Samsung PL150 review

Samsung has been releasing an increasingly impressive array of cameras of late, and the Samsung PL150 is an example of the sort of innovation that is getting it noticed in what was once a relatively closed photographic space.

Like the ST550, the PL150 has two screens. It is a regular compact camera, but with the addition of a 1.5-inch front facing display. It's neatly done too as you'd hardly notice there was a screen on the front of the camera when it isn't in operation.

Otherwise the design of the PL150 is conventional. It measures 99.2 x 59 x 19.9mm so it is small enough to slip into a pocket with ease. It weighs 136g before you add the battery or memory card. We've said conventional in its design, but Samsung point out that the body of the camera can be set at a 7-degree angle when placed on a table to better capture the scene on self timer – a neat trick.

An oddity of the PL150 is that it uses the microSD card format, rather than the regular SD or SDHC. Although this means you can't use your existing stock of SD cards, it does offer another advantage - you can take a photo, slip the memory card into your phone and share it with the world using your phone's data connection.

The shutter button sits on the top encircled by the zoom lever which powers the 5x optical zoom, giving you a 27-135mm (in 35mm terms) range. It isn't the widest angle lens on a compact, but it covers enough ground for most users. Also on the top resides the power button alongside the ominously-named F.LCD button, which cycles through the various functions of the additional front screen, which we'll come to later.

Around the back of the camera you'll find the 3-inch LCD display, with your regular controls to the right. These consist of a mode dial, and four-way controller around a central OK button and a scattering of other buttons. The mode dial gives you the usual offering of Samsung's Smart auto, Auto, Program, Dual IS, Beauty Shot, Night, Scene and finally Movie.

We've seen these shooting modes before on Samsung cameras in the past, with Smart Auto offering to examine the scene you present, and pick the best shooting settings for the conditions. In Smart Auto you get little else to control; you can disable the flash or alter the image size, but you can't change anything else.

Auto gives you a little more freedom, with a press of the Fn button bringing up an on-screen menu which gives you quick access to things like face detection controls, focusing, style selector (to add artistic effects or colour tints), smart filters (fish eye, vignettes, miniature) and so on. All are easy to get to and explained clearly on the screen.

For those who want to wrestle control of the camera away from the auto settings then the program mode is essentially your only avenue. As this camera is pitched as a point and shoot first, we won't complain about the lack of more serious manual controls, and program mode gives you a little more control, but not a huge amount.

A separate menu button will send you off into proper menus, with a few more options available, but not many that will impact on your day-to-day shooting. Shortcuts around the four-way controller offer up flash controls, focusing (macro or auto) and self-timer, with the final space reserved for toggling display information.

But what you'll really be interested in is the integration of the front screen. Pressing the F.LCD button will take you through self-portraits and children modes, with the front display letting you see whether you are actually pointing the camera at yourself, and what's in the background. The children mode will play a frantic array of cartoon foolery and will catch the eye of your kids and make them look at the camera.

The front screen also comes in to play on the self-timer, which again gives you a live feed of what it is looking at (probably you) and gives you a countdown as you approach the big moment. One neat setting is called the jump shot, which takes three photos, the idea being that you can leap around. We gave it a try, here's what we got.

As crazy an idea as the front-facing LCD might be, the novelty value doesn't just wear off so we find it difficult to dismiss as a gimmick. The children's mode really will get kids to look at it, especially if you have the crazy soundtrack playing at the same time. The self-portrait possibilities are enhanced over the normal guesswork you have to make, although there is also a frame guide scene which lets you compose a photo then move yourself into the picture and get someone else to take that shot.

Smart auto seemed to identify the scene presented accurately enough to make for hassle free shooting, but the lack of control will grate with some, so the auto and P modes are better suited if you want to control basic photographic settings, like white balance or ISO for example. You'll also need to depart from Smart Auto to take full advantage of the flash options.

Dual image stabilisation is an interesting option as it deploys both optical IS (which you can apply to other shooting modes as you wish) as well as digital image stabilisation. We're not the biggest fans of DIS as it tends to smooth away detail, but if you are in dire straights it might just get your shaky image. The smart thing about Dual IS is that it only uses what it needs, so at that setting on the dial it will only use OIS where possible, and DIS only when necessary.

The smart filters and styles can add some creative interest to your images, negating the need to tinker in photo-editing software after the fact, but they do slow down the camera as the effect is applied. It's also important to remember to turn these effects off, as you don't want to return to that shooting mode and find you miss the moment because you opted for sketch style previously.

The ISO range runs up to 3200, with the user being able to select the ISO in Program mode, but not in other shooting modes, where you are left to the mercy of auto ISO. Noise is obvious from around ISO 400 upwards, but at acceptable levels to begin with. By the time you reach ISO 3200 the pictures take on a mottled appearance, but this isn't uncommon on this class of camera.

For the most part you'll have to be shooting in program with disabled the flash, so you'll have to accept the noise as part of the shot you are taking. Generally speaking in Auto ISO the camera doesn't stray further than ISO 800, putting in a longer exposure to get the shot.

The results aren't especially sharp from the 12-megapixel sensor and there is a distinct lack of fine detail when you crop in close, even in shots where you'd expect it. This is common to compact cameras and given its fun remit is unlikely to be a major concern.

Colours are generally well represented, sometimes lacking a little punch, but using the vivid style can give them a little lift. The camera can struggle in bright conditions, especially with bright subjects. High contrast scenes will give you a great deal of fringing around edges and it never really gets to grips with dynamic scenes where you want shadow and highlight details.

The lens is free from distortion through the zoom range, with the 5x zoom running from one end to the other in a couple of seconds. Powering on the camera to taking the first shot will take you about 4 seconds, again average performance.

Video offers a headline HD resolution of 1280 x 720. The option of 15 or 30fps capture is available here, but you can't get to the 60fps capture until you drop the resolution right down. Like some of the images, the video isn't especially sharp and lacks detail. It might be HD, but it isn't the sort of high quality HD you'll find elsewhere.

That said, if you are planning on videoing and sharing on YouTube HD then you'll be fine, but the lack of quality is noticeable once you put it on a large screen or monitor. Sound quality is sufficient for the likely audience of kids in the garden.

You can use the zoom during filming (although it mutes the mic whilst doing so) and you also get the option to pause footage so you can string clips together in the camera with ease. However, you'll have to try and maintain the focal point of your subject as it won't refocus during filming. You can apply styles and lens effects to movies too, with some interesting results and lowered resolutions, but again there is fun to be had here. 

In our tests the battery is good for around 300 shots, and like other Samsung cameras, you'll be able to charge the battery in the camera by plugging in the USB cable. The connections lie under a flap on the right-hand side of the camera, with a micro HDMI offered, but no cable supplied.

Verdict

Overall the Samsung fulfils its aim of being a fun and easy to use compact camera, well suited to general family photography. The images and video suffer from a general softness and lack of detail, so if absolute quality is important to you then this is unlikely to be the camera to pick. However, whilst the front-facing LCD may seem like something of a gimmick, we can't deny the fun it brings to the camera.

But then this camera will only set you back £150 if you shop around, leaving you with a pocketable and fun device that won't break the bank, but won't set the world alight when it comes to final image quality.