Looks can be deceptive. Samsung's latest play in the market for long-zoom point-and-shoots is the plain-Jane WB700. Not much to look at from the front or back, it nonetheless boasts a pin-sharp lens bundled up in a very efficiently stabilised 18x zoom. At just £160, it's an unqualified bargain and, as our tests reveal, one that's worth serious consideration if you're looking to upgrade from a less ambitious pocket snapper.
As with other point-and-shoots, we performed most of our tests with the camera set to fully automatic -- in this case Smart Auto. This gives it a choice of 16 photo modes and four movie modes which it chooses on your behalf.
Colours were bright and realistic, and detail was well preserved thanks to its pin-sharp lens. Each of the available wavelengths of light was perfectly aligned in our chromatic aberration test (which checks for improperly rendered colours), giving us crisp edges on fine detail overlaid on brighter backgrounds.
Skies were subtle and realistic, with a gentle fade towards the horizon, and where they were overlaid with objects of a similar colour -- a white aerial on a grey sky, for example -- the overlaid subject remained clearly discernible.
Indeed, detail was very well handled throughout, even at the maximum 18x zoom, where we noticed no distortion and the image remained bright. This was despite the fact that the light has to pass along a longer barrel, which naturally reduces the maximum effective aperture. In this case it stops it down from an aperture size of f/3.2 at wide angle to f/5.8 at full telephoto, which remains fairly fast considering the length of the zoom.
The WB700 has dual image stabilisers -- both optical and digital -- that together perform an impressive job of steadying up a shaky, long-zoom shot. They don't kick in until you half-press the shutter button to lock the exposure, at which point your wobbly framing comes under control. This means that in brightly-lit conditions you can do away with a tripod, as the 18x zoom is perfectly usable for handheld shots. When translated to the equivalent on a 35mm camera, it equates to 24-432mm, on top of which there's a further 4x digital zoom.
Closer at hand, it had no trouble with our macro shots, rendering fine detail with the lens just 3cm from the subject (minimum focusing distance in regular shooting modes is 50cm at the widest angle, and 2m at full zoom).
As we would expect, the WB700 performed best under studio lighting when shooting our still life test scene. Receding text in a book remained sharp through the full depth of the frame, while fine detail such as the digits on a thermometer and the weave of a fabric doorstop were well rendered.
When the result was viewed in full-screen, it put in a good performance using ambient light. But zooming 1:1 revealed increased noise (variation in brightness caused by the camera's sensor or circuits) as the camera had increased its sensitivity setting to ISO 800 to compensate for the lack of artificial light.
The most disappointing result was that achieved using the flash. Although it allowed the WB700 to reduce its sensitivity to a more manageable ISO 100, which combated the unwanted noise, the lighting within the scene was very unbalanced. The foreground was harshly lit and the rear too dark, giving an uneven result overall.
There's loads of fun to be had with this camera's more creative tools. Beside extensive manual controls, there's a range of smart filters, which post-process your image to give it an 'artistic' result. Many of these, such as sketch and half tone, are shared with the video mode, but there are others that are unique to stills shooting, including two very effective old film filters, which overlay random scratches and scuffs on the live view so that each new shot differs from the last.
We did, however, occasionally notice some clipping in our highlights on frames that displayed particularly stark contrasts between light and dark. As can be seen in the example below, detail has been lost on the lighter buildings -- highlighted in red -- as the camera has set the exposure to bring out detail in the darker half of the scene. We noticed the same effect when shooting video.
The default movie size is 1,280x720 pixels at 30 or 15 frames per second, but for Web use you can also shoot at 640x480 or 620x240, again at both 30 and 15fps.
On the whole, the results achieved in our tests were good to excellent -- particularly when presented with well-balanced scenes with no great extremes of light and dark.
We were very impressed by its performance in suppressing ambient noise. We performed the majority of our tests on a busy high street and could clearly hear street performers speaking on our soundtrack over the general background hubbub. It also effectively cut wind noise and traffic for one of the best examples we have yet heard of a well-handled soundtrack.
Just about all of the regular shooting adjustments are also available in video mode, including exposure compensation and a choice of metering options (for different lighting conditions). You can emulate a wide aperture's shallow depth of field by using the miniature smart filter to throw your background out of focus.
These 14 smart filters work in a similar way to scene modes, applying effects at the point of capture. There's no denying that many are gimmicks -- including the kooky halftone and sketch effects, which give Sin City and Take On Me-style results respectively. But some are genuinely useful, such as the three pre-set tone correction settings and the 'classic' option that lets you shoot in black and white. By far the most versatile, though, is the last on the list, custom RGB, which consists of three individual colour sliders through which you can tweak the tonal balance of the shot.
It's a shame, then, that depending on which effect you choose, you may end up losing other features to accommodate it. Shooting in miniature robs you of your soundtrack, while switching to vignetting, half tone, sketch, fisheye or defog cuts the resolution to 640x480 pixels.
Build quality is excellent. Its boxy design is about as no-frills as you can get, with the back dominated by the 3-inch screen and simple controls. On top, the mode selector gives you direct access not only to program, aperture and shutter priority, and full manual and auto modes, but also the scene modes, of which there's a somewhat stingy selection of eight to choose from.
Each is illustrated by a full-colour icon and a string of text at the bottom of the screen, both of which are good. What's less impressive are the obvious omissions from the list. We can live without the pet and gourmet modes that feature on most of its rivals, but where is portrait? There's a beauty mode for touching up unflattering skin, but we'd prefer a simple aperture and exposure equation that gives us a shortcut to perfectly balanced lighting with optimum depth of field.
You're certainly not short-changed here when it comes to specs and options, though. The slowest shutter speed in full manual mode is an impressive 16 seconds (1/8 second in auto), with the night mode topping out at eight seconds and fireworks fixed at four. The fastest shutter in any mode is 1/2,000 second.
Sensitivity runs from ISO 80 to 3,200 with compensation of +/-2EV in 1/3EV steps. Although there isn't a dedicated button for quickly switching into this mode, you can bypass the regular menus by pressing the 'fn' button in the lower right corner of the rear cluster. This will allow you to step into a truncated shooting menu where you can set compensation, resolution, metering mode and white balance, among other options.
Besides auto white balance, there are five pre-sets, plus two user-defined settings, the first of which meters from a white surface, the second by manually setting the temperature on a scale of 3,000K to 10,000K.
There's plenty to like here, not least the price. This much power and versatility for £160 could easily point to compromised results, but that's not the case. Our images were sharp, colours were bright, and apart from some clipping on extreme highlights, our pictures were detailed and well-balanced. The movie mode is one of the best we've come across, with carefully suppressed background noise and well-retained aural detail. The Samsung WB700 is a great choice for the more ambitious point-and-shoot photographer.