If you're in the market for an ultra-portable camera, the Samsung TL100 will definitely make your list of possibilities based solely on its size. The brushed stainless steel body of this lightweight camera is just 16.6 mm thick, not counting the lens. In a world of advanced technology, it takes a lot to surprise me nowadays, but the tiny size of this camera was still enough to startle. The back of the camera is loaded with a huge 2.7-inch LCD, plus a smattering of buttons, including the four-way rocker button that controls flash, timer, Macro, and Display settings. So far, so good, although the second thing I noticed, after the small size of the camera, was the small size of those buttons. This isn't a camera meant for people with large or uncoordinated fingers.
Features and Design
The second thing I noticed was that, for someone who is used to a certain amount of one-touch operation, there aren't a lot of buttons on the TL100. Aside from the four-way rocker, there isn't much you can do with the camera simply by pushing a button. In fact, I thought at first that maybe this model just didn't offer any advanced settings. The top contains just the zoom control and the Smart Auto button. Smart Auto operates much like Auto itself, except it's designed for totally novice users: it disables advanced functions and automatically selects the proper scene mode for the environment. Putting this control on top of the camera is a great idea, but where were all the Scene modes themselves, or the flash, white balance, and metering adjustments that the manual claimed were available?
I found them eventually. When in shooting mode, they're under the Menu button, which makes sense, but the problem is that even when you push Menu, the settings aren't readily available. It's a scroll-style menu where you have to scroll down, then to the right, then down again to make a selection. Now, I get the theory behind this. Putting everything into a menu streamlines the body of the camera, and prevents frustration that novice users might feel when they're faced with a host of buttons with inexplicable icons, and they keep stumbling into the wrong modes. But this is my number one gripe with the camera. Most models on the market nowadays have at least a dial on top that lets you move into various Scene modes; the TL100 doesn't. And so the settings aren't easy to change. Let's review: while in shooting mode, you have to push Menu, scroll to Functions, push the right-hand rocker to select, scroll through all the options to the one you want, push the right-hand rocker again, and then select your desired option. And when you want to turn it off, you have to do this all over again. One-touch operation isn't necessary for every single feature offered on a camera, but this felt like a problem. Particularly when I started to play with the Scene Styles, which are actually really cool—you can adjust the camera to sepia tone, black and white, cool tone, negative, warm tone, etc. But, once you set it to one of these settings, the camera remembers it until you go back into the menu and turn it off using that entire sequence of button pushes. Frankly, I doubt I'd use these much when I have to scroll like mad to get to them.
On to operation. The TL100 has 12.2 megapixels and a 3x optical zoom. I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of image quality and operation, having never handled a Samsung before, but for the most part, these are nice photos. The camera does offer up to 3200 ISO for low light conditions, and this is perhaps where the limitations of the processor show up most: compared to a recent Canon I tested, which handled 3200 smooth like butter, this camera dissolved in a fever of noise, producing an image that almost looked like a movie still, with harsh, unrealistic outlines and odd lighting. It's a pretty cool effect, actually, but it's far from realistic.
I have a bit of a complaint with the flash of the camera: after using it just once, I turned it off. It's glary and harsh, too powerful for most situations where you're within shouting distance of your subjects. Fill-in flash is offered as an option, which helps by illuminating the subject as well as the background and thus lessening the "deer in the headlights" effect that the regular flash creates, but it's still too bright. Even after turning the flash off, this is a bright camera. A scene will look great through the LCD, with muted tones and gentle shadows, and then when you actually fire the shot, it'll come out unexpectedly bright. It's as though the camera is collecting all possible ambient light and forcing it into your photo. This is great for when you need more light, but when you don't—when you're trying to capture the actual true-to-life lighting of a scene—it's too much brightness.
Performance is usually quick, unless you set the camera into one of the special Style settings (sepia, black and white, etc). At that point, there seems to be an issue, maybe because the camera has more to process: the first time you push the shutter button, it won't fire, even if you pre-focus by pushing the button halfway. Every time I used one of these settings, I had to pre-focus, push the button, wait a second, and then push the button again before the camera would fire. This is obnoxious, particularly when your friend is sitting there staring at you waiting for you to take the photo.
Conclusion: Not All Bad
So, is it all negative with the TL100? Far from it, actually. In spite of the gripes listed above, I actually enjoyed using this camera. I wouldn't buy it myself just because it turns into such a pain to use all the special features it offers, so it doesn't make sense to pay for them. But when you set the camera to plain old Auto or Smart Auto, and just walk around firing for fun, it's easy to use and fires fast. It'd be just fine for a user who wasn't too picky about the brightness of their photos, or who wasn't interested in playing with adjustable white balance, or metering mode, or any of the other features buried in the menus. Maybe it was the cool little body that made me not hate it: I'm not sure. But I didn't hate it. Be aware that you might, though, especially if you want to mess with the special settings. Make sure your fingers are in good shape for all the scrolling first.