Dec. 24, 2012 — -- A couple of years ago, if you went digging through a purse or a backpack, you'd likely find a point-and-shoot camera. Now you'll find that most people instead use the cameras built into their smartphones. Not only have camera phones improved, they let you instantly share photos with family and friends.
Samsung has a new idea -- to bring together the best of the standalone camera and the smartphone. Its new Galaxy Camera is what you'd get if a point-and-shoot camera were crossed with an Android phone -- it promises to take better photos than most phones but has built in sharing capabilities. But can it do it all? Is it the best of both worlds?
A Camera with a Big Touch Screen
The Galaxy Camera looks like a regular camera from the front, but flip it around and it looks like a big-screen Android phone. It has a 4.8-inch HD Super Clear Touch display, which looks and acts very much like Samsung's Galaxy S 3 phone. It is powered by Android 4.1 or Jelly Bean. You can navigate through the operating system just as you would on a phone. Yes, you can surf the Web, even check your email and download and use apps from the Google Play Store thanks to the built-in Wi-Fi radio and the built-in LTE. (There are Verizon and AT&T versions of the camera -- more on the pricing soon.)
You can't text message or make calls on the camera (that's not a complaint -- holding a camera up to your ear doesn't look all that cool) but you can easily snap photos and upload them to Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, Picasa or other sites. And snapping pics and sharing them is really a cinch. While Wi-Fi-enabled cameras are a dime a dozen, the Android operating system is easy to navigate, especially when it comes to adjusting settings and selecting photos to share. If you're an Instagram fan, this is the ultimate Instagram camera. And your shots will look better than most of the others in your feed.
A Good Camera with Great Features
That's because 16.3-megapixel camera has a 21x optical zoom and takes very good still shots. Shots in natural lighting were well balanced, and while low-light performance wasn't spectacular, it was acceptable for the specs. However, the photos I took were not as good as shots I take with a $600 Canon DSLR (I've got the Canon T2i) or a micro-four-thirds camera. They were better than photos taken with the iPhone 5 or Galaxy S 3, but about the same as what you get from an average point-and-shoot.
However, where the camera does stand out as a camera is in its "smart" shooting features. Samsung has matched the hardware with some interesting software features, including a "best photo" mode that will select the best of eight shots for you. There is also a "continuous shot" mode, which captures a series of moving photos. While some of the images I took of my cousins playing football suffered from motion blur, others were clear.
You can also shoot 1080p video and take still shots while you are shooting. Oh, and you can apply Samsung's own filters and effects, in case you don't want to use a third-party app. Samsung has brought most of its great Android photo features to the camera. On top of that, there's an "Expert" mode for those photographers who want more manual controls for adjusting aperture, ISO, shutter speed and more.
A Camera With Battery and Size Sacrifices
With all those features come some major sacrifices. First, the camera is bulky for what it is. Yes, it has a 21x zoom lens, but the camera is almost an inch thick, 5 inches wide and weighs 11 ounces. That doesn't make it large, but it's much larger than the average point-and-shoot. It's closer in size to micro-four-thirds or mirrorless cameras like the Olympus E-PL5 or Panasonic GX1, which take noticeably better photos.
The other major sacrifice is battery life. With LTE, Wi-Fi, a quad-core processor, and that 4.8-inch screen, the battery inside the Galaxy Camera drains fairly quickly. I shot half a day of Thanksgiving photos and was only left with half a charge. You get much better battery life from a regular point-and-shoot or micro-four-thirds camera -- and SLRs will let you take hundreds of shots on a single charge.
And that brings us to the last sacrifice -- the one your wallet will make. The camera alone costs $500 up front (about the same as the more capable Nikon D3100 SLR) -- and if you want LTE service, you'll also have to pay at least $15 a month to AT&T or Verizon.
The Galaxy Camera is a neat gadget and it's a lot of fun to play with, especially if you try Samsung's "smart" features. And the ability to share better-than-smartphone shots on the fly is great. However, chasing down an outlet and paying a monthly bill on a camera is not.
Ultimately, for $500 you can get a higher-end camera with longer battery life or a smartphone with a really decent camera. What's more, you can get an Eye-Fi SDHC memory card, which sends pictures via Wi-Fi, for all of $30. The Galaxy Camera is a very fun gadget, but, unfortunately, the best of both worlds doesn't yet exist.