For a first entry into enthusiast compact territory, Samsung puts in a credible showing with its TL500, an attractive camera with a thoughtful design, fast f1.8 lens, and flip-and-twist AMOLED display. But it faces some steep competition and ultimately can't keep up with the crowd.
While I came down on the low side when rating the TL500's image quality, there's a lot of ambivalence behind that decision. What eventually nailed it for me were the significant differences between the JPEG and raw versions of the images and the problem that one option isn't consistently or unambiguously better than the other. Consistency is the hobgoblin of my little mind.
The TL500's JPEG noise profile looks typical for its class; like its competitors, though, Samsung still doesn't match Canon for cleanness of its images. They're good up through ISO 200, but at ISO 400 (where the stronger noise-reduction settings usually kick in) they're soft and above that it starts to depend upon how much detail is in the scene. Samsung tends to push both the chroma and luma noise reduction pretty strongly, while many companies tend to favor one over the other. At ISO 800, images look OK at small sizes but mushy at full size; ISO 1600 images may be usable if they're extremely low-detail shots.
From a noise standpoint, you can gain a stop of usability by shooting raw. ISO 400 shots look like they were shot with a different camera. Beyond that, you start to see tradeoffs in tonal range. And the tonal range isn't that broad to begin with; I had no luck recovering any detail from blown-out highlights. The default JPEG settings also produce rather flat, low-contrast photos with somewhat desaturated colors, and there's no preset option for more saturated but still accurate color. You can fiddle with the individual settings, though.
However, Samsung clearly performs in-camera distortion and aberration control for the JPEGs. It's an interesting decision: at its widest of 24mm you expect distortion and may use it creatively, so this is probably a snapshooter-friendly decision on Samsung's part. That said, once you factor in the expected distortion, the lens performs very well. Images are sharp around the center and edges and the barreling is the most symmetrical I've seen on a compact camera. Unfortunately--but unsurprisingly--the distortion correction lops off content around the edges of the images. Plus while there isn't an unusual amount of fringing in the raw files, it did appear in a couple of unexpected places that I found difficult to correct--one of the downsides of shooting raw with this camera. (Note: I do my raw processing using Adobe Camera Raw.) Like most cameras, the lens performs best at macro distances, but the TL500 can't focus very closely, and it doesn't seem consistent about how far it needs to be to lock focus--occasionally it seemed I could get a lock as close as 2 inches, but other times it required around 6 inches, and the capability appeared completely unrelated to the focal length.
If Samsung had to make lens compromises to extend the reach I might be a little more forgiving about the artifacts. But Panasonic manages a slightly bigger focal range at just a fraction of a stop slower, f2 versus f1.8, and with a sensor this size the depth-of-field and exposure differences are probably minimal.
As for performance, all of the cameras in this class are disappointingly slow--not because of the focusing systems, but because of abysmally sluggish file processing and card operations--and the TL500 is right in the middle of the pack. It powers on and shoots in a relatively quick 1.8 seconds. Like the rest, it focuses and shoots in about 0.4 second in high-contrast conditions, and delivers a decent 0.7 second in low-contrast ones. But it runs 1.8 seconds between two sequential JPEG shots (1.9 seconds for raw), which bumps up to 2.5 seconds with flash enabled. It can burst at 1.5 frames per second, but you really don't want to use continuous shooting on a camera like this without an optical viewfinder or even an optional EVF, anyway.
|Time to first shot||Raw shot-to-shot time||Typical shot-to-shot time||Shutter lag (dim)||Shutter lag (typical)|
The camera also has a tendency to freeze if you get impatient and start pressing buttons while it's "Processing." I had to pull the battery twice. And, yes, the firmware was current as of this review.
