Samsung TL500 (EX1) Emerging

July 1, 2010

Samsung’s new “enthusiast” compact, the TL500 (or EX1 outside the US) was announced at the PMA show in February; but as of this writing, it’s not yet available from the usual mainstream sources. However, reviews are starting to filter out: Both Luminous Landscape and now Photography Blog have given it very positive ratings. (DP Review has a sample gallery posted, which suggests they’ll be posting their own full rundown soon.)

Samsung TL500 (EX1)

Stout Little Fellow

As with any small-sensor compact, there’s still some image-quality compromises. The active area of the TL500’s sensor measures about 7.5 x 5.6 mm, so ISO 800 still shows obvious noise.

However this new Samsung is beginning to look like one of the better options in the “serious compact” segment. (Street prices will start out about $400, presumably to drift downwards from there—that’s higher than a Canon S90, but well below Ricoh and Leica levels.)

A TL500 feature Samsung is proudly trumpeting is the camera’s f/1.8 maximum aperture (some might even mistake the needlessly-large “F1.8” on the front for the camera’s model number). But we do need to dial down the hype about this.

An f/1.8 aperture would have been considered boringly underwhelming on any 1980s standard lens—yes, even for zooms, if we consider Super-8 movie cameras (whose image area is comparable to today’s point & shoots). Also, f/1.8 is only one third of a stop improvement over the f/2.0 offered by Canon’s S90 or Panasonic’s LX3. This is a practically negligible difference.

Also, don’t imagine that this lens is going to offer some miraculous shallow depth of field. Small sensors mean short focal lengths, and 15.6mm is the long end of this camera’s zoom range. Wide open at f/2.4, the depth of field would equal that at f/11 on a 35mm camera (using the equivalent 72mm focal length). In other words, the TL500 might give a background that’s slightly fuzzy, but not so blurred that it disappears.

One mystery is the exact CCD chip used in the TL500. Of course, Samsung itself is a major sensor manufacturer; but the lack of 720p video and the exact 3648 x 2736 pixel dimensions look suspiciously like Sony’s ICX685CQZ.  I strongly suspect this is the same chip used by Canon in the S90 and G11; and by Ricoh in the GRD III.

As with many of us, the first time I ever laid eyes on the word Samsung, it was probably on the front of a microwave oven. So perhaps it’s unavoidable that in online photo forums you’ll sometimes hear people slam Samsung—vowing to never take them seriously as a manufacturer of cameras.

Well, it’s probably time to get over that idea. Between the TL500 and the interesting NX10, it’s clear that Samsung is learning fast.

You might be aware that Samsung is already a huge force in semiconductor manufacturing (for example flash memory), as well as in LCD displays (including one these words are being typed on). Samsung was also among the first to commercialize OLED displays, a much-praised aspect of both these recent cameras.

In fact, no lingering racial snobbery should ever cause anyone to underestimate Korean industry. Some may know that Korea’s shipbuilding industry (including Samsung Heavy Industries) builds more ships than the rest of the globe combined. Or think of Hyundai—now the world’s fastest-growing, most profitable carmaker.

Sometimes the mocking comments about Samsung remind me of a Popular Photography article from September, 1946. This gave an overview of the “Jap” (yes, I quote) camera industry after WWII—basically dismissing all its products as clunky, inferior imitations of better American and German cameras. (It did allow that one strangely-named lens, the “Nikkor,” was of decent quality.) Even if at the time, there was some small grain of truth to this smug assessment, we all know quite well what happened eventually.

Are we witnessing the arrival of Samsung (and Korea) into the top tier of the world’s photo manufacturers? Perhaps so. (And while you’re at it, keep an eye on Korean lensmaker Samyang… )

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15 Responses to “Samsung TL500 (EX1) Emerging”

  1. Omar Modesto Says:

    Hooray for a new post (just yesterday I checked, in case the feed wasn’t showing new posts or something).
    It’s interesting to see Samsung getting many things right in their cameras as of late. Perhaps in a few more iterations …
    Now, I can’t afford anything at the moment, but I am forever interested in more serious compact cameras so I’m always following announcements and reviews for those (and this one, but I’d probably pass if I had the money).
    Until there’s anything really worth my invisible money in the photographer-friendly compact department, I’ll probably settle for inexpensive models when I can afford them (and one I’m rather interested in is actually by Samsung, even with the tiny sensor).
    Then again … there are those rumors about Panasonic’s upcoming compacts, one of them supposedly featuring a 4/3 sensor. Now, that could make me wait and save instead of spend, depending on how it’s implemented.
    Keep up the good work … and posts.

  2. theinfernal Says:

    Hello! It’s good to see you posting after a long time being absent…again.
    I have recently bought the EX1, and I’d like to give a rebuttal.

