What is the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom?

The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is a phone-camera hybrid, and not Samsung’s first. Last year it made the Galaxy S4 Zoom.

Both phones are based on the same rough idea: a _phone_ with the lens of a 'proper' camera. But the K Zoom offers better specs and sensibly distances itself from the Samsung Galaxy S5 in its naming. Just like last time, though, it is only really for people who must have an optical zoom.

Galaxy K Zoom – Design

The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is the sort of device you might imagine resulting if you put a compact camera and a _phone_ next to each other and pushed them together really hard. It has the dimpled back styling of Samsung’s latest phones, and looks just like a normal phone from the front. But on the back is a giant lens housing that sticks out and alters the weighting of the phone substantially.

Its lens is a key feature – this is one of just a few phones to be released in the UK to feature an optical zoom. It is a 10x optical zoom too, offering the kind of focal range you get in a superzoom compact, not just a bog-standard one.

SEE ALSO: Galaxy S4 Zoom review



We fully appreciate that Samsung probably had to do some clever design work to get the Galaxy K Zoom to its current size, but it remains seriously chunky by current standards. It’s 20mm thick by its lens, and 16.6mm thick across most of its middle. If this was a teenager, it’d constantly have its self-esteem chipped away at by suggestions that it “really likes its food”.

The odd shape of the phone does take a little getting used to as the lens housing sits your hand naturally wants to lie. It’s fairly comfy to hold with one finger resting directly on the lens, even though this seems a little odd at first – most of us are taught when growing up not to poke TV screens, camera lenses or speaker cones – but the lens is actually covered by a layer of Gorilla Glass 2 to keep it safe.

The weight of the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is also unusual. It’s a heavy phone, and Samsung doesn’t make many of those. It weighs 200g, 55g heavier than the Galaxy S5. Thanks to the camera lens optics, quite a lot of that weight sits up at the top end of the phone. Unusual weight distribution makes the bedding-in process take even longer.



If you’re going to fall in love with the K Zoom, it’ll probably be a slow-burner. And you need to bear this in mind, or you might take an instant dislike to the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom.

As well as being a lot chunkier than Samsung’s other phones, the K Zoom misses out on several hardware extras you get elsewhere. There’s no waterproofing, and no fingerprint sensor, both of which feature in the Galaxy S5. We don’t miss the finger scanner, but a bit of waterproofing would come in handy when out shooting some pics on a rainy day – not that the phone will instantly die as soon as it touches a raindrop.

SEE ALSO: Nokia Lumia 1020
Galaxy K Zoom 8


What the Galaxy K Zoom shares with the Galaxy S5 is its slightly plasticky feel. We used the white version, and it tends to have a less soft finish than the company’s latest black phones - there’s more to picking a colour than just the look these days.

The Galaxy K Zoom has a microSD card slot too, and it is – thankfully – on the side of the phone. Normally Samsung puts its card slots under the battery cover, and normally that makes perfect sense. But with a camera-obsessed phone where you’re much more likely to be swapping out cards regularly, the little plastic microSD flap on the left edge is a welcome sight.


Galaxy K Zoom – Screen

The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom has a 4.8-inch screen, and it feels a year or two behind the current top phones.

Like the Galaxy S5, the K Zoom uses a Super AMOLED display, but the resolution is 720p rather than 1080p. In an LCD phone a 720p display would offer a pretty sharp image, but thanks to the phone’s PenTile-type OLED screen, it looks a little fuzzy.

So what does PenTile mean? It’s a screen type that sees pixels share subpixels. In a normal LCD pixel, there are red, green and blue (RGB) sub pixels in each pixel. In a PenTile array, one red, one blue and two green (RGBG) subpixels form two pixels. Unless a screen has an oversampling of pixels, a PenTile arrangement looks a lot less sharp than a standard RGB rival.

K Zoom


To put this into some greater context, the Galaxy K Zoom screen looks much, much less sharp than the Motorola Moto G. And it’s on-par with the Galaxy S3 in sharpness – which feels pretty ancient these days.

