Samsung WB850F: Feature-Filled 21X Pocket Zoom Has Connections
At a Glance
Samsung WB850F Compact Camera
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The feature-loaded, 21X-zoom Samsung WB850F is the best Wi-Fi camera we've reviewed, but a few usability hangups keep it from a higher ranking.
A few years ago, a pocketable camera loaded with this many features would impossible to find. The Samsung WB850F ($350 as of August 6, 2012) boasts a 21X-optical-zoom lens, Wi-Fi sharing capabilities, GPS with in-camera mapping, and a 10-fps burst mode at a 16-megapixel resolution. It's practically a poster child for the latest in-camera tech of 2012.
The WB850F is notable because, first and foremost, it's a solid camera. Unlike previous Wi-Fi-enabled cameras, it makes its wireless-sharing capabilities secondary to several other key features: an impressive zoom lens, manual controls, good performance, and forward-thinking controls that give you quick access to most of the camera's settings.
That said, the WB850F did have a few shortcomings. It tended to lag (or even freeze up) when I switched between shooting modes, and its stabilization system became less effective at the telephoto end of the zoom—which is precisely where a user needs it most. Normally, it takes good-looking photos that you would want to share wirelessly. But it does have trouble shooting sharp photos at full zoom.
Performance, Image Quality, and Video Quality
In PCWorld Labs' subjective evaluations of image quality, our panel of judges awarded the WB850F scores of Good or better in all of our testing categories. The camera's strongest suit is sharpness, where it earned a score of Superior; we noted just a bit of discolored fringing in the finer details of our target resolution chart.
The WB850F also performed very well on color accuracy and lack of distortion, with scores of Very Good in each of those categories. Exposure quality was rated as Good, due to a slightly underexposed image in our still-life test.
You can see the full-size sample shots used for our subjective tests by clicking the thumbnails to the left.
The WB850F didn't do as well in our video-quality tests. Overall, the camera earned a score of Fair for video quality and Very Good for audio quality, but its lower-than-average video score is attributable to its performance in low-light situations. In our bright-light tests, the camera's 1080p footage shot at 30 frames per second looked okay; but footage shot in dimmer conditions looked noticeably noisy and snowy.
The WB850F's low-light footage did compare favorably with that of many other cameras in its class. Low-light video may be noisy, but you can see what's going on in the clip, and the motion looks smooth.
Here are the test video clips used for our subjective evaluations. Select 1080p from the bottom menu in the player for the full-resolution clips.
Strangely, no industry-standard CIPA battery rating is available for the Samsung WB850F. Not surprisingly, the camera battery didn't last too long in my hands-on tests when I used its Wi-Fi and GPS features; it delivered about a day's worth of juice before I had to recharge. Even when I wasn't using Wi-Fi and GPS, the battery indicator dipped from full bars to battery empty in about a day and a half, and I wasn't using it nonstop. From my hands-on tests and my experience with other cameras' battery longevity, I'd put this camera's battery life in our "Fair" range of 160 to 200 shots per charge.
Shooting Modes and Features
Like many of today's other pocket megazooms in the same price range, the Samsung WB850F includes shooting modes that offer a little something for everyone: manual exposure controls, traditional scene modes, newfangled effects filters, and a "Smart" auto mode that automatically detects the correct scene presets to use.
You'll find a lot of choices in the camera's menus, too, but Samsung has done a nice job of keeping confusion and bloat to a minimum. You don't need to scroll through pages of screens in each mode to uncover more pages of arcane options; each mode's selections are limited to a single screen—a welcome touch.
The camera's manual exposure controls are accessed via a single A/S/M selection on the mode dial; once you've selected that mode, you can choose between aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual mode on the ensuing screen. Though it's not a huge deal, that multipurpose manual mode adds a step compared to cameras that have dedicated aperture- and shutter-priority selections on the mode dial.
You can adjust shutter speeds (across a range from 1/2000 second to 16 seconds) and aperture values (a maximum of F2.8 at wide angle or F5.9 at the telephoto end) with the camera's scroll wheel. Pressing the Function button in A/S/M mode yields a wide range of adjustment options, including ISO (100 to 3200), white balance, manual/autofocus, and image size, among others.
In the manual and program auto modes, pressing the Function button brings up a list of creative filters—such as a miniature mode, a cartoon filter, and a paintlike overlay—that you can apply in real time. For shots taken in Auto mode or in one of the scene modes, you can apply the same filters during image playback by pressing the Menu button and selecting 'Smart Filters' from the menu.
The camera's scene modes are fairly basic, with eight options that cover the basics (a long-shutter night mode, a backlight mode, a Beauty Shot mode for portraits, and sunset and dawn modes, among others). Another spot on the mode dial gives you access to creative special effects, such as an HDR mode, a motion-controlled panorama mode, 3D shooting, and several frame modes that let you overlay photos on preset backgrounds or place photos side-by-side.
Despite the many shooting options here, the camera's reaction time sometimes lags a bit when you try to select them. When you switch from mode to mode or save a sequence of burst shots, the WB850F tends to hang for a few seconds. When you select on-screen options within a shooting mode, however, the camera reacts more quickly.
The Samsung WB850F did well in our lab tests, which involve mounting the camera on a tripod in a controlled lighting environment, but I found that the camera had a few shortcomings for handheld shooting. At the telephoto end of the zoom, I had trouble capturing a crisp shot; that's a challenge for any long-zoom camera, but the WB850F seemed more problematic than most. It did a serviceable job in low-light settings, but blur is a factor in the dark, as well.
