Hands-on: Samsung Galaxy NX real-world camera test

The Samsung Galaxy NX is unlike any other camera out there. When an engineering sample was placed in Pocket-lint's hands in Paris months ahead of its anticipated official launch we had this weird-meets-wow moment. Weird because the device feels to be somewhere between a Samsung Galaxy S-series smartphone with the large image sensor, interchangeable lens system and a chunky grip of the existing NX-series, albeit on a yet-larger scale. Wow because we're the first in the UK to have a couple of hours to play with the camera in the real world and take some pictures. So what do we make of the Galaxy NX? - is it revolutionary for where cameras are headed, or more a reactionary experiment to counter smartphones' impact on the imaging market?

Paranoid Android

We've seen cameras running Android - indeed we've seen the Galaxy NX before, in a locked-down room - and they've delivered mixed results. The Nikon Coolpix S800c was too expensive, while the Samsung Galaxy Camera lacked the bitingly sharp image quality that it needed to deliver a true camera-centric experience. Conceptually, however, there were elements in both models that made perfect sense.

READ: Samsung Galaxy Camera review

The Samsung Galaxy NX, from what we've seen so far, avoids the latter pitfall and - based on the already-released Galaxy Camera's price in relation to the then-top Galaxy S3 smartphone - it might be on the right side of affordable too.

The Galaxy NX's APS-C sized sensor is the same as found in the NX300 and is already proven to deliver results. Price-wise the combination of Galaxy S4 smartphone processor (quad-core Exynos) and NX300 features might scream pricey, but we think Samsung will go in with a sensible price point - it has to, because the NX series is among the least prominent in terms of market sales, and this could be the camera to turn it around. It sure does how wow factor.

READ: Samsung Galaxy S4 review

But then the Galaxy NX's initial negative is that it feels somewhat alien in the hand on account of its physical size and lack of many physical controls. The fusion of a smartphone-derived operating system merged with an interchangeable lens system does make sense, but the omission of physical buttons means almost everything runs through the power of the touchscreen. And that means taking the camera away from the eye and out of both hands more than a typical DSLR or compact system camera (CSC) user might otherwise. It's a different prospect, and one that took us a while to adapt to.

There is one exception to the touchscreen control - a large thumbwheel atop the camera that doubles up as a button to toggle between key settings, or when held down it dives into full Android OS complete with apps, Google Play and the like. It's certainly a useful control mechanism but we found it to be finicky - defaulting to adjust the shooting mode rather than the settings and without resounding clarity as to which settings were in play for adjustment.

Never plan the future by the past

After extended use the Galaxy NX's controls start to take; it forges into something more familiar, yet something entirely new. Before long we were fixed into our more typical way of shooting - aperture priority mode selected, thumbwheel used to stop up or down - but snapping away was a combination of tapping the touchscreen for compact-camera-like focus, along with using the included electronic viewfinder as we would with a DSLR or similar all-in CSC.

There are significant benefits to the Android operating system too - not least connectivity and sharing which, again, we'll address in more detail later - that quickly come into play. Simple things come to mind: press and drag on an image in playback while zoomed in to get a close-up look of the important parts at absolute size - which saves the faff with lots of buttons and directional-pad controls. Everything operates through the touchscreen, the gallery is far more organised than any other camera we've seen and apps loaded into the 16GB of internal storage can directly load up images to work with.

At other points we could say quite the opposite. For example, within the menus a fair amount of digging is required to switch between expert and standard shooting modes. There's no simple way of getting there, so if you know what you're doing that's fine, if not then, well, you'll end up stuck. There's the occasional feeling that Android has been strapped on to a high-spec camera which got us thinking as to who the target audience is supposed to be. If the Galaxy NX is aimed at those who would otherwise buy an interchangeable lens camera then it needs to always match up in the ease of use stakes - and then use Android to build upon and better the areas where more conventional cameras lack. At the moment it's a mix of both better and worse.

The Galaxy NX sure is a bold design. Pretty it isn't, but it's dived in headfirst and by avoiding almost all physical control buttons it makes its point - Android and touch are all that are really needed to use a camera. But the fact it's opted for such a large 4.8-inch screen size means that - and we didn't think we'd say this - it's too big; it's long. The screen takes up almost the whole of the rear of the camera, and makes for a larger camera than the NX300 already is - much like the original Samsung Galaxy Camera, the Galaxy NX hasn't shied away from physical size, and we're not entirely convinced of that being necessary.

READ: Samsung NX300 review

NX phone home

But for our weighing scale of uncertainty when it comes to the physical vs virtual control debate, there's one area where the Galaxy NX prevails: connectivity. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and, if you add in a SIM, mobile data are all available direct from the camera. These features paired up with Android are totally awesome - there's nothing else outside of Samsung's camera range that makes sharing so accessible and easy right from the camera.

It's not locked down to Samsung's services either. Things like Samsung Kies are on board, but anything you can do on a high-end smartphone you can do with the Galaxy NX. Load up Chrome to browse websites, pull a bunch of shots out of the gallery and pop them into your Dropbox account - it's all available and we have a lot of love for that.

