After wrapping up its Pentax clone GX-series DSLR line in 2009, Samsung has spent time furrowing its own path back into the camera market with its NX-series compact system cameras. The latest of which, the Samsung NX1, isn't afraid of going large: it's big on features, but also big on size.
This physical size seemingly puts the NX1 into a category all of its own; an echo of the DSLR scale we thought it had shed at the end of the last decade, it's more DSLR with electronic extras than the image conjured by the term "compact system camera".
But with Samsung betting on each of the big, medium and small camps - it also has its NX-M lens line for the NX Mini - the NX1's scale may suit a high-end audience, particularly given its large size APS-C sensor, super-fast 15fps burst mode and an overall specification that may have its competitors looking over their shoulders.
Is bigger better? We've been out shooting with the Samsung NX1 in both London, UK, and Montreal, Canada, to get a taste of its capabilities and limitations.
Everything but the kitchen sink
Our review sample Samsung NX1 came paired with the 16-50mm f/2.0-2.8 lens. It's an excellent optic which, on account of its wide maximum aperture, is somewhat large, but an ideal match to a high-end camera body such as the NX1.
When we say the NX1 is large, we don't mean it's so huge that it's beyond usable. In compact system camera terms it's as big as they come is all, with the likes of the Panasonic Lumix GH4 smaller overall when considering its choice of Micro Four Thirds sensor and, therefore, smaller like-for-like lenses. Sony, on the other hand, offers a similar APS-C sensor size for its Alpha models, but it requires a much shorter flange-back distance from the lens' rear to sensor, so its E-mount lenses are also smaller than the NX equivalents.
But over time we've become accustomed to Samsung's choice of size and there have been occasions where the scale has been proactively useful. In the not-so-balmy -7C of a Montreal winter, gloves firmly fixed to hands, the spread of control dials and buttons made the NX1 all the easier to use. The dust- and weather-sealed exterior also came into its own when combatting the elements, as that sleet certainly wasn't going to become an issue.
The NX1's layout may take a little getting used to, however, as it combines both top and rear thumbwheels with a rotational d-pad dial, making for a trio of main controls - two of which tend to do the same thing as one another - alongside a touchscreen, function buttons and deeper menu options.
An equivalent DSLR camera would have the main control thumbwheel to the front, so the Samsung choice to put it up top feels a little alien at first and isn't the most practical positioning. But the very presence of all these dials is something few other cameras in this class offer. There's a press-to-lock mode dial on top of the camera, alongside four dedicated function buttons (ISO, AF, metering, white balance) with a drive mode collar surround - easy to use with bare or gloved hands.
Yes the NX1 is big, but if you're comfortable with that, as we have become, then it's less a criticism than we at first thought it would be. But it won't suit all.
Screen and viewfinder
The rear 3-inch AMOLED screen is mounted on a tilt-angle bracket rather than the preferable vari-angle mechanism of the Panasonic Lumix GH4, but we still found it useful for waist-level work. Its colour replication, on the other hand, looked way off with the "OLED Colour" option active in the settings; a kind-of putrid inaccuracy that we would rarely trust in preview. That's down to AMOLED's added punch which can look great when balanced correctly, but that can all too often be pushed to excess.
The ability to use a touchscreen is a definite plus point on a camera such as this - for both movie capture and still images. A press on the NX1's screen will position both the focus point and metering area in one, while a follow-up press-and-drag will separate the metering area so it can be positioned separately anywhere within the composition. However, it's not always as immediately responsive as we would like, with the Tizen operating system posing other various issues that we'll come to later.
When not using the screen the NX1 incorporates an OLED electronic viewfinder to its centre, mimicking classic DSLR style. This offers a 0.7x equivalent magnification for a large view, its 2.46m-dot resolution is crisp, and the auto-eye sensor swaps from rear screen to finder quicker than any other compact system camera we've used.
Samsung claims the viewfinder has almost no lag - the 0.005-second delay means what's happening in front of you unfolds to your eye near instantly - but that doesn't mean that ghosting is absent in darker conditions. Well, in specific instances: for the sake of saving battery, we presume, the finder refresh rate is limited until focus is acquired, but after focus is acquired the refresh rate is upped for silky-smooth and ghost-free motion. We've dug through the menus but failed to find an option for an always-on super-mega-refresh rate. Shame, as there's yet more potential wrapped up in here.
