Samsung NX20

Samsung’s NX series has been technological from the get-go, but the latest NX20 model - the follow up to the NX11 - adds Wi-Fi to its features list.

In today’s connected world that might prick up a few ears: it’s one of the areas that most big camera brands have failed to integrate well, or that otherwise tends to be sold as an extra add-on in some more recent models.

But does the NX20’s Wi-Fi functionality, in conjunction with its large APS-C sized 20.3-megapixel sensor, justify the £900 price tag?

Wi-Fi Hi-Fi

We’ll get to the Wi-Fi nitty-gritty later, as the NX20’s headline-grabbing 20.3-megapixel sensor is the feature that will garner most attention.

The NX-series uses an APS-C sized sensor that’s the same size as those found in most consumer DSLR cameras, but larger than Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds system and larger again than Nikon’s 1-series of compact system cameras. Where Micro Four Thirds is concerned, namely the Olympus OM-D E-M5 (which uses a 16-megapixel Panasonic sensor), that’s a significant factor that ought to give the Samsung the edge when it comes to image quality. A bigger sensor size equals more space to distribute those millions of pixels.

Though the NX20’s sensor is nothing new: it’s pinched the 20.3-megapixel one from the NX200. As a result image quality between the two is nigh on identical. But that’s no bad thing. When we reviewed the NX200 its megapixel-packed sensor confounded our expectations by delivering resolution and detail that was excellent.

The NX20 follows suit: There’s bags of detail on offer from ISO 100-800, and colour noise is kept at bay through the standard Auto ISO range up to ISO 3200. Even at ISO 3200 the JPEG processing smoothes out images well except for in more detailed, textured areas. ISO 6400-12,800 images are pushing it when it comes to holding on to detail, but these shots still might be useable at very cut-back resolutions.

Considering the camera’s high resolution these results are impressive. But that doesn’t mean the images are perfect: the auto white balance often slips up and colours can slide into dull territory; greens often lack punch or appear too blue-cyan for example. Furthermore Sony’s 24-megapixel NEX-7 really gives the Samsung a run for its money at the lower ISO settings - a potential purchase conundrum for many prospective buyers.

i-Function Design

When it comes to choosing a compact system camera there are a whole bunch on the market. At their inception, individual manufacturers had limited selections of lenses that made investing in the more mature system - ie, Micro Four Thirds - a more tempting prospect. That’s slowly changing as the Samsung NX system has plenty of decent lenses on offer and yet more are in the pipeline.

Then there’s Samsung’s calling card, if you will: the inclusion of an i-Fn - or intelligent function to give its full name - button on each of the lenses ensures that chopping and changing between settings is never more than a finger’s reach away.

Hit the i-Fn button and the selected setting - aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, white balance or iZoom - can then be adjusted at speed by using the lens ring. If that list of five sounds too extensive then simply customise the i-Fn from within the menus. If anything we’d like a handful of extra options to be added, such as AF type, continuous shooting and so forth. That small qualm ignored, this is a simple yet effective system that’s even better when shooting using a viewfinder.

Which brings us to the next point: the NX20’s electronic viewfinder (EVF for short) is higher resolution than its NX11 predecessor. The SVGA screen equates to 800 x 600-pixels or 1.44m-dots as it's often described. It’s large to the eye and the display overlay means all settings are just a glance away.

Below this is a 3-inch, 614k-dot AMOLED screen that, for the first time in the NX-series, is mounted on a vari-angle bracket. It can be tilted and swiveled through three dimensions for self-portraits, waist-level or overhead shots.

Despite all this great-sounding tech, however, we find that the viewfinder is a little slow to start when it senses the eye in close proximity. Also the colour reciprocity between the two isn't accurate - the EVF is warmer than the rear screen, and the latter we found a little too cold in its presentation.

Elsewhere the camera is designed much like a mini-DSLR. Although its internal design doesn’t resemble one, it’s clear that classic design is here to stay. And for good reason.

The NX20’s menus are well laid out, a top thumbwheel is met with the rear d-pad’s ability to rotate, which is rather like having two thumbwheels for quick and easy full manual control. The camera’s grip is well placed, the lenses look proportional to the body and, despite it being larger than a Micro Four Thirds or Nikon 1 system, it’s still big enough - without being too big - to feel right in the hand.

Performance: Slow Processing

The NX20 makes light work of autofocus. It’s fast - though not the fastest in its class - and provides plenty of control. From the user-defined "select AF" to the let-the-camera-think multi AF, there are also face-detection modes and both single and continuous autofocus.

