Samsung WB650 Review

June 23, 2010 | Mark Goldstein |


The Samsung WB650 (also known as the Samsung HZ35W) is a 12 megapixel compact camera with a 15x, 24-360mm optically-stabilized lens and a large 3 inch AMOLED LCD screen. The WB650 travel-zoom also offers built-in GPS for automatically geo-tagging your digital images, 720p HD video recording and an HDMI port for quick and easy playback on a High Definition TV set. A wealth of auto modes - Smart Auto, Face Detection, Smile Shot, Blink Detection, Self Portrait and Beauty Shot - promise to make it easier for beginners to take great photos, and there are also advanced A/S/M shooting modes for the more experienced user. The Samsung WB650 / HZ35W is available in black for £299 / $349.

Ease of Use

The Samsung WB650 is identical to the WB600 / HZ30W that we've previously reviewed, with the notable additions of GPS tracking and an AMOLED screen. First impressions are of a bold and chunky design with a depth of 28mm and weighing 220g, a little more than the WB600. Constructed out of robust plastic with shiny chrome detailing and large buttons, the WB650 is just small and light enough to carry in a trouser pocket or small camera bag. Apparently the WB prefix stands for 'Wide' and 'Big' - not necessarily the attributes you'd want attributed to a 'compact' - but here it actually refers to the lens reach, equivalent to an impressively versatile 24-360mm in 35mm terms.

Although it hasn't got an 'HD' suffix in the model name, as indicated in our introduction the Samsung WB650 nevertheless offers High Definition video clips in the economical H.264 format (though at 1280x720 pixels rather than Full HD 1920x1080) which can be paused mid-record and recording then re-started. The user can therefore perform rudimentary 'editing' as they shoot. The full extent of the 15x optical zoom is accessible when shooting movies - since that is one of the camera's key selling points, it would have been a travesty if it hadn't.

As expected, the large lens dominates proceedings at the front of the WB650, its surround jutting out almost a centimetre even when the camera is inactive, suggesting Samsung could have found room for a lens thread for supplementary attachments. The lens takes up the full height of the face plate, meaning the built-in flash bulb is shifted over to the left out of harm's way. Alongside the flash is a small porthole-style window for the AF assist/self timer lamp, and underneath 9 small holes for the microphone. The WB650 doesn't have any hand-grip, with only a slight outward curve in the camera body providing any kind of purchase, making it a little difficult to hold steady.

Looking down on the camera's top plate we find a row of chunky controls set into a wide mirrored chrome strip that lends the Samsung WB650 a modicum of style. Starting at the left, there's a raised black plastic housing proudly emblazoned with the memorable strapline "GPS For Digital Nomad". Whether you consider yourself to be a digital nomad or not, the inclusion of this innocuous looking addition to the WB650, combined with the plastic GPS On / Off switch alongside it, provides a number of ways to geo-tag and display your photos.

GPS is a brand new feature for Samsung compact cameras and brings the WB650 into direct competition with Panasonic's popular TZ10 camera. It allows you to geo-tag your photos, with the latitude and longitude co-ordinates stored in the EXIF data, and then sort and display them using geo-friendly websites such as Google Earth and Google Maps. Samsung go one step further by providing an in-camera map view function which is accessed via the shooting mode dial, although rather unintuitively there are no provided maps on the camera. You have to download them from Samsung's website onto a memory card, which is a rather tortuous process that requires some streamlining on Samsung's part. In addition formatting your memory card deletes the map files and folder structure that you've carefully setup, which quickly gets irritating.

You can manually reset the GPS position and force the camera to use new data. This is important because the WB650 has a tendency to keep using an old position if you, say, catch the London tube and travel a few miles underground, in which case it needs to be manually updated. Annoyingly the camera doesn't display which satellites its locked onto, so it's best to perform a manual reset whenever you travel other than on foot. Other than this idiosyncrasy, the WB650's GPS receiver works a lot better than previous GPS-capable cameras that we've reviewed, saving accurate positioning information for most of the images that we shot in built-up central London, making this camera much more useful for urban photographers. The main downside of the WB650's GPS is the subsequent drain on battery life, with the camera only managing just over 200 shots with GPS turned on instead of the 275 that it can manage without.

