Monday, May 28, 2012

Canon PowerShot ELPH 500 HS:

Hands On Review

Last year's Canon SD4000 IS was the first ELPH to approach high-end compact territory, a realm previously reserved for Canon's S and G series models. The SD4000 combined a bright lens, reliable image processor, and a new sensor that was designed for quick performance and extra sensitivity to light. It worked out well, and the SD4000 nabbed some strong reviews and favorable comparisons to the Canon S90 advanced compact. It set the stage for a wave of lower-cost Canons with the same processor/sensor combination -- now branded as the High Sensitivity (HS) system -- and changed the point-and-shoot landscape for the better.

As it tends to go in the camera world, Canon has already replaced the SD4000 with the ELPH 500 HS. The familiar lens/processor/sensor combo remains, but the interface has been overhauled, now sporting an enormous touchscreen and very few physical buttons. Can this trendy new design can make a great thing even better? Read on to find out.

Body & Design
The ELPH 500 is a small camera, but a bit too bulky to be considered an ultra-compact model. Its body is roughly the same size as this year’s S95, though the design is most similar to last year’s SD4000, with rounded corners, soft lines and a vaguely bulbous profile. It falls somewhere between the homely SD4500 and sharp-dressed ELPH 300, but of course, true beauty is in the eye of the photographer.

A 3.2-inch, wide-format, touchscreen LCD gobbles up most of the rear panel. Most of the controls flow through that monolithic monitor, so there are just a few physical buttons. A lonely playback key sits to the right of the screen on the rear. Up top, from left to right, there’s a slider to switch between Auto mode and, well, "not Auto" modes; a power switch; and the shutter release, encircled by a zoom tilter.

There isn't much of a button layout to speak of, so ergonomics are a secondary concern here (though I’ll get to the touchscreen’s implications in the User Experience section below). There is just one notable design issue: Like the other Canons we’ve tested this year, the shutter release is flush with the body. It looks cool, but it’s difficult to find by touch; a shaped or textured shutter release would improve usability.

A bright-and-wide 24-108mm (4.4x zoom) f/2.0-5.6 lens -- arguably the ELPH 500’s centerpiece, and one of the nicest lenses on any compact camera at this price -- sits up front, joined by the flash and LED focus-assist lamp. A big plastic panel covers the mini-USB, A/V out, and mini-HDMI ports on the right side of the camera. On the bottom, there’s a sliding door for the battery and SD/SDHC/SDXC card compartment, as well as a metal tripod threading.

 Performance & User Experience
Whether they’re ELPHs or EOS dSLRs, Canon cameras are almost always a pleasure to use. Grandma and grandpa can figure out how to use them, and more importantly, actually like it.

Canon tries to port that user experience to a predominantly touch-based interface on the ELPH 500. The results are lukewarm. Touchscreens work wonders for smartphones and tablet computers, but not cameras. The best implementations keep the tried-and-true tactile controls, and use touchscreens to complement the user experience with functions like tap-to-focus. One can shoot an entire session with a camera like the Panasonic ZS10 and never use its touchscreen, but the touchscreen does open up some extra possibilities when they're appropriate.

With the ELPH 500, on the other hand, it’s almost impossible to work around the touchscreen. Basic functions like the shutter release and zoom are still tied to physical controls, but aside from a dedicated playback toggle, all the navigation and setting adjustments are touch-based. If it was as responsive as the iPhone, it might’ve worked, but it lags, and it’s a major drag on the user experience. Missed shots abound. Clumsy navigation awaits. The “buttons” are often too small. Scrolling is particularly frustrating. The battery life suffers as well, managing a middling 180 shots per charge. Aside from tap-to-focus, there is not a single function that a button-based interface could not have done better.

When the touchscreen can stay out of the way, the ELPH 500 is a nimble performer. From power-on, it’s ready to shoot in under a second. Autofocus is quite fast and accurate in good lighting, though there’s a noticeable drop-off when light starts to fade. Even so, shot-to-shot times are less two seconds under dimmer artificial lights. At its best, it can churn out a respectable 3.4 frames per second in continuous drive mode, matching the speed of entry-level dSLRs and significantly out-performing most run-of-the-mill point-and-shoots. It can maintain that pace indefinitely, so there’s no need to worry about filling up the buffer and missing any shots while the camera writes to the card. Slow(er) and steady wins the race, sometimes.

