Aside from design, what separates pocket minicamcorders like the Flip from camcorders like the Samsung SMX-F34 is not video quality, but optical zoom and storage capacity. The F34 features 16GB of internal memory as well as an SDHC card slot for storage expansion. It also has a 34x zoom lens and a feature set that includes manual shooting controls, which you definitely won't find on ultracompact YouTube camcorders. Unfortunately, the video quality really isn't any different; the F34 delivers pretty standard, standard-definition video.
|Key specs||Samsung SMX-F34|
|Dimensions (WHD)||2.4 x 2.4 x 4.9 inches|
|Weight (with battery and media)||11.2 ounces|
|Storage capacity, type||16GB; flash|
|Resolution, sensor size, type||680K pixels (460K effective), 1/6-inch CCD|
|LCD size, resolution||2.7-inch LCD, 112K dots|
|Lens (zoom, aperture, focal length)||34x, f1.6-4.3, 2.3-96.6mm|
|Minimum illumination||3 lux|
|File format (video, audio)||H.264 (.MP4) /AAC (stereo)|
|Resolution (video/photo)||720x480/ 800x600|
|Recording time at highest quality||380 minutes|
|Image stabilization type||Electronic|
|Battery type, rated life||Lithium ion rechargeable, 180 minutes (continuous)|
The soda-can shape of the F34 is very comfortable to use, and since the hand strap is mounted across the middle, there's little body roll should you release your grip. Plus, it has Samsung's swivel-grip feature allowing you to quickly change from underhand to overhand shooting without removing your hand from the strap. The body, which is available in black, silver, blue, and red versions, is almost entirely plastic, but doesn't feel cheap.
Controls on top include an ultrasensitive zoom rocker, followed behind by a shutter release for capturing stills (though not while movies are being recorded), and a Mode button; Movies, Photos, and Playback are the options. Following the curve down the body's back is a door concealing a 3.5mm AV jack, a miniUSB port, and a DC input for power. To the right of the jack cover is a large record button and below it a spring-loaded power button. The camcorder's battery compartment and SDHC card slot are behind a sliding door on the bottom.
Flipping open the LCD reveals three more buttons in the screen cavity: iCheck, LCD Enhancer, and Easy Q. With the power off, the iCheck button gives you an onscreen readout of remaining battery life and storage; with the power on it toggles on and off information on the display. The LCD Enhancer improves contrast and brightness of the display for better visibility. Lastly, pressing the Easy Q puts you into a fully automatic, you'll-get-no-settings-and-like-it mode. Holding it for about 3 seconds, however, brings up a list of scene modes.
The LCD itself is fairly low resolution, but is fine for the capabilities of the F34. To the left of the screen is a Menu button, a four-way directional pad and a select button, and a record button. Since the zoom can be controlled with the pad, it and the record button give you a second set of controls. The pad is small and flat, so bigger fingers may have trouble accurately pressing different directions.
The Menu system is straightforward enough, so learning to control everything takes no time at all. Selections are, for the most part, in a horizontal scroll bar letting you easily turn features on and off; only the system settings menu has an extended vertical set of options.
|White balance||Auto, Daylight, Cloudy, Fluorescent, Tungsten, Custom|
|Scene modes||Auto, Easy Q, Sports, Portrait, Spotlight, Beach, Snow, High Speed, Food, Waterfall, Manual|
|Focus||Auto, Manual, Face Detection|
|Color effects||Standard, Black & White, Sepia, Negative, Art, Emboss, Mosaic, Mirror, Pastel, Cosmetic, Stepprinting|
|Lens cover (auto or manual)||Manual|
Video can be recorded at three different quality levels at a resolution of 720x480: TV Normal, TV Fine, and TV Super Fine. There's a 640x480 Web and Mobile setting, too. Truthfully, though, you probably don't want to stray from TV Super Fine quality.
Though the F34 certainly seems like a camcorder for point-and-shoot movies, Samsung does include manual control of focus, shutter speed, exposure, and white balance. It also has a C.Nite feature for slowing the shutter down to 1/30 or 1/15 for better low-light visibility, but it also slows motion down. Basically, the manual controls are there if you need them, but honestly this camcorder is more for automatic users. You do get eight scene modes to choose from and interval shooting, too, should you want to capture something like a flower opening. There are also a handful of digital effects to play with. All in all, it's a nice collection of features for a budget camcorder.
If there's one glaring omission to the feature set, however, it's optical image stabilization. The electronic image stabilization does an adequate job, but the 34x zoom lens really demands optical stabilization. Don't plan on using the full length unless you're mounted on a tripod and, in that case, shut off the EIS.
The F34 produces video in line with other camcorders in its class. The video is soft and generally grainy looking with interlacing and compression artifacts. Low-light performance isn't great, either, exhibiting more of the same. The autofocus is slow regardless of lighting conditions, but in dim light it does a lot of hunting on top of being slow. Color is OK, as is exposure, though highlights are usually blown out. Having said all of that, the F34 isn't necessarily any worse than other sub-$200 standard-def consumer camcorders available. So, if you still live completely in a low-resolution world, the recordings are destined for video-sharing Web sites, or you simply want to capture the moment no matter how it looks, the F34 should be satisfactory.
Photo quality is pretty poor, but again, that's to be expected for such a low resolution. You'll be able to capture an image, however it won't be good for much more than Web sharing or, if very well lit, 2x3-inch prints.
Read enough user reviews of current standard-def consumer camcorders and you'll see one comment frequently pop up: "My cell phone takes better video than the (insert product name here)." I don't know that that's true for the Samsung SMX-F34, but depending on the resolution of the device, it may very well be the case. However, you're not going to find a cell phone--or a pocket camcorder, for that matter--with a 34x zoom lens, 16GB of storage, and an SDHC card slot for expanding the capacity.