    “The active area of the TL500′s sensor measures about 7.5 x 5.6 mm, so ISO 800 still shows obvious noise.”
    Luckily the fast lens and decent IS mean I won’t need it too often. Actually the auto ISO is limited to 400 and so far I never bothered to manually set it beyond that.

    “Also, f/1.8 is only one third of a stop improvement over the f/2.0 offered by Canon’s S90 or Panasonic’s LX3. This is a practically negligible difference.”
    Maybe, but at the tele end the differences are much more significant.

    “the TL500 might give a background that’s slightly fuzzy, but not so blurred that it disappears.”
    Same applies to m43 with zoom lenses. Actually try your calculations and you will see the EX1 almost matches m43 with the zoom lenses in DOF and low light performance across most focal ranges.

    • theinfernal Says:

      Alright the DOF is much shallower with the m43 but the EX1 still compares well in low light performance.

      • theinfernal Says:

        To clarify my point, the m43 sensor is 5.5X larger than Sony’s ICX685CQZ and therefore should have a 2.5 stop advantage. However DxO mark indicates the Sony ICX685CQZ has much better performance per unit area resulting in a score difference of only 8 points which equates to only half a stop:
        http://dxomark.com/index.php/en/Our-publications/DxOMark-Insights/DxOMark-review-for-advanced-compacts

        Regarding the lenses: at the wide end, the EX1 is f1.8 vs f3.5 in the E-P1 zoom lens. That’s a 2-stop advantage

        At the tele end, the EX1 is f2.4 vs f5.6 in the E-P1. That’s a 2.5 stop advantage.

        In conclusion, the EX1 at least matches the E-P1 w/ zoom lens in low light performance, and exceeds it by 2 stops if the DxO review is true.

  3. theinfernal Says:

    I misunderstood the DxOmark review:
    “The larger pixel size means much less noise, especially at low light levels, as the Low-Light ISO metric clearly shows: 536 for the EP1 versus 165 for the G11.”
    So yes the EP1 does hold a 2-stop advantage in ISO performance, but my point still stands. The fast f1.8-2.4 lens in the EX1 compensates for its small sensor and allows it perform similarly to a m43 camera with a kit zoom lens.

    • petavoxel Says:

      I agree that the f/1.8-2.4 maximum aperture does help—it’s definitely a cut above the typical zoom specs. A zoom of that brightness only becomes practical with a smaller image format, however. Aside from the high-ISO issue, this also means diffraction becomes a limitation above f/5.6 or so.

      But as a “carry-everywhere” camera, I do think the Samsung looks like one of the better options today.

      Sony does seem to have learned how to wring the most out of any sensor format, while only the Panasonic GH1 fully realizes the potential of the 4/3 sensor area. So a clearer comparison of the “area effect” might be this one.

      • theinfernal Says:

        “Aside from the high-ISO issue, this also means diffraction becomes a limitation above f/5.6 or so.”
        Look at this chart in the bottom of this picture: http://img713.imageshack.us/img713/2456/1275289304samsungex105p.jpg
        The nyquist frequency is 2500 lines, so the camera doesn’t lose resolution due to diffraction except at f6.7, and even then it isn’t too bad IMO.
        “the Panasonic GH1 fully realizes the potential of the 4/3 sensor area.”
        Invalid argument. The GH1 is too big to be considered compact. And all the “compact” m43 models are using the inferior sensor. Actually the E-P1 used to compare with the S90 and G11 in the DxOmark review I mentioned in my previous post is actually better than the GF1 and E-PL1 according to DxOmark.

        I’ll be honest with you. I wanted to buy the GF1 + 20mm, but it has no IS and the sensor could have been much better. An E-P1 body solves the IS issue but the sensor issue still remains and it’s also too expensive since I’ll have to buy the 20mm lens seperately. A GF1 + kit lens will theoretically perform the same as the EX1 like I just said, so there’s no point buying it. Sony’s NEX has much better potential than m43. It’s short flange distance allows it to be much smaller and it has a bigger sensor. All it needs is a fast normal lens and better controls. Once Sony fixes both these issues I will be having the EX1 in one pocket and the NEX in another :-).

  4. theinfernal Says:

    I also wanted to say…Ricoh has many fans just because it makes well constructed and well laid out cameras, even when there’s nothing special about their image quality.
    The Samsung EX1’s is also a magnificent camera even if we disregard the image quality. For starters, the construction puts the other compacts and entry level DSLRs to *SHAME*. It makes those other plasticky bodies feel like toys in comparison. The EX1 has a grip, and it feels nice and secure. You have 3 dials, a Fn button, and even a dedicated button for metering. The AMOLED screen needs no introduction and its swiveling capability adds icing to the cake. If you cover the labels on the front of the camera with duct tape and swivel the screen you get a stealth camera that allows you to snap a few shots when you shouldn’t or don’t want to be noticed. My only issue is size. It’s a little bulky. It definitely fits your pocket…just doesn’t feel comfortable. I think a belt pouch will be ideal.

