So cheers to Samsung for building cameras that I'll still be able to remember at next year's Consumer Electronics Show. They've given us the DualView series, odometer-style displays, WiFi capability, and now, GPS capability. Buyers can find these features in other brands, but the designers at Samsung really go that extra mile to add the "gadget" vibe to their cameras. That said, it's just important to accept that when you buy a tricked-out Samsung, you pay extra for the wow factor, not the image quality.
For consideration today, we have the HZ35W, a typically atypical Samsung camera. Its feature set is stacked even by Samsung standards: 15x optical zoom, ultra-wide 24mm lens, GPS for geotagging and basic navigation, 720p HD video, and a 3-inch AMOLED display. But as we've come to expect, the image quality falls short of what we'd hope for from a $350 camera. We can't get everything we want, but there might be a niche crowd that gets everything they need.
Build QualityIt feels average to me now, but I thought Samsung sent me a brick the first time I picked up the box. The HZ35W is a big boy as far as compact cameras go. It's roughly the size of my BlackBerry Tour, though a little shorter, and about twice as thick. The significant size contributes to a comfortable in-hand feel, and I never felt fatigued from holding it up for too long, though I think the heft may have contributed to the camera shake I experienced at the full, 15x zoom.
The straightforward button layout includes a mode dial, dedicated video button, zoom tilter around the shutter, and a toggle for the GPS function (more on that later). The minimalist backside sports a standard d-pad, menu, playback, and function buttons, as well as a dedicated video button. There are mini-USB and mini-HDMI outputs under a flap on the right-hand side, and a battery and SD card compartment down below. It's all tied together by a big, bright, 3-inch AMOLED screen. This monitor is one advantage that higher-end Samsung cameras have over the competition; AMOLED monitors are more efficient than LCDs, so the battery life should be longer, and they're also much easier to see in the sunlight.
Performance and User ExperienceThe HZ35W is no beginner's camera, so expect a little bit of learning curve as you navigate some of the advanced settings in the menu system. Experienced users will appreciate aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual modes, and novices should recognize more basic adjustments like ISO, white balance, and exposure compensation. There's room to grow with this camera.
Full manual control is a very desirable feature and it is well-executed on this camera. The average sensor and slow lens really aren't equipped to handle low-light situations particularly well, and auto modes don't . Here, users can tinker a bit more and find some middle ground between max-ISO noise-fests, blurry messes, and pitch-black non-pictures. I shot with the HZ35W in a particularly challenging environment: a three-day heavy metal festival in Baltimore -- and I managed to snap some decent indoor and nighttime shots, thanks largely to the shutter priority mode.
Videos look decent -- high definition, but a little fuzzy thanks to the motion JPEG format. Optical zoom works during filming, which is a plus. Unfortunately, I ran into some problems with sound. Watching playback of some videos, the sound often cuts out for no apparent reason. I originally thought that maybe the sound automatically cuts while the zoom is extended or retracting to avoid motor noise, but after watching again and again, it seems like it was a random occurrence. I haven't read any other reports of this, so it's possible I had a faulty model.
Image QualityOutdoors on a sunny day, the HZ35W produces some decent images. Colors seem natural, details are reasonably well preserved, and everything is in focus, even at full zoom, thanks to the image stabilization. Even indoors, when there's decent lighting, the shots come out well as long as the ISO setting stays at 400 or below. In low-light, it runs into the same noise problems that most point-and-shoots do.
As I mentioned above, the full manual controls can help get usable shots in these tough situations. But trying to shoot dim scenes in any automatic mode is as frustrating as with any point-and-shoot half its price. The sensor just isn't equipped to deal with these situations. I realize it may not be a fair comparison, since the HZ35W is packed to the gills with flashy features, but $350 buys a Canon S90, which has great image quality and crushes in low light. Just sayin'.
GPSBefore I get going on the GPS function, let's consider the Samsung HZ30W, the little brother to the HZ35W. It's the same camera, but without the AMOLED screen and GPS unit. It goes for about $270, though you can easily find it for $240. Same 15x zoom, same 24mm lens, same HD video, same image quality, all for $100 cheaper than the HZ35W. So we can agree that the extra cost of the HZ35W goes toward purely superficial features: the AMOLED screen and the GPS unit.
The monitor is nice, no doubt, but for most users the GPS feature is not worth the money. First of all, it only works outdoors. That's to be expected, as anyone who has used a Garmin or TomTom navigation device knows. But that still renders it useless whenever you're indoors, whether that's where you do 20 percent or 90 percent of your shooting. If you want to use the geotagging capabilities to retrace your steps after a night of barhopping or a day of bouncing from museum to museum in a new city, you're out of luck.
Outdoors, the performance was OK, I guess; I haven't tried either of the other GPS cameras this year (the Panasonic ZS7 or Sony HX5V) so I don't have a reference point for how a system like this should perform. It did take about 15 minutes to acquire a signal the first time I used it. Once it works, it's pretty accurate. It always displayed the right location, and my images were tagged to (I think) the correct locations on the map view.
That said, I'm hard pressed to think of many circumstances where this feature could really be useful. Hikers, wanderers, and long-distance travelers in general could use it to plot an exact course of their adventures, complete with pictures. It's pretty cool in that regard, so if that idea really turns your wheels, you might be the kind of person that the HZ35W is designed for. Just remember: you're paying $350 for a $250 camera with a GPS unit attached to it.
And one more gripe: You'll need to download map information from Samsung and add it onto your SD card to get the GPS function to work. It's available at Samsung's website, but the directions to make it work aren't particularly clear. Samsung actually shipped an SD card to me with preloaded map info before I even figured it out, so best of luck to those of you who have to figure it out on your own. Come on back and leave a comment to help your fellow users.
Bottom LineIn terms of picture and image quality, the HZ35W performs like a significantly cheaper camera. The HZ30W is that significantly cheaper camera. I'm willing to bet that GPS capability won't matter to about 80 percent of anybody who reads this, so in that case, the HZ30W is definitely the way to go. If you're one of that extremely niche group who wants to overpay for a regular big-zoomer because it has GPS, take a look at the Panasonic ZS7 and Sony HX5V first. If you decide to go with the HZ35W, don't get all upset when your pictures come out looking average.
Update: A few days after we published this review, a few retailers began selling this model for $250, a full $100 cheaper than the average cost when this was written. Now that's a deal. It looks like that was a limited-time offer, as the HZ35W is back up to $350. Hopefully it will fall again, because it's a fine camera that's unfortunately over-priced.