at longer shutter speeds than would otherwise be possible, meaning more light gets in. The photo shows a sky lit by the moon instead of an expanse of black.
Acting like a computer with an image sensor, instead of like a camera. By now we’ve come to expect panorama and HDR features, and there are even multiple phones that can automatically assemble a brilliant group photo out of a sequence of shots of fidgety kids. We’ve just scratched the surface of “computational photography,” however. Check out the free iOS app SynthCam for a great example. It builds a hybrid still image from dozens of video frames after you’ve identified the areas of interest inside the viewfinder, which can generate in-camera effects that would otherwise require an SLR. Device makers should stop adding fake “fun” filters and set their goals on features that break through the limits of phone camera’s lens, image sensor, and user.
Deep developer APIs. But a phone maker has many things on its plate besides creating a simple Camera app that won’t confuse a first-time user. If the phone’s OS allows third-party developers to have full control over the camera component and all of its settings, then Good Things Will Happen. Such as camera apps that are suited toward the more experienced user, as well as those full-blown computational photography apps that put minor miracles behind a simple red shutter button. Thorough APIs engage the creativity, insight, and the scientific knowledge of a worldwide community.
Mind you, there’s a big dropoff between #1 and #2, and #2 and #3. A wide aperture is so valuable that if the next iPhone has an f2.4 lens (like the iPhone 5) my eyebrow will most definitely be raised. Even if I need to hold it up there with scotch tape.
Despite the popularity of phone cameras, you’ll never hear me say that a phone is as good as a conventional camera. Seriously, dude: this is your first child. My parents’ photos of me as a toddler are crappy Polaroids, but only because they used a crappy Polaroid camera.
Decades from now, will you be looking at the Instagram of the final time your Dad played with your son, and think “Thank Heavens I didn’t spend $300 to get a halfway-decent camera”?
Sorry. Force of habit. I’m not a hater. My last two Christmas card photos were shot on phones, even. A phone happened to be the camera I had with me when I came across a scene that perfectly expressed the sentiment “Merry Christmas, but I have absolutely no issue with you if you don’t celebrate this or any other religious holiday.”
(But still: buy a real camera. Please.)
Phone designers have little choice but to adapt to the importance of photography. Like GPS, and like the telephony features, the camera isn’t a mere bonus feature: it’s one of the big reasons why buy these devices. And, as Android and iOS continue to grow closer to each other in features and power, the quality of a phone’s photos has become one of the few remaining differentiators that make obvious sense to consumers.
The question for hardware designers was once “Let’s put together the best camera we can, given the limitations imposed by the phone’s style.” It needs to become “Now that we’ve designed the best camera, let’s build a case that will house it stylishly, along with the rest of the phone’s components.”
A device like the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom takes this idea to an extreme. Nonetheless, from this year onward I’m hoping to see fatter phones with better cameras.
Follow Andy on Twitter at @ihnatko.
Photos courtesy of Samsung