Full reviewThe all-in-one still/video camera has remained the Holy Grail of photography. Most camcorders shoot mediocre photos, while many digital still cameras can capture only short, grainy videos. Unlike the first-generation DuoCam, the VP-D6040i crams both a camera and a camcorder (each with its own lens) into a single case while keeping the combined device both small and simple to operate. Though the performance of both camera and camcorder are less than you'd get from dedicated devices in this price range, the Samsung DuoCam VP-D6040i is an attractive option if all-in-one convenience is your number one priority.
Samsung's first DuoCam, the SC-D5000, was an odd-looking, bulky affair with a pivoting dual-lens mechanism that would have fit perfectly in the old Transformers cartoon. The dark gray, plastic shell of the VP-D6040i on the other hand, resembles, at first glance, a typical midsize DV camcorder. Only the presence of the second lens at the front of the camera gives away that it isn't. Like Ray Milland and Rosie Greer in The Thing with Two Heads, the camera and camcorder share a body but are different in many ways. For example, while the still-camera lens features a convenient, built-in lens cover, the camcorder lens has a separate, tethered lens cap.
The camera has a solid, hefty feel, likely because Samsung has, essentially, added the components of a digital camera to a compact DV camcorder chassis. Though it has a sturdy feel, at 500g it's no heavier than typical midsize camcorders.
The still camera's controls are easy to use, but expect confused looks if you ask a stranger to take a picture for you and you hand them what looks like a camcorder. When examining the controls, the only hint of the VP-D6040i's dual functionality is a dedicated still camera-style mode dial for selecting the shooting mode when using the still-camera functions. The remaining photo settings, such as flash mode and automatic exposure lock, are doubled up on the camcorder buttons. The buttons are logically laid out, with the most common functions on the sides of the camera and playback controls behind the LCD screen's door. The zoom, start/stop, and still-photo buttons are all comfortably placed for one-handed operation.
Though the menus are easy to operate in both still-camera and camcorder modes, each set of menus has a completely different look and feel. The camcorder menus are text-based and utilitarian, while the colourful still-camera menus are icon-based. It's not a usability issue since both sets of menus are logically organised, but it gives the camera mode an incongruous, grafted-on feel.
Though the memory cards and battery can be swapped while the VP-D6040i is mounted on a tripod, you'll have to remove the camera from the tripod to swap tapes. It avoids the image-quality compromises normally found in combination devices by including dedicated imaging systems for DV and still-image functions. On the DV side, it incorporates a 680,000-pixel, 1/6-inch CCD with a 10X zoom; the still camera uses a 4-megapixel, 1/1.8-inch CCD with a 3X zoom lens and a 4-megapixel CCD.
The camcorder offers a wide range of shooting modes for both video and still photos, from the one-touch EasyQ button that puts all the camera's settings on autopilot to full manual control. In camcorder mode, you can set both shutter speed and exposure. When shooting stills, you can choose aperture or shutter priority, or full manual control, though the still aperture range of f/2.8 through f/4.9 is rather narrow. Manual focus is available in both modes as well.
The camcorder mode features five automatic exposure modes for sports, sand and snow, and so on, while there are a whopping ten different shooting modes for the still camera. The requisite cheesy special effects -- sepia, negative and the like -- are present in both modes as well.
There's a built-in flash for still mode but no video light. When shooting video, you can brighten low-light situations by slowing the shutter speed or by using an infrared mode -- Sony is the only other manufacturer that offers this -- which gives everything a night-vision goggles green tinge. There's no hotshoe, and the dual-lens setup precludes lens adapters, so accessory options are limited to an optional external microphone.
One feature that you'll appreciate if you own other devices that use memory cards is the multiformat card slot. The camera can store JPEG and TIFF images as well as MPEG-4 videos on SD/MMC, Memory Stick, or Memory Stick Pro cards.
Unfortunately, the VP-D6040i lacks some basic capabilities that you'd expect from a camcorder in its price range. There's no automatic end-of-tape search, for example. And you can't use it to transfer your old analogue tapes to digital formats; while it can output composite and S-Video signals, video input is limited to digital transfers over the FireWire port.
The camera mode, on the other hand, has more flexibility than you typically get from a camcorder's still mode. You'll find most of the functions that you would find in an inexpensive midrange still camera: exposure compensation, manual and automatic white balance, resolutions ranging from VGA to 4 megapixels, four compression settings, macro focusing, and autoexposure bracketing.
As a camcorder, the VP-D6040i performed well in a variety of shooting situations. In both still and video modes, power-up takes a little less than four seconds, and autofocus responds quickly and accurately, even in dim light. The automatic exposure adjusts quickly to pans from dark to bright subjects. Battery life for the rechargeable lithium-ion cell was good, with a single charge lasting for over an hour of video shooting and reviewing, or more than 650 still shots.
The zoom control was smooth and precise at both fast and slow zooms. Though the still lens is very noisy when zooming, the camcorder lens zoom is virtually silent. Setting manual focus is easy and convenient, with a dedicated button and focus dial near the front of the camera. However, the smallish, 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD can make manual focus a challenge in camcorder mode, particularly in bright sunlight, where it can appear washed out. In still-photo mode, manual focus is easier, thanks to an overlay showing the current focus distance.
The still camera is a slow performer. It takes nearly 11 seconds to write a single picture to memory when shooting in uncompressed TIFF mode, and you can't do anything else until the operation completes. The camera is faster in JPEG mode, though still sluggish at more than three seconds between shots, but even the continuous-shooting mode captures only three images at full resolution before the camera must pause to finish saving the images to the memory card. This is not the camera to buy to capture stills at sporting events or to take candid shots of the kids in action.
It may have been an unlucky coincidence, but both of the VP-D6040is that we tested suffered from hardware defects. The first unit had a flash that wouldn't fire; the replacement had a dead microphone. The moral of the story: test your new camera before taking it on holiday.
The Samsung DuoCam VP-D6040i's digital-video quality was very good in a wide variety of lighting conditions. Outdoor scenes in both direct and indirect sunlight were sharp and properly exposed, and they featured accurate, saturated colour. Indoor shots in bright light were equally solid, but in dimmer room lighting, colour saturation suffers.
Overall video quality was very good, with sharp images in normal lighting conditions. However, if you plan to edit your videos on a PC, you should note that the white balance, which looks fine on an analogue display, looks excessively blue in digital. Similarly, artifacts that aren't quite so apparent in NTSC -- most notably, demosaicing problems -- become much more visible on a PC display.
As expected, video that was shot using the infrared Nite Pix mode is grainy and has a greenish cast. Slow Shutter mode is more useful, maintaining natural colours while brightening the image. The ability to easily switch between four shutter speeds makes this mode much more useful than the streaked, blurry footage typically afforded by these modes. Dropping to 30fps, for instance, brightens the scene with little perceptible difference in frame rate in typical social-shooting situations. Even 15fps looks surprisingly good with relatively static scenes; only dropping to the slowest, 8fps setting brings in the more typical surrealistic streaking and blurring.
The still images are decent for a camcorder, and print well up to 8x10, as long as you're not too picky. To a keen eye, colours look too saturated, and JPEG compression artefacts make many images look smeary. The camera blows out highlights more than most still competitors, which exacerbates the significant amount of purple fringing on those high-contrast edges. Noise becomes visible at ISO 125, but with enough light, you can drop down to ISO 75. Furthermore, the flash is very weak and doesn't do a good job of lighting objects more than about 2m away. Still, even the worst images look better than many stills we've shot using a typical camcorder.
Edited by: Lori Grunin
Additional editing by: Nick Hide