The Galaxy K Zoom also has none of the colour saturation improvements we saw in the Galaxy S5. Colours are severely oversaturated, and unlike some other Samsung phone there are no custom screen modes to let you tone this down. We’ll be frank – we’re disappointed, and it marks a real step back after the fantastic screen of the Galaxy S5.

Top brightness is also a little low to take on bright daylight with the same ease that some of the latest high-end phones manage, though it is still just about usable in these conditions. Also, whites aren’t as pure-looking as those of a good LCD either, with a slight blue tint.
Galaxy K Zoom 2


You do still get the traditional benefits of an OLED screen, so contrast, black level and viewing angles are all excellent. The screen looks very vivid and rich, it just that colours are about as realistic as a kid’s cartoon.

Your eyes will adjust to the screen’s overblown colours, and despite the PenTile style the display is reasonably sharp. But if you’re expecting a real top-end display you’ll be disappointed.

Galaxy K Zoom – Software

The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom runs the version of Android introduced to Samsung phones with the Galaxy S5. It was touted as an interface that pared things back compared with previous versions, but there are still some pretty serious alterations from standard Android.

Samsung has changed the Settings menu from a list to scrolling array of colourful circles. It looks funkier, but some people don’t like how mammoth the menu ends up – there’s a lot of scrolling to be done here.


The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom also has its own extra home screen, My Magazine. You get to this by flicking left-to-right on the left-most homescreen, and it gives you a bunch of headlines based on your favourite categories – Books, Travel, Sport and Food/Dining are a few examples. You can also add social networks like Twitter and Facebook, although you only get to see one update unless you dig deeper.

My Magazine is basically just a frontend for Flipboard, though – one of the more popular news aggregation apps. We don’t find it particularly useful, as while it’s very pretty you don’t get all that much control over what appears in it.
Galaxy K Zoom 3


You can ignore much of what Samsung has packed into the phone, though, and it’s easier to do so than in Samsung’s top phones from last year. The gimmicky features are still there, but they don’t grab as much of the limelight as they used to.

The Galaxy K Zoom also lets you customise your app screen, and hide absolutely any app you like, including those that you can’t uninstall, like Gmail (why would you want to?) and Samsung Apps (who wouldn’t want to?). From a company infamous for making its interfaces quite thick and bloated, having this power is great.

Still, some elements of the Samsung interface are a bit overdone. The drop-down notifications bar, for example, is only about 60 per cent notifications. Again, you can tweak this if you want more notification space, but these little efforts add up. It’s often the case with recent Samsungs – you can fiddle with them a fair, bit, but fresh out of the box they will feel a little congested to some.

 

Galaxy K Zoom – Apps, Games and Performance

Samsung has cut down a fair bit on the extra apps it packs into its phones and, as already mentioned, you can hide ones you don’t want to see. There are still a few extras, though, mostly related to photography.

Studio
This camera-centric app lets you edit photos and video, and make collages of some of your favourite shots. What you can actually do with photos isn’t that much more involved than a decent normal phone editor app, but gives you an easy place to access all these features. And you get video editing too.

Galaxy K Zoom 9
Pro Suggest Market
This gives you access to more custom profiles for the camera – as part of the Pro Suggest feature we’ll get onto later. They involve combos of filters and photo settings, giving you that ‘Instagram’ effect, but with more specificity. The ‘Pro’ is misplaced as this is really a mode for novices, and it’s typical of Samsung’s over-doing things. But some might like it.

S Planner

This is Samsung’s long-standing calendar app, replacing the standard Google Calendar.  One of its neater features is that you get a month view including daily events if you turn the K Zoom on its side, while the portrait view is much more casual.

Samsung Apps

Samsung’s app store is something people often groan at. It’s a bit like Google Play, but worse. However, it does have sections for you to download all the Samsung bits and bobs left out of the K Zoom. These include S Note, Group Play and Polaris Office 5.