    A DPreview of course will give the final verdict, but I will be surprised if they point out any major faults.

  5. Quido Says:

    Hi guys, FYI seriouscompacts.com was relaunched and one guy talks about all the compacts he had here:
    http://www.seriouscompacts.com/showthread.php?7-Welcome!&p=17#post17
    He also had the EX1, but switched to Sony Nex because of IQ.

    I can relate to that. I have a Fuji F30 (only use it in IKEA now :), and just bought a 2003 Canon G3 for fun (used to own it 5 years ago and just the accessories were worth more than the $100 I paid). Looking at the low ISO images from both cameras, the pixel-level quality really sucks in my opinion, and while my heart would like to make me believe that the EX1 (or S90/GRD3) would make me happy (it certainly would while shooting), my experience with the small sensor cameras I have and my memory of the first EX1 sample pictures (the subject was a booth in a trade show) tells me that I’d be disappointed once seeing the pictures on a computer.

    So while I feel great that Samsung surprised us and became a top player in the serious small cam arena,
    I think two years from now the EX1 might be seen as ‘the perfect camera of an evolutionary dead-end’, and soon cameras like the rumored fixed-lens m43 Panasonic will overtake the small-sensor cam role in enthusiasts’ hands.
    Looking forward to Photokina. C’mon Samsung, announce that you’re buying Sigma and will start using their sensors! 🙂

    Now back to my D40 and the recently bought 1Dmk2.

    • theinfernal Says:

      The Sony NEX offers only 1-stop advantage throughout its range if you are using the kit zoom, which the poster in that thread mentions he was using. To get that extra stop, you have to live with these disadvantages:
      -Terrible UI (a dealbreaker for many)
      -Too few dials and buttons
      -No AMOLED screen
      -Much more expensive
      -Much larger. Might as well get a DSLR.
      -No IBIS
      -Noisy mechanical shutter which attracts attention.

      • Quido Says:

        And yet, the guy prefers the crippled NEX with a crappy zoom over a small sensor cam with great handling and faster lens.

        Maybe it’s psychologically easier to have a slow lens and a cam that goes up to decent ISO 1600 e.g. at f/4 than to limit oneself to shoot only up to ISO 320 with f/1.8 and thinking “man, I have that fast lens, I shouldn’t lust to go higher up the ISO-sin ladder”, lol.

        I shoot f/1.8 primes on my DSLRs, usually stopped down to ~ f/2.5, and find myself dialing up the ISO to 640-800 all the time when doing my amateur indoor family snaps.

        What I’d want from my next camera is not to match this but improve upon that, and I think we’re not far from there. And maybe that NEX guy from seriouscompacts already has a mental image of a f/1.8 prime on his NEX in the back of his head.
        And one can’t have such an image of an EX1 with a decent ISO 1600 chip…

        So maybe this constraint of the EX1 overcomes the UI and handling constraints of the NEX.

  6. theinfernal Says:

    Most of my shots are of static objects and the exposure sometimes goes up to 1 second in very low light; so yes if I’m shooting people I’ll have to dial up to ISO 800 or even further to avoid motion blur.
    The NEX + 16mm f2.8 has no IS and might even be worse than the EX1 in low light. The NEX + zoom is as large as a DSLR so it’s apples and oranges if you compare it with the EX1. Also its performance is still not good enough to reach the point where low light shooting is absolutely not a problem. You need another stop of low light performance to reach this “zen state”. And to achieve that you need a fast prime lens with IS, like the the E-P1 + Panasonic 20mm combination I mentioned before. I’m having high hopes in Sony’s NEX, and I’m buying one of their cameras once they fix the UI and offer a fast 25mm lens. Then I will have the EX1 in one pocket for its versatile lens and image quality in good light, and the NEX + 25mm in the other pocket to handle low light conditions.

  7. Quido Says:

    I think our other pockets will look the same a year from now 🙂
    For anyone interested, digitalrev has a nice video review of the EX1 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jc8kP_JXXdY (they also briefly compare to GRDIII)
    They also have a NEX preview + GF1 comparison. Plus a full NEX review from 4 days ago (will watch it now…)

  8. petavoxel Says:

    As expected, the DP Review profile of the EX1/TL500 is out. On a quick read it seems to be generally positive, although with a few more qualifications than the earlier good reviews.

  9. fotofocus Says:

    Will probably have limited ISO performance compared to thee larger sensor cameras, but will produce beautiful images I believe.


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