It was only a little over a year ago that Samsung released its W200 rugged pocket camcorder, a device we believed had some strengths that were ultimately outweighed by its shortcomings. Now, Samsung has released its successor, the HMX-W300, which is dustproof, shockproof up to 6.5 feet, and waterproof up to 16.4 feet. As is usually the case with pocket camcorders, it has an affordable MSRP of $159.00 (though you can get it for $139.00 at B&H).
So did Samsung take this opportunity to ameliorate the issues that kept the W200, a promising pocket camcorder, from achieving greatness? Or is this just a redundant iteration that fails to bring any improvements -- or change at all -- to the table? Let's have a look and find out.
Build and Design
Despite the fact that the W300 is ruggedized and a little on the wide side (2.36" x 4.41" x 0.7"), it's still a lightweight camcorder. While it certainly feels tough, isn't particularly heavy, weighing in at only 137 grams (about 0.3 pounds), so it isn't uncomfortable to hold or use. There is a slightly rubberized material that runs around the edges of the device, while the rest is textured plastic, all held together by screws.
The top side is devoid of any features or controls, and the right side is home to just the power button. The bottom of the device is where users will find the tripod mount and a switch-locked door, behind which there is a spring-loaded USB plug that flips out when you open the hatch. The left side of the camcorder features a similar hatch, which conceals the microSD (XC) card slot, a micro HDMI port, and the hard reset button.
The rest of the action takes place on the backside of the device. In the center, there is a four-way directional pad -- used for navigation as well as zooming, toggling underwater shooting mode, and adjusting the amount of information displayed on the screen -- which has a confirm/OK button in its center.
The d-pad, in turn, is surrounded by three buttons on either side. On the left is the toggle for photo/vide, the menu button, and the "My Clip" button (more on this later), and on the right is the playback button, the share/pause button, and the delete button. Below all of these is a very small internal speaker and a charging indicator light.
Ergonomics and Controls
Though the W300 is big enough to have a reasonably-sized screen, it isn't massive. In fact, it's the perfect size for one-handed use, with all of the buttons easily accessible to your thumb on the back of the device; the only button that isn't on the back is the power button.
The semi-rubberized grip material that runs around the edge of the device is an excellent choice, as is the textured surface on the front and part of the back. Grippy material may seem like a given for a waterproof camcorder, but just look at the W200, which was devoid of any rubberized surfaces. Go figure. I'm just glad that Samsung put a little more thought into it this time around, even if I do wish that the rubber material on the edges was a little grippier.
The reviewer of the W200 pointed out a problem with that particular model (and with a fair amount of other pocket camcorders, for that matter), which was that the buttons weren't particularly easy to press. This is once again the case for the W300, but not quite for the same reasons she presented. She bemoaned the fact that the buttons on the W200 had a "mushy depression," but this is not the case here.
The buttons at least emit a click that you can usually feel, which is an improvement, but my issue is that they have an extremely shallow depression; the buttons barely go down before becoming fully depressed. The buttons are always responsive in terms of actually executing their commands, it's just that the presses never feel quite right. After what we saw with the W200, this is a small step in the right direction, but there's still some work to be done.
As far as pocket camcorders go, the W300 has a pretty roomy 2.3-inch LCD display, which I love. This is made possible thanks to the wide body of the device and it helps keep things from feeling claustrophobic, even when pulling up menus. I do wish, however, that Samsung had opted to leave out the "widescreen effect" black bars that run along the top and bottom of the display.
The quality of the display may leave some users wanting, as well. The viewing angle is extremely poor, and even on its highest setting, the screen isn't all that bright and can be difficult to see in bright lighting. The W300's QVGA resolution may won't blow you away either, but on the other hand, it really isn't all that important to have a stunningly high-resolution display on a pocket camcorder.
Menus and Modes
With pocket camcorders from other manufacturers, the menus are usually set up in such a way so that you're taken to another screen entirely. And in many cases, selecting a menu choice will take you to yet another separate page so, before you know it, you're four or five pages deep in the menus and navigation becomes a hassle. Thankfully, this isn't the case with the W300.
I'm a big fan of the way the menus are set up on the W300, because Samsung eschews the idea of having each page of menu options take up the whole screen so users have to suffer through menu diving. Instead, the menu is simply a semi-transparent overlay that pops up on top of the standby video feed.
Each of the menu options (represented as little icons) are on a bar that runs across the top of the screen and it's as simple as clicking left or right to sift through all the options and find what you're looking for. As you move through each category, a small pull-down menu pops up that only takes up a portion of the screen. Once you're in the right category, it's just a matter of pressing up or down to go through the options and select the one you need. All the while, the video feed is still visible in the background and not a single screen-covering page is ever pulled up. It's a much more user-friendly interface than I usually come across with pocket camcorders, and that's a welcome change.
The options in the settings menu are pretty standard for a pocket camcorder and include storage info, date/time set, date/time display (on/off), LCD brightness, Auto LCD off, beep sound toggle, shutter sound toggle, auto power off, PC software, video out (NTSC/PAL), format, restore default settings, and language.
There are some features that are missing from the W300 that I would have really liked to see, including some sort of light or flash. More often than not, videos shot underwater come out a little on the dark side and an external light could have helped with that. The zoom is also weak, as its only 3x and digital, meaning it's basically useless given how badly it pixelates the image. And finally, the digital image stabilization (DIS) doesn't do much to help reduce camera shake; optical image stabilization is far more effective.
