Samsung's ST550 has received plenty of attention for being the first compact camera to have a second LCD display on the front. But this is only one of a number of highly innovative features that make this £250 snapper much more interesting than the average 12.2-megapixel compact.
We've got to start with that second LCD display, and we're pleased to say that it's not just a gimmick. Anyone who's tried setting up a self-portrait will know how difficult it is to come up with a good shot when you can't see your expression, or your hair's gone wrong, or your thumb's in the way of the lens. It really is quite a novelty to be able to see what you and your companions look like as you set up the shot. Just point the camera towards you, then tap the front to activate the display. That tap also activates the face-detection system.
That's not all this extra display does. It can display a countdown when you're using the self-timer, show an animated cartoon to distract very small children while you're taking their picture, and even tell your subjects when to smile, by displaying a smiling face when you press the shutter button halfway down.
We've all managed without front-mounted LCDs until now, but the ST550 demonstrates that something that might sound like a pointless gadget can actually be extremely useful.
It's round the back that the ST550 is really interesting, though. It has a whopping, 89mm (3.5-inch) touchscreen interface with a difference. It's a 'haptic' display that produces a vibration when you activate an icon. This makes for a much more tactile experience than usual.
This interface has been used to do plenty of clever things. For example, you can click on any part of the scene to focus on it, and then keep pressing to take a picture. The interface also supports 'smart gestures', so that, for example, you just swipe left or right with your thumb to cycle through pictures in playback mode. You can rotate pictures with a circular movement and pan around magnified images using a sweeping diagonal motion.
There's more. The ST550's motion-detection system lets you activate menus by tilting the camera rather than pressing a button. The camera's got to be more or less upright for it to work, and it takes a few attempts to get the movement right, but it's going to be handy in winter when you've got gloves on.
Samsung's really pulled the stops out with the ST550, cramming in so many smart design and control innovations that there's scarcely room to list them all.
Underneath, though, is a somewhat ordinary imaging system. The 4.6x wideangle zoom is handy, but Samsung's image processing smoothes over too much fine detail, even at low ISOs. The lens quality is only so-so too -- it's okay in the centre of the frame at normal zoom settings, but rather woolly at the edges and at full zoom.
The Samsung ST550's twin displays are what most people will pick up on, but it's the haptic touchscreen interface that's the real star. The camera's motion-detection capability is also very impressive. Its pictures are pretty ordinary, but the camera itself is a stunningly successful technical exercise.
Edited by Charles Kloet