Compact System Cameras have firmly established themselves as credible
DSLR alternatives, and Nikon, Samsung and Sony are already releasing
second and third-generation models. The Nikon J2, Samsung NX1000 and
Sony NEX-F3 cameras are all within £100 of each other and appeal to a
similar audience, so how do they compare?
While the Nikon 1 J2 offers a 10.1MP sensor, the Sony F3 ups this to 16.1MP and the Samsung NX1000 even further to 20.3MP. The latter two cameras spread these pixels over an APS-C area, while the J2 makes do with a 13.2×8.8mm sensor, which means that its pixels are significantly smaller by comparison.
The kit optics supplied with each camera differ too. The J2′s 10-30mm lens provides an effective focal range of 27-81mm, while the NX1000′s 20-50mm offers a slightly narrower 31-77mm range. The NEX-F3 comes with a more standard 18-55mm lens – an effective range of 27-83mm. The Samsung lens is the only one without optical image stabilisation, and as the NX1000 body doesn’t have it either it means this particular combination is left completely unstabilised.
All three models offer both Raw and JPEG capture modes, and each provides manual control over exposure. A collection of exposure adjustment options is also provided on each model: the Sony F3 offers the Dynamic Range Optimizer which has long-featured on Alpha models, while the J2 Nikon similarly provides Active D-lighting and the NX1000 has a Smart Range Option for the same purpose.
As expected, full HD video recording is possible on each model, although the three do vary slightly in how they record. Impressively, the Nikon J2 even offers 400fps and 1200fps slow motion capture modes, although very much at the expense of resolution.
All three cameras have a 3in LCD screen on their rear, each resolving details with 921k dots. Of the trio, only the F3 offers an articulated display, which can be lifted over a full 180° angle to face the front, which, as Sony states, makes it ideal for self-portraits.
The other two have their unique selling points elsewhere: the NX1000′s ace card is its wireless functionality, which allows images to be emailed, shared on social networking sites and uploaded to cloud storage, none of which is possible on the other two cameras.
Another of its strengths is the iFunction control (available with compatible lenses, the 20-50mm kit lens being one of them), which allows commonly-accessed settings to be changed simply through a rotation of the lens’s focusing ring.
Not to be outshone, the J2′s electronic shutter allows for a maximum shutter speed of 1/16,000sec – useful when using wide-aperture lenses in bright conditions – while the Smart Photo Selector captures 20 frames before and after the shutter is released to ensure a moment is not missed.
However, its 60fps burst mode is its most impressive feature, though the focus and exposure are fixed from the first frame. Sadly, the depth in this mode is only 12 images; otherwise continuous autofocus during burst recording is available at a rate of 10fps.
Neither of the other two cameras is a slouch here, though; the NX1000 can capture at 8fps while the F3′s 5.5fps (in the fixed-AF Speed Priority mode) capability promises 18 fine JPEG frames, 7 Raw frames or a combination of the two at 6fps, all of which depends on the type of memory card used.
All three cameras accept the family of SD media cards, with the Sony also supporting the Memory Stick format. All can also output images and videos through either USB or HDMI means.
Sony NEX-F3 vs Samsung NX1000 vs Nikon J2 – Design
Even with the few similarities between the design of the three models, such as the rotating menu pad dial and dedicated movie-record button, each offers a different combination of aesthetics, handling and operation. The J2, for example, is the only model to lack a grip of any sort; this allows for a more streamlined design at the expense of comfortable handling. The grips on the other two are defined and substantial, with each bearing a slight texture for a secure hold. This texture seems to make more sense on the F3′s grip, as it’s far too smooth on the NX1000′s grip to make any significant difference.
The build quality of each camera is as high as expected for such models, with predominantly plastic bodies complemented with a handful of metal details, although it’s the Samsung NX1000 which seems keen to keep things as plastic as possible. This extends to the kit lenses of each camera, with the Samsung NX 20-50mm optic having both plastic mount and outer casing, and the Nikon 10-30mm improving this with a metal ring around its front. Only the Sony 18-55mm lens boasts an all-metal outer casing and metal mount.
With its mode dial and button-laden rear, the NX1000 is keen on providing all main shooting options by way of physical controls. For this reason it’s perhaps most suited to those used to the control of a DSLR or bridge camera. The NEX-F3′s lack of buttons and external labelling means that selecting these same functions is more of a menu-based affair, while the J2 fits somewhere in between, with a smart, minimal top-plate and front contrasted by a range of physical controls on the rear. It’s a shame, however, that manual and semi-manual exposure options are not included on the J2′s mode dial itself, with these accessed through the menu system instead (particularly as half of the rear dial is left unoccupied by options of any kind).
These external differences are mirrored in the structure and design of each camera’s graphic user interface. The J2′s continuous stream of options and the division of these into just three sub-menus makes it the easiest to navigate with the menu-pad dial, while the F3′s six sub-menus means selecting the desired setting takes a bit more effort. The NX1000 strikes a happy medium, with a slightly more complex menu structure than the J2 but the bonus of an Fn screen which herds all common options into one screen for quick access.
Sony NEX-F3 vs Samsung NX1000 vs Nikon J2 – Performance
The honour of best display goes to the Nikon J2. Not only is it the most fluid and responsive out of the three, but its viewing angle is also noticeably better than the others, particularly the NX1000 which is disappointingly poor in this respect. The NX1000′s display is perceptibly brighter than the F3′s, which makes it easier to see the scene, although details on the F3′s screen have noticeably more definition (similar to the J2′s), even if this does introduce some minor false colour patterning in particularly fine areas.