Credit where credit is due, however, as the W300 is as tough as advertised, easily handling the various drops and underwater trials I put it through (though admittedly, I never used it in any sort of environment that would have tested its "dustproof"-ness). Also, it charges surprisingly quickly and provides users with a respectable amount of battery life. Shooting over one hour of continuous video in one sitting before tapping out, it may not be the best battery life I've ever seen on a pocket camcorder, but it's definitely solid.
Manual controls on the W300 are kept to a minimum, as it mostly opts for the usual "stupid simple" approach that most pocket camcorders take. This means that, aside from the handful of available filters, most of the settings are handled automatically (and can only be handled automatically), including focus, white balance, aperture, etc.
One of the few manual controls is the inclusion of an Aqua Mode. As the name suggests, it's to be turned on while shooting underwater to help compensate for any blurry images or distortion. There is also the My Clip button, which allows users to tag specific scenes within videos so they can skip to them instantly later without having to fast forward or rewind.
A feature that is still missing, on the other hand, is the inclusion of a macro mode, an absence that the reviewer of the W200 addressed and is still not remedied in this iteration.
Possibly the most serious issue that the W300 has, however, is with the performance of the aforementioned autofocus. As subjects enter and leave the shot, the camcorder often takes an excruciatingly long time to adjust its focus accordingly. A surefire way for this to occur is if you're taking video of some sort of landscape (or otherwise have the entire shot in focus), and then have a subject enter in the foreground close to the lens. First, the camcorder will take its time getting the foreground subject in focus while blurring out the background and establishing depth of field. But then once that close-up subject leaves the shot, the W300 struggles mightily to get the background landscape back into focus.
The same issues plague the W300 when trying to take still shots, too, as the camcorder will sometimes take a good two or three seconds to try to pull the picture into focus. And even then, photos still often come out blurry or just slightly out of focus.
Video, Stills, and Audio Performance
The W300's video quality is pretty much par for the course as far as pocket camcorders go; its sharpness will leave you wanting, despite the fact that it shoots 1080p HD video. And its maximum 30 FPS shooting speed causes the video to look a bit choppy at times while also suffering a bit from motion blur.
Despite Samsung's lauding of the W300's BSI CMOS sensor, the low-light shooting abilities of the W300 are mediocre in common conditions, with graininess and noise occurring in most indoor shots unless the room you're in is very well-lit.
However, its abilities tend to impress a little more in extreme circumstances; in very dark or shady areas, while you can still see a fair amount of grain, you can at least see your subject with a fair amount of clarity, and probably moreso than what you would see from competing pocket camcorders. Nevertheless, on the whole, I wouldn't recommend buying this camcorder for its low-light shooting capabilities, which are easily outstripped by most point-and-shoots.
And shooting underwater, while fun, definitely does not produce ideal-looking video. The already-poor sharpness of the video is further blurred by shooting underwater?in fact, almost everything seems a little more muted when shooting underwater, including the brightness, focus, color quality, and obviously, the audio quality. The one thing it does have going for it is that distortion as a result of the water is kept to a minimum, regardless of whether or not Aqua Mode is on (truth be told, I couldn't tell the difference between when it was on and when it was off).
The W300 takes okay photos for a pocket camcorder, but I'm definitely not as impressed with them as the reviewer of the W200 was with its stills. A major weak point is the oversaturation of colors, and photos look washed out to the point of appearing almost foggy. The stills could be a little sharper in my opinion, too, though I must say that I was impressed with the quality of the white balance, which almost always seemed to be spot-on.
Unfortunately, the audio quality of the videos taken with the W300 is not very good at all. The microphone is, inexplicably, located on the back of the device, so it's never even facing in the direction in which the video is being taken. While this obviously disrupts pickup, the fact that it's so small and covered to provide protection from the elements also works against you, resulting in audio that is weak, somewhat tinny, and subject to picking up a fair amount of ambient noise.
Operation and Extras
In terms of what ships in the box with the W300, it's a pretty bare-bones affair. The camera ships with a wrist strap and?that's it. No USB dongle extender, no HDMI cable, and the user manual is nothing more than a "Quick Start Guide" that's only a few pages long. Granted, it does come with an 8 GB, Class 10 microSD HC card, but this more out of necessity than anything else, due to the fact that the W300 has zero onboard storage.
Though it would have been nice to see Samsung include a hard copy, the W300 unit does come preloaded with the Intelli-studio software -- which launches upon plugging the camcorder into your computer via USB -- for importing, minor editing, and sharing. It's standard stuff for included camcorder software, but it certainly isn't bad; the user-friendly interface for video editing and the included effect options are some of its high points.
But if you'd rather just stick to drag and drop, that's an option too, as the W300 can be easily accessed as a mass storage device. Also making things simple is the fact that the W300 records video in MP4 and photos in JPEGs, so conversion is rarely necessary since those are generally accepted formats for just about anything.
With the HMX-W300, Samsung had the perfect opportunity to address many of the shortcomings of the camcorder's predecessor, the W200, which had plenty of room for improvement. Poor button construction, mediocre video quality, and the lack of a macro mode were some of our previous complaints that are still not ameliorated with the W300.
In fact, the W300 seems like more or less the same product as the W200, with the exception of perhaps a slightly better build and the introduction of new issues like its poor-quality autofocus. It's not the worst pocket camcorder we've ever seen, and its ruggedness is definitely a plus, but it was, on the whole, still very much a letdown. The W300 was a second chance for Samsung and the company didn't capitalize on it, instead opting to release a product that was, in many ways, identical to the W200 with its disappointing performance.