Measuring 3.8 by 2.4 by 1 inches and weighing just 4.8 ounces, the S500 fits nicely in a jacket pocket, and its curved grip makes it easy to hold. The sparse, silver- or black-and-gray look won't turn heads but isn't ugly either. Its 3X optical, 35mm-to-105mm (35mm equivalent), f/2.8-to-f/4.9 zoom lens extends outward from the camera front when powered up and retracts when turned off.
The power button, the mode dial, and the shutter release reside atop the camera, while the zoom rocker, a four-way-plus-menu/OK control pad, and three other control buttons occupy the right side of the camera back next to the 2.4-inch LCD. The zoom rocker sits about 0.25 inch too far to the right for comfort, though the curved indent underneath it provides a perfect spot for your thumb. The three control buttons let you enter play mode and adjust exposure compensation; not to mention access settings such as ISO, white balance, and RGB intensity as well as other options, such as color modes, photoframe overlays, stitch-assist modes, and framing guides to help you line up your subjects. This last button is labeled with an E for effects, while the exposure compensation button is labeled with plus and minus symbols.
The problem is that most manufacturers place options such as white balance and ISO in the regular menu. Not only that, since the camera defaults to show current settings on the LCD (a good thing), including ISO, it's hard to notice that the exposure compensation button gives you access to adjust this and other settings. Furthermore, when in full manual mode, you have to press exposure compensation twice to access these settings-- again, not very intuitive.
Still, we were happy to see a full manual exposure mode. Not many point-and-shoot cameras let you select both aperture and shutter speed. Strangely, the S500 doesn't offer shutter- or aperture-priority modes, though it does include program and full auto modes, as well as 10 scene presets. While not as many as some of its competitors, this Samsung covers all the basics, such as portrait, night, landscape, and sunset, and even includes one called dawn in case you end up partying all night after shooting that sunset.
Exposure compensation covers a range of plus or minus 2EV in 1/2-stop increments. Most cameras offer 1/3-stop increments, for a finer degree of control. Similarly, the S500's manual shutter and aperture adjustments use 1/2-stop steps, though again, that's still more control than most cameras in this price range. If you really want to be safe, you can set the S500 to automatically bracket exposures, in which case it will shoot three shots in succession: one normally exposed, one at plus-0.5EV, and one at minus-0.5EV. Metering options include multi, which averages readings from throughout the image area with an emphasis on the middle; and spot, which measures only the center of the image.
Performance was mixed in our lab tests. The camera took 1.8 seconds to power up and capture its first image, which is actually somewhat fast, but once it started up, it took 2.4 seconds between shots without flash and an annoyingly slow 3.6 seconds with flash turned on. The shutter lag was a speedy 0.5 second in high-contrast situations and 1.3 seconds in low-contrast lighting. Continuous shooting was sluggish, capturing 39 VGA-sized JPEGs in 31.7 seconds for an average of 1.23fps, and 36 5-megapixel JPEGs in 32.9 seconds for an average of 1.09fps.
The LCD washed out in bright sunlight, though it was still possible to see enough to frame our images. It gained up in low light just enough to frame, though not as much as some of the LCDs we've seen lately. The flash is rated to provide even coverage out to about 10 feet with ISO in auto mode.
Automatic white balance produced very warm, yellowish images with our lab's tungsten lights, while the tungsten white-balance setting had a noticeably bluish cast. Thankfully, the manual setting produced neutral results, though the audience for these cameras is not very likely to set a manual white balance. Given that even Olympus's dirt-cheap FE-series cameras manage to provide a neutral white balance in auto mode, we don't understand why it should be so difficult for this camera, although it does so many things that those Olympus FEs can't even dream of. In natural daylight, the Digimax S500's automatic white balance did a good job of neutralizing colors, which were natural-looking and well saturated.
Even at ISO 50 (the lowest setting possible with this camera), some noise was visible in our test images, though it was very minor and remained so at ISO 100. At ISO 200, noise was very noticeable, causing even moderately dark colors to become mottled with splotches of varying lightness and colors, though many finer details were still unobscured. By ISO 400, the noise overwhelmed lots of detail, resulting in images unfit for print.
Exposures were generally accurate, though images were slightly soft and had noticeable fringing in highlights, especially with backlit subjects. We also noticed JPEG artifacting, which lent a choppy look to some curved edges.
Given that Samsung has shown that it is capable of making cameras that capture pleasing images, such as the Digimax L85 and the Digimax L60, there's little excuse for its S-series cameras turning in pictures that are plagued by artifacts and other noise. So, while the Digimax S500 certainly has a feature set that looks decent, you're better off spending a little more on one of Samsung's better-performing cameras, or looking at another brand altogether, such as Nikon's Coolpix L3.