Samsung EK-GC100 Galaxy Camera (Wi-Fi) Review

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The Samsung Galaxy Camera combines the functions of a Android device and a dedicated camera quite well, letting you whisk your photos and videos to the Web instantly. But this first-gen design also shows room for improvement.

3.5 stars
(3.5 out of 5)

Pros

  • Gorgeous 4.8-inch display
  • Runs Instagram and other Android apps
  • Long 21x zoom range
  • Good high ISO performance
  • Wi-Fi

Cons

  • Pricey
  • Big
  • Touch-based control system is unusual and unwieldy for a camera

Samsung is the class leader when it comes to connected cameras. The company built an excellent Wi-Fi implementation into both point-and-shoots like its WB800F and advanced interchangeable lens models like the NX300. At the same time, it leads the pack in Android handset development. Its Galaxy S 4 smartphone walked away with our Editors’ Choice award for Android phones.

It’s only logical that Samsung would eventually combine a camera and an Android media player into one device. The resulting 16-megapixel Samsung Galaxy Camera ($449.99 direct) is a bit of a Frankenstein product—it’s very large for a camera, even one with a 21x zoom lens, and thick when compared with a phone. This version of the camera only supports Wi-Fi communication; you’ll want to look at the AT&T Galaxy Camera or the Verizon Galaxy Camera if you want always-on 4G connectivity. That’ll cost you a bit more; the AT&T version is priced at $500 and the Verizon at $550, and you’ll still have to pay a monthly bill.

Because it’s an Android device it lets you use photo apps like Instagram, and it lets you fling Angry Birds at disgruntled pigs—but no, it doesn’t make phone calls. Despite its ambitious design, the Galaxy Camera doesn’t oust the 20x-zooming Canon PowerShot SX280 HS as our Editors’ Choice superzoom camera. That camera runs circles around the Galaxy from a performance perspective, and also features Wi-Fi connectivity to transfer images to your smartphone and to online services.

Design and Features
The Galaxy Camera is big. It’s bigger than any compact superzoom I’ve used, and it’s bigger than an interchangeable lens camera like the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5. It measures 2.8 by 5.1 by 0.75 inches (HWD), and it’s no featherweight at 11 ounces. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, which has a shorter zoom lens but a much larger 1-inch image sensor, is only 2.4 by 4 by 1.4 inches in size and 8.5 ounces in weight.

The main reason for the size of the Galaxy is the huge 4.8-inch, 16:9 widescreen display. Most rear LCDs top out at 3 inches at a 4:3 ratio. It’s astounding how different this makes using the camera as compared with a run-of-the-mill point-and-shoot. One downside to the big screen is that it doesn’t look quite as sharp as the displays on the best digital cameras. Even though it’s 1,280-by-720 and thus 921k dots in resolution, just like the LCD found on the Nikon Coolpix S9300, the larger screen size reduces the pixel density.

The first question that popped into my mind when I picked up the Galaxy Camera was, oddly enough, “Where does my thumb go?” The big touch-sensitive LCD occupies almost the entirety of the Galaxy’s backside. I have thick fingers and was worried that holding the camera normally would result in accidentally changing settings. Thankfully this proved not to be the case, as the bezel is just wide enough so my right thumb can rest against it when shooting, without accidentally setting off the touch-shutter. Due to the overall size of the camera I ended up taking photos with both hands, resting my left hand near the lens as I would with a compact interchangeable lens camera or SLR.

Physical controls are nonexistent. This is not a device well-suited for shutterbugs who demand quick control over settings. There’s a zoom rocker built into the shutter control, a Power button, and a button to raise the flash. To lower it, simply push it down into the body. All shooting controls—ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed, Shooting Mode, Exposure Compensation, and the like—are adjusted via the touch-sensitive LCD. The controls are big enough on the screen to make them usable, but they are no substitute for real physical controls. That’s a shame, as there is more than enough room on the front of the body for a simple control wheel, and the top has plenty of space for a Mode Dial or EV Compensation dial. Advanced shooters will appreciate the ability to add a grid overlay to the live view display, not unlike those found on now-ancient manual focusing screens. I opted for a 3-by-3 grid, but there are also 4-by-4, 2-by-2, and diagonal patterns.

If you’re the type to leave your camera in auto, or simply use your phone for all of your camera needs, chances are you’ll seldom venture out of automatic mode. That’s why Samsung has built a number of “smart scene” modes. You can scroll through presets that best capture fireworks, night scenes, fast action, macro objects, panoramic views, and more. For group shots, there’s a special Best Face mode—it takes five images in succession and lets you mix and match the best expressions from people in the shot—so you can salvage a good family photo, even if Uncle Karl has his eyes closed in half the shots.

