The Samsung ST-550 is one of the more advanced models in their compact camera range, and they really have thrown everything at this model.
Probably the most unusual (and genuinely useful) feature is the front-facing mini-screen which serves a dual purpose when taking self-portraits. It provides you with an accurate countdown when using a timed exposure, and rather more usefully - allows you to take photos of yourself by seeing what the camera is seeing before you either press the shutter button, or configure it to automatically fire when it detects you smiling. This works well. Of the two, the latter is definitely the preferred method, unless of course you don't want a shot of you smiling...
The second feature you'll immediately notice that is somewhat unusual, is what Samsung refer to as 'haptic'. This is essentially small vibrations that the camera emits during certain operations to give positive feedback that you've affected something. It feels a little like a mobile phone vibrate alert going off for a fraction of a second. This is actually surprisingly helpful, especially if you are navigating through the touch-screen menu. This by nature doesn't give any positive feedback like a button would, and you may well decide to disable the bleeps and bloops in the menu system, as they can be disturbing in certain situations, so the haptic feedback fills the gap. Seems like a minor feature, but having used it, I really like it.
You can alter the quality and aspect ratio of the photos you take easily from a pop-up menu around the edge of the screen - this varies from 12MP right down to 1MP, giving you a way to make sure you only consume as much memory as you really need on the card. Helpfully, it tells you wnat each quality is suitable for in terms of maximum print otput size - e.g. 12MP is appropriate for A1 sized print, and 2MP is appropriate for A5 sized prints. Hold your finger over the options until you select the one you want and then release - simple!
Flash mode includes the usual red-eye reduction mode - which I find is usually best avoided - you're best off fixing this in a photo editor later. Red-eye reduction delays shutter release too much and can make people change expression or blink at the wrong moment.
Autofocus has a standard mode, which has a fairly good depth of field, as well as the very useful macro mode for close-up. Nothing unusual here.
What's very interesting is the multitude of auto exposure modes which are as follows:
1. Standard mode - exposure and focus is driven by your own decisions.
2. Face detection - the camera adjusts exposure and focus based on detecting faces in-frame.
3. Smile detection - the camera will automatically shoot when it detects you smile.
4. Blink detection - this detects when someone has blinked and automatically takes another shot.
Along with the excellent face detection modes, you can focus with a single point, a grid or touch-screen and select exactly what you want to focus on. This can be somewhat slow, but it's very intuitive. You can also select 'click & track' where the object you select will be tracked as it moves.
The huge rear screen is a joy to use, and has a very good refresh rate, making video and photo taking a pleasant experience. It's extremely high resolution.
There's a standard tripod mount on the base as you'd expect, and the battery and memory card slot is here too. I have to say that I'm no fan of micro-SD cards. They are tiny, easy to lose and a real pain to get in and out of the memory card slot in this camera. Fortunately the price of memory is such that these days you can probably just buy an 8GB or 16GB card and leave it in the camera permanently. No card is included in the case, but there is a small amount of memory in the camera itself for a couple of test shots, so this is no disaster. The miserly cards normally included with other cameras are a complete waste of time anyway and usually get relegated very quickly to the waste bin.
So much for the feature set - how about picture quality?
In good lighting conditions outdoors shots are very good. They are sharp and detailed, and exposure control is good. Colour is nicely rendered, and contrast is well controlled. All in all, not much to coplain about.
However, in subdued light indoors, as you'd expect from a camera with a tiny image sensor, there is plenty of noise and grain. I'd not recommend shooting at over ISO 400, and ISO 800 is usable in a pinch, but forget anything above that. This should come as no surprise though - if you want high ISO performance, you need an SLR.
Shots with flash are perfectly acceptable, but flash on these kind of cameras is straight-on, and always leaves harsh shadows, so you're not going to get anything particularly attractive this way, but it's certainly better than nothing. Great for snapshots on a night out.
The large screen at the back makes playback and zooming in and out to review images childs play. Also, deleting images individually and in groups is extremely simple, given the ability to display lots of thumbnails on a single page which can be clicked on to select, then deleted in one go - fantastic!
Not to be missed is the ability to shoot 720 resolution HD movie footage, which seems to be growing in popularity. They could have shoe-horned 1080 resolution in here, but I'm glad they resisted the temptation and stuck with 720. This is a far more practical resolution for noise free footage, and keeps file sizes within usable parameters. Most TV footage is 720 resolution anyway.
As a demonstration of the perfect compact camera user interface, this certainly comes pretty close. It has a number of unique innovations which genuinely enhance usability, and some of which I can see being adopted even in SLRs of the future. It's a pleasure to use, and I was up and running and confidently changing settings quickly within a few minutes. This is a good thing, because the supplied multi-language booklet has very little in the way of instructions in it. You need to refer to the CD-ROM for that. Am I the only one who finds this a pain? It would actually be nice to have the manual built into the camera - and with a screen this large and detailed and memory being so cheap - why not?
Image quality is perfectly acceptable, but this is not where it shines in comparison with other competitors, and can be equalled and dare I say bettered by some slightly more lowly cameras with fewer megapixels. It's always dangerous for a camera manufacturer to play the megapixels game, and I personally think 12MP in a sensor this small is more a case of marketing over necessity. They would do well to restrict compact cameras to a more practical pixel count of perhaps 6MP which would help control noise rather better, while still allowing above-average prints to be made with excellent detail. Canon have learned this lesson with their G10 to G11 transition, reducing resolution from 14.7MP in the G10 to 10MP in the G11 in an attempt to control noise, and the Canon G11 has a larger sensor then the ST550.
That said, Samsung aren't doing anything any different from the other manufacturers of compact cameras, and I've even seen mobile phones sporting 12MP, which is blatently ridiculous, but that's marketing for you - where the biggest number always wins - and the people buying these types of devices don't understand why more MP can be a problem.
All in, this is an ideal camera for someone who wants a slick, easy to navigate interface, and wants to take self portraits frequently, perhaps while they're travelling solo. It would be perfect for that. The ability to shoot HD video is a great addition. Image quality is fine outdoors in good light, but beware that indoors without flash it's not quite as nice, though good enough for snapshots.
All in all, a cutting-edge product that demonstrates that Samsung are a step ahead of the competition in terms of creating innovative and usable features, and they deserve to make headway into this very competitive sector of the camera market as a result.