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Samsung Galaxy Cam hands on: An impressive merger of phone and camera

Check out our full review of the Samsung Galaxy Camera

When Samsung first unveiled its Galaxy Camera, I was more than skeptical. Samsung isn’t the first company to try this (Nikon’s Coolpix hybrid isn’t impressing anyone) and, as a general rule of thumb, things that seem too good to believe usually are. It’s often a perilous mission to jam two popular, expensive devices together. Somewhere, compromises have to be made and they’re usually crippling. Somehow, Samsung may have bucked the trend. The Galaxy Cam appears to be both a solid digital camera and a great touchscreen phone (minus voice service).

Tape a point-and-shoot camera to a Galaxy S3

If you want to know what it’s like to use the Galaxy Cam, try taping a Galaxy S3 to a digital camera. Now, imagine these two devices actually communicated. The Galaxy Cam has a 4.8-inch screen and internal processing power and specs that nearly match Samsung’s flagship phone. Only with a 21x optical zoom built into the front and other camera requirements like a 21x zoom.

It’s a great phone

The Galaxy Cam looks like a camera on the front, but it’s all touchscreen-operated Android joy in the back. I was pleasantly surprised how well the Android interface worked. It looks just like the Galaxy S3’s TouchWiz interface, but runs slightly smoother (my opinion), which may be due to Samsung upgrading the operating system to Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), Google’s newest, slickest OS. The Cam packs a full 1.4GHz quad-core Samsung Exynos processor with 1GB of RAM and the 4.8-inch touchscreen is 1280 x 720 pixels and runs on a very nice “Super Clear” LCD technology. It can also connect up to 4G LTE networks. I lay out those hardware specifications not to bore you, but to illustrate that the Galaxy Cam is running on hardware that is as fast as what we’re seeing on top-of-the-line smartphones right now. As a phone (if it actually was a phone), it’s already very nice. We used several downloaded apps and poured through the menus like any other phone.

Really, the only thing a Galaxy Cam can’t do that a phone can is make calls, but it can do Skype, so if you were really hell-bent on using it as your only device, you probably could. Chatting can be accomplished with any client.

Somehow, it’s a great camera too

Open up the camera app on the Galaxy Cam or press the shutter button, and you’re now using the best camera phone… possibly ever. The Galaxy Cam has 21x optical zoom, a pop-out flash for shooting in the dark, microSD card support, an easily removable battery, and Micro HDMI and USB slots for charging. But the real impressive part was the camera app itself. I fully expected Samsung to skimp on the software, but it has developed what appears to be a pretty thorough camera app that takes good advantage of the Cam’s abilities.

If you press the big silver onscreen button when in camera mode, you can enter four modes. You can set it on Auto, Casual, Smart Pro, or Expert mode. Auto and Casual are pretty basic, as is Smart Pro mode, which has some basic settings for camera novices looking to kick it up a notch. If you want to, say, take a macro shot, a silhouette  a night shot, or an action shot, this mode lets you select between these types of environments with simple labels and pictures. Expert mode is where it’s at, though.

This is not a DSLR, but in Expert mode, Samsung has really given advanced users a lot of the settings they need. Using an onscreen camera lens with wheels for each setting, you can adjust your shutter speed, aperture, ISO and other settings. You can also set it to Manual, Auto, Aperture, or Shutter mode to help focus on the settings you need. I’m no camera expert, but I haven’t seen an expert touch menu this easy to use before. Samsung has made really good use of the touchscreen to simplify these settings. 

I didn’t get a chance to try it out, but the Galaxy Cam can record video at up to 120 frames per second, which should excite those of you who love to play around with slow motion video.

Possible downsides

There are a lot of ways this device could still go wrong. Most importantly is price. I do not know how this device won’t cost at least $600, and at that price, it has a lot of competition. Then there’s the issue of sharing photos. Samsung has included some of its own sharing services, but not everyone is going to want to use them. Luckily, since it can download apps from the Google Play store, you can likely use other apps like Google Plus or Dropbox to upload photos automatically. Finally, connecting a camera to AT&T’s 4G LTE network might be expensive. Even if you have one of the company’s new Mobile Share plans, it will likely cost you $20 a month to just connect the Galaxy Cam to the network, and that’s before you start using data (which is shared between devices). You’ll need to upload your videos over Wi-Fi no matter what you do.

I must admit again that though the photos I took looked impressive, given the lighting conditions, I am not a camera reviewer. I can tell you that its capabilities are leagues above any cell phone, but looking at it, you would already expect that. The camera may fail to impress experts. Still, as someone who must routinely photograph gadgets in poor lighting conditions, it’s a device that seemed to mostly match the quality of photos I get out of my Olympus Pen E-PL2, which is a Micro Four Thirds device, and most definitely not a full-fledged DSLR. The Galaxy Cam doesn’t even have swappable lenses. 

It’s looking good

Assuming Samsung doesn’t price it too high for the casual market and the final unit lives up to the experiences I had with it last week, the Galaxy Cam may be a really cool option for someone looking to merge more aspects of their gadget lives. It sounds bad, but I almost wish that this giant thing actually had phone functionality built into it. At least then it could actually eliminate the need to carry around two devices. As it stands, Galaxy Cam buyers will likely still have a smartphone and a really nice point-and-shoot camera. The big question is, are point-and-shoot camera buyers enthusiastic enough to buy a device like this, or will they just use the camera already on their iPhone or Galaxy S3? What I do know is that Samsung has made real progress here, whether the Galaxy Cam is a massive success or not. This is a device that will make a lot of camera owners jealous.