A triple base hit as far as higher-end slim digicams go, with many photographic charms. The widescreen LCD with touch interface is well executed and polished, the photo quality is everything one would expect from the premium class, and the front LCD, while gimmicky at first, is actually really useful. Samsung almost hits one out of the park for fashion conscious snapshooters and serious shutterbugs looking for style and portability.
Looking to make a splash in the slim midrange digicam point-and-shoot class, the Samsung DualView TL225 / ST550's headline feature is that it sports not one, but two LCD screens. With class-competitive specs including a beautiful wide touchscreen, this new stunner really bridges the performance and fashion needs of the demanding consumer. Alas, the truth still lies in the user experience and the pictures, and for answers we must delve deeper. Come with us as we spend some quality time with our new mate to see if she's as easy to live with as she is to talk about.
Samsung's DualView TL225 / ST550 occupies the mid-to-high end position in an ever-growing and very confusing lineup of digital still cameras. Surf on over to Samsung's site, and you'll see no less than six different "series" of digicams. There's really not much point trying to figure out what slots where in the range - just know that this TL225 / ST550 belongs to the slim and stylish ST line and boasts the world's first dual LCD configuration. Not to be overlooked are the class-competitive specs of the TL225 / ST550, including 12MP resolution, 4.6x zoom with 27mm (equivalent) wide-angle, sensor shift image stabilization, a 3.5" 1152k dot touchscreen wide LCD and 720p HD video recording.
Included in the box is a lanyard strap, thin Lithium-Polymer battery. wall adapter with USB port, USB cable with proprietary docking connector on the other end, and an A/V cable for connection to an old CRT. Conspicuous by their absence are any sort of memory card (the DualView TL225 / ST550 takes the tiny Micro SD and Micro SDHC cards) and an HDMI cable for connection to a flat-panel display to show off those snazzy 720p HD videos. The camera does have about 55MB free if you forget your memory card, so so can still take a few photos before you're completely up a creek without a paddle. I did like very much that the wall adapter is just a small "plug", and relies on the USB cable included with the camera. In this way, the wall charger became useful for many other gadgets I own that charge via USB.
Pretty much every feature known to mankind is included with the DualView TL225 / ST550. The list just goes on and on. More notable for their uniqueness are the haptic vibration effect (same technology found on YP P3 PMP) you get when pressing any button (a great substitute for the tactile feedback of buttons), dual screens (more on this later), and Smart Gesture UI technology, which allows you to issue camera commands with a shake or twist of the camera.
The Touchy Feely
Samsung makes no claims as to whether the DualView TL225 / ST550 is the lightest or thinnest camera in its class, but it really doesn't matter because this little thing is a stunner. Housed in a really high quality plastic, the front is glossy black trimmed in gold (also available in silver, orange, purple and blue trim), with the sides and back a matte black. The 3.5" wide touchscreen LCD dominates the back of the camera and you immediately are drawn to the fact that there are no buttons at all where you are probably accustomed to finding them. The top of the camera contains a built-in microphone, the power and shutter buttons, the tiny zoom rocker control, and the playback button. On the left side of the camera you'll find a speaker and on the right, the wrist strap mounting point. Finally, the bottom of the camera contains the tripod mount, docking connector (perhaps a dock will be made available in the future), and battery/memory card door. This door is notable because it is latched and while small, feels solid and well-finished. The Micro SD card slot is also found inside the battery compartment.
The 3.5" touchscreen dominating the back of the DualView TL225 / ST550 features haptic vibration effect.
The front of the camera is dominated by the Schneider-KREUZNACH 4.6x zoom lens which retracts nearly flush and neatly accordions out upon power-up. To the left of the lens is the 1.5" front LCD which is activated by a quick tap, or by turning it on in the control panel from the rear touch LCD. The front LCD appears a bit dim, likely due to the smoky black glossy plastic that totally hides the fact that anything so brilliant as a second LCD could be hiding behind. In other words, when off, there is no hint that a screen resides beneath the plastic casing. A very elegant design trick for which Samsung should be commended. The front LCD is not very high-res at 185K dots, and it is in the familiar 4:3 aspect ratio as well, which means it does crop the image should you be taking 16:9 widescreen photographs. At the very upper top edge is the mandatory built-in flash.
