For a first entry into enthusiast compact territory, Samsung puts in a credible showing with its TL500, an attractive camera with a thoughtful design, fast f1.8 lens, and flip-and-twist AMOLED display. But it faces some steep competition and ultimately can't keep up with the crowd.
While I came down on the low side when rating the TL500's image quality, there's a lot of ambivalence behind that decision. What eventually nailed it for me were the significant differences between the JPEG and raw versions of the images and the problem that one option isn't consistently or unambiguously better than the other. Consistency is the hobgoblin of my little mind.
The TL500's JPEG noise profile looks typical for its class; like its competitors, though, Samsung still doesn't match Canon for cleanness of its images. They're good up through ISO 200, but at ISO 400 (where the stronger noise-reduction settings usually kick in) they're soft and above that it starts to depend upon how much detail is in the scene. Samsung tends to push both the chroma and luma noise reduction pretty strongly, while many companies tend to favor one over the other. At ISO 800, images look OK at small sizes but mushy at full size; ISO 1600 images may be usable if they're extremely low-detail shots.
From a noise standpoint, you can gain a stop of usability by shooting raw. ISO 400 shots look like they were shot with a different camera. Beyond that, you start to see tradeoffs in tonal range. And the tonal range isn't that broad to begin with; I had no luck recovering any detail from blown-out highlights. The default JPEG settings also produce rather flat, low-contrast photos with somewhat desaturated colors, and there's no preset option for more saturated but still accurate color. You can fiddle with the individual settings, though.
However, Samsung clearly performs in-camera distortion and aberration control for the JPEGs. It's an interesting decision: at its widest of 24mm you expect distortion and may use it creatively, so this is probably a snapshooter-friendly decision on Samsung's part. That said, once you factor in the expected distortion, the lens performs very well. Images are sharp around the center and edges and the barreling is the most symmetrical I've seen on a compact camera. Unfortunately--but unsurprisingly--the distortion correction lops off content around the edges of the images. Plus while there isn't an unusual amount of fringing in the raw files, it did appear in a couple of unexpected places that I found difficult to correct--one of the downsides of shooting raw with this camera. (Note: I do my raw processing using Adobe Camera Raw.) Like most cameras, the lens performs best at macro distances, but the TL500 can't focus very closely, and it doesn't seem consistent about how far it needs to be to lock focus--occasionally it seemed I could get a lock as close as 2 inches, but other times it required around 6 inches, and the capability appeared completely unrelated to the focal length.
If Samsung had to make lens compromises to extend the reach I might be a little more forgiving about the artifacts. But Panasonic manages a slightly bigger focal range at just a fraction of a stop slower, f2 versus f1.8, and with a sensor this size the depth-of-field and exposure differences are probably minimal.
As for performance, all of the cameras in this class are disappointingly slow--not because of the focusing systems, but because of abysmally sluggish file processing and card operations--and the TL500 is right in the middle of the pack. It powers on and shoots in a relatively quick 1.8 seconds. Like the rest, it focuses and shoots in about 0.4 second in high-contrast conditions, and delivers a decent 0.7 second in low-contrast ones. But it runs 1.8 seconds between two sequential JPEG shots (1.9 seconds for raw), which bumps up to 2.5 seconds with flash enabled. It can burst at 1.5 frames per second, but you really don't want to use continuous shooting on a camera like this without an optical viewfinder or even an optional EVF, anyway.