This is not a smartphone, despite the device’s pedigree. Nor is it any plain old point-and-shoot. With Galaxy S III guts, Samsung’s Galaxy Camera is bravely attempting to merge the very separate and conflicted worlds of point-and-shoot photography with hyper-connected smartphones. It sounds like the ultimate recipe. You desperately want this to be a success.

In truth, Samsung’s Galaxy Camera is an odd proposition for consumers, in which the device is squarely aimed. This isn’t for the pro, or even the budding amateur. This is for the social butterflies who get a thrill from sharing photos and for people who want to snap, connect and upload to every last social network. It conveniently eliminates the middle man — your PC — and turns an archaic point-and-shoot experience into something familiar. That’s the beauty of Samsung’s creation.

All you need is $500 and an AT&T data plan.

Why all the fuss?

Companies have put a lot of stock into converging markets in 2012. We’ve seen a smartphone/tablet/laptop hybrid from ASUS, while other OEMs are stuffing fully functional Windows 8 PCs into smaller tablet bodies. The Galaxy Camera, though, is different. Android Jelly Bean is present, as are some very respectable smartphone internals. But this is, in the end, a point-and-shoot — nothing more. That’s how it should be viewed.

The same way we’ve seen apps transform our favorite smartphones and tablets, that’s the same idea here. Access to an abundantly rich app store and feature-filled OS is meant to breath life into a dwindling market, one that’s always been hampered by unintuitive UIs. Progress, though, is always being made, and hurdles are frequently being leapt. But you can’t beat an established mobile OS. You just can’t.

We’ve all at one time wondered why something like this doesn’t exist, and now it does; Samsung’s Galaxy Camera is alive, in the spotlight. It’s certainly strange that it’s here, because you can make the argument that it’s a bit superfluous. Among millions of smartphones (and cheap point-and-shoot cameras) where does it fit? Does combining the two instantly work?

Its performance really has to soar in order to be up for consumer consideration. We know Jelly Bean’s credentials. What about the camera itself?

But this is, in the end, a point-and-shoot — nothing more. That’s how it should be viewed.

Design

This isn’t the smallest point-and-shoot I’ve ever held. It’s actually fairly large, likely a result of the 4.7-inch display and all of the camera/smartphone components stuffed into its gleaming white body. The device’s large frame, unfortunately, immediately eliminates one of the bigger conveniences of a point-and-shoot, and that’s portability. You can use a wrist strap, but only sixty-year-old couples on vacation use those.

Companies have done an excellent job of shrinking camera bodies without compromising guts, allowing users to slip a device into a pocket without much fuss. It would have been great to see this in a smaller frame with a larger sensor. Samsung’s Galaxy Camera won’t fit in your pants unless you still subscribe to 90’s MC Hammer fashion — it’ll easily sit in a heavier jacket pocket, though.

Size aside, the device is still nice to look at. And despite its heftier build, it fits in the hand well and feels exceptionally solid. The rear glass display can seem fragile — more so than a typical smartphone — but the rest of the Galaxy Cam almost feels indestructible. That pearly white sheen, though, is just asking to be dropped in mud.

There are zero physical dials; Samsung has instead opted for everything to be touch-only. On the right side is a headphone jack and micro USB plug, on the bottom is a tripod mount and battery door (where you can also access HDMI out) and SIM and microSD slots. On the left you have a button to bring up the flash, and on the top is your typical on/off switch.

There’s a slight textured grip when held with your right hand, and that 23mm lens (21x optical zoom) tucks in nicely with the body. Its optical zoom is nice and speedy, but pictures look just ok when at 21x — optical zoom, at least,  gives it a leg up over current smartphones. But how is the image quality, especially coming from that 1/2.3-inch sensor?

 Field Use

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This is easy, simple. I don’t have to do anything. Aim, wait a moment for focus, and you have a digital image. Point-and-shoot cameras are designed for a snap first, think later approach, and that’s the same experience here. That’s the same experience every consumer who opts for the Galaxy Camera will have. Auto mode, for most average Robert Frank’s, is your friend, the only mode you’ll ever use and need.

There are plenty of filters accessible from the main screen; they are Samsung’s way of spicing up regular old party pics. Additionally, there are a number of Smart modes, which basically automate specific scenes when shooting, including macro, landscape, action freeze and landscape, among others.

Three big dials are available on the camera’s main screen, where you’ll do all your shooting from by default. Clicking on the camera icon will automatically shoot a picture (it’s essentially the same as pressing on the shutter button), a Mode dial where you can either choose Auto, Smart or Expert functions — this is basically like a physical camera dial you’d find on an everyday point-and-shoot or DSLR.

In Expert, users are given more control over the camera by adjusting the aperture, ISO, white balance, and shutter speed — you can choose modes like Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual, too. Users also have the ability to manually change to over or underexpose a picture, which can affect the drama and impact of a photo.

The absence of dials and physical buttons means everything you need to change is done on the touchscreen. In theory, it’s a nice idea, and the large 4.7-inch display gives users plenty of space to change and refine. But the UI is implemented in a way that makes precision a bit difficult and cumbersome. I found myself accidentally scrolling past what ISO, or shutter speed, or f-stop I wanted to choose. It’s frustrating. It can slow you down.

This might not always be a problem, but it gives you an idea of how the experience translates to a touch-only environment. That’s fine. We can get used to something like this. Most of the gadgets we own are touch anyway.

