Point-and-shoot digicams have some pretty outlandish features for reasonable prices these days. Look at the new Samsung TL34HD, for example. It has a 14.7-megapixel sensor, a 3-inch touchscreen LCD, optical image stabilization, a wide-angle Schneider 3.6x zoom and takes 720p high-def videos: Not bad for around 325 clams in the real world. Samsung’s not exactly Canon, Nikon or Sony, so it stands to reason that the manufacturer has to give you more than the competition. But did it deliver with this one beyond the printed specs? We’ll find out soon enough…
Features and Design
The TL34HD is definitely pocket-sized, easily fitting in the palm of your hand or slipping into a jeans pocket. Available with different color accents (black, red) on a silver body or in all black, the little digicam has a clean, sophisticated look. It measures 3.74 x 2.34 x .78 (WHD, in inches) and weighs 5.8 oz fully-loaded with battery and card.
The following tour is going to be quick though, since aim-and-forget cameras aren’t loaded with controls like D-SLRs—especially this one with a 3-inch touch screen that handles most of your adjustments. On the front is a 3.6x Schneider Kreuznach zoom with a focal length of 28-108mm. This type of wide-angle is more common today in models such as the popular 10MP Canon SD880 IS ($299), a trend I heartily endorse since you can take bigger group shots, interesting portraits and dramatic landscapes. (You give up a bit on the telephoto side but it’s a worthwhile tradeoff in my view.) Beyond the lens with its automatic cover are a remote control sensor and AF Assist lamp. A few unobtrusive logos dot the faceplate along with a raised notch that helps you steady your grip.
On the top is a mode dial, shutter and power buttons and a pop-up flash; five pin holes next to the power button make up the speaker array, if you can call anything this small a real speaker. A tiny stereo mic is located on the left side. The mode dial engages the main settings: Auto, Program AE, Manual, Dual Image Stabilization, two scene modes (night, beauty shot), Scene (to access more scene options), and Movie. We’ll get into more of this when we start using the touchscreen. Since I like cool lights, I should point out that when you hit the power button, it gets surrounded by a blue halo. Neat.
As you’d expect, the rear is dominated by the 3-inch touchscreen, which is rated a satisfactory 460K pixels. It’s not the 921K found on better D-SLRs, but it works well, even in direct sunlight. In addition, there are only four buttons on the right side—zoom in/out, menu and playback—about as uncluttered as you can possibly get.
On the bottom are the tripod mount, battery and card compartment as well as USB-A/V port. Samsung supplies a cable that connects to this jack that charges the battery with a supplied AC adaptor, or it can be connected to your computer for video and image downloads. Mind you, Samsung touts the high-def recording capability of this camera, but you’ll note there’s no HMDI connection. In other words, surprise! You have to buy a dock with an HDMI out for $79.95 to get the full benefits of HD (an HDMI cable comes with it, thankfully). That said, Sony does the same thing, so don’t jump on poor Samsung for dipping deeper into your wallet. And realistically, there really isn’t anywhere to put even a mini HDMI out on such small cameras. Just realize this is going to set you back more than the $329 list price to enjoy high-def videos.
What’s In The Box
It’s a pretty basic kit: You get the camera; a rechargeable battery; an AC adaptor/USB cable; A/V cable; strap; 19-page (in English) Quick Start Guide; and a CD-ROM with Samsung Master software as well as the full owners manual. Master lets you handle and edit stills, and the QuickTime Player lets you watch HD videos, but that’s it. If you really want to edit in depth, consider the new Adobe Photoshop Elements 7/Premiere Elements 7 bundle.
After charging the battery and popping in a 4GB SDHC card, it was time to hit the brisk fall air…
Image Courtesy of Samsung
Performance and Use
The TL34HD pops to life very quickly—it takes less than 2 seconds for the screen to light up and lens to extend. As noted, the screen is a good one, and it’s really your interface with the camera’s settings. Samsung calls the system Smart Touch 2.0, and it works fairly well, although it’s not as slick as any of the new responsive touchscreens found on the latest smartphones—including the Samsung Instinct. And forget the zooming capabilities of an iPhone. Still I found it to easy to use once you decipher the meaning of the various icons. This screen is best operated with the soft part of your fingers rather than fingernails or a stylus.
