Samsung PL90 Review

December 1, 2010 | Gavin Stoker |


The Samsung PL90 is the first ever digital camera to feature a built-in USB connector, which provides quick, convenient USB data transfer to any computer without having to carry extra cables. The 12.2 megapixel Samsung PL90 also features a 4x, 28-112mm zoom lens with Digital Image Stabilization, 2.7 inch LCD screen, 640x480 VGA movies, ISO 80-3200, Samsung's Smart Auto (Still & Movie) technology, Perfect Portrait System, and Smart Album feature. The Samsung PL90 is available for $149.99 / £129.99.

Ease of Use

Inspired by the success of the Flip Video, in the arena of the digital pocket cam (pocket camcorder), devices with flip out USB connector arms that allow their users to hook up directly to a PC for charging the internal battery - as well as downloading the contents of the built-in drives - are commonplace. In fact the feature is practically seen as a must.

To the best of our knowledge, Samsung's PL90 is the first instance of such an integral USB connection appearing on a digital stills camera. Here the 'arm' is tucked in unobtrusively next to the shared compartment for battery and - ugh - microSD card at the base. Thus almost uniquely equipped the PL90 bobs momentarily above the normally indistinguishable flotsam and jetsam at the lower end of the snapshot camera market. We had the sophisticated looking matt black version in for review. As is often the way, only a quick start manual is provided out of the box with the full manual on CD.

Whilst we do also get a short USB extension lead that connects to a USB port within a mains plug for alternatively charging the battery in-camera, the idea is to do away with all that messy cabling that unfurls and spills out of camera boxes every time we open them. Or alternatively snakes around our desktops getting in the way. Also, if you carry a laptop with you at all times, you have a power source for the camera right there when it's needed.

The downside is that, because you always need to charge the battery in camera, even if buying a spare you're no better off. The camera will still be tied up each time the battery needs charging.

Funky connection aside, the rest of the PL90's headline specification appears fairly standard for its £130 UK asking price. Here that means a 12.2 effective megapixels still resolution, wide angle 4x optical zoom (28-112mm in 35mm terms), 640x480 pixels video (a slight disappointment) at 30 frames per second or 15fps, plus a 2.7-inch, 230k dot 'intelligent' LCD screen adorning the rear. This is flanked by a basic yet functional array of buttons that are very similar in layout to direct rivals in this price bracket. We're talking the Olympus FE-4050 and FE-5050, Pentax Optio M900 and Nikon Coolpix S5100 to name a few.

Like those cameras the SL90 is barely larger than a credit card, and with slender proportions of 97.8x157x17.9mm slips as easily into the pocket of a pair of jeans as it will a jacket or handbag, weighing just 122g without battery and card. The build quality is a match for the Nikon S5100 too, and like that model it's better than expected at this price point courtesy of more obvious metal details than plastic ones.

Very still much a budget friendly point and shoot snapper however, the PL90 is something to pull out and be up and shooting with quickly should the photo opportunity present itself. Thus it's no surprise to find Samsung again rolling out its take on intelligent auto shooting in the aptly named Smart Auto, which like its competitors' systems recognizes common scenes and subjects and switches settings automatically to deliver optimal results. Unlike some however this works whether shooting stills or shooting video.

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Front Rear

We also get the facial flaw reducing Beauty Shot function common to the Samsung range, plus the ubiquitous Face Detection that can here detect up to 12 faces in any given frame. Smile and Blink Detection are natural extensions of this, found within the same user menu. At the playback stage the PL90 also has a Smart Album feature, allowing users to search for pictures not just by the usual date and time, but, esoterically, also by colour.

From the front then the Samsung PL90 appears much the same as any other snapshoot camera, the standard boxy oblong with lens ranged to one side and dominating proceedings, window AF assist/self timer lamp situated top left, next to which is a lozenge shaped integral flash. As seems par for the course at this lower end of the market, there's no handgrip of any description featured on the PL90.

The lug for attaching a wrist strap curves slightly backwards at the rear, only very marginally preventing your thumb from slipping and sliding around as you hold the camera in your right hand. There's nothing at all for the fingers to get a purchase on at the front, but at least the flash, in being inset by about an inch, avoids the usual problem of fingers partially obscuring it.

A mono microphone is tucked into the side of the camera to the left of the lens, and dead centre on the same side is a speaker. Over at the opposite end of the camera we find the aforementioned curving lug for the strap plus a plastic flap hiding a single AV output port. There's no HDMI connectivity option here - what do you expect for the price? - and since  the USB arm is located at the base, this connection feels a little isolated and so easily overlooked.

The top of the camera meanwhile features three controls set into a snazzy, mirrored chrome strip - or four if you count the lever for operating the zoom that encircles the shutter release button. Both are sloped slightly forward, a lip at the front of the lever falling under the pad of your forefinger, so you can locate it 'blind' when attention is otherwise taken up by whatever's on the LCD screen. The latter presents the standard 4:3 aspect ratio.

Next to these top strip controls is a lozenge shaped power button, slightly inset to prevent accidental activation when fetching the camera in and out of a pocket. Next to this is a dedicated button for, more unusually for the Samsung family, the camera's Smart Auto mode; its inclusion reminds us of the 'iA' mode buttons that have crept into the Panasonic range.

Press the power button and Samsung's new PL90 readies itself for the first shot in around a second. That's fast; its rear screen bursting into life and small and stubby lens extending to maximum wideangle setting. This movement is accompanied by an audible buzz of mechanics.

