Any stills camera worthy of even passing consideration now has a high-definition video mode tacked on. With the HMX-W300, Samsung has turned things around and video comes to the fore in a quirky, versatile and very fun little package that's robust and waterproof.
You can pick one up for around £125.
Design and build
The design is spot-on for this kind of device. It immediately feels familiar as it's roughly the same height and width as an iPhone. The front of the case is dominated by a large colour screen that's highly reminiscent of the iPod Photo. The key controls are arranged around a circle at the centre, much like an iPod classic.
In many ways though, it's a much better option than an iPhone -- and many rival smart phones -- when it comes to shooting video.
For starters, video is its primary function. It's not simply an extra feature bolted on to a communications device. This has enabled Samsung to position the lens where it works best -- three-quarters of the way up the back of the case, slap bang in the centre. This is a far better position than the iPhone's camera, which sits in the corner. It means you can hold it securely with a second hand at the top of the case without your fingers obscuring the lens. This is a boon if you're panning and tracking or if you're using the HMX-W300 when walking.
When you're moving around, performance is not quite as good as when you're shooting from a static position as there's some rippling in the captured video where it doesn't seem to update everything quite in sync. What's more, fast-moving verticals such as the supports on barriers shot from a car window were rendered diagonally in the video.
There's a built-in stabilisation feature that does a good job of smoothing out the ripples, but I noticed a slight softening of the image when used in low light. And it doesn't work when if you've switched on one of the built-in effects, as you'll see from the video sample below. Fortunately, if you're serious about capturing rock-solid footage, there's a standard quarter-inch tripod screw in the foot of the case.
The HMX-W300 shoots high-definition video at either 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution or 1,280x720, each at 25 frames per second. It can simultaneously capture 2-megapixel stills if you fire the shutter when shooting video. Using the dedicated stills mode, it shoots 5-megapixel images.
The lens has a bright fixed aperture of f/2.2, a minimum focusing distance of 20cm and a 3x digital zoom. There's no optical zoom. Inevitably this means that your zoomed footage will be of a lower quality than your non-zoomed movies, but as the maximum magnification is only 3x, you're saved the temptation of pushing things too far and ending up with something unusable. And as there are no moving parts, you won't spoil the audio track with the sound of the barrel lengthening or shortening.
Results were good from my tests, particularly in bright, well-lit conditions. I generally kept white balance set to 'auto' throughout but occasionally switched to 'cloudy' when conditions required it, although I found that this could produce a slightly over-saturated result. In all cases I used the 1,920x1,080-pixel mode, unless the camera stepped down the resolution itself when using a smart filter.
If you use any of the smart filters, each of which is demonstrated in the video below, resolution drops to 640x480 pixels, frame rate to 15fps and the digital zoom is disabled.
Inevitably there are several compromises made in a hybrid device like this. The conservative resolution is one and the lack of optical zoom is another. But the most serious omission is the lack of a half-down position on the shutter button. That means you can't easily isolate a focal spot in your stills so you're relying on the HMX-W300 to pick the same point as you did. Sometimes it's not obvious that it hasn't done that until you get home and download your shots, at which point it's too late to shoot them again.
It takes around a second to snap a picture from the point you push the shutter button. If you've pressed it immediately after sweeping the camera to a new position, it can take longer. In the process, you could miss the shot you're after.
It's easier to be more critical of stills than it is of video. High-resolution stills cameras start at around 10-12 megapixels, and with the HMX-W300 shooting only 5-megapixel images, it has its work cut out to impress. While it puts in a valiant effort and most often gets it right, it doesn't always pull it off.
Shooting fairly muted scenes, such as the top of the fencing stake below, produces an excellent result, with sharp, well-rendered rings on the cut wood.
There's also loads of detail in this shot of a damaged tree where a fallen branch has exposed the core of the trunk. Looking around the edges though, there is some lack of definition where the bright sky behind it seems to be eating into the leaves and branches.
Natural colour reproduction was good. Even with overcast conditions, it did a great job of rendering grass and foliage, as can be seen in the image below where the red life belts are well picked out.
Likewise, in the shot below, which was captured under clearer skies, the colours are bright and true to their originals across the full spectrum. There's clear differentiation in the petals of the flowers and the pink blossom of the tamarisk tree in the background.
The lens is geometrically true, as this grid shows, with the rectangles at the edge just as accurate as those in the centre. There is no bowing of the lines that make up the outer edge of the grid and thus no evidence of barrel or pin-cushion distortion.
There was evidence of chromatic aberration in some photos, such as the image below. Pink and turquoise artefacts, which were not visible to the naked eye, indicate that the lens had trouble focusing each wavelength of the available light at the corner of the frame in the same spot on the sensor.
The claimed battery life is 120 minutes, but I got more than this in my tests while shooting 32 minutes of video and 42 stills. It charges by USB, which is fine if you're at home or at work, where you can plug it into your computer. But as there's no adaptor included in the box, it may become an issue when travelling.
There's a built-in USB plug, which pops out when you open a door in the bottom of the body, and an HDMI interface to the side. You'll have to buy your own cable for this. Each of the doors in the side and bottom of the HMX-W300 are securely clipped into place to make it water and dust-proof. Samsung claims you can take it swimming, down to a depth of 5 metres (16 feet 4 inches), and drop it from 2 metres (6.5 feet).
It lived up to Samsung's promises of being waterproof and capable of withstanding such a drop. I tested the first claim by submerging it in a vase of water, having switched to the dedicated underwater setting to correct its colour while filming. It survived that without incident.
The second, more rigorous test involved dropping it onto grass, a table, and finally a brick patio. In each case it passed with flying colours, with the only sign of damage being a small scuff on one corner of the front of the case outside of the rubberised area. This protrudes slightly beyond the flat face of the chassis, protecting the screen from scratches.
It uses microSD, SDHC and SDXC for storage and there's no built-in memory so you'll have to budget for at least one card on top of the price of the camera. This isn't expensive -- you can pick up a 16GB Class 6 card including an adaptor, like the one I used throughout my tests, for around £12.
Despite some compromises, the Samsung HMX-W300 is great fun. It's small enough to slip into a pocket when you're on holiday and rugged enough to stand up to a day on the beach or playing extreme sports.
Video quality is very good. So if you're looking for a low-cost, convenient gadget to film the family as you travel, while taking occasional stills, it's a great choice.