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Design and Handling

Samsung cameras have been getting gradually more mature and gradually more sophisticated over the last couple of years, but they have struggled to produce models with that design 'je ne sais quoi' that makes them genuinely desirable. Some of their cameras have looked like fake Sonys, others, like the L85, simply hit too many branches when they fell from the ugly tree. Well that's all changed with the 'NV' range, where Samsung's designers finally hit their stride. The all-black metal body is a genuine head-turner, and it looks, for want of a better description, like a 'real' camera. The clean, somber minimalist design makes a refreshing change from the shiny silver virtually interchangeable models from most other manufacturers. Aside from finally giving Samsung cameras its own unique identity the NV series also introduces a touch of real innovation in the form of its new 'Smart Touch' control system - a rare attempt to put all the power of a modern camera literally at the user's fingertips.

Handling

The NV10 handles almost as well as it looks thanks to the inclusion of a shallow but effective grip on the front of the body. There isn't really anything on the back though, but if you attach the strap and keep it round your wrist you can easily and comfortably shoot with one hand. It's also worth noting that - in stark contrast to some of Samsung's recent budget models - the NV10 feels incredibly well constructed and has a real air of luxury.

Key body elements

Under a sturdy spring-hinged door on the base of the camera is the battery compartment (with retaining clip) and SD card slot (there is 20MB of internal storage to get you started). Having such a slim battery inevitably has an impact on battery life (about 180 shots at best). The battery is charged in-camera using the supplied AC adapter (it takes about 2.5 hours) or, unusually, via USB.

The optional docking cradle also charges the battery (as well as offering USB connectivity and audio/video output).

There is also a well-specified optional remote control.

The 2.5 inch screen is bright and, thanks to its 230,000 pixels, very bright. To the right of and below the screen are the 13 unmarked soft touch buttons that operate the innovative new 'Smart Touch' user interface (the on-screen icons next to the buttons show the function currently associated with that particular button). In the bottom right corner of this shot you can see the playback mode button (which really needs a more prominent label).
The 3x optical zoom bears the Schneider-KREUZNACH name, but we really don't know how much - if any - involvement the once mighty German lens manufacturer has in the design of this lens. The lens itself is a fairly standard 35-105mm equivalent that retracts fully into the body when the power is off. The maximum aperture is a fairly healthy F2.8 at the wide end of the range, dropping to a much less useful F5.1 at the long (105mm equiv.) end.
The top of the NV10 is home to the eight position mode dial (which includes a full manual mode), the well positioned shutter release and main power button. This is illuminated with a cool blue glow whenever the camera is powered up. We like. The tiny zoom control is on the rear of the body directly behind the shutter release, and is a lot more usable than appearances would suggest.
The flash is well hidden under the Samsung faceplate, popping up automatically when needed (presuming you're in auto flash mode). The flash is - like all such cameras - woefully underpowered for anything except fairly close social snaps (using Auto ISO it reaches 3.2m / 10 feet at the wide end of the zoom, dropping to under 6 feet (1.8m) at the long end).

Display and menus

One of the biggest surprises with the NV10 (and big brother the NV7 OPS) was the new 'Smart Touch' user interface; one of the only serious attempts at improving the ease and speed of access to advanced controls we've seen in over a decade of digital camera development. The trouble with small cameras is that there's no room on the body for all the buttons (and labeling) you'd need to give direct access to even a small subset of the myriad controls and options on offer. Typically camera manufacturers have used on-screen menus to overcome this problem, filling most of the space on the rear of the camera with menu navigation keys. Although this works perfectly well (and is easy to master) it's not an ideal solution for people who actually like to change things often; you find even simple things like changing the white balance require several (often many) button presses. The Smart Touch system uses 13 touch-sensitive buttons around the screen to control the huge feature set without the need for pages and pages of menus. Virtually all settings can be changed with just two button presses using a system that - once mastered - is incredibly fast and powerful. It's not perfect, but it's a big improvement on the pages and pages of menus it replaces.

Here's a typical shooting screen in program mode with the full (advanced) information turned on. Unlike 99% of similar compacts just about every setting you'd ever want to know about is shown on-screen and - more importantly- can be changed by pressing the soft key next to the icon. There's only one focus mode (center focus), so make sure your subject is in the middle of the frame! In the auto mode you get a much simpler set of controls; color (cool to warm), brightness (AE compensation), focus mode, file size and flash mode.

The Smart Touch system uses a sort of 'cross hairs' approach. Basically there are two sets of menus (down the side and along the bottom of the screen), each covering a single function or option. Press the button next to the icon and the menu appears, then select the setting you want by pressing the corresponding button on the opposite axis. The buttons are touch sensitive so you can slide a fingertip along the buttons to move the highlighter. It's easier to use than it is to explain, but it does take a little getting used to.

The functions you can access and control directly (in program and manual mode) are: white balance, ISO, AE-compensation, focus mode, flash mode, image size, metering, drive mode and sharpening. The final icon (bottom right) brings up a secondary set of icons along the bottom (see below).

Here's the AE compensation in action; the screen brightens and darkens as you move the slider (which follows your fingertip as you move it along the bottom row of buttons). There is a 'second level' of options containing less commonly accessed features (color effects, JPEG quality, self-timer, voice memo and setup menu).
The NV10 is fairly unusual for a camera of this class in having a fully metered manual exposure mode. There are only two aperture settings, but there is a full complement of shutter speeds on offer. Of course there is a wide selection of subject (scene) modes.
Finally another fairly unusual feature (and one we found ourselves playing with a lot more than we'd care to admit) is the 'effects' mode. Here you can shoot images with frames, speech bubbles and other 'phone cam' style fripperies, plus produce composite shots and, uniquely, combine a number of shots into a single animated gif. The nearest you'll get to a conventional menu is the setup section, where basic cameras settings (including the amount of information included in the on-screen display) can be found.
In playback mode the soft keys are again used to control the various options from slide shows to print ordering and deleting (there is also a separate 'photo gallery' mode where you put pictures into albums and produce slide shows with your own background music). You scroll through images using a 'slider bar' (sliding your finger along the buttons under the screen). This is the only time I found the Smart Touch system annoying; it's way too easy to 'overshoot' and it's actually quite hard to scroll one image at a time; it really needs a 'next and previous' button. There are several options for editing saved images - resizing, trimming, adding color effects (shown here) and combining a series of shots into a single animated gif.
Pushing the zoom key down ('wide') lets you view images as a page of 3x3 thumbnails... ...pushing it up ('tele') lets you zoom in up to 11.4x. You can then move around the enlarged image by sliding your finger along the two sets of buttons (horizontal and vertical).
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