Once primarily known as a behind-the-scenes supplier of camera sensors, Samsung has considerably stepped up its photographic game recently, attacking the digital camera market in the same way it has tackled cell phones, TVs, and home appliances. With a broad range of consumer-oriented point-and-shoot cameras filling out the low end, and the mirrorless interchangeable-lens NX series completing its top tier, the TL500 (known as the EX1 in many territories) steps into the middle of the lineup as a large-sensor, fixed-lens compact. Aimed at advanced amateurs not willing to sacrifice compact size for dSLR image quality, or dSLR owners who want a lightweight backup, the TL500 is intended to go toe-to-toe with the likes of the Canon G12, Nikon P7000, and Panasonic LX5. Though it's Samsung's first crack at a camera like this, they've pulled off a worthy competitor to the current crop of advanced compacts.
Body and Design
The TL500 is a beautiful piece of hardware. It's equipped with a metal body, full manual controls, an extremely bright f/1.8 lens with a 3x zoom range, a large flip-out AMOLED (Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode) screen, and a 10-megapixel CCD sensor that bucks the "megapixel war" trend in favor of reducing high-ISO noise and improving overall image quality.
Build quality is top-notch, from the brushed metal of the faceplate, to the rubberized grip, to the pleasingly tactile top dials and rear buttons. Its aesthetics are simply gorgeous, with nary a hint of gaudy chrome and only a tiny bit of glossy plastic around the lens. Samsung's designers surely borrowed a lot of their ideas from Panasonic's LX line, which itself was good enough for the trend-setters at Leica to co-opt.
Despite its generally excellent fit and finish, my factory-fresh review unit had a particle of dust on the sensor, resulting in a discolored blob in the upper-left corner of every photo. Such dust motes are easily removable in interchangeable-lens cameras, but compact fixed-lens cameras offer no way to access the sensor, and no built-in cleaning function. In other words, if I'd bought this camera for myself, I would have had to send it back for an exchange. This is surely a freak occurrence, but it was a disappointment given the otherwise stellar build and attention to detail.
Buttons are minimal but thoughtfully placed, all found along the right edge back side. The tilt-and-swivel 3-inch AMOLED screen occupies the vast majority of this space. The build quality on the hinge is good; there's some flex but nothing to be worried about. Two dials are found along the top edge toward the rear of the camera. One surrounds the power button and provides easy access to continuous shooting, bracketed shooting, and self-timer settings; the other is a standard mode-selection dial. Splitting these dials, and placed toward the front of the camera, is the shutter release button, encircled by the zoom ring. A hot-shoe and pop-up flash with a sliding release complete the slick design. It should be noted that there is no built-in viewfinder, nor is there an add-on electronic viewfinder accessory available. Samsung does manufacture an add-on optical viewfinder, but it's hard to find in the US, prohibitively expensive at $200, and only effective at 24mm.
There was only one design quirk that really irritated me: the lens cap. Unlike many point-and-shoot cameras, the TL500 uses an SLR-style pinch lens cap. When you hit the power button, the lens attempts to extend; if the cap is on, the lens can't extend and a warning will pop up on the rear LCD asking you to take it off and try again. This isn't a huge problem, but it did reduce the camera's pocketability: I was always concerned that if I slipped the camera into my coat pocket the cap might come off and scratch the exposed glass.
User Experience and Performance
Designed as it is for enthusiasts and advanced amateurs, the TL500 comes equipped with a slew of manual controls, in-depth menu settings, and other advanced gadgetry. While it can be used in full auto mode, the camera really sings when you burrow into all of its software nooks and crannies to indulge your creative side.
The TL500 starts up quickly (assuming you've remembered to remove the lens cap), and is ready to shoot in about two seconds. Autofocus is quite fast, even in dim light, where it's aided by an orange LED focus-assist beam. The lens is relatively slow in traversing its limited 3x zoom range (35mm equivalent of 24-72mm), something most users will probably notice in practice. However, the autofocus is perfectly accurate in nearly all situations.