Straight-up Auto mode is easy to use and grabs a good exposure most of the time. A small handful of specific scene pre-sets are available under the “not Auto” tab, including Portraits, Foliage, and Kids & Pets, but Auto mode usually detects when it should use those presets anyway, so some users may never need to manually select them. Canon’s typical fun effects and filters are present, too, including Color Swap, Color Accent, Black & White, Sepia, so on and so forth.

Then there are the more "serious" modes. Like most of Canon’s recent compacts, the ELPH 500 has an in-camera high-dynamic range (HDR) mode, known here as Handheld NightScene. It snaps three or more rapid-fire shots at slightly different exposures, and combines them into one evenly exposed, almost surreal-looking image. Bright areas are controlled, dark areas are visible, and colors really pop. There’s also a dedicated Low Light mode, which boosts the ISO sensitivity and drops the resolution down to three megapixels. It’s only really useful in super-dark situations if you just want some semblance of a photo to (kind of) capture a moment.

And of course, the enthusiast's bread and butter: Program, Aperture Priority, and Shutter Priority (no full Manual exposure control, though). They offer the hands-on exposure control that experienced users want and that casual users can use to explore and experiment. But the touchscreen cripples them. “Scrolling” through apertures and shutter speeds is slow, inaccurate, and horribly painful. It’s there if you need it, but be ready to wait.

So the user experience is a big mixed bag with the ELPH 500. It does offer the best of what the Powershot line has to offer: A dead-on auto mode, useful (or at least fun) scene modes, some hands-on control, and nimble performance. It’s just all trapped in an irritating touchscreen interface.

Image & Video Quality
Canon’s ballyhooed High Sensitivity system is at the heart of the ELPH 500 HS (hence the “HS” tag at the end there). It’s a combination of the vaunted Digic 4 image processor -- found in any Canon camera worth its salt, from the pro-level 5D Mk. II down through this year’s A Series shooters -- and a 1/2.3-inch backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, which keeps shots looking clear at high ISO settings. It also has a wide-open f/2.0 maximum aperture, which lets in about as much light as any point-and-shoot out there.

In layman’s terms, that means that the ELPH 500 HS can take great pictures in pretty much any setting. Low-light image quality is a big selling point in particular. My photos from some nights out at a bar and a local rock concert are clearer and more evenly lit than I’d usually get from a compact camera. Details are a bit soft by the highest standards of low-light photography, but it’s easier on the eyes than the rough, splotchy noise and sloppy noise reduction that so many cameras pepper their pictures with at high ISO settings. I also took fewer blurry shots than usual; since the aperture is so wide, the shutter speed remains pretty quick even in the dark, reducing the chance that hand-shake will ruin the photo.

Bear in mind that the laws of physics still apply to the ELPH 500. The lens and sensor scoop a lot of light compared to plenty of point-and-shoots, but it’s still a small camera with a tiny sensor; it can’t keep up with a big-sensor mirrorless compact or dSLR. Even so, it’s a great low-light shooter by point-and-shoot standards. Shots up to ISO 1600 are still detailed and color-saturated -- totally usable for medium-sized prints, in other words. Up at ISO 3200, things get a bit fuzzier, but they’ll work for viewing on a screen.

It's a great shooter in bright situations and low ISO settings, too. My initial reaction was that details are a bit soft at the low end of the ISO range, but after comparing it to some of last year’s CCD-based Powershots, the difference is barely visible. (I generally find that CCD sensors produce sharper results than CMOS sensor at the lower-end of the ISO range, but quality degrades faster at higher ISO settings.) It's adept at capturing nuances in lighting, both in the dark and the daylight, and the wide-open lens can sometimes achieve the eye-pleasing shallow depth-of-field look (sharp subject, soft background).

Viewed at full resolution, the ELPH 500’s shots do have a bit of a dabbed-on texture, smooth rather than sharp, but I’d call it an aesthetic quality rather than a problem. Most compact-cam shooters rarely view their shots at full resolution anyhow. I'd bet my lunch money that if we lined up medium-resolution shots from the ELPH 500 and critically acclaimed Canon S95 side-by-side, most people would not be able to determine which camera took which photos, and some folks would even prefer the shots from the cheaper ELPH.