In our time with the camera we didn't have a SIM card inserted, but did sync the NX with Wi-Fi and when prompted with one of those annoying log-in screens - courtesy of the hotel we happened to be staying at, so not the camera's fault - we could easily access and type into a browser to move things forward. No additional password loopholes from the camera itself were asked for outside of individual programmes' demands. And that was it, we were away, sharing and browsing. No other interchangeable can match up to that.

Android adds other features that are certainly fun, but not likely to be go-to controls most of the time. Voice Control is one such example. Switch this on and tell the camera to "shoot" and it will obey. Surprised it's not called the SAM 9000 or something. The feature makes great sense for group shots where there's no need to set up a self-timer, and other commands such as "smile" or "cheese" can also kick the camera into action (in the English language version). We even tried out voice control with background music on to see if the camera was still able to understand and it did. Words do need to be spoken clearly as we had a couple of first-time failed attempts, but nothing unexpected. It's not human after all.

Elsewhere there are seamless tie-ins with GPS location tracking, which includes an Around-Me-style suggestion app to let you know where things are. We couldn't use this extensively due to being in a venue for the majority of an entire evening, but the potential is significant.

With a SIM inserted you'll also obtain a phone number. Now we don't expect people to be using the Galaxy NX just like a phone, but from what we can see within the settings it is possible to receive calls on speaker. Crazy, but fun.

Image quality

We've snapped some pre-production shots which even from the early sample model we think look top. In agreement with Samsung we are not able to show these at absolute size.

The Galaxy NX's imaging strength comes from the fact that it's not forgone any of the top imaging build of other NX-series cameras. While these other, earlier interchangeable models aren't smart cameras, as such, what they consistently get right is image quality. The large APS-C size sensor found in the heart of the Galaxy NX is the same 20.2-megapixel offering as would be found in the NX300 model. It's physically as large as that in almost all current DSLR cameras and, from what we've seen, has the quality to match.

It's a case of few surprises, really, but that's a good thing. Although 20.2-megapixels is a significant resolution, there's plenty of detail to be seen at the low ISO settings and the ability to crop into shots - as we have in one example image - is of little sacrifice to quality. We think Samsung would have been risking it to develop a sensor with any greater resolution than the current standard, so it's good to see NX300 quality on board.

 

At 20.2-megapixels there's a lot to be asked of the sensor, particularly at higher ISO settings, but even shots we took at ISO 800 of flower arrangements on tables at a dim indoor location came out well, despite questionable white balance - but there's every chance that this will be tweaked for the final unit.

We'll see how the final model fares, but initial inspection is good and we see no reason that the Galaxy NX will fall behind the current NX standard.

There is one area where that assessment comes unstuck: there's currently a slight mismatch between some settings and who we feel the camera is aimed at. For example: It's possible to shoot raw images. It's possible to shoot JPEG images. But not shoot both together, at least not in this sample model. Bizarre. As we had no access to software able to read the raw files at this stage in development we were only able to shoot JPEG fine images.

Just like with the Samsung Galaxy Camera the Galaxy NX also offers a batch of in-camera styles that can be added to images in post. Sepia, Mono and a mixture of old-style effects make up the bulk of what's on offer. With the processing power behind this camera they snap into play double quick and save in no time at all too. We can see this being built upon further - a connected camera such as the Galaxy NX could tap in to future updates and additional third party apps to expand upon its feature set. Something to keep an eye on.

Initial verdict

A quick fumble around with the Galaxy NX isn't enough time to make total sense of this connected camera, so to have an extended period of use with it has made all the difference in our assessment. This curious camera is complete with a sea of ideas and potential - some of which work rather well, others which require too much menu digging for immediacy.

If one thing's abundantly clear it's that Samsung has the current best connected camera series out there. Android just works, and while the concept of buying a SIM for your camera might sound a little bit out there, there are an increasing number of affordable pay as you go (PAYG) plans available which make sense to buy into. Do that and true sharing on the go is at your fingertips.

Size-wise we do find the Galaxy NX's rear screen a little large and the lack of physical controls feels alien (at least at first), but this comes at no cost to image quality which, from what we've seen so far, ought to match up to the current NX300.

Start-up time from cold lags a little more than we'd like, and the eye-sensor activation time of the electronic viewfinder also introduces a brief break from preview proceedings - both of which are areas that could be improved upon.

The last thing that really demands a thorough testing is battery life, as that's something we can't accurately comment on right now. After a few hours of use we found the rear right side of the Galaxy NX to be rather hot where the processor was obviously punching out the heat, but the camera soldiered on for the evening without showing signs of cutting out.

So is the Galaxy NX the future of cameras? When it comes to connectivity it definitely paves the way. But the current Galaxy NX design seems to want to appeal to all user bases and in doing so feels a little diluted in its focus. It didn't need the huge screen size to deliver the usability of Android, and the removal of quick-access function buttons may see more advanced photographers - who traditionally might look to the NX series as a shooting option - alienated. It's brave, it's bold, it's often brilliant and introduces true connectivity to an interchangeable camera for the first time - but it's still got its work cut out in a market that's hard to crack.