The J2 also manages the best overall focusing performance, with less delay when bringing subjects into focus. This is perhaps due to the Hybrid AF system which combines both phase- and contrast-detection AF through an unorthodox sensor construction (the other two cameras employ a more standard contrast-detect AF system). With their respective kit lenses the J2 also focuses the quietest, with the F3 not too far behind and the Samsung once again taking last place. This may not seem important, but for the many situations where discretion is key it’s worth considering.
Each camera’s kit lens is also very differently designed. The NX1000′s 20-50mm optic and the Nikon’s 10-30mm lens share a locking feature whereby the inner barrel can be safely stowed away inside the outer barrel when not in use. On the NX1000′s 20-50mm lens, the manual focus ring is also used as part of the iFunction functionality. It is used to cycle through various shooting options – just as well, as it’s fairly easy to turn, in comparison with the Sony’s 18-55mm manual focus ring, whose stiffness may admittedly be preferred by some when focusing manually. Nikon’s 10-30mm objective is the only one out of the triplet of lenses not to incorporate a focus ring, and the choice of dimpled rubber for its zoom ring is curious in that it’s considerably less tactile than the ribbed plastic and metal alternatives on the other two lenses.
Sony E 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, Samsung 20-50mm f/3.5-5.6 and Nikkor VR 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6
The fact that image stabilisation is offered by neither the Samsung NX1000 nor its 20-50mm lens means that in certain situations where the F3 and J2 indicate no risk to image blur, these will be more problematic for the NX1000. It’s unfortunate that although the NX1000 comes supplied with a small hotshoe-mounted flash (which would obviously be of benefit in low-light conditions) it’s the only model not to have it conveniently integrated into the body itself.
The NX1000′s lack of image stabilisation is also relevant when recording videos, with clips from the NX1000 appearing jerky in comparison with those captured by the other two camera/lens combinations. The J2′s on-board microphone shows itself to be more sensitive than the others, and with better overall sound quality when played back, with the F3′s microphone coming second and the NX1000′s slightly more muffled sound putting it in last place.
Something which becomes very apparent during use is the difference in write times between the three cameras; while the J2 and F3 happily flush away a single Raw+JPEG image within a couple of seconds to a Class 10 SDHC card, the NX1000 takes around five to six seconds to perform the same task. Naturally, this increases following a burst of images, with just three Raw+JPEGs often taking over 20 seconds to fully process. This is possibly the camera’s most annoying attribute, and definitely something to bear in mind if you envisage using the continuous shooting mode often.
All three cameras have the ability to shoot panoramic images in one continuous pan of the scene. The NX1000 helpfully displays the stitching as you go. Both the J2 and the F3 stitch these together in a matter of seconds, although the latter camera uses its physical shutter to do so which makes it less discreet during capture. All three manage to process these in a matter of seconds, and the Samsung helpfully displays the image as it is stitched, but it’s also the only camera not to play the image in a video-like fashion which is a little disappointing.
Finally, the NX1000′s wireless functionality works well, quickly connecting to local networks and uploading images to social networking sites with little fuss. Although the other two cameras lack this functionality, they can be used with Eye-Fi cards to achieve the same aim, although this would be an additional expense.
Sony NEX-F3 vs Samsung NX1000 vs Nikon J2 – Image Quality
Colour and white balance
The F3′s Auto White Balance is a little warm in natural light, and JPEG colours are overall the most saturated. The Samsung NX1000 produces pleasingly saturated colours in its Raw files, although JPEGs of the same files are flat and uninspiring when captured on default settings. Admittedly, colours can be adjusted in camera to taste, and as the images above show, this neutrality isn’t always a bad thing. The J2 appears to strike a happy balance between its rivals, with just the occasional tendency to give neutral areas a cold green tinge under certain circumstances.
Nikon J2, Samsung NX1000, Sony NEX-F3
While the Sony NEX-F3 is slightly more prone to underexposure, and the Samsung NX1000 to overexposure, the J2 is perhaps the most consistent in producing balanced and pleasing images, with no bias of any kind. Indeed, the dense shadowy results in some of the NEX-F3′s images can be as appropriate as the slightly brighter results from the NX1000 in others.
Nikon J2, Samsung NX1000, Sony NEX-F3
The Nikon J2 resolves the least detail out of the three cameras, and as sensitivity is increased it struggles to maintain resolution, as image noise and noise reduction take hold. The sensor inside the NX1000 delivers plenty of detail, while the F3 comes closely behind.
Sadly, the one area where the J2 can’t keep up is
with image noise, which should come as little surprise on account of its
smaller pixels. Even at lower sensitivities and in well-lit conditions,
the camera produces noise where the others don’t. The lower resolution
of its sensor next to the others also has an impact on the detail in an
image; of course, this isn’t generally an issue if keeping to
print and web-viewing sizes, but the fact remains that there’s
significantly more detail in images from the other two cameras. It’s
also unsurprising to see the Sony F3 control blooming the best,
considering its pixel-to-sensor-area ratio.
Nikon J2, Samsung NX1000, Sony NEX-F3
Raw and JPEG
The NX1