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BW Businessworld

Web Ex: One Smart Camera

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Take a big beautiful screen. Strap it on to a camera, Heap on a multi-storey zoom lens. And then cover the lot with a thick coating of Jelly Bean. What you get is Samsung’s GC10O, a hybrid device with a tonne of smart features not seen together before on a camera. 
All the smartness on the Galaxy Camera comes from the bold and innovative way Samsung has combined Android 4.1.1 and its own TouchWiz interface tricks with photography. Of course, it must have connectivity, and it does. There’s Wifi and Bluetooth. But more than that, there’s also a 3G sim card slot so you have an always-connected camera. `
Before you ask, no, this camera does not make regular mobile calls or take SMSs. Nothing stops you though, from downloading VOIP apps like Skype, Fring, Viber, Google Talk, etc. and using those to connect. There’s no secondary camera for video calls, but voice works very well. I promptly tested this out and tried to surprise my father by saying: Hello…I’m calling from my camera! It was a nice clear call too, but unfortunately nothing surprises my father very much on the gadgets front! 
Samsung Galaxy CameraJelly Bean Sweetness
Why on earth would you want Android 4-point-anything when you are shooting photos? Here’s what: You can create an entire little environment around photographs and videos, all from that camera. First, there’s the immediate sharing. You can auto tag your friends and share to other phones, post to Facebook, hook into Instagram or just let the photos take themselves off into your favourite cloud storage. This happens really fast. Because you have a touchscreen and its virtual keyboard, you can write captions, a mail to go with an image, or even a blog post, right from the camera. 
Second, you can get Play Store access to regular Android apps, the most relevant being photo editing and effects apps. Again, that’s not something you get with your everyday camera. Instead you have to transfer photos someplace else like to a laptop or tablet and do all your editing there. You can edit and share from a high end smartphone too, but the idea here is to be more camera than smartphone and let photo enthusiasts have some fun with better quality images. 
Third, without switching devices, you can do the usual connected things like e-mail, surfing, watching video or playing a few rounds of Bad Piggies or whatever one plays nowadays. Much of this will sap the battery, of course, but you can make sure you balance out what you want to do and also keep the spare battery handy. 
Finally, you can use the features that Samsung likes to put into its devices, such as the option to voice-command the camera. While this may seem like a gimmick, see how much it helps when you need to hold the camera steady and not shake it while depressing the shutter release. You can also change some settings, zoom and record video using voice instructions. 
Meanwhile, the gadget can, at least theoretically, easily receive updates and bring with it even more features to add to the enjoyment. As for the butter, the Jelly Bean version of Android coupled with a powerful processor make the device fast and the screen glide with slippery smoothness. Using a non touchscreen camera after that just seems wrong. 
Seductive Screen
The 4.8 inch HD Super Clear LCD screen on this device is surely one of the largest on a compact camera -– if not the biggest. It has a ~306 pixel density and resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels. It’s not an AMOLED like the SIII’s but the screen is so pretty it will actually motivate you to take pictures. And its size spells one other advantage that’s easy to overlook: you have lots of room in which to better compose a photograph. That matters.
On top of that, because of the touchscreen there’s minimal fiddling with physical dials and buttons making it very easy to use. The settings ring you have in many cameras is on-screen on the Galaxy Camera and you can just gently swipe to change modes and fine tune ISO, aperture, etc. In every way, the screen is really not just a functional fringe, as with other cameras but something actually enjoyable. Now, how often do you find that? A camera screen you can enjoy by itself. The screen, for those considering this device, is a significant draw. Watching a movie (attach a USB thumb drive with a tiny adapter cable) and playing games is great, except that it drains the battery. 
Big, Definitely Big
The Galaxy Camera is not subtle. It's large and almost in-your-face, so forget about playing paparazzi. Not that it aims to be quiet – it comes in a prominent white, black and in orange and pink which are bound to be unavailable.Still, it’s obvious that the choice of colours aims at making a statement. 
