With a few rare exceptions, camcorders are, at best, mediocre still cameras, while still cameras are very limited camcorder replacements. To get top-quality still and video images, your choices are either to make quality compromises or to carry two devices. Samsung offers a third choice with its DuoCam series, camcorders that pack a pair of lenses, one optimized for video and the other for stills. The Samsung DuoCam SC-D6550 is Samsung's third-generation entry in the line, bumping up the still resolution and adding a few new features while dropping the bulk and the substantial weight of its predecessors. Unfortunately, the performance of both camera and camcorder remains less than you'd get from dedicated devices in this price range. Weighing just less than a pound, the Samsung DuoCam SC-D6550 is both smaller and lighter than its predecessor, the , as well as many competing camcorders. Fairly compact, albeit a bit wide, the boxy, silver-and-gray plastic case seems, at first glance, to hold a rather nondescript camcorder. Looking at the front of the device gives away its duality: a smallish camcorder lens sits in the traditional position at the top of the camcorder, while a telescoping zoom lens for the still camera sits below it. Samsung's weight-reduction program was so successful that the camcorder almost feels too light, but the plastic seems thick and sturdy enough to hold up to shooting in the field.
Even in this third generation, the DuoCam's camera and camcorder designs each lack the consistency you'd expect from a dual-function device. While the menus are attractive and well laid out for both modes, they look and feel very different. The camcorder uses a colorful text-based, vertically scrolling menu, while the camera's menus are icon-based and scroll horizontally. The still camera lens has an automatic, built-in cover, while the camera lens uses a separate, tethered lens cap.
Most of the options for both still and video shooting are controlled using the menus and a small joystick mounted on the left side of the camera. There are a few additional buttons for functions such as activating the color slow-shutter mode, deleting stills, and controlling tape playback. A still-camera-style mode dial for selecting shooting modes when using the still-camera functions sits at the top rear of the camera. The zoom, start/stop, and still-photo buttons are well placed for one-handed operation, though those with large fingers may find that the mode dial makes pressing the still button somewhat difficult.
The LCD boasts a Manual Focus button, as well as a small rocker switch for adjusting focus. This works well and offers reasonably good precision, though fine adjustments are more difficult than they'd be with a focus wheel.
Both the memory card slot and the tape door are on the bottom of the SC-D6550, so you'll need to remove the camera from the tripod to swap recording media. The Samsung DuoCam SC-D6550's resolution lies in the middle of the range for similarly priced competitors. Behind the 10X optical zoom lens used for video is a 1/6-inch, 680,000-pixel CCD. The still camera lens features a 3X zoom (with a focal range equivalent to 38mm to 114mm on a 35mm camera) and is paired with a 5-megapixel sensor.
The SC-D6550 offers a wide range of shooting modes for both video and still photos, from the one-touch EasyQ button that puts all the camera's settings on automatic to completely manual control. In camcorder mode, you can set both shutter speed and exposure. When shooting stills, you can choose aperture priority, shutter priority, or full manual control. Still aperture range is now f/2.8 through f/11, a marked improvement over the still camera in the SC-D6040. Manual focus is available in both modes as well.
The camcorder features 5 automatic exposure modes for sports, sand, snow, and so on, while there are 10 different shooting modes for the still camera. The requisite cheesy special effects--sepia and negative, to name two--are present in both modes as well. Though there's a color slow-shutter feature for shooting in dark environs, Samsung removed the infrared Night mode found on the SC-D6040. There's a flash for use in still shooting but no video light.
Though the SC-D6550's appearance suggests a camcorder that's had a camera slipped in, the camera actually offers the most power and flexibility, while the camcorder is fairly basic. For instance, while the SC-D6550 offers all the features you'd expect in a midrange digital still camera, it lacks some key camcorder functions, such as the ability to copy video from composite and S-Video sources.
The SC-D6550 lacks expandability; there's no accessory shoe, nor does Samsung offer add-on lenses for the camcorder lens. One nice feature is the ability to select from among SD, MMC, or Memory Stick cards to store still images. The Samsung DuoCam SC-D6550 performed its video tasks well but fell short as a still camera. It's ready to start taping just 3 seconds after you flip the power on. Automatic exposure adjusts quickly to pans from light to dark subjects, and its autofocus response is relatively quick and accurate, even in somewhat dim light. Image stabilization does a good job of masking slight hand movements, even at 10X zoom levels.
We found the zoom control precise and smooth to operate, and the dedicated manual-focus rocker is easy to use and conveniently placed. The 2.5-inch LCD is somewhat small to use for precise focusing, however. Unfortunately, the viewfinder's resolution is so low that it's an even poorer choice as a focus aid.
The microphone's placement about 1.5 inches behind the lens is good for balancing the levels of sound coming from in front of and behind the camera. Sound is clear, and a wind guard helps keep it that way when shooting in breezy situations. However, the microphone frequently recorded a distinct thock just after the zoom reached either of its extremes.
The still camera is annoyingly sluggish. There's a delay of about 2 seconds between pressing the shutter switch and the actual shot. The camera must then write to the memory card before you take another picture, so you have to wait another 3 seconds (11 seconds in TIFF mode) before you can press the shutter again. This camera is a poor choice for sporting events, candid shots, or any situations where you need to shoot quickly. The Samsung DuoCam SC-D6550's digital-video quality was acceptable. Outdoor scenes were sharp and properly exposed, with accurate, saturated color even on a cloudy day. Indoor shots in bright light were comparably good, but color saturation begins to suffer in dimmer lighting, and the video becomes decidedly noisy; even well-lit video suffered from excessive visual noise and various edge artifacts.
While color appears accurate on NTSC displays, viewing the SC-D6550's footage on a PC shows that the camcorder still suffers from the same white-balance issues as its predecessor. There's a mild but noticeable bluish cast when using automatic white balance.
The Color Nite function helps preserve colors in darker shooting situations by slowing the shutter speed to 30fps or 15fps. This helps in dim but decent lighting, but in truly dark situations, we missed the infrared mode found on the SC-D6040, as the SC-D6550 can't see in the dark.
The 5-megapixel snapshots should print well at sizes as large as about 8x10, as long as you're not picky. Outdoor shots have good, if somewhat soft detail and slightly oversaturated colors. A few shots had noticeable chromatic aberrations--purple fringing--though this was most evident when zooming in to crop an image. Indoor shots had good color but were somewhat grainy, even when using the built-in flash. The flash is short-ranged; it barely illuminated subjects more than about six feet away. Overall, the quality is about what you'd expect from a bargain still camera, which is still better than most camcorders.