Samsung HZ15W Review
How Does it Compare?
The Samsung HZ15W (also known as the WB550) is a competent but not spectacular compact ultra zoom camera. There's a lot to like about the HZ15: it's relatively small, it has a great 24 - 240 mm stabilized zoom lens, a large LCD, tons of automatic features, manual controls, and an HD movie mode. Downsides include heavy noise reduction in photos, poor low light performance, limited aperture choices in manual mode, and a few design-related annoyances. The HZ15W is definitely one of the best Samsung cameras I've tested, it's just not one of the best in its class. Even so, it's worth a look, especially if you don't plan on making large prints.
The HZ15 is a relatively compact camera with a stylish black metal body. In terms of build quality, the only real weak spot is the flimsy door over the memory card/battery compartment, which is inaccessible when the camera is on a tripod, by the way. The HZ15W fits in your hand perfectly, though your thumb rests right on the rear command lever, which makes it easy to accidentally adjust the exposure compensation. Samsung has managed to stuff a 10X, 24 - 240 mm lens into the HZ15, though the lens is on the slow side (in terms of maximum aperture). There's also optical image stabilization, which removes blur from still photos and helps smooth out your movies, as well. On the backside you'll find a large 3-inch LCD display that seems sharper than its 230,000 pixel count would make you believe. As far as visibility goes, things were about average outdoors, and below average in low light situations. Just like its competitors, the HZ15W does not have an optical viewfinder.
The Samsung HZ15W has a nice combination of automatic and manual features. For the point-in-shoot enthusiast, you'll find several auto modes, including one that selects a scene mode for you. If you'd rather do that yourself, there are plenty of scenes to choose from. The HZ15 has a lot of manual controls, though some of them are a bit crippled. You can select both the aperture and shutter speed in "M" mode, but there are only two apertures to choose from at any given time. While manual focus is nice, the distance guide on the LCD isn't terribly useful. The HZ15 has the requisite face/smile/blink detection features, and they all work very well. I was especially impressed with the self-portrait feature, which uses sound to tell you when your photo is well-composed. The HZ15 has a really nice HD movie mode, capable of recording up to 29 minutes of continuous 720p video, with stereo sound. Both the zoom lens and image stabilizer are available, and you can pause in the middle of a recording and resume later.
For the most part, the HZ15 scored average across the board in terms of performance. It takes about 1.5 seconds to start up, and focus speeds ranged from 0.3 seconds at wide-angle to close to a full second at telephoto. The HZ15 struggled to focus in low light, and the fact that the LCD doesn't brighten a whole lot doesn't make things any easier. Shutter lag wasn't a problem, and without the flash, shot-to-shot delays weren't too bad. The HZ15's flash is slow to charge, though, so be prepared to wait around 4 seconds between flash shots. The HZ15 has two continuous shooting modes: one is slow (0.7 fps) but lets you see what's going on, while the other is twice as fast, but the LCD is blacked out the entire time (what's the point?). Battery life was about average for this type of camera. Do note that the battery is charged internally (via a proprietary cable), which some folks may not like.
Photo quality has always been a weak spot on Samsung's cameras, and that hasn't changed here. On the positive side, color and exposure were both good, though don't be surprised if you see some highlight clipping here and there. Purple fringing was minimal as well, and redeye was well-controlled thanks to the camera's digital removal system. The bad news is that images are soft and fuzzy, and fine or low contrast details appear mottled due to heavy noise reduction -- even at the lowest ISO. The HZ15 doesn't compete with the best cameras in its class at higher ISOs, either. The small print crowd probably won't notice, but if you're making larger prints, viewing images on your computer screen at 100%, or planning on using high ISOs, you'll probably want to consider another camera.
The only other things I wanted to mention relate to the bundle. The HZ15W doesn't come with much in the line of internal memory, which not only restricts how many photos it can hold, but it also holds back the well-intentioned Recycle Bin feature. There's also no Mac software included, though iPhoto is arguably better than what would've been supplied anyway. Finally, the full manual is only available in digital format on a CD-ROM, and its quality is lacking.
If you want a smallish camera with a great zoom range, large LCD, and useful set of features -- and you'll be taking photos in good light and not making large prints -- then the Samsung HZ15W is certainly worth checking out. Those of you who want better image quality and low light performance will probably want to consider one of the HZ15's competitors.
What I liked:
- Good color and exposure; no redeye or purple fringing
- Compact, stylish metal body packs a 10X zoom
- Useful 24 - 240 mm zoom range
- Optical image stabilization
- Large and sharp 3-inch LCD display
- Good set of manual controls (though see below)
- Lots of point-and-shoot features; well-implemented face/smile/blink detection
- Strong flash
- Great HD movie mode with stereo sound, zoom/IS usage, long recording time
- Nice playback mode
- Optional wireless remote, if you can find it
- HDMI port
What I didn't care for:
- Heavy noise reduction smudges fine and low contrast details and gives images a soft, fuzzy look, even at low ISOs
- Poor low light focusing; LCD difficult to see in those situations, as well
- Only two apertures to choose from in manual mode; manual focus feature could be better
- LCD blacks out during high speed continuous shooting
- Thumb rests on command lever, making it easy to accidentally change settings
- Flash is relatively slow to charge
- No optical viewfinder
- Battery charged internally via proprietary cable
- Flimsy door over memory/battery compartment; cannot access memory card when camera is on a tripod
- Not a lot of built-in memory; makes the Recycle Bin feature a lot less useful
- No Mac software included; Full manual only on CD-ROM
Some other compact ultra zooms worth a look include the Canon PowerShot SX200 IS, Casio Exilim EX-H10, Fuji FinePix F70EXR, Kodak EasyShare Z915, Olympus Stylus 9000, Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3, and the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H20.
As always, I recommend heading down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Samsung HZ15W (and its competitors) before you buy!
See how the photos turned out in our photo gallery!