As smartphones become more like cameras, it was inevitable that eventually, cameras would become more like smartphones.
Samsung's original Galaxy camera, debuted in 2012, combined a 'real' camera – one with a sensor larger than the average smartphone – and a 21x zoom lens with the Android operating system, making for a huge amount of customisation and connectivity options.
Now, Samsung has updated the original Galaxy with the Galaxy Camera 2. It has many of the same specifications as the original, making some tweaks along the way for improved performance. Interestingly, Samsung has also taken the decision to remove 3G capability from the camera, making it less 'phone-like' than the original, but it retains Wi-Fi functionality.
Other changes come in the form of the upgraded processor, which should improve the overall speed of the camera, and an improved battery life – it can now take 400 shots in one outing, compared with the previous 340. The Galaxy 2 manages to be ever so slightly bigger, but surprisingly lighter.
Aside from those minor tweaks, the general specifications of the camera remain the same. There's a 16-million pixel CMOS sensor, a 21x optical zoom lens (which offers an equivalent of 23-483mm in 35mm terms). At the widest point of the lens, an f/2.8 maximum aperture is offered, which should help with low light shooting or when aiming for a shallow depth of field effect. At the telephoto end of the lens, the maximum aperture drops to f/5.6, which is still respectable for such a long focal length.
As well as fully automatic settings, the Galaxy Camera 2 includes the option to take manual control over images. You can also shoot in semi-automatic modes such as aperture priority and shutter priority. That's good news for experienced photographers who want to control settings themselves, but disappointingly there's no ability to shoot in raw format.
A number of scene modes are also available that tailor the camera's settings to the situation you're shooting in. As with the previous Galaxy camera, Samsung has included a Best Face mode, which enables you to select the best (in terms of expression) faces within a group shot from five consecutively captured images. There are also common scene modes, such as macro and panorama.
On the back of the camera is a huge – by camera standards – 4.8-inch touchscreen LCD panel, but there are very few physical buttons.
As before, the camera comes with a free 50GB Dropbox account, which is useful for sharing and storing your images, as well as syncing images between devices.
When you don't want to use the camera as, well, a camera, then it has Android Jelly Bean, which allows you to add hundreds of apps from the Google Play store. Aside from photographic apps, you can add social networking, email and web browsing apps.
As the Galaxy Camera 2 is Wi-Fi only though, you'll only be able to use these apps when connected to a wireless network – though you could tether it to your mobile phone if you wanted to.
There aren't a lot of cameras that compete with the Galaxy Camera 2: one is the Nikon S810c, which also uses the Android operating system, but is physically a lot smaller; the others are, arguably, smartphones themselves. The Sony Xperia Z1 features a 20 million-pixel 1/2.3 inch sensor, which is larger than the average smartphone and the same physical size as the Galaxy Camera 2, but there's no optical zoom capability.
Meanwhile, the S810c features a 16 million-pixel 1/2.3 inch sensor and a 12x optical zoom sensor, and it is significantly cheaper than the Samsung Galaxy Camera 2.
Build quality and handling
The Galaxy Camera 2 can't be described as a small camera. Due to the huge size of the LCD screen, coupled with the 21x optical zoom lens, it's unlikely you'll be able to fit it into a jeans or trouser pocket. On the front of the camera is a pronounced grip that helps to give it good purchase, especially when holding it one-handed.
Anybody who likes using a lot of buttons will not appreciate the Samsung Galaxy 2. In terms of the number of actual physical buttons on the camera, there's only the power button, the flash button and the shutter release. There's also a switch around the shutter release button to zoom the lens in and out.
The rest of the camera's operation is accessed via the touchscreen, which takes up the entire back of the Galaxy 2's body.
You have to wait a good few seconds for the camera to boot up if it's been off for a while – kind of like a mobile phone. This makes it less than speedy if you need to catch an opportune moment, although it boots up pretty quickly if it has been used recently.
By default, the camera goes straight into camera mode when switched on. Tapping a house icon in the top left of the screen takes you to the home screen, where you can access the Android OS. If you've used an Android phone before, you'll be familiar with the layout here.
As with a phone, you can customise the look of the screen display or download apps to add functionality to the camera. Photographic apps, such as Instagram, work directly with the camera itself.
When in the Android section of the camera, a tap of the camera icon starts the camera function, where you can change all the camera settings.
