Ever since the first blurry pictures were captured by a camera built into a cellular phone 14 years ago, makers of camera phones have wrestled with the inevitable compromises required to cram a snapper into a device small enough to fit in your pocket and designed chiefly for communication.
One of their biggest shortcomings has been the lack of a physical zoom lens. As anyone who has used the digital zoom on their cellphone comes to realise after pondering the disappointing results, all you’re really doing is digitally cropping the same picture on screen as you would have snapped without any “zooming”.
To make matters worse, modern smartphones are usually slim, slippery devices that don’t lend themselves to a rock steady grip, so that enemy of photographers since the dawn of image capturing without a paintbrush or pencil, camera shake, is a constant concern.
Cellphone size restrictions also leave little room for a decent flash, which leaves many night-time shots either dark and fuzzy or washed out.
Most manufacturers have tackled the first problem by cramming as many megapixels into their snappers as possible, hoping to make up for the lack of a real zoom by offering a picture that’s so full of detail you can crop down to the part you really wanted without sacrificing too much quality.
Nokia’s superb Lumia 1020, with its awe-inspiring 41 megapixel camera, is a triumph of this principle in action.
But Samsung – makers of that very first camera phone way back in 2000 – have taken a different tack by fitting a real optical zoom lens into a cellphone.
Their first attempt at this feat, last year’s Galaxy S4 Zoom, wasn’t entirely successful in my opinion.
The 10x optical zoom worked brilliantly, but the device as a whole felt awkward and bulky, and the smartphone components had been dumbed down quite significantly to keep its price on par with the non-zoom S4.
But I’m happy to report that Samsung’s latest stab at this genre, the Galaxy K Zoom, is better in every respect.
While there’s still a bit of bulge from the zoom housing, it’s a lot sleeker than its predecessor and slipped comfortably into my Galaxy S5-sized belt pouch.
While undeniably weightier than it’s non-zoom sibling, it’s not uncomfortably so. In fact, the added heft makes for a better grip when taking pictures, which you do either using the physical shutter button on the body of the phone, exactly where you’d expect to find it on a traditional point-and-shoot camera, or smartphone style using the touch screen.
The 10x optical zoom is a marvel, allowing for the kind of close-ups most camera phone users can only dream of. Coupled with the 20.7 megapixel sensor, it really is like having a top notch point-and-shoot built into your phone.
Low light shots are, understandably, still not as good as you’d get from a DSLR camera, but the bigger sensor, super bright xenon flash and detail enhancing ISP chip make for the next best thing.
And remarkably, Samsung’s managed to achieve all this without neutering the device’s smartphone capabilities.
It may not have all the bells and whistles of the S5 – for example it’s not waterproof – but it runs a pretty current version of Google’s Android operating system (4.4.2) and was snappy and responsive for the two weeks I got to spend with it.
This is a phone I’d have killed for in my early days as a journalist covering crime, political violence and natural disasters.
The zoom gets you closer to your subject while preserving your physical distance – and, hopefully, your skin. Then the smartphone side kicks in, letting you send your images and captions to the office via the magic of the internet.
If you’d like a phone that’s both Clark Kent and Superman, look no further than the Galaxy K Zoom.