The ELPH 500 does run into a few issues, though, most of which S95 manages to avoid. At the widest, brightest lens settings, shots show some noticeable barrel distortion, though this is somewhat expected coming from a lens like this. There's also a slight tendency to blow out highlights (very bright areas of a shot), also likely due to the light-greedy lens. Some occasional green and purple fringing popped up in high-contrast areas, but again, this is expected to a degree, and far, far from the worst case I've seen. As usual with Canon compacts, automatic white balance tends to cast a yellow tint on pictures taken under artificial lights, so either find a better preset, or take twenty seconds to customize the white balance.

The most puzzling quirk, to me at least, was the random tendency to slightly underexpose shots taken in comfortable outdoor conditions. It happened to a couple shots in each of my test batches. It may have just been my particular camera, as I haven't heard of anyone else running into this problem. Weird. Anyhow, none of these issues should be deal-breakers, as they almost never ruin shots (nothing that 30 seconds of post-processing can't take care of), and the great overall image quality outweighs these minor inconveniences.

Video mode, as we've come to expect from Canon, is very good. The ELPH 500 shoots 1080p video at 24 frames per second for that classy cinematic look. Optical zoom is available while recording without much of an audible motor zoom. Low-light video quality holds up nearly as well as the still image quality. It's a perfectly suitable substitute for a standalone pocket camcorder -- it has a better zoom range, for sure -- and can capture some better-than-average clips for YouTube, though it's still just a compact camera video mode.

Canon's goal was clearly to make an ELPH that was high-end in every sense, but they got too ambitious. With the SD4000, they nailed down the formula for great performance and picture quality, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that they should use that formula in another camera. They didn't need rocket scientists to design a touch interface either, but they should've at least found somebody who's used an iPhone for five minutes. The interface isn't frustrating just because it's a touchscreen. It's frustrating because it's just a bad touchscreen.

Ultimately, the ELPH 500 is still a solid camera. We recommend it, since it's almost impossible to find this kind of picture quality for $300. We're giving a low A minus rating, but it could've been a solid A or even a rare A plus if Canon had played it safe and paired the HS system with a tried-and-true button-based interface (for the same price, of course). There will be plenty of users who learn to live with the ELPH 500's control scheme. Those folks will probably have small fingers and shoot almost exclusively in Auto mode.

But any prospective buyers would do well to look at cameras like the Canon S95, a true advanced compact with an oversized sensor and a robust control scheme, or perhaps the Nikon P300, a high-end point-and-shoot with similar specs as the ELPH 500 but a traditional interface and higher price tag.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentax K-01 Hands-on Preview

The advent of mirrorless has offered camera makers the chance to move beyond the film-era definitions of just how a camera should look. And few have embraced this opportunity to defy convention as enthusiastically as Pentax. For a company that makes admirably no-nonsense DSLRs, its two mirrorless offerings are both interesting expressions of creative design. The Pentax Q is easily the smallest mirrorless camera on the market, with a sensor size to match while, with the K-01, Pentax also claims the crown for the largest mirrorless camera we've yet seen.

While the K-01 may (intentionally) look un-camera-like, its combination of mirrorless design and a sensor inherited from the excellent K-5 means it shouldn't be dismissed. If the K-01 can successfully combine best-in-class image quality with a dedicated live view camera and many of the K-5's photographic features, then it'll really be the worth some attention.

The K-01 is a camera that's likely to polarize opinion at first glance. Its bulky cuboid design is an inevitable consequence of having a full-depth K-mount. Its rather toy-like buttons and switches, however, were voluntary design choices that will put some people off. Aesthetics aside, it's another consequence of using a conventional K-mount that may present the K-01 with its greatest challenge. On the one hand, the K-mount means that the camera can use a vast range of legacy and current Pentax lenses - avoiding the lens drought that early system adopters usually have to endure. On the other hand, the K-01 is a contrast-detect camera in a system designed for phase-detection autofocus, a combination that has rarely resulted in great AF speed.

Also, because the K-01 doesn't have an aperture coupling, it has no way of working out what aperture a pre-1983 (pre-KA) lens is set to. Instead you have to use the green button, which stops down the lens and sets the shutter speed to the metered value for that aperture. This isn't necessary for KA and newer lenses.
With a list price of $749/£629/€823 body-only, it's a much cheaper camera than the K-5 and, with its unconventional styling, manual focusing aids and decent video specifications, there may yet be niches for the K-01 to thrive in. And that's before you start considering how many people would like a body on which to use their existing K lenses.

