Samsung slid its 'multi-proof' W200 pocket cam out a couple of months back, and we've spent the past few weeks testing it out in a place that's no stranger to water (read: the Big Island of Hawaii). Hailed as a waterproof and shockproof 1080p pocket camcorder, it most resembles a ruggedized version of Cisco's now-deceased Flip HD, and it's definitely a heck of a lot more petite than Canon's PowerShot D10 -- a waterproof P&S that we reviewed back in June of '09. Aside from putting high-def recording capabilities in the palm of your pruney hand, the W200's other key selling point is the trifecta of digits to the left of the decimal. At just $150 on the street, it's certainly classifiable as a bargain in the category, but does it deliver results worthy of laud? Read on for our take!
Jelly effect in videosNot nearly rugged enoughNo manual controls at all
It's a respectable underwater offering for the price, but true argonauts are probably better off spending more for something that's constructed for serious abuse.
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With a 0.28 pounds chassis measuring 2.36- (W) x 4.45- (H) x 0.78-inches (D), the W200 is definitely diminutive for what it is. It's also a familiar form factor, one that slips easily into any pocket and one that doesn't look rugged despite being rugged. Strangely enough, the entire outer ring is constructed of a hard plastic rather than a rubberized bumper. Not only would the latter have played a vital role in making it easier to grip with wet hands, but it would've added a pinch of shock protection that's sorely missing (more on that later).
The front is graced with a shielded F2.2 lens, which -- much to our chagrin -- has no optical zoom to speak of. The right side is equipped with a microSDHC slot and HDMI port, and the bottom touts a standard tripod socket alongside a flip-out USB socket. That's convenient on a number of levels; for one, that's one less charger you'll need in your carry-on bag (read: it charges over USB), and secondly, it allows you to transfer your captures onto your computer without fiddling around to find a microSD-to-SD adapter.
Around back, you'll find a 2.3-inch LCD, a D-pad control dial, a smattering of buttons and a microphone port. The LCD is shockingly vibrant even in direct sunlight, and the two-stage shutter / "OK" button is quite the useful beast when you're looking to lock a focus point before firing a shot. Regretfully, the microphone port is placed right where the thumb falls for folks handling this with their left hand. We routinely had to think about where our hand was positioned, and most times, we were left holding it awkwardly in order to not muffle whatever audio was being projected its way. We're struggling to figure out why the mic port couldn't have been installed a little further north -- as it sits, it's right in the line of one's digit, and it's something users will undoubtedly have to remain conscious of.
Then, there's the carry strap. An altogether forgettable lanyard is tossed into the box, and compared to the locking carabiner setup on the aforementioned D10, this approach was just woeful. For a device that's destined to end up tethered to your wrist in underwater situations, we would've preferred a far more secure offering than what's here. One wrong twist of the wrist, and this thing's headed for whatever shore it pleases. Frankly, we've seen nicer straps on non-waterproof cameras.
Features and performance
Let's start with the user interface. Sammy's done an exemplary job here; it's dead simple to navigate through menus, and we'd guess that most users will have their settings in place and ready to roll within five minutes. Of course, the simplistic nature of the device aids in this. There's no optical zoom, no manual controls at all and just two movie mode options: 1080p and 720p. So, while it's a lesson in simplicity to peruse the menu tree, we can't help but lament the fact that there's no way to specify an ISO ceiling, an aperture setting or a minimum shutter speed. We know, those kinds of things are just now creeping into lower-end cameras, but still -- we would've loved even a buried section that allowed for some tweaking.
Startup and shutdown were stunningly quick; it took but two seconds to go from off to firing in our testing. Switching back and forth from still to video mode requires but a press of a dedicated button (kudos on that, Samsung), and the amount of remaining stills / minutes of video are clearly displayed along the top of the panel. Speaking of stills, there's a five megapixel image sensor that's capable of grabbing ho hum frames for moments when video just isn't ideal. You'll find practically no settings outside of "shoot," but snaps taken with plenty of daylight tended to turn out decently in our testing. Low-light shots were predictably unusable, generally littered with noise and blur.
There's also something to be said for the unit's anti-fog lens coating -- that "something" is this: it works. And it works well. We took the device on a snorkel trip to Captain Cook's Monument in South Kona, Hawaii, and not once did fog become an issue. 'Course, the water's about as clear as it gets here, but it's still comforting to know that you won't have to worry over wiping the lens off every so often to ensure a cloud-free capture.
