There's no doubt that 5-megapixel resolution currently defines the sweet spot of point-and-shoot digital cameras. Samsung's 5-megapixel ultracompact entry, the Digimax i5, offers a competitive snapshot feature set housed in a nondescript but slender metal body. Interesting features, a bright 2.5-inch LCD, and a VGA movie mode, however, don't compensate for listless performance and just so-so image quality.
Available in silver, black, and red, the Samsung Digimax i5 is solidly built, ultraportable, and generally comfortable to hold. Until you power the camera on, a small metal door protects the nonprotruding 3X zoom lens and the flash. When shooting, it's easy to block the lens with your fingers if you're not careful. Although the camera lacks room for an optical viewfinder, the 2.5-inch LCD is large, bright, and useful under all but the most extreme lighting conditions.
Buttons for shutter release, power, and the Safety Flash feature sit along the camera's narrow top edge. The former two caused us some initial fumbling; we found it easier to locate and press the higher-profile Safety Flash button, which boosts the ISO setting so that you can take low-light pictures without the flash. The remaining controls on the rear of the camera are logically arranged and easily accessed, but even the savviest digital photographer will need to read the manual to figure out where to find some of the camera's features.
ISO settings, white-balance selections, and color adjustments to individual RGB channels are well hidden; you reach them by pressing the button marked with an exposure-compensation icon, then pressing the up and down arrows of the four-way controller. Once we discovered this, changing settings became easy. The Night scene mode provides aperture and shutter-speed controls but extremely limited ones.
The Mode button, with its selection of auto, manual, movie, and various scene modes, offers pared-down but redundant access to items also accessible via the Menu button. The camera's horizontal menu navigation works differently from most digital cameras' systems and takes a little getting used to, but it actually works well. As you scroll across the top of the LCD, a color-coded submenu automatically appears for each feature, making it easy to just scroll down and pick the setting you want.
This Samsung offers a good selection of basic controls, including metering, continuous shooting, and sharpness. It also provides a number of color effects. Three unique features, which Samsung dubs special effects, include the following: several focus frames that help position subjects for maximum sharpness; a composite feature for combining several shots into one frame; and a function that adds a decorative border to the image. The first two are helpful, although the decorative borders seem a little tacky.
Other standout features include the bundled Digimax Reader software, which applies character recognition to convert images shot in Text mode into text files. Its video mode captures 30fps VGA MPEG-4 clips with or without sound. You can operate the zoom while shooting--which still isn't a common feature--although the sound recording cuts out while you're zooming. At 50MB, the i5's internal memory is larger than most, allowing you to store 20 highest-quality images, either as a digital album for your favorite photos or in a pinch because you've forgotten your SD/MMC card.
The camera turned in an average performance at best and elicited mumbles of frustration in the continuous-shooting mode, which blacks out the screen while capturing less than 1fps. Both start-up time and shot-to-shot time exceeded two seconds--and twice that with the flash. Autofocus worked relatively quickly with high-contrast subjects but otherwise wandered and searched before locking in, often on the background rather than the subject. You can turn on the autofocus-assist lamp to improve matters somewhat.
We also got uneven image quality from the Samsung Digimax i5. While it produced generally accurate exposures, most of our test shots looked soft, and sharpness dropped off noticeably closer to the edges of the frame. Macro shots fared slightly better, but their details appeared less than crisp. We didn't see a major purple-fringing problem, but our photos contained noticeable visual noise, and when we used the Safety Flash mode, the resulting noise made our images virtually useless.