Pentax K-01 specification highlights:
  • 16MP APS-C
  • 6 frame per second shooting
  • Built-in image stabilization
  • Lens distortion and chromatic aberration correction
  • 1080p video (30, 25 or 24)
  • Microphone socket with adjustable volume level
  • MF focus assist 'peaking'
  • Built-in HDR

Compared to the Pentax K-5

Friday, May 25, 2012

Canon PowerShot ELPH 510 HS / IXUS 1100 HS

 The Canon 510 HS (IXUS 1100 HS in Europe) is a small, stylish point-and-shoot camera that's packed with technology. Core features include a 12x optical zoom lens with an effective focal range of 28mm-336mm, a backlit CMOS sensor with a maximum output resolution of 12MP and a 3.2 inch touchscreen LCD, which is central to the camera's operation. Although Canon has recently refreshed its PowerShot lineup, the ELPH 510 HS, released late last year still boasts a compelling feature set.
Key Features:
12x zoom (28-336mm equivalent)
12.1MP back-illuminated CMOS sensor
ISO 100-3200
3.2in, 461k-dot PureColor II Touch LCD
Powered IS Smart Auto (32 scenes)
High-speed Burst (7.8fps) and Super Slow Motion Movie
 iFrame movie
 Movie Digest (combines still images with short video clips)
Creative modes
Hints & Tips
Weight (with battery): 206g / 7.27 oz.
Dimensions: 99 x 59 x 22mm (3.9 x 2.3 x 8.7in)

Click here for full product information including reader reviews and image samples (opens in new window)

The 510 HS comes bundled with a rechargeable battery and charger, a USB cable, wrist strap and a printed getting started guide. A full electronic manual is provided on a CD along with Digital Camera Solution Disk v. 93.0 JEC software, which includes ZoomBrowser 6.8 for Windows, ImageBrowser 6.8 for Mac along with Camera Window DC 8.6 and PhotoStitch 3.1/3.2. You'll need an SD/SDHC/SDXC card and, if you want to show off your photos and videos on an HDTV, pick up a mini-HDMI connector.

 Available in silver, high gloss black or red, the stylish 510 HS measures a mere 3.9 x 2.32 x 0.86 inches, and at 7.27 ounces (206g) with battery and memory card, it slips easily into most pockets. As expected, there's no optical viewfinder but the 461,000 dot, 3.2-inch LCD is bright, clear and usable under almost all lighting conditions. As a touch panel, the 510's LCD responds to tap or touch (you can calibrate the screen for optimal responsiveness) and icons are large and easy to read. When enabled, the built-in help offers brief but useful explanations of the camera's various modes.

Handling and Operation

Although the touchscreen is reasonably responsive (to the extent that touching it almost always causes something to happen), scrolling through the vertical Function and Menu lists is laggy, frustrating and nowhere near as fluid as using a typical touchscreen smartphone. It does have its advantages though, including convenient touch-to-focus and touch-to-capture functionality (the latter can be turned off if you prefer to use the mechanical shutter release).

 Since the ELPH 510's operation is so heavily dependant on its less than perfect touch-sensitive screen, it often takes longer to change settings than it might with a more traditional button-driven interface. On the plus side the GUI is customizable to an extent. I added ISO and white balance to the main screen for example since those are two of the settings I adjust most often. A Function option (also onscreen, available by touching the FUNC icon) is available to adjust white balance, ISO, metering, exposure compensation, among other settings but you'll still have to go to the main menu to change autofocus mode, activate red-eye correction, apply the wind filter and many other functions.

The only physical controls on the 510 are the playback button on the rear panel and the shutter/zoom lever combo, on/off button and a toggle switch to move between auto and non-auto shooting modes. In addition to Program, Auto or the standard scene modes, the 510 also boasts a range of interesting options including Movie Digest, which captures a video clip for each shot you take to create a visual diary of a day's shooting and Smart Shutter, which can be programmed to take a picture when your subject enters the frame or winks or smiles.