One look at the NX1 specification and it's clear it's one of the most feature-packed compact system cameras out there. Autofocus is handled by 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 - maintaining its "big" trend with such sizeable numbers.
In use that autofocus system is generally very fast, but not as infallible as the big numbers may suggest. More doesn't always mean more, with the camera failing to rapidly acquire focus on some contrasting subjects, instead hunting and, sometimes, failing to focus. We're not convinced that any manufacturer has quite mastered the pairing of contrast-detection and phase-detection points on an imaging sensor just yet.
There are four main focus area sizes available when using Selection AF, which can be cycled through using the top command dial after a press of the central OK/AF button on the rear of the camera. Multi-area AF sees the camera take over autofocus for you, while Face Detection and Self Portrait AF options do what they say on the tin, recognising faces and focusing accordingly.
For darker situations there's an AF illuminator lamp which is about as bright as the sun. The circular green emission's brightness can be controlled from within the settings, or switched off, and we would suggest doing so if you want to have any chance of surprise. At a 60th birthday party, for example, waiting for the camera to respond to the illuminated light would cause subjects to be distracted and unnatural.
Other clever new features include Samsung Auto Shot which has the smarts to automatically read fast subject movements and auto capture at the precise moment. A nice idea, but one that's currently restricted: there are only Baseball and Jump modes available, to specifically cater for such scenarios. For UK users we suspect the first option is as good as useless, while the second not a good enough reason to buy the camera alone. But it's perked our interest in terms of future potential.
NX level speed
The other headline-grabbing feature - and for good reason - is the 15 frames per second burst mode. Yep, 15fps at the full 28-megapixel resolution is about as good as it gets in the camera world. That's quite a feat, helped along by the new DRIMe V processing engine and multi-core CPU and GPU working behind the scenes, all said to be 2.8 times faster than the last generation NX system.
We've reeled off bursts of raw & JPEG shots while shooting wild deer, producing heaps of shots to capture the desired moment. When it comes to accurate focal-point positioning we would like some more advanced controls, though, akin to the Pinpoint mode found in Panasonic Lumix compact system cameras. On a number of shots the NX1's focus was slightly off, as the added benefit of a large sensor and wide aperture means you'll need to be extra attentive when it comes to accuracy.
Moving subjects are tracked fairly well too, placing the NX1 in among the best compact system cameras from this point of view. However, it's not quite of a high-end DSLR system's standards in this regard, and while it is possible to shoot 15fps with continuous autofocus active, that burst speed exceeds the autofocus system's ability to catch up - we often had a number of out-of-focus frames when the focus was diving from one focal depth to another.
Every Samsung NX lens also has a small button on it, called an i-Function (or iFn) button. One press and you can dive into the most common manual settings: aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, white balance and intelli-zoom make up the list, each of which can then be adjusted by turning the lens' focus ring. Cool, huh? There's also in-camera customisation to control which of the options remain, but you can't add any variations on the fixed list.
Eye of the Tizen
Samsung's vision of the future is to run its product lines on the Tizen operating system. If you don't know what that is then, well, it doesn't really matter: the menu systems of the NX1 are much like that in any other camera, as is its operation.
But it's not always plain sailing. Throughout our use we've found the burst mode would often cause an indefinite "processing" message to linger on screen and the camera remain inoperable (not for a given period of time, but indefinitely); we've woken the camera from its sleep mode to find not all functions readily available; and a number of times we've had the software freeze and require a battery pull to reset it. It's not an issue every single time, but the NX1 lacks the stringent stability that we come to expect from such kit.
However, Tizen does mean better integration of some interesting features, such as Bluetooth (via NFC) and Wi-Fi connectivity for sharing images from camera to a smart device. It's all for Android devices only, so no Apple or Windows Phone compatibility (hardly a surprise from a company invested in Android smartphones), but if that's what you have then fill your boots.