And oh, that main LCD. Suffice to say it is the most gorgeous display I have EVER seen on any digital camera at ANY price point. Weighing in at a 800x480 resolution it is difficult to appreciate how clear and detailed the images are until you go back to your typical compact digital camera. Of particular note are the icons which are so finely detailed, it's hard to tell they are even produced from a dot-matrix display. A quick comparison with a camera we recently reviewed, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 puts everything in stark perspective. Here the Sony's display is also 3.5" wide, but with a 230K dot resolution and blocky icons and comparatively dim outlook, the Samsung puts it literally to shame.
Sitting alongside with the DualView TL225 / ST550 is Sony's first 720p video recording capable DSC-T500.
Holding the DualView TL225 / ST550 is easy once you get used to the inevitable smudges on the glossy screen and casing. Samsung does not provide any sort of hand grip or rubberized surfaces so you really are left to your own devices. The rear of the camera is ever so slightly curved to assist your right thumb in gripping the camera, but I'll have to admit, I nearly dropped it a few times before I made a habit of stringing the wrist strap around my hand.
Ergonomically, once you get used to gripping the camera, all other controls fall readily to hand, and the tiny rocker-style zoom control actually is not as hard to use as it looks. The shutter button has a nice, soft, 2-stage release (press halfway down for focus, and fully to take the exposure). In contrast to other slim digicams which use the internal folding lens design, the TL225 / ST550 presents no challenge to hamfisted photographers with a tendency to put their fingers over the lens. Because its lens telescopes, the lens barrel itself allows one to rest your left fingers next to the lens and take clean pictures without fingerprints or errant fingertips getting in the way. I found this is a real benefit when handing the camera to a stranger offering to take a quick snapshot of your and a loved one.
The physical buttons of the DualView TL125 / ST550 include just the shutter button, rock-style zoom, preview button & power switch.
Overall, the design and tactile experience is very very good for this class of camera with truly top notch build quality, beautiful aesthetics, and no real compromises for those with dexterity.
Long gone are the days of analog knobs, metal focus rings, and latches, switches and buttons the size of fingernails (anyone remember chiclets?). Trends in technology and miniaturization mean software controlled buttons, menu systems, and touch screen interfaces for the masses everywhere you look.
The benefits of touchscreen interfaces are numerous, including the ability to replace or completely remove tactile buttons which hog space and limit industrial designers from achieving that look. However, in photography, the real magic is in capturing the moment and so the usual drawbacks of touchscreen interfaces apply: finger smudges on the screen, loss of the ability to set functions by feel, and no tactile feedback.
Samsung address the lack of tactile feedback in a really interesting manner, using what they called haptic technology (also found on their YP P3 PMP). Adjustable to three different strengths as well as off, the haptic settings make the camera buzz and vibrate for a split second when buttons are pressed. It may sound weird, but it really works in practice, seamlessly informing a user when they've selected a function and removing the complaint of not tactile feedback.
This is the menu where you can mess around with the haptic strength.
Of course, no discussion of the DualView TL225 / ST550's user interface would be complete without a mention of the dual LCD screens. The main 3.5" one on the rear provides on-screen controls for everything except power, zoom and toggling between play and record modes. Icons, customized depending on the camera mode, are sprinkled around the perimeter of the screen, leaving the center portion largely free to act as the digital viewfinder. Setting the camera to a 3:2 or 4:3 aspect ratio shooting mode works especially well, as the main icons on the left side of the screen don't overlap the picture. Even when icons and graphics do overlap, they have a nice transparency effect that looks modern and inviting.
Settings that might be accessing less often (i.e. resolution, exposure compensation, etc) are available in a sub-menu that "slides" out of the bottom of the display when the little tab is pressed. Similarly, a right side sub-menu is available and allows the user to access the utility menu for global settings such as screen brightness, volume, language, and power saving settings.
All photo settings at a glance before you hit the shutter button.
The front LCD is one unique feature that could very well tip consumer buying decisions in favour of the Samsung over competing models. Capable of showing the active viewfinder image just like the main LCD, animations to make kids smile, camera settings, or self-time countdowns, it's a fun and well-executed feature that everybody here loved.
