Samsung ST70 compact camera review

Looking for a digital camera that truly delivers on its classification as a "compact"? A slender 16.6mm in depth, and the width and height of a credit card, the diminutive Samsung ST70 is clearly Tardis-like bigger-on-the-inside.

It houses a broader than average folded 5x optical zoom, a 27-135mm focal range in 35mm film terms and folded way within the body when not in use, 2.7-inch 230k-dot resolution LCD for picture composition and playback in the absence of optical viewfinder, plus 14-megapixel sensor. 

With pocket-friendly dimensions of 96.3 x 55.8 x 16.6mm and weight of 120g, the ST70 couldn't conceivably be any more compact without compromising on operability. There's not much of this camera to get a firm grip on, so its deployment of both optical-based and digital (ISO and shutter speed boost) anti-shake mechanisms is thoughtful to avoid blur when shooting at the telephoto end of the zoom or in lower light.

With attractive if conventional looking faceplate - a sophisticated black on our review sample - also small is the manufacturer's asking price, an affordable £150 in the UK.

The diminutive ethos continues in that the ST70 employs the fingernail-sized microSD card embraced by the mobile phone market as removable storage media of choice, instead of the postage stamp-sized SD/SDHC/SDXC more commonly favoured by digicams. A slot is provided for this optional extra at the base, adjacent to the battery compartment. An internal 27MB memory, allowing for six or seven full resolution, fine quality images, is additionally offered to get photographers started out of the box.

Given the modest cost you'd expect the ST70 to feel plasticy when gripped in the palm. It's surprisingly rigid however, a fair amount of metal strengthening the build - including eye-catching chrome strip running along the centre of the top plate and continuing down one side - without unnecessarily weighing it down.

Connectivity to your PC is via combined USB 2.0 and mains lead, with an adapter plug provided. The connection cable is particularly short, so like the camera itself it could conceivably be stored in a pocket for hooking up directly to your laptop when out and about.

The camera powers up in just over a second with a press of the top mounted power button. Apart from stills, the ST70 of course records video clips, selected via a mode button on the camera's back and here of the now customary HD variety at 1280 x 720 pixels and smooth frame rate of 30fps.

Though the built-in mono microphone picks up wind noise too easily - a light breeze sounding like we were recording in the frozen tundra - the quality is pretty good when replayed on a desktop, given that the ST70 costs just £150. The optical zoom is also accessible in movie mode, though bizarrely the sound cuts out as the user zooms, so the operational buzz of the camera making its adjustments isn't picked up.

The other shooting mode options accessible here are the default setting of Smart Auto - the camera reliably recognising common scenes and subjects and switching its settings automatically and accordingly if the scene isn't too busy, plus Program Auto, which allows the user a little more hands-on control, Dual IS (the twin anti-shake option), and Scene mode.

The latter boasts 13 pre-set selections biasing the usual suspects of portraits and landscapes - and including Samsung's skin-smoothing blemish-busting Beauty effect - with further text, sunset, beach and snow options. More unusually, the camera also features a dawn mode for early risers and exposure-adjusting backlight mode, so subjects taken against a rising sun don't register merely as silhouettes.

As expected, when using the LCD to compose images in bright sunlight, visibility suffers and you're reduced to cupping a hand around it, or ducking into the nearest bit of shade to check the shot afterwards, but this is par for the course with models in the ST70's class - and indeed digital cameras in general.

Again not something we expected on a £150 camera, Samsung also throws in a handful of digital effects filters on the ST70 for those who want to get a little more creative than merely pointing and shooting. These include the popular Miniature and Fisheye effects found on more expensive compacts such as the Canon PowerShot SX210 IS, as well as charcoal-like "sketch" etching and film negative ape-ing modes.

These options are selected via a toolbar of key settings that appears down the left hand side of the screen when the rear Fn (Function) button is pressed - a shortcut that avoids otherwise having to tab through the menu options to find them. With recognisable icons and brief text explanations provided for each function, navigation is quick and easy - just what you want from an affordable snapper.

It's quick to determine focus and exposure too, AF points nigh instantly highlighted in green on screen, and an AF tracking option selectable for good measure. With full resolution, fine quality images stored in around 2 seconds, operation generally zips along.

There are inevitably a couple of niggles however. Apart from the fact that the ST70 uses a microSD card when most existing camera owners are likely to possess a handful of larger SD/SDHC cards instead, the other issue we take with the camera is that the recharging of the built-in flash is particularly sluggish, the user having to count 4 seconds between bursts. In this fact, and it's one of the very few, the camera betrays its budget status.

Verdict

In terms of photo quality, the Samsung ST70 delivers a good showing: handling a mix of light and shade surprisingly well, colours are warm and vibrant without being unrealistically so, and detail is unexpectedly sharp, though not uncommonly there is a loss of definition toward the corners when shooting at maximum wide-angle, plus taking pictures under a bright sun can result in occasional lens flare.

Alternatively, when using the camera in low light without flash, grain starts to intrude from ISO 800 upwards. Again the latter isn't uncommon for its class, and especially so for a model cramming 14 megapixels on to its chip.

Overall the ST70 offers a better than expected feature set, build quality and performance for its price. So for anyone on a tight budget wanting a portable, lightweight option come the summer holidays that will deliver decent snapshots with the minimum of fuss, this Samsung comes recommended.