You can fire the shutter by pressing a physical button, but you can also touch a big on-screen camera icon to shoot a photo. There’s a box that lets you know where the camera is focusing, but you can override this by touching the area of the frame on which you’d like to focus. If you feel like controlling the shutter with your voice you can make it take a photo by saying “cheese,” or “shoot,” and activate a 10-second self-timer by simply saying “timer.”

The default camera app gives you full control over the 21x (23-483mm equivalent) zoom lens. Having such a powerful zoom is one of the biggest advantages that the camera holds over smartphone cameras. The iPhone 5 and its ilk feature fixed lenses that don’t cover as wide of an angle as this lens, and couldn’t dream about zooming in to capture close detail. Macro focusing is supported, and while you can’t butt the lens right up against your subject, you can focus on objects about 1.5 inches from the front element when using the Smart Macro scene mode. If you just activate macro shooting in Program mode, you’ll be limited to 2-inch close focus.

Unfortunately, not all Android camera apps support zooming. If you’re a fan of Instagram, you’ll be left shooting the camera at its widest focal length. Of course, you can shoot a zoomed-in photo using the standard camera app and later add filters using your favorite retro camera filter program, but it would be nice to see the app updated to support zoom control. Social networking apps that use the default Android camera, like Foursquare and Untappd, do not face this limitation—they just take you into the full-feature application and allow you to snap away.

There are a few Samsung-specific Android apps installed that will aid in photo sharing. While most users will likely share photos via Facebook, Flickr, or Twitter—all available for download via the Google Play store—users with multiple Samsung devices will be interested in AllShare Play and Group Cast. AllShare Play is a DLNA server that makes it possible to push your photos and videos to Samsung devices, your PC, and other connected devices. Group Cast lets other devices on your current Wi-Fi network connect to the Galaxy Camera, via a password, to see your photos and videos. Device-to-device sharing is also supported via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi Direct, both accessible from the camera application.

Android and Apps
The Galaxy Camera is one of the weirder Android devices we’ve tested recently, just in general, too. Remove the camera, and you actually have a fun, sprightly little Android tablet, on par with a top smartphone and superior to all of Samsung’s Galaxy Player handhelds.

The 1.4GHz, quad-core Samsung processor in the Galaxy Camera packs some serious punch. We run three system benchmarks: Antutu, Geekbench and Basemark OS. Averaging the three, the Camera was competitive with quad-core, high-end Qualcomm-based smartphones, scoring between the HTC One X+ and the Samsung Galaxy Note II on a range of tests. The Camera scored about 10% slower on Browsermark than the admirable Samsung Galaxy S 4. The only place the Camera fell short was on HD gaming tests, but you won’t do a lot of that on this device anyway. There’s plenty of power here to get things done.

The Galaxy Camera is a fully card-carrying member of the Android universe. The device comes with Google Play on board, and every app we downloaded worked well. It can’t do voice calling or SMS, but it can do everything else an Android-powered phone does, including running Skype. Gmail? No problem. Want to download an office suite? Go for it. The back of this camera also makes a lovely Kindle, with sharp text and smooth page turns. One of the most surreal moments we had here was watching “Arrested Development” streaming on Netflix on the back of a camera. It all works well.

Music files, as well as H.264, MPEG4, and XVID video files, played with ease at resolutions up to 1080p. The Galaxy Camera has a single tinny speaker that makes the whole device vibrate at top volume; a better idea is to use the 3.5mm headphone jack on the right hand side, or connect a Bluetooth headset.

As we were playing with the Galaxy Camera, with its sharp 4.8-inch, 1,280-by-720 screen and speedy quad-core processor, we kept thinking of Samsung’s less-impressive Galaxy Player 4.2. Why can’t Samsung’s standalone handheld be this pretty and this powerful?

You may not want to use the Galaxy Camera as your primary Android device, though. Its 4 hours, 40 minutes of video playback time with the screen at maximum brightness falls short of the Galaxy Player 4.2 (almost 7 hours) and the Apple iPod touch (4 hours, 55 minutes). More importantly, it’s best to save that battery for shooting photos, so it’s there when you need it.

Networking
The Galaxy Camera features Wi-Fi 802.11n networking on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Hooking up to a 5GHz Wi-Fi network makes a huge difference here. Connected to a fast corporate network, we got an average of 23.1Mbps down and 26.3Mbps up on 5GHz. On 2.4GHz Wi-Fi with the same backhaul, speeds dropped to 3.7Mbps down and 0.5Mbps up.

Upload speeds are especially relevant here because the Galaxy Camera creates huge files, which you then may want to post on the Internet. An average 16-megapixel Galaxy Camera shot is about 3.4MB, while a minute-long 1080p video is a horrifying 100MB.

Without further compression, that photo will upload in about a second at our 5GHz speed, in 54 seconds at our 2.4GHz speed, and in 87 seconds at the 3G speed. As for that huge video, it would take 30 seconds to upload at 5GHz, 26 minutes at 2.4GHz.

