Samsung's pulling out the big guns with the EX-1 -- a fully featured, high-power compact designed to take on the likes of the Canon PowerShot G11 and Panasonic's new LX5. With its super-bright f1.8 lens, back-illuminated CMOS sensor and a price tag as low as £320, it looks like it's got every chance.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed
It certainly looks the part. The EX-1 comes in black or gunmetal grey and looks equally impressive in both finishes. There are two dials on the top, including a conventional mode dial and a second for setting the drive mode (single, continuous, self-timer, exposure bracketing).
On the far left is a pop-up flash activated by a sliding switch. It's slightly tricky pushing the switch and keeping your finger out of the way at the same time, but you get used to it.
Round the back is a large, bright AMOLED display. Samsung says this offers a much wider viewing angle than the ordinary sort, and it does. You can also flip it out and rotate it for shooting at any angle.
The 3x zoom has two main selling points. One is the focal range, which is equivalent to 24-72mm -- wide enough to satisfy enthusiasts, and the other is the f1.8 maximum aperture. But while Samsung claims the EX-1 is the "world's brightest lens compact camera", it has a pretty slender margin over rivals such as the Canon PowerShot S90 (f2.0) and Panasonic LX5 (also f2.0).
It performs well, delivering very good edge-to-edge sharpness right across the frame, and without any loss in definition at full zoom. There's little or no chromatic aberration, either, so there's no need to worry about Samsung matching the rest for lens quality.
Samsung's also made the brave decision to opt for a 10-megapixel backlit CMOS sensor rather than simply chasing megapixels. This seems to be the way to go now for the best all-round picture quality, especially at high ISOs, and the EX-1 does well here. Detail starts softening up past ISO 400 but the quality is still pretty good even at ISO 1,600.
Handle with care
There are some downsides. While the main controls are fine, some of the others are less successful. The camera's front control dial is set a little too deep into the body, so although it's quite broad, it's as easy to turn as some.
Like so many other makers, Samsung's gone for a combined navi-pad/control dial mechanism on the back. It requires a light and precise touch to turn it without pressing the buttons underneath. That's not easy to achieve, especially if you're in a hurry, yet it's central to most of this camera's operations.
The EX-1 has all the features of a 'big' camera, but it doesn't really handle like one. It's also a little odd that the EX-1 only shoots 640x480-pixel VGA video.
The real problem, though, is the competition from hybrid compacts like the Olympus Pen models, Panasonic's GF1 and the Sony NEX 3 and NEX 5. Put the EX-1 alongside an Olympus E-P1, for example, and it's almost as large, yet has the disadvantage of a much smaller sensor and non-interchangeable lenses. Keen photographers looking for a second, pocket-size camera don't have to settle for small sensors any more.
The EX-1 is a decent high-end compact with a couple of handling issues, but good lens quality and a very keen price tag. The problem for the Samsung, though, is that hybrid cameras are threatening to make this type of high-end compact redundant.
Edited by Emma Bayly