Genuine innovation in cameras is rare, and tends to be confined to companies that have decades of research, optics and imaging expertise. Hats off to Samsung then, who despite being one of the newer kids on the digital photography block, has developed a Smart Touch interface that's as useful as it is original.
The NV20 is the first of Samsung's New Vision range and appears to be a conventionally styled, if slim (28.5mm), metal- bodied compact. It has a standard 3x lens, which is controlled using a small zoom rocker. A top-mounted dial switches between Auto, Program, Scene, Movie and (surprisingly) full Manual modes, and is stiff enough not to wander between modes too often when stored in a pocket.
But it's round the back that the NV20 gets interesting. A modest 2.5-inch screen takes up most of the real estate, working very well in daylight and normal indoor conditions, but faring poorly with true night-time scenes. Six buttons on the right-hand side, and seven beneath the screen edge the screen.
In one respect, these are traditional 'soft' controls, changing their function depending on which menu or screen you're in, but they have an additional trick up their sleeves. You don't need to press a button to provoke a response - simply stroking your finger over it highlights its function, even in pitch- black conditions. This strokeability really comes into its own when you're adjusting a function.
Press the ISO button on the right, for instance, and you get an instant horizontal menu across the screen - now just run your finger across the bottom strip and you can select your chosen sensitivity immediately. Similarly, the bottom buttons call up vertical menus.
Lots of stroking
This may sound complex but it's intuitive and fast - you'll soon be switching into macro, adjusting the metering and setting exposure compensation in seconds. It's even better in full manual mode, where you zip through shutter speeds and apertures (a choice of just two at any focal length), with visual feedback on screen and an over/underexposure warning.
The NV20's other features are a strange, but strangely compelling, mix. In full Auto mode, you can adjust only colour temperature, brightness and focus (a useful 4cm macro). In Program mode, there's much more on offer, including metering and sharpness options and a great selection of drive modes.
A standard Continuous mode plugs away at 2fps (focusing between shots) and there's a good bracketing option. High-speed shoots three frames at 2.5fps, and a welcome Motion Capture mode fires at a mighty 7fps, although only at 2,024 x 768-pixels (both with the screen off). Ten million is a lot of pixels, and the NV20 can't quite handle the power.
The lens especially is painfully average, with softness at the edges at wide angle and distortion at its modest telephoto, although there's little fringing. Detail is never pin-sharp and highlights blow out before they should.
Having said that, colour reproduction is lively and engaging and exposure is usually very accurate. Noise is present at pretty much all sensitivities, but is less of a problem than you might fear, except at ISO 2000. The auto pop-up (but manual push-down) flash is ideal for fill-flash in portraits although it lacks the muscle to tackle wider or more distant night- time scenes.
All in all, this is a fine mid-range compact. The touch-sensitive control system is a breakthrough, a means of offering speed and flexibility without littering the camera with dozens of fiddly buttons. It's let down by a small, noisy zoom rocker and average lens, but Samsung has demonstrated a delicacy of touch that shows there's life in the compact camera yet. Mark Harris