For a full-sized camcorder, Samsung’s SMX-F54BN is compact, sleek, and attractively priced. But it comes with a big catch: It offers only standard-definition video in a world that is rapidly moving to high definition.
Aside from the low price, what does the SMX-F54BN offer to make up for its low-resolution output? Mainly, a powerful zoom lens, the ability to shoot two-megapixel still images, and a generous 16GB of onboard memory. Plus, its 4.7-by-2.2-by-2.1-inch dimensions at five ounces, make it convenient to carry around in any large pocket or backpack.
Let’s face it, not everyone wants HD video. For certain people, such as insurance adjustors who video-document many accidents each day to calculate claims, a decent quality SD cam may be all they need or want, plus they can use it to shoot still images at a reasonable 2MP (JPEG format only). If all you need is basic documentation—and the convenience of not having to hassle with multiple SD cards and large files—this camcorder might interest you.
The SMX-F54BN offers an impressive 52x optical, and 65x digital, magnification. For example, when I zoomed in on vehicles that were over a half-mile away on the freeway, I could decipher the brands of some of the vehicles zipping by. I normally don’t discuss digital zoom become most of these zooms render video images too blurry and pixelated to bother with. In the SMX-F54BN, however, the video remained relatively crisp, even at the maximum 65x zoom setting.
But most people don’t shoot reams of video, and they really do want the sharpest, highest-resolution video they can afford. HD is their clear choice, and they have plenty of low-cost options for a good, full-sized full-HD cam, including other Samsung offerings. Plus, some HD cams offer the option to shoot in SD.
Despite its excellent zoom, the SMX-F54BN suffers from serious performance shortcomings. The cam scored only Fair to Poor in our lab tests, falling down most in exposure and color rendering. My own experience reflects the lab results. I filmed scenes both inside and outside of my home, including a pair of wild turkeys grazing on my lawn. I was disappointed to find those images lacked sharpness and colors appeared a little washed out. The grass looked noticeably less green, and the vivid red color of the turkey toms looked much less vibrant than they did in real life.
Usability is a mixed bag. I had no problem navigating the menu on the LCD panel, but if you want to take photos, you may find the top-mounted shutter button a little awkward to use, especially if you have large hands. I had to hold the cam with my left hand so I could remove my right hand from the strap enough to click the shutter. If you plan to take a lot of still shots alongside your video, you’ll want to try this cam out first to make sure the resolution is high enough for your needs.
The SMX-F54BN is also one of the few cams we’ve reviewed that forces you to keep the 2.7-inch LCD panel flipped open when you want to recharge the unit’s Lithium-ion battery via either the USB cable or the AC adapter. That needlessly exposes the panel to accidental damage.
Samsung touts several features in the SMX-F54BN, including continuous record, extended battery time, and Smart Background Music (Smart BGM). Of the three, continuous record is by far the most useful. When you are shooting, this feature lets you pause your shoot, then resume, while saving to the same video file rather than generating a new file. This is very handy for many home and event recordings, such as a child’s birthday party. You can shoot the main events—for example, the guests arriving, little Suzie blowing out the candles and opening her gifts—meanwhile pausing during the lulls in the action. At the end of the party, you have only one file to shoot up to YouTube or Facebook. That’s much faster and easier than juggling a raft of video clips.
The extended battery is much ado about a feature most cams already have—the option to set the unit to auto-power off after a few minutes of inactivity. You can upgrade to the optional high-capacity battery pack for $99, which should double your battery life. Smart BGM lets you play from a limited selection of tunes in the background while you are previewing your video on the camera; the volume automatically lowers when you hear people speaking in the video. A nice touch, but not a dealmaker.
The built-in file transfer software—Intelli-Studio—works well on the PC, but not on the Mac, but that will not be a problem for most users. You can connect the cam to your computer via USB or via a card reader, and use your file manager to copy over your videos and stills. The SMX-F54BN uses H.264 compression, making the video files compatible with most editors. I had no trouble loading the image files into a MacBook Pro and viewing the still pictures in iPhoto, and the video clips in iMovie.
Macworld’s buying advice
Despite its low $280 price and a couple of distinctive features, I would pass on the SMX-F54BN in favor of a similarly priced Full HD cam. But if you want an unusually powerful zoom lens and don’t need HD, you might consider the SMX-F54BN.
[Bryan Hastings is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.]