We had a few glitches when getting things working, but some phone adjustments, app downloads and restarts got everything in order. Once up and running the Samsung Camera Manager Inst app allows for remote control of the camera (we had a bug with permanent overexposure sometimes), and sharing of files between camera and smartphone.
When it comes to sharing images to the wider world Samsung has got it absolutely right: no faffing about signing up to Samsung's own services, instead you share direct from your smartphone just as you would add a post to your Facebook wall, Twitter feed or personal email, etc. Nice and simple, no barriers.
Wi-Fi connectivity will dig at the battery life though, so use it sparingly as needed. As it happens the NX1's battery life is the best we've ever used in a compact system camera, able to handle 500-shots per charge or more.
Despite some software foibles and some of the technology not living up to its fullest potential, after a week of shooting with the NX1 and then opening shots in full on our computer screen, we came to realise just how capable this camera is.
Although we don't find the camera's own screen a reliable gauge, the colours actually captured are far more realistic than the AMOLED panel lets on. The colour palette is accurate in its portrayal of various subjects, and if you do want a boost, such as giving a sunset over an icy like that extra punch, then in-camera Picture Wizard settings are at your fingertips.
The lowest ISO sensitivities, ISO 100-800, which are typically used in brighter conditions, produce crisp and clear shots. However, with the 16-50mm lens there's a fair amount of distortion correction applied to JPEG files, which slightly softens images' full potential. We didn't find that particular lens to distort heavily, so our go-to files would be the raw shots where details are more prevalent than their JPEG counterparts.
Noise reduction can be adjusted in-camera (this is unavailable and set to default for continuous burst shooting), which is handy for those higher ISO settings where the NX1's processing gets a little heavy handed. While ISO 1600 produces images of a good quality, the noise reduction processing doesn't seem great at extracting the subtle green colour noise that you may catch in mid-grey areas.
Jump to ISO 3200 and a lot more detail drifts away, while at the highest standard ISO 6400 setting we find the default noise reduction to excess - it loses the grain and diminishes details to excess in our view. A cosy wood fire and stone chimney stack lacked any bite at this top-end setting, with a carefully edited raw file by far the preferable way to work with the shot.
The potential elephant in the room is the choice for a 28-megapixel APS-C sensor. No other manufacturer makes a sensor of this size with as much resolution, meaning the available "pixels" on the image sensor's surface are smaller than its competitors, which limits their light-gathering properties and, therefore, maximum potential at higher ISO settings.
Samsung's counter to this is that the NX1 features 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. Even so, we can't help but feel a 22-megapixel resolution might have seen a greater boost to the ISO 1600-6400 region.
All that said, it's hard to argue with the NX1's overall image quality. It'll hold its own against even Fujifilm, Panasonic, Olympus and Sony offerings, making the question about the NX1 more about its size and the available lenses in the system.
Let's not also forget movie functionality. Keeping up with the 4K trend, the NX1 is capable of shooting at 3840 x 2160 resolution at 24/25fps, or Full HD 1920 x 1080 at 25/25/50fps. Files are rendered as MP4 - for the "Pro" settings you'll need a player capable of reading HVC1, something not even VLC can do at the moment - with files at around 550MB/min.
Although the Samsung NX1 kills the very notion of "compact" system camera, it's still a solid slice of kit with plenty to shout about.
Let's get the quibbles out of the way first though: we found some software glitches to be apparent, which we don't expect at this level; the AMOLED screens don't show off colours to their best capacity; the viewfinder ghosting is disappointing and probably not necessary; and the high ISO image quality is stretched, most likely on account of the 28-megapixel resolution sensor.
But there are firsts and class-leading features afoot too: the super-fast 15fps burst mode and nippy autofocus is often impressive; image quality with the 16-50mm f/2.0-2.8 lens in tow has great potential; the battery life betters any compact system camera we've used; and Wi-Fi cuts to the chase for sharing images to those places that matter.
Bigger isn't always better, but in the right hands, with the right lens, and the right mindset, the Samsung NX1 is an impressive camera. It's just not really what we'd call "compact" by any measure, it's more Samsung going full circle and reflecting on its DSLR days in newfound form. There are glimmers of brilliance here, but only if you can get over the physical size.