Samsung Galaxy NX review
At last, a company's broken ranks. We're big fans of compact system cameras, but other than upping the pixels and widening out the choice of lenses, few of the leading lights have done anything truly radical since the format first appeared back in 2008.
Until now. The Samsung Galaxy NX is the first system camera to utilise Google's Android operating system, the same OS as found in many smartphones and tablets, which makes for easy on-the-go sharing and opens up a variety of additional uses.
It's radical. But does it work out, or - and like the earlier Galaxy Camera - has Samsung thrown a little too much at this product; does it preside, as it should, as a camera first and foremost?
Bang for bulk
The Galaxy NX looks large. And for good reason: it is large. In the hand it really feels it, too, particularly when compared to the likes of the smaller-scale Panasonic G6.
It's considerably bigger than the rest of the Samsung NX range, too, but stand it beside an entry-level DSLR and you might be surprised. Yes, it's slightly wider and taller than a Canon EOS 700D, but from back plate to lens it's shorter - and around 15 per cent lighter.
Despite this there's still plenty of room for a mammoth screen with a 4.77-inch diagonal and 1280 x 720 resolution, the same as you'll find in the Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone. That's a 2760k-dot resolution, so it's far more resolute than the more typical 920k-dot 3-inch screens that tend to grace cameras. However, it's not articulated like the one on the Samsung NX300 system camera, but it is touch-sensitive, and that's allowed Samsung to do away with pretty much all of the hardware control buttons. The display stretches right across the back of the body with just a slim column to the right reserved for the thumb rest.
The removal of such controls could so easily have been a mistake were it not for Samsung's i-Function lenses and some cleverly thought-out controls. i-Function lenses have long been a highlight of the NX range, sporting an "iFn" button on the side of each NX lens barrel that enables you adjust the shutter speed, aperture and other basic controls by twisting the focus ring at the end of the barrel. The system's a boon for novice users who don't need to trawl extensive menus to get at the option they need, and in the Galaxy NX it works in conjunction with an unmarked thumbwheel on top of the chassis that will likely have greater appeal to more seasoned shooters.
The on-screen menus are an upgrade to the ones we first saw in the rather vanilla Galaxy Camera which rendered each parameter as a position on a rotating virtual barrel. It was effective but took up lots of screen space and could obscure the live preview. In the Galaxy NX it's been collapsed into a more manageable two-tier arrangement, with an inner ring to select the parameter and the outer tier to adjust its setting, plus the larger screen offers up more real estate too.
The Galaxy NX ships with the Android Jelly Bean operating system - that's version 4.2 - and just like smartphones or tablets that run this OS there are apps to do various things. Whether those are games, maps, calendars, social networking access, and so forth. The actual camera is also managed through an app, which might sound a bit strange.
But strange doesn't mean bad. Indeed, the Galaxy NX marks the best implementation of an Android camera that we've yet seen, but you can't confuse it for what it's not - this isn't going to be successful as a smartphone or tablet replacement. The big body and awkward protrusions see to that.
Android is useful for more than just camera-based tasks in this context, however. It's fine for performing on-the-spot photo edits and sharing via social networks. Even email, and the odd bit of browsing if there's nothing else available to hand makes sense.
But if you're more likely to tap out long messages or watch movies, then the NX isn't really going to make sense. It can deliver such tasks, that much is true, but this is a camera at the end of the day, not a tablet.
Android and its apps also eats up battery life. But the NX's 4360mAh battery is up to the task - we can't fault it on the stamina front. It's also considerably larger than the regular cell used in other NX devices and that's another reason that the NX's body is so chunky.
It's important to note that any on-the-go functionality will require a network connection. Wi-Fi is one solution - and 802.11n is a given here - but for true smartphone-like sharing you'll need to buy into a data package such as a pay-as-you-go SIM.
The Galaxy NX supports LTE 4G as a fallback for fast speeds, or 3G if that's all your network can offer.
So long as you're connected one way or another the Galaxy NX will backup every shot to Dropbox, and it's bundled with a two-year 50GB account as per other Samsung devices.
Images are also saved internally to 16GB of built-in storage, although as this is shared with apps and application data - and a portion of it is non-writeable as it holds the operating system - you'd better budget for a microSD card on top of the Galaxy NX's hefty £1299 asking price. If you do have lots of apps these need to exist on the 16GB internal storage for proper performance.
The same hybrid contrast-detection and phase-detection autofocus system that we saw in the NX300 takes pride of place in the Galaxy NX. It's fast to focus, and focus is pretty even across the frame with no obvious fall-off towards the corners or edges.
