Samsung Galaxy K zoom review: the point-and-shoot with a phone
It was just about this time last year that we were asking some valid questions about the Samsung Galaxy S4 zoom: Is it a phone? Is it a camera? Who would buy it? Why?!? One year later, its successor has reached the market with the same functionality and almost the same form factor. Now we’re asking the same questions in our Samsung Galaxy K zoom review below, though we’re not quite sure we’ll be able to answer this time around, either.
If you don’t know what the S4 zoom was, and what the K zoom is, just take a look at the images below. You see, you have to look at both of them, because if you only peek at the back of the device, you’ll think it’s a point-and-shoot. If you look at the front alone, you’ll say it’s a Galaxy phone, like all the others. No, it’s some sort of Frankenstein combo (and we were looking for a better way to describe it).
We’ll be blunt: it’s big, it’s ugly, and it’s hefty. Would you put up with all that for the same picture quality you’d be likely to get from other phones? The Nokia Lumia 1020 and the Sony Xperia Z2 come to mind at first, but the Galaxy S 5 isn’t far behind at all on the list, and neither is the LG G3. Probably not, but if you’re into optical zoom, then it’s a different story! Let’s take a closer look at this niche device, its capabilities, and what it has to offer as a whole, in our Samsung Galaxy K zoom review below.
Samsung Galaxy K zoom Review Video
Specs & Hardware
Samsung decided to no longer reuse (or capitalize on) its Galaxy flagship’s moniker with this 2014 camera-phone hybrid, unlike last year, when we got the S4 zoom (not that the S4 zoom had much of anything in common with the S4). Instead, we’re just talking about the K zoom, which, while larger than its predecessor in all measurements, manages to feel smaller in the hand, due mainly to the omission of a camera grip present on last year’s model. Also gone is the tripod mount, and the battery is no longer a slide-in-from-the-side one, but is situated below a plastic battery cover which utilizes the same (perforated) texture found on the Galaxy S5. Oh, and the ring around the lens is gone as well, the ring you used on the S4 zoom to either access a shortcut menu or control the optical zoom.
At 200 grams, this is not a light model. Couple that with its bulky form factor and you’ve got yourself a pretty uncomfortable device to carry around in your pocket. We mean it: it measures 137.5 x 70.8 x 20.2mm. Yes, more than two centimeters thick. But it’s not all that bad: at least it feels good in the hand, as good as any other Samsung phone you’ll find on the market, and the back texture is miles better than last year’s hyperglaze.
Not only that, but the front (at least on our white review unit here) also has a slight texture around the screen and buttons, reminiscent of the one on the S4 and the S5. Luckily, it’s not that noticeable or “in your face,” except when the capacitive buttons are lit. Speaking of that, if you thought the K zoom would look any different than any other Samsung phone, you’re wrong.
We still have the classic “love it or hate it” home button, and it’s flanked by two capacitive keys to the left and the right: one for multitasking, and one for a back action. These are placed below the 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display with its 720p resolution, a step up from last year’s qHD (that’s quarter, not quad) screen. Expect nothing less from the display on the Galaxy K zoom than from any other Samsung Super AMOLED unit: it is bright, vibrant, with good contrast, deep blacks, and great side-angle visibility. Outdoor visibility is also on the decent side, and while you’ll not be able to manually dim the brightness as low as on the GS5, it’s capable of dimming enough not to bother you at night. Smart Stay is still present for those who find it of any use, but the ability to choose from different display modes present on previous generation devices (Standard, Movie, Vibrant, etc.) has been eliminated; instead there’s a simple “Auto adjust screen tone” checkbox that takes care of brightness “based on the on-screen image to save power.” At almost 306PPI you won’t have any issues with jagged text or graphics, unless you have eagle vision or you place it under a magnifying glass. Overall, we have nothing to object about when it comes the display.
The rest of the phone’s front panel is business as usual, with the earpiece, sensors, and a 2MP front-facer above the display. You know what you won’t find on the K zoom’s front? Something that you couldn’t find on the S4 zoom’s front either: an LED notification. We miss it, and we really feel Samsung should have included at least a small, two-tone LED. It would have saved you from the trouble of waking the device to see if you’ve got any recent activity you need to acknowledge or take action on.
The back is dominated by the huge Samsung lens that simply can’t go unnoticed. We’ll talk more about that in our dedicated camera section later in the review; for now, we’ll mention that the megapixel count has been upped to 20.7, while the optical image stabilization and the 10x optical zoom capability remain functionally unchanged from last year. You still have a xenon flash to help brighten things up, and a focus assist light for dark scenes.
