Looking at the Samsung SC-D453, with its extremely compact, lightweight design and satisfying feature set, you'd expect it to cost much more than it does. But though it's a pocket-size MiniDV camera that you can bring along without a second thought, its performance varies dramatically depending on where you're shooting. You can get some excellent shots in bright outdoor light, but once you head inside, the barely mediocre video quality will remind you why the camera came at a bargain price. The Samsung SC-D453's color scheme combines shiny silver and flat, dark gray, making for a stylish contrast. With its tiny form factor, this camcorder has almost as much impress-your-friends flash as the style-oriented Sony DCR-PC55, which costs twice as much. Small and light (just 0.8 pound), the Samsung SC-D453 lends itself to prolonged one-handed shooting. Nevertheless, it has a very solid feel.
The Samsung SC-D453's designers struck a good balance between keeping the button count down and making functions easily accessible. On the camera's exterior, you'll see only the EasyQ automatic-mode button, the zoom rocker, the menu control, the mode switch, and the still and video triggers. Behind the LCD, an additional six buttons pull double duty by setting various shooting modes and serving as playback controls.
The well-designed, easy-to-navigate menu system handles additional functions. Pressing the Menu button on the back of the camera accesses the full menus, while pressing the navigation rocker brings up a quick menu with the adjustments you'll most likely want to make in the camera's current mode. The rocker/button combination works well for making adjustments, but its placement at the top rear of the camera means that only those with double-jointed thumbs will be able to navigate the menus one-handed.
A slot hidden behind the battery accommodates a full-size Sony Memory Stick or, with an adapter, a Memory Stick Duo for storing still shots and MPEG-4 videos. You must remove the battery to swap Memory Sticks. More convenient is the top-mounted tape door, which lets you swap tapes without removing the camera from a tripod. The Samsung SC-D453 features a 10X zoom lens backed by a 680,000-pixel CCD. The camcorder supports a good feature set for a low-priced unit, including six programmed autoexposure modes, a variety of digital effects (among them a simulated 16:9 aspect ratio), and effective digital image stabilization.
The Samsung SC-D453 has several manual settings. For example, you can focus manually, shift the exposure, and adjust the shutter speed. In addition to automatic white balance, there are indoor and outdoor settings, and you can lock the current white balance in place. Color Nite mode uses a slow shutter speed to attempt to improve dark shots; however, the camcorder has neither a light nor an infrared mode.
The camcorder features both FireWire and USB 2.0 jacks, though the USB port is useful only for transferring images from the Memory Stick or using the camcorder as a Webcam. You need a separately purchased FireWire cable to transfer DV footage. A/V-out cables let you connect the camera directly to a TV for display, but there's no included remote to control playback. The Samsung SC-D453 lacks analog video inputs, so you can't use it to transfer old analog tapes to digital format.
The Samsung SC-D453 includes a jack for an external microphone--an unusual and welcome feature for an entry-level camcorder. However, it doesn't have a shoe for mounting accessories, so you'll need to buy a bracket or just hold your mic in your hand. The Samsung SC-D453 responded well in our test shooting, quickly adjusting focus and exposure when we panned to new subjects. The comfortable zoom rocker allowed us to zoom in smoothly and precisely at both fast and slow rates.
Digital image stabilization works very well. With it on, we saw little movement, even at maximum zoom. It didn't noticeably affect performance or image quality, either. However, many of the camera's settings, such as Color Nite mode, can't be enabled until you turn off image stabilization.
The LCD screen is viewable even in direct sunlight, and it provides enough detail for manual focusing. The color viewfinder turns on only when the LCD is closed, so you can't use it when you've flipped the LCD around so that the subject can see him- or herself.
Microphone quality is good, with clear sound, no apparent camera-motor noise, and a wind-cut feature. The mic is sensitive to nearby sounds in all directions, however, so you'll want to speak softly when talking to your subjects, or you'll find your voice much louder than theirs on playback. Your opinion of the Samsung SC-D453's video quality will vary dramatically depending on where you typically shoot. Video shot outdoors in good lighting looks surprisingly good, given the camera's price class. If you head indoors or shoot at dusk, though, be prepared for disappointment.
Outdoor footage shows good detail, particularly in areas such as grass or a subject's hair. Autoexposure works well, adjusting quickly and accurately when we panned to new subjects. In bright light, colors were accurate and vibrant, and color and white balance were both right on. The video looked sharp, with no noticeable artifacts.
When we headed indoors, however, things quickly went downhill. Noise was apparent even in well-lit rooms. In medium lighting, footage had so much noise that it resembled a poor cable television signal. Colors took on a reddish tinge indoors as well. The Color Nite mode didn't help much. It offers two slow-shutter-speed settings, and while it can bring out a little bit of extra color and detail in dimmer lighting, it also makes the noise problem even worse.
The camcorder's SVGA-resolution still images are similarly unimpressive, with serious noise and a lack of detail.