CNET First Look
Samsung TL500Less than the sum of its parts, the Samsung TL500 is a solid camera, but it just can't keep up with veteran players in the competitive enthusiast compact market.
Hi. I'm Lori Grunin, senior editor for CNET and this is the Samsung TL500. For a first entry into enthusiast compact territory, Samsung puts in a credible showing with the TL500. It's an attractive camera with a thoughtful design, fast f/1.8 lens, and a flip-and-twist AMOLED display, but it faces some steep competition and ultimately can't really keep up with the crowd. Overall, the TL500 has an attractive functional design that I like. It's about the same size as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5. It's a little heavier and just as solidly built, but there's an oddly slippery rubberized grip in the front that I wish were either bigger or smaller. It's not really deep enough for comfortable single-handed shooting, but it's also not shallow enough to really force you to change the way you hold the camera. A horizontal jog dial embedded in the grip controls exposure compensation, shutter speed, aperture, etc., depending upon the mode, but it's hard to differentiate the wheel from the grip by feel. That means it's hard to find when you want to but it's also hard to tell if you've accidentally pressed it or rotated it. On top, there's a mode dial with the usual collection of manual, semi-manual, and automatic options. There's a dual IS mode which combines electronic and optical image stabilization, and there's also a not-so-typical drive mode dial that has the continuous shooting, self-timer, and bracketing settings. The small power button sits in the middle. On the back, there's a traditional control layout. The highlight of that for me is the dedicated metering button. The ISO button sits all the way on the right edge of the camera and that, plus the record button with sits under your thumb, posed problems for me as well, and I would frequently accidentally hit either one of them just by holding the camera. It has almost all the essentials--a hot shoe, screw mount for add-on lenses, and it can zoom during movie capture, but it lacks the ability to auto-rotate vertical shots, it only shoots VGA video whereas all the competition has gone to HD, there's no even option for an EVF and while I'm not a zoom fanatic, the 3X zoom lens is just a little too short. While the camera offers manual focus, it's quite cumbersome to use as well and nor does it magnify the subjects efficiently to accurately gauge focus. 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. Like its competitors, Samsung still can't match Canon for the cleanliness of its images. They're good up to ISO 200 but at ISO 400 where the stronger noise reduction settings usually kick in, they're very soft, and above that, it starts to depend upon how much detail is in the scene as to whether you can even use them. Samsung tends to push both the chroma and luma noise reduction pretty strongly. Many companies simply favor one over the other. At ISO 800, the images look okay at small sizes but mushy at full size. And ISO 1600 images can be usable only for extremely low detail shots. This isn't the kind of performance you expect out of an enthusiast compact. The RAW versions of the ISO 400 shots look like they were shot with a completely different camera. 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 produced rather flat, low-contrast photos with somewhat desaturated colors, and there's no preset option for a more saturated but still accurate color. Samsung clearly performs in camera distortion and aberration control for the JPEGs. It's an interesting decision. With its widest of 24 mm, you expect distortion and use it creatively in a model like this, so that decision was probably made for snap shooters. That said, once you factor in the expected distortion, the lens performs pretty well. Images were sharp in the center and out to the edges and barreling is the most symmetrical I've seen on a compact camera. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the distortion correction does lop off the content around the edges of the images. 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. The TL500 is right in the middle of the pack. I really wanted to like the camera more than I did, and if Samsung comes up with an updated version that at least offers better, more consistent image processing and some slight design tweaks, it can potentially make a huge difference. In this current incarnation, it's a solid camera that many people will happily shoot with, but any one of several competitors offer a more compelling option. I'm Lori Grunin and this is the Samsung TL500.