Samsung NX Mini review
If there's one thing Samsung is known for, it's spotting a gap. Not only a gap in the market, but often also a gap in its own products. You only need to look at the range of screen and panel options in its phone and tablet line-ups to see this, with almost every dimension between four and 12 inches safely in the bag.
So perhaps it's no surprise that it's heading down a similar road with its cameras, through the introduction of the diminutive NX Mini. As the name suggests, it bears more than a passing similarity to the company's interchangeable lens NX compact system cameras, only this time around the "compact" really is the key feature.
To do so the company has taken a bit of a gamble with a brand new NX-M lens system and paired it with a 1-inch sensor, much like that found in the Nikon 1 series. New lenses, new sensor, smaller and "cuter" design - is the NX Mini the system camera we've been waiting for or a shot in the dark?
All new lenses
The NX Mini's magnesium body is just 110mm from end to end, 61mm from top to bottom, and when you flip up the screen - more on that in a moment - it narrows to 13mm front to back at the thinnest point. It's slightly wider than this at the point where it sites the controls, but still doesn't break 22.5mm. All this, and it still has space for a lens mount.
As it's not the regular NX mount used by its siblings, but the brand new NX-M mount, you gain the benefit of shorter lenses. They are around 20 per cent narrower than the regular Samsung glass, which means you should have plenty of room in your bag to carry a wider selection.
That won't become much of an issue right away though, since there are only two lenses at launch: the 9mm pancake and a 9-27mm zoom. We think it's something of a risk to be running two similar named lens systems side by side. But that's Samsung through and through.
All new sensor
With a 20.5mp, 1-inch sensor behind them the crop factor is 2.7x, meaning 9mm is a 24mm equivalent. Same idea as with the Nikon system.
READ: Nikon 1 J3 review
NX-M mount adaptors are available for pre-order in a range of online stores, and these will allow you to utilise existing NX lenses on the smaller form factor camera. Although given how big some of the NX lenses are there often won't be sense to pair them with the Mini's body.
Where the new lenses are concerned, the impressive miniaturisation of the NX-M optics is helped in no small part by the collapsible build of the 9-27mm zoom lens, in which Samsung has - again - employed a similar system to that used by Nikon.
When the Japanese brand was building the lenses for its V- and J-series cameras, it came up with the clever idea of allowing the lenses to collapse to a point where they were technically unable to focus the light onto the sensor in an effort to reduce redundant bulk.
Although the Samsung 9mm prime is ready for action right away, the 9-27mm needs a slight pull forward and twist to the outer lens ring to ready it for shooting. Twisting it further zooms in. There's no powered zoom, naturally, so if you're shooting movies you'd be advised to set your focal length and leave it there for the duration of each shot, unless you have particularly steady hands.
Other than that, the NX Mini's physical controls are few and far between. This isn't a surprise. Samsung cameras have been increasingly touchscreen driven, with most replicating key features in software, and the Samsung Galaxy NX dumping the back-mounted buttons altogether.
READ: Samsung Galaxy NX review
On the NX mini, the only physical controls you'll see are the same as you would find on a point-and-shoot compact camera. Everything else, including the mode selector, has been moved into software, where it's possible to control the camera with a tap or a swipe on the screen.
It works though. Everything is clear and responsive and spans the 3-inch display from corner to corner, so despite the smaller body there's still plenty of room for your fingers. The one thing we did miss, though, was the presence of physical thumbwheels that are common on other system cameras.
Moreover, we found ourselves lamenting the loss of Samsung's own iFunction (iFn) lens setup, a physical button on the NX lenses that enables you dial in changes by twisting the cuff at the end of the barrel. Not so in the NX-M. No room for it, perhaps.
Even so, this is a shame, as iFn is Samsung's trump card and we can't see how it could translate to the NX Mini without usurping the collapsible lens setup. As a result, you may spend more time scrolling through on-screen options than you'd like to. The shutter speed scale, in particular, takes a long time to swipe through if you need to venture more than a short distance through the range.
The NX Mini has an articulated screen that can be lifted up by 180-degrees. You can't twist it around or fold it down, so while it's great for taking low-down shots, you'll have to turn the camera upside down if you also want to use it to shoot anything above your head, or over the heads of a crowd in front of you. Fortunately, with the camera being so light this is no great burden, as at 158g it's far from cumbersome.
Even so, why has Samsung designed the camera this way? One word: selfies.
Raising the screen through the full 180-degrees also flips the preview image so that when you're viewing the camera from the front the picture is still the right way up. No mental gymnastics by walking left when you need to move to the right, and vice versa, to get in the best position.
Better yet, if you can find somewhere to prop up the camera - we would recommend a small tripod, as without flipping out the screen as a counterbalance it's too light to hold itself upright with the zoom lens attached - you don't need to touch it to fire the shot. It's compatible with Samsung's existing apps for Android and iOS, which can fire it remotely, and if you wink at it with face detection enabled it will activate a two-second self-timer, giving you just enough time to smile before it takes the shot.
The NX Mini has built-in Wi-Fi so you can share your shots directly online, and NFC to pair it with a smartphone without performing any manual setup.
So, the Mini has most of the technical bells you could want, but what about those digital whistles: just how good are its images?
We found exposures and dynamic range to be excellent, with the NX Mini coping admirably with mixed illumination. Shooting shaded foliage backed by an overcast sky caused it no problems, either. It kept sensitivity down to ISO 160 - its minimum - yet retained plenty of detail in the grass itself, as well as the bright clouds in the sky.
Higher sensitivities - typically used in low-light conditions to produce an exposure, but with some sacrifice to quality - max out at ISO 12,800. Although you'll see more visible grain as you creep up this scale, you can comfortably push it towards the middle range without too many issues.
At ISO 1600 the grain was still very fine, and insufficient to significantly impact the clarity of shots. At ISO 3200, the weave on a white table cloth remained clear, while at ISO 12,800 the writing on a miniature spirit bottle was still legible within a larger overall scene. That's impressive all things considered.
Colour recognition is hard to fault, too, even within areas of minimal tonal variation - such as walls in which the brickwork and pointing are almost the same colour - which were clearly rendered, with clear differentiation between the two.
However, when shooting with the 9-27mm lens there was some evidence of chromatic aberration - those purple colour fringes that protrude from subject edges - when moving away from the centre of the frame. There was also some variation in the level of focus when comparing the corners and centre of each shot, but this is common to most cameras.
As the sensor is much larger than you would find in most compact cameras the available depth of field means blurred backgrounds are possible. Not to the same extreme as the bigger brother NX series, but still ample enough to have more impact than a compact camera.
Performance-wise we found the Mini's autofocus to be fast when fixing onto a subject, and if you're shooting fast-moving subjects you can slash the exposure time to 1/16,000th sec to freeze the action.
From stills to motion: the NX Mini can capture Full HD video at a maximum 30fps, with options for 720p and lower resolutions for online sharing.
As with stills, colours in movies are true to the originals and there was plenty of texture within the footage for a detailed result overall. However, when shooting while walking, using the 9-27mm lens, there was a little more motion in the result than we have become accustomed to when using both other NX cameras and their rivals.
Audio recording is also mono only and there's no option to invoke wind cut when shooting in breezy conditions. Shoot in tranquil surroundings you'll get away with it as the audio fidelity is very good.
It’s fair to say we were impressed by the NX Mini. Image performance is particularly good from such a sensor, and although we’d happily sacrifice the selfie feature for a more versatile hinge on the screen, the magnesium body and metal lenses are design highlights.
Compact system cameras typically only become truly compelling when they’re backed up by an extensive lens library, and although the Mini can plug in to the existing NX line-up with the aid of an adaptor, we’re keen to see how its native lens selection evolves.
A new lens system was always going to be a risk because the NX is a mirrorless camera that largely mirrors the Nikon 1 Series. It makes some of the same mistakes the earlier Nikon models did too, such as the limited numbers of controls, while it’s not a patch on the more versatile Panasonic Lumix GM1 in our view.
Nonetheless, the NX Mini is an affordable buy, with its £399 price - and that includes the 9mm prime lens - being what will really sell it. You may never swap lenses over and instead use the Mini like a compact camera. That’s where we see a lot of sense in it, despite the inherent risks and remaining questions which surround introducing a whole new system to market at this stage.