When Samsung introduced the NV24HD last year, the camera's 24mm lens blew us away. We predicted then that the ultra-wide-angle trend would be a hit with consumers, and we were right — Panasonic's Lumix DMC-LX3 proved to be a success and Samsung is riding on this wave with its new WB500.
To sweeten the deal and differentiate itself from its competition, Samsung has melded other useful functions such as a 10x optical zoom into the point-and-shoot. While it offers a variety of creative and exposure functions, we can't help but feel handicapped by the limited manual mode and the slight lag which presents itself when we take high ISO or long exposure shots.
In the looks department, it appears that Samsung has taken a leaf out of Panasonic's book, and styled the WB500 similar to the Lumix DMC-TZ7. On the front of the Samsung is a large lens barrel flanked by an on-board flash and AF illuminator.
We found the positioning of the flash too near to the hand grip, and there were occasions when we accidentally covered it while shooting. This was probably due to the large lens barrel which takes up most of the camera front. A nice way to resolve this issue would be to make the flash unit pop up from the top, like with the NV24HD.
The WB500 is no slim shooter, and we don't fault it for this. The robust chassis has to house more lens elements as well as components necessary for the operation of this high-end point-and-shoot. Even so, the camera was well-balanced and we didn't have any difficulty shooting handheld with it for long periods.
The rear layout is simple with few buttons to clutter the rear estate. Functions are mapped to the four-way directional pad which surrounds the Menu button. The command lever on the thumbrest allows easy access to change exposure (or ISO or white balance) settings by rocking it left or right. The charger port beside the thumb rest is well protected with a cover that is easy to open.
The WB500 doesn't come with a dedicated battery charger, so depending on which camp you are in, it can be either a good or bad thing. The upside to this is that the travel charger is less bulky to bring around. The downside is, unfortunately, if you don't have a spare battery, you are tethered to the electrical point when the cell runs low on power.
The image on the left is shot with aperture setting F5.9, while the picture on the right was taken at F13.1. Note that the depth of field is similar. (Click image to enlarge) (Credit: CNET Asia)
The main selling point of the WB500 is its 24mm ultra-wide-angle lens with 10x optical zoom. This puts it on the same level as the popular LX3, yet at the same time offers consumers more flexibility with a much longer zoom. In this respect it competes more closely with the Lumix TZ7 which has a 25mm lens and relatively similar specifications.
As with most ultra-wide-angle shooters, we noticed there was distortion on the sides of the images we took. It was not severe to the extent that our subjects looked grotesquely out of shape, although straight lines tended to look curved when they were near the edges of the pictures.
The WB500 utilises an optical image stabiliser to reduce blur in pictures from shaky hands, and we have to say it worked very well in this shooter. We were able to snap photographs in low light at a shutter speed of 1/20 second with surprisingly sharp results.
The Smart Album can catalogue pictures according to the dominant colours in photographs. (Credit: CNET Asia)
Samsung has incorporated program and manual exposure functions in the WB500, but we found the creative features to be less than satisfactory. While there is a good range of shutter speeds to choose from in manual mode, there are only two aperture settings offered. Depending on which focal length you are at, it can be f/3.3 or f/7.5 (at the wide end) or f/5.8 or f/13.1 (when zoomed in). We also noticed that there are no aperture blades to control the amount of light entering the lens, but rather another filter is applied to reduce the illumination on the sensor. This was evident from our test shots taken at two different aperture settings, while the depth of field remained the same.
Night shots are not one of the WB500's speciality. Noise is quite evident in the darker regions. (Credit: CNET Asia)
Keeping with Samsung's directions for its higher-end point-and-shoots, the WB500 is capable of capturing HD-quality videos at 1280x720 pixels. It is compressed with H.264 standards, so file sizes are a little smaller. Quality-wise, it is acceptable but not great, especially in low-light conditions, but we were pleased that we could zoom while recording video.
The playback function on the WB500 is one of the most intuitive that we've come across for a point-and-shoot. The Smart Album function allows you to view the images according to date or even colour scheme. This makes organising and looking for images much easier than having to scroll through hundreds of pictures in the camera to look for a particular photograph. Also, the editing function is useful to have as it allows users to implement corrections to the orientation, colour, brightness, contrast, and even make faces look more appealing by smoothening the tones. The best part about this feature is that it saves a copy of the edited photo, so you'll still have the original picture.
The WB500 has 10MB of internal memory, which is good for only five 10-megapixel pictures, and uses SD/SDHC cards.
The WB500 may not be the fastest camera we've come across, but it still ranks among the speedier point-and-shoots we've reviewed. Shutter lag was measured at 0.1 second, and the start-up time clocked in at approximately less than two seconds. This is not unusual given that the large lens barrel has to be extended from the body before you can start shooting.
What irked us was the poor focusing we experienced, especially in dimly lit environments. The Samsung camera did well for outdoor shots, locking onto the subjects accurately and quickly. But when we brought it indoors, the focusing tended to be inconsistent, occasionally refusing to focus or pinning down the wrong subject. What didn't help was that the WB500 doesn't have manual focusing, which could have partially resolved this issue by giving control to the photographer.
We also noticed that when taking at high ISO or slow shutter speeds, the camera would take a while (less than two seconds) to process the image before the unit was ready to shoot again. While this may not hinder shutterbugs who are taking pictures of stationary subjects, it could cause you to miss candid shots.
Image quality has always been an issue plaguing Samsung's compact cameras, but we saw improvements in the WB500. Maybe it's the new image-processing chip or better sensor, but we are glad that the camera produces better pictures.
An ISO comparison table on the various sensitivity settings on the WB500. (Credit: CNET Asia)
At ISO 80, the images have a great deal of details and there are no visible traces of noise. A step up to ISO 100 and 200, we noticed slight smudging of colours, but it did not degrade the photograph. It was only at ISO 400 that we started to see loss of details and a significant increase in digital artefacts. If you are not fussy, pictures taken at ISO 800 are acceptable, although we recommend that you refrain from using any settings higher than this. At ISO 1600, the picture was speckled and not as sharp as we'd have liked it to be. That said, most point-and-shoots cannot deliver good-quality pictures beyond ISO 400 or 800, so the images from the WB500 can be considered as slightly better than average.
The section on the right has been corrected with Adobe Photoshop's Highlight/Shadow function, and there is not much noise generated. (Credit: CNET Asia)
The Samsung camera did pretty well in the dynamic range department. With proper exposure settings, we managed to achieve a good amount of details in both the highlights and shadow regions. These were easily retrieved during post-processing.
So is the WB500 worth buying, especially if you're considering an ultra-wide-angle long-zoom shooter? We think it is if you can forgive its slow focusing speed and limited manual exposure mode. If you intend to shoot in program mode most of the time, this point-and-shoot is worth some consideration. Also, the handy editing options and clever playback mode make up for some of the WB500's flaws.