The camera does fit into a bag or carry case but as far as pockets go, you will need a very baggy one and you will feel the weight (300 gms) regardless. If you have other gadgets with you, you really need a carrying plan. 
But this gadget is a good looking one and is well-designed, with none of Samsung’s shiny plastic in evidence and instead a textured and matt material that makes the camera easier to hold. A curved right edge gives you a good grip. The buttons are just a few and all settings are on-screen. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack, a tripod mount, HDMI port, USB port and the battery compartment. Overall, the build is satisfyingly solid. But big. Definitely big. 
Some Specs
The Galaxy Camera is powered by a 1.4Ghz quad core processor and 1GB of RAM. That’s the first time for a camera. There’s just 8GB of internal memory, but you have cloud storage and you also have a slot for a microSD card that can add 64GB to the device. With the Jelly Bean on board, this gadget works fast. It takes about 15 seconds to boot up from scratch but once there, it’s speedy and it would be as it has the same processing power as the SIII. Pressing the power button sends it into sleep and standby, and while that makes it quicker to take a picture with, it will tell on the battery. The battery is sadly underdone and is a 1650 mAh and it finishes up in a matter of about four hours. This is a limiting factor because you need to ration out what you a’re going to do with it – shoot video, take photos, check e-mail, watch a movie, or what? However, a spare battery is included.
The Galaxy Camera is priced at Rs 29,900 and is being launched with an introductory offer of 1GB data free for two months from Airtel. 
Easy To Use
It takes all of five minutes to figure out how to use the camera part. Physical controls are limited to the shutter release and a dial or lever to control the zoom. Not that you need those either. That and everything else is on-screen. When you get into the camera, on the right you find the camera and movie buttons, and a three mode button -– Auto, Smart and Expert. There are 15 presets in the Smart mode including some interesting ones like fireworks, light trace and silhouette. Panorama is also found here. The Expert mode lets you control aperture, shutter speed and ISO sensitivity. There are additional settings on a top menu such as white balance, focus, etc. The menu options change somewhat depending on the mode you’re in and it’s from here also that you can set voice controls and sharing options. If you’re not familiar with photography, there are tips on screen to tell what the controls do. A little pull up arrow on the bottom of the screen brings up a range of effects you can spice up your photos. There are also apps like Photo Wizard, Instagram and Paper Artist to help you do more with your pics. 
Outside of the camera app, the rest of the device is all Android, so it all depends on how quickly a user gets familiar with it. Given the number of Android phones around, that hasn’t been a problem. In off-camera mode, the Galaxy Camera is like a little tablet, though difficult to hold for long because of the bulge on the camera side. Still, if you can hook your fingers through the side of the lens, you can go at it long enough. 
Photo Quality 
Now after all that, it wouldn’t be amiss to turn to the quality of the 16.3 MP pictures this clever chunk of a camera takes. And that’s a tricky issue because it’s a mixed bag. 
Samsung has used its own 16.3 megapixel CMOS sensor and it puts out 4,608x3,456-pixel images. The 21x optical zoom is remarkable for its very presence on a point-and-shoot. The ISO range is from 100 to 3200 and max aperture is f/2.8 – to run through a few camera specs. Video is full HD 1020p and includes an interesting slow motion mode (also found on the Galaxy Note II). The sound on this device is rather good, 
For the most part, the pictures you get from the Galaxy camera are good -– for causal use. The colours are good except for in some unusual circumstances from indoor lighting, and there are nice tricks not easily found elsewhere, such as light trace photos. The zoom really works. Shooting from a second floor apartment, I zoomed right in on a fruit seller’s cart. The photo was good enough for me to be able to choose the fruits I wanted! 
Details such as little dents in guavas and variations in colour were captured nicely. I could also read the text on little stickers on walls and home in on car numbers. But this was all in bright daylight and being very careful to stay still. Even so, enlarging the picture and looking at the edges of objects showed a lack of sharpness and some noise. Checking with other reports, I found some agreeing with my assessment, and some calling the images crisp and clear. 