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Front USB Connector

A half press of the shutter release button and focus and exposure is determined after the briefest of pauses, AF point/s highlighted in green accompanied by a bright beep of affirmation that the shot can be taken. Alternatively the central AF point glows red if you're too close to the subject and the camera is struggling.

The compositional screen is bright and clear, whilst a nudge of the zoom lever prompts the ST90 to travel through the entirety of its range in around two seconds. We did however occasionally find the camera got 'stuck' at extreme wideangle or maximum telephoto setting and took a second or two to 'wake up' again and get going. Take a shot and a full resolution image is committed to memory in another second or so, the screen freezing from the briefest of moments before return to the live relay. Again, this is a pleasingly swift response from this outwardly modest snapper.

As seems to be increasingly the case with the latest generation of point and shoots, the back plate of the camera features a mode button as its toppermost control rather than the traditional wheel or dial. Press this and you get half a virtual wheel appearing on screen, the options here being, from the top, Smart Auto, Program mode, Digital Image Stabilisation, Scene and Movie modes. The Scene mode features 13 options, and it's here one will find the Beauty mode along with the typical portrait, landscape and night shooting options - here displayed as a vertical list at the right hand side of the screen alongside the shooting mode options on the left.

There's no separate red record button for the movie mode however, so recording begins and ends with a conventional press of the camera's top plate shutter release button. Despite a low buzz as the zoom adjusts - your footage momentarily going in and out of focus as the camera adjusts too - happily the optical zoom can be used when shooting video. Should you wish to carry out self-editing as you're filming, Samsung has also included the option to pause live video recording, here neatly implemented with a press of the 'OK' button at the centre of a familiar control pad on the ST90's back. Useful for when the kids or pets stop doing something cute just as you've started recording.

Beneath 'mode' is a self-explanatory menu button, a press of which brings up options pertaining to whichever shooting mode has been selected at the previous stage. For example in Program we get the chance to adjust photo size (12MP down to 1MP, including 10MP in 3:2 ratio and 9MP at 16:9) plus quality (Super Fine, Fine or Normal compression levels), as well as adjust exposure compensation  (+/- 2EV) and select the white balance and ISO options - here ranging from ISO80 to ISO3200; again not a bad range given the camera's modest price and status. There's even a message warning less experienced users that 'noise may increase' when the photographer alights on ISO800 or above - what's less obvious from the camera manual and settings is that resolution drops to three megapixels at ISO3200. Face detection (with smile and blink detection options) can also be activated here, as can metering and focus area options (centre AF, multi point or AF tracking) be changed.

Rather more interestingly perhaps, under menu is where we find the Samsung's photo style selector options. These range from the default of 'normal', through our favoured subtle saturation boosting 'vivid' setting, and on to 'retro', 'cool', 'calm' and 'classic'. Sound, display and basic settings options (time and date, with the ability to format the memory in use) can be further explored with a press of menu and a tab through the relevant list of options for each.

Next down the camera back we find the familiar four-way control pad. At 12 o'clock is a means of turning the basic display information on, or off, to show a clean image free of all distractions except for an indicator of battery life and shots remaining. At three o'clock we get the self-timer options - here the usual 10 or two seconds, plus further choices of taking one image after ten seconds and subsequently another image after two, or the option for the camera to detect motion for up to six seconds and then take a snap when it has detected the subject has stopped. Again, children and pets seem the obvious beneficiary subjects.

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Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

At six o'clock on the pad meanwhile we have the option to switch between regular auto focus and macro focus, variously shooting at 80cm to infinity or less than 80cm (down to a so-so 12cm from your subject), while at nine o'clock we find the flash options. Here there's the ability to disable the flash (our favoured option), or automatically detect and remove instances of red eye, along with slow sync, fill in, red eye prevention and auto flash options.

Beneath the control pad are the last two buttons on the camera back, and of identical size to one another. To the left is the obvious playback button, while to the right we have an 'fn' (function) button that also doubles up as a delete button should the user already be in playback mode.

In review mode, a press of the menu button provides access to the ability to carry out basic image edits, such as rotate, resize and even adjust brightness, contrast and saturation - or add noise (!) - in camera if so wished. The same photo style selections can be applied post capture as well as at the point of capture.

A press of the 'fn' button meanwhile and we are presented with a list of key options down the left hand side of the screen, as a short cut if you like. It's here we can again adjust the likes of picture quality, the camera's metering, focus area and ISO on the hoof, with a drive mode option added providing single or continuous capture options.

As you'll have gathered from the above, operation of the Samsung PL90 is pretty much self explanatory and shouldn't trouble anyone - even mobile phone users - coming to this camera for the first time. Zoom occasionally freezing up at the extremities of its range aside, it's generally fast and responsive.

The base of the camera meanwhile features the aforementioned connection arm, screw thread for a tripod at one side, and a catch for opening (or closing) the door that protects the joint microSD and battery compartment. The rechargeable lithium ion cell here is good for just 200 shots by Samsung's reckoning, though we managed probably two thirds of that total before it gave out on us. We're not big fans of microSD as a storage format either; beyond anything else it's particularly fiddly to insert into and retrieve from the camera. Plus, most of us already own armfuls of SD or SDHC cards, without having to go out and buy another format.

The proof of any camera is of course found in its images however. So how does the SL90 stack up for picture quality? Does it transcend what we'd expect from a point and shoot at this price - as we found with Nikon's S5100 - or fall rather short in the final summation? Read on to find out…