Samsung NX10 hybrid camera review

The Samsung NX10 is a serious entry into the hybrid sector for the Korean company, a company that competes it pretty much every sector of the consumer electronics market. It's no surprise then to find that Samsung haven't taken a half-hearted approach: the NX10 is a serious device, despite the company being a relative newbie when it comes to cameras.

Like the Micro Four Thirds models we've seen from Olympus and Panasonic and more recently the Sony NEX, the Samsung NX10 offers a combination of DSLR properties in a more compact format. In real terms you can slip the NX10 into a jacket pocket, giving you plenty of power and the versatility that comes with a system camera.

Samsung haven't just launched the NX10 with the standard 18-55 OIS kit lens and to prove it, we also received the 30mm "pancake" lens (£200) and the SEF20A flash (£110) which attaches to the hot shoe: essentials for any photographer's kit bag.

Samsung's entry to this sector has been on the cards for some time, we first saw it at PMA in 2009 after which it became clear that Samsung were developing their own system for this camera. The result of that system is that the NX10 offers an APS-C CMOS sensor, the same type as you'll find in most DSLR cameras, rather than the slightly smaller sensor that Micro Four Thirds systems offer.

The Samsung NX10 is perhaps most akin to the Panasonic Lumix GH1 or the more recent G2, less the variangle display. The similarity lies in the inclusion of a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF), rather than as an added accessory. In that sense, the NX10 is more like a miniature DSLR than its other hybrid competitors which place greater emphasis on outright design, and to a certain extent user-friendly features, like the Olympus Pen range.

But Samsung have done a remarkable job with the design of the NX10. It is still slim but you don't feel it has compromised on features to achieve the 123 x 87 x 39.8mm dimensions. On the front you have the interchangeable lens mount, the EVF with the usual hot shoe and pop-up flash above it, and a 3-inch AMOLED 614k-dot resolution screen on the back.

The display might not have the resolution that some of the DSLR models do but the AMOLED display is certainly vibrant. The EVF offers you a 921k-dot resolution and both offer 100% field of view. Without the mirror box, of course, you don't have to worry about switching to "live view". When the camera is away from your face the display is in action, when you bring it to your eye it switches to the EVF. EVFs have come a long way in the past few years and the NX10's is a pleasure to use. We much prefer the in-built EVF to the accessory type especially in cameras that are a little larger where framing a shot and holding it steady benefits from the extra support that pressing it against your face offers.

Controls are logically laid out as you'd expect to find them on a DSLR. A mode dial sits to the right of the viewfinder hump, along with a dial for selections and flicking through values, for example, when changing the shutter speed. The power on/off encircles the shutter button which sits forward on the slightly pronounced handgrip.

Around the back you have a common arrangement of a four-way controller which doubles up with white balance, ISO, focusing and metering options, whilst the central "ok" button also lets you toggle a mode to let you define the point of focus, including letting you change the size of the focusing reticule. This feature doesn't work in the Smart auto or preset (scene) modes, but is there for those using the program, aperture, shutter or manual modes. It's a great feature, well executed, but once a focal point is set, it will stay set until you move it back again, which is something to watch out for when switching modes.

The rear Fn or function button gives you access to a quick change menu to change settings pertinent to your shooting mode. Again, it's been cleverly designed, allowing you to scroll through settings, which appear in a central circle, like you are looking through a spy hole.

You also get direct access to the likes of exposure compensation, exposure lock, drive mode and a green button which can quickly reset some changed values back to default when shooting. There is also access to the Picture Wizard, which will let you set various different colour styles, for example vivid, retro or cool, as well as being able to define your own custom picture styles.

A depth of field preview and auto focus assist lamp add features not always present on some entry level DSLRs, and a good host of connectivity AV, HDMI, DC and remote, sit under a flap on the left. A slot on the right will take SD cards whilst the battery, good for around 400 shots, slots into the bottom.

The construction of both the lenses and the camera feels like good quality, but doesn't have the wow factor that the Pen series does with its eye-catching retro design. An accessory K-mount adapter is available meaning you get access to all the Pentax K-mount lenses out there as well as those currently available from Samsung.

When it comes to lenses, the 18-55mm OIS kit lens comes with a hood, which you'll either have to use or leave at home - reversing it on a lens this small means you can barely operate the zoom ring and can't get to the focusing ring for manual focus. But it is 58mm at the front end, meaning you'll have no problem finding filters or accessories to fit it: it’s the same diameter thread as the kit Canon lenses. At 18mm we did find a fair amount of barrel distortion, although this isn't uncommon on affordable zoom lenses; the F/3.5 max aperture is also rather average for this type of lens.