There’s been no compact system camera to date that’s really shone in the continuous autofocus department and the NX20 doesn’t manage to scupper this trait. Fast-moving subjects will be out of the frame before the camera re-focuses with accuracy. Low light scenes, too, will cause problems for the single autofocus mode - though it’s not just Samsung's NX range that suffers from such issues.

Other fast credentials include a 1/8000th second shutter speed and an eight frames per second (8fps) burst mode. But there quibbles with both: the focal plane shutter is limited to 1/4000th second; the 1/8000th second option uses an electronic shutter instead (which can be deactivated) which means the shutter doesn’t move at all.

While the 8fps burst mode works just fine in single autofocus mode, it’s the backlog of processing that becomes a potential problem. Eight raw + JPEG shots on a class 10 SD card will take around 35 seconds to process, possibly more depending on the shots taken. It’s not even that the processing time is the entire bother, it’s that no settings can then be adjusted during this waiting period. All you can do is stare at the "processing" progress bar. Yeesh.

Even a single raw + JPEG frame takes around seven seconds to clear the buffer and, while it’s possible to continue shooting, you can’t change many settings such as the ISO sensitivity or AF point position - at least not until that darn "processing" alert has vanished from the screen. This was a problem with the NX200 and one that should have been fixed in the NX20.

UPDATE: The v1.0 firmware used in this review isn't - rather confusingly - the only v1.0 firmware available. Issued on June 13 a new v1.0 firmware significantly improves the camera's processing times. In fact using the same SD card a burst of eight raw + JPEG shots will take around 20 seconds to process before the camera is ready to use again. That's almost half the original test time. However we've left the original text of this review unchanged as Samsung isn't, as yet, shipping the model with the latest firmware. Furthermore the lack of information in the manual explaining how to update firmware, the camera's on-board URL that directs to the Korean language site and the confusing version number won't help most consumers to get the most out of their camera straight from the box.

Wi-Fi

Connectivity is a good thing when it’s used properly. Cloud computing, social networking and so forth have had a big impact on many techno-minded folk. So for Wi-Fi to be inbuilt in a camera makes perfectly good sense. Or does it?

The NX20’s dedicated Wi-Fi mode ensures the battery-draining feature can’t be in use when in any of the other shooting modes. But this also means an immediate share isn’t possible. Instead click into the Wi-Fi mode and then select through the variety of options - there’s MobileLink, remote viewfinder, social sharing, email, SkyDrive, auto backup and TV link.

A veritable smorgasbord of connected apps, granted, but ones that need to be coaxed into their fullest potential with (obviously) a connection and, for many of them, a mobile phone. In the UK the lack of free Wi-Fi is an obvious stake through the heart here, though other countries will be far better suited to getting the most out of sharing options.

For camera-to-mobile apps, such as MobileLink that can send pictures to your mobile, or Remote Viewfinder that can use your phone as a controller for the camera, the plodding process is the letdown.

For example, the mobile - we used an iPhone 4 in this example - can only talk directly to the camera, so although no third party or wider Wi-Fi network is needed, if you then choose to post an image from the mobile phone you’ll probably be fiddling around with different network options, the phone’s own sharing functionality, and this is all after the clunky Samsung interface that's used to get the image from the camera in the first place.

These are building blocks. We like that Wi-Fi is available but can’t imagine using it on many occasions. And, to answer the question way back at the beginning of this review, the additional price premium - the NX20 with 18-55mm i-Fn lens is almost £900 at launch - that Wi-Fi adds, however small its proportion may be, just won't be worth it for many. Not yet anyway. When apps become more fluid in use, more complex and, hopefully, more fun, it’ll be of greater importance.

Verdict

The NX20 might be pricey, but then it has plenty on offer to keep it in fair competition against the likes of the Sony NEX-7 or Olympus OM-D.

This is a decent camera, and it’s the high-resolution, low ISO shots that it can produce that make it a real winner. Just like the NX200, it’s image quality that’s the biggest lure.

But, also like the NX200, there are problems: processing is slow, autofocus in low light isn’t quite there and continuous autofocus is slow to update. If you shoot fast action then look elsewhere. But landscape and portrait shooters will find there's plenty of goodness to be had.

The addition of Wi-Fi is fun at best, but, at least for now, it feels more like the first building blocks of something that’ll be a more functional feature in the future.

If the Samsung NX-series hasn’t crossed your mind until now then it’s certainly worth a look in. All compact system cameras, if not all cameras, have their relative shortcomings. Ignore the NX20’s issues and the built-in EVF, vari-angle AMOLED screen and image quality make this one cracker of a camera.



>