 The camera also features a high speed burst mode of 7.8 frames per second (at 3 megapixels) and slow motion video. When set to Best Image Selection, the camera shoots a series of 5 images (again at a reduced resolution of 3 megapixels) and then automatically selects the best shot. Handheld night scene also captures a series of images and combines them to get the best exposed, least blurry photo. For fun, there are special effects like fisheye, miniature, and toy camera, which can also be used in video mode.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sony SLT A57 Hands-on Preview

Sony's original SLT models - the A55 and A33, showed the company was willing to try something different to compete with the well-entrenched SLR makers. With the SLT-A57, it looks like Sony is intent on competing more fiercely than ever. The specs may hint at a gentle update but, from what we've seen, it's an overall package that DSLR makers should take seriously.
For a start, it's based around the excellent 16MP sensor seen in many of the best current DSLRs and features a body more like the A65. But it also offers to make its wide range of features more easily accessible than before, helping the first-time user to get the most out of the camera.

We've enjoyed using the SLT cameras we've used so far. Concerns about light-loss, electronic viewfinders and ghosting may have made DSLR purists nervous, but most people who tried using the cameras couldn't help but be impressed. Having light constantly directed to the AF sensor meant the SLTs could offer autofocus both during video shooting and 10 frame-per-second shooting - a combination still unmatched at the consumer end of the market.

Even if you don't need any of the tricks its design allows, the fixed, semi-transparent mirror design also allowed Sony to make good on its ambitions of cameras that offer a seamless shooting experience whether shooting SLR-style or in live view. And this is an ability that shouldn't be under-appreciated - even if you're only used to shooting through a viewfinder, being able to shoot using the rear screen and have consistent operational behavior and speed is a real bonus.

The A57 can still shoot at 10 frames per second (or 12fps in an 8.4MP cropped mode), but it gains the ability to shoot 1080p video at 60 or 24 fps (50 or 25 on European models) and the high-contrast edge enhancing 'peaking' mode for manual focusing in video and with non-AF lenses. It also gains the now expected image processing 'Picture Effects,' such as retro, pinhole and miniature filters. But, more significantly, it gains the 'Clear Image Zoom' digital zoom mode that uses an image database to 'intelligently' interpolate between captured pixels to give full resolution output.

Making practical use of this ability, the A57 also has a mode that will re-process your people pictures with what it thinks is a better composition. It does this by searching for faces and re-cropping into portrait orientation with the subject's eyes positioned according to the rule-of-thirds. The crop is then re-sized back up to 16MP, using the Clear Image Zoom scaling.

The viewfinder, like the A55's, is still an LCD rather than the high-resolution OLEDs used in the more expensive models but even this has been tweaked. The magnifying optics in front of the LCD panel have been redesigned to allow more of the screen to be seen. There are also two magnification modes within the viewfinder, designed to change the eyepoint (viewing distance) of the finder to make life easier for users with glasses.

Key Specifications :
16.1MP CMOS sensor
Latest Bionz processor
Larger, FM500H battery (same as A65 and A77)
ISO 100-16000
Auto ISO 100-3200
1,440,000 dot LCD electronic viewfinder
920,000 dot bottom-hinged rear LCD
10 frame per second continuous shooting mode with AF (12fps at 8.4MP crop)
Picture Effects processing options
Clear View Zoom up-sizing digital zoom
Peaking manual focus guide overlay
1080p AVCHD 2.0 movies at 60 or 24 fps (50 or 25 in Europe)

Compared to the SLT-A55

Monday, May 7, 2012

Nikon D3200 Hands-on Preview

Nikon has updated its entry-level DSLR offering with the addition of a 24MP CMOS sensor. This makes it equal to Sony's A65, A77 and NEX-7 in offering the highest pixel count we've yet seen at the APS-C sensor size, and second only to the full-frame professional-grade D800 in Nikon's entire range. The significant thing, though, is that it does so at a starting price of $699 (the same launch price as the D3100 and Panasonic DMC G3, for comparison). It may not be revolutionary, but it promises a lot of camera for a competitive amount of money.

Pixel-count aside, the changes from the D3100 are subtle but, with 1080p30 video, a 920k dot LCD and the option to add an affordable Wi-Fi transmitter, there are clear benefits over the D3100's pretty capable specification. As usual for Nikons at this level, the D3200 doesn't feature a built-in focus motor, doesn't offer auto exposure bracketing and has simplified Active D-Lighting options but beyond these, there's little missing that you could reasonably expect for this class of camera. It even regains the option to trigger the camera with an infrared remote - with the inclusion of sensors on the front and rear of the camera.

