Cameras

Samsung WB850F Digital Camera Review

Samsung's latest and best travel zoom is loaded with features, but do we really need all this?

Credit:

Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.

Introduction

Samsung's new WB850F is a compact long-zoom that improves upon last year's WB750, and takes up residence ahead of their popular WB150F in the 2012 lineup. This is a so-called "Smart" camera, that's marketing-speak for "WiFi-enabled," which represents an emerging trend for compact cams, even though we're lukewarm on such applications. Another seat on the bandwagon is occupied by GPS, a 2012 addition and another late trend.

More interesting to us is the new lens, which now zooms in to a whopping 21x, and offers a slightly wider angle too. Yet as we've shown time and time again, extra zoom has a tendency to reduce image quality. Only our lab tests can decide whether this lens is better, or just bigger.

Front

Front Tour Image

Back

Back Tour Image

Sides

Sides Tour Image

Top

Top Tour Image

Bottom

Bottom Tour Image

In the Box

Box Photo

• Samsung WB850F digital camera

• USB cable

• wall socket adapter

• SLB-10A rechargeable battery

• wrist strap

• quick start guide

• software CD-ROM

• warranty information

Lens & Sensor

The WB850's large lens is surrounded by a thin knurled ring, but this ring is purely cosmetic and performs no function. Like most travel zoom cameras, the barrel protrudes comically far away from the rest of the body, and although the hardware seems flimsy, it did survive the occasional hard bump and nudge. Control action is imprecise, and does not adjust smoothly according to the zoom lever.

Display(s)

The WB850 uses a gorgeous AMOLED display for framing and reviewing. Resolution is 921,000 dots, and the monitor is plenty bright with rich colors. Unfortunately, a reflective plastic coating creates severe glare in daylight, making the screen all but useless in these perfect summer days.

Flash

One design departure from the WB750 is the relocated flash emitter, which now lives inside a mechanical pop-up enclosure, instead of directly on top of the front hand grip. Thank God, the grip was just about the worst place we could think of to put a flash. The release is all-mechanical, so it will never deploy automatically, and the bulb itself is relatively weak, with a maximum range just over 10 feet.

Related content

Flash Photo

One of the best new features, a relocated pop-up flash.

Connectivity

A sturdy plastic door on the right side of the body houses a microHDMI port for streaming content to an HDTV, as well as a proprietary USB port, used for both PC connectivity and battery charging. Charging directly from a PC is possible.

Battery

Samsung does not provide standardized CIPA battery performance ratings, however their own in-house method graded the WB850F at 200 consecutive shots. That's a bit low for today's standards, we've come to expect 250 or more from travel zooms.

Battery Photo

The small battery is rated to only 200 shots.

Image Quality

Samsung employs a variety of software tricks and enhancements to aid with sharpness, noise, and more. Yet they rarely come together to create lifelike photos. Software can help of course, but it's always better to start with a good sensor.

Sharpness

Sharpness scores were strong even at the edges of the frame, however this is due to heavy use of artificial edge enhancement, which can make photos appear less natural. In the crops below, especially those from the center of the chart, notice the too-bright and too-dark lines occurring on the edges of high contrast areas.

Raw sharpness results were frequently in between 1500 and 2000 MTF50s of detail, with infrequent spikes above 2500 and valleys below 1000. More on how we test sharpness.

Science Section 2 Images

Image Stabilization

The WB850F's optical image stabilization feature worsened image quality in our test by 14%. These results are consistent with the Samsung WB150F, which worsened image quality by 18%. We therefore recommend leaving the feature turned off.

Color

The color gamut is less accurate than the average camera, with severely off-color shades of orange, red, and blue. Although images will therefore appear more vibrant than they otherwise would have, many scenes and especially human subjects will appear slightly unnatural to the eye. Saturation also goes overboard by about 9%. More on how we test color.

NOTE: Because of the way computer monitors reproduce colors, the images above do not exactly match the originals found on the chart or in the captured images. The chart should be used to judge the relative color shift, not the absolute captured colors.

By far the most color-accurate travel zoom in this comparison group is the Sony HX9V, a 2011 model that blew us away and continues to earn our recommendation. Strangely, the WB850F lags behind the WB150F, which must be a product of their different sensors.