READ: Samsung NX300 review
It's easy to isolate your subject for focus by tapping directly on the screen - a benefit of Android - and defocused backgrounds shot at the widest possible aperture settings soften to an attractive blur. Looks pro to us.
There's plenty to like under the hood, too, with the APS-C sensor - standard in all current NX-series cameras - offering up a larger surface than those found in many of its system camera rivals. With a native resolution of 20.3 megapixels, full-size images top out at 5472 x 3648 pixels, but if you want to use the screen's 16:9 ratio edge-to-edge then you'll have to trim a little from the top and bottom and settle for 5472 x 3080.
Different manufacturers define APS-C using slightly different dimensions, but in this case we're looking at a crop factor of 1.54x - the same as the Pentax K-5 - which means the 18-55mm kit lens behaves like a 28-85mm equivalent.
READ: Pentax K-5 review
The NX can save JPEG and raw files, or the two simultaneously if you choose, but even if you opt to fly solo with raw snaps you can still edit the results using native Android apps without first converting them to JPEG. Very cool.
The range of pre-installed app-based tools is small, though, so you'll have to download a fully-featured editor like Aviary to get yourself started, along with social staples like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram if you want to share beyond email and Google+.
Image quality was excellent throughout our tests. Colours remained faithful under all given lighting conditions, both indoors and out, and images were impressively grain-free as far as ISO 3200. That means you can shoot in dim surroundings without popping up the on-board flash and still expect good results.
Beyond ISO 3200 some softening starts to dull previously crisp edges as it suppresses the creeping image noise/grain, which itself becomes far more obvious as you push it towards the maximum ISO 25,600. We wouldn't want to use the top-end ISO setting.
Exposure compensation runs to +/-3.0EV in 1/3 stop increments, and like the aperture and shutter speed this can be controlled through the i-Function lens. Great for green-fingered users, as it should tempt you to get more creative and fix problems at the point of capture rather than relying on retrospective edits.
Shutter speeds range from 1/6000th to 30 seconds in both manual and auto modes, the latter of which should be plenty long enough to catch streaking headlights and illuminated buildings at night, but if you have any special requirements you can push this to a maximum of four minutes in bulb mode.
All of this proves that Samsung hasn't taken its eye off what really matters in a camera - image quality - in the race to produce the first Android-equipped mirrorless system camera.
We've got no complaints when it comes to video, either, which is less often a primary consideration when it comes to choosing a camera. Files are shot in Full HD, topping out at 1920 x 1080, 25fps in PAL and 30fps in NTSC. You can double either of these if you drop the resolution to 1280 x 720, and then cut the resolution still further if you're planning on posting straight to the web. There's no ultra-high-speed option for smooth slow-mo capture though.
At £1299 it's the Galaxy NX's price that's a big hurdle to overcome. For our US readers expect to pay $1699. Clearly, this isn't an impulse purchase, and it's not like you can offset some of that cost against the price of a tablet, either, as they're entirely different things. The NX is all about plugging into Android features that are best used for sharing and on-the-spot photo editing. Things such as email, browsing and games are all nice-to-haves but not things you'd want to be doing all the time from this device.
That's left it stuck in the curious position of being squeezed from two sides by its siblings. The NX300 remains one of the best compact system cameras you can buy and retails for around half the price of the Galaxy NX. It doesn't have Android, but it does have the same focus system, lenses and sensor, and features a very tempting fold-out screen. In the other direction we're looking at the Galaxy Camera, which can't match the Galaxy NX or NX300 for image quality but does sport the same sharing features.
Or disregard compact system cameras entirely and pick up a Canon EOS 70D for less cash. Sure, it might not have the same level of sharing or app functionality available but as a dedicated camera it's got a lot to shout about.
READ: Canon EOS 70D review
When stood on its own, the Galaxy NX has glimmers of being a great camera, and approaches a true innovation in a sector that was in danger of becoming a little stale so early in its lifespan. If price is no object then the NX could be considered for your shortlist - but the upscaled size compared to the rest of the NX series makes it feel like an oddity; one where Samsung has thrown almost too much at this camera. Do you really want to throw all your cash back at it?
Overall we're a little stuck in limbo land when it comes to scoring the Galaxy NX. Undeniably good image quality is what really carries the camera, decent operation and great sharing features are other positives that also give it plenty to shout about. But the physical size and exorbitant price will be at odds with some buyers. There are moments of brilliance, for sure, but it feels like a starting point rather than a fully revered solution - and when it reaches that level this could well be the future. And that's something for the biggest imaging manufacturers to consider, as the Galaxy NX is a nod to the future.