The budget and mid-range camcorder market may not be booming, as it was during the heyday of the Flip, but major players are still in the game. In fact, not only are manufacturers still releasing new devices annually, the camcorder makers are now stuffing formerly high-end features into budget devices to better compete with smartphones.
The Samsung HMX-QF30 is a perfect example of this trend. This small camcorder runs about $300 at the time of this review, and sports optical image stabilization, 20x optical zoom, Wi-Fi, touchscreen LCD, and full HD recording. It's also small, compact, and almost pocketable. A few years ago, baked-in Wi-Fi was unheard of in consumer-grade camcorders, and an HD camcorder could cost double what the HMX-QF30 now costs. But a few years ago, smartphones weren't also able to shoot decent HD video, and weren't nearly as widespread.
Build and Design
There's no doubt this is not a high-end device. The HMX-QF30 build is heavy on the plastic. It only weighs 7.5 ounces with an SD card and the battery inserted, and measures 4.1 x 1.5 x 1.1 inches (LHW). It will likely survive a drop or two, but is by no means rugged, and should not be employed to document any whitewater rafting trips or ski vacations.
The Samsung HMX-QF30 is the standard camcorder oblong shape, with the Samsung lens (f=2.6-52mm, F1.8) and manual lens cover in the front, and the controls on the back, just under the DC-in charging slot, which is covered by a small latch. The controls are simple, and only consist of a record button, tele and wide zoom control, and two options for marking favorite spots while recording clips.
The camcorder mic is on the top, and the tripod receptacles are on the bottom, in front of the latch-covered battery and SD card compartment. The HMX-QF30 takes SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards up to 64GB.
One side of the HMX-QF30 houses a handstrap, just behind the manual lens shutter, while the 2.7-inch LCD display emerges 90 degrees from the other, with the speaker underneath. The display is touch-enabled and rotates 180 degrees. It features an indicator light and home button, and covers up a small latched area that includes the micro USB, HDMI and AV outputs.
Ergonomics and Controls
The HMX-QF30 is easy to hold, thanks to its small size, and the record/snap pic button is accessible for even those with small hands. It's also just heavy enough that it's not too light, and comfortable to operate. This Samsung HD camcorder is also designed for both left- and right-handed users. It's a design feature unique to Samsung camcorders, and all users have to do is flip it around for left- or right-handed operation. The camera defaults for right-handed users, so lefties will have to use it upside down, and the zoom function does not readjust, so it may just be easier to keep it in the right hand. Still, I'm sure the lefties out there appreciate the thought.
Like many other budget camcorders, the HMX-QF30 has a manual lens cap and it's a pain. Specifically, it's a pain to remember to close it when finished shooting.
This camcorder has a 2.7-inch LCD display with 230,000 pixels. It's large enough and bright enough for users to see even on bright days. It's also touch-enabled, and most controls are accessed through it (you can toggle recording and zoom through it as well). The problem is that it's resistive touch technology, which is vastly inferior to the capacitive displays featured on most every smartphone. Resistive displays require a small bit of pressure to register the press, and the user needs to be very accurate. It works best on the QF30 via a fingernail, or even pen cap or other type or plastic pick; but even then, it doesn't work very well.
Menus and Modes
The UI has smartphone elements, and includes swipe-based navigation. Too bad the resistive touchscreen makes it so difficult. There are three shooting modes, for both stills and video:
Other menu options include:
Under settings, users can set the recordings and stills resolution. Those video options includes:
The HMX-QF30 actually has an impressive set of options. The camera filters are fun, and the manual controls are surprisingly deep for a budget device. Still, they are all controlled via the clunky touchscreen, and near impossible to set on the fly. But for framed, tripod shots, they could serve a user well, if only to teach him and her a bit about manual picture controls.
As for recording settings, the resolutions are nothing special. We're still waiting for 1080/60p recording to make its way from the more expensive camcorders to the bottom of the line.