On a more positive note, the camera's macro performance is well above average. The WB850F has a minumum focus distance that practically lets you touch the lens to a subject--in well-lit situations, at least. When you're shooting in less-than-optimal lighting conditions, the camera's autofocus system has trouble locking in on a subject, but that's true of virtually every camera in its class.
Wi-Fi and GPS features
In addition to its many shooting modes, the WB850F has a broad range of connectivity features. The camera can email photos and upload images to Facebook and Photobucket, though it shrinks them down to a 1664-by-1248-pixel photo (around 2 megapixels) in the process. I sent two test images from the camera—one via email, and one as a Facebook upload—and both of them transferred very quickly. Each photo was arrived at the proper destination within about 5 seconds.
You can also send videos from the camera, but that operation is a bit less smooth. First of all, the camera will send only 320-by-240 video files that are less than 30 seconds long, but you won't know their duration until you try to send them. Even worse, you can't reduce the resolution of a clip after you've shot it, so you'll have to record clips in low resolution in order to send them from the camera.
You can also save images wirelessly to Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud storage service (again, I couldn't send a high-definition video clip), back up photos wirelessly to a PC after installing the included Intellistudio and Auto Backup software, and stream photos and video from the camera to a DLNA-compliant TV.
As it did with its prior "Smart" cameras, Samsung offers two mobile apps for Android and iOS that let you use a phone as a real-time, wireless viewfinder/remote control for the camera, and another app that lets you offload images and video to a mobile device. The Remote Viewfinder app lets you operate the zoom lens, turn the flash on and off, and adjust photo resolution wirelessly via a mobile device. Your phone's screen gives you a live preview of what you're shooting, with impressively little lag time, though the remote zoom controls can be a bit touchy. After you snap a shot, you have the option of saving a copy of the image to your phone (12 megapixels max) by tapping an on-screen icon.
The WB850F has some of the best GPS features available on a camera, including an on-camera Navteq mapping interface, a points-of-interest database, and real-world location names (rather than just longitude and latitude coordinates) applied to your photos. The full range of GPS features aren't preloaded on the camera, however; instead, you'll need to load the maps onto the camera via the included CD or download them from Samsung's site.
Hardware and Design
The WB850F is built around a 16-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor and a 21X zoom lens (23mm to 483mm) with a hybrid optical/digital stabilization system. A 3-inch AMOLED screen that is sharper and brighter than most of the displays I've seen on competing cameras, handles shot composition and photo reviewing.
One potential annoyance is that you must charge the camera's battery while it's in the camera, using a supplied USB cable. An adapter in the box lets you connect the USB plug to a wall charger; but in either charging scenario, the entire camera must be plugged in.
The WB850F is a bit beefier than many of today's ever-shrinking pocket megazooms, but that's largely due to its raised handgrip, which makes the camera feel sturdy and comfortable to hold. And despite the extra heft, the WB850F is still pocketable, depending on your pants. If you enjoy spending a day about town while wearing a nice pair of slacks or chinos, it'll probably fit in your pocket; if you wear skinny jeans, no dice.
The top of the WB850F hosts a spring-loaded pop-up flash that you open with a lever and click back down with your finger, along with a power button, stereo microphones, a zoom ring/shutter button, and a mode dial.
On the back of the camera, Samsung has altered the standard control scheme somewhat. For the most part, the variations on the norm work well. One unique feature on the back is a Drive Speed control, which is a lot like a zoom-control ring; you operate it with your thumb to toggle between continuous shooting modes (3 fps, 5 fps, and 10 fps), a single-capture mode, a three-shot exposure-bracketing mode, and a Precapture mode that snps 8 shots as soon as you half-press the shutter button.
You'll also find—in addition to a menu button, a playback button, and a delete button—a time-saving Function button that gives you quick access to the settings supported by whatever shooting mode you're in. For example, if the camera is set to manual mode, pressing the Function button launches a heads-up display of aperture settings, ISO adjustments, exposure compensation, white balance and metering modes, and other settings. This arrangement definitely cuts down on the menu-diving you'd normally have to do with a smaller camera, as you get access to all of the applicable adjustments on a single screen.
A clickable scroll wheel handles on-screen selections and also operates as a four-way directional pad. As on most cameras, pressing the up, down, left, or right direction on the wheel gives you fast access to in-camera settings such as a timer and display adjustments; unlike on other cameras, the left and bottom directional buttons jump you to the camera's map interface and electronic compass. Those substitutions are handy if you use the camera's GPS features a lot, but if you're accustomed to a traditional button layout, you may miss the one-touch access to macro mode and flash settings; you must press the Function button to adjust those settings.
I found a lot to like in the Samsung WB850F, including an ample zoom range, well-implemented controls, innovative Wi-Fi capabilities, and good image quality. The camera's GPS features are very good, too, though having to load them onto the camera yourself is a bit of a hassle. The WB850F certainly provides a lot of bang for the buck in terms of features. But the camera has a few downsides in usability, such as iffy stabilization at the telephoto end, laggy reaction times for some in-camera selections, and so-so low-light performance. The overall result is a good, versatile megazoom that's easily the best Wi-Fi-enabled camera we've tested so far. But aside from its futuristic features, it comes up a bit short of the usability bar set by the Canon PowerShot SX260 HS.