Samsung's 14.2-megapixel ST5500 digital compact is notable for its high quality build and the huge 3.7-inch wide-format AMOLED touchscreen that swallows up the entirety of its back plate, shifting what few physical buttons there are onto its top plate.
Its manufacturer has allied this with a broader-than-average focal range courtesy of its internally stacked 7x optical zoom, which glides through its 31-217mm 35mm equivalent range in three seconds. This means the camera itself is inevitably a little larger than 5x zoom options that come with 3-inch screens -- arguably the new industry standard.
Further future-proofing this model, Samsung has equipped the ST5500 with wireless connectivity options, including Bluetooth 2.0, Wi-Fi and DLNA. This means photos can be beamed straight from your camera to your desktop, the social-networking site of your choice, or your already groaning hard drive. Expect to pay in the region of £299 for the privilege.
Putting a fresh slant on it
Incorporating a 1/2.3-inch CCD sensor at its core, the ST5500 is the usual boxy oblong of a camera at first glance, sporting dimensions of 104 by 58 by 20mm and weighing a manageable 161g. It feels reassuringly solid when gripped in the palm.
Investigate closer and you'll see Samsung has imbued the ST5500's body with a backwards slant, similar to that of the WP10. This is claimed to make for a more comfortable hold and tighter grip, though in practice, the benefits appear negligible. Low-angle shots are a little easier, however, as you don't have to crouch quite as low since the lens is already pointing fractionally upwards.
Powering up in two seconds, the ST5500's large shutter-release button is encircled by a zoom lever and angled slightly forwards. There's little if anything resembling a handgrip on the camera, just two raised plastic strips at the back providing purchase for the thumb.
As a result, it feels more practical to steady the camera in both hands when attempting to take your shot. When you do so, the thumb of your left hand strays onto the screen, since there's very little distance between the screen edge and that of the camera itself. Luckily, the icons that appear left and right of the screen require definite taps to activate their features, so we didn't have any instances of accidentally bumping a button by mistake.
Charge and card
The ST5500's rechargeable battery is charged up in camera. There's no separate mains adaptor provided, just a USB-equipped lead, one end of which plugs directly into the camera and the other into an adaptor plug. Unfortunately, this means the camera is tied up whenever you want to recharge the battery -- there's no facility to recharge a spare while you continue using the ST5500.
The other slight irritation for photographers who already have drawers full of the most common SD and SDHC memory cards is that the Samsung takes the smaller and much more fiddly microSD. This memory format is commonly favoured by camera phones, suggesting the ST5500 is targeted at those who are trading up from their mobile phone camera. Otherwise, there's a paltry 13MB internal capacity to fall back on, allowing for just one super-fine JPEG at maximum resolution. Surely there was room for Samsung to include a full-sized SD slot.
Touch and go
Like most compact snapshots, the ST5500 offers up an intelligent auto mode as its fallback setting. Here, the scene and subject-recognising option is 'smart auto'. To help avoid blur caused by shaky hands, which becomes more pronounced when shooting at maximum telephoto or in lower light, the lens is supported by Samsung's dual-image-stabilisation technology. This divides up the task between optical-based lens shift anti-shake and the often less-effective software-based boosting of ISO and shutter speeds. When shooting in dull conditions, the camera held up remarkably well, our only grumble being some loss of focus towards the corners of the frame at maximum wide angle.
With any touchscreen camera, you want the user experience to be an intuitive one. For the touchscreen to be a success, it needs to be a quick and responsive time-saving aid, rather than a time-wasting gimmick. Fortunately, the ST5500's operation proves intuitive rather than obtuse.
The Samsung's screen incorporates a 'smart gesture' user interface, which means you can access and implement key features with a tilt or hand gesture. You're able to scroll through images in playback with a swipe of the finger, and tilting the camera left and right makes the image on screen flip 90°.
As a compositional tool, the AMOLED screen is bright and clear, even on dull days. This can give the impression you're capturing colours a little warmer than they eventually appear when downloaded, but not by much.
Video capture is of the 1,280x720-pixel variety at a respectable 30 frames per second (fps) in H.264 compression format. An HDMI port at the side provides the option to hook the camera up to a flat-panel TV if you invest in the necessary optional cabling. A bonus is the built-in stereo microphone, though its speaker is mono.
Being a Samsung camera, you also get the extra 'portrait' enhancing features that are a constant across its range, such as the skin and blemish-smoothing 'beauty' mode, 'smile shot', blink-detection and automatic red-eye fix. They're not essential features, but they do add some novelty to the experience for a first-time user.
Rather more fun are the 'smart filter' digital effects that can be applied to images post capture, such as two perspective-warping fisheye options, vignetting (corner shading) and the increasingly ubiquitous miniature setting. Implement any of these and the camera saves a fresh JPEG file alongside the ordinary one.
The results straight out of the ST5500 suggest this is a camera that has been set up to require the minimal amount of post-processing on behalf of the user. Images are uniformly warm and impressively sharp. If there's a loss of focus at maximum wide-angle setting or pixel-fringing between areas of high contrast, this is only what we'd expect to see on what is, at its heart, a point-and-shoot snapper. The advantage of this model is that it comes with a better-than-average lens at its disposal.
In some respects, the Samsung ST5500 comes across as an exercise in box-ticking. Large touchscreen? Check. Large zoom? Check. HDMI output? Check. Wireless connectivity? Check.
Given the above, its asking price actually feels very fair. While it might not be cheap for your average snapshot, the ST5500 is not your average snapshot. It falls short of our top score primarily because of its patronage of microSD.
Edited by Emma Bayly