Conclusion - Pros
- Huge 28-420mm equivalent zoom range with mechanical zoom ring
- Excellent edge-to-edge results across the zoom range
- Good resolution - especially in raw mode
- Fairly light-handed noise reduction at higher ISO settings
- Large, bright 3.5-inch screen
- Useful secondary top plate screen can be used for waist-level framing
- Excellent electronic viewfinder
- Comprehensive array of photographic functions
- Generally excellent ergonomics - most controls fall easily to hand
- Lots of external controls, don't need the menus very much
- Excellent battery life
- Stereo sound
- External flash capability
- Accurate color reproduction in natural light
- Custom function button and three custom (Myset) modes
- Decent macro mode
- Raw and TIFF modes
Conclusion - Cons
- Long shutter lag
- Focusing can feel slow
- 640 x 480 movies at 25 fps maximum clip length of 30 secs
- Focus hunts - and often fails - at long end of zoom, especially in low light
- JPEG processing doesn't make the most of the lens, smearing of low contrast detail
- JPEG Images over-processed, specifically over-sharpened
- Fairly harsh highlight clipping (JPEGs)
- No image stabilization, no high ISO capability
- Supplied raw converter worse than useless
- Raw files large, raw file writing very slow
- Tiff files no better than JPEGs, and very very slow
- Unreliable white balance under artificial light
- Big and heavy
- LCD doesn't show 100% of frame, and playback mode doesn't give very accurate indication of brightness or color of recorded file
Samsung has arrived at the super zoom / bridge camera party very late, but it has certainly made quite an entrance. The Pro815's designers obviously decided that the key to success was to take the successful formula established by the likes of Panasonic with its FZ series and 'super size' it in every way possible. Thus we have the world's biggest zoom range, world's biggest LCD screen, world's highest capacity Li-Ion battery and a list of features as long as your arm - all in a single camera.
On paper the Pro815 offers an intriguing and compelling mix of features, but can it compete with its direct competitors, never mind the ever-increasing number of affordable SLRs on the market today? It certainly outdoes the Panasonic FZ30 in sheer feature terms, it has better controls for those who really like to play with settings, has bigger screen and a better electronic viewfinder. But there are a couple of areas where the Pro815 falls down seriously, even compared to the hardly perfect FZ30. One is focus speed and shutter lag, important if you like to grab shots quickly. You also really need to shoot raw, and process the files in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) to get image quality that compares with the FZ30 - though I should point out that I'd rather have the Pro815's noisy, but detailed ISO 400 results than the FZ30's smudgy watercolors. But of course the FZ30 - like most cameras of this type - has one killer feature that is missing from the Pro815's extensive specification; image stabilization. Without IS, using the long end of the zoom is restricted to very bright conditions or when the camera is mounted on a tripod. We could just about forgive the Fuji S9000 for its lack of IS thanks to the decent high ISO performance; the Pro815 stops at ISO 400, and then you've the problem of noise to deal with.
Compared to a digital SLR the Pro815 certainly offers a lot of 'bang for your buck', and the lens is excellent, but it's bigger and heavier than most entry-level DSLRs, and - if you shop around - you could pick up a body and a lens or two for not a great deal more, which will give you a more responsive camera and much, much better high ISO performance. It's perfectly possible, for example, to buy the Konica Minolta Maxxum 5D body for under $600, which will leave you a couple of hundred dollars towards your lens collection. And for $200 more you could look at the Sony R1, which may not have the zoom reach, but it has a wider short end and much better sensitivity.
Of course the Pro815 has some advantages of its own, particularly over an SLR. The screen is simply stunning, you get movie mode and live preview, there's no possibility of dust on the sensor, and the zoom range would require at least two lenses to cover it completely.
So then, what's the final conclusion? For one thing Samsung must be applauded for the sheer audacity of the Pro815. For a 'first attempt' at a 'prosumer' camera it is nothing short of remarkable, and if it had been launched a 12-18 months ago it would have really upset the apple cart. But one can't help feeling it's a little too late, and that inside this monster there is a better, leaner camera dying to get out. With a less ambitious zoom range, smaller screen and lower resolution, more sensitive sensor the Pro815 would have been a serious contender, as it stands it needs to drop at least $100 - probably more - before it offers a real alternative to the best of the super zooms and entry-level DSLRs. If you are patient enough to use raw mode, don't shoot too much action and like the idea of the large screen and extensive feature set, the Pro815 is capable of superb results, and I sincerely hope that Samsung continues to refine and develop more serious cameras.
As for a rating, this is a difficult one. The Pro815 only has one or two serious flaws, and there is much to like. Unfortunately those flaws are significant, and for some users fatal - particularly the sluggish shutter lag and telephoto focus and lack of IS. The fact that you must shoot raw to get anything like the full potential out of the lens also limits the usefulness of the camera unless you don't mind working at a fairly leisurely pace. On balance, and taking into consideration the superb feature set, generally good performance and fair pricing we decided that it - just - had enough going for it to nudge it up from an 'Above Average'.