Depending on the main mode setting, you make all your tweaks by tapping or dragging on the screen. Move into Auto, and a series of icons appear along the bottom of the screen. Just tap on an icon such as AF, and you can pick between auto focus or macro. The same holds true for resolution, flash and so forth. Move into Manual and you can even adjust sharpness, contrast and saturation, parameters not typically found on point-and-shoot cameras. It’s a breeze to operate. Switch to Scene and there’s access to all the usual modes (portrait, landscape, child, fireworks, backlight and so on). An unusual option though is Beauty, found on main dial. Here you can “adjust imperfections of the face”—basically instant plastic surgery! Actually what it does in practical terms is adjust skin brightness, and there are different levels for eliminating blemishes. It all works via the touchscreen.
When you get into manual, you’ll notice the difference between a point-and-shoot and a D-SLR. Rather than a range of aperture settings, you only get a few. However, you can change ISO anywhere from 80 to 1600 and there are plenty of shutter speed options. Just tap on the current speed on-screen and a bar graph appears. Simply drag your finger across it to make the changes. The LCD lightens or darkens, depending on the choice, helping to eliminate some of the guesswork when picking a setting. All in all, this system is quite good and Samsung’s engineers should take a bow.
Then again, having a nice touchscreen is cool, but if it doesn’t take decent photos and videos, it’s just icing on a stale cake. With that in mind, it was time to hit the great outdoors and then grab some indoor still-life JPEGs.
Image Courtesy of Samsung
I started off at maximum resolution (4384×3288 pixels) using the Super Fine compression setting. Shots were taken in Auto, then a variety of scene modes and finally Manual stills. Movies were shot at 1280×720 at 30 fps (720p) output. Once done, it was time to turn out some prints and check out my vids on a 50-inch HDTV.
Before getting into the results, I’ll report that the TL34HD focuses quickly with a minimum of grab and it saves 14.7MP files at a decent clip when shooting an image at a time. (Forget a quick burst though, since this isn’t a D-SLR.) Samsung quotes 3 full-res photos in 2 seconds (1.5 fps), but results seemed slower in the real world. It’s not fair comparing burst modes in a P&S to a D-SLR, but you do need to be aware of this limitation. This is a shot-at-time digicam.
Once I downloaded the images to my Dell, I proceeded to make 8.5×11 full bleed prints with no adjustments on the printer or JPEG file. I wasn’t surprised by the results. Colors were very accurate in bright sunshine. However, when there were shadows, the camera didn’t do a very good job exposing for darker areas, so there was a loss of detail. Although the optical image stabilization did a decent job eliminating blur, I never got a super crisp focus either unless there was plenty of light or I was indoors when using the flash. I took a bunch of macro shots of fall plants and the tack sharpness just wasn’t there. Bummer. This is a key difference between the competition (Canon and Sony digicams).
Issues with digital noise are expected with P&S models, and the TL34HD is no exception as well. Although the camera hits 3200 ISO (at 3MP), don’t go beyond 400 or you’ll have speckled prints—especially if you’re making 8x10s or larger. As to be expected, this late 2008 digicam has Face Detection along with Smile and Blink detection features as well.
As for video, picture quality was just O.K. and colors were fairly accurate with quick zooming and focusing. Performance is nowhere near the level of a true 1080i HD camcorder, but the clips looked fine on my 50-inch plasma via the front HDMI input with the camera in the optional dock. The TL34HD’s footage was clearly better than the 720p video of the Nikon D90 and the camera has auto focus—the D90 does not. One aspect of the clips was really poor, though—sound. It felt as if I was in the middle of a wind tunnel and there were a few times I accidentally put my fingers over the mic located on the left side of the unit which was a mixed blessing—the roar was gone, but so were voices and street sounds. Samsung offers a no audio setting; guess the company wasn’t too impressed with the quality either.
The Samsung TL34HD is a mixed bag. It takes very nice shots in good light, but it loses detail in shadows and focusing isn’t super sharp. Video quality is solid too, but audio caliber is screechingly bad. Similarly, response for single shots is fine, but don’t expect to fire off a burst to capture moving subjects. The only real unqualified success here is the touchscreen interface, which is a pleasure to use. Paying under $400 for decent images and stills isn’t a bad deal, although ultimately, when it comes to the TL34HD, I was really hoping for better.
• Fine images in good light
• Solid 720p videos with zooming capability
• Excellent touch screen menu
• Photos not tack sharp unless there’s bright light
• Built-in mic is terrible