Versatility has always been at the heart of Samsung’s compact cameras, the company happy to crowbar in features and advanced kittery normally spread across a variety of gadgets.
True to form, the NV9 provides a host of clever features and functions that make it both a smart snapper and just such a versatile machine, offering an MP3 and movie player as well as a text playing mode alongside the more mundane camera kit.
With the NV9 following Samsung’s usual trend for filling its cameras with a host kit (something started way back in its film compact cameras) another feature is you get all this stuff at a reasonable price making them both stylish and tempting in terms of the value for money side of the equation. The NV9 ticks those boxes here too.
Possessed of a slim and pocketable all-metal design, the build feels – and looks – great. The slim-line body is capped by a top plate that sports two clever retro dials that I really like and which indicate the remaining battery power and the space left on the SD (or SDHC, MMC or the 10MB of internal memory).
The dials, or as Samsung calls them, the “mini-dashboard status gauges” are reminiscent of those fitted to Nikon’s premium compact of yore, their 35mm film compact, the Nikon 35T. This sported larger but similar dials atop the bodywork. Here, both dials’ needles spin round when the camera’s turned on and then settle back to indicate the “correct” position, once the camera has “booted up”.
And that’s a problem because the camera’s not particularly fast to start, you must wait for the boot up process to finish and dials to settle, before you can start shooting, that’s a wait of around 4.5 seconds.
Nevertheless, once up and running the camera is a joy to use thanks largely to the neat control layout offering a large top plate mode dial that provides the route into all the shooting options and the multimedia features.
A couple of oddities here include the shutter button’s placement, just left of the mode dial. This takes some getting used to as at first, I kept pressing the mode dial to take snaps. The other is the tiny zoom lever, which also needs some getting used to. But eventually, you get the hang of the shutter release’s more central placement; the dual pressures have a nice tactile feel for AF and metering start, then taking the shot, and the zoom lever.
However, the position of the lens makes it prone to stray fingers and the tiny built-in flash unit, while okay for fill-in and closer work, should not be expected to provide more than a few feet of decent illumination, though something that does not lack power is the AF illumination lamp that’s adjacent to it. It takes over 4 seconds to recharge the flash after use too, so disappointing flash performance here to be fair, it’s typical of such small flash units on similar cameras.
Other controls on the back plate include the usual array of jog buttons that control the flash, drive modes, macro and screen toggle; a playback and optical image stabilisation control join forces with a “Fn” or function button.
Pressing here fires up the main shooting menu and allows you to alter resolution, ISO, metering and AF modes, to name a few. Last up is the “E” button, which provides a fast route into the picture styles, such as vivid, normal (this one can be tailored with a separate set of colour, saturation, contrast and sharpness settings).
Other modes in the “E” menu include soft, forest and retro modes and an oddly named black and white called “classic”. It’s true to say all the menus are simple to use and offer the now familiar Samsung system of having a menu appear across the top of the screen and adjustable elements scrolled down either the right or left side.
This is fast and easy to understand and provides a technophobe a way to delve deeper into the camera’s features than always leaving the thing on auto. The main menus (from the OK/Menu button) are presented as standard looking tabbed pages of options for shooting, set up, playback and sound settings.
In terms of shooting features however, the simplicity of control and layout belies the camera’s inner complexity. Face detection AF sits at the heart of the camera’s focusing and is backed up with blink and smile detection, enabling the camera to delay the shutter release until all eyes are open and all faces are beaming into the camera.
The system works quite well, but the Face AF is flawed as it has real problems with faces in profile. Another problem is slight shutter lag, a problem not as bad as on some recent NV models – such as the NV4 – but certainly enough to mean you can miss the action if you’re not prepared.
14 scene modes reached via the large mode dial, provide plenty of auto snapping modes for most eventualities, though the lack of sports mode is significant as is the lack of any form of continuous shooting mode.
The NV9’s other rather more novel shooting mode is its Beauty Shot setting, which provides a set of retouching tools that will automatically clean up portrait style shots. When selected the camera applies a sort of blemish removal algorithm to help clean up skin. White balance is optimised for skin tones and the net result is a rather smoothed over look to portraits, with a slightly softer focusing than normal, but it works.
The MP3, text and movie playback functions (you can convert videos on your PC to use on the camera or with the supplied Samsung software), music and reading text, again reached from the mode dial, provide an arguably broader appeal for the camera. Either way, it’ll certainly allow it to be a friendlier gadget when out: it becomes an entertainment centre; to my thinking, the only thing lacking is a built-in telephone.
The NV9 is therefore more of a pictorialist’s compact, and while it looks nice and is fairly easy to use, just how well does it perform at taking pictures? For a start, image noise is well controlled up to ISO 400, but with an ISO range up to 3200 and a digital image stabilisation system that boosts the ISO to help keep subject blur to a minimum, it’s easy to delve into the higher echelons of the sensitivity than might be wise.
This is because above ISO 800, noise is very noticeable, but its granularity, akin to film grain, is not unattractive if you shoot to use the effect to your advantage. However, above ISO 1600 the noise is very bad and while it does not make the images unusable, it does mean you’re limited to output size if printing or the size used on screen for example.
The lower ISOs, from 80 to 400 provide the best balance between image quality and sensitivity, ably backed up by optical image stabilisation (OIS), something that also helps get the most from the 5x, 38-190mm Samsung zoom lens.
Metering is good too with spot and centre-weighted modes backing up the multi-metering system so there’s plenty of flexibility, even if there are no manual shooting modes, as such, to play with.
OIS provides around two stops of advantage for hand held shots in low light or at longer focal lengths, so it’s certainly useful. That lens is sharp and surprisingly distortion free with slight barrel distortion at the widest 38mm end of the zoom.
38mm is a modest focal length as it is not quite wide enough for wider vistas, say, but it does allow you to get reasonably close thanks to the 190mm end of the zoom and all from a very small camera indeed.
In terms of other image quality criteria, the white balance and colour capture are very good, the latter natural, although you have the enhanced modes to play with if required.
Images are detailed but slightly soft by default, sharpness can be tweaked in an image editing package, or by upping the settings in camera, but shooting predominantly in the program, “Normal” mode – quality settings run through normal, fine to superfine – in the top setting and at ISO 80 or ISO 100, images are superb.
Another mention should go to the battery life; the camera had outings in temperatures of around -5 degrees for some of this test and it fared well, a full charge able to cope with over 200 shots with plenty of playback even in those chilly climes and the camera performed without a hitch too.
Overall, the Samsung NV9 is an excellent little camera, multimedia functionality provides a nice level of icing for the NV9 cake to make it a little more enticing if the excellent £179 price tag doesn’t have you reaching for your wallet.
And so, the Samsung NV9 may not be the most responsive of models compared to some, but at this price, with this feature set and when set to its top settings, it’s certainly a camera capable of superb images albeit one more for the more studied approach to snapping.