Is the new Samsung NX10 the future of Micro System Cameras? The What Digital Camera Samsung NX10 review sees how it stands up against the established Micro Four Thirds system...
With a large APS-C CMOS sensor providing 1.5x magnification, the Samsung NX10’s sensor is much larger than that of Micro Four Thirds, and crams 14.6 megapixels for ultra-large output too. And with many stores retailing the kit option for a penny under £500, this could well be the consumer-accessible delight that expense has otherwise hindered in the past. But just how good is it, how well does it sit in the market place, is it a true DSLR replacement and, above all else, is it the mirrorless interchangeable system to buy…?
Samsung NX10 review – Features
The Samsung NX10 has some very savvy features. Its 3in, 614K-dot screen isn’t LCD as per most cameras, instead it’s one of a handful of new cameras to employ AMOLED technology (that’s Active-matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode for the full name). You may have seen the abbreviated ‘OLED’ term filtering down into new technologies including some HDTV and mobile phone models. Unlike LCD, OLED does not require backlighting, meaning there’s an immediate benefit of lower power consumption.
In addition a faster refresh rate for smoother picture, higher contrast ratio for better black-white range, and more significant user viewing angle make it the current best display technology on the market. In addition to the rear screen is a built-in 921K-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF) with automatic detection to switch it on as your face nears the eye cup.
Unlike the MFT cameras on the market, Samsung’s NX venture has a larger APS-C sized 14.6MP CMOS sensor (the same size as that found in the majority of DSLRs), which in turn requires the unique NX-mount type lens fitting. An 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 (27-83mm equivalent approx) is the standard kit lens, but a prime 30mm f/2.0 and 50-200mm f/4-5.6 are already available to market with a further five more promised for the near future; three due this year. A K-mount adaptor to facilitate use of Samsung GX or Pentax K-mount lenses will also be available, albeit without autofocus capabilities.
Image Stabilisation isn’t based inside the Samsung NX10’s body, though a number
of lenses feature lens-based stabilisation. The 18-55mm kit lens and
50-200mm tele zoom lenses have this option, though the 30mm prime
Drive mode allows shooting of up to three frames per second, which is around the same as competitor models, though with such large file sizes this is limited to a quoted maximum of 10 JPEG or three Raw files before the buffer fills and ceases to allow further shooting.
The usual PSAM controls permit full manual use, plus Smart Auto, HD 720p Movie using H.264 compression, and a variety of scene modes also feature. ISO sensitivity runs through from ISO100-3200, plus in-camera Picture Wizard mode also provides customisable colour options and black and white capture among other presets.
There’s also Smart Range dynamic range optimisation for shadow and highlight exposure and user-definable exposure compensation to +/- 3EV. To compliment the pop-up flash, a standard hotshoe fitting for flashguns or further accessories also features.
Unlike the Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds efforts which – at least for many models such as the PEN and Lumix GF1 respectively – focus on small, compact-like designs, Samsung’s NX10 is very DSLR-like in finish.
Actually, with its in-built viewfinder and body styling, it feels like this could well be Samsung’s replacement for the GX-series DSLR. Although the company has only confirmed that all current efforts are with the NX-series, thus not ruling out future DSLR developments, it really is all systems go on the mirrorless front.
With the size scaled down, yet with the DSLR-stylings kept so firmly in design, the NX10 can feel a bit small in the hand. The lack of an extended grip down the right side isn’t necessarily comfortable for long periods of use, despite the decent finish of the camera body.
The lenses themselves are also sizeable, almost disproportionate to the body size, and don’t therefore lend to keeping the system small overall.
From a personal point of view the compact-like size of competitors’ models, such as the Panasonic GF1, was a breakthrough in what the mirrorless format offered – whether that will be a future phase for the NX-series remains to be seen.
The button layout is uncomplicated, though a number of function and quick-access buttons do also feature for rapid drive mode, Picture Wizard, exposure compensation AEL lock, and user-assignable Function (Fn) control. The usual d-pad feature on the back controls much of the action, though in menus a circular, wheel-like design will require using the top thumbwheel to adjust a number of options. Occasionally it was easy to flick past an option prior to having set it, though enough use quickly fixes the button combinations into mind.
The in-depth menu also arranges itself into single pages; despite the seven of these, they are sensibly grouped and represented by small icons to signify their category. For example the three ‘camera’ icons indicate changing photo-related options such as JPEG quality, whereas the ‘cog’ icons indicate camera-related options such as date & time or shutter sounds. Not having to dig through menus to find an option is definitely a positive, even if the controls do feel slightly haphazard on occasion.
