From a design point of view the Pro815 follows the fairly well-trodden route of looking - superficially at least - like a digital SLR, albeit one with a much larger rear plate to accommodate the huge 3.5-inch screen. It's built - to put it politely - like a brick outhouse, and at just under a kilogram is considerably heavier than most entry-level SLRs, due in no small part to the large lens. The body is almost entirely constructed of high impact plastic (presumably over a metal sub-frame), and it feels very well built. The design is, to a certain extent, defined by the big chunk of glass on the front and the giant screen on the back, with everything else squeezed in wherever there is a spare bit of space. First impressions are inevitably concerned with the size of the beast - in an age where miniaturization is the overriding concern of most product designers, the Pro815 seems to hark back to an earlier time, when bigger always meant better. That said, it handles very well, and unless you have tiny hands it is a marked improvement on ultra-compact SLR models such as Canon's Rebel XT (350D).
Side by side
As the picture here shows the Pro815 is similar in size to most of its direct competitors (it's actually the biggest, but not by a wide margin), but at over 900g it is by far the heaviest of this quartet (from left Fuji S900, Panasonic FZ30, Canon Rebel XT, Samsung Pro815).
In your hand
There's no denying the Pro815 is big, but it handles remarkably well, with front and rear grips ensuring you can use it single-handed (though of course it feels a lot more stable if you support the lens with your other hand). The majority of the shooting controls fall easily to hand, though the use of embossed (rather than printed) symbols on many of the buttons can make it difficult to work out what they do in low light.
The Pro815 is powered by a huge 7.4V, 1900 mAh Lithium Ion battery, that takes around three hours to charge and provides enough juice to shoot anything up to 450 shots (CIPA standard). The battery sits inside the grip and is held in place by a sturdy locking hinged cover.
Above the battery compartment, on the side of the grip, is the CompactFlash slot - again under a pretty spring-hinged sprung door.
The Pro815's ports are grouped together under a very solid, sprung cover on the left of the camera (viewed from the rear). Here you'll find a mini USB port, stereo AV output and DC-in socket (for the optional AC adaptor).
The pop-up flash is activated automatically. It is fairly high - around two inches from the top of the lens barrel, which helps minimize red-eye, and is fairly powerful. With auto ISO you can use the flash from around 30cm to 7.0m, and it recycles very quickly. All the usual flash options (on, off, red-eye reduction, slow synch) are available; the red-eye reduction system is a simple single pre flash.
Serious photographers will be pleased to see the presence of a fully dedicated hot-shoe, though you need to use Samsung's own SEF-42A unit if you want full TTL control.
One of the Pro815's headline features is its huge 3.5" screen. The screen is superb - bright, clear and with only the tiniest amount of perceptible lag. It is also remarkably usable in bright light. At 235,000 pixels it has a similar resolution to the best 2.0" and 2.5" screens, meaning you're not getting a lot more detail, but in use it's a revelation. Bigger in this case certainly means better. Our main complaint is that it doesn't have anywhere near 100% frame coverage.
Of course the Pro815 has another screen, on the top plate. This secondary screen can be used as a status display (showing extensive shooting information) or, at the press of a button, as a 'waist level' finder showing the live preview. It's remarkably useful for shooting from the hip or when the camera is mounted on a tripod.
The electronic viewfinder (EVF) is excellent - large, bright and, at 235,000 pixels, a very high resolution. There's a diopter adjustment, too, for spectacle wearers.
The Pro815 has the honor of sporting what is currently the largest zoom range on any fixed-lens camera, a whopping 15x optical. The 28-420mm range covers virtually all shooting scenarios, with the extra wide angle a real advantage over the likes of the Panasonic FZ30. The maximum aperture of F2.2-4.6 - and lack of image stabilization - means the usefulness of the long end of the zoom is fairly limited unless you live on the equator - or always carry a tripod.
There are three rotating rings on the lens barrel - zoom, manual focus and AE compensation. The first two are nicely fluid-damped, with the latter having subtle 'click stops'. I'd like to be able to use the AE ring to change apertures in AP mode, but otherwise it's a nicely designed system that users of traditional cameras will feel very much at home with.
The zoom extends fairly dramatically as you move from the wide to tele end of the range - around 75mm (3.0 inches). Samsung provides a 'flower' lens hood, complete with thread adapter, for minimizing flare, something that makes the lens even bigger.
The main mode dial on the top of the camera. Directly in front of this is the shutter release and to the left the main power (on / off) button.
In a nod to SLR design the Pro815 has front and rear control dials for direct access to, amongst other things, shutter speed and aperture. In fact, the majority of everyday shooting settings are changed by pressing a button and using the rear control dial ('jog 2').
On the side of the lens barrel there's more buttons. 'HS' activates an ISO boost mode, which will automatically increase the ISO up to 400 if needed to avoid camera shake. Next to this is a button to open the flash in modes where it doesn't pop up automatically. Below these are a series of controls associated with focusing - Autofocus area selection, Autofocus lock and main focus mode switch (single AF, continuous AF and manual focus).
The ubiquitous four-way controller is used to navigate on-screen menus. It also offers direct access to white balance, flash and macro modes, plus a custom button you can assign your own function to (size, quality, effect, sharpness, voice memo or LCD brightness).
Below the four-way controller you can see the play mode button.