The Samsung PL120 is one of Samsung's latest DualView cameras. The main selling point of these models is the extra front LCD screen used for taking self-portraits. They only been mildly popular as far as we can tell, but evidently there's enough demand for Samsung to keep producing them. With 720p video, 5x optical zoom, a sleek form factor and that enviable front screen, this could be the best $100 you ever spent, right? Read on to find out.
Body & Design
The PL120 is one of the smallest cameras on the market, about the width and height of a deck of cards but a bit skinnier. The design is sleek if uninspired; the rounded corners and glossy finish bespeak an understated fashion that is neither too flashy nor too dull. That glossy exterior comes at price, however: The PL120 mercilessly attracts fingerprints.
The front of the camera features a 26mm-130mm wide-angle 5x zoom lens. It’s not particularly bright at f3.3-5.9, but that is certainly a useful range. This is also where the camera’s biggest selling point can be found: a strategically placed 1.5-inch LCD screen. Built for the modern-day Narcissus, this front-facing screen makes it very easy to take self-portraits. A dedicated button along the top of the camera turns the screen on, showing a live, if grainy, view of you and your best friend’s smiling faces. In addition to the front LCD button, the top also features an oversized shutter button, On/Off button, and a mono microphone for movies.
The main attraction on the back of the camera is the 2.7-inch LCD. This isn’t particularly impressive for mid-2011, but there really isn’t much real estate for anything bigger. The right side of the camera is taken up with buttons: the zoom toggle, menu and mode buttons, 4-way controller, playback mode and a function button. It’s all very straightforward.
Another gripe in addition to the fingerprints is the PL120’s weighting. It isn’t a heavy camera by any means, but the battery sits at the left side of the body, directly opposite where your fingers are gripping the glossy exterior. Not only is there very little to hold onto, but this battery placement awkwardly weights the wrong side of the camera and makes it more difficult to grip. It’s a small complaint, but a design flaw that Samsung should have caught.
And unfortunately, the PL120 uses microSD memory cards. This is just obnoxious. Pretty much every other camera on the market uses SD/SDHC cards. Almost nobody has microSD cards kicking around, so it's just one more accessory that users need to buy.
Performance & User Experience
The PL120 starts up in just over a second, which is perfectly adequate. Otherwise, the operation is lacking.
For starters, Samsung have devised a zoom toggle that is neither intuitive nor responsive. Pulling up on the toggle zooms in, down zooms out. This is something one can get used to in time, though it's still odd. Latency is a bigger problem. The lens doesn’t seem to respond if you zoom in and then immediately try zooming out, or vice versa. It needs a second to settle, and then it'll respond to commands again.
Speed on the whole is just OK, too. Zooming is relatively slow. Moving from a shooting mode to a menu and back again results in a brief screen blackout time during which the PL120 can do nothing at all. Autofocus is also a tad lethargic in both good and bad light, yet Samsung has included a focus assist lamp that allows the camera to lock even in complete darkness. If you can wait for it, it’ll be accurate.
If you can live with these slight foibles, the PL120 is surprisingly easy to use. The attractive menu system is responsive and very easy to figure out, and the function button provides easy access to all the shooting controls you’ll need in a useful menu overlay. Samsung's experience making mobile phones seems to inform their design here.
There are the usual array of scene modes, an automatic mode, program mode, and the HD video mode. In addition to these are the creative options such as scene modes and smart filters, which can be applied to either video or stills. There’s enough to explore here without getting bogged down in too many options and settings.
Of course, there’s also the front LCD for self-portraits. The dedicated button along the top is a godsend here, and the screen serves its purpose with aplomb. The resolution isn’t great but it really doesn’t need to be; it’s an extra feature that simply works.
Image & Video Quality
Image quality was surprisingly good for a camera in this class. While there is definitely some noise reduction-based smudging happening at base ISO, images on the whole are vivid and details are defined but not over-sharpened. Higher ISOs definitely get noisier, but detail remains relatively intact and color shifting doesn’t happen till ISO 1600. This performance is right up there with offerings from heavy hitters like Nikon and Panasonic, and certainly outperforms many low-cost cameras out there.
The lens is a bit of a mixed bag, but is overall an impressive performer. Wide-angle photos are sharp from corner to corner, which is quite a feat for a compact 26mm lens. The long end, however, ultimately disappoints. Photos at the 130mm equivalent are uniformly soft and show just how demanding a 14 megapixel sensor can be. Owners should avoid the long end of the zoom if they plan to make medium or larger prints.
Video quality is unimpressive, but that’s to be expected. Samsung does allow optical zooming during recording, which is a nice touch, but you’ll want to hold onto your dedicated camcorder.
The Samsung PL120 is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s a very capable camera in the right hands, and image quality can be very good at times, but these results are in no way guaranteed. Inconsistency is the most frustrating aspect of the camera. It can be slow when it needs to be quick, and images aren't always as good as they can be, particularly as the zoom extends.
Still, for the money, it's a surprisingly good find. Image quality overall is very good, and it's generally very easy to use. And that vanity screen -- there's literally nothing bad to say about it. It's just a feature that makes sense. Before pouncing, it's a good idea to look elsewhere first, perhaps at the stabilized Canon A3300 IS or Panasonic FH5, or even the more capable PL170 and ST700 DualView models, but definitely keep this underdog in mind. The Samsung PL120 may surprise you.