Review: the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - the best Android smartphone camera to date (1)

I've been working with the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom for a few weeks now, and this weekend I published a review on my Dutch website, Smartphone-Review.nl.  Earlier I shared a translation of my Dutch review of the Lumia 930 here, so I guess you're interested in what I wrote about the Galaxy K Zoom as well. Everything you'll be reading below is (freely) translated from Dutch.

A smartphone with a 20MP sensor isn't new in itself - it's the 10x optical zoom that makes the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom a very interesting device. So that's the focus of this review. Probably you're only interested in the Galaxy K Zoom if you expect the best from your smartphone. So does it give you the best results?

Of course, Samsung has produced dozens of "smartphone cameras" already. You'll find a usable or even a very good camera in the Galaxy range - and the Symbian fans here will remember the Samsung Omnia i8910 HD with its 8MP camera as well.

Samsung's first "connected camera" - with a 21x optical zoom - was the Galaxy Camera. It had a simcard for data only though - you couldn't make phonecalls with it (except over Skype, but you wouldn't find a headset in the package).

The second version was the Galaxy S4 Zoom - for sale at a bargain these days. And although that's a real smartphone, its design reminded much more of a compact camera with a smartphone display glued to the back. With the Galaxy K Zoom, Samsung chose for a radical different approach.

Design and specifications
The Galaxy K Zoom obviously isn't competing for the thinnest design award. It´s "functionally fat" - way too thick and heavy at first sight according to many. If that opinion will change when opening the camera depends if you're really interested in smartphone photography or not. But anyway, it's an absolutely remarkable achievement how Samsung managed to get a 10x optical zoom into a relatively thin designed smartphone.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - lens close-up

The back cover is made from the same material you'll find on the Galaxy S5: plastic, but pleasant to hold and you won't get any fingerprints on it. On the sides around the display you'll see aluminium which shows more class than what Samsung thought appropriate for the fake aluminium on the Note 3 and S5.

You'll still see the fake stuff around the camera lens however, but the real aluminium makes up for it in my opinion. You'll find the microSD slot at the left side from the display (you won't have to take off the back cover to swap it).

The display is the same as the one on the Galaxy S3 - 4.8 inch and 720 x 1280 pixels. It may seem pretty outdated by now, but it works fine and uses less energy. The K Zoom runs on KitKat (Android 4.4.2) with a quad-core 1.3 GHz Cortex A7 and a dual-core 1.7 GHz Cortex A15 processor.

In the Galaxy K Zoom on Android 4.4 you'll find the same interface as on the Galaxy S5. It may not as be as fast as the Galaxy S5, but it doesn't really have to be: the K Zoom is about photography, not about gaming for instance. I ran the well-known AnTuTu benchmark and noticed the K Zoom scoring a bit lower than the LG G2 but a bit faster than Samsung's own Galaxy S4. That's probably due to KitKat, but I'm not sure (not my expertise so to say).

More important seems to me its internal memory is only 8GB (why not the standard 16GB?). You can expand your storage with a microSD card, up to 64GB. That's not the last standard (128GB), but it's quite a lot (and cards are hot swappable if you need more). The K Zoom has 2GB of RAM by the way - same as you'll find on most modern smartphones (including the Galaxy S5).

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom lens open

Camera
The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is a joy to hold. It's no "light weight" with 200 grams, but you can't expect that with an optical zoom included. Starting the camera is pretty quick - it takes about a second before you the optical zoom has unfolded.

You can start the camera by pressing the camera button a bit longer. That only works if the device isn't on standby anymore - makes sense, you don't want the optical zoom to open in your pants or vest. Of course, it's possible to open the camera application when unlocking the device with a "swipe".

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom Xenon flash

The camera button works like a charm - it even reminds me of the 808 PureView. It has the perfect size and has the same feel in use. Press it lightly a bit longer for the device to focus - you know the drill . You use the volume button for zooming. You can also "pinch to zoom" which is way less practicle than you know from your 808 or Lumia (simply swiping your thumb up and down the display).

The K Zoom has a 20.7MP CMOS camera sensor and Xenon flash. Focal point is 24-240mm and the lens has a f/3.1 - 6.3 aperture. To compare with the best smartphones in town: the Nokia 808 PureView has a f/2.4 aperture, the Lumia 1020 even has f/2.2. The aperture on the Galaxy K Zoom is on the small side and may cause trouble in worse light conditions.

On the other hand, the Galaxy K Zoom offers an enormous amount of different settings to make the best shots in dozens of different circumstances. Moreover, you can choose to find every setting directly in the scroll menu in your screen when you push the "mode" button.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Screenshot Modes English 1 Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Screenshot Modes English 2

If you want to control just about everything yourself, choose the "manual" setting (doh). It's easy to change shutter time, ISO or aperture.

Comparing the Galaxy K Zoom to the Lumia 1020 and Lumia 1520,  I noticed that on automatic the Galaxy Camera produces a lot lighter shot. Here's an example from this morning, two similar shots in exact the same light conditions, first by the Galaxy K Zoom, second by the Lumia 1520.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom

Nokia Lumia 1520

This was captured with both devices on "automatic". You'll see the Lumia 1520 handles the light way better. On manual, it's possible to get a much better result with the K Zoom as you can see bellow (I zoomed in with this shot and simply forgot to make one without zoom - sorry about that).

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom 2

It's not strange to compare the Galaxy K Zoom with the Lumia 1520. It has a similar sensor and Nokia likes to promote it offers the best imaging with its PureView technology - and so far it has proven to do so as well.

Is the Galaxy K Zoom able to compete with Nokia's PureView devices? As far as I've been able to compare, yes - in part. You've seen my earlier comparisons here at the PureViewClub. In this post I'll show some of the examples I've shared earlier. Like this one, from the flowers on the purple bench.