A tap of the Mode icon changes the shooting mode. Here you can choose from Automatic, Smart mode (which includes various scene modes, such as Landscape and Kids), 'Expert' mode (including manual and semi-automatic controls such as aperture priority) and My Modes, where you can save your favourite shooting modes in one place.
Once you're in a shooting mode, settings changes are applied by pressing a little cog icon in the top left of the screen, next to the home button. This is hidden away when you're in fully automatic mode, but reappears when shooting in one of the more advanced modes.
When shooting in semi-automatic or manual mode, the cog icon gives you access to settings such as white balance, metering and drive mode. You can also access settings such as sensitivity here, but that's also available on the main screen itself. At the top of the screen are four very small areas that you can tap for access to shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation and sensitivity.
Exposure compensation is greyed out when in manual mode, while either aperture or shutter speed are greyed out depending on if you're shooting in aperture priority or shutter priority. These icons are a little bit too small, which makes accurately tapping them a little tricky.
Once you have, you then swipe a display on the screen to change the setting – again, this is quite a small area on the screen and it can be a bit fiddly. As the screen is so large, it's cumbersome to change settings if you're holding the camera one-handed, so you'll probably need to use both.
Tapping the point on the screen sets the autofocus point. It's a quick way to work, but frustratingly, the point returns to the centre after every shot, so if you're shooting the same thing again, you'll need to re-tap it. The action is reminiscent of using a mobile phone, but this is a dedicated camera, so it gets frustrating.
Tapping an area in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen shows the last image taken. From there, you can swipe through shots. To get back to shooting again, instead of half-pressing the shutter (as with most compact cameras) you must press the 'back' icon in the top-left of the screen. It's a small thing, but another detail that's straight out of the mobile phone playbook, so it's a little off-putting.
The image quality of the Samsung Galaxy Camera 2 is far superior to what the average smartphone is capable of, so if you're just looking for a device that can take decent pictures and has smartphone functionality, then you should be pleased with the Galaxy Camera 2.
Overall, colours are bright and punchy straight from the camera. If you're not happy with the way colours look, you can try shooting in one of the different scene modes, such as landscape. There's not much control over colours when using the semi-automatic and manual control modes though.
Detail is acceptable, especially when looking at images at normal printing or web sizes – which we expect the majority of users of this camera will do. Occasionally, some images can have an overall look of softness.
Images taken at low sensitivities, such as ISO 200, display a good level of detail when looking at them at 100%, but as the sensitivity creeps up, to around ISO 800, a loss of detail becomes evident, even when viewing at normal printing sizes.
In certain areas of the image a painterly effect can be seen, which is especially problematic if you're photographing something with fine detail. As the sensitivity reaches its maximum setting of ISO 3200, even more detail is lost, so while this setting is good for very dark conditions – and it's certainly better than not being able to get the shot at all – if you want to view or print them at large sizes, shooting at high sensitivities isn't recommended.
Generally speaking, the Galaxy Camera 2's metering is very capable of producing well-exposed images without needing much interference from exposure compensation. If you point the lens towards the sun, likely you'll get some degree of lens flare, which is to be expected, but otherwise we weren't able to find any examples of flare or ghosting.
I found the automatic white balance system does a good job of producing accurate colours in daylight conditions, but if you use the camera under artificial light, it can struggle and you might need to switch to a more appropriate white balance setting, such as incandescent.
Focusing is quick, and usually accurate, especially in good light. As the light drops, the lens may hunt around for a little while, but it's not too bad, and a focus assist lamp helps when the light is very low. You can activate macro focusing from within the settings menu, which is helpful when you want to get close to a subject.
Using this setting allows the lens to be very close indeed to the subject, with the resulting images full of detail. Because the whole screen is available to select a focus point from, it's usually possible to identify one area of the subject that the lens can easily focus on for a sharp image.
Despite the relatively small sensor size (when compared to a compact system camera or DSLR), the Galaxy Camera 2 is still capable of producing some attractive shallow depth of field effects. Out of focus areas are rendered very nicely, with some very nice bokeh effects.
The 21x optical zoom lens is a good range to have a camera of this type, and is what sets it apart from a smartphone. Images taken at the far reach of the telephoto optic demonstrate a degree of softness and loss of detail when examined very closely at 100%, but the overall impression is pretty sharp, so if you're just planning to share images online, it should be fine.