So is the NX10 a true DSLR-buster? In many respects yes, but it’s with the AF system that, as per so many other contrast detection systems, the camera shows its limitations. AF can be slow, and also a tad inconsistent – focusing on the same static subject a number of times can produce different AF-points taking priority of focus, despite no change in scene.
Switching to the 50-200mm tele zoom lens increased the impact of the AF, with focusing on subjects between changing distances proving slow – not the sort of performance desired from a long lens.
The Continuous AF system works to the best of its ability, and yet this means constant ‘forward and back’ contrast-detect AF focus-checking that can be slow – too slow for very fast moving subjects.
Also, in low light, and despite a superbly bright green AF illuminator lamp, there can be the tendency for focus to opt for the brighter backlight with Multi AF active (Selection AF is a more accurate way for subject-specific work, assuming the time permits to set up and adjust AF Area).
With Auto ISO there is also a tendency for the camera to resolve exposure with on-the-cusp shutter speeds of 1/15th or even 1/6th second in reasonably good light, capturing at ISO 480 for example.
A faster ISO sensitivity choice and snappier 1/30th exposure time would have been preferable to pertain optimum sharpness.
Of course there are all the manual and aperture/shutter priority controls to override this counter-intuitive effect, but with this camera crossing over to both step-up auto users and more advanced amateurs this does feel like a small oversight, nor is there the option to preference top-end ISO use when in Auto mode.
The 14.6MP output means some big files and, if shooting Raw & JPEG Super Fine, expect each pair of files to be around 35MB total. Great for detail-packed post work, though Raw-junkies beware the impact this may have on card space and, indeed, the NX10’s buffer.
Such a large file size can quickly clog the buffer when continuous shooting, though only when the Raw files are concerned. With a claimed 3fps drive mode to three Raw files, the Panasonic Gold Standard Class 6 SD card used in this test happily shot Raw + JPEG Super Fine at this pace, taking some 11 seconds to then clear the buffer for the next round of shooting. Using Super Fine JPEG only, the camera continuously shot at 3fps until the card was full with no let up and no processing lag.
Star of the show has to be the AMOLED screen. Its smooth motion preview is superb, playback is crisp and it looks great. However, the screen coating seems fond of fingerprints that can then cause reflective sunlight issues in bright conditions.
To accompany the screen is the 921K-dot electronic viewfinder (EVF). It’s a great viewfinder that produces the same AF-point feedback as per the main screen. Although it’s still a long way from optical viewfinders, it’s a step in the right direction and the auto screen-to-EVF sensor means there’s no faffing with buttons when your eye nears the EVF activates for quick use.
A slight nuisance is the fiddly dioptre adjustment to the side, which has an excellent range of -4.0-+2 for those glasses wearers among us, but you’ll need very delicate hands to adjust this. On the upside this does mean accidental adjustment is unlikely, yet setting it right in the first instance should be easier.
The new NX lens fitting currently means limitations on number of lenses, which may in part have led to Samsung delaying the camera for so many months. However there is promise of more: To add to the existing 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS, 30mm f/2.0 and 50-200mm f/4-5.6 OIS will be a non-stabilised version of the 18-55mm (likely for an even more cost effective package), a 20mm f/2.8 pancake lens, 20-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS compact zoom, 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OIS, and 50mm f/2.8 Macro. Only the latter two are unlikely to be on the shelves inside 2010 but should be available for the first part of 2011.
It’s certainly all systems go, an array of lenses is an essential requirement for a system that depends upon firstly interchangeable lenses and the pancake lens and compact zoom will be significant as, currently, the 18-55mm kit lens is fairly large and at full extension somewhat long too. The forthcoming macro lens will be an important addition to the camp as the current range won’t focus particularly close to subject – some 28cm from lens at the wide end of the 18-55mm kit lens, or 25cm from lens with the 30mm prime.
As well as the still images the NX10 also records HD 720P movies at 30 frames per second. These movie files are encoded with the H.264 codec, which is seen as the current best format for smaller file sizes with greater detail. No in-camera or software-based editing tools are provided, though it is possible to pull stills from the movie sequence at the press of a button on camera and Quicktime is provided to play back the resulting MP4 files.
Although a variety of options allow for single or continuous autofocus, the camera will only take a single point of focus whether in Program Auto or Aperture Priority movie modes. The Depth of field Preview button on the front of the camera – which is placed in a location that makes it rather difficult to utilise when shooting – can be used to refocus, though this should not be considered as ‘continuous focusing’. Manual Focusing is possible, but the lens feedback can be picked up from the NX10’s microphone.
