Cameraphones have come along way since the early snap’n’send’n’then-work-out-what-the-picture-is mobiles. Five megapixels is now the current benchmark for any self-respecting, top-of-the-the-range UK handset with high quality camera aspirations. The G800 is Samsung’s second UK mobile to boast a 5-megapixel resolution camera, following on from the sleek, slimline G600 sliderphone.

The G800 is vying for shelf space with an increasing number of mobiles with similar top-level resolutions, including the Nokia N95, N95 8GB, and N82, Sony Ericsson K850i, and the LG KU990 Viewty.

But the 3G-enabled G800 has something a bit special that none of the other mobile makers have yet squeezed into their 5-megapixel cameraphones – a 3x optical zoom. Sure, other mobiles have zooms, but an optical lens array means no loss of quality when you zoom in up close to subjects – unlike with a digital zoom where the picture quality degrades as the image on the camera imaging chip is digitally enlarged.

In fact, an optical zoom is still a rarity on cameraphones. Nokia has done it before with the N93 and N93i, both 3.2-megapixel models, and Sharp has too with its 2-megapixel V602. But, as Samsung makes much of, this is the world’s first 5-megapixel cameraphone with a 3x optical zoom.

One compromise that Samsung has had to make to achieve this, however, is on size. To fit its clever moving optics internally, Samsung has moved away from the svelte design template of the G600 and other recent models and made the G800’s casing more – well – camera-like. It weighs in at 129g – bulky for a mobile – and it’s just over 20mm where its sliding lens cover protrudes.

So will the benefit of having an optical zoom make a crucial difference to buyers when the G800 is lined up against the other 5-megapixel big-hitters?

Handling

Although Samsung is majoring on the photographic capabilities of the G800, the mobile isn’t a one-trick pony. It’s a fully-featured 3G handset, with HSDPA high-speed mobile broadband technology that enables download speeds on suitably enabled mobile networks of up to 7.2Mbps. While no UK network currently offers these speeds for handsets, HSDPA services on some networks are in the process of being upgraded for services later this year.

The G800 promises a full suite of standard 3G services; you can make face-to-face video calls with a secondary camera above the display, it’s equipped for fast downloading and streaming of music, video and other content, and it has a full web browser on board.

Naturally, you get a video player inside, and a multi-format music player is present and correct too, supporting MP3, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+ and WMA files, while an FM radio with RDS is built in to up the entertainment quota.

While the G800 is no skinny Samsung slider, its other dimensions are more conventional, its footprint measuring a reasonable 101.5 (h) x 52 (w) mm. This means you get enough real estate for a fairly sizeable display, a 2.4inch, 320x240 pixels 262K-colour screen, delivering a decent-enough viewfinder when its engaged in its camera-related activities.

The front of the G800 is laid out with straightforward, easily understandable controls. There’s no touch-sensitive tinkering to contend with – the central navigation D-pad is the hub of control operations, with softkeys either side plus conventional call, end and clear buttons placed subtly underneath. The slider mechanism is solidly built, with a flush brushed metal-look numberpad that’s large, backlit and finger-friendly.

Refined Look

Overall, the G800 has a refined look, with the black-surrounded display and control pad array offset by chrome-look silver edging and details.

The smart fascia is only the start. Flip the phone over, hold it sideways, and its brushed metal panelling with sliding lens cover give it the look of a standalone digital camera. The camera’s Xenon flash (more powerful than an LED) is also protected under the sliding cover, which also acts as an activation switch for the shooter.

The solid shape of the G800, while not usually a mobile phone crowd-pleaser, is a plus point for camera handling. Held like a typical digital camera, it feels solid, stable and highly grippable. The side camera activation button and volume keys become a two-step shutter control button and zoom rocker keys, comfortably within reach of your right index fingers without random digits straying into the picture.

The G800 comes with some 110MB of onboard user memory for storing high resolution photos, music, video and other content. Realistically, we expect users will want to expand that by adding a low-cost MicroSD card. These can be hot-swapped into the side of the phone; there’s a slot next to the phone’s dual charger/headphone socket on the other side to the camera controls.

Camera Features

It’s safe to assume the camera will be where most G800 buyers will initially focus in on. First impressions are good, as the user interface has a few tidy camera-style touches. Slide open the lens cover to turn on the camera, and you get a various camera settings option icons tucked away in the top left corner, a frame in the middle or focusing, and a cluster of quick access icons on the right that are operated by tapping the D-pad. These allow you to activate various useful controls – macro mode, timer, flash settings, or adding gridlines to frame images - without having to delve into the menu options.

More advanced settings adjustments are accessible through the main camera controls. Samsung has not only included an autofocus system here, but has also added face detection technology as a settings option – a new one for cameraphones - enabling you to automatically focus in on people’s faces when composing shots. It’s a handy option, and works surprisingly well even in murky conditions.

Similarly uncommon for a cameraphone, Samsung as added camera anti-shake digital image stabilisation as settings option. This again could be useful, though it’s rather tucked away under a general ‘settings’ heading.

Among the copious settings to be tweaked are five image size options, from VGA (640x480 pixels) up to 5-megapixels (2560 x1920 pixels), white balance control, exposure, exposure metering, ISO, contrast, saturation and sharpness. A Wide Dynamic Range option is also available to cope with difficult, high contrast lighting conditions. There are also various effects, panoramic and multi-shot options, plus a red-eye reduction setting for the flash.

