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Samsung L210
10.2MP | 34-102mm (3X) ZOOM | $135 US, £98 UK

Until a couple of years ago it would be fair to say that Korean electronics giant Samsung had failed to make a significant impact on the photographic world, mainly because, although always keenly-priced, its compact cameras simply didn't offer the style or performance of their Japanese counterparts. This all changed in 2006 when Samsung, buoyed by its successful reinvention as a market leader in everything from flatscreen TVs to mobile phones, introduced the first models in its 'New Vision' range of stylish, metal-bodied premium compacts. The improvements in styling have now filtered through to the budget end of Samsung's extensive (and somewhat bewildering) camera lineup.

Samsung has two budget ranges, the S Series (mostly plastic-bodied) and the L Series (slimline, metal-bodied), in which this model, the L210, sits near the top. Depending on where you live in the world you may also find models called the L201 and L200, which have the same sensor and lens but marginally different specifications. The L201 (which seems to be almost identical to this model) is also sold in the US as the SL201... confused yet? So are we. Anyway the camera we've got is the L210, which appears to be sold worldwide, which is why we picked it.

  • 10.2 effective Megapixels
  • 34-102mm equiv lens with 3x Optical zoom and up to 5.0x Digital Zoom
  • 2.5-inch LCD with 230,000 dots resolution
  • Dual Image Stabilizer
  • ISO sensitivity up to 1600
  • Multi-Point Autofocus and Face Detection
  • 10 shooting modes, 9 scene modes including Self-Portrait mode
  • Manual exposure option
  • Advanced Movie mode (800 x 592 @ 20fps, 640 x 480 @ 30 fps)
  • 10 MB internal memory
  • Available in silver, red and black
  • Optional Accessories available

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Overview

The L210 is a smart, if slightly anonymous, little camera that is approximately the size and shape of a deck of cards and is certainly a lot more stylish and compact than most budget models. For the price it has an impressive specification, with a 10 megapixel sensor, sensor-shift image stabilization and 3X optical zoom, plus a swathe of features normally associated with slightly more expensive models. It also has one of the better screens included in this test: a 230,000 dot 2.5" panel that gives a good level of detail, both for previewing and scrutinizing images. It has a well-positioned shutter button far enough into the camera to allow the body to be gripped securely, which is not always the case with cameras this small.

The clean and clear user interface is based around three menus: the function menu, that contains most key shooting parameters, the main menu, which contains more fundamental attributes, and a third menu that influences the image processing settings. The high resolution display means that plenty of options can be fitted on a single screen - reducing the need to trawl through multi-screen menus but with the down-side that the text can be pretty small. Overall the L210 feels like a considerably more polished product than some of the budget cameras here, for only a few dollars more.

Key Features

The Samsung L210 is a small, neat looking camera that works particularly well in its black guise. The zoom lever sits directly under the thumb and is stiff enough to allow it to be used to grip the camera, while still being convenient for use. In a clever bit of design the L210 is charged via USB cable, either attached to your PC or using the small mains block in the box.

In addition to the four-way controller, there's a central button to reach the main menu, a 'Fn' button that brings up a convenient sub-menu with key options in it and an 'E' button for quick access to image processing parameters such as color and contrast.

The engraved button legends are pretty hard to read, but you get used to them in time.

A totally conventional mode dial gives access to a selection of modes, varying from the fully manual to highly automated. There are also positions for the scene modes and a camera guide.
The Samsung's lens covers a pedestrian but perfectly useful 34-102mm (equivalent) range. The L210 offers 'Dual Image Stabilization' - half of this is obviously ISO boosting, the other half is 'Optical Image Stabilization'; Samsung doesn't say whether it's lens or sensor based, though we suspect the latter.
The L210 has a high-res 230,000 dot, 2.5" screen (here showing the Fn menu), making it one of the better examples in this test. The menus are clean and relatively easy to use once you've got used to the foibles.

Image quality and performance

In good light at low ISO settings the L210 is actually pretty good as long as you don't zoom in to look at the pixels, when you discover that, although very clean, the results are by far the most 'processed' of all the cameras here, with noise reduction artifacts obvious even at ISO 80 and a slightly plastic appearance. Of course with 10 megapixels you won't see this in a normal print, and if you rarely go above 5x7 inches the output looks very good. Exposure and white balance are very good in daylight too, and focus seems very reliable. The saturation and contrast are a bit high for our tastes, but are in line with other cameras at this level that are designed for immediate consumer appeal.

In low light the L210 is less impressive, with the highest ISO settings very soft indeed and white balance going a bit haywire. Flash shots were consistently, but only slightly, under exposed (produced slightly dark images) in our tests, but this is at least easily fixed (in contrast to overexposed flash shots, which are irredeemable).

Overall the L210 feels pretty responsive, though it takes a long time to power up and has noticeably longer shutter lag than any of the other cameras here, something that can 'kill the moment' when trying to take spontaneous snaps. The focus is pretty fast at the wide end of the zoom in good light, less so at the tele end of the zoom. In very dim conditions the focus system really struggles, often giving up altogether with a 'Low Light!' warning message), which is a pain when trying to take pictures of friends and family in the evening.

Not the best output in the group, but by no means the worst. If you don't mind slightly cartoonish colors and contrast and you stick to modest print sizes, the L210 won't disappoint, and metering is generally pretty good.

Summary

The Samsung L210 is one of the few truly compact models in this price bracket, and it packs an impressive list of features including optical image stabilization and a relatively high screen resolution. The polished user interface and quality finish belie the L210's entry-level pricing, and in broad daylight the results aren't bad at all. In low light the performance is far less impressive, with poor high ISO results, less than perfect flash exposures and focus failures. Add to this the long shutter lag (the delay between pressing the button and the picture being taken) and slow startup, and it's obvious that the L210 isn't quite as good as first impressions would suggest.

  • We like: Design and build quality, user interface, high resolution screen, movie mode
  • We don't like: Slow operation, poor high ISO performance and poor low light focus
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