The shooting-mode dial is packed with familiar options including Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, and Scene modes. The engineers at Samsung have also included a dedicated Dual IS mode, which combines the lens's optical stabilization with "digital stabilization." (This appears to mean that they simply boost the ISO to 800 to allow for a faster shutter speed and therefore less camera shake). Finally, there's a movie mode notch, if the red, dedicated button on the rear isn't cutting it for you.
The second dial is an intriguing addition. The option to quickly switch between single-frame and continuous shooting is certainly welcome, as are the self-timer settings. The bracketing option is a real surprise; many dSLRs don't even provide top-level bracketing control, and it can come in handy when you're shooting in a situation with a lot of dynamic range (very bright and very dark areas within the same frame).
Shooting in Auto mode is a breeze. In the New Mexico sunshine, the TL500 tended toward slight overexposure, but even dSLRs have a hard time metering in such bright light. White balance was particularly good in most situations, producing realistic skin tones, skies, and foliage. While many of its competitors tend toward over-saturated, unrealistic colors, it's nice to see the TL500 taking a more neutral approach.
If you want to handle things yourself, buttons on the rear offer quick access to vital settings such as flash, metering, ISO, and focus-range modes. The Fn button accesses any of the other settings you'd want to adjust during shooting, from image size and quality to Face Detection and focus points. If you still don't find what you're looking for, you can go deeper into the main menus. Compared to the menus on most digicams these days, the menus are beautifully designed, logically laid-out, and easy to navigate.
The AMOLED screen does tend to wash out a bit in bright light, which was an issue for me in the field. A viewfinder would be ideal; pumping up the brightness to maximum levels also helped a bit, but obviously hurt the battery life. Under normal use, the battery life was around 200 shots per charge, roughly comparable to other cameras in the TL500's class. Like most Samsung cameras, only in-camera charging is supported with the components in the box, though an optional wall charger is available for an added cost. Some folks like in-camera charging because it keeps everything in one place, but its inconvenient for charging a back-up battery. It's a matter of personal preference, really.
Image and Video Quality
Image quality is mostly determined by two factors: the sensor and the lens. In the TL500, Samsung has paired a 1/1.7-inch, 10-megapixel CCD sensor with an exceptional lens from their partner, Schneider-Kreuznach. Thanks to the high-quality components, the image quality is excellent compared to most compact cameras, and on the same level as its advanced-compact competitors, if not slightly superior in some settings. There's very little to complain about in regards to image quality here.
Almost everything about the lens is excellent. It's rare to see a maximum aperture of f/1.8 on the wide end and f/2.4 on the long end in this class of camera. Its competitors max out at f/2.0 or f/2.2, so this is an exceptionally bright lens. [Olympus' recently announced XZ-1 will also sport an f/1.8 max aperture, so the competition in this space is heating up. -Ed.] Based on my testing, it produces very crisp, clear, high-resolution photos at nearly all settings.
The wide aperture also accomodates faster shutter speeds and lower ISOs in low-light situations, which, in turn, produces consistently sharp, detailed shots. It also allows for some limited subject/background separation (also known as bokeh, the eye-pleasing “soft background” effect), which is rare in the point-and-shoot class. Chromatic aberration (color fringing on high-contrast objects), distortion, and flare are all kept well under control as well. It seems that the TL500 does some in-camera distortion correction. For instance, when a photo is shot at the widest zoom setting using RAW+JPEG, the JPEG is significantly less distorted than the RAW (unaltered, uncompressed) file. I found the distortion present in the RAW files to be somewhat disturbing, but a lot of users will never shoot RAW, and the camera does a very good job auto-correcting it in JPEG format.
