What happens when you take a smartphone and stick a point-and-shoot camera on the back? The original Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom was a slightly unrefined piece of technology, but the new Galaxy K Zoom -- based on the excellent Galaxy S5 -- cleans up its act and produces a versatile and useful camera phone.
What Is It?
The $749 Galaxy K Zoom refines the concept of 2013's Galaxy S4 Zoom -- a smartphone based on a cut-down version of that year's flagship handset, with the optical zoom lens and sensor from one of Samsung's point-and-shoot digital cameras. The K Zoom is much, much thinner than the S4 Zoom, thanks in part to a redesigned optical zoom lens system that actually pulls one of the lens elements off to the side rather than simply collapsing into the smartphone's body.
The K Zoom's design language mimics the Galaxy S5, with a dimpled faux-leather back panel that can be removed and replaced. The camera module is by far the most obvious feature on the rear of the phone, with a mix of machined, metallic-finish and smooth plastic that protrudes another 5mm from the rest of the already 16mm thick chassis. Take the cover off and you'll find the 2430mAh battery; take that out and you have access to the device's microSIM slot. The SM-C115 K Zoom only has 8GB of internal memory; you'll need to use the externally-accessible microSD slot to add extra capacity.
The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is otherwise a mid-range smartphone; it has a quad-core processor with dual 1.7GHz and second dual 1.3GHz linked cores; the low-power cores prolong battery life when you're not running number-crunching or performance-intensive apps. It's LTE Category 4 capable, so in a perfect world you'd manage 150Mbps downloads and 50Mbps uploads on a compatible mobile network. Its 4.8inch touchscreen is a 1280x720p AMOLED one; this is smaller and less detailed than the S5's, and is really only on par with the Galaxy S3 of 2012. It doesn't have 802.11ac Wi-Fi, either, for what that's worth.
Here's a quick look at how the camera aspect of the K Zoom performs.
What Is It Good At?
The standout feature of the Galaxy K Zoom is, as you'd expect, its 10x optical zoom camera, which has a 20.7-megapixel resolution. This may only be on par with the current Nokias and Sony Xperias of this world, but don't discount the massive advantage that having a proper lens with proper glass gives your photographs. The photos that the K Zoom can capture are great, and even on its relatively small touchscreen you can tell the difference between them and the photos of any other smartphone you can buy today (perhaps with the exception of the similarly photo-focused Nokia Lumia 1020.
Here are some photos snapped around Sydney's Circular Quay with the Galaxy K Zoom. Note that the model I tested was preproduction (in that it's not an Australian-delivered handset, and lacks any telco branding or localisation), so photos may be slightly different to those you'll see from a full production version. The K Zoom takes great photos in good lighting, and the image stabilisation is effective -- I snapped some good photos even at the maximum end of the K Zoom's magnification in high wind on the harbour. These photos are all of bright, daylit subjects and demonstrate the best that the K Zoom can do -- some high ISO photos are on the way too.
One thing that is initially noticeable is the significant amount of flare you get when you're shooting indirectly into the sun with the K Zoom. Otherwise, images are great -- even in darker conditions than a smartphone would usually be happy shooting in the K Zoom's OIS gets you a clear shot, and from the base ISO all the way to its 3200 maximum images are clean and free of excessive digital noise. Shooting in manual mode is possible -- Samsung has a Program feature that does most of the work for you but lets you tweak anything you like, including aperture and shutter and overall exposure compensation.
I'm not going to go too into depth on the other features of the K Zoom purely because, for all intents and purposes, it is otherwise a cut-down version of the Samsung Galaxy S5, running on slightly less powerful software. I'd encourage you to read that review for a list of that phone's pros and cons -- it's a distinctly flavoured kind of Android, and it's one that you can either love or hate.
What Is It Not Good At?
The camera bump may be big on the Lumia 1020, but it's bigger on the K Zoom. Despite its comparatively slim dimensions against the S4 Zoom and despite its relatively small touchscreen, this is a big smartphone and one that will stick on from your jeans pocket. When smartphones are generally growing taller and wider as screen sizes rise, this particular one is a bit of a fatty. It's certainly well put together, and the curved design minimises that bulk as much as possible, but this is a phone that you might struggle with if you're a skinny-jeans-wearing hipster.
This isn't necessarily a negative point, but the Galaxy K Zoom uses Samsung's TouchWiz skin on top of Android, with all the extra apps and features that brings with it. Being that the K Zoom necessarily has TouchWiz tied into the optical zoom lens's controls, it's a mandatory aspect is lost when you use a different camera app or a different launcher skin. It's an unashamedly Samsung device and you'll have to be happy to buy into Samsung's services and apps and features to make the best of your experience with it.
Should I Buy It?
If you really need a smartphone with a capable camera integrated, then the Galaxy K Zoom acquits itself admirably. For taking photos, it's just about as good as you could expect from a smartphone of its size and specifications. Its $749 retail price in Australia is somewhat higher than I'd buy it at, but if you can find it on discount it'd be a good deal.
As smartphones go, the advantage that the K Zoom's camera brings comes at the cost of significant bulk and weight. If you consider the K Zoom as something that replaces both a smartphone and a camera, though -- and if that's something that appeals to you -- then it's a perfectly usable and capable and powerful all-in-one device that can absolutely justify its size and price and specs.