To go with impressive restraint when it comes to pre-installed apps, the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom’s general performance is pretty good. Ensure there’s enough room on-board and there’s very little lag.

Samsung phones are infamous for being a bit laggy, and we imagine the K Zoom would be too if you installed reams of apps and didn’t keep an eye on the remaining storage. We also noticed more app crashes than normal. The phone needs a stability update or two, before its decent performance can really get into the right gear.

The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom has a six-core processor, an Exynos 5260 with four lower-power 1.3GHz Cortex-A7 cores and a pair of Cortex-A15 cores clocked at 1.7GHz.

Galaxy K Zoom 10


This seems a pretty sensible combo for a phone like this – the four high-efficiency cores will do the job for day-to-day use and for more processor intensive tasks a 720p screen means the K Zoom doesn’t need quite as much power as the 1080p Galaxy S5.

We did notice some frame drops in Real Racing 3, but we noticed the same in even the top phones. In the Geekbench 3 benchmark, the K Zoom comes out with 2064 points. That’s a fair bit lower than the 2800-odd score you can get out of the Galaxy S5, and is just a bit above the scores of the Snapdragon 600 phones that were last year’s top models. Phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and original HTC One.

With 2GB of RAM topping off the spec list, the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is an upper-mid range phone, not a top-end phone. What’s worth noting is that the Exynos 5260 seems to be a fair bit slower than the Snapdragon 800 CPU that is currently working its way down the ranks as it ages. For example, the very capable LG G2 sells for under £300 SIM-free and uses the Snapdragon 800.

Galaxy K Zoom – What is the camera like to use?

The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom effectively has a compact camera jammed onto its phone core. It’s very flexible in some respects, but is no replacement for a compact system camera or DSLR. If you’re after that sort of combo your best bet is the Sony QX100 Lens Camera, which clings onto your phone. But in all honesty, we wouldn’t recommend that either.

Dedicated cameras aren’t dead yet, folks.
K Zoom 2


The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom has a 20.7-megapixel main sensor that’s 1/2.3-inch in size. That’s exactly the same specs as the Sony Xperia Z2. While they are not the same sensor (the K Zoom’s is actually made by Samsung, we’ve been told), they are similar. It’s the same size used in many entry-level compacts too.

What’s different is, of course, the lens. It’s a 24-240mm equivalent with maximum aperture of f/3.1-6.3.

The zoom is a great compositional tool – with a 10x zoom you can often get shots that simply wouldn’t be possible with a fixed zoom and a pair of legs. For shooting faraway objects while retaining detail, it’s indispensable.

The lens also lets you get closer to objects while staying in focus than most phones. This is not a question of the zoom range, but rather the mechanics of the lens – the actual zoom is useless for any kind of macro action.

K Zoom 4


Where you controlled the zoom with a wheel sitting around the lens in the Galaxy S4 Zoom, here it’s done either through the app or using the volume up/down buttons. It’s a conservative, but ultimately very sensible way to operate the zoom.

However, there are downsides to the optical zoom. The most obvious is speed. It takes around 4-4.5 seconds to get from the phone’s main interface to the point where you can take a photo, when using the physical shutter button to boot up the camera.

Getting the zoom moving is also a little slow, although actually passing through the zoom range is reasonably snappy. These little slow-downs are enough to wear away much of the immediate feel that makes mobile phone photography such fun. And like the chunky bodywork, it takes some getting used to.

Next, we’re going to look at what the phone’s image quality is like.

Galaxy K Zoom – Camera Image Quality

At first you may assume that the Galaxy K Zoom will offer better image quality than the Galaxy S5. It has a higher-resolution sensor – by four full megapixels – and appears more camera-centric in its design. However, as standard it only uses 15 of its 20 megapixels, cropping into the picture to take 16:9 aspect photos that fit the phone’s screen.

One of the lesser talked-about issues with mobile phone cameras is that they almost universally shoot widescreen photos while their sensors are usually 4:3 in shape. Unless you change that in the settings, you’re not using the whole sensor. We switched to 4:3 shooting for this review.