The only notable downside is that the maximum shutter speed is just 1/1500sec. This can make very bright images come out looking flat, as details are consistently overexposed. It becomes a real issue when shooting in Aperture Priority mode. The TL500 indicates when the aperture is too wide for the scene's brightness, but it's easy to miss the indication and shoot a drastically overexposed image anyway. It's pretty easy to go back and choose a smaller aperture and re-shoot, but it's an annoyance for sure.
It's safe to say that the sensor is a top-notch performer for its class. Image noise is well controlled up to ISO 800, and ISO 1600 is usable in a pinch. The maximum ISO 3200 setting is not advisable except when there is no other option. At lower ISOs, dynamic range appears to be quite good for a point-and-shoot sensor, capturing bright skies and shady alleys with relative ease. Noise reduction does rear its ugly head (it's inescapable in a compact camera), but it's fairly subtle and doesn't smudge details into a blurry, watercolor-painting mess. When it's needed, the puny onboard flash is good enough for up-close shots, but don't expect to use it for very distant objects.
Video recording on the TL500 is sadly limited to VGA resolution (640 by 480 pixels). A fair number of users don't seem to care about a still camera's video capabilities, but it's still surprising to see an advanced camera in this price range lagging so obviously behind the competition. Much cheaper point-and-shoots allow for 720p or even 1080i/p HD recording; even the Canon S95, Canon G12, Nikon P7000, and Panasonic LX5, which use a similar 10 megapixel CCD sensor can shoot 720p video. The VGA video produced by the TL500 is perfectly serviceable, but this is not the camera for video enthusiasts.
There's a lot to like about the TL500. Image quality doesn't get much better in the advanced amateur/enthusiast point-and-shoot category, the build quality is phenomenal, and the operation is impeccable. By nearly all metrics, Samsung has put together a stellar camera.
It stands up extremely well to its primary competitors from Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic. Despite a few issues, the design, build, and interface are simply excellent, my personal favorite of the group. The aperture is as wide as you'll get on a compact, and that plays a huge role in its excellent image quality; the overall IQ at least matches and probably exceeds that of its competitors. At the moment, it's priced quite aggressively, too, undercutting all of its competitors. It's also much smaller than the Canon G12 and Nikon P7000, roughly equal to the Panasonic LX5, and a bit larger than the S95, though it is quite heavy for its size.
Still, there are a few noteworthy shortcomings. The biggest problem in my eyes is the maximum shutter speed of 1/1500. The G12, P7000, and LX5 all have a 1/4000 max shutter speed. If the TL500 had a similar max it'd make the f/1.8 max aperture a lot more useful in daylight. The video mode is a shortcoming as well. That isn't a deal-breaker for many buyers, but it is bizarre to see such an expensive camera shoot only VGA-quality movies when HD video is a standard feature on nearly all digital cameras. The lack of a viewfinder will also be an issue for many enthusiasts. The TL500 can accept an expensive, hard-to-find, and only marginally effective add-on optical viewfinder, but there is no EVF accessory. Since the AMOLED also washes out easily in direct sunlight, it will be difficult to frame shots with the TL500 in very bright settings. This is another area where the competition clearly beats out the TL500: The LX5 and S95 accommodate add-on electronic viewfinders, while the G12 and P7000 have built-in tunnel-style optical viewfinders.
It's also worth noting that this price category verges on the lower-end of the dSLR spectrum, which will lead some to question the value of choosing a relatively small-sensor compact. The Pentax K-x, for example, isn't that much more expensive than any advanced compact, but offers substantially better image quality and creative control. That said, while the K-x and other entry-level dSLRs are small compared to mid-range dSLRs, they are also quite a bit larger than the TL500 and in no way pocketable or as easily portable. It costs a chunk of change to get a dSLR lens as nice as the one found on the TL500, too.
So, if you're looking for a well-built, well-specced, and feature-rich compact camera, the Samsung TL500 is certainly worth your close consideration, even more so if video is an afterthought for you and you can live without a viewfinder. And if you like a sharp-looking camera, the TL500 is as slick as they come.