With a few rare exceptions, camcorders are, at best, mediocre still cameras, while still cameras are very limited camcorder replacements. To get top-quality still and video images, your choices are either to make quality compromises or to carry two devices. Samsung offers a third choice with its DuoCam series, camcorders that pack a pair of lenses, one optimised for video and the other for stills.
The Samsung DuoCam VP-D6550 is Samsung's third-generation entry in the line, bumping up the still resolution and adding a few new features while dropping the bulk and the substantial weight of its predecessors. Unfortunately, the performance of both camera and camcorder remains less than you'd get from dedicated devices in this price range.
Weighing just under 700g, the Samsung DuoCam VP-D6550 is both smaller and lighter than its predecessor, the VP-D6040, as well as many competing camcorders. Fairly compact, albeit slightly wide, the boxy, silver-and-grey plastic case seems at first glance to hold a rather nondescript camcorder. Looking at the front of the device gives away its duality: a smallish camcorder lens sits in the traditional position at the top of the camcorder, while a telescoping zoom lens for the still camera sits below it. Samsung's weight-reduction programme was so successful that the camcorder almost feels too light, but the plastic seems thick and sturdy enough to hold up to shooting in the field.
Even in this third generation, the DuoCam's camera and camcorder designs each lack the consistency you'd expect from a dual-function device. While the menus are attractive and well laid out for both modes, they look and feel very different. The camcorder uses a colourful text-based, vertically scrolling menu, while the camera's menus are icon-based and scroll horizontally. The still camera lens has an automatic, built-in cover, while the camera lens uses a separate, tethered lens cap.
Most of the options for both still and video shooting are controlled using the menus and a small joystick mounted on the left side of the camera. There are a few additional buttons for functions such as activating the colour slow-shutter mode, deleting stills and controlling tape playback. A still-camera-style mode dial for selecting shooting modes when using the still-camera functions sits at the top rear of the camera. The zoom, start/stop and still-photo buttons are well placed for one-handed operation, though those with large fingers may find that the mode dial makes pressing the still button somewhat difficult.
The LCD boasts a Manual Focus button, as well as a small rocker switch for adjusting focus. This works well and offers reasonably good precision, though fine adjustments are more difficult than they'd be with a focus wheel.
Both the memory card slot and the tape door are on the bottom of the VP-D6550, so you'll need to remove the camera from the tripod to swap recording media.
The Samsung DuoCam VP-D6550's resolution lies in the middle of the range for similarly priced competitors. Behind the 10x optical zoom lens used for video is a 1/6-inch, 680,000-pixel CCD. The still camera lens features a 3x zoom (with a focal range equivalent to 38mm to 114mm on a 35mm camera) and is paired with a 5-megapixel sensor.
The VP-D6550 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 automatic to completely manual control. In camcorder mode, you can set both shutter speed and exposure. When shooting stills, you can choose aperture priority, shutter priority or full manual control. Still aperture range is now f/2.8 through f/11, a marked improvement over the still camera in the VP-D6550. Manual focus is available in both modes as well.