Same distance, 10x optical zoom.

If you don't use the zoom however, the 20.7MP sensor of the Galaxy K Zoom can't compete with the 41MP sensors of the Nokia Lumia 1020 or Nokia 808 PureView (as I've shown before).

As far as details go, the shots are comparable with the 20MP sensor of the Nokia Lumia 1520 (19MP in 16:9) and 16MP in 4:3). However, the Galaxy Camera has more trouble finding the right contrast etc in your shot. It's likely to over-expose the air in your shot for instance.

In general the K Zoom produces lighter shots using the automatic settings (see above), but that may be a good thing in darker circumstances, since you'll see more detail .The K Zoom has the tendency to oversharpen your shot though, which can be nasty as far as details go (like in this comparison).

If you wish you can change color, intensity, sharpness and contrast in manual settings (this is the menu you'll see when you choose "adjust image" - see below).

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Screenshot Colors English

However, Nokia's PureView tech simply can't compete with the power of the optical zoom as you have seen in this post. Nokia PureView zooms in on the sensor (there's no "digital zoom") so your zoom range is smaller and the resolution will diminish significantly. Using the optical zoom on the Galaxy K Zoom, you'll keep the full 20.7MP resolution (in 4:3 that is).

I'll share three shots from my previous post once more. This the original scene - from the Lumia 1020 - to show you to distance to a remarkable statue in Hilversum (a design icon, the Aprilia Moto 6.5, by Philippe Starck).

Next: how far can you zoom in, using the Nokia Lumia 1020?

And: how close can you get with the 10x optical zoom with the Samsung's Galaxy K Zoom ... (mind you: the Galaxy K Zoom even has 10x digital zoom as well).

It's obvious Samsung wins this kind of competition with ease. But if you feel you don't need any optical zoom, the sensors of Nokia's PureView are unbeatable.

It's a pitty Samsung didn't push the specifications of their best smartphone camera until now a bit further: a bigger sensor for instance, and bigger pixels like on the 808 PureView, a larger aperture. Looks like there's always something you need to wish for.

In dark circumstances, the Xenon flash performs as expected. Its effectivity depends on the distance to your subject of course. Moreover, don't zoom in and expect the flash to perform as good - even a Xenon flash can't "zoom in".

The general menu settings is like you may have seen on other Samsung smartphones.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Screenshot Menu English

If you choose for Manual settings however, the menu changes into this.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Screenshot Modes 1 English Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Screenshot Modes 2 English

Moreover, only on the Galaxy K Zoom (so not on other Samsung devices) you'll find a special "Studio" application with several possibilities to "get creative" with your shots (crop, resize, etc. etc).

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Screenshot Studio English

Summarizing
Is the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom the best smartphone camera to date? Yes and no. Personally I feel it's fantastic to be able to work with an optical zoom and I'd welcome it on the next "Nokia by Microsoft" Lumia smartphone (but I'm not holding my breath).

The Galaxy K Zoom is the best smartphone camera on Android, and that alone might be an important reason to prefer this device over anything else for a lot of consumers. Samsung outranks it's own Galaxy S5 - which has a pretty good camera built-in as well - and Sony's Xperia Z2.

The only things that may keep a lot of potential customers away is its size and weight, and its modest specifications. The Galaxy K Zoom is for those who expect the very best imaging quality from their Android smartphone.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom

A few examples
Below you'll find a few shots I captured in the past days with the Galaxy K Zoom. Digital zoom for instance, is ideal for capturing my orange friend...

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Kater Pippi

What about capturing a police helicopter (10x zoom)?

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - politiehelikopter

Close - and even sharp - enough to read its number in a crop...

Politiehelikopter crop

Here's a close-up view of a building next to Utrecht Central Station.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Bank bij Utrecht CS

The Eye Movie Institute at the IJ lake in Amsterdam.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Eye aan het IJ

On the Amsterdam Amstel, from a boat - 10x zoom.

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Op de Amstel

Amsterdam Central Station in golden light of the setting sun (10x zoom)

Samsung Galaxy K Zoom - Amsterdam CS

And to conclude: the St. Nicolas church in Amsterdam (opposite Central Station, 10x zoom)

Nicolaaskerk bij Amsterdam CS

Sure: the noise level in this last shot isn't perfect when you look at the original. But it's nice to be able to get this close in the first place, in my opinion at least,

The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom isn't for those who are satisfied with the average built-in camera - which is pretty good in general these days! - and who simply prefer a smartphone with the current state-of-the-art specs (light-weight, thin, large display, fast quadcore processor, 3GB RAM etc. etc.).

But would you like the camera on your Android smartphone to be really impressive, you'll have no other choice than the Galaxy K Zoom at this moment. Considering the upcoming holidays, I think it's worth your attention, although you'll need to get acquainted with its limitations and workarounds. I do expect Samsung to come with a software update to get less bright shots when using the automatic settings.

In the Benelux, it has a suggested retail price of €499 and I wonder if it's a coincidence that it's the exact same price as the Nokia Lumia 930... I'm eagerly awaiting the Nokia Lumia 930 and will keep you posted with a few more comparisons with the Galaxy K Zoom.

You'll find all new shots published in this comparison together with the shots I shared earlier, here in this dedicated album on Flickr if you want to have a detailed look.

In a next part, I'll compare the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom with Nokia's Lumia devices in low-light situations.

If you like what I’m doing here, please consider making a donation. There’s a button on the right hand side of this page, leading to PayPal. Any donation is welcome since this club doesn’t support itself. I’ll mention you as a sponsor  here, so this is your way to be featured in the Club yourself :-)