The Samsung NX1 is one of the finest cameras to be unveiled so far this year. It's packed full of features, has a new super-fast autofocus system with some clever features, a new 28-megapixel sensor capable of capturing 4K video and that's all arranged in a sturdy build.
But the notion of "compact" system camera has gone. Samsung's direction in the market is almost regressive despite its push forward; the NX1 is as close to a mirrorless DSLR camera as cameras get given its 138.5 x 102.3 x 65.8mm size (body only). Pop a giant (and admittedly fast and high quality lens) on the front and the size and weight grow yet more. Which, if that's exactly what you're after, is no bad thing, as it's a direction unlike any other manufacturer in this space.
We got to use the Samsung NX1 in a variety of pre-set situations on the Samsung stand at the Photokina show in Cologne, Germany. Each was tailored for the camera, but even so the results from the new NX AF System III - which provides 205 phase-detection AF points (153 of which are cross-type for heightened sensitivity irrelevant of orientation) alongside 209 additional contrast-detection areas - are impressive.
Not prefect, mind, but certainly impressive. In continuous autofocus there was only the occasional slip-up that saw the NX1 very briefly hunt for focus, but otherwise it's among the best continuous autofocus systems we've seen in a compact system camera. We'd still opt for a high-end DSLR camera's 3D tracking system, but Samsung is on the advance to close the gap between the two systems.
Add a 15 frames per second burst mode and the NX1 does genuinely sing. And that's 15fps with continuous autofocus, something no competitor can quite match at full resolution.
New clever features include Samsung Auto Shot which, in the way it was introduced at Samsung's Photokina press conference, is said to automatically read fast subject movements and auto capture at the precise moment. A clever idea, but one that's currently restricted: there are Baseball and Jump modes only available, to specifically cater for such scenarios.
We snapped a green-laser-dot hurtling towards a miniature baseball player cutout, whereby the NX1 refuses to fire the depressed shutter until it knows the exact moment required for a ball-on-bat contact shot. Which is all well and good, but that's a limited scenario right now. In truth we were hoping for a more varied application - but perhaps the technology is there for Samsung to expand on and update via firmware.
One feature we did particularly like was the 3-inch, 1,046k-dot tilt-angle AMOLED screen. The ability to angle it up or down for overhead or waist-level work we can see being of great use, but it's the incorporation of a touch-sensitive panel that's great to see. As the NX AF System III covers the entirety of the frame you'll get responsive focus wherever you happen to tap onto the screen.
The built-in electronic viewfinder is impressive too from what we've seen. We would like to use it in some darker conditions to get a greater assessment of the near-instant 0.005-second lag (down from the typical 0.042ms), but everything looked smooth in preview to our eyes. It's a big view too, at 0.7x equivalent magnification, but not as large as the equal-resolution 2.36m-dot finder found in the Fujifilm X-T1.
READ: Fujifilm X-T1 review
Which makes for an interesting comparison. The X-T1 has a solid all-metal build that, by comparison, the NX1 feels altogether less luxury than. Given its dust- and weather-resistance it's perhaps more functional in feel, but is akin to the build of the Panasonic Lumix GH4 in many respects. But the Lumix is a camera we loved.
Some of the layout didn't feel as immediate to us as the Nikon/Canon DSLR lines that we typically use, predominantly because the front thumbwheel is aligned differently, but that's something to get used to we're sure. Finding settings, using the mode dial lock and dedicated drive mode dial, autofocus, ISO, white balance and metering buttons to the top left side means there's quick access to everything - much like a pro-level DSLR.
Inside the Samsung NX1 is a brand new 28-megapixel sensor that, given its large size, has a lot of pixels on its surface. The jump from the 20MP in NX models prior to now may seem like a leap, but Samsung has been rather clever about it by featuring the first ever back-side illuminated (BSI) APS-C CMOS sensor - a technology that's been in compact cameras for some time, just never at this physical size. What that means is the construction of the sensor is different to make for a clearer light path for a cleaner signal and, therefore, lower image noise results throughout its ISO 100 - 25,600 (51,000 extended) sensitivity range.
Does the sensor work its magic? We can't tell just yet, as we've only snapped away with it on the stand and not been able to look at images in detail or take any away, nor test in other varying conditions. But Samsung's message is that the jump from 20MP to 28MP will have no negative impact because of this new construction and a new noise reduction algorithm will apply different processing to varying images areas for the best results. We will have to wait and see just how good those results are.
Paired with the new DRIMe V processing engine - said to be 2.8 times faster than its predecessor - it's easy to fly through shots. We were reeling off bursts of raw & JPEG shots at 15fps no problems and able to keep on going in double-quick time. That's thanks to a multi-core CPU and an attached GPU; Samsung has a strong footing in processor manufacture from its smartphone division so it's no surprise that the NX1 takes advantage of such expertise.
That extra speed also means 4K video capture is possible direct to SD card. There's a clean HDMI out too if you want the utmost quality, but the ability to record H.265 (HEVC) straight to card is great. Just a shame there's only one SD card slot when there's clearly the physical space to accommodate a second.
How well the battery will hold up to all this tech is yet to be seen. We have an inkling that it'll be one of the camera's shortcomings as plenty of models on the Samsung stand at the show were displaying a battery message on the NX1's top plates advising for a swap.
The Samsung NX1 looks like a camera to give the Panasonic Lumix GH4 a run for its money. It's also knocking on the door of the DSLR market - and perhaps too much so given its physical size. Not that its ability lacks, but we're not sure the market will be ready to shift over to a new system without the heritage of existing Canon and Nikon lenses. Saying that, all the new NX glass from Samsung that we've seen is impressive, albeit just as large as a DSLR system.
No final word on the Samsung NX1 release date or its price, but we expect a £1,300 body-only price before Christmas 2014.