We haven't reviewed a camera that's aroused as much dinner time conversation as this one in quite a while. Initial interest comes from its subtle good looks. Black all around, the ST550 features a piano black front, with the rest of the unit clad in black painted metal that feels as classy as it looks. The only hint of colour comes from the metal lens surround and a subtle coloured piping that rings the side and front. Our review unit was blessed with a shade of burnt orange, but black and purple are also available.
Shame then that the standard wrist strap is a dull grey that not only clashes with the colour scheme, but also serves to cheapen the ST550's otherwise faultless looks. At 18.6mm thick, 59.8mm tall and 99.8mm wide, the Samsung isn't waifish, but it will happily live in a human pocket or handbag. It won't overly tax one's shoulders or wrists, as it weighs 165g and about 200g without and with its battery respectively.
With Samsung's marketing ratcheted up to 11, we're sure you're well aware that the ST550 and its cheaper ST500 sibling both feature two LCD screens: a 1.5-inch unit on the front of the device for self portraits and the like, in addition to the usual screen found on the back. To the casual observer the front LCD screen is completely hidden by the glossy, piano black finish on the front. A firm tap is required to bring this hidden screen to life and this, naturally, makes the ST550's front panel more of a fingerprint trap than it otherwise would be.
From function and pretty to downright scary, the front LCD screen does it all.
Regular self snappers will find the front screen's self-portrait mode a real boon. Even those for whom this type of photo is a less regular occurrence will appreciate the removal of the usual guesswork. The screen can also be set to display camera settings and distracting — or just down right scary — images of clowns and smiley faces. When shooting in auto timer mode, the front screen will automatically display a handy countdown timer.
Doing without a viewfinder, the ST550 users will be using the large 3.5-inch screen for most of their photo composition. Put simply the ST550's 3.5-inch touchscreen is glorious, and easily justifies the AU$50 price difference between it and the substantially less impressive screen affixed to the ST500. Boasting 1.15 megapixels, the screen delivers vivid, striking images with pleasant colours. Clicking on screen buttons near the edge of the screen elicits a slight patch of screen discolouration, which is unfortunate. Haptic feedback is available and quite handy to have, if like us, you're prone to accidentally changing settings when attempting a self portrait.
Given the screen's outstanding specs, reviewing freshly snapped photos on the ST550 is a joy. A swiping motion, a la the iPhone, will let you scroll through photos, although oddly, menus can't be navigated in the same manner — it's up and down buttons only folks! Multi-touch moves are also not understood for zooming, but drawing an X is one way to delete a photo. You can also tilt, rotate and shake the camera to access certain functions, but the combination of button presses and sudden arm movements would probably make more sense in an interpretative dance routine.
We're all for small and dainty, but the ST550's zoom slider initially had us convinced that it was the thread for the wrist strap. Most of the cameras manual day-to-day functions, such as scene and camera modes, timers and flash, are accessed via buttons arrayed along the left edge the main screen. Manual settings, like manual focus, white balance, image quality, photo style, face detection, sharpness, colour and saturation, are hidden beneath a tab on the bottom of the screen.
That's it for physical controls; the zoom switch is a wee bit small.
Similarly, the button for the main menu is hidden underneath a tab on the right. The menus are fairly logically set up, although given the screen width available Samsung should have been able to expand out some of the acronym laced settings, like AWB, OIS, EV and AF lamp. Click through on a setting or hold down on an icon and the camera will offer a few sage words about what you're about to tinker with. For a camera so blessed with screen acreage, it's no surprise to discover that there's just three physical controls — the power, shoot, zoom and playback buttons along the top.
On the camera's bottom is a tripod mount, which, like on most compact cameras, isn't aligned with the lens' centre line. Space issues no doubt played a part in Samsung's decision to adopt microSD storage, but by golly these miniature memory cards are so easy to drop and lose that even a nano robot would also find them a bit too teeny weeny. If you've lost your card, run out of storage or simply haven't bought one yet (no card is included), there's 55MB of on-board storage that's good for about a dozen or so photos.
File transfer speeds via the easily lost proprietary USB cable are acceptable, although transfers via a microSD adapter and a card reader are a better bet. The cable also allows the ST550 to be charged when it's hooked up to a computer or, alternatively, when it's connected to the supplied mains converter. Connecting the Samsung to a power source is something you might be doing more often than you'd wish, as battery life isn't the best — the ST550 just survived a shoot consisting of just over 100 photos. Leave the camera on for extended periods and it can get rather hot too.
Performance and image quality
The ST550 is fitted with a 4.6x optical zoom lens that in 35mm terms runs from 27mm at its widest to 124mm in telephoto mode. Zooming is a little on the slow side and the lens mechanism on our unit is a little less silent than we would like. Behind the lens is a 12.2-megapixel CCD sensor, which is a few megapixels too many for a sensor that only measures 7.79mm diagonally.
Sydney during the dust storm. Shot at ISO 80, 1/750s and f/3.5.
(Credit: Derek Fung/CNET Australia)
Photos at 100 per cent aren't exactly what we'd call sharp, but despite that we've seen some good A3 quality prints developed from the ST550. Some may complain that pics on the ST550 don't quite pop, but we prefer that its colours aren't overly saturated. Manual controls, such as direct exposure and aperture control, are out of the question, although exposure compensation, white balance and ISO settings, are available for tweakers.
The built-in flash is sufficient for illuminating nearby faces and objects, although those who want a flash-less experience can put their fate in the hands of the ISO gods. Long exposure and high ISO photos are riddled with noise, but the ST550 isn't any worse than average in this respect. ISO sensitivity stretches all the way up to 3200, although from 800 onwards detail levels drop and noise levels rise precipitously. Optical image stabilisation is a standard inclusion, giving users an added degree of handhold-ability in low light. A dual-stabilisation mode, combining optical and digital image stabilisation, is also available, although its benefit is marginal at best.
ISO comparison chart.
(Credit: Derek Fung/CNET Australia)
Within about 1.4 seconds of turning the Samsung on, the camera's ready to shoot; shot-to-shot times averaged out at 2.3 seconds. In continuous shooting mode and at full resolution we managed 0.85fps, but if you're willing to live with VGA (640x480) quality there's a sports shooting mode which achieves around 6fps. Despite video being recorded at 1280x720 at 30 progressive frames per second, videos are soft, blurry and lacking detail.
For some — us included — the self-portrait screen is an infrequently used gimmick, but this camera marks Samsung's coming of age, as far as compacts go. It combines great looks, a delightful 3.5-inch touchscreen and decent photo-taking ability. The only real blots on its copybook are its 12.2-megapixel sensor — no doubt a sop to the marketing department — and battery life that skirts the line marked "too short".