The "travel zoom" market - meaning pocket compacts with extended lens reaches beyond, let's now say, 8x or more - has really taken off in recent years, with Panasonic's all-conquering Lumix TZ series, and recent TZ20 iteration, leading the pack. However its cameras aren't the cheapest. Enter Samsung with its WB (Wide and Big) series of pocket cameras, aiming to deliver both that longer lens reach as well as better value for money.
Design and specification
The latest example in the 18x optical zoom WB700 which, alongside the WB750, follows on from the 15x WB600 earlier in the year and looks utilitarian in a Russian tractor factory sort of way. But commendably it doesn't feel cheap - even with a current street price of £165, considerably less than the original £250 asking price. Dimensions are 99.5 x 59 x 21.7mm, so, though not the most slender contender out there it will squeeze in a pocket without too much trouble, weighing a manageable 203g.
There's not much in the way of an actual proper handgrip, but there is a gentle curve to the faceplate that at least hints at one, while two raised slats at the back equally prevent the thumb from sliding about.
As is increasingly the case with compact cameras, there is no separate mains charger included in the WB700's box. Instead we get a mains plug into which slots a short provided USB cable, the other end attaching to a vacant port on the camera. This obviously means that if you did decide invest in a spare battery, the camera would still be out of action each time you needed to recharge it. However it could be argued that at this lower end of the market it's hardly an issue.
We're pleased also to see the WB700 has stuck with the SD card as its media of choice, as recent models such as the SH100 have opted for the tiny and fiddly microSD as in its smartphones.
The solid feel WB700's lens starts out at a usefully wide 24mm and, with a nudge of the zoom lever that surround the shutter release button, arrives at a 432mm (35mm equiv.) 4-5 seconds later. It's optically image stabilised to avoid the blurring effects of camera shake from hand-holding towards the telephoto end of the zoom, and we were able to get some good results in normal daylight at this setting. With a maximum lens aperture of a so-so F/3.2, the headline stills resolution is 14.2 megapixels from a 16-megapixel 1/2.33-inch CCD, which suggests some pixels have been lost in the mix somewhere, and there's high-def video here too.
Press the power button and the Samsung readies itself from cold for the first shot in 2 seconds, lens extending to maximum wide angle setting followed by the rear LCD blinking into life so the shot can be framed up. A half squeeze of the shutter release button and there's a brief moment's visible adjustment before the image snaps into focus, green autofocus square appearing on screen with a bleep of confirmation that the user is good to go and take the shot.
Controls and performance
You'd expect there to be few manual controls on the WB700 and while that's the case there are at least some. The eight-option shooting mode dial that sits atop the camera, nestled between the power button and the shutter release encircled by the zoom lever, includes not only the fall-back of a subject-recognising Smart Auto option for pure point and shoot operation but also the creative quartet of program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual settings.
More expected perhaps is a dedicated camcorder-style video record button top right of the backplate, where it readily falls under the thumb as you grip the Samsung in the right hand. Press the red button and filming commences, conveniently no matter which mode has been selected on the top plate dial. The progress of the zoom in this mode is slow and steady, which lessens the effect on the (mono) audio of the mechanical buzz of its adjustments, plus Samsung claims it has also deployed noise-cancelling technology to further lessen any such distraction.
Whatever the tool we're pleased that at least the optical zoom can be used when filming video, which isn't always the case. Even more of a surprise for a budget model is that an HDMI output lurks under a flap at the side for hooking the camera up to your flat panel telly, though the required lead isn't provided. Apart from the aforementioned plug and USB cable, users merely get a quick start manual, software CD and wrist strap in the box.
The now ubiquitous digital effects filters, arguably started by Olympus with its Magic Filters and Art Filters on its own compacts, also make a fresh showing on this Samsung, as "Smart" filters. On board the WB700 are the comic book like halftone dot that makes a change from what everyone else is offering, plus, alongside that, what everyone else is offering in perspective warping fish eye and miniature modes, reducing everything to model village scale through selective blurring.
Surprisingly for a budget model with an expansive focal range, the Samsung WB700 delivers good edge-to-edge sharpness, for the most part avoiding softening toward the corners even at maximum 24mm equivalent wide angle setting. Colours really leap off the screen too on their default setting, and the images appear uniformly sharpened which can lead to an overly crisp digital look. Still, this does ensure that anyone who wants to merely point and shoot can do just that and come away with eminently usable results that require little if any post processing, except perhaps brightness adjustment here and there.
Not quite stunning yet far from terrible, for those point and shooters looking for a big zoom on a £150+ budget, but not a big camera to go with it, the pocket-sized WB700 from Samsung should fit the bill. OK, so not all its specs are high end - there's no Full HD video, and we don't get the likes of integral GPS that rival (albeit pricier) models are now offering. But certainly the results from this camera suggest that the WB700 is about more than making do, and for the current street price we can have very few quibbles.
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