Following the lead -- if you'll forgive the pun -- of the Flip Video, Samsung's SL90 features a flip-out USB connection arm, suggesting the integral plug-and-play feature is now crossing over from pocket camcorders to humble still cameras.
The PL90's spec is otherwise a fairly standard 12.2 effective megapixels allied to a 4x optical zoom, plus a 2.7-inch, 230k-dot LCD for composing and playing back pictures and video. There's no AMOLED screen, as seen on the recent ST5500, this time around. With pocket-friendly proportions of a slender 98 by 157 by 18mm making it just slightly longer than a credit card, expect to pay a street price of around £129 for the PL90.
Although the theory behind the USB connection arm is that it allows the camera to be hooked directly up to your computer for recharging and downloading snaps wirelessly, Samsung hasn't eliminated leads entirely. A short extension cable and USB-equipped mains plug is also provided for hooking it up to a regular power source -- and thankfully so, for those who'd rather not lug their laptop around on holiday.
Sturdy of construction when gripped in the palm, our first impressions of the PL90 are that it offers better-than-average value for money. It's far less plasticky than its direct competition in the Olympus FE series.
In fact, the build quality is up there with the slightly more expensive but otherwise similarly featured (minus the USB arm) Nikon S5100, one of the best compacts around the £150 mark. Like both its rivals, the PL90 lacks any handgrip, with potential camera shake guarded against via digital image stabilisation only. It's not great, and we still managed to get shaky shots even in broad daylight. The lens itself appears unimpressive -- it's short and stubby, with focus falling away towards the edges of the frame at maximum 28mm wide-angle setting.
In this high-definition age, we are also marginally disappointed to find the PL90's video capture remains at standard-definition 640x480 pixels, even though transitional rates of either 30 frames per second (fps) or 15fps are offered. Unsurprisingly, there's no HDMI output, just standard AV out looking rather lonely and isolated under a flap at the side. The full extent of the optical zoom can be used, even if there is a low operational buzz as it extends and retracts. It's stationed flush with the body when the camera is in its dormant state.
Although there is no camcorder-like red record button, Samsung has included the option to pause live video recording by pressing the 'OK' button on the back. Otherwise, starting and stopping recording is via the shutter-release button once video mode has been selected.
The shutter-release button is encircled by a lever for adjusting the zoom. This rests on a forward-facing lip, giving easy access to the zoom controls while your attention is focused on composing your shot. Navigating the control layout, which is pared down to the basics of a mode button and control pad at the back, is child's play. That said, we did find the zoom sluggish to get going on occasion, even if it did power through its range in a swift couple of seconds once activated.
In general terms, the PL90's operation is fast for its class. The camera powers up from cold in just over a second, has determined focus and exposure by the time you've blinked and writes a full-resolution JPEG to memory in a further second. Unfortunately, Samsung has opted for the fiddly fingernail-sized microSD card as its media format of choice, with 50MB of internal memory to fall back on. There's no opportunity to use SD/SDHC.
As with the rest of Samsung's compact range, the PL90 offers scene/subject-recognising and preset-selecting 'smart auto' mode for purely point-and-shoot operation. This mode works whether shooting stills or video, and has its own button inset into the camera's top plate for rapid access. There's also a program option for those of us not wanting to leave everything to chance. This allows the manual adjustment of the likes of light-sensitivity -- with a broader-than-average range of ISO 80 to ISO 3,200. You do compromise the resolution at that top setting, though, dropping to just 3 megapixels. In practice, it's best not to stray above ISO 800 here if you want to avoid noise and softening detail, something the camera's own pop-up text warns you of as you tab through the ISO options.
For photos that focus primarily on people, the PL90 features a self-portrait function, which tracks the subject's face as it enters the frame. The ubiquitous face-detection is also present here, registering up to 12 different visages in the frame. It even includes a 'beauty shot' function, for reducing facial flaws. Smile and blink-detection are also helpful face-oriented features, firing the shutter when the camera detects the former, and issuing a warning when it notices the latter.
A press of the function (Fn) button presents a list of key options down the left-hand side of the camera's screen, including Samsung's 'photo style selector' options. These can be implemented at the point of capture or post-capture via the playback menu. They range from the default setting of normal to retro, cool, calm and classic, though the vivid option was the one we found most effective.
As with any inexpensive point-and-shoot, the PL90 needs clear blue skies to work to the best of its ability. In saying that, even with plenty of light, we did experience occasional instances of camera shake and loss of sharpness towards the corners at maximum wide angle, not to mention the familiar bugbear of pixel-fringing between areas of high contrast.
The Samsung PL90 is a convenient, inexpensive plug-and-play option for those who just want to snap and go. Flip-out connection arm aside, there are few surprises here, but for a price just in excess of £100 it feels churlish to grumble. We still feel it's worth splashing a little more cash to nab a Nikon S5100, but if you're really watching your pennies, the SL90 is a fair return for your investment.
Edited by Emma Bayly