White Balance

The WB850's custom white balance feature is excellent, with impressive accuracy in any lighting condition. However we're not sure this feature will be necessary. While the automatic method isn't quite as dead-on, it's good enough for most situations, especially under daylight or fluorescents. Incandescent light poses more of a problem, as it always does, but color temperature errors are less severe than many competing models.

White Balance Options

In addition to the standard automatic and custom modes, five color temperature presets are available, including two varieties of fluorescent. If you know the exact color temperature of your lighting setup, or feel confident eyeballing it, direct entry in Kelvin is also supported.

Noise Reduction

Our test results would have you believe the WB850F offers absolutely outstanding noise reduction performance. Artifacting rates stay at or below 1.00% until ISO 1600, and still remain fairly low at maximum sensitivity. However this is only half the story. What our computers can't detect is the qualitative impact Samsung's smoothing software has on image quality. While noise is certainly reduced, this comes at the expense of clean edges, and introduces pixelation even at ISO 100. More on how we test noise.

Science Section 3 Images

ISO Options

The WB750's ISO sensitivity range is quite standard, starting off at 100 and extending to a maximum value of 3200. No extended levels, even at reduced resolution, are available.

Science Section 3 Images_2

Chromatic Aberration

Although we observed very little chromatic aberration in our Sample Photos, things were different in the lab. Chromatic aberration was thick and obvious in areas of high contrast, with wide blue or yellow fringes that changed based on focal length. The problem is largely restricted to the edges of the frame however, and also seems to decrease with less optical zoom.

These results are a real shame, the WB850F probably deserves a better score here, since chromatic aberration is rarely a problem in practice. But, just like the noise reduction test, we have to let the score stand for the sake of consistency.

Distortion

Barrel distortion is noticeable at the closest focal length, as the lens struggles to achieve that desirable 23mm-equivalent wide angle. After extending the zoom, distortion starts going the other way, creating less-noticeable pincushion distortion in excess of 1.00%.

Video Sharpness

The WB850F's sensor achieves excellent sharpness during video for a compact camera. We observed detail resolution of 625 lw/ph both horizontally and vertical in our full illumination sharpness test. Unfortunately, the results are marred by some distracting moire that will appear when shooting a pattern. More on how CamcorderInfo tests video sharpness.

Under lower light (60 lux), sharpness performance dropped off a bit, down to 500 lw/ph horizontally and 450 vertically. Moire was much worse this time around, and image noise became a real problem. While the drop in resolution can be overlooked, the introduction of noise makes this camera almost entirely unsuitable for low light videography.

Low Light Sensitivity

If you ignore our advice and use the WB850 for low light videos (after all, who wouldn't want to put their new camera through its paces), then you'll find the camera is able to gather 50 IRE of video image data from only 19 lux of ambient illumination. That's no match for a camcorder, and you'll be seeing some pretty nasty noise by then, but it's still a respectable result for a compact.

Usability

Samsung must be doing their homework because each year they improve their working knowledge of what a comfortable, effective control scheme looks like. The WB850 is getting closer, and it's a convenient camera 90% of the time. Only a few control, handling, and interface quirks got in our way.

Automatic Features

We think you'll spend most of your time in the Program Auto mode, which is by far the most useful. Rank novices will also value the Smart Auto setting, which is a scene detecting automatic mode that will adapt to your subject and shooting conditions.

Buttons & Dials

On the top plate you'll find a comfortable shutter release with decent tactile feedback and relatively long stroke for a compact camera. The stylish power button is also up here, surrounded by cool blue lighting, and off to the left is the mechanical flash release. That is—by the way—a strange place for a release, because reaching around with the left fingers places the left palm directly in the flash arm's path. The WB850's abbreviated mode dial is small and thin enough to adjust with only the thumb, however it's also loose enough to turn accidentally inside a pocket or purse.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

Only nine scene modes are available but we found them more than adequate. The complete list is Beauty Shot, Night, Landscape, Text, Sunset, Dawn, Backlight, and Beach & Snow. In addition, a large number of "Smart Filter" effects are also available, including choices like Miniature, Vignetting, Oil Painting, Cartoon, Sketch, etc. Confusingly, a separate effect mode can be found on the dial, for options like Panorama, Split Shot, HDR, Creative Movie Maker, and Samsung's ever-ridiculous Magic Frame feature.

