I remember the good old days when a camera was judged based on the quality of the pictures it captured. Now that almost every point-and-shoot has a 10-megapixel-plus image sensor, image stabilization, and glass manufactured by a respected photo optics brand, the focus has switched from image quality - which is now more or less ubiquitous - to features.
A prime example is Samsung's new ST550, which pops 12.2 megapixel stills, offers simultaneous optical and digital image stabilization, has facial recognition technology that detects up to 20 mugs in a single frame, and sports a 27mm wide-angle Schneider-Kreuznach lens with 4.6-times optical zoom - not bad for a camera that has about as much girth as a DVD case.
With these specs it should come as no surprise that the ST550 snaps pretty pictures regardless of whether you're indoors or out, far away or close up. Colours are natural and vivid, and images are crisp even in dynamic shooting environments.
Moviemakers are covered, too, thanks to 720p high-definition video functionality. The audio and visual fidelity is more akin to what you'd achieve with a pocket video recorder like the Flip than expensive dedicated HD camcorders, but it's adequate for laid-back use.
Indeed, casual shutterbugs should have no reason to complain about the pictures they snap or video they shoot with the ST550. In fact, they probably won't even give picture quality a second thought once they begin fiddling about with its plethora of quirky-cum-practical features.
A second LCD on the front of the camera helps users frame self-portraits (and has earned the camera the nickname 'vanity cam'), shows a countdown for timed shots, displays a smiley face when the shutter is partially depressed to let subjects know when to ham it up, and plays a little clown cartoon to capture the attention of children with wandering gazes. (This last trick actually worked on my four-year-old daughter, whom I would have thought old enough to be immune to such simple attention-grabbing ploys.)
The only (minor) hitch with the front LCD is that my fingers covered part of it whenever I held up the camera to take a shot. Consequently, I needed to learn to clasp the body by its narrow edges whenever the second screen was engaged.
Meanwhile, the primary display - a roomy 3.5-inch screen that covers the entire back side of the camera and sports more than a million dots worth of resolution - is touch enabled, features Haptic feedback (meaning a tiny vibration and brief chirrup occurs with each tap), and lets users enter common commands via intuitive gestures, like drawing a circle to rotate an image or an "X" to delete it.
You can even tap on the display while framing an image to have it focus on that particular area. Serious photographers might be tempted to think of this as manual focus for amateurs, but it's quick, simple, and very useful for, say, making sure your kid rather than some stranger is the focus of a group picture.
The touch functionality also makes it easy to dig into the firmware. Switching between automatic scene presets and more advanced features, such as white balance and light sensitivity, takes just a few taps within simple menus filled with easily identifiable pictograms.
Ditto for editing. Press the play button and you'll have instant access to a surprisingly large selection of tools and effects. There are typical image cropping and red-eye reduction functions, handy effects such as artificial depth-of-field and automatic skin touchups, and even some more whimsical features, like adding snowflakes or blurring out faces.
And if you want to find or edit several pictures featuring a particular subject you need simply select his or her face from the current image and the camera will look for other shots in which it appears.
Despite its many unusual functions, I felt like I had the ST550 cased in about 15 minutes, which is exactly the way it should be with a point and shoot. And that makes this glossy black camera (with your choice of subtly funky gold, purple, or orange highlights) easy to recommend. Priced at $399.99, it edges toward the high end for a compact camera, but it's difficult to imagine anyone coming away disappointed with its performance, accessibility or functionality.