Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's still a compact camera.
The Long Version: The Samsung WB210 is a remarkable camera, and probably one of the ones that will influence the market long after it's gone. While phones with cameras have been decimating sales of simple point-and-shoot cameras for a couple of years, the WB210 is the first one to jump the other direction and take the user interface from a phone. That also makes it the first one with a touch-screen to rethink the list-and-category structure of the typical camera's control menu and replace it with an icon-based system. Looking most like the "Apps" on a smart-phone, Samsung will tell you that it's the UI from their Galaxy line of Android devices, although some might dispute the fundamental origin.
The result is a touch-screen camera that's fundamentally different from the rest of the pack, and more usable than most. While there are still some interface issues that need to be thought through more carefully, that's also true of cameras that have had generations to mature. For a first effort I suppose I shouldn't complain too much, so I won't.
The biggest benefit of the icon-based design is that the little boxes can be moved around. There are three screens of them, accessed by swiping from side to side, and they can be dragged into any order or grouping to best suit the owner. Since most people will only use a fraction of what the camera can do, but will have a few features that they frequently use, this is a massive improvement over anything else that I've seen.
Also remarkable is the deproliferation of scene modes. Some, like Night Shot, give direct control over the relevant options – slow-sync flash, wide or narrow aperture, timer – instead of the silliness of having separate modes for night landscapes, night portraits, or 'starry sky' photos. Others, such as the Smart Filter or surprisingly entertaining Magic Frame will provide a preview of the options along the bottom of the screen, and it's easy to swipe through the different choices. The mass-foolishness of the scene modes on my TS3 is one of my lingering frustrations with that camera, so the WB210 is a welcome relief.
After a couple of hours with the Samsung I learned to put the important "mode" icons on the right side instead of the top row, which makes it much easier to use the camera with only one hand. Naturally, the camera's shooting controls and menus are all on the left side of the touch screen. This is where I have to remind myself that I wasn't going to complain too much about the little design issues that hamper usability, and to be honest working with two hands isn't that difficult – even though it's not typically necessary with the more convoluted non-touchscreen compact cameras. You win some, you lose some.
The playback screen also shows a bit of the inconsistency that usually afflicts touch-screen cameras. The photos can be swiped through from one to the next, but the Android-approved pinch-zoom trick doesn't work. Instead, the usual method of using the zoom toggle will magnify the images or back out into a thumbnail view. Those thumbnails can be brought up full-screen by tapping them, which is the same result as using the zoom toggle, but further taps won't continue to magnify them. Instead, tapping most of the photo will show/hide the control icons, as it does in capture mode, while tapping either side will go to the next/previous photo in the sequence. When the photo is magnified the control icons are always shown, and tapping the edges of the screen is interpreted as a feeble attempt at a swipe, which in this mode will only scroll around the image.
Suffice to say that there are some aspects of the WB210's interface that could still be cleaned up and made more elegant. It would also be nice to be able to go into playback mode without needing to wait for the flash to recharge, but that might be asking too much.
Changing the shooting modes is done by pressing the stealthy "home" button on the camera's lower-right corner instead of the colourful icon on the top-left of the screen. That little bit of eye-candy is really hard to ignore, and even after days with the camera I'd still tap it by mistake – the UI designer's mistake, not mine – which simply brings up a short description of the current mode. That was never what I wanted it to do.
Another big part of the learning curve was to remember which icons are touchable and which aren't. The ones on the left side are good, with the already-mentioned exception of the prominent multi-coloured "mode" icon at the top, which really looks like it should do something useful but doesn't. Instead the active icons are indicated by the subtle translucent-black button-shape around them. The icons on the right are just for information, and touching them does nothing – except that tapping any non-button part of the screen clears everything off of the display, which is nice. Tap again to bring them back.
