Camera makers seems to be flexing their finest technology in superzoom compacts these days, and Samsung is no exception, pulling out all the stops with its new WB850F. It has not only been treated to a BSI CMOS sensor and a 21x zoom lens, but also to an AMOLED screen, a GPS with maps, plus onboard Wi-Fi. On paper, then, it ticks all kinds of boxes. In fact, all that seems to be missing is a touchscreen!
With each product generation, the finish of Samsung's flagship compact improves slightly. The WB850F is a little heavy—like many superzooms—but it feels like a well-made camera. Build quality is good, the materials feel sturdy and reassuring, the settings wheel clicks round in nicely defined notches, none of the controls wobble or feel loose, and the connections even have a proper compartment with a hinged door rather than a flimsy rubber cover. It's a nice enough camera to hold too, the handle and the rubber grip pad help your fingers and thumb keep firm hold of the body, and the only minor blips are a slight wobble to the flash, as well as the lens when zoomed mid way.
We're only too pleased to see the return of the AMOLED screen on the back of the camera, which can be viewed perfectly from all angles. As is often the way with this kind of screen technology, colours are rather exaggerated (reds and greens are over-saturated, which can make leaves and grass look a bit fluorescent and faces can look over-pink—although that won't be the case in the actual photo, just on the camera screen). The gamma is also a bit weak, which washes out grey tones a little, but that's nothing to get too worried about. The colour temperature, on the other hand, is perfect. All in all, the WB850F screen is exemplary in its comfort and practicality, even if the onscreen image could be more accurate.
Samsung has loaded this camera with all kinds of functions, from Wi-Fi to GPS. In fact, it probably has the most complete, functional GPS we've seen in a camera yet, as you can not only geo-tag pictures, but also display locations on a map, search for points of interest, etc.
On the other hand, the Wi-Fi functions are pretty standard stuff (see inset), but they do have the advantage of being simpler to use than similar functions in competitor cameras. There's no need to sign up to a Samsung website, for example, as the camera can connect directly to a pre-saved site (Facebook, YouTube, etc.). Plus, a separate Wi-Fi mode is on hand for quick, simple connection to a smartphone.
On the whole, the WB850F interface is clear and nicely designed, even if functions like Wi-Fi and GPS aren't integrated as seamlessly as they are in the average smartphone. And, since there's no touchscreen, text entry soon becomes laborious, especially if you're trying to write something long and slightly complicated (like a Wi-Fi network password).
Finally, a word about the battery. While the WB850F is neither excellent nor terrible in this department, snapping around 300 photos per full charge, the camera seems to continue using a low level of power when it appears to be switched off. In the week we spent testing this camera, on several occasions we came into the office in the morning to find the battery completely flat when it had been showing one bar of power the previous evening. You're therefore better off taking out the battery or leaving the camera hooked up to its USB charging cable if you don't plan on using the WB850F for a few days.
A three-second start-up means a three-star score in this part of the review. As far as we're concerned, pressing the 'On' button to shooting a first photo takes too long with the WB850F.
That's all the more disappointing seeing as once it's up and running, the WB850F is a really nice camera to use—the autofocus works quickly and consistently in all situations, photos are saved relatively quickly and the burst mode shoots a respectable eight frames in under a second.
The WB850F has been treated to a 16-Megapixel BSI CMOS sensor and a 21x zoom lens—both of which promise great things. And we're all the more keen to check them out seeing as digital noise and lens quality have proved quite variable in Samsung cameras in the past, sometimes turning out to be excellent and sometimes being a little disappointing.
In terms of electronics, the WB850F is a bit of a mixed bag. On the upside, Samsung has made plenty of progress. Compared with the previous model—the WB750, the first Samsung to use a BSI CMOS sensor—finer detail is preserved more effectively, particularly at 400 and 800 ISO. So over the course of a year, the firm has gone from CCD sensors taking grainy, fuzzy images to a BSI CMOS giving a clean, if slightly smoothed image, finally managing to deliver photos that are clear and still relatively detailed.
On the downside, a quick look at the ISO tests of competitor equivalents doesn't do this Samsung camera too many favours. At 800 ISO, the Canon SX260 and Sony HX20V take almost impeccable shots rather than making do with these OK, still usable pictures.
The new 21x zoom lens is slightly more powerful than average (most competitors are at 20x). At wide-angle settings, however, it's no match for the Canon SX260 or the Fuji F770, not to mention the Sony HX20V and Panasonic TZ30. At 200 mm things get a little better, and the WB850F lens is on par with Fuji's rival, even if it still lags behind the Canon and Sony models. Finally, at the maximum zoom setting, the centre of the frame is sharp but the edges soon become blurred—something that isn't a problem in competitor superzooms.
All in all, you'll still be able to make good 8" x 10 "prints (20 x 27 cm) with the WB850F, but heavy cropping and large-sized prints won't look as sharp and detailed as with certain alternative superzoom compacts.
Like other top-end superzooms, the WB850F films Full HD video with stereo sound. The framerate of 30 fames per second (faster modes are available but in lower resolution) lags behind the Sony HX20V (50 fps) but beats Canon's SX260 (24 fps).
Image quality is nice, and Samsung manages to avoid overexposing light, bright areas while keeping video noise in check. Sharpness is good and the only real downside is very visible distortion at wide-angle settings. Plus, since there's no distortion correction in video mode, the field of view is extended horizontally by two degrees. The wide-angle therefore stays at 25 mm, while it often drops to around 28 mm in other cameras' video modes.
Sound quality is debatable. While the stereo effect can be heard nice and clearly, the mics have trouble recording metallic sounds accurately. Plus, Samsung's system for masking the noise of the zoom motor ends up heavily muffling any sound at all when you use the zoom.