Samsung’s Galaxy brand is one that it’s traditionally used for tablets and smartphones. They’re devices that have largely supplanted the compact camera, simply because most folks carry their mobile phone with them (the hint there is in the title “mobile”, really), and take shots with that. So the announcement that Samsung was releasing a camera with Galaxy branding was a bit of a surprise; while Samsung has a healthy business in the existing camera market, this kind of hybrid device is one that’s often plagued with compromises, as with Nikon’s similar hybrid Android/Compact, the Coolpix S800c.
I’ve spent the past couple of weeks testing out the Samsung Galaxy Camera. The basics are easy enough to cover off; it’s a $599, 16.3 megapixel camera with a 21x optical zoom, 8GB of onboard memory and a 1.4Ghz quad-core processor. Why does a camera need a processor like that? Because it’s also running Android 4.1, AKA “Jelly Bean”; not only is this a camera, but it’s also almost entirely functional as an Android device, right down to taking a microSIM card for data connectivity. You can’t quite make phone calls with — or at least not direct phone calls, although Skype would be feasible — but anything that’ll run on Android will run here. Yes, that does include Angry Birds, although it’s an odd experience playing games on what is so obviously a camera.
The point of Android on a compact camera isn’t so much to replace your smartphone, however; it’s more to do with making it easy for people used to services such as Instagram to automatically upload their photos taken with a lens that’s a bit better than those found on most smartphones, not to mention the optical zoom capabilities.
My experience with the Galaxy Camera has been distinctly mixed; for everything I could find that was truly excellent, there’s another slight downside. Take simply taking shots, for example. The automatic and smart settings work well enough, but if you do want to tinker with aperture, shutter speed or exposure, you’re stuck with slow, fiddly virtual screen controls. The inclusion of a long zoom marks it out from any other Android-based smartphone camera, but the zoom only works flawlessly in the default camera application. If you’re a fan of other camera applications, including Instagram, you’re in a zoom-free zone. That’s a software addressing problem — apps that won’t work the zoom think the controls are actually a volume rocker — but it does detract from the overall package. It’s very neat that you can upload photos immediately via 3G, but you’ll understandably need a data offering from a telco to take advantage of the 3G connectivity built in to the camera, and that’s an extra cost to bear. On the truly odd side, during my testing, a random person called the number associated with the MicroSIM within the Galaxy Camera — and naturally, there’s no way to answer it!
It’s a good idea to keep the Galaxy Camera running; from standby you’re only a second or two away from a shot, but if you are switching it on fresh, you’ll have a standby time of around 20-30 seconds, because what it’s doing first is launching a full version of Android. There’s probably no way around that, but it does highlight another problem, and that’s battery life. Running full Android, a 4.3 inch display screen and either Wi-Fi or 3G for data upload is going to sap even the biggest of batteries, and while the Galaxy Camera has a large body, it runs from the same battery found in the Samsung Galaxy S II. That’s a 1650mAh lithium ion pack — on the plus side, replacements and spares should be plentiful — and it’s pretty easy to run it flat within just a couple of hours of shooting. It does charge quickly, but it’s a problem if you’ve got a big day’s shooting in front of you.
The Galaxy Camera is Samsung’s first stab at this kind of hybrid device, and it does show. There’s a decent idea here, marrying decent but not spectacular camera optics to the flexibility of Android, but it feels like it needs a little more work to make it really shine.