The inexorable rise of the mirrorless camera has undoubtedly put particular pressure on the entry-level end of the large sensor market. The smaller body sizes of mirrorless cameras, combined with their more compact-camera-like operation has helped win-over some people who would otherwise have bought a DSLR, as well as drawing people away from high-end compacts. However, entry-level DSLRs still offer a very attractive and polished photographic tool - and with continuous autofocus behavior that no mirrorless camera has come close to matching (aside from Nikon's own 1 V1 and 1 J1, which feature smaller 'CX' sensors). With this in mind, it's understandable Nikon would wheel-out a camera with a big headline specification to look impressive on the shop shelf.

Although its upgrades aren't necessarily the product of great leaps of ingenuity, the D3200 is a continuation of a carefully evolved - and tailored to suit its market - line of cameras, that offers tremendous capability with well thought-out ease-of-use. If the image quality comes anywhere near that of the 24MP Sonys, the D3200 is going to be a tough camera to compete with.

The only thing that seems odd on the D3200 is the lack of image processing filters at the point of capture. Since Olympus introduced its Art Filters to the E-30 back in 2008, processing filters have become increasingly common on most cameras. And, while they're not an essential feature by any means, they're nice to have, especially in a camera at this level. Given that Nikon's P7100 offers a selection of special processing effects, it's a little odd not to see them here. There's an option to re-process JPEGs, though - with examples in our preview samples gallery.

Nikon D3200 specification highlights
24MP CMOS sensor
ISO 100-6400 (plus ISO 12,800-equivalent Hi1 setting)
Expeed 3 processing
3.0", 920k dot screen
Full HD 1080p30 video (with 25p and 24p options)
Microphone socket
Twin IR remote receivers
4 frame-per-second continuous shooting
Guide mode

Compared to its peers:

Wi-Fi option (WU-1a)

Alongside the D3200, Nikon announced an optional Wi-Fi transmitter for the camera. The WU-1a clips into the USB socket of the D3200 and allows you to broadcast its images to smartphones and tablets running a Nikon app. The unit allows the camera's live view output to be streamed to the smart device and allows images to be shot remotely (at a distance of up to 49ft, but with no control over the camera's settings).

Initially an app will be available for Android phones and tablets, with an iOS version expected in fall/autumn 2012. We're told the app will allow either full-size or VGA-resolution images to be transferred from the camera, but we have yet to see how long it would take to grab a 24MP image. We would also like to see how securely the unit attaches to the camera, given that it sticks out of the side, and looks like it might be a little easy to dislodge. It also requires the port cover that reaches all the way up the camera's flank to be left hanging open all of the time that it's in use.

Canon Powershot G12 Quick Review

This is the latest in our series of 'Quick Reviews.' We use this format for cameras that are operationally similar and identical in terms of output to models we've already reviewed. We test to confirm the image quality is identical (noise tests and shots of our 'compared to' studio scene at all ISOs), then concentrate the review on the differences between the two cameras. To learn everything about the camera you are interested in we recommend reading not only the Quick Review but also the full review of the Canon Powershot G11.

Canon's Powershot G-series is a stalwart of the high-end compact camera market. Originally designed to offer film SLR users a (relatively) affordable ladder into enthusiast digital imaging, over the past ten years G-series cameras have evolved to become what they are now - aspirational, high-quality compact cameras and attractive second bodies for existing DSLR users, fitting into the niche between 'mainstream' compact offerings and small DSLRS.

 As you may have seen in our recent high-end compact camera group test, competition in this segment of the market is fierce. But not only does the Canon Powershot G12 have to contend with this most recent crop of compact cameras, it also faces stiff competition from an entirely new category - mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. In recent months, Panasonic, Olympus, Sony and Samsung have started attacking the high-end compact market aggressively with high-quality, but small cameras with much larger (APS-C or Four Thirds) sensors. A camera like the recently unveiled Olympus PEN E-PL2 with its collapsible 14-42mm kit zoom isn't much bigger (or more expensive) than the G12, and it has a considerably larger Four Thirds sensor (over 5x the light-collecting area).