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Front Rear

Either side of the GPS On switch are a twin set of holes for the stereo sound recording system, and to the right is an indented Power button, surrounded by a circular ring that glows an attractive 'Samsung blue' when in use. Not perhaps what you'd want if trying to use the camera surreptitiously at night, but then the glow from the 3-inch rear LCD screen - in the absence of an optical viewfinder - kind of gives the game away anyway.

To the right, and 'sunk' slightly into the bodywork, is a familiar bottle top style dial for the shooting modes. This feels firm to the touch and well implemented, in that the user can't accidentally slip from one setting to the other. Ranged around the dial are the expected Auto and Program settings, plus Samsung's own 'Smart Auto' mode. As it sounds, this is the manufacturer's equivalent of the intelligent auto modes on competitors from Panasonic (its Lumix range), Sony (the latest T-series Cyber-shots) and Canon (Digital IXUS family). Namely you point the WB650 at a scene or subject that hopefully the camera recognizes, automatically adjusting its settings to deliver optimum results. This means that it's not necessary for the user to manually delve into scene modes to call up the likes of 'landscape' or 'flower'; the WB650's operation is merely a case of point and shoot.

Incidentally, as you turn the shooting dial, a virtual version which the same eight settings rotates in tandem on screen, highlighting and explaining each one as you select it. Also found on the dial are a 'Dual IS' mode - which offers both optical image stabilization and the ISO boosting digital variety. In terms of light sensitivity the Samsung WB650 offers a very respectable range, stretching from ISO 80 up to ISO 3200. We'll of course be examining how well it does at its higher settings in the Image Quality section of our review.

Adjacent to the previously discussed Map View mode is a dedicated scene mode. But rather than this mode automatically displaying its settings as icons, the user has to press the 'menu' button at the camera's rear and scroll down the text options to find them. Along with 'Night', 'Portait', 'Children' and 'Landscape' we get 'text', 'sunset', 'dawn' and 'backlight', with 13 choices in total.

One of those is Samsung's 'beauty shot' mode, useful for both acne-d adolescents and those of us who have over indulged by automatically retouching out spots and blemishes. Spotlighting the WB650's intended audience as the family, Samsung clearly wants its users to have to spend as little time post-processing images as possible - if any.

Samsung's Smart Face Recognition technology automatically adjusts the camera's focus and exposure for up to 20 faces, and it can even recognise the most photographed faces in your photos and focus on them. Smart Face Recognition also lets you quickly search for specific people in your photo album without having to browse through every single photo.

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Side Front

The adjacent setting on the dial is for video mode. Here users get the opportunity to either shoot at top 720p resolution, a less memory hungry 640x480 pixels, or 320x240 pixels; choice dependant on intended use (whether playing back on an HDTV or merely posting on the Internet). Maximum frame rate at 1280x720 resolution is 30fps, with a reduced 15fps rate also selectable with a press of the button marked 'Fn' (or 'Function') on the camera back. Should users however plump for the very lowest picture quality, a higher frame rate of 60fps is selectable.

A major new feature for this WB-series generation is the addition of Aperture and Shutter priority shooting modes to the already present full Manual mode. With a full range of apertures and shutter speeds available, these two new modes are a very welcome inclusion that bridge the gap between Program and full Manual. There's no external dial for changing the values, instead you have to press the Function button then use the left and right navigation pad keys - but despite this rather slow form of operation, the A/S/M modes make the WB650 more appealing to a wider audience.