The Galaxy S5’s 16:9 shots are actually higher-res than the K Zoom’s, and we do think that the Galaxy S5 has a slight edge on image quality when shooting fully wide (i.e. not extending the zoom). The S5’s pictures are more contrasty, marginally better-saturated and offer slightly more fine detail.

The K Zoom’s lens also introduces an image quality issue. When shooting wide-angle shots, the image sharpness drops off pretty severely towards the edge of the frame. Zoom lenses often feature this kind of edge of frame image deterioration – it’s easier to provide edge-to-edge sharpness in a non-zoom ‘prime’ lens like that of most phones. Even if they are made of plastic (normal phone lenses are made of plastic, not glass), the best phone lenses are pretty sharp.

Galaxy K Zoom 15


Galaxy K Zoom 16

Having an optical zoom radically alters the kind of photos you can take


Galaxy K Zoom 12


Crop:
Galaxy K Zoom 11

We should note that the Galaxy S5 is a great performer among phones, and that the K Zoom loses out to it a little is no great surprise, and no reason to rule the phone out.

The K Zoom also has a couple of things the Galaxy S5 lacks – optical image stabilisation and a Xenon flash.

Both really help to hugely increase the camera’s versatility in low light. OIS means you get much lower-noise, higher detail low-light shots without any truly drastic processing.

To test the K Zoom’s low light skills we took the camera to a gig. In this sort of a situation, the Xenon flash isn’t much good. While a Xenon’s coverage is even and its tone better than most LEDs, the range is still limited to a few metres.

OIS really helps out with exposure, noise and detail, but it’s not much good for action shots. The principal behind the way OIS is generally used in a mobile phone stills camera is that it allows the use of longer exposure times, giving the K Zoom more light to make its photos out of.

Of course, this also means more motion is captured in moving objects, giving loads of motion blur. The K Zoom doesn’t give you a real way to control this either. Its 'program' mode only gives you control over the ISO and exposure compensation – there are read outs for aperture and shutter speed, but you can’t control them.

Galaxy K Zoom 14


Crop:

Galaxy K Zoom 13


Samsung will sell the K Zoom as a phone for people who really care about photography, but it gives you less control over the mechanics than either the Lumia 1020 or HTC One M8.

Embrace the limitations and you’ll get on with the Galaxy K Zoom a bit better. It’s designed for people who are looking for punchy-looking images, generally using funky filters, over pure photography. Here’s a look at the modes you get:

Galaxy K Zoom 6


Pro Suggest
This suggests filters for you to use when you half-depress the shutter button. It’s not really a pro mode, more a mode for super-novices who want to be schooled on the filters they should use for various occasions. We tend to apply these after shooting, but it can be used as a sort of Instagram 101 for those who are after that sort of thing.

Program
The closest we have to a manual mode in the K Zoom, Program lets you play with the ISO and exposure compensation settings. You don’t have control over shutter speed or aperture – a shame – but this is the mode to use if you think you know what you're doing.

Beauty face

This gets rid of wrinkles and facial blemishes – the equivalent of live photoshopping.

Shot and More
This mode offers the array of burst modes that older Samsung phones used to feature separately.

Virtual Tour
You walk around an environment and the K Zoom stitches together photos a la Google Street View to give you a virtual tour of a place. Probably a house.

Selfie Alarm
This lets you take a selfie using the rear camera rather than the front one. You draw a box on the screen and the K Zoom bleeps when it sees your face in the right place.

Other modes include Panorama, HDR, Night and Continuous shot. It’s a bumper crop.

The Galaxy K Zoom also has a 2-megapixel front camera. There’s no zoom, of course, but it’s pretty decent. The preview updates quickly, colour and detail are perfectly fine and you can shoot 1080p video. There are now significantly better front cameras, like the 5-megapixel HTC One M8, but it’s good enough to keep 99 per cent of normal people happy – a really high resolution camera tends to emphasise your craggy bits anyway.

