THE GOOD: Overall good features, design, performance, and photos for its price.
THE BAD: Mediocre low-light photos; confusing GPS setup; using ASM mode is a pain.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Samsung's HZ35W is pretty much an across-the-board improvement from its predecessor resulting in a GPS-enabled compact megazoom worth considering.
The Samsung HZ35W is a bit of a surprise. Its predecessor, the HZ15W, was sort of a mess and going into this review I didn't have high hopes. The HZ35W is, as it should be, a better camera than that model with Samsung making improvements to design and photo quality and adding a GPS receiver, a sharper, higher-resolution display, and a longer, wider lens.
Shooting performance isn't improved, but it was already pretty good, so there's no real disappointment there. The menu system still needs some help and there are wrinkles in the GPS setup that need to be addressed. The semimanual and manual modes are sort of a pain to use. Plus, its high-ISO/low-light photo quality could be better.
Those who make a lot of setting changes or really want the ASM mode might want to reconsider, but the HZ35W is otherwise a solid compact megazoom, especially for those who want the longest, widest lens in a pocketable body and built-in geotagging.
The HZ35W is one of the larger compact megazooms I've tested this year. To be fair, though, it has the widest and the longest lens in this class. It has a brilliant high-resolution 3-inch AMOLED screen, too, which performed very well in direct sunlight. The body is a mix of dark gray metal and chrome plastic and feels sturdy. It's a nice-looking, unassuming camera--at least with the lens retracted--and fits easily in a jacket pocket or bag and awkwardly in a pants pocket. Despite the large, heavy lens, the camera is well-balanced and comfortable to hold and use.
One of the biggest selling points for the HZ35W is the built-in GPS receiver for geotagging photos while they're being taken. Unfortunately, the out-of-the-box experience of using the GPS is less than intuitive. It starts out well because Samsung put an actual switch on top for turning the receiver on and off--definitely better than going into menus to do it. However, once you flip the switch, there's no indication that the camera is actually searching for satellites; there's just an onscreen icon that says "On." It wasn't until after 15 minutes of shooting that the icon turned green and my location appeared onscreen that I realized it had been searching for a signal. Like most GPS-enabled cameras, it isn't easy to connect in the middle of a city in between tall buildings; if you're out in the open it connects quickly and stays locked on. The biggest problem is that you really have to sit still with the camera to get it to connect faster.
Once connected, the tagging is seamless. You can then import the tagged photos using Samsung's Intelli-studio software (installed to a Windows computer directly from the camera by USB) or something like Google Picasa and view them on a map so you can see approximately where you were when you took them. The tags are also viewable on the camera using its Map View mode, which lets you look at up to three of your photos at a time and their mapped locations on the camera's display. You can also use Map View for seeing your current location on a map along with a compass. However, to do both of these things you must first download the maps for the country you're in and copy the maps to your memory card. If you attempt to use Map View without doing this, the camera puts up a message telling you to go download the maps. Formatting your memory card will wipe out the maps, too, so make sure to store them elsewhere just in case. Also, the camera seems to favor slower shutter speeds over higher ISOs when using auto settings. This isn't necessarily a bad thing considering its high-ISO performance, but you will end up with a lot of blurry photos if you're not paying attention.
One other minor annoyance: the GPS doesn't tag video, which is fine, but if you switch to recording a movie from shooting photos, the GPS drops out and when you go back to shooting stills, you have to wait for it to connect all over again. Again, if you're in the middle of an open area, it's pretty fast, but shooting in a city will leave you waiting.
All of this stuff adds up to a less-than-thrilling experience when using the GPS for the first time. Once you download the maps and understand the ins and outs, though, using it isn't difficult.
The camera's controls are reasonably straightforward. Along with the GPS power switch on top there is a power button, shooting mode dial, and the shutter release with a zoom ring, which are angled slightly downward toward the front making them fractionally more comfortable to use. On back at the top right is a one-touch record button for movies that's eminently more useful than the exposure compensation rocker from the HZ15W. Further down is a Menu button for accessing all shooting and setup options; a four-way directional pad for navigation and changing display information, setting a timer, entering macro and manual focus, or turning on the flash; a Playback button; a Function (Fn) button that brings up a context-sensitive shooting menu. Again, the controls are all pretty clear-cut, but the menu system is less so. For some reason, once you navigate through to what you want to change, you get bounced back out to the Function menu, which looks different than the main menu system you were just in. Once you make your selection you have to hit Menu again and it bounces you back into the main menu system. Every time you bounce in and out the screen goes black for a second. It's just a little too much for making simple setting changes.
As for inputs and outputs, there's a flip-open door on the body's right side covering Mini-HDMI and Mini-USB/AV ports. The Mini-HDMI is a standard size, but for some reason I could not get my personal cable to fit. A Mini-HDMI-to-USB cable is included for connecting to a computer and charging. Samsung didn't have a CIPA-rated battery life for this camera, but in informal testing it took more than 200 shots in mixed use with the GPS on. It seemed to charge very quickly, too, using the bundled wall adapter.
