Pixels counts are not the headline draw they used to be. A higher number means you can crop into fine details more closely, but even a 10-megapixel camera, like the Nikon 1 V1 or J1, lets you print 300dpi shots at A4 size. That means pretty much any compact can hit A3 sizes and above, so using the pixel count as a differentiator -- and a reason to buy one camera over another -- is no longer enough.
That's good news for us as it means manufacturers are inspired to pack their gadgets with ever more innovative and useful features, including GPS.
With a built-in GPS receiver, like the one in this Samsung WB850F, the camera can automatically location-stamp your images so when you upload them to Flickr, or catalogue them in a geo-aware app like Lightroom or iPhoto, they're automatically positioned on a map. It helps you remember where each was taken -- a great additional feature for frequent travellers.
The Samsung WB850F can be bought now from around £265.
Aside from GPS, there are plenty of other features that make the WB850F a traveller's dream. The 16-megapixel sensor is topped off by a 21x zoom, equivalent to 23-483mm on a regular 35mm camera. That's an enormous range that should appeal both to landscape photographers, who will be able to squeeze in a generous slice of countryside at the wider end, and sports and nature photographers, who will spend much of their time at full zoom.
Impressively, maximum aperture at full telephoto remains a respectable f/5.9, while at wide angle it's a sharp f/2.8, which will help achieve shallow depths of field on portraits. You can control this manually using the dedicated aperture priority mode, or switch to shutter priority, program or full manual if you prefer. The inclusion of these dedicated modes, which mark this out as a more ambitious compact camera, greatly enhance its appeal, and put it in direct competition with the Fujifilm FinePix F770EXR, with its 20x zoom, 16-megapixel sensor and GPS chip.
What sets the Samsung apart is built-in Wi-Fi, which lets you share your pictures directly from the camera, without first having to download them to your Mac or PC.
Wi-Fi has a dedicated entry on the mode selector wheel and gives access to various backup and sharing features, and the ability to control the camera from a smart phone app.
It's also handy if you're travelling, as the Wi-Fi will let you share your photos with friends and family before you get home by emailing straight out of the camera or uploading stills to Facebook, Picasa and Photobucket. You can send videos to YouTube, but there's no option to upload directly to Flickr. You can get around this by using Flickr's upload by email feature (log into your account here) and sending them from the camera.
The WB850F has eight scene modes, taking in the usual selection of night, landscape and so on, plus aperture and shutter priority, manual and program modes. I performed my tests using the smart auto mode, allowing the camera to choose the best settings for each particular scenario.
Results were good across the board, with the WB850F carefully balancing the incoming light in starkly contrasting compositions for a pleasing, well-exposed result overall.
The lockside view below is fairly evenly split between dark bridge and trees, partially dark water and a bright, largely overcast sky. Rather than bleaching the sky as it draws out detail from the water, the WB850F has retained a high degree of colour and texture. It still properly exposed the darker areas of the shot, such as the wood of the lock itself, on which moss and fine splits remain clearly visible when zoomed to 100 per cent.
The results achieved in my tests were extremely sharp, with very small points of detail clearly reproduced across the frame. Even in situations where the framed scene contained only a fairly narrow gamut, it did a great job of differentiating between similar tones. In the image below of unripe blackberries, the fine thorns on the plant itself, and cobwebs stretching between them, are accurately reproduced. This is thanks to a generous depth of field and accurate focusing. The same is true of the fibrous hair on the inside of the husk that surrounds the lost blossom.
In scenes that demonstrated a higher degree of tonal variation, it did even better. The shot below shows a bee gathering pollen on a flowering teasel, and when zoomed to 100 per cent, it's not only possible to make out individual hairs on the bee's body, but also the pollen grains stuck to them.
There is some fall-off in the level of focus towards the edge and corners of the frame, as is to be expected, since at this point the lens has to bend the incoming light to a more extreme degree to focus it on the sensor. However, it does do a good job of focusing each tone at the same point on the sensor, which means there's no evidence of chromatic aberration -- an unwanted fringe of colour around fine details.
It produced an excellent result in the geometry test, which checks for barrel or pin-cushion distortion. A perfect result would see each of the horizontal and vertical lines running exactly parallel to their neighbours on the grid below. Apart from a very slight bowing of the lower-most horizontal lines, that's exactly what can be seen here.
When tasked with a still-life test, in which the same collection of everyday objects was photographed, first under studio lighting and then using ambient light and the onboard flash, it turned in mixed results.
Under studio lighting, the colour retention and level of focus demonstrated the camera performing at its very best. Colours were extremely well balanced, reflections were natural and not too strong, and fine detail such as fur on a cuddly toy, was very clearly and cleanly captured.
When relying on ambient light, it did bleach out some of the detail in the fur as it had increased the sensitivity setting to ISO 640 so that it could properly expose the darker areas within the shot, such as the cup in the foreground. This bleaching became more pronounced when using the flash at such close quarters. Much of the toy's fur was lost in the resulting picture and highly reflective surfaces like the curved plastic front of a radio produced a pronounced bounce-back.
The WB850F records film at 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, with supplementary options for 1,280x720, 640x480 and 160x120 pixels, each at 30 frames per second. You can shoot movies from any regular mode by pressing the record button on the back -- great if you want to capture a spontaneous moment -- or switch to the dedicated movie mode for greater control and more options, with access to creative effects and control over metering, focus, exposure compensation and so on.
There's no option to suppress wind noise, which is a shame, as otherwise the WB850F records a very finely observed soundtrack.
Captured footage easily meets the high standard you'd expect after close examination of its stills. Movies are packed with detail and colour. It compensates smoothly and at a very measured pace for changes in the level of ambient light within a scene, for a good performance all round.
Outside of the NX range of interchangeable lens, mirrorless cameras, this is one of the best Samsungs I've tested. Images are crisp and satisfying and they're saturated to just the right degree. Colours are punchy, even under overcast conditions, and they haven't been pushed so far as to become unrealistic.
The long zoom and GPS features make it a great option for travellers who want to carry a versatile all-rounder, without the bulk of a bridge camera. I'd recommend buying a spare battery though. While it didn't run dry during my test shooting, it did deplete quicker than I would have expected, and so required more frequent charging.
If you send your money Samsung's way, you won't be disappointed with the WB850F. But before you make your final decision, be sure to check out the Fujifilm F770EXR. It lacks the built-in Wi-Fi but otherwise boasts very similar specs and undercuts the WB850F by about £40 -- enough to bag yourself a couple of capacious memory cards.