Along with the Nikon Coolpix P7000, the Canon Powershot G12 is the largest 'traditional' (i.e. fixed lens, small sensor) compact camera currently available. Is the convenience of its 28-140mm (equivalent) built-in zoom and articulated LCD enough to make it stand out from today's crop of compact and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras? Read our quick review to find out. 

Compared to Canon Powershot G11 - key differences
  •  The G12 is extremely similar to its predecessor the G11 in terms of specification, but Canon has made some significant improvements. Here is a list of the key differences:
  • Slightly lighter (by 4g)
  • Higher resolution video mode (720p up from VGA)
  • ISO expansion up to 12,800 (at 2.5MP)
  • ISO control in 1/3EV steps
  • New front control dial (similar to that found on EOS DSLRs)
  • Greater choice of aspect ratios
  • Hybrid IS mode
  • HDR mode
  • Electronic spirit level
  • Tracking AF mode 
S90, G11 and G12 compared (key differences)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Samsung Series 9 review

Simply super-looking. But power is sacrificed

When you think of the thinnest and lightest laptops in the world, a few names immediately spring to mind. For most people, the Apple MacBook Air would be the first, and for those in the know, the first Samsung Series 9 900X3A would be second.

Samsung has now released an update, concisely named the Samsung Series 9 900X3B, but the similarities between the two Series 9 codes doesn't really matter. The new 13.3-inch Series 9 will not only supersede its older brother as the flagship Samsung model, it also takes the crown of the world's thinnest laptop.

Wow factor and desirability are key to what Ultrabooks stand for, and this is also the ethos that has driven the Samsung Series 9's design. When closed, the laptop is just 14mm thick, and sits like a folded piece of paper on the desk.

Best Ultrabook: 15 top thin and lights for 2012

At first the Samsung Series 9 900X3B intrigues onlookers, but the real appreciation is saved for when it's picked up. The Series 9 weighs just 1.2kg, making it lighter than the MacBook Air, and thinner too.

It's impossibly strong, and there's zero flex in any part of the lid and keyboard, something that the Toshiba Portégé R830 suffers from.

Any Windows laptop released at the moment will be immediately categorized as an Ultrabook, but Samsung has opted not to allow Intel to brand the Series 9 900X3B with its new category.

The Samsung Series 5 is the company's official Ultrabook, and while it's a solid performer, uninspiring looks and bland design only make the Series 9 more appealing.

Samsung wouldn't be cowed on why it rejected the Ultrabook moniker for its flagship product, but the company takes pride in its Series 9, which extends across TVs and other consumer electronics. With Samsung trying to carve out a brand identity, it wouldn't want the Series 9 to be diluted with third-party labels.

Naming conventions aside, the Samsung Series 9 900X3B shares all of the same technology with the Ultrabook crowd, which is growing on a weekly basis. There's a low voltage 1.6GHz Sandy Bridge processor with Turbo Boost, fast resume from sleep, long battery life and decent graphical power.

Head-turning looks is one thing, but if you're paying out £1,200 for a laptop, it needs power. The Intel Core i5 2467M processor in the Samsung Series 9 900X3B is a middle-of-the-road offering that matches most of the Ultrabooks on the market.

For this top dollar price we'd have liked to see a top-of-the-range Intel Core i7, which is available on the £999 Asus Zenbook UX31. The problem for Samsung is that adding extra power means more heat, and that requires more cooling, which in turn adds bulk.

There are faster Ultrabooks on the market, such as the Asus Zenbook and Acer Aspire S3, but the Samsung Series 9 900X3B is more than capable of doing some light image editing and HD movie watching.
Our 3D graphics tests produced a lower score than a lot of its rivals, so it's certainly not the right choice for those who need buckets of power.

The decent processor is backed up by 4GB of RAM, which is standard for Ultrabooks and ultra-portable laptops. Intel's built-in HD graphics do the job nicely for basic tasks, and there's also an SSD drive, which massively boosts performance.

The Samsung Series 9 900X3B wakes from sleep in a blink of an eye, and is genuinely impressive.

We do have some issues with the Samsung Series 9 900X3B, which unfortunately spoil a blotless copybook. First up is the trackpad. We highlighted the problem on the first generation of the Series 9, and it's here again.

The multi-touch trackpad is super sensitive, and until you're used to it, it can have a mind of its own. We found that ignoring the physical button altogether is best, which diminished mis-presses and chaotic moments. But that habit can be hard to kick after a decade of laptop use.

