Samsung’s NV4 is a slim stylish camera that features a 3x optical zoom lens that does not protrude from the front of the camera keeping the svelte lines intact even when it’s in use. The lens sits in the top right hand corner on the face of the camera (so watch out for straying fingers) offering a broad expanse of the all-metal bodywork to admire, the only other kit on the front are the tiny, rather underpowered flash unit and its adjacent AF sensor/self-timer lamp.
The clean lines and slim build extend to the top plate where a nice mode dial spins to select the relevant mode of choice and you get a large shutter release and attractively illuminated blue LED on/off button. Over the other side of the top plate, a circular feature hides the camera’s speaker system through which you get SRS Surround sound output and it is this that hints at the multimedia functionality.
In the meantime, on the back plate the camera’s 2.5-inch colour screen is very nice to use and can even adjust brightness automatically for the ambient lighting level, making it good to use. The 230,000-dot resolution is ample for a screen of this physical size and in all but the brightest of direct sunlight when constant shading of the screen is required but is otherwise okay to use.
Rather small buttons to the right of the screen provide access to the usual array of features such as playback and menus, the latter sitting inside a four-way jog control for screen toggle, macro shooting, flash and self-timer functions.
The rather small zoom control at the top is as fiddly to use as I’d expected given its size and the narrow gripping surface presented by the small camera body. However the "E" button proves fast ingress to the camera’s photo style selector where sharpness, contrast and the like can be altered as well as the overall look of a shot, say black and white (or "classic" as Samsung prefer to call it!) soft, calm and the like.
There’s plenty to tinker with though in not all are particularly useful in the photo sense, but it certainly helps to have the extra control to hand if you want to create special effects in camera for some images. The "Fn" or function button works in a similar way to Canon’s control of the same name in that it brings into play the key image control settings using a clever animated (scrollable) menu screen.
It is here you pick the resolution, white balance, or ISO to use. It’s easy to use and quite fast too so helps keep external controls to a minimum with the caveat, the menus are slower to use than simple button presses. However, the aforementioned top plate mode dial helps here.
From this dial you can switch between all auto shooting, a clever photo help mode that provides a set of ticker tape scrolling options that take you to a guide on what to use (or how to set-up) particular settings on the camera for a specific type of shot. This is a great learning guide and while it takes time to read the scrolling ticker tape text, it’s worth having for the novices that might need the help.
There’s a portrait setting and a scene mode position to get at the 13 other subject programs such as landscape text and sunset for example. So far, pretty standard fare, but it is when we get to the MP3 player and movie mode positions things start to get more interesting.
For a kick off, the NV4 has an embedded multimedia player for movies (you can convert videos on your PC to use on the camera if you wish using the supplied Samsung software) music and reading text. The camera allows you to listen to music while snapping images too, which is fun or while reading text or reviewing shots, you’ve taken from the screen.
The camera’s DIS position or Digital Image Stabilisation bumps up the sensitivity (up to ISO 3200) to help keep things sharp, but image noise becomes a problem over ISO 400 and a real issue above ISO 800. At ISO 1600 and 3200 noise is very bad, so it’d be nice to see an optical image stabilisation solution on a future NV4 update.
The movie setting allows the creation of high quality MPEG4 SVGA (that’s 800 x 592 pixel) movies with sound but only at 20fps, so it’s a tad jerky to watch back. However, at VGA or lower settings, you get both 30fps and 15fps modes to play with, so on a 1GB SD/SDHC storage card, you can get up to 2.5 hours of video or over 426 stills (in the top quality, top resolution setting).
Movies look good and the sound quality is good too but the SRS sound system and large top plate speaker mean it doesn’t sound its best unless you use headphones. You can also then not annoy those around you with the constant "tsk, tsk, tsk" of your video sound or MP3 music track.
Other features include face detection AF which is fast and effective for all but profiles, and that macro mode that provides a 1cm closest focus point, excellent for frame filling close ups. A neat Auto Contrast Balance control allows you to shoot heavily backlit scenes, evening out the exposure and it works really well and can be switched off to if, say, a silhouette is what you’re after.
The camera’s auto bracketing control is very welcome and a great feature to have built-in to such a camera. The camera will shoot brighter and darker images, as well as an metered image to help give a range of options and is great if you’re not sure which way to go. Or you have simple exposure compensation to play with if you want to take control and manually adjust the exposure values: you have +/-2EV to play around with.
In terms of performance, however, things are not quite so rosy. Start up to first shot time is around 3 seconds, with flash on its about 5 seconds, there’s a noticeable shutter lag too, so watch out for vacant frames if you’re shooting fast action, particularly since there’s no action mode, not even in the subject programs.
The camera is nice to use otherwise, and once you’re used to these foibles things are no worse than other, similarly priced cameras. One thing I did notice was the speed with which the NV4 heats up, it’s quite noticeable though not uncomfortably so.
The metering is very good though the auto white balance setting has problems in mixed lighting, switch to a dedicated mode (sunlight for sunlight, tungsten for tungsten etc.,) and things are much better. The lens’ 38-114mm focal range is average at this level but provides sharp results thanks to an effective AF system. However the multi AF can get it wrong sometimes so switching to the central AF zone helps things both in terms of sharpness and speed of focus, so it’s nice to have it there if you want it.
Image noise I mentioned earlier but it does leave you hamstrung in low light since the flash is underpowered and switching to DIS simply ramps up the noise, leaving you with few options other than a tripod. However, in terms of detail and colour the NV4 does rather well up to ISO 400 after which noise and noise suppression starts to impact on detail and leach colour.
I’ve got to say, having a camera that provides other facets such as MP3 playback as well as photo capability I find rather enticing, I like the NV4 for that reason plus its low ISO image quality. Its flaws, such as they are, are no worse than similarly specified 8-megapixel models and so while detracting from the overall performance, means it is no worse than others in the field.
The multimedia functions might be a distraction for some and a boon for others, but either way, the Samsung NV4 provides an average photographic performance overall, sugar coated with those other multimedia features. If they’re your bag then it’s worth a look.