The S850 is an 8-megapixel, sub-$250 shooter with full manual exposure controls, giving frugal photographers plenty of settings to tinker with. Manual mode even has a convenient onscreen meter that tells you if your photo will be over- or underexposed, an extremely useful tool when tweaking all the settings by hand. Strangely, the camera doesn't have a manual focus setting, forcing you to choose between center and multipoint autofocus. Surprisingly, the camera even has manual focus. Unfortunately, it can only be accessed by tapping the macro button several times, and seems very awkward compared to the S850's other manual features. Still, its inclusion is greatly welcome.
Whether you're looking at the silver or black version, the first thing you'll notice about the S850 is its prominent lens. Instead of receding into the camera's body as do most compact cameras, the S850's lens protrudes more than half an inch from its body. It doesn't have the most aesthetically pleasing design, but it's not nearly as ridiculous as the small body/massive lens combinations found in its bigger brothers, the Samsung NV5 and the NV7 OPS. Regardless of appearance, the S850 feels very solid and accessible, with a dense, hard shell and a simple, well-placed control scheme.
A 38mm-to-190mm-equivalent lens gives the S850 a 5x zoom factor, a slight boost over most snapshot cameras' 3x zooms. Unfortunately, that 38mm starting point doesn't cut it for wide-angle shots. We had trouble trying to capture large rooms, buildings, and landscapes with this camera. While a 5x zoom can be handy for zooming in on subjects, we would have rather had a 28mm wide-angle and sacrificed some of the reach on the telephoto end. The S850 lacks a viewfinder, forcing you to use the 2.5-inch LCD screen for framing all of your shots.
While the S850 doesn't have optical or mechanical image stabilization, it does include Samsung's Advanced Shake Reduction, an ISO-boosting mode that hastens the shutter speed for better motion shots. Typically, electronic image stabilization like Samsung's ASR doesn't work much better than simply cranking up the ISO sensitivity and choosing a faster shutter speed yourself (as is possible in the S850's shutter-priority and manual modes). However, Samsung buried a unique feature called Wise Shot deep in the camera's ASR mode menu. Wise Shot takes two photos--one with ASR and one with flash--and shows you the results. A zoomed-in portion of the two photos lets you actively compare them before you choose which one you want to keep. Unfortunately, it's less useful than it sounds; the flashed pictures almost always look better than the ASR pictures, and since Wise Shot always takes a flash picture, you can't use it when you can't use your flash, anyway.
Slow shooting holds the S850 back. According to our lab tests, after a 2.1-second start-up time, the camera took an additional 2.1 seconds between every shot. With the onboard flash enabled, that wait expanded to 3.2 seconds. The shutter fared better, lagging only 0.5 second with our high-contrast target and 1 second under low-contrast conditions. The burst mode shot a single frame per second, which is a tad slow for an 8-megapixel camera.
Artifacts and overprocessing plague the S850's photos, rendering fine details such as text blurry. Noise begins to manifest as low as ISO 200, creeping up in the shadows. At ISO 400 the grain becomes quite recognizable on a computer monitor, though it goes unnoticed in 8x10 prints. ISO 800 photos predictably develop serious noise, and ISO 1,600 shots appear covered in heavy, detail-obscuring fuzz.