A list of functions provided by the 1.5" front LCD.
Moving on to camera modes, the DualView TL225 / ST550 is absolutely packed with preset shooting modes and other goodies that can get overwhelming at times. We're not sure why dual image stabilization needs its own operating mode, since optical stablization can be activated separately and ISO can be set manually as well, but we guess Samsung thinks that novice shooters are better off going into dark environments, setting DUAL IS mode, and leaving it at that.
Here's a brief run-down of the available modes, including 13 (!) scene modes.
AUTO: Minimal adjustments for quick, convenient shooting
PROGRAM: Automatic with full override
SMART: Recognizes the scene and automatically sets the shooting mode accordingly
DUAL IMAGE STABILIZATION: Activates OIS and DIS
Beauty shot (performs post processing to make faces appear smooth and blemish-free)
Children (activates the front LCD and turns on smile animation to make kids laugh)
Beach and Snow
MOVIE: Video recording in either 30fps or 15fps
1280 x 720 HQ
1280 x 720
640 x 480
320 x 240
Movie modes are fairly typical these days, with 720p video captured in either normal or high quality settings, at either 30 or 15 fps. For high speed action such as golf swing analysis, one may opt to use the 60 fps mode, only available when the resolution is set to 320 x 240, unfortunately.
Optical zoom is functional during video recording, although one can hear the zoom motor in the background. We found video crisp and clear when viewed on both the internal LCD and a computer monitor. Unfortunately, Samsung makes the HDMI cable adapter an optional feature, so we were unable to test the camera output functionality. HDMI video output can be set to either 720p, 1080i or 480p. Other novel shooting features include face detection AF, smile shot, blink detection and smart face recognition.
Although the camera utilizes a 16:9 aspect ratio widescreen LCD, the actual image size and aspect ratio are selectable from the following:
12MP (4000 x 3000, 4:3 ratio)
10MP (3984 x 2656, 3:2 ratio)
9MP (3840 x 2160, 16:9 ratio)
8MP (3264 x 2448, 4:3 ratio)
5MP (2560 x 1920, 4:3 ratio)
3MP (2048 x 1536, 4:3 ratio)
2MP (1920 x 1080, 16:9 ratio)
1MP (1024 x 768, 4:3 ratio)
Image Quality and Performance
Utilizing a Sony 1/2.3" CCD sensor with a maximum resolution of 12.2MP coupled with a wide-angle 4.6x zoom Schneider-KREUZNACH lens, the Samsung DualView TL225 / ST550 is capable of really excellent image quality. The zoom lens is a bit weak on the long end, due to the wide angle capability, but for most shooting, a true wide angle is more useful a 10 or 20 extra mm on the long end.
Image taken at wide angle setting (27mm equivalent)
Image taken at full optical zoom setting (124mm equivalent)
Set to any one of the PROGRAM or smart modes, the Samsung turned in stellar results. Exposure was consistent, accurate and handled highlights and shadows exceptionally well. The camera obviously was trying to compensate for strongly backlit scenes, and the optical image stabilization made handheld shooting down to about 1/10 second possible with a large chance of success. Our only real nitpicks revolve around the auto white balance, which turned in an average performance, but we have to say, we've never seen ANY compact camera or entry-to-mid level digital SLR perform much better.
Colors, using standard out-of-the-box settings, were tending towards oversaturated and overexaggerated. Probably just the way average consumers like it. We found reds and greens particularly troubling due to their vibrancy, and opted to turn down the saturation by choosing the CALM picture style. For what it's worth, we feel Samsung has tried to closely emulate Sony with its color tuning and those wanting realistic skin-tones would be wise to follow our suggestion of changing the default style. Other styles available are: Normal, Calm, Vivid, Forest, Retro, Cool, Classic, Negative, Custom RGB: Set R, G, B values individually for a custom effect.
Auto focus performance was relatively quick and accurate. Multi-point AF was impressively good at selecting reasonable areas of a subject to focus on, and the AF was capable of focusing in dim light better than most. Face detection still impresses with an uncanny ability to pick out heads in a scene, although we always find these features of limited usefulness.