How does it actually perform as a camera, though? Samsung essentially stuffed $200 worth of camera components on top of a $300 smartphone. In the grand scheme of things, the overall image performance is disappointing. When you consider that other cameras on the market go for equal or lesser the value, cameras that produce much, much nicer image quality, it’s hard to justify going for Samsung’s hybrid device over something like Canon’s S110, or Panasonic’s Lumix LX7 (both are $450).

The images captured by the Galaxy Camera, especially in Auto Mode, produced results that looked dull, washed out, lacking vibrancy. I was able to tweak white balance and exposure to more accurately capture my surroundings, but most people won’t have the wherewithal to do the same, especially for those merely looking for a mindless point-and-shoot experience.

ISO only goes up to 3200, which is ok, but it becomes a problem in poorly-lit scenes. Particularly inside, noise is present when ISO is cranked all the way up, so I guess that’s our answer as to why Samsung only limited it to 3200.

When you consider just how great smartphone cameras have become, you’d expect more from the Galaxy Camera, better. It just isn’t there, unfortunately, and the pictures you upload to Facebook with your iPhone 5 won’t look all that different. Nobody will be able to tell the difference on Instagram.

 Android, and Always Being Connected

With the added benefit of Android, constantly being connected is one of the camera’s biggest selling point. Socialites and Facebook addicts can now upload their food pictures anywhere there’s a connection. That’s great, and means instant gratification at all times. On vacation? Take a picture of your hotel view and share it.

The beauty of the Galaxy Camera — which is, if we were to reduce its separate parts, a WB850F and Galaxy S III — is its one-two Android and HSPA+ punch. Having the option of accessing Google’s full buffet of apps is great, and really extends the capabilities of what a camera can do. Samsung’s decision to include a big touchscreen makes everything feel familiar (if you’ve ever used an Android handset, of course) and easy to navigate.

Using services like Dropbox, for example, is a huge boon for this camera/smartphone concept, because users can turn on the automatic uploads feature and never have to worry about connecting their device to a PC ever again. That kind of step elimination is something that, once you experience, makes going back to other point-and-shoots hard. It’ll make you wish every camera had the prowess of the Galaxy Camera.

But, automating tasks in Android, having apps always connected, going into applications and swiping through screens greatly affects battery life. After a heavy day of use, you’ll wish you were near an outlet.

Even though Android is the device’s main dish, Samsung has opted to keep the device’s camera aspect in full focus. When browsing through the OS, the camera icon is stickied to the bottom left corner of the screen, a constant reminder of its number one purpose.

And that’s the thing about this whole experiment. Do users really need the full Android experience distracting from the device’s camera aspects? The average user, mom and dad, likely won’t fiddle around with Google’s OS, or play Angry Birds, or watch YouTube videos, or read a book on the device. If this is the only gadget in their arsenal, OK, maybe. But the extra features will likely go unused. This isn’t, after all, a phone. It’s hard to see people using it as such.

Still, the flexibility is really great, and defines what Samsung is trying to accomplish here. It would have been nice, however, to have a more focused and refined experience that highlights just the camera and sharing capabilities. Perhaps a tweaked version of Android only meant for cameras?

If you’re already part of the Android ecosystem, you can tailor the experience to meet your needs down to the T. Download editing software, customize your home screen, automate tasks, etc. There are really no limits here, which is great. You’re only confined by what you want out of the experience. People who stick to the out-of-box experience and only add a few social apps will still get comprehensive use out of Android, even if that’s barely dipping into Google’s ecosystem.

 

The beauty of the Galaxy Camera — which is, if we were to reduce its separate parts, a WB850F and Galaxy S III — is its one-two Android and HSPA+ punch.

 Wrap-Up

The idea of Samsung’s Galaxy Camera should be applauded and recognized. If ever there was a sleeper innovation of 2012, an appetizer of what’s to come down the road, this is it. Samsung is truly on to something — gadgets like this are what makes technology so exciting. Still, that doesn’t mean the device is flawless in its execution; there are certainly kinks that need to be ironed out for this to be a must-have.If you’re already part of the Android ecosystem, you can tailor the experience to meet your needs down to the T. Download editing software, customize your home screen, automate tasks, etc. There are really no limits here, which is great. You’re only confined by what you want out of the experience. People who stick to the out-of-box experience and only add a few social apps will still get comprehensive use out of Android, even if that’s barely dipping into Google’s ecosystem.

If you were to get a point-and-shoot based purely on image quality alone, the Galaxy Camera isn’t among the best available options. But if you want something better than your smartphone without sacrificing that always-connected experience, and the convenience of Android apps — Instagram and Facebook in particular — then Samsung’s experiment is something worth participating in.

Ardent tech followers will no doubt see the value in such a powerful device, but I don’t see, at least for now, a huge adoption uptick in the short term — a bigger hybrid revolution will likely come in the future. It’s unfair to call this an “entry-level” camera, but given its overall camera capabilities — image and video quality — there are simply better options available for much cheaper. Even the bite of full-frame cameras isn’t quite as big, leaving us to wonder if some of the device’s “smartphone” components could have been sacrificed to produce a better overall experience.

Don’t count this one out in 2013. The execution isn’t quite there yet, but Samsung has shown that it’s more than capable of creating great hardware/software experiences. The idea of a smartphone/point-and-shoot is still young, and will likely be refined over the next several months. Hopefully, during that time, companies can find a way to cram batter camera capabilities (mirrorless version, please!) in a cheaper package.