Standard Compact of the Year: SAMSUNG NV24. This is the single biggest category in cameras, but models like the wide-angle, HDTV-compatible Samsung NV24 keep it interesting.
What do you call a digital camera that’s neither an SLR nor a superzoom nor an “ultraslim” compact? For lack of a sexier term, we’ve settled on standard compact. That makes these cameras sound like photography’s version of the sensible sedan, but in fact this is the biggest category in cameras, spanning everything from $50 bubble-pack specials to the sophisticated models here, this year’s top choices.
Smaller than superzoom compacts, standard compacts accommodate more features and overall imaging power than their ultraslim cousins. Some even accept accessories from their makers’ D-SLR systems, such as hotshoe-mount flashes and off-camera TTL cords. Standard compacts are also usually more comfortable to hold than ultraslims, and unlike the latter they often still have optical finders — allowing eye-level viewing for steadier shooting than is possible with now-familiar arms-length LCD-screen composition. Last but not least, because they aren’t trying so hard to stay small or achieve superzoom-level magnification, standard compacts are often less expensive than other kinds of point-and-shoots with otherwise comparable features.
If there’s anything more useful in a compact camera than having a 28mm-equivalent focal length, it’s having a 24mm-equivalent focal length — at least if you’re photographing the city, a wide-open landscape, or in a small interior. Twenty-four millimeters is where the Samsung NV24’s lens starts zooming, ending up at the equivalent of 86.5mm — a moderate tele focal length long enough to minimize apparent distortion in tight portraits.
If that snug interior you’re shooting is dimly lit, you’re also in good shape. At 24mm, the NV24’s zoom has a maximum aperture of f/2.8, which along with the NV24’s lens-based image stabilization and top sensitivity of ISO 3200 helps minimize blur. (The lens slows to a not-so-bright f/5.7 at the long end.) For videos of spaces wide or claustrophobic you have the option of 1,280 x 720 pixels at 30fps, with high-definition 720p HDMI output to an HDTV through an accessory cradle (about $50). And if your HDTV happens to be a new Samsung model, you can navigate through the camera menus using the television’s remote control.
The Samsung NV24’s viewing screen is probably the first on your block — an active-matrix organic LED (AM-OLED) rather than a conventional LCD. AM-OLEDs have a wider color gamut and faster “redraw” (the speed at which image-forming elements actually change), and can be made thinner too. The buzz among videophiles is that the flat-screen TVs of the future will be OLEDs. (Samsung is already showing some OLED TV prototypes.) Adding to the multimedia savvy of the NV24 is a Multi-Slide Show mode that lets you create transitions in-camera.
The array of buttons along two sides of the NV24’s screen may seem intimidating at first, but they actually make settings simpler and faster by reducing the amount of menu-scrolling you have to do. One pushbutton mode is Self Portrait, in which the shutter won’t fire unless a subject is in the center of the frame. That may not be the best composition, but at least you won’t crop off your own head.