The keyboard itself is a great size and very easy to use, with the right amount of travel, and good cushioning. It's not as comfortable to use as the superb keypad on the MacBook Air, but we were able to work for long periods, and made very few mistakes.

The keyboard is also backlit, and is clever enough to know when it's dark so there's no wasted power.

 Cinebench 10: 7,265
3D Mark 06: 3,577
Battery Eater 05: 172 mins

In our lab tests, the Samsung Series 9 900X3B offered mixed results, and whichever way you look at it, this is a portable PC that will appeal more to style-conscious web surfers than power users.

The processor tests revealed a good score for the Intel Core i5 processor, which is in line with other Ultrabooks, and the Apple MacBook Air. There's more than enough power to edit pictures and multitask your favourite programs without testing the limits of the chip.

However, the graphic benchmarks left a lot to be desired. As with most Ultrabooks, the Samsung relies on the built-in Intel HD 3000 graphics core, which delivers mediocre performance.

You can forget gaming, but there's enough power there to keep an HD movie smooth and seamless, and use programs such as Photoshop Elements.

We can forgive the poor graphical performance of the Samsung Series 9 900X3B, just because of its waif-like size. It's not designed to take on the might of the Apple MacBook Pro, and it's an achievement that a laptop this slim can still have enough power to be used as a primary machine.

On such a portable laptop, battery life is key, but this fell short of our expectations when tested in our labs.

We use a highly demanding testing process that involves looping HD video and performing an automated writing task until the battery dies. The Samsung Series 9 900X3B lasted 172 minutes - a little under three hours - which equates to five hours of light use.

To put these results in context, the Asus Zenbook UX31 lasted 234 minutes, and the MacBook Air 205 minutes under the same conditions.

One huge selling point of the Samsung Series 9 900X3B is its excellent screen, which is one of the best matt displays you'll find. It's pin-sharp and really bright, making it great for creative types and media lovers. But by dispensing with the visually enhancing glossy TFT coating, it won't be rendered useless in direct sunlight.

High definition movies looked superb, with vibrant colours punching out from the panel, and we would highly recommend it for anyone looking to pass the time on long commutes, or just catch up on TV shows in bed.

Despite the lack of graphical power and the mediocre battery and processor scores, using the Samsung Series 9 is extremely pleasurable, thanks to the responsiveness of the system.

The 128GB SSD hard drive does a lot of this work, enabling the Samsung Series 9 900X3B to start up in around 10 seconds.

The SDD and Sandy Bridge processor also combine for some scarily fast system resumption times. You can open the lid and have a responsive desktop in about two seconds, which is a big sell for anyone looking for the immediacy of a tablet, but functionality of a Windows PC.

The Samsung Series 9 900X3B is a fantastic-looking laptop that doesn't sacrifice usability like many ultra-portable laptops. Yes, there's a lack of power here, battery life is uninspiring and the price is colossal. Those things usually equate to a bad review, but the Series 9 commands a certain respect.

The engineering and vision that's gone into making something beautiful and unique goes beyond benchmark scores and gripes over price. We made excuses for the original Apple MacBook Air, which wasn't usable as a main machine.
We liked

The look and feel of the Samsung Series 9 900X3B is almost unrivalled. But aside form the design, we loved the speed and responsiveness of the system, thanks to the SSD drive.

The speedy resume from sleep, and the ability to be in a fully functional version of Windows in just 10 seconds makes the Series 9 as usable as a tablet, but infinitely more versatile.
We disliked

While we got used to the trackpad, we still found it to be a hindrance rather than an enabler. The input features - namely the trackpad and keyboard - can't touch the MacBook Air for quality, and that's a big issue.

Windows isn't really that gesture-friendly either, while OS X Lion is, so the only time we really noticed the amount of gestures on offer was when we'd accidentally zoomed Internet Explorer to the size of a postage stamp.

While five hours of light us is acceptable on any laptop, we were slightly underwhelmed by its poor score in our lab test. It was outstripped by many existing Ultrabooks, and for a laptop with the emphasis on portability, we'd like to have seen more longevity.

The Samsung Series 9 900X3B is one of the best looking Windows laptops we've ever seen, and one of the most covetable, too.

There are performance issues, arising from its waif-like size, but it's still more than capable of serving most people's needs, while offering head-turning style that few competitors can offer.