Between the back and the front lies an Exynos 5260 SoC, which is a hexa-core chip, meaning it has six cores: we’ve got four low-power 1.3GHz Cortex A7 cores, and a pair of high-performance 1.7GHz Cortex A15 cores. The 2GB of memory ensure that everything runs smoothly, and the bare minimum 8GB of internal storage (out of which very little is available to the user, around 5GB) nearly forces you to go out and buy a microSD card to expand it. You WILL need it! Samsung should have went with at least 16GB, or should have bundled a microSD card for expansion (something which the retailer we purchased the device from thought about, and shipped the K zoom with a 64GB memory card).
You’ll also find the usual suspects of sensors (accelerometer, gyro sensor, geomagnetic sensor, light sensor, proximity sensor), as well as support for NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi, GPS, and a radio handling 4G LTE on bands (depending on your market) B1 (2100), B2 (1900), B3 (1800), B5 (850), B7 (2600), B8 (900), and B20 (800), as per the official spec-sheet on Samsung’s website.
The phone runs Android 4.4.2, and a 2,430mAh battery (which is way too small) powers everything, but you won’t find Galaxy S5 specific features like the waterproof construction, heart-rate monitor, or a fingerprint scanner. There are other features stripped from the K zoom, which we’ll talk about in our software section below, but this is where Samsung’s choice to not use the S5 name makes a lot of sense.
Multi-window, air-gesture, and S-Health are absent on the software side, in addition to the missing hardware mentioned above. Don’t expect to be able to unlock your device by swiping your finger across the home button. If you’re among those who are excited about that specific Samsung security feature, you’ll be disappointed to know that it is not available, neither as a software, nor a hardware capability.
On top of Android 4.4.2, the K zoom is running the same version of TouchWiz that you’ll find on 2014 Samsung phones, including the Galaxy S5. Hence, the entire experience is comparable, minus the software and hardware omissions we mentioned earlier. If you want to know more about what to expect, we invite you to check out our in-depth Galaxy S5 review’s software section.
Long story short, the UI is somewhat cleaner, with Samsung’s new, rounded shortcut icons in the notification tray, and improved settings menu (which is now organized under vertical categories, and is searchable, which is great, because you’ll often find yourself looking for too long for a specific set, category, or setting). Small bits like displaying the last time you’ve talked to the person you’re currently dialing, and Toolbox, for a Facebook chat-head-like always-visible floating shortcut menu, are all useful additions to the user experience.
Motions and gestures have been stripped down to four, in their specific category, but to be quite frank, it doesn’t bother us too much. What does, though, is all the clutter in the camera UI. We were a bit disappointed to find out that, despite this being a camera-centric device, the camera app is the same as the one on the S5, which we didn’t like that much because of all the options and modes among which you’ll easily get lost.
If you’re buying this phone, you’re most likely doing so because of the camera, which is, after all, its main selling point. We snapped a lot of pictures during our time with the K zoom, under differing circumstances and lighting conditions, with results varying from very good to satisfying. One of our main complaints about last year’s S4 zoom was the inability to wake the device with the dedicated camera button, and launch it into the camera application. Sadly, that’s not been fixed by Samsung: you have to wake the phone as usual, and launch the camera from the single shortcut on the lock screen (with no way of adding more or customizing whatsoever). However, you can launch the camera with the shutter button if your device is active, and awake. There is a way though: pressing the volume up and the camera button simultaneously for a second will launch the camera from sleep mode, but it involves two hands, and takes a fraction of a second longer than actually waking the device and swiping up on the camera shortcut from the lock screen.
Being a camera-centric phone (with some people still arguing that this is a point-and-shoot that makes calls), we expected at least some new camera software, as mentioned above. Instead, we’ve got the exact same camera UI found on the S5, with a ton of shooting modes you can choose from. We applaud the ability to separately set focus and exposure points, which comes in handy many times. To achieve that, tap anywhere on the screen, where you want to focus, and then drag the corner away to another part of the scene, where you want exposure to be set. Handy feature!
There’s also a special mode on the K zoom, called Pro Suggest, not available on the S5, which automatically suggests effects depending on the scene you’re about to capture. Needless to say, you can download dozens of effects from Samsung to complement the cornucopia found on the device. Aside from the usual modes, there’s also a Program Mode (which adjusts the exposure by automatically setting shutter speed and aperture), and a Manual Mode (which is pretty self explanatory).
Twenty-seven total modes are available to choose from, out of which you can display twelve of your choice at any time. While having multiple choices is a good thing, clutter, and the fact that you will probably never use half of them, are not, but it’s really up to you. They’re there if you want to unleash your creativity.