|Canon PowerShot G12||Canon PowerShot S95||Nikon Coolpix P7000||Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5||Samsung TL500|
|Sensor (effective resolution)||10-megapixel CCD||10-megapixel CCD||10-megapixel CCD||10-megapixel CCD||10-megapixel CCD|
|Sensitivity range||ISO 80 - ISO 3200||ISO 80 - ISO 3200||ISO 100 - ISO 3200/6400 (expanded)||ISO 80 - ISO 3200||ISO 80 - ISO 3200|
|Closest focus||0.4 inch||2.0 inches||0.8 inch||0.4 inch||2.0 inches|
|Continuous shooting||1.1fps |
|2.5 fps |
|Viewfinder||Optical||None||Optical||Optional OVF or EVF||None|
|Metering||n/a||n/a||256-segment matrix||n/a ||n/a|
|Shutter||15-1/4,000 sec||15-1/1,600 sec||60-1/4,000 sec||60-1/4,000 sec||16-1/5,000 sec|
|LCD||2.8-inch articulated |
|3-inch fixed |
|3-inch fixed |
|3-inch fixed |
|3-inch articulated AMOLED|
|Video (best quality)||720/24p |
H.264 QuickTime MOV
H.264 QuickTime MOV
|720/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV |
|720/30p AVCHD Lite |
|30fps VGA H.264 MP4|
|Manual iris and shutter in video||No||No||No||Yes||No|
|Optical zoom while recording||Yes||No||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Battery life (CIPA rating)||390 shots||220 shots||350 shots||400 shots||350 shots|
|Dimensions (WHD)||4.4x3.0x2.0 inches||3.9x2.3x1.2 inches||4.5x3.1x1.8 inches||4.3x2.6x1.7 inches||4.5x2.5x1.8 inches|
|Weight||14.2 oz||6.8 oz||12.6 oz||9.2 oz||13.1 oz|
|Availability||September 2010||August 2010||September 2010||August 2010||July 2010|
Overall, the TL500 has an attractive, functional design that I like. About the same size as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, it's a little heavier and just as solidly built. I'm not sure why Samsung's specs choose to exclude the lens from the camera depth, claiming the camera is 30mm (1.2 inches)--essentially as deep as the S95, which it obviously isn't. There's an oddly slippery rubberized grip in the front that I wish were either bigger or smaller; it's not deep enough for comfortable single-handed shooting but not shallow enough to force you to change the way you hold the camera. A horizontal jog dial embedded in the grip controls exposure compensation, shutter speed, aperture, and so on (depending upon mode). It's hard to differentiate the wheel from the grip by feel. That means it's hard to find when you want it, but it's also hard to tell if you've accidentally pressed or turned it. I ended up accidentally shooting a group of photos with the exposure compensation bumped up because of it.
On top there's a typical mode dial with the usual collection of manual, semimanual, and automatic options (dual IS combines electronic with optical image stabilization) along with a not-so-typical drive mode dial with continuous shooting, self timer, and bracketing settings. The small power button sits in the middle.
The back has a traditional control layout, of which the highlight (for me, anyway) is a dedicated metering button. A Fn button pulls up shooting settings such as quality, white balance, and focus area, which you navigate via the scroll dial. The navigation dial doubles as buttons for ISO sensitivity setting, flash, macro, and display settings. The ISO button on the right edge of the camera and the dedicated movie record button under my thumb posed some problems, as I would accidentally hit them while simply holding the camera.
I love the bright, saturated, flip-and-twist AMOLED display, but that's not quite enough to lift the camera's feature rating. It has almost all the essentials--a hot shoe, a screw mount for add-on lenses, and zoom capability during movie capture. For those who care, there's Smart Face Recognition, which allows you to mark up to 12 faces as favorites that then take focus priority when shooting with face-detection enabled. The camera also offers three underwhelmingly implemented effects--miniature, vignette, and fisheye--and a two-shot HDR mode called Smart Range that pulls back some of the highlights that normally get blown out in high-contrast shots. But it lacks the ability to autorotate vertical shots, it only shoots VGA video (though you can zoom), there's no EVF option, and while I'm not a zoom fanatic, the lens is just a little too short. While the camera offers manual focus, it's quite cumbersome to use, nor does it magnify the subject sufficiently to accurately gauge focus. (For a complete rundown of the TL500's features and operation, you can download a PDF version of the manual.)
I really wanted to like the Samsung TL500 more than I did, and if Samsung comes up with an updated version that at least offers better, more consistent image processing and some slight design tweaks it could potentially make a huge difference. And in its current incarnation, it's certainly a solid camera that many people will happily shoot with. But any one of several competitors offers a more compelling option.