In low light, the Galaxy Camera is supposed to be good but I didn’t find notable performance in that category. Low light is a special challenge for all compacts and smartphone cameras, really. Except this isn’t a regular point and shoot claims more than the usual, including being suitable for pros. 
All the same, the photos are better than those shot on most other smartphones. I also found the shutter speed slow so that in some conditions, capturing a photo took long enough to give you the opportunity to move and shake the photo up. You could put it on a surface or tripod and use a voice command, but as a casual shooter, would you take the trouble? 
Now, you may not care about very sharp images. In fact, in this day and age, we make a special point of fuzzing up our pictures with filters and effects. But then, why would you not just shoot with a smartphone? There’s the Galaxy Camera paradox. All said and done though, taking pictures with this camera is enjoyable and that will attract gadget-loving photo enthusiasts. 
Quick Comparisons
Smartphone Cameras: The Galaxy Camera gives better images than most smartphones. But there are a few phones that do stand up to muster and those are the iPhone 4s and 5, the Nokia Pureview 808, and possibly the Nokia 920 though that is yet to be launched and reviewed here. The iPhone camera is very much loved and people have produced some great pictures with it, especially when they attach the tiny but powerful Oloclip lenses. The iPhone of course, gives fewer controls and no 21x zoom. It also costs about twice as much.
The 808 has a slightly smaller lens, but it’s a Karl Zeiss and it uses Nokia’s own oversampling trick to come up with surprisingly detailed and clear photographs, sometimes (but not always) even in low light. But you need to know how to get the optimum settings in place and of course, its biggest annoyance is the outdated Symbian OS. 
The choice between camera and camera phone also, after all, depends on many other factors for each individual. Some may find it unnecessary to drop calling ability and battery life to improve the image quality somewhat. Others may just love the gadget and the feel of Android on a camera and decide to try it. The one thing to keep in mind though is that there will be the recurring cost of another data connection unless you keep the camera a Wifi-only device, which then takes away half the fun of a connected device. 
Compact Cameras: Point and shoots come in different categories. There are low-end ones that are very busy dying out because smartphones have taken over their jobs. The Galaxy Camera is way above those in every aspect – except battery. It’s even better than mid-level ones that just don’t have the ability to shoot well indoors or in low light. Mid level cameras are from a time when there was just a race for megapixels and optics were not a priority. But then there are advanced compact cameras – from Sony, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, and even Samsung. Some of these are pre-DSLRs and give pretty remarkable results. Often these specialize in one thing or the other – low light, zoom, etc. The Galaxy Camera is not as good as some of these – but then the pre-DSLR’s don’t have Android. So it depends on what your trade off is. 
Little Tablets: When you are not using the camera, you have the full Android operating system at your command, to do as you will. Mostly. You can get your email, make VOIP calls, play games, check your social networks, etc. The only problem is that holding the device for too long this way will be tedious because of the nice big bulge of the lens. Also, you will drain your battery out leaving nothing for the camera, which won’t be very smart. So, a short spell of use as a tablet, yes, but replacing a tablet for regular use, no. Think of the Android layer as supporting the camera rather than the other way around. At the same time, when you use your camera, you are not far from basic connected tasks like email and browsing. 
You Don’t Need It, You Want It
Ultimately, buying the Galaxy Camera may not be one of the most rational decisions you’ve made. But it may well be fun. As happens with many gadgets, you just plain want it rather than have a crying need for it. But well, nothing wrong with that though it’s a good idea to take stock of what else you own to begin with. If you carry around a premium smartphone, you will already have pretty good point-and-shoot level photos and all the sharing options you need. If you tote a DSLR around and think you might want to replace it with the Galaxy Camera, you won’t get the same level of photographs. If you just happen to like it a lot for the ease with which it works, I can understand that you may want to consider it as an indulgence. We are all allowed those, surely. 
mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter