DigitalCameraReview.com
Samsung NV15 Review
by David Rasnake -  11/14/2007

One of three mildly updated additions to Samsung's premium NV series, the sleek NV15 is a super-compact offering a features set that moves well beyond point-and-shoot expectations. Factor in a street price around $250 and the NV15 looks like a clear choice for shooters seeking a pocket-sized camera with big camera features. But some persistent image quality concerns may be enough to mar an otherwise exceptional package.

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IN THE BOX 

The Samsung NV15 is a compact digital camera with an effective resolution of 10.1 megapixels. Other key specs and features include:

In addition to its 20 megabytes (enough capacity for about four highest-res shots) of internal memory, the NV15 uses Secure Digital external memory, supporting both standard SD cards and newer, high-capacity SDHC formats up to four gigabytes. At its highest image quality settings, the NV15 fills up a 1 GB card in about 200 shots.

A wrist strap, charger/cable, quick start guide, A/V cable, and software bundle round out the contents of the box. Note that the full user manual is available in electronic format on the CD only. At first glance, the only other item of note involves the NV15's charging system. While the battery actually performed slightly better than its advertised 200-shot life, there's no option for an external charger. Since the battery must be charged in-camera, when it's dead, the fun is over for awhile. The NV15 does allow charging via your computer's USB port courtesy of its iPod-style cable, which could be a nice feature in a pinch. 

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IN HAND

As a styling exercise, the NV15 succeeds. The bulbous, silver look-alike style of many of Samsung's previous efforts has given way to a svelte modern appearance that's more high-end than the price might suggest. The black metal body, reinforced battery door, and solid knobs and buttons all contribute to an overall feeling of quality. Not surprisingly, they also contribute to a slight heftiness, making the NV15 just a bit too awkward and heavy to be carried in a shirt pocket.

Like every slim-line digital, the Samsung can be a chore to hold comfortably in shooting position for long periods. The token hand grip that protrudes from left of the lens doesn't come close to providing ample finger wrap-around room, but the shutter release and conventional wide-tele toggle fall nicely under the index finger and thumb, respectively. Similarly, the flush-mounted mode select knob is easily turned without changing hand positions. All of this, plus a big, bright-enough-for-direct-sunlight screen and a dedicated playback button (allowing the user to jump back and forth between shooting and review modes without touching the mode select dial), makes the NV15 as ergonomically and functionally pleasing as any camera its size.

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Feel and form gripes are minor and relatively few. While preserving the camera's clean lines, the pop-up flash feels flimsy when extended and doesn't click into place convincingly when closed. Likewise, the retractable lens is wrapped in a black plastic barrel that exhibits some rattle and free play when extended; perhaps as a result, the zoom is often less than smooth when cycled through its range. The absence of a conventional viewfinder may also be a concern for some, though the sharp, contrasty display performs well in all but the brightest situations. In short, none of these complaints is serious enough to stand against the camera's generally precise, well-crafted feel, with the total package making the NV15 one of the most aesthetically pleasing devices in its class.

The “Smart Touch” User Interface

From a design standpoint, the big news here is Samsung's "Smart Touch" User Interface. No, it's sadly not a touch screen, but rather a reverse L-shaped array of touch-sensitive soft keys surrounding the NV15's display. The two lines of buttons function as single horizontal and vertical sliders (think laptop touchpad) in most menus, allowing users to scroll through available options. Although it sounds confusing (even Samsung's own explanation from the manual offers little help in understanding how the system actually functions) the general concept makes almost immediate sense, even for novice users. Eliminating the need for the seemingly ubiquitous four-way control pads found on most compacts, Smart Touch provides an elegant, streamlined control solution for a camera with a small form factor. And assuming you have slightly larger-than-average hands and a dexterous thumb, the system's button arrangement permits one-handed control of all camera functions—no small bragging point for a compact with a full manual mode.

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While this intuitive on-screen interface—every possible adjustment within any shooting mode appears on the display—greatly simplifies access and eliminates complicated menu hunting, it's definitely a love-it-or-hate-it system: The design of the "slide and select" menus seems poorly thought out at times, requiring a vigorous back and forth motion to adjust scale-based parameters like exposure compensation, and the buttons are both small and very sensitive—not a good combination for people with big fingers. With these caveats in mind, if the NV15 is on your list, it would be wise to spend some time with an in-store demo model before making a decision. You should be able to quickly determine whether you'll find the Smart Touch interface uniquely liberating or simply frustrating.

IN THE FIELD

As a rule, the feature-rich NV15 shines in a variety of everyday shooting situations, offering many useful (and some not so useful) Scene modes, a well-speced Auto mode, and loads of manual control. Seven shooting modes can be accessed from the NV15's thumb-wheel selector:

Additionally, the variants of a Playback mode can be accessed via either the position on the mode selector dial, or (while in a shooting mode) the dedicated button on the back of the camera.

Shooting with the NV15

Shot-to-shot times with the Samsung felt quick (less than two seconds in normal shooting modes without the flash) with little discernible shutter lag. Focus hunt (see below) can slow things down in some settings, but not enough to make the NV15 feel sluggish or unresponsive in day-to-day use. The Smart Touch interface really speeds up on-the-fly changes to commonly adjusted parameters like exposure compensation as well—it's almost as efficient as the dial adjusters found on many DSLRs. A number of high-end features on this camera work in tandem with its well thought-out design to appeal at least as much, if not more, to serious shooters as to those looking for quick and easy snapshots.

The Lens

The primary limitations of many smaller cameras involve the lens in one way or another, and in spite of the Schneider-Kreuznach name, the NV15's glass—which it shares with many of its NV series stable-mates—puts it in the middle of the pack among its competition. For a camera with this much horsepower, a 3x zoom is a bit disappointing. The aperture range is small and slow at the end of the zoom, exacerbating the camera's low-light woes and making the full manual mode less useful than it might first seem. A limited number of positions between full wide and full zoom also contribute to the feeling that the lens is not of the same quality as the camera it serves.

Auto-focus Settings and Performance

Auto-focus performance was only acceptable. The Samsung was extremely slow seeking focus in difficult situations (against moving backdrops, or in fast-motion scenes, for instance), and occasionally never found it. Of 500 or so test shots, no less than 30 were incorrectly focused; while this represents a comparatively small percentage, dead-on reliability from an AF system is the standard these days, making this a point of some concern for the Samsung. Low-light focusing, by contrast, was surprisingly good, owing no doubt to the focus assist lamp.

Face Recognition focus and exposure mode—selectable in most shooting modes via a dedicated button—was able to pick out faces, even in low light.

Macro focus is enabled either through the Auto Macro mode (in Auto), or via a dedicated Macro mode (in P and M). Auto Macro was less functional than pure Macro mode, though neither boasts a particularly good minimum focusing distance in practice in spite of the advertised specs. Both modes took considerable time hunting for a lock. In short, if macro shooting is a primary interest, there are cameras, even within the ultra-compact class, that do it better.

The Flash

No surprises here: the flash is small and weak by any objective standard, but should be sufficient for most uses. White balance in flash photos was just fine, without too much of the usual coolness. Flash recycle times are on par with the competition as well. Likewise, the manually selected red-eye reduction mode—an expected feature among this class of cameras—seemed to work well in limited flash portrait testing. Overall, the flash stands as an unremarkable (not necessarily in a bad way) unit that does everything it needs to do competently if not exceptionally.

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Auto and Scene Modes

Auto mode on the NV15 is precisely what's expected from a point-and-shoot, with a few niceties that set it apart including sliders adjusting Warm/Cool value and image Brightness (essentially an exposure compensation control) that show the effects of changes on-screen. The straightforward, hands-on approach to processing is a nice idea that will appeal to entry-level users looking for a quick way to amp up a shot—a notch or two of adjustment toward the warm end of the spectrum helps to even out the flat look of flash photos, especially. Results from excessive warm/cool adjustments, however, can quickly take on strange, fake-looking casts.

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(view medium image) (view large image) Default Warm/Cool setting

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(view medium image) (view large image) Warm setting

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(view medium image) (view large image) Cool setting

Access to exposure compensation in an Auto mode is one of the NV15's many nice touches. It's worth mentioning as well that the Smart Touch interface works at its most seamless with these slider-style controls, allowing for quick, easy, intuitive adjustments.

The bewildering number of scene modes—there are 13 available presets—were sometimes as frustrating to use as the Auto mode was straightforward. Most of the scene modes are so narrowly focused (a text mode for shooting documents, for instance) as to be of only occasional use at best. Winners in the scene mode category include a Cafe preset, a flash-suppressed mode great for shooting in restaurants and museums; and a Backlight mode, which does a nice job of evening out backlit photos with a burst of fill flash.

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(view medium image) (view large image) Fill flash does nice job of evening out tones in this into-the-sun portrait. Slight overexposure was softened in post-process.

Losers include a Kids/Action Shot mode that consistently selected too-slow shutter speeds in spite of plenty of ambient light, and a Landscape mode that seems to make some strange aperture value choices for wide-range shooting. As is often the case, much better results can be obtained from the NV15 through judicious use of the Program mode instead.

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(view medium image) (view large image) Even with more than adequate light, the NV15 consistently chose too-slow shutter speeds in Action mode

Program and Manual Modes

P and M modes open up the range of functionality, allowing users to change settings for metering (Center, Spot, Multi), shooting drive mode (Single, Continuous, High Speed, Motion Capture, Auto Bracket), ISO, white balance, and sharpness (Natural, Soft, Vivid) among other variables. The standard metering choices seemed to perform equally well, though all three tended to overexpose slightly upon review. Continuous and Auto Bracket modes are nice additions that advanced users will appreciate, though both the High Speed and Motion Capture modes have limitations that will make them of little use for most of us.

Program mode, with its ability to keep ISO values low and compensate for the aforementioned exposure issues, often allows for the most consistent photos and provides enough control to deal with most situations. As suggested previously, the full manual mode, like most similar modes on compact cameras, is not easy to control on the fly (Smart Touch helps some here) and offers only two aperture settings. It does allow shutter speed override however, which can mean the difference between crisp action shots and a blurred mess. Just don't expect the NV15's M mode to function with the ease of bigger cameras.

Effects Mode

The compositing and frame effects border on just plain silly, though they may hold a little one-time novelty (the standard complement of slightly more useful effects, including color overlays, B&W, and red-eye reduction can be added post-shot via the effects menu in playback mode). Compositing effects, allowing the user to create in-camera panoramas from multiple shots, are easier to use than those on many compacts. But there's nothing here that will change your photographic life, and much of it works against the NV15's overall image as a camera with lots of control for more serious users.

Auto Shake Reduction (ASR) Mode

Mechanical (sensor shift) and optical (lens shift) shake reduction has become litmus-test technology for prosumer digicams, but Samsung's processor-based shake reduction, which reduces visible shake through in-camera processing, is something entirely different and not nearly as valuable. Shooting in ASR mode affords most of the functionality of P mode minus ISO adjustment, but the camera takes several seconds to process the image post-shot. The results: effective in a few cases, unnoticed in most, and still blurry in too many. Basically, ASR doesn't provide the two to three stops of speed afforded by high-profile mechanical anti-shake systems and slows the camera down considerably. Samsung touts the ASR capabilities of the NV series heavily, but it seems like more hype than function in this case.

Movie Mode

Movie mode functioned more than adequately, with plenty of size and quality options as well as stabilization. Sound from clips was decent as well. Like most newer cameras, the NV15 can record clips until all available memory is filled; this translates to nearly an hour of recording time at the highest quality settings with sound enabled on a 1 GB card.

IN THE SHOTS

Given the bevy of advanced features and the overall appeal of the NV15's design and functionality, the results of the after-the-shoot analysis come as something of a reality check. For a camera that is generally so pleasing to use—the focus issues aside—in the field, the NV15's straight-from-camera image quality, while more than adequate for casual users, falls short in a few of the key areas that more serious shooters look to in making purchasing decisions.

Image Color, Contrast, and Sharpening

The last generation of NV series cameras received some negative reviews elsewhere for their heavily saturated color rendition, but those interested in the NV15 shouldn't forget just how subjective such criticism often is: While it lacks the soft, natural tones of a higher-end device, to my eye the Samsung generally avoids the syrupy look seen in samples from many of its competitors, striking a nice balance that's rich and vivid without going overboard. The blue skies and fall colors in the shot below are nicely presented, with just a hint of warmth.

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(view medium image) (view large image) Well-rounded colors, with a hint of heavy red/yellow

Pure reds and yellows do tend to punch a little higher than might be desirable, causing some channel clipping under daylight shooting conditions, and there is no on-board saturation adjustment. In this same vein, the NV15 tended to consistently overexpose daylight shots, and renders every image with a high-contrast look that's pleasing in some settings but over the top in others. All of this may ultimately frustrate advanced users, but will likely go unnoticed by many.

In addition to being heavy on the contrast, the NV15's default sharpness setting is on the harsh side, producing visible sharpening artifacts in high-contrast areas.

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(view medium image) (view large image) Heavy sharpening artifacts appear along high-contrast edges

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(view medium image) (view large image) A 100% crop of the same image

Turning down the sharpening from its stock Natural setting to the more controlled Soft only plays into the weaknesses of a soft lens (see below). As with the contrast/color issues above, most users will never be troubled by the level of artifacting under the Natural setting, but those who are will need to look to the Soft setting and out-of-camera image processing for sharp, clean photos.

Noise and ISO

The NV15 has an impressive stated ISO range of 80 to 3200, beyond the high-ISO limit of many recent prosumer cameras. The usefulness of this wide range, however, is greatly limited by heavy noise that begins to appear at settings as low as ISO 400. The sample 100% crops below indicate the severity of the problem:


ISO 80

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

Small prints should be possible up to ISO 800, but ISO 1600 and 3200 require several seconds of processing time between each shot (for noise reduction, presumably), and are of little use for even the smallest prints anyway. This fact, coupled with a high minimum aperture on the long end of the zoom (5.2), makes the NV15's low-light performance less than ideal.

White Balance

White balance adjustments can only be made in Program and Manual modes. The NV15's stock Auto White Balance (AWB) setting performs admirably enough across the range of daylight shooting conditions to make changing the setting unnecessary, even on cloudy days. Indoor modes for tungsten and fluorescent lighting proved quite acceptable as well. The presence of a user-set Custom mode, which adjusts white balance based on a standard test shot, seems superfluous for a camera in this class but may have real appeal for advanced shooters.

Lens Sharpness

As discussed previously, the NV15's lens is a disappointment in several regards. In this case, poor lens sharpness—pronounced at the corners, but present across the entire image—limits print sizes well beyond what the NV15's 10.1 megapixels would suggest:  While it shouldn't usually be a problem for smaller prints, the combination of over-sharpening and a soft lens creates some visible nastiness at 100% on-screen viewing. Hence, poster-sized prints from the NV15 will require some help in post-processing for best results. All of this raises the question of how much usable resolution the NV15 really gains over the mechanically identical eight-megapixel NV8.

Lens Distortion/Vignetting

Distortion is not a primary concern with this lens. While some barrel distortion was apparent in wide angle shots, it wasn't pronounced or severe. At the other end of the zoom, there was no discernible pincushion distortion. Vignetting, however, was moderate to severe at times in wide-angle shots with the aperture stopped down.

Chromatic Aberration

Test shots under a range of conditions tending to induce chromatic aberration (CA) showed moderate to severe fringing in almost every case. While moderately challenging shooting conditions (high-contrast, indirect sunlight, light-colored surfaces) didn't usually cause enough fringing to mar a standard-sized print, the NV15's tendency to overexpose in all metering modes brought out some issues under difficult daylight shooting conditions:  The strong direct sun/backlighting and wide tonal range causes fringing that's visible even in small prints.

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(view medium image) (view large image) CA is visible even at small sizes


(view large image) 100% crop of the same shot

While CA can often be fixed with a little time and effort in post-processing, or by limiting overexposure through manual overrides, neither of these facts helps a novice user looking to shoot primarily in Auto and produce print-ready photos straight from camera.

Additional Sample Shots


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CONCLUSIONS

The final verdict, then, on the Samsung's overall image quality is mixed: On the one hand, the slightly warm color rendering comes closer to subtle than many of its competitors. On the other, image quality issues stemming from a highly limited lens and some poor in-camera processing choices may hurt the NV15's appeal with the very group of intermediate and advanced users that Samsung is clearly trying to woo with features like a full manual mode and user-set white balance.

Functionality and form of the NV15 are considerably less controversial:  This is an unquestionably excellent camera in use, with a set of features that make getting the perfect shot easy in most every case. If it may ultimately disappoint intermediate and advanced users who approach equipment with clear expectations, it is also a great entry-level piece of gear that beginners can learn with and aren't likely to quickly outgrow. While some technology seems misplaced—time could have been better spent correcting focus and lens issues than developing ASR and high-ISO capabilities of limited value, for instance—the total package is convincingly mature and stylistically superb.

On the whole, the NV15 has the power to compete with many larger, more expensive devices, and the limitations described here, while worthy of further examination, shouldn't prevent anyone who's seriously considering a camera in this range from giving the NV15 a test drive.

Pros:

Cons: