The two specs that matter most to camera manufacturers at the moment are the length of the zoom and width at the broadest possible framing. Resolution is largely irrelevant now that pretty much every camera has crossed the 10-megapixel threshold, which is why we're seeing a succession of superzoom compacts flooding the market.
That's not to say there's nothing to choose between them and some put in a distinctly impressive performance that sets them ahead of their rivals. The Samsung WB150F falls into that group.
It's available to buy now for £190.
Samsung has earned itself a well-deserved reputation for designing beautiful cameras -- the kind of things Apple might invent if it wasn't preoccupied with the likes of the iPad.
The WB150F is no exception, sporting the now familiar chiselled grip and a well-placed mode selector right below your thumb. You'll find a regular 3-inch display to the rear, while the front is dominated by an 18x zoom lens. That's an impressive range.
Changing from wide-angle to maximum zoom takes 3 seconds. Any faster would be tough to control and more often than not you'd overshoot your intended position. If you plan to snap a lot at the same magnification -- an animal's den or the turn in a racecourse, for example -- then it's worth getting everything set up in advance to avoid missing a vital shot.
Other than that, the WB150F is fast and responsive. It's quick to find focus at all zoom levels, and the rear LCD is fine-grained and smooth to refresh. Smart mode very effectively takes care of choosing the appropriate settings -- macro, portrait and so on. If you'd rather take control yourself then you can switch between aperture priority, shutter priority and manual settings.
The WB150F's neatest trick is Wi-Fi connectivity. You can easily latch onto your home or office network and post shots directly to Facebook, Picasa, YouTube and Photobucket, upload them to your Microsoft SkyDrive account or email optimised versions to yourself. There's no option for Twitter, sadly.
Although you obviously need to enter a password to access a protected Wi-Fi network, you don't need one for your chosen outgoing email address. On the one hand, that's a blessing as it makes it very easy to use, but on the other, someone could easily send a compromising photo and make it appear as if it's from someone else's email, simply by entering their address in the 'from' box.
The option to trigger the camera from your Android smart phone is a boon as it means you can be in the shot without using the self-timer. However, it's a shame Samsung hasn't taken the online features further and made it possible use your web browser to visit the camera's IP address for downloading pictures. You still have to eject the card or connect to your Mac or PC for that. The closest it gets is an automatic back-up feature, which pairs the camera with your PC, courtesy of an app, and downloads all newly-added images. The drawback is you can't select individual files or use it on a Mac.
In other respects, the WB150F pretty much follows the superzoom crowd. The resolution tops out at 14.2 megapixels -- 4,320x3,240 pixels -- and the lens' 18x zoom is equivalent to 24-432mm on a 35mm camera. There's optical stabilisation to help you hold it steady at full telephoto. Maximum aperture is a bright f/3.2 at wide-angle and an impressive f/5.8 at full telephoto.
The longest exposure is capped at an unambitious 1/8 second in the smart auto setting, but it's a more respectable 1 second in program mode and 8 seconds when you switch to the night scene option. If you're happy playing with the manual settings, you can push it as far as 16 seconds, which will allow you to produce some impressive night shots with streaking headlights on roads.
Sensitivity runs from ISO 80 to 3,200, although the compensation of only +/-2.0EV in 1/3EV steps is slightly narrow when compared to its rivals.
The WB150F produces among the best still images I've seen in any compact over the last few months. In brightly-lit situations, colours are bright and vivid but not unnaturally over-saturated. Contrasts are extremely well handled with plenty of detail retained in areas of both deep shadow and bright highlights.
In the image below, both the bark on the shaded side of the tree trunk and the boards on the front of the porch are well defined. Apart from a slight halo effect to the right of the trunk, there is no sign of any chromatic aberration -- where the lens doesn't quite line up each of the available tones present in the visible spectrum.
It copes equally well when I moved inside. Here, the lighting was muted, but there were strong contrasts at the furthest end of the church where the sun fell on a white wall. Despite this, the WB150F retains plenty of detail in the floor and doesn't burn out the details at the furthest end of the aisle. The leading of the central window remains sharp, and the camera was able to maintain its lowest sensitivity setting of ISO 80.
Even in these muted conditions, it picks out a high level of detail in complex textures without any artificial lighting.
When zoomed to 100 per cent, individual fibres are clearly visible in the threads of these knitted kneelers, below. Despite the camera having significantly increased its sensitivity, the inevitable increase in noise visible in the blurred areas doesn't affect the central point of focus.
These results were consistent throughout my tests, with the WB150F having no trouble finding an appropriate balance that would capture the broadest possible range of tones, even in shots in which the illumination demonstrated considerable variation across the frame. I performed my tests with the camera set to smart auto mode to emulate the way in which most people will use it, with auto exposure and white balance.
However, I can observe a slight imbalance in the effectiveness of the focus in some images where the left half of the frame is sharp, and the right sometimes blurred.
At closer quarters, the WB150F's macro mode is spot-on, maintaining an extremely tight focus on the sweet spot, 5cm from the lens. With the aperture at its widest setting, the fall-off in the level of focus is fast, drawing your eye to the extremely high level of fine detail at the point of focus. In the image below of the inside of a sweet chestnut husk, the fibres that protect the nut are very clear on the leading edge of the skin, but lost entirely a couple of millimetres further away from the lens -- just as I'd want.
It took the standard still-life test in its stride, with well-balanced colours, both under ambient light and when using the onboard flash. However, in both instances it increased the sensitivity to ISO 400, which naturally introduced a degree of noise that was particularly evident in areas of high detail such as the text in the book and on the spirit label.
Focus is even right across the frame, with no evidence of the imbalance between the left and right-hand halves that I saw in the shots above.
The WB150F's video mode is very versatile, giving you full control over white balance, exposure compensation, frame rate, metering and so on. The results are very good. As with the stills, the images are bright and colourful, but they can be marred by excessive wind noise as there's no option to suppress this.
The quiet, carefully-paced zoom comes into its own here, giving smooth results while being barely audible on the soundtrack. However, even with optical image stabilisation activated, the footage shot at the longest zoom demonstrated considerable movement when used without the aid of a tripod.
Native movie resolution is 1,280x720 at 30 frames per second, with options for 640x480, 320x240, and for dropping the frame rate to 15fps. Each of these are perfect for shooting web-ready footage that won't require resampling. Individual clips can be a maximum of 20 minutes in length.
The WB150F offers something truly innovative -- built-in Wi-Fi without resorting to an Eye-Fi memory card. However, if you're a Mac user, or you want to download images selectively without ejecting your media card or connecting to your computer, then you will be disappointed.
The occasional imbalance in the level of focus in some of the images aside, the overall results achieved by the WB150F were nothing short of excellent. It has a nice tight macro mode and plenty of detail in wider aspect frames where the natural illumination is highly varied.
With a powerful zoom, respectable resolution and good performance, I'd consider £250 a fair price to pay for the features on offer here. The £190 asking price represents a considerable bargain, which earns it a definite 'buy' recommendation. Rival manufacturers, take note.