Though the Samsung SC-X105L hints at great things to come for tapeless camcorders, it also proves that those heady days haven't quite arrived yet. It offers an extremely compact design--it's smaller than you'd think--and a novel external camera attachment that can be mounted on your head or shoulder to chronicle extreme sports. Unfortunately, the SC-X105L's video quality leaves much to be desired, making this camcorder a realistic option only for those who value the experience of taking videos more highly than that of watching them. A fetching design is one of the Samsung SC-X105L's hallmarks--while testing it, no fewer than a half-dozen different friends and close relations gushed "cool camera," "ooh, where'd you get that," and other variations on same. Indeed, the SC-X105L deserves the attention; dispensing with MiniDV has allowed Samsung to shrink the camcorder into a petite number, with few of the weird bumps and none of the Velcro straps that characterize heavier camcorders that use larger media.
Those prone to dropping expensive electronics will appreciate the SC-X105L's rubberized black-and-blue body, which gives the camcorder a solid, no-slip feel. What's more, the combination of small size and a good grip makes this device well suited to long shoots; since it's physically equivalent to holding one of those battery-powered minifans in front of your face, your subject will likely tire of being filmed long before you're ready to put the camera down.
Partially owing to the SC-X105L's smallish feature set, the camcorder's controls are quite simple and easily mastered after a couple of minutes. A spring-loaded switch turns the camera on and off, and switching from video to any other mode is as simple as repeatedly sliding the switch back to the On position. The zoom controls also serve as up and down buttons when you're within a menu and are located (along with the Enter and Back buttons) within easy reach of your thumb at the top of the camcorder. The menu system is well designed and simple to navigate, though you'll have to hunt through a couple of levels before you find the setting for enabling the external camera. The Samsung SC-X105L's feature set is largely external to the camera; the SC-X105L lacks many of the typical bells and whistles, but it has several unique capabilities and included accessories that enable you to shoot video in situations where having a larger, more conventional MiniDV camcorder would be impractical. Bad news first: you can't tweak the exposure controls when recording, so you're at the mercy of the camcorder's sometimes dicey autoexposure system. The SC-X105L also lacks a wide-screen mode, and its still images max out at a camera phone-like resolution of 800x600.
Now, on to the good stuff: The 10X optical zoom lens is digitally stabilized, and in practice, it allows you to shoot quite steadily and take some pretty long shots as long as you have adequate lighting. The rudimentary MP3 player is not strictly necessary on a camcorder, but it's a nice bonus if you have a high-capacity Memory Stick Pro card and want to take advantage of the SC-X105L's generous 512MB of internal memory. The SC-X105L's trump card, or at least the feature that none of its competitors can claim, is the weatherproof external camera included in the box. Because the SC-X105L is so small and fits so easily inside a pocket, you can use the head- or shoulder-mountable external video-capture feature to record any number of hands-free activities. I don't know that my testing of this feature really lived up to its take-no-prisoners billing, since I mostly used it to tape my brother making funny faces and myself catching footballs. But for skydivers, fly fishermen, and helmet-cam enthusiasts of all stripes, this external lens is perfect for freeing up your hands so that you can play air guitar at 30,000 feet or in a river or whatnot. One caveat: You can't zoom in when using the external eye, so you'll have to settle for a fixed-focus view. In general, the Samsung SC-X105L performed adequately, though in some areas it showed plenty of room for improvement. For example, starting up the camcorder requires an 8-second wait before recording, so this isn't necessarily the best choice for capturing the spontaneous malapropisms of a precocious toddler. On the plus side, the SC-X105L's autofocus worked well, speedily acquiring a subject even at maximum 10X zoom, although the focus tended to waver a bit under low-light conditions. Manual focus was functional, in the sense that toggling it up and down would eventually yield a proper focal length; unfortunately, because the SC-X105L lacks a visual guide to help you while adjusting the focus manually, the sweet spot can often be found only after a frustrating process of trial and error.
The SC-X105L more than makes up for its lack of an optical viewfinder with a bright, crisp 2-inch LCD screen that swivels out from the side of the camera and articulates a full 360 degrees. Camera shake is rarely an issue, as the SC-X105L's image-stabilization (IS) system works swimmingly--we suppose that's a must, given Samsung's promises of extreme performance. In fact, we turned off image stabilization only when we wanted a deliberately shaky effect, like in all those skateboard videos. Even with IS enabled, the SC-X105L's battery lasted an impressive amount of time. The onboard microphone sounded a little weak; in our test videos, voices and ambient music had a tinny quality, so audiophiles may want to steer clear. Here's where it all comes crashing down. The Samsung SC-X105L's video quality is, simply put, substandard. Even in direct sunlight, the camcorder takes muddy, artifact-ridden movies that are difficult to enjoy on a computer and almost painful to watch on a full-screen television. The color of the videos approaches decent if you set the white balance correctly, but there's so much smudging in these clips that truly accurate color is outside the realm of possibility. Colored noise becomes a ubiquitous presence in low light, often to the point of making everything look a uniform, staticky gray.
We shot all of our test videos at maximum resolution (720x480, 30fps) and at maximum quality, a setting that dramatically increased the size of our video clips without appreciably improving their quality. That's unfortunate since this camcorder does a lot of things right, but when all's said and done, the Samsung SC-X105L's subpar picture quality will likely disappoint those interested in sharing their videos or editing them down into creative projects.