The Samsung G800’s 5-megapixel camera can certainly capture some impressive-looking images that’ll look great when printed out. It’s able to deliver precise, sharp shots with fine detail and colour, particularly when lighting conditions are good. The autofocus system offers an audible and visual indicator of when it’s fixed on, while the 2-step capture button allows you to adjust until you’ve locked on to the subject you want.

The camera can deal with varying and tricky lighting conditions too. The 3x optical zoom does its job effectively, increasing image size by 0.25x at each press. A further digital zoom extension up to 4x the maximum optical zoom limit is also available.

The macro mode can be a bit hit and miss and requires a bit of patience, though you can get decent close in images. In low light conditions however, the camera can struggle to capture highest quality shots. Mild camera shake can be a problem as exposure is adjusted to compensate, which makes sharp macro shooting indoors tricky when holding the phone.

The Xenon flash does offer strong illumination for mid-range shots, but tends to white out close range images if you’re not careful. It’s bright at mid range - if not the brightest Xenon flash we’ve seen - but it can be quite harsh on subjects, so it’s worth thinking about how you use it.

Although snapping is high quality on the G800, video capture performance is limited, shooting at maximum 320x240 pixels. Footage is pretty standard for a cameraphone.

Image Editing

Samsung provides the G800 with a selection in-phone photo and video editing tools too, which allows you to manipulate shots, do minor corrections, add text or other images and crop shots.

Whether you fancy tweaking them or not, you can also share both pictures and video clips online quickly and directly, thanks to an upload option in the phone’s menu. This uses Shozu.com’s service to direct imaging content to a variety of websites or blogs of your choice, such as Flickr, Facebook and YouTube.

While its image abilities take centre stage, the G800 has other decently-appointed applications set inside too.

Naturally for a high-end 3G feature phone, it has robust digital music and video player functionality inside – as well as a tidy FM radio function.

The G800 can handle fast over-the-air downloads of tracks, thanks to its 3G HSDPA connectivity, although it’s straightforward too to transfer tracks, video or other content from a PC. Connected via the supplied USB lead, it can sync with Windows Media Player 11, or be used with the in-box Samsung PC Suite software to copy content over. You can also use a plugged in MicroSD card as a mass storage drive to drag files across from a PC, though you may have to reformat a pre-used card.

The G800 will set tracks up in a familiar MP3 player style, listed by categories, and playlists can be easily be created. Unfortunately, Samsung has opted to go for earphones that use its own type of connector plug rather than a standard headphone socket, so you’re limited to using the pretty run-of-the-mill supplied earphones that don’t do full justice to the player, or opting for Bluetooth ones if you want to improve the sound quality.

You can listen to tunes through the built in speaker, but that’s not great either, in a typically mobile phone bass-lite kind of way.

Going online with the G800’s web browser is a reasonable experience, though not as slick as on Nokia’s Nseries 5-megapixel Symbian-powered smartphones. You can choose either a mobile-optimised view of web pages – reformatted for scrolling down only on the phone’s screen – or a full-page view that you can scroll across or down.

The latter option provides more consistently viewable results, as the mobile optimised pages can sometimes render more complicated web pages unsatisfactorily. Still, with 3G HSDPA, you get a fast connection speed for browsing pages. Welcome too is the G800’s support for RSS feeds, which can provide regular updates from favourite websites or blogs.

As it’s not a smartphone, additional features aren’t as extensive as on some of the aforementioned 5-megapixel-packing competition. Of course, that’s reflected too in the comparable affordability of the G800 against the opposition.

It does, however, provide a full set of organiser tools. There’s an email client that supports attachments, and a document viewer application that can open Excel, Word, PowerPoint and PDF files or jpegs. This can be used with files Bluetooth-ed over to the phone or loaded up via USB or MicroSD card too, so you can easily copy and carry office files around with you on the phone.

Other standard applications include a calendar, voice recorder, memo note-maker, a to-do list function, calculator plus various clock and timer functions. You can download Java games to play on the phone too.

Voice calling is a sometimes-overlooked key feature, particularly in a 5-megapixel-packing cameraphone, but the Samsung G800 ticks all the right boxes here too. Audio is delivered naturally with good clarity, while the phone is a reliable performer when it comes to signal strength and not dropping calls.

Samsung quotes standby battery life on the G800 to run for a minimum of 220 hours, with talktime capacity 200 minutes minimum with a full tank. Unsurprisingly, these numbers are for optimum conditions, and these will be affected by how much you use its camera, view pics or videos, listen to tunes, browse and so on.

While it’s difficult to come up with a typical usage estimate, with regular usage in our tests we got a comfortable amount of time between charges with no drastic power-guzzling issues – typically 3-4 days – though power usage will depend on how heavily you used features or make calls.

Summary

Samsung’s latest vision of a top quality cameraphone is certainly more than just a superficial digital camera look tagged on to a quality feature phone. The specification of the G800’s camera, with its internal 3x optical lens array, raises the bar for what you can now expect from a 5-megapixel cameraphone. The image quality too can be impressive, and the non-loss zoom is a real bonus for achieving close in shots.

The size of the phone – a direct result of incorporating its optical zoom inside the casing – is useful when using the G800 as a camera, but may put off some would-be buyers who like the idea but prefer a sleeker model. 

While the Nokia N95 has been a runaway success despite its bulk, that device tipped the balance with an overwhelming set of features, connectivity options and smartphone apps that the G800 doesn’t match, despite its high quality camera performance.

If you’re looking for a cameraphone for top quality imaging, the G800 should certainly be on your shortlist. Whether the optical zoom gives it enough of an edge among the cameraphone elite remains to be seen, however. Imaging isn’t everything…