Staying on the Samsung WB650's top plate, the next control along is the large-ish and springy shutter release button, surrounded by a rocker switch for operating the zoom. Controlled by a protruding lip that falls naturally under the forefinger, the zoom takes around five seconds to travel from maximum wide angle to full telephoto - which is a little below par for the course for its focal range. We did find on occasion that said zoom took a moment or two to 'wake up' - and that its transitions are sound-tracked by a low mechanical blur; but said sound is low enough to avoid being off-putting.

That aside, once you've zoomed in and got your composition how you want, with a half press of the shutter button the Samsung WB650 is commendably swift to determine focus and exposure, the AF point highlighted in green and an operational 'beep' confirming you're good to go on and take the shot. With little noticeable shutter lag, at highest resolution setting an image is committed to memory in just under two seconds, the screen blanking out briefly, which isn't bad at all.

Moving to the back of the Samsung WB650, this is dominated by the three-inch AMOLED screen, with a vertical strip of controls running from top to bottom at its right. The AMOLED screen is brighter and sharper than the traditional LCD screen on the WB600 model, with 920k pixel resolution and 10000:1 contrast ratio. It's also easier to see outdoors, although it doesn't completely solve the issue of viewing in bright sunlight or from extreme angles. It is significantly better than the majority of compact camera screens, and worth paying a premium for.

At the top of the run of controls is a new and welcome one-touch movie record button, making it a cinch to start and stop your high-def movie masterpieces. Underneath is the Menu button which provides a range of selectable options, the brevity or otherwise of which is dependant on the particular mode the user is in. Let's assume, for example, we're shooting in program mode. With menu selected an icon illustrated top bar provides drop down access to fine tuning the recording options. These include the ability to tweak operational sounds, LCD display, plus access to a setting menu, enabling memory to formatted or previously selected functions reset.

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Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

Directly underneath the Menu button is a four-way directional control pad with an OK button at its centre. This will be familiar to just about anyone who has ever used a digital compact before. Ranged around the four points are options for toggling the Display modes to show a nine zone compositional grid, all shooting information or just the very basics (i.e simply the number of shots remaining), self-timer modes, macro and focus modes, and the various flash settings.

A press of the OK button when shooting video meanwhile allows the user to pause and play/resume the recording - the feature which Samsung is highlighting as one of the WB650's unique ones. It works, though whether most of us would actually need/use it is a moot point.

Below the control pad is a self-explanatory Playback button and the useful Function button, which handily doubles up as a delete button in playback mode. As expected the amount of information and options accessed via a press of 'Fn' varies dependant on which shooting mode is selected. For example in regular auto mode the user merely has the ability to adjust image size and resolution. Twist the dial around the program mode however and there's the ability to swap focus area, metering modes, change from single shot to continuous capture, choose from the range of ISO settings, adjust white balance or turn the ubiquitous face detection mode on or off. Like its rivals, Samsung also allows user access to blink detection and smile shot in this mode.

While that's it for the rear of the Samsung WB650, at its right hand side (if viewing from the rear) we find an included mini-HDMI port for hooking the snapshot up to an HDTV. Increasingly common for DSLRs that also shoot movies, it's still a comparative rarity to find such on a digital compact, even if it does shoot HD video. The required HDMI cable is an optional extra though, so bear in mind if you're on a budget.

Alongside the HDMI connection is a proprietary connector for Samsung's power and sync cable - the WB650 is recharged with the battery in-camera, either from an electrical socket or or alternatively straight from a USB port connected to your computer, rather than via an external recharger, which means that annoyingly you can't use the camera with a second battery whilst charging the first. Note that there is no port for USB and AV out. Also in the box is a quick-start guide as a hard copy, the full manual on CD ROM, plus a wrist strap.

The bottom of the Samsung WB650 houses a centrally located metal tripod mount and a a sliding cover for protecting for the shared rechargeable battery / SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card compartment - there's also 128Mb of internal memory. Battery life is good for approximately 275 shots from a full charge - adequate if not incredible - although note that this is reduced to around 200 shots if you leave the GPS constantly turned on. As previously noted, Samsung provides a compact plug/charger set up in the box that charges the battery within the camera itself.