Samsung today launched the first true compact camera/smart device hybrid - the Galaxy Camera, with 3G/4G connectivity as well as Wi-Fi (which sets it apart from Wi-Fi-only competitors like the recently-announced Nikon Coolpix S800c).

Camera manufacturers have been seeing sales of their compact cameras fall for a long time now, challenged by a new generation of camera-equipped smartphones. As the photographic specification of phones get better, there's less need for most casual photographers to carry a dedicated camera, and if you're in the business of selling compact cameras, this is a serious problem. But Samsung believes it has a solution. Take a WB850F camera, and a Galaxy SIII smartphone, and... blend them. 

We've been talking to Samsung representatives for months about the concept of a camera running the Android OS, and the Korean manufacturer's early plans were the subject of more than one confidential briefing during a trip to Seoul earlier this year. Now that the wraps are off, the final specification is more or less in line with what we expected - a versatile, consumer-level camera running 'full strength' Android and equipped with both 3G/4G connectivity in addition to the now-standard (for Samsung) Wi-Fi. A 1.4GHz quad-core processor completes the picture and should provide enough 'grunt' to make everything run nice and smoothly. 

From the front, the Galaxy Camera's photographic lineage is obvious. An optically-stabilized 21X zoom lens (you have the option of controlling this via a conventional zoom rocker switch or via the touchscreen interface) and contoured handgrip denote a 'proper' camera.

The Galaxy Camera is a 16.3MP compact camera with a 4.8in LCD touchscreen running the Android operating system. It runs the latest iteration of Android (4.1 - known as 'Jelly Bean'), and will be available in two versions - a 3G + Wi-Fi model and a 4G + Wi-Fi variant (carrier and regional information TBC). This makes it the first 'connected camera' to offer more than just Wi-Fi connectivity.

Although we understand that the camera does not have cellular voice capabilities, it will be compatible with various VoiP apps, such as Skype, which will enable it to be used for making voice and video calls over 3G/4G or WiFi. Photographic features include a 21X zoom lens, spanning 23-481mm (equivalent) and a built-in 'Photo Wizard' for editing photographs in-camera. 

Months ago, in Seoul, we asked Samsung representatives how they envisaged smartphone/camera convergence: specifically, whether in the long-term the Korean manufacturer intended to expand the photographic capabilities of phones, or build smartphone features into cameras. At the time we received no clear answer. The fact that Samsung is calling this a 'Galaxy' product is interesting, but there's no mistaking that this is an enhanced camera, not the other way round.

Semantics aside, the Galaxy Camera is highly significant. It is the nearest thing we've seen to a true camera/phone hybrid, and as well as solid photographic specifications it contains a serious amount of DNA from Samsung's well-established line of smartphones. The key is the addition of a powerful processor, and 3G/4G connectivity. This means that just like a smartphone, the Galaxy Camera can connect to the web anywhere that there's mobile coverage, and should have enough power to run apps and browse the web without feeling sluggish. An 'Auto Cloud Backup' feature automatically saves images to Samsung's AllShare cloud storage service the moment they're taken - another benefit of 'always on' connectivity.

From the back, however, the Galaxy's massive display and three 'soft' buttons are classic Android OS. Gone are the usual buttons and dials that we'd expect on the rear of a Samsung compact camera.

Interestingly though, although the screen size is similar, the display on the back of the Galaxy Camera is an LCD unit, not the gorgeous AMOLED used in the Galaxy SIII. 

Likewise, the potential to send images captured with the Galaxy by email, or upload them directly to social network sites from pretty much anywhere is very appealing, and as Samsung knows very well, for a huge number of photographers working with mobile devices, this is already second nature. What these photographers aren't used to of course, is the sort of advanced photographic feature set that the Galaxy camera offers. In theory, this makes the Galaxy Camera an ideal first point-and-shoot for someone who's used to taking pictures on their phone, and wants to go further with photography. 

Of course, because the camera runs the open-source Android operating system this means that the camera's feature set can be expanded in the same way as any modern Android-based smartphone, via a huge number of third-party applications. We have some worries about battery life though - the Galaxy Camera's battery has roughly 50% greater capacity as the battery used in the WB850F, but around 25% less than the battery used in the Galaxy SIII, which isn't known for its stamina. Another big question mark - for now - is price. A significant amount of processing power is required to run a full smartphone OS - much more than would be necessary for a conventional compact camera - and it doesn't come cheap. At the time of writing, Samsung's pricing model, which may include carrier subsidies, is unknown. 

When we spoke to Sunhong Lim - VP Sales & Marketing in Samsung's Digital Imaging division back in March, he predicted that 'once the cloud computing era truly dawns, a non-connected device will be meaningless'. The Galaxy Camera is Samsung's surest step yet in this direction.

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