The HMX-QF30 performs about as well as you'd expect a camcorder in its class to perform. That means it's far from outstanding, and has a few annoying drawbacks to boot.
DigitalCameraReview found Samsung's Smart Auto, or dummy mode, to be perfectly acceptable for nearly all shooting situation, which is good, considering how clunky the on-screen controls function. But even if the manual controls were easier to adjust, there is no on-screen indication to set proper levels. For example, higher-end camcorders will overlay "zebra stripes," outlines, or a splash of color to indicate overexposed or out-of-focus areas, as it's nearly impossible to eye this kind of thing on a small display. QF30 owners are out of luck however, and have to judge everything by what they see on the 2.5-inch screen.
That's to be expected on a budget device, however. What's not to be expected is the slow autofocus and time to power up. Both are noticeably slower than even less-expensive pocket camcorders, and it's quite frustrating in practice.
Video, Stills, Audio Quality
It's all subpar... all of it. In full light, the video lacks detail, the edges ill-defined, and the colors are drab. Areas are easily overexposed, and digital artifacts are constant. Even in moderately low light, noise creeps in, resulting in fuzzy footage. Compared side by side with the Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone, it's tough to tell which is better. The colors certainly look better in the S4 footage, but the QF30 has better image stabilization. And it should, as the camcorder actually has optical image stablizaiton, while the smartphone does not.
With stills, it's no comparison. The S4 is superior. The QF30 stills are barely acceptable, considering how far smartphones have come in this department. The QF30 does have a 20x optical zoom, however, giving it a momentary advantage over smartphones. But considering the specialized Samsung Galaxy S4 Zoom has a 10x optical zoom, and smartphones are shipping with upwards of 41-megapixel image sensors that enable picture enlarging with no visible loss to image quality, it likely won't be long before smartphones catch up.
The audio pickup is no worse than other video recording devices that lack an external mic input, but it's still pretty bad. You simply can't get decent audio from onboard mics. Kodak pocket camcorders had the option a few years ago, and it's perplexing why more low-cost devices haven't included the feature. After all, viewers will excuse a YouTube video of questionable video quality, but won't long stand for tinny audio.
Here is a sample shot from the HMX-QF30:
And here is a sample shot from the Samsung Galaxy S4:
Operation and Extras
The QF30 ships with a removable battery, power adapter, USB cable, and AV cable. It does not include an HDMI cable. That's lousy. Camcorder makers have long excluded the HDMI cable, for fear of upsetting retailers like Best Buy that make big bucks on absurdly marked-up cables (along with warranties, replacement parts, and other accessories). If you really want to view your footage directly from the camera, do yourself a favor and buy the cable dirt cheap online. An HDMI cable should never cost more than $10 maximum, and according to experts, the difference between the image and audio quality between cheapest generic cable and most expensive brand-name alternative is either indiscernible or nonexistent.
Of course, Wi-Fi is the key QF30 feature, and it works as advertised. Users can upload pics and videos to YouTube, Picasa, and Facebook directly from the camera. Though, punching in the network passwords and account information is a pain on the lousy touchscreen. It does not feature a QWERTY keyboard, but rather a number keyboard, 1 through 9, like and old cellphone. Users can also migrate the smaller resolution pictures and videos to smart devices via the Samsung Mobile Link app, and stream via DLNA to HDTVs. We were able to test the former successfully, but not the latter. Finally, those with a Ustream account can broadcast live and direct from the QF30 for the whole world to see.
It's tough to recommend the QF30. Even though it compares well with other devices in its class, its class of devices is no longer relevant or needed, especially to those that own a relatively new smartphone. Even with optical image stabilization, optical zoom, and Wi-Fi, it just doesn't offer enough to justify the price of a dedicated device.
If you really want a dedicated camcorder, you can likely get a ruggedized pocket device like the Kodak PlaySport on the cheap. Video and image quality will be likely the same, and it won't have Wi-Fi or the other optical features, but it will be waterproof and dustproof, which is much more useful, in our book at least.