The menu system is generally quick and intuitive, with a few delays here and there. The main menu defaults to a legible, high contrast color scheme, and is presented as a pretty simple tabbed list that shouldn't require much of a learning curve. We also approve of the quick Function menu that overlays the shooting screen with icons for common settings, using the directional pad for navigation and the zoom lever for adjustment. Slowdown only occurs when the camera gets too ambitious with processing power, such as previewing Smart Filters on the fly, or attempting to use to the zoom or drive mode levers while writing a recent shot to memory.

Instruction Manual

The WB850F ships with a thin Quick Start Guide but includes an electronic version of the full length manual on the software CD-ROM. The proper user manual still isn't quite up to par though, and has only an average level of detail.

Handling

Physically handling the WB850F is pretty comfortable thanks to a mid-sized protruding hand grip on the front panel, with a steep lip to wrap the fingertips around. This section is textured but not properly rubberized, so slipping is still a minor issue.

Handling Photo 1

There's plenty of real estate to latch onto out front.

On the rear, the button layout does not serve handling well. It's easy to strike many of the shallow keys accidentally while picking up or moving the camera, and if you need to press one of them intentionally, that's almost impossible one-handed. A small thumb rest is located beside the video button and drive rocker, but just like the front grip, it's textured not rubberized. Plus, the thumb wants to rest much higher on the body than this arrangement allows.

Handling Photo 2

The rear control layout could use some tweaking.

Buttons & Dials

On the top plate you'll find a comfortable shutter release with decent tactile feedback and relatively long stroke for a compact camera. The stylish power button is also up here, surrounded by cool blue lighting, and off to the left is the mechanical flash release. That is—by the way—a strange place for a release, because reaching around with the left fingers places the left palm directly in the flash arm's path. The WB850's abbreviated mode dial is small and thin enough to adjust with only the thumb, however it's also loose enough to turn accidentally inside a pocket or purse.

Buttons Photo 1

We love the shutter release's tactile feedback.

On the rear panel we're treated to a combination directional pad and rotating dial, however it has a tendency to stick in practice, and some of the shortcut keys have been mapped to silly things like the GPS feature or the electronic compass. That's fine if you bought the camera for those reasons, but it certainly wasn't our cup of tea.

Another departure from the otherwise-typical button layout is the drive mode rocker. The idea here is that simply pulling the lever up or down will increase or reduce burst mode speed. We certainly appreciate the extra attention given to one of our favorite features, and only wish the menu software was a bit quicker here.

Buttons Photo 2

Rotating dials are nice, but this one tends to stick.

Display(s)

The WB850 uses a gorgeous AMOLED display for framing and reviewing. Resolution is 921,000 dots, and the monitor is plenty bright with rich colors. Unfortunately, a reflective plastic coating creates severe glare in daylight, making the screen all but useless in these perfect summer days.

Image Stabilization

The WB850F's optical image stabilization feature worsened image quality in our test by 14%. These results are consistent with the Samsung WB150F, which worsened image quality by 18%. We therefore recommend leaving the feature turned off.

Shooting Modes

The WB850F features an abbreviated mode dial that condenses Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual modes into a single stop. You'll also find dedicated modes for GPS, WiFi, video shooting, and more.

Manual Controls

Full manual exposure is supported, however there are no mechanical-manual features available on the WB850. That textured ring surrounding the lens? It's cosmetic only, this is not the Canon S100.

Recording Options

Nine different shooting resolutions are available, including five 4:3 options, two 16:9, and one each for 3:2 and 1:1. JPEG compression quality may be set to Normal, Fine, or Super Fine, however lossless RAW encoding is not supported.

Speed and Timing

Other than self-timer, all drive mode options are controlled by a rocker surrounding the video record button on the rear panel. It's a good idea, but this part of the interface can be slow. Worst of all, a wide variety of other camera settings seem to interfere with drive modes, causing this feature to become unresponsive, without any indication of which option is the offending one.

But provided you don't experience those problems, a good selection of options are available. There are three burst speeds, called 3fps, 5fps, and 10fps, all of which max out at 8 shots, plus a precapture mode, and white balance or exposure bracketing.

In our timing test, we found the WB850's speed was as advertised. The camera is capable of exactly 10 frames per second at any ISO setting, however this triggers a very long buffer time afterward. Bracketing modes are unfortunately much slower.

Self-timer options are available in only 10 second, 2 second, and 10 second double only, no other customization is possible. Frustratingly, the timer defaults back to the off setting after every shot, so if you plan to perform multiple countdowns, you'll need to reset each time.

Features

Obviously we're not going to penalize a camera for additional features, in fact the WB850's score seems rather bloated thanks to all the extras, but we can't help wondering if development time would've been better spent elsewhere. In-camera GPS? Are people using this? What about WiFi? Isn't it quicker to just remove the memory card? We don't get it.

Effects, Filters, and Scene Modes

Only nine scene modes are available but we found them more than adequate. The complete list is Beauty Shot, Night, Landscape, Text, Sunset, Dawn, Backlight, and Beach & Snow. In addition, a large number of "Smart Filter" effects are also available, including choices like Miniature, Vignetting, Oil Painting, Cartoon, Sketch, etc. Confusingly, a separate effect mode can be found on the dial, for options like Panorama, Split Shot, HDR, Creative Movie Maker, and Samsung's ever-ridiculous Magic Frame feature.

Other Features

GPS

GPS functionality is one of those trendy features we're just now starting to see in cameras with regularity. Samsung's interface here is above average, which means two things: it actually has the ability to acquire a signal, and it includes Points of Interest. However there are some deal-breaking problems too. Map data is stored on the SD card, so aside from the obvious waste of memory space, this also means that formatting the memory card erases map data. We pretty much refused to reload maps from a PC after every format, and quickly resigned ourselves to do without GPS. Plus, this technology is more novelty than necessity when it comes to photography.

WiFi Connectivity

Another feature of dubious usefulness for cameras is WiFi. Samsung has included a wide selection of wireless connectivity options for use with the WB850F, including sharing to Facebook, Picasa, YouTube, Photobucket, SkyDrive, an E-mail address, or other Samsung Wi-Fi Direct products. That's all fine, but the feature is almost useless in practice. The process of tapping in E-mail addresses or WEP encryption keys or trying to sync up your TV, then starting over when the connection fails, is so much slower than simply sticking your memory card in a computer that we can't imagine why anyone would want WiFi instead.

Recording Options

Videos may be recorded in either Full HD 1080p or your choice of 720p, 480p, or low resolution QVGA mode. All resolutions are locked to 30 frames per second, unless a processor-intensive filter is in use, which will cut the frame rate in half. Find out how the performed in our video image quality test./r:link_to_content

Video Controls

Zoom

Optical zoom is unlocked while a recording is in progress, however adjustment speed is slowed to cut down on mechanical noise. This is a common technique, but it barely ever works completely. The electronic motor can still be heard in the background of clips with moving zoom.

Focus

Manual focus is locked for video shooting, so your clips will all be at the mercy of the WB850's autofocus system. Luckily that's not a problem, the system is smooth and accurate, if a bit slow.

Audio Features

Stereo microphones are located on the top plate, mostly out of the way of errant fingertips. The "voice" option affects sound recordings, giving you the choice of Normal, Sound Alive, Audio Zoom, or Mute. We found Normal to be adequate in all cases.

Conclusion

This is one of those tricky situations where the raw test scores might have you believing this camera is something it's not. While the WB850F posted some very impressive noise and resolution scores, in practice, the same internal software that sometimes fools our testing, also creates distracting pixelation and unnatural edges. Image quality is therefore a mixed bag.

What we love most about the WB850 is the lens. With all this talk about testing, it's easy to forget that the camera actually managed to avoid the common trap of sacrificing sharpness for zoom. Although resolution scores were aided by edge enhancement, the sensor still achieves an undeniable level of detail. We were also impressed by the almost complete lack of chromatic aberration in our sample photos (though this effect was apparent in the lab), which is typically the mark of a high quality lens.

The WB850 is also a capable tool for action photography. The fastest burst mode achieves 10 frames per second, and some ergonomic features make handling comfortable and confident. There's still plenty of room for future improvement to buffer times and button layout, but this camera definitely gets the job done for now.

In fact we wish more time and effort had been spent on those considerations rather than, say, GPS or WiFi connectivity. We're still not sold on these technologies and their pertinence to light-duty photography, but both implementations are poor in the WB850. Geographic map data is foolishly stored on the external SD card, and WiFi is far less useful than simply plugging your camera into a computer for a few seconds.

The Samsung WB850F is still a decent travel zoom, with a fairly aggressive price tag. So long as you're buying it for those reasons, then you won't be disappointed. Just don't expect perfect image quality, and disregard sales ploys like GPS and WiFi.

Up next