Samsung NX10 review – Tone & Exposure
The Multi, Centre-Weighted and Spot metering options are quickly accessible as required as are exposure compensation and AEL (exposure lock) buttons. The AMOLED screen reciprocates images extremely well on the camera itself, which avoids surprises when looking at images on screen. Tones can be a touch on the flat side, though in print this can lend to realistic results.
Exposure proved accurate throughout, with the Smart Range option offering a shadow and highlight exposure boost, like the dynamic range optimising modes in many other cameras. However, the lack of user-definable options from the Smart Range option did lead to limitations.
Samsung NX10 review – RAW/JPEG
The provided NX10 software offers no Mac support and there are currently no plans to introduce a Mac OS version. With Photoshop in tow this won’t be an issue, though at the time of writing an ACR update to offer Raw compatibility hasn’t yet been released.
Working on PC using Samsung’s Raw Converter 3 to compare the Raw files against their JPEG counterparts and the difference is fairly considerable. JPEGs are heavily processed by default, with a mid-tone ‘push’ pulling out more detail than the Raw counterpart, yet the two seen side by side on screen look like different bracketed exposures (when this is not the case). While this does mean the Raw file retains more detail for user-tweaking, the default of JPEG levels processing may not be preferable for all users, especially new or step up users handling the Raw file type for the first time.
However, even if there is some apparent over-exposure on screen, the likelihood is that the Raw file will have preserved the highlight detail, so this may be a comfortable fallback for some other users. Further in-camera options do allow for contrast, saturation and sharpness processing adjustment however, though this can’t be previewed prior to shooting.
Samsung NX10 review – Colour & White Balance
Auto White Balance can become inconsistent between ISO settings for the same scene, and not only at the higher ISOs where image noise can ‘dull’ colour. Ignoring this relatively subtle inconsistency, however, the general AWB read is good, with images proving generally bright and well balanced.
Colour can look a little washed out in Jpegs, though the addition of in-camera saturation options are highly customisable and the Picture Wizard presets lend well to creative control from ‘Retro’ to ‘Classic’ (black and white) and many between.
Samsung NX10 review – ISO Sensitivity & Image Noise
The 14.6 megapixel sensor is densely populated, which appears to have surrendered some image noise quality for the sake of resolution. Images throughout the ISO range exhibit some image noise, though it becomes more significant from ISO 800 and above. Although ISO 3200 is available the noise-level is considerably prominent and destructive; even with High ISO Noise Reduction activated the image detail becomes softened.
The extra size of the Samsung sensor should have been strong enough to ‘out-do’ Micro Four Thirds with their smaller sensors. However the latter have been relatively conservative with pixel count and, as such, separating the two systems in terms of picture quality is a tricky one to resolve. On paper the NX10 should walk away with the picture quality prize and yet, due to image noise, it can’t take that crown…
Samsung NX10 review – Sharpness & Detail
The 18-55mm kit lens provides sharp centre-image detail that’s well resolved, yet softness does creep in toward the corners, especially at the wider end. The prime 30mm f/2.0 provided better results, though the latter’s lack of image stabilisation limits exposure times to more traditional handheld values.
Value & Verdict
Samsung NX10 review – Value
As far as Micro System Cameras go, an NX10 strongpoint is undoubtedly its price. Not because it’s ‘cheap’, but what it offers (for sub-£500 in many stores) is a savvy and accessible price-point that ought to see its deserved success.
When seen against the Olympus PEN E-P1 it may not have as ‘cool’ a finish, nor the compact-size of Panasonic’s GF1 (though that’s admittedly fifty per cent more costly), but the NX10 is a fair performer with many decent features.
The Olympus E-PL1 may nuzzle closer to the £500 price whereabouts, as does the 18-month-old Panasonic G1, but for a new to market product the NX10 is a most tempting proposition.
Samsung NX10 review – Verdict
The NX10 offers great value and will open the mirrorless market up to a variety of users.
Whether performance will outsmart the entry-level DSLR market (and, based on its design the NX10 appeals very much as a DSLR-replacement camera) is another matter altogether, one that only the consumers can answer.
Apart from some image noise issues this is a generally solid Micro System Camera that, as and when more lenses arrive, will show yet more potential and sit well against stiff competition.
It may not appeal to those looking for a truly compact system and the AF performance needs a bit of a kick before it can be top of its game, but overall this is good footing on the first steppingstone for Samsung.