Shooting modes range from full auto to full manual. The Smart Auto mode automatically chooses the appropriate camera settings based on 17 scene types--everything from Portrait or Landscape to Macro Text or Fireworks. If you want to take some of the guesswork out of the process there are 13 scene-shooting settings including a Frame Guide option that lets you compose a shot, capture part of the precomposed scene on screen, and then hand the camera off to someone else to take the picture while you get in the shot. There's also an Auto mode that lets you set image size and quality, face and smile detection, select focus area, and take advantage of color and lens effects, while all other shooting options are handled automatically. Switching to Program adds control over exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, and metering, among a few other things.
Still not enough control for you? The camera does have aperture- and shutter-speed priority modes as well as full manual. However, they are a pain to use because you have to open up the Fn menu every time you want to change the settings. Also, if you decide you want to switch from one mode to another, you either have to go two steps into the main menu system or turn the mode dial out of and back into the ASM position. Apertures at the wide end include: f3.2, f3.6 f4.2, f4.6, f5.2, f5.8, f6.6, f7.3, f8.3, f9.3, f10.3, f11.6. With the lens fully extended you get: f5.8, f6.8, f7.6, f8.3, f9.6, f10.7, f12.0. Shutter speeds range from 16 seconds to 1/2,000 of a second.
If you like taking closeups, the HZ35W does pretty well in Macro mode. It's able to focus as close as 1.2 inches from a subject. Macro can be entered automatically in Smart Auto mode or set to it in Program or ASM modes. And as long as you can keep the ISO low, you'll get reasonably sharp results with good fine detail. If you like things even sharper, there's an in-camera slider for bumping it up as well as contrast and saturation.
Also on the Mode dial is Dual IS that uses the camera's optical image stabilization along with electronic image stabilization. Most manufacturers make this a menu option, so why Samsung continues to make this a full mode you have to enter is beyond me. The spot could be better filled with a user-selectable scene mode or custom shooting settings.
Lastly, there is a Movie mode capable of recording at resolutions up to 720p HD quality at 30 or 15 frames per second. You can also capture at VGA quality at 60fps. You do get use of the zoom lens while recording, but in completely quiet surroundings you will hear the movement of the lens and autofocus. If it bothers you, there is a menu option to shut off the mic while zooming. Those who want to get creative with their movies can use the camera's lens and photo effects while recording, too.
For a CCD-sensor-based compact megazoom, the Samsung HZ35W's shooting performance is very good; Sony's CMOS-sensor-based Cyber-shot DSC-HX5V is slightly faster overall, but handily beats in continuous shooting. The Samsung starts up and shoots in 1.9 seconds. Shutter lag--how quickly a camera captures an image after the shutter-release button is pressed--is average at 0.5 second in bright lighting, but is slightly above average in low light at 0.7 second. Its shot-to-shot time is about 2 seconds and adding flash to that extends that wait to 3.2 seconds. If you're in need of high-speed continuous shooting, this camera isn't for you; it averages only 0.9fps. Again, the shooting performance is very good for its class, but still, it's best suited for shots of still subjects and not fast-moving kids, pets, and athletes.
The HZ35W's photo quality is very good up to ISO 200. At these lower sensitivities subjects are relatively sharp with little to no visible noise when viewed at 100 percent. However, between ISO 100 and ISO 200, photos become softer, and by ISO 400 there's a noticeable decline with noise reduction smearing detail. Unless you're really picky about photo quality, the results with little or no cropping or enlarging are fine for 5x7-inch prints or smaller and Web use. At ISO 800, there's significant detail loss and start to pick up yellow blotches from noise. The results aren't unusable until ISO 1,600 because of smearing, noise, and color issues. Basically the HZ35W is like a lot of compact cameras: very good in bright light, but indoor and low-light photos are weaker.
Megazoom cameras generally have trouble resolving details when their lens is fully extended. The HZ35W's photos at its longest focal length are on par or slightly better than similar models, though. You will need a lot of light to keep the shutter speed fast and sensitivity below ISO 200, though, as the biggest aperture is f5.8 at the telephoto end. Samsung does an excellent job of controlling lens distortion, too, as there was no discernible barrel or pincushion distortion in my test shots. Also under control is the amount of purple fringing in high-contrast areas. The amount is negligible and only really visible at 100 percent. The lens is reasonably sharp, too, and there's no drop-off edge to edge or in the corners.
What earned this camera's photo quality some extra points is its color performance; the colors were accurate in our lab tests and bright, vivid, and pleasing in my test photos. Plus, Samsung gives you plenty of options for tweaking them. Exposure and white balance are very good, too. Although, typical of compact cameras, clipped highlights are common.
Video quality is OK, on par with good DVD video. Panning the camera too quickly or shooting moving subjects will result in judder. In these cases I recommend taking advantage of the smoother 60fps VGA option. There are stereo mics on top of the camera, but they aren't terribly sensitive, so you'll want to stand as close to your subjects as possible.
Overall the Samsung HZ35W is a pleasing compact megazoom, roundly improving on its predecessor, the HZ15W. That's not to say it's perfect. The implementation of the GPS needs fixing and getting at some of its features and shooting options is cumbersome, requiring too much menu navigation. Its photo quality isn't great above ISO 400, either. But if you're after a decent snapshot camera with an ultrawide-angle lens and a long zoom range in pocketable body (albeit a large pocket), the HZ35W is worth considering--especially if its price comes down a bit.