Zoom in! Smartphone cameras with true zoom capabilities

They say that the best cameras are the ones that you always have with you.

More than three years ago, that could have been either your pocket camera or digital SLR. Today it's simply your smartphone.

Smartphone cameras have gotten better each year thanks to improvements and breakthroughs in image capturing technology over the recent years, giving you less reasons to invest on a standalone point and shoot camera.

In addition to the already versatile software that allows us to edit and share our images instantly online, we now have higher megapixels, more powerful sensors and better quality lenses that greatly improve image quality.

New technologies such as the Ultrapixel sensor, for example, has enabled the HTC One to shoot better quality images in low light conditions, whereas the Samsung Galaxy S4 combines a 13 megapixel image sensor with extensive camera software features, making the smartphone a highly capable everyday shooter.

However, smartphone cameras lack that one missing component that, if incorporated well, could potentially render digital compact cameras obsolete, and that is optical zoom.

For many years, smartphone cameras have been struggling to offer a reasonably good zoom for users who want that extra reach.

While it's no surprise that today's smartphones are able to pack more megapixels and improved sensors, there are still limitations in the lens department: there is simply no room for a protruding adjustable lens system (or interchangeable for that matter) as smartphone designs are mainly heading to the slimmer and lighter form factor.

Because of this, the lens are generally fixed, and although there's zoom control in all camera apps, this is entirely software at work and not the lens, a technique known as "digital zoom".

Digital zoom isn't the same as optical zoom, a feature that's only been exclusive to standalone cameras. When you "zoom digitally", your image quality will diminish.

This explains why zoomed photos captured on a smartphone look terrible all the time.

Zoom is obviously the next evolution of smartphone cameras, and just recently we're seeing true optical zoom making its way into a smartphone for the first time, made possible by Samsung.

The Korean smartphone manufacturer has successfully fused a 10x 24-240mm optically stabilised zoom lens onto an Android handset, the Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom.

Technically, the device is a smartphone and point and shoot camera hybrid, but the merit of such design is that it removes the dreaded digital zoom in favour of a true optical zoom, which will please the photography enthusiasts.

Samsung had an early head start tinkering with an Android-powered digital camera; the Samsung Galaxy Camera released last year was a successful experiment in Sammy's part to showcase the future of cameras running on Google's mobile operating system.

Unlike the Galaxy Camera though, the new Galaxy S4 Zoom is first and foremost a smartphone (running on Android 4.2.2 and Samsung Touchwiz), and will definitely appeal to serious shooters looking for a good smartphone that can offer the best camera functionality on top of great image quality, and most importantly the ability to zoom.

However, despite the company's attempt to ensure a portable design corresponding to today's smartphone design standards, the mash up resulted to a rather awkward design, not in camera mode, but on smartphone mode, especially when you start making calls on this thing.

Nevertheless, this is truly a remarkable achievement for a smartphone camera, and it certainly opens doors for further improvements and innovation in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Nokia is playing a different game to address the zoom limitations on smartphones. Just last week, the company unveiled the Nokia 1020 which boasts a whopping 41-megapixel camera.

Instead of relying on optical zoom, the Windows Phone 8-powered smartphone takes advantage of its massive megapixel sensor to capture all possible details on an image captured so users can zoom in to subjects (or pretty much anything in the background) on the image after it has been shot, with no visible loss of clarity.

Without protruding lens, the Nokia 1020 retains the slim form factor of standard smartphone design, which is a plus over the hybrid smartphone-cum-pocket camera Galaxy S4 Zoom.

This is truly a year for smartphone camera innovation. There are already rumours circulating that the next iPhone set to be released later this year will have major improvements in its camera system.

One thing is for certain; the reign of compact point and shoot camera is nearing its end, as your smartphone will be your only camera you need.