Image and video quality
We'll start with stills. By all accounts, the W200 is a camcorder first, and a still shooter third -- perhaps fourth, even. There's no optical zoom, no manual controls for ISO / aperture / shutter speed and no flash to speak of. To no one's surprise, the sensor performed dreadfully on indoor shots with low lighting, and even dimly lit outdoor scenes had a decent amount of blur introduced. When plenty of outdoor light was available, most of our test shots were clear and sharp, but the colors were on the muted side and results felt generally lifeless.
However, we couldn't have been more pleased with how the still functionality operated under the sea. Yesteryear's D10 was fairly poor whilst underwater, but the W200 managed to pull out quite a few sharp shots during our time with the fishes. It's worth pointing out that those were shot at high noon with a clear Hawaiian sky, but still, the results are downright impressive for a $150 device. Toss in a bit of Lightroom magic in order to inject a little vibrance into the yellows, and you'd have a gallery of results worth showing your mum.
As for video? We stuck exclusively to the 1080p mode given that we had plenty of room on our 4GB microSDHC card. For those curious, around 35 minutes of Full HD footage can be socked away on a card of that size. Starting and stopping videos couldn't have been easier, but as we mentioned above, we recorded a number of clips that ended up with muffled audio due to the poor positioning of the microphone. By and large, video results in broad daylight were more than acceptable for a unit in this price range, but there's one major gripe that we simply can't gloss over: the jelly effect.
If you're unfamiliar with the term, just peek the video above. While outside of the water, the W200 exhibited this wretched phenomenon in practically every video we shot, regardless of how fast (or slow) we moved our hand during shooting. This warped, wobbly effect started cropping up in some of the early video-enabled DSLRs (we're looking at you, D90), and it's tragic to find it here. Weirdly enough, the effect seemed to vanish (or at least, diminish significantly) when shooting underwater. From what we can gather, the jelly creeps in as the camera jostles north and south (as with the movement of a human walking); when this is removed underwater, so is the jelly.
Our underwater captures couldn't have been more stunning given the price point. Colors were relatively vibrant, noise was kept to a minimum, and it generally did a terrific job of reproducing the magic we witnessed with our own eyes down in Kealakekua Bay. Don't take our word for it, though -- have a look at a few (unedited) samples below, but be sure to enable 'HD.'
Toughness and battery life
Here's the rub. Samsung never specifically says just how rugged the W200 is, and we're here to tell you the truth: not very. Our review unit suffered a single two-foot tumble onto linoleum, and it left a visible scuff and indentation in the top corner. Worse, however, is what said tumble evidently did to the LCD. After around 20 minutes underwater (at around one to two feet deep; far less than the three meters it can stand), we began to see air bubbles emerging from the top right corner of the panel. Within minutes, condensation had begun to build up around every edge of the display, and it got progressively worse as we continued to swim. Now, it's just a matter of time before future treks to the sea render the whole thing useless, or at least the monitor 'round back.
Sure, you could say that our unit is a one-off problem, but it's simply not as rugged as it needs to be. There's a strange and uncomfortable paradox in having a fragile camera that's suitable for underwater shooting. For what it's worth, all of the "doors" (locking water away from ports and slots) functioned as advertised during our testing, and salt water abuse seemed to have no negative consequences beyond the fading of a few logos on rear buttons.
As for battery life? Let's say this: we managed to fill up a 4GB microSDHC card with 1080p footage before the thing croaked, and we had snapped 40 to 50 shots prior to that. Obviously, camera battery life will vary wildly depending on how long you let the LCD remain on in standby, how many shutter presses you have, and how cold your environment is. We'd recommend recharging it after loading up a 4GB card (we had around 35 percent life left), but at least you can get through an average vacation day on a full tank.
So, is Samsung's "multi-proof" W200 worth its weight in underwater memories? It's tough to say, but we're leaning "yes." $150 is dirt cheap in this category, particularly for a device this small. The 1080p underwater video mode is leaps and bounds better than the VGA mode we saw on the D10 just two years ago, and underwater stills also turned out remarkably well. We've kvetched enough about the lack of manual controls and the awful jelly effect seen in outdoor videos, but none of those nitpicks are apt to bother the target market here. For a buck-fifty, you'll be hard-pressed to find anything as versatile and compact in this segment, but you'll need to keep a couple of things in mind.
For one, it's most certainly not as tough as it looks, and one bad tumble could loosen its frame enough to ruin it once taken to the pool. And secondly, you'll have to be mindful of where your thumb ends up while recording. All in all, it's a respectable underwater offering for the price, but true argonauts are probably better off spending more for something that's constructed to handle real abuse.