Galaxy K Zoom - Battery Life

The Galaxy K Zoom has a 2430mAh, 9.23Wh battery, and as with many Samsung phones you can take the rear cover off to access it. Those looking to replace a dedicated camera with the Galaxy K Zoom may want to think about carrying around a spare too, as battery stamina is pretty poor.



With normal use, we found that the battery drained down within the day, failing to provide that second day buffer that we think is a near-essential part of making a phone convenient to use. The battery drains fairly quickly even if you barely use the phone.

Here are some graphs of how the battery drains in various situations:

Normal use

Galaxy K Zoom 1


This is a normal day with the K Zoom. It was almost dead by about 7:30pm, with no particularly battery-sapping tasks performed. We weren't gaming for hours, just browsing the web to and from work, and checking emails occasionally. Note that there are none of the near-flat parts you see with a phone using a Snapdragon 800/801 CPU, showing that the Exynos chip used here isn't great at managing battery use on standby.

Very light use
Galaxy K Zoom

During the time seen in the graph above, the Galaxy K Zoom was resting at the bottom of a bag. It was turned on, and with occasional Wi-Fi, but we weren't using it. We still only got a day and a half out of the phone - bad times.

There are, however, a couple of power-saving modes to extend the K Zoom’s longevity. The standard power saving mode blocks background mobile data and limits other features – it can throttle the CPU, limit screen brightness, turn off the touch key lights and switch off location services like GPS. The phone is going to be a bit less fun to use in this mode, though. It’s best saved for emergencies.

Taking the power saving techniques a step further, there’s also Ultra Power Saving Mode. This radically changes the phone, providing a cut-down interface that only gives you access to a few phone features. This kind of mode is seen in several recent phones, including the Galaxy S5. 

Charging takes around 2.5-3 hours, which is normal-to-slow. Some phones like the LG G3 are starting to offer super-speedy initial charging of the first ~80 per cent, but the Galaxy K Zoom is bog-standard in this regard.

Galaxy K Zoom 2


Galaxy K Zoom – Call Quality and Sound Quality

The Galaxy K Zoom doesn’t put all that much focus on its speakers either – the call speaker on the front and the music speaker on the back. Each provides an adequate, but unremarkable, experience.

The mini speaker on the rear goes to a decent volume, but the tone of the sound is nothing to get excited about. It doesn’t have the power of the LG G3’s 1W speaker, or the beefier sound you get with the HTC One M8’s BoomSound speakers.
K Zoom 1


Galaxy K Zoom – Connectivity

Still, the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom offers most of the connections you’d want. There’s 4G mobile internet, MHL compatibility in the microUSB socket, Bluetooth 4.0/LE and USB OTG, which lets you plug in external appliances like hard drives.

There are just a few missing connections in the Galaxy K Zoom. You don’t get ac Wi-Fi and there isn’t an IR blaster, which lets a phone double up as universal remote control. Most people don’t think these are essentials, but they are the sort of things you get in some phones of the same price.
K Zoom 5

Should I Buy the Galaxy K Zoom?

The Samsung Galaxy K Zoom is a strange middle-ground phone. It doesn’t have every latest feature under the sun, but makes sacrifices in design that mean people may assume it does.

Really, this phone is all about the optical zoom, and we still think that the Galaxy S5 can actually produce somewhat superior photos when shooting at a wide angle. For most, this phone isn’t really a sensible compromise, but there are real benefits to having a 10x optical zoom in a phone.

It means you can compose shots that virtually every other camera phone would miss, and does make this – at least to some photographers – the most adept camera-replacing new phone of the year. Take the zoom out of the equation, though, and the K Zoom is less impressive. The screen is not up there with the best, raw power won’t impress those who care about such things and while the camera is great, it doesn’t offer the best-in-class image quality you might be expecting.

Verdict

You pay for the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom’s optical zoom in its chunky body, its somewhat low-res screen and processor that’s not too hot for the price. It’s one compromise too many for most, but there’s no denying how useful a 10x zoom can be.

Next, read our Best Phones round-up