I really missed having easy access to exposure compensation, as it's buried under the 'menu' icon on the bottom left of the screen. I find working with touch screens to be somewhat awkward – I've never owned a smartphone with one – and would prefer to keep a dedicated button for important controls. An EV toggle that could be tapped up or down would be great; while that's something I'd love to see on most compact cameras, the WB210's touch-screen makes it particularly difficult to adjust.
There are a couple of other things to know about the WB210. One is that it takes micro-SD cards, which seems foolish for such a big camera. Fortunately I had one in my phone that I could use to evaluate the camera before I had to give it back. Casio cameras also uses those little tiny cards, and I'm really not sure why. It took years of ostracization before Sony and Olympus finally standardized on SD cards, so having to face yet another oddball format just leaves me feeling exasperated.
The other quirk is that the battery charges while it's inside the camera, using the cable that connects from USB to the camera's HDMI port. While the camera does include an adapter, it can be charged from any USB source, including the computer that it transfers its photos to. Since there's only the one cable, that's the most convenient option, but make sure that the computer will still supply power when it's shut down. Samsung isn't the only one who does this, but it's just one more way that this camera declares that it's for casual rather than extended use.
Since there's no separate charger, there's really no reason to bother buying a second battery. Just plug the camera in whenever possible and hope it has enough power to last as long as it needs to. Did I mention that the WB210 takes its interface from a smartphone?
WB210 extreme telephoto, 288mm-e
I did something foolish for this review. Because I didn't get the chance to live with the loaner Samsung camera for an extended period of time, I actually took matched photos to see how its image quality compares to a completely different contemporary point-and-shoot. It's an unscientific comparison, of course, and after a few tries I completely gave up. Comparing compact cameras for image quality feels like choosing between a mason's or carpenter's hammer to hit my hand with. Either one sucks; what's important is the features. Chisel or claw, long zoom or waterproof: pick the right one based on the obvious differences and then just learn how to swing it. Sure, I'll skip getting hit by the big waffle-headed framing hammer if I have a choice, but the idea of picking a "best" is just wrong thinking.
(For those who care more than I do, I've put some comparisons online: crops from the TS3/WB210 as shot, TS3/WB210 with auto tone and white balance; TS3/WB210/GH1 crops plus the full scene.)
WB210 at its 21mm-e special setting
Since I've already digressed into the idea that reviewing compact cameras is like hitting myself with hammers, this seems like a good time to go into more depth about the WB210's ultra-wide 21mm lens setting. It isn't part of the normal zoom range, and turns the camera into a fixed-focal-length machine with surprisingly little geometric distortion. This is a supremely cool idea, and would be the big reason why I'd buy one of these cameras for myself. The problem is that the mode has essentially no controls available. Things that are simple – or at least possible – in "program" mode just aren't permitted. Multi-area auto focus, fill-flash, exposure compensation, viewfinder grid overlay: all forbidden. The wide setting only allows the centre focus point and as-metered photos, with the added bonus of having the flash revert to its default "auto" setting every time the Super Wide Shot mode is selected. The flash actually does a pretty good job, but when I've turned it off, I expect it to stay that way.
It's also worth noting that, like almost all cameras on the market, selecting different aspect ratios does nothing but crop the image in-camera. So while an image that fills the WB210's abnormally wide screen may feel more satisfying, the stockier 4:3 image is actually 'wider' with a larger diagonal field of view.
The WB210 isn't exactly a macro monster; Canon compacts are still the best I've seen for that. But it's not bad, either, and handles itself fairly well. (See larger images straight from the WB210 and TS3.) As always it pays to learn the tricks of the camera: while the "close-up shot" mode only allows the centre focus point to work, the automatic "easy shot" has multi-area focus and will automatically switch into macro mode for close-ups. Handy. In fact, the Easy Shot mode is surprisingly useful, and even has the ability to recognize and automatically increase the exposure for scenes with a lot of white in them. It will also spot scenes with other dominant colours – blue sky, green grass – and react accordingly. Well, at least it will react, I can't swear that it's decisions are appropriate. There's only so much I can learn in a few days.