Shots taken with flash were solidly average for this class of camera, but it is nice to see slow-sync flash mode as well as the obligatory auto, red-eye reduction flash modes. Samsung opted for a single pre-flash in red-eye mode, which may be less distracting that the strobing feature other manufacturers implement. Flash refresh took about 3-4 seconds after a full discharge.
Worth mentioning is the impressive exposure accuracy. Under a variety of conditions, the camera smartly compensated for backlit conditions, as well as high contrast scenes, delivering impressively rendered images. We almost never had a need to use the exposure compensation adjustment.
Visual artifacts, such as chromatic aberration (purple fringing) or vignetting (shading of the corners) were well controlled, although in strong backlit scenes we did detect some purple fringing on an outdoor scene.
Noise performance was very good, and it is obvious Samsung has taken a fairly aggressive approach to noise reduction filtering. That being said, an impressive amount of detail remains at high ISO, even up to 1600, with ISO 3200 being usable in a pinch. We suspect the images at ISO 1600 or higher might even look acceptance when printed.
Image at ISO 80 with OIS on.
ISO 80 crop. Excellent detail as expected.
Image at ISO 800 with OIS on. Notice the inconsistent white balance (set to AUTO).
ISO 800 crop showing good detail and noise control for a compact camera.
Image at ISO 3200 with OIS on. Still somewhat acceptable at smaller image sizes. Very good for a compact camera.
ISO 3200 crop. Despite the heavy noise reduction filtering, there is still decent detail present.
Battery life seemed above average for a slim digicam, which is so say pretty good, considering the juice-sapping features such as dual LCDs with a really bright rear display. The slim Li-Polymer battery recharges over USB with the included cable, or via power adapter with the USB port on it. In both cases, charging is a bit slow as the adapter only allows 400mA of current draw. Charging took 4-5 hours.
720p HD Video Capture
Video capture on the DualView TL225 / ST550 camera should be another strong selling point. The camera allows capture at 1280x720 in both high quality and normal modes. I found the difference noticeable in terms of compression artifacts, however our opinion is that if you're going to the trouble capturing HD video, you might as well capture it in HQ mode. As is becoming more common these days, optical zoom is functional during video recording, although the lens zoom motor is picked up by the microphone, unless you choose to mute the audio (which is a good feature given the hardware limitations). Speaking of the microphone, sadly, unlike the Sony DSC-T500, the TL225 / ST550 only captures mono audio with no option to plug in a stereo microphone. If you are a photojournalist trying to spice up your work with splashes of video documentary, or the video buff looking for a pocketable flash-based video camera, you are out of luck.
Video recording is limited to 20 mins, regardless of the size of your flash card. Movies are captured in H.264 format, with a datarate of approximately 1.15MB/sec. Thus, a 20 min movie would fill up about 75% of a 2GB flash card, probably plenty for most users. Subjectively, we felt the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T500 was taking slightly clearer HD video with less artifacts, especially in bright light. Whether this can be attributed to the codec or sensor it is impossible to tell, but the Sony also has the advantage of being capable of recording stereo audio.
High-resolution widescreen LCD
Touch interface easy to use and responsive
Wide angle lens with 4.6x optical zoom
Surprisingly useful front LCD
Excellent build quality
Very good image quality
720p HD video
Zoom actually only 6 discrete steps
User interface sometimes uses cryptic English
Very slippery case, easy to drop
Front LCD a bit dim
Very tippy resting on flat surface
Colors a bit oversaturated
No HDMI cable included in box
Bundled software Windows only
The Samsung DualView TL225 / ST550 is stunning entrant to the slim digicam market. With a class-leading feature that is generally very well executed, not to mention top notch picture quality, we can see these little gems flying off the shelf this holiday season. As good as the competition is, we think Samsung got so many things right that the novel front LCD screen is really not necessary. However, as an attention getter, the dual LCD really does give the modern digicam shopper a compelling deal-maker. Any discussion of the DualView TL125 / ST550's many charms would be incomplete without a rave review of the widescreen high-resolution touch LCD. With a touch interface that is both pretty and effective, and 720p HD video recording with optical zoom, Samsung pushes all the right buttons. Our only advice is you consider buying two at a time because once a shutterbug gets their hands on it, you may never get it back. Kudos, Samsung, on a really delightful product.