It's not the best performance we've seen from a compact camera, which suggests the optics on the Samsung Galaxy Camera 2 are a bit of a compromise to satisfy those who crave the Android functionality over performance.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Samsung Galaxy 2 review, we've shot our resolution chart. These images were captured using a full-production sample of the camera.
Here we can see that for signal to noise ratio, the Galaxy Camera 2 comes out on top, which is a good reflection of the low noise of shots - but it is worth remembering that the Galaxy Camera 2 is guilty of image smoothing and loss of detail. While cameras such as the Panasonic TZ60 or Sony HX60 may be more prone to noise, they are also capable of better detail reproduction too.
JPEG dynamic range
Here it is the Panasonic TZ60 which comes out on top. The Galaxy II's dynamic range performance is not too bad though, beating the original Galaxy camera, and the Sony HX60. The Galaxy 2's camera produces nice, vibrant images with accurate but warm toned colours.
Sensitivity and noise images
Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
The Galaxy Camera 2 is capable of resolving reasonably fine detail at lower sensitivities. If you zoom in close, you'll see some loss of detail, but it's nothing too out of the ordinary for a compact camera. Click here to see the full resolution image.
Setting the AF point is easy, but it will jump back to the centre after you've taken a shot – a little annoying if you want to take two photos in reasonably quick succession, such as during a portrait shoot. Click here to see the full resolution image.
Here we can see how badly the loss of detail affects an image that features fine detail. Taken at ISO 800, a very clear painterly effect can be seen in the top right hand corner, even when viewing at normal web sizes. Click here to see the full resolution image.
The Samsung Galaxy Camera 2 seems to be aimed at quite a niche area of the compact camera market. For those who want something with a huge screen and Android functionality, but are willing to compromise on some aspects of image quality, this is an ideal choice. For everybody else, it's a confusing entity.
For a compact camera that sits at this high price range, we'd normally expect image quality to be much better. While overall, images are bright and punchy, they don't display a huge amount of detail and there's disappointing performance at the telephoto end of the optic.
There's a good range of functionality here though, and the automatic options are useful, while the ability to take full manual control will be appreciated by experienced photographers. That said, most enthusiast photographers may be put off by the lack of physical controls and the fiddly size of the touchscreen controls. Admittedly though, the touchscreen is responsive.
A couple of quirks have also made their way onto the Galaxy Camera, which seem to come from a smartphone way of operating, but are off-putting for those used to a 'proper' camera. The jump of the AF point back to the centre of the frame after each shot is annoying when you want to take shots in succession with the same AF point, for example.
Some people won't get on with the huge size of the screen. Its 4.8-inch size is far larger than the average camera, but it certainly makes it stand out from the competition. As there are no physical buttons, the whole back of the camera is dedicated to the screen, which is just as well, since having it any smaller would make those fiddly virtual buttons even trickier to use.
If you're after this camera mainly for Android operation, you won't be disappointed. It works well – and quickly – and of course the ability to add as many different apps as you want makes this much more customisable than your average camera.
The responsive touchscreen is big, but it works well. You can use it to set the autofocus point right across the scene. It's also helpful for navigating menus and, naturally, the Android section of the camera. It's a shame some of the options aren't bigger though, as they can be hard to grasp.
Samsung has clearly made some compromises in trying to offer a camera that has the best elements of a smartphone combined with those of a camera. While it works for the majority of cases, the 21x optical zoom lens could be better, and some of the handling quirks could be improved to make it more camera-like and less phone-like.
While it's definitely not the best compact camera on the market, nor the best that offers a high zoom range, it's a much more unusual option than the standard compact.
For those who want the maximum amount of creativity, coming in the form of hundreds of available photography apps, this kind of camera will surely appeal, while the large zoom range elevates high above the average smartphone.
The ability to share images quickly – if you have a Wi-Fi connection or are willing to tether it to your phone – is perhaps one of its most appealing prospects, although it's no longer particularly special in terms of specifications, since more and more cameras come equipped with this ability. The removal of 3G/4G connectivity makes it less able when travelling, so that's something to bear in mind.
In terms of an upgrade, there's not much here to distinguish the Galaxy Camera 2 from its predecessor. It's an ever-so-slightly different shape, but not enough to be noticeable, and the processor makes a small, if not hugely significant, difference to the overall speed of the camera.