If only getting online via Wi-Fi seems restrictive, you’re better off getting the AT&T or Verizon version of the Galaxy Camera. Your other option would be to use a mobile hotspot, or to connect the camera to your smartphone, assuming that it supports tethering. This won’t add anything to your monthly bill, but you may have to watch your data usage.

Performance and Conclusions
The Galaxy Camera can wake from standby and take an in-focus photo in about 2.5 seconds. This isn’t the best result; the Canon SX280 HS can start and shoot in about 1.6 seconds. The longer startup time can prevent you from capturing a candid moment, and you can forget about a quick start if the camera is completely powered down. It takes a while for Android to boot, and you’ll have to suffer through splash screens during the process. It’s best to think of the device more like a phone than a camera in this regard. Just leave it in standby mode in between photos.

The camera does better in terms of shot-to-shot time. You can capture a burst of 20 shots at 3.7 frames per second, with virtually no recovery time required between bursts. Shutter lag is an unimpressive 0.4-second, which is more on par with a low-end point-and-shoot than a $500 camera. The SX280 is a little slower in continuous drive mode; it records photos at 3fps, but can go as long as you’d like. Its shutter lag is a mere 0.1-second, which will help you capture a candid moment with ease.

I used Imatest to check the Galaxy Camera’s sharpness and noise control. Its lens manages 2,041 lines per picture height at its widest setting, a bit better than the 1,800 lines required for a sharp image. Noise is kept under 1.5 percent through ISO 800, and detail is actually pretty good at that setting and at ISO 1600—but noise increases to 1.9 percent there. The Samsung WB800F delivers comparable resolution, and manages to keep its noise below 1.5 percent through ISO 3200. But close examination of its images on our calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display show that images from the WB800F look positively smudgy at ISO settings as low as 800.

The camera captures 1080p30 or 720p30 footage at a very high bitrate, and the footage is sharp and detailed. Video quality is actually a bit better than it was on the AT&T version of the camera that we tested, which we can likely attribute to differences in firmware. When we tested that camera we saw a jerky, stuttering effect in the footage—it’s gone. Refocusing is also very fast and white balance was accurate, both improvements from the earlier software that as loaded on the camera.

There are only a few ports to speak of, including a micro-USB connector for charging and computer connectivity and a headset jack that supports headphones with a built-in mic. There’s 8GB of memory built-in, and a microSD card slot. The Galaxy Camera had no problems using a 64GB card.

The Samsung Galaxy Camera appeals to a very specific type of photographer. If you love Instagram and other Android camera applications, but aren’t happy with the quality of the lens and sensor in your smartphone, the Galaxy Camera will be a boon to your photography. Even though it can’t keep up with less expensive point-and-shoot cameras in terms of pure image quality and physical control options, the Galaxy Camera is capable of capturing images much better than the tiny lenses and sensors that are built into smartphones. If you want this and also want always-on connectivity, without having to first transfer images to your smartphone or invest in a plan that supports Wi-Fi tethering, the AT&T or Verizon versions of the Galaxy Camera will be better for you.

If you’re put off by the lack of physical controls on the Galaxy, but are still interested in a connected camera, there are options. The Samsung NX300 delivers images that are on par with an SLR, but lets you push photos directly to social networking sites or to your smartphone via Wi-Fi. Samsung has also announced the Galaxy NX—which is essentially the Galaxy Camera with an SLR-sized image sensor, the ability to change lenses, and Raw image capture. It won’t be out until later this year, and pricing has not yet been set.

If you don’t mind a point-and-shoot, the Samsung WB800F delivers the same Wi-Fi implementation as the NX300, but its high-ISO image quality lags behind both that and the Galaxy Camera. There’s also our Editors’ Choice Canon PowerShot SX280 HS. It’s got Wi-Fi, and it lets you push photos directly to social networking sites, but it doesn’t support Android apps. The Galaxy Camera is a great idea, but it’s a concept still riding the bleeding edge.

By Jim Fisher, PCMag

Specifications

  • Dimensions: 2.8 x 5.1 x 0.75 inches
  • Weight: 11 oz
  • Type: Superzoom
  • Megapixels: 16 MP
  • Sensor Type: CMOS
  • Sensor Size: 4.6 x 6.2 (1/2.3″) mm
  • Media Format: microSD
  • Battery Type Supported: Lithium Ion
  • Maximum ISO: 3200
  • 35-mm Equivalent (Wide): 23 mm
  • 35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto): 483 mm
  • Optical Zoom: 21 x
  • Image Stabilization: Optical
  • Touch Screen: Yes
  • LCD size: 4.8 inches
  • LCD dots: 921000
  • LCD Aspect Ratio: 16:9
  • Viewfinder Type: None
  • Video Resolution: 720p, 1080p
  • Interface Ports: micro USB, micro HDMI, Mic, Headphone
  • GPS: Yes

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