The Samsung PL80 compact camera is an entry-level point and shoot model pitched in at an affordable price. It offers a range of simple to use features in a package that is designed to deliver results with minimal fuss.

Measuring 96.8 x 57.5 x 20.2mm is it small enough to slip into any pocket with ease. It features a 2.7-inch, 230,400 pixel display on the back, which is fairly small but acceptable given the overall size of the camera. The resolution is a touch on the low size, so viewing your images back is adequate rather than exceptional.

The PL80 has a conventional design, with controls ranging across the top plate and to the right of the screen on the rear. The battery and SD/SDHC card resides in the slot on the bottom and the only physical connection is a bespoke Samsung connection under a hinged flap on the right edge of the camera. This looks a little like a mini HDMI, but unfortunately isn’t.

The connection will let you extract your photos direct to your PC or Mac, as well as charging the battery of the camera at the same time. Rather than supplying an external charger, you can charge via your PC or a wall plug with a USB slot (supplied). Some won’t like this approach, as at times you’ll have to have your camera plugged into the wall, but we like it: your camera charges when you connect to your PC to process your photos and it cuts down on accessory clutter.

Given the PL80’s somewhat budget status, it is built with a quality you don’t always get at this price point. Coming in a number of colours (black, purple, red, silver), it seemed solid enough in the hand, with no creaks coming from the body when manipulated. The bottom cover closes securely and the buttons have a positive and distinct action to them.

Across the top plate you have the shutter release encircled by the zoom toggle as is normal on most compacts, accompanied by a power button and “Smart” button, which switches between the camera’s Smart Auto mode and whichever other shooting mode you have selected. To the right of the screen you have the normal four-way controller offering shortcuts to toggle display information, engage the self timer, change the flash mode or set the camera to macro shooting.

There is a conventional Menu button which access more advanced shooting settings relating to the mode you are in and the normal rung of settings that you’ll probably set once and then leave forever. The Mode button switches between the five shooting modes on offer: Smart Auto, Program, Dual IS, Scene and Movie. Finally you have a playback button and the “Fn” function button which will call up an overlaid menu to quickly change shooting settings like metering, focus, white balance and so on.

The lens offers 5x optical zoom, giving you a range of 28.2-141mm in 35mm terms. This is reasonably wide angle, but there are others that will trump this. At F/3.4 maximum aperture, it isn’t a “fast” lens, which will limit the PL80’s low light performance.

The startup time is a little slow. The lens extends at a reasonable rate, but there is noticeable delay whilst the PL80 interrogates the memory card and battery, meaning it will be about 6 seconds before you get your first shot off. Zooming the lens is fast enough, with a slight clatter – expected on this level of camera, but it feels solid when fully extended, unlike the Sony W380 we looked at recently.

The Smart Auto aims to examine the scene before you and select the most appropriate shooting settings. It will pick out things like macro and portrait shots with ease, and will even set itself for taking pictures of fast moving subjects.

If you want to regain control of the camera you can select the Program shooting mode, which gives you access to all the settings on offer, including ISO settings up to 3200, exposure compensation, various colour hues and even things like auto bracketing. You’ll also find various face detection options, including smile shutter and blink detection.

The smile shutter works well too, but once this mode it engaged it will take a picture each time it sees a smile, so there is the potential to snap off a range of pictures you don’t want if you leave the mode engaged.

You might not, however, have to worry about that too much, because if there is one thing noticeable on the PL80, it is the long buffering times, as it moves the image to the SD card – even using a class 6 card as we did in testing this camera. This writing time is also exacerbated if you select the Dual IS, which uses both optical and digital image stabilisation. But it can help cut down on some hand shake for longer exposures in lower light.

The other approach to capturing those lower light shots is to increase the ISO range. However, noise is noticeable from around ISO 200 upwards. The headline ISO 3200 (which sees a drop to 3 megapixels) takes on a mottled appearance, distorting colours and doesn’t give you a natural-looking shot, so is of questionable use.

As is often the case with cheaper compact cameras, the image quality is average. The PL80 struggles with bright and high contrast shots, blowing out highlights and bringing in obvious fringing around edges. Colours aren’t always the most natural, lacking the punch you’ll find from more advanced models.

There is touch of barrel distortion on the wide angle of the lens, but nothing too severe, however we did notice some softness towards the edges of the lens. Whilst the PL80 manages to focus fairly quickly in good light (but complains in lower light conditions) images aren’t especially sharp, with a general lack of detail.

The flash offers a range of options and is easy enough to control across modes. It is prone to producing red eye shots, so if you are shooting people, it is worth opting for the red-eye reduction option.

Video capture is offered at a maximum 640 x 480 at 30fps. The results are ok and you can use the optical zoom whilst recording, but the microphone picks up the noise of the whirring motor. Audio quality is pretty low overall, and even in good light we detected noise across the movies we shot. Video is captures as Motion JPEG (AVI) but you can pause playback in the camera and extract a still image if you want.

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