How about the results? The 20.7MP shooter on the K zoom delivers very nice pictures. Images are well balanced, realistic, sharp, and under good conditions, generally noise-free. We have a major complaint though: on our particular unit, the far right quarter of stills lack sharpness, almost if like a special faded-out blurred effect was applied. We’re guessing it’s a lens issue because it tends to go away once you start using the optical zoom. But then, also some of the light goes away as well, thanks to the variable aperture range of 3.1 to 6.3, meaning zoomed-in pictures will likely be darker. Exposure and white balance are handled well, and with 20.7 megapixels to work with, you’ve got a lot of room to work with for cropping-down.
Since there’s no ring around the lens anymore, you can either pinch the screen or use the volume rockers on the side to activate the 10x optical zoom. You no longer need to move in close to your subjects, and the results are pretty impressive, both in terms of shooting far away subjects, and in creating nice bokeh effects.
Low-light sensitivity is also good, though pictures tend to be warmer than those shot under regular circumstances. We have no major complaints and the xenon flash is strong enough to brighten up the scene easily. Our biggest concern, though, is the aforementioned blur on the right side of frames; while it’s nothing you can’t live with, if you care about your stills, it will bother you.
That blur is also present on the same right edge of the frame while shooting video, zoomed out. Otherwise, the camera is capable of recording good-looking videos, both outdoors and indoors, and the ability to zoom in on the fly optically – while you’ll have to learn to live with the sound of the lens zoom motors on your videos – is great.
Video recording comparisons below:
After more than a week using the K zoom, we can tell you that our battery concerns from the initial unboxing and first impressions video were spot on. The 2,430mAh battery is simply too small for this device. Prepare to run out of juice by the end of the day, even if you use this guy as a regular smartphone. Open up the camera app and shoot your way through the day, like Samsung wants you to, and you’ll have to recharge halfway through, or replace the battery with a fully-charged one.
We have no complaints on the performance side of things, though. We’ve experienced no lag or hiccups while performing day-to-day activities whatsoever. These include phone calls, texts, emails, chats, social media interactions, music and video streaming, navigation, and document editing. You can also play graphic-intensive games without a problem. Need for Speed Most Wanted ran without problems, though the battery was depleting fast.
Call quality and signal strength are not stellar, but they’re not on our list of complaints, either. The phone delivers average results, in line with most of the smartphones you’ll find on the market. We’re a bit disappointed by speaker performance, though, regardless if we’re talk about phone calls or multimedia. With such a bulky form factor, Samsung could have equipped the K zoom with a more capable speaker. The fact that its backfiring doesn’t help, either; luckily, the speaker is positioned on the top, so you won’t cover it up with your hand in portrait mode.
And when it comes to the battery, we just have to reiterate our thoughts: it’s too small for such a device, but that’s the price you have to pay for trying to keep the form factor at a decent size, while packing (relatively) capable hardware and a powerful camera inside it.
+ optical zoom lens
+ optical image stabilization
+ solid camera performance
+ decent specs
+ good performance
– bulky, ugly, hefty
– only 8GB of internal storage (5GB available)
– no LED notification light
– shutter button won’t wake the device (unless you combine it with the volume up key, which takes up two hands)
– poor battery life
Pricing and Availability
While the Samsung Galaxy K zoom hasn’t yet been picked up by any North American carrier, those of you who want to purchase this device can easily find it on Amazon, eBay, or other online outlets, with prices ranging from $460 to $490, depending on your luck.
If you’re outside the US, you might want to check in with your online Samsung store, or other retailers, where the phone (errr, camera) might be available. In our particular case, we purchased the device unlocked for $712, but the price since has been reduced to $580 (at the same retailer, which also happens to bundle a 64GB Samsung microSD card).
We’ll definitely have coverage on the K zoom once it lands in the US (which should happen later, just like in the S4 zoom’s case), so make sure to check back, if not for a full review, at least for a review rebuttal or similar coverage.
We had a lot of complaints last year with the Galaxy S4 zoom. Needless to say, most of those issues return on our 2014 K zoom list as well. While Samsung has definitely improved the specifications on paper, it has still not addressed some rather important aspects, like the LED notification, or the simplest, no-brainer capability of waking the phone into the camera app with the camera button (alone).
That being said, we’re still not sure we’re able to answer our fundamental questions about this device, but we’ll try our best. Is it a phone? It definitely is a smartphone, and a rather capable one at that, being able to handle most of today’s tasks without a problem. Is it a camera? It surely is, and a good one at that. Who would buy it? The person who doesn’t care about added bulk, is not a spec-head (but rather a casual smartphone user), is relatively light on using the phone, and cares a lot about his or her on-the-go photography. Why? Well, you tell us why you’d buy (or skip) the Samsung Galaxy K zoom, in the comments below.