I have to say that I was impressed with the metering from the WB210. The photo is of a white sign on a concrete wall with the top and bottom in mid-day shadow, and I took it with no exposure compensation in the camera's Program mode. No tiny digital sensor is going to capture that dynamic range, and the whole point was to abuse the poor little Samsung. The sunlit concrete is essentially a mid-tone, and I fully expected the large shadow areas to make the camera overexpose and wipe out the sign. The WB210 didn't fall for my trap, sensibly dropping the shadow tones and preserving a comfortable little smidgen of room on the right side of the histogram. Impressive, especially for a $250 camera that spends so much of its energy on a nifty long lens and a touch screen with an innovative UI.
While Lightroom shows that just a bit of the blacks are actually clipped, it's not worth being too optimistic about recovering any of that shadowed area. It's still a jpeg from a compact camera, and it didn't react well to my attempts to persuade it to behave differently.
The lens on the WB210 is remarkable for its span but not quite as impressive in the specifics. Sharpness is decent across the zoom range, including the telephoto end – not "tack sharp", of course, but sharp enough for a hammer. My complaint is that it shows moderate to serious pincushion distortion at pretty much every focal length. This might not matter for a lot of people, but I really do take photos of brick walls for fun. The "exit" photo is taken at about a 50mm equivalent (9mm actual), which should be fairly well behaved, but isn't. While geometric distortion is a something that many lenses really suffer from, even when they're officially high-end – the Samsung EX1, to keep it in the family, or the Canon G-series cameras as well as their "L"-series standard zooms – I was disappointed to see that there's no part of the WB210's zoom range that I could use for photos that depend on accurate geometry.
But the fact is that I'm not the WB210's intended owner; it's a do-everything travel zoom that's quite happy just being the family snapshot machine. The interface makes it particularly suited to people who don't otherwise like compact cameras, find them too fussy and complicated, or think that they're generally incomprehensible. Granted, all of those also apply to me, but some opinions about point-and-shoot cameras transcend experience levels in exactly the way that expectations don't.
To try the Samsung in its natural environment, I took it for a field trip and put it through its paces at a kids' soccer tournament. It did okay, with reasonable auto-focus and shutter lag, but capturing moments that included a soccer ball was more a matter of luck than skill. Spotting my step-niece-in-law on the LCD wasn't too difficult, even in strong sun, but the sad reality is that any long-zoom camera without an eye-level viewfinder is difficult to aim. For comparison I also had my old Panasonic FZ18 out for the day, and while its autofocus lagged behind the Samsung, its design is still an advantage if its larger size is an option.
There are some features of the WB210 that I really like. The range of the lens is great, and the single-focal-length setting is decent enough that I'm almost willing to forgive the fact that the digital zoom can't be disabled when in the "Program" mode. The whole category of compact cameras with long zoom ranges is a great idea, and the WB210 combines a modest price and decent performance with a few really neat tricks.The interface is an improvement over the standard compact camera, and an excellent rethinking of the typical design. Granted, I have a fairly dim view of how most compact cameras work, and the WB210 could really use a couple of extra buttons, but it's still a solid effort. While I can't say that I'll buy one, it does some things that I really wish my TS3 could do.
If I was coming from a cell phone or a short-zoom compact I'd probably be very impressed by the WB210, especially if I was already familiar with an iPhone or its Samsung equivalent, the Galaxy S II. I've waited a long time to find a camera that's better-enough than Penny's iPhone for her to use, and this little Samsung could finally be it. If nothing else, it has made me pay attention to this new brand and look forward to seeing what they come up with next.
The camera used for this review is an evaluation sample that I was able to borrow for a week; I had access to it simply because I work part-time in a camera store. To say that Samsung didn't solicit my opinion would be a massive understatement.
last updated 12 sept 2011