The 30mm lens makes a great portrait lens (or general shooting lens if you want a more compact package). With an F/2.0 max aperture it also fares well as the light drops and offers good creative potential, although it has no thread on the front if you want to add a conventional filter.

Power the camera on and the NX10 is probably the closest we've experienced to a regular DSLR. In that sense it comes across as rather serious, which some will like. You don't get the fun features like the Art Filters that the Olympus Pen offers you, and there is little in the way of handholding for newcomers.

Having said that, the performance of the Smart auto shooting mode is good. It will detect the scene and indicate what it thinks so you have an idea of what is going on. We found the results to be good too, with great dynamic range holding on to details where your average compact would certainly lose grip and some rival hybrid models might give you a result that's a little flat. A Smart Range function is available just for this type of situation and it seems to work.

Of course if you are interested in buying this sort of camera, then you'll find that the manual controls on offer will serve you well indeed. Not only do you get all the controls you'd expect, but options like AE bracketing, burst shooting (which blasts off 30 shots) as well as the interesting white balance bracketing and picture wizard bracketing. These will take three shots at slightly different settings. But beware: if you forget you are shooting in this mode you'll find you get home to a camera with multiple versions of your shots!

These options are only open to JPEG shooting which the NX10 handles nicely. RAW shooting is also offered and for getting the most of a tricky landscape shot it is probably your best bet, combined with a little post-processing to adjust the values. RAW shooting does slow the camera down somewhat which is where you really get to feel the difference between the NX10 and a "proper" DSLR.

Video shooting surprisingly comes in with a maximum 1280 x 720 resolution, suggesting that a step-up model will appear (perhaps the rumoured NX20). For many this resolution will be adequate, but it falls behind the GH1 and the likes of the Canon EOS 550D, which seems to be attracting a good deal of attention from DSLR videographers.

You do get to change the aperture for movies as well the creative advantage of being able to switch out lenses, have manual focus control and so on. Note though that the 18-55mm OIS kit lens is noisy if you choose to go for manual focus – you'll hear it creaking as you twist it. Autofocus in video is a little slow and does hunt around a bit. You do get a couple of nice options for video, like a pause function so you can stitch together scenes with a button press, and if you want a drastic change of focus, you can pause, recompose and then resume to avoid that hunting focus. You can also opt to fade in and out of video, or both, which is interesting, but perhaps not that useful as you can easily apply this afterwards.

You only get mono audio and there is no connection for an external mic. You also don't get to change the frame rate, so you have to live with the solid 30fps it provides. There is also a slight delay on starting and stopping the video capture, which takes the edge off things, and a hint that the NX10 could do with a little more processing power.

But none of this really will deter you from using the video mode for everyday capture. The biggest problem we encountered, however, was some confusion in video around reflections, a sample of which you can see here on YouTube. The camera seemed to get confused when recording a scene over water, with blue and yellow reflections appearing from nowhere. Perhaps this can be fixed via a firmware update, as it doesn't appear to be an optical problem.

As a stills camera, though, the NX10 is a pleasure to use. Focusing and metering seem to be accurate and fast and as we mentioned, if it doesn’t focus on the point you want you can easily select it manually. The illuminator helps out as the light drops, but focusing does slow down fairly dramatically, although that's nothing too unusual. You also get night shooting options, with a bulb mode offering up to 8 minutes of exposure.

The ISO range runs up to 3200, although we found that generally the NX10 would only select up to ISO 800 in the auto mode, with no option to define the upper auto ISO limit. That's fair enough as ISO 800 produces reasonably noise-free images, with the ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 displaying much more noise. This is fairly common on older APS-C models, but more recent DSLRs handle higher ISOs much more efficiently.

You also don't lose out on some of those compact camera classics, so you'll find face detection/ Face AF, including a separate option for self portraits. There is also the beauty shot mode which appears to smear heavy make-up all over you to remove blemishes. Call us square, but we like to keep it real.

Verdict

Samsung have obviously focused on many of the details with the NX10 and it is a slightly surprising result, especially as you can get this camera for less than £500. The menu system is accomplished, with very few layers to get through to find what you need. It doesn’t quite draw you into experimenting like some Micro Four Thirds models do, so some might say that it isn't quite as fun.

There are a few compromises for sure. Video is one of them. If video is high on your list of wants, then you might find that the NX10 disappoints. RAW shooting slowdown, as well as some buffering issues, even with a fast SDHC card, is another and makes us think the NX10 would be better with a more powerful processor. But for average day-to-day photography, it's a very nice camera to use, boosted by the fact that it offers the viewfinder and flash built-in.

Yes, you are buying into a system that perhaps doesn't come from a company with a long photography history, but Samsung continue to impress and as the Samsung NX10 is the first in the NX family, there are exciting times ahead.