Big is generally good: big house, big car, big snarling Rottweiler in the back yard? Err... okay, so not everything big is good. But what about a camera with a huge zoom lens and a whopping LCD? "Bring it on," we hear you cry.
Samsung has done just that with the Pro815. It's got the longest zoom range of any compact on the market and the biggest LCD at 3.5-inches across the corners - and let's not forget those 8 megapixels. This is quite a piece of kit and a good-looking camera too, although when you wind the zoom to its full 420mm extension it looks like Pinnocchio after telling a particularly fat porky. It's also well screwed together, if a little plasticky, but not enough to worry about.
The camera sits well in the hands and isn't as big as the lens suggests. There are front and back jog wheels for setting apertures and shutter speeds in Manual mode, and the buttons have an attractive gun-metal finish with functions embossed on them. These could have been filled with white paint to make them more visible in poor light.
Zoom, zoom, zoom
That 15x Schneider zoom lens is formidable. Zoom it manually from wide to telephoto and you'll end up optically in the middle of next week - or 420mm to be precise. This means you can close in on subjects that were once far out of reach. Unfortunately the Pro815 doesn't come with anti-shake technology, but the zoom alone will still attract many buyers.
This isn't purely a long story though - at the wide end of the zoom range there's a useful 28mm setting. The amount of barrelling is under control and when you turn on the Macro mode and focus down to 10cm you can create some abstract shots.
The Pro815's other big feature is the enormous 3.5-inch LCD that dominates the rear of the camera. It's fairly bright and remains so even on sunny days. It really shines after a day's shooting, where in the comfort of the car or back home, you can use it to edit your shots with ease. After using this one, most other LCDs will appear positively tiny by comparison.
The rear screen is so large that you might be forgiven for thinking you won't need anything else, but press the button marked LCD and the eye-level electronic viewfinder comes to life. Press it again and what you thought was the basic information panel on the top of the camera turns into a waist-level finder. It's small, 1.44-inches, but it's a clever and useful touch, especially for candid shots.
So, that's the nuts and bolts of the Pro815, but what about image quality? Fortunately, it's excellent, particularly at lower ISO settings. Images are crisp and sharp, with relatively little purple fringing. Take the ISO up to 400 and noise shows itself.
The tale takes a slight turn for the worse with the auto-focus. In bright light there are no problems, but when the light is low it struggles. Fortunately, there's a back-up plan. The Pro815 comes with a fairly impressive set of manual controls. Not only can you manually zoom the lens, you can also turn a focus ring and change both the apertures and shutter speeds with separate jog wheels. The manual focus is particularly useful in Macro modes.
Quite often the auto-focus failed to lock on to anything, but a quick flick of the switch and you can do it yourself. There's a slight delay between adjusting the focus ring and what appears on the screen, so a little care is needed. Still, photo enthusiasts are going to revel in this level of control.
An interesting feature is that there's no light meter to guide you in manual mode: you just look at the image on any of the three screens and adjust the settings until it looks right. This is particularly useful when used in contrasting conditions.
The Pro815 is a fine camera. The lens and the 3.5-inch LCD are a sign of things to come. And while not groundbreaking, the image quality holds its head high against the opposition. With news of a deal with Pentax to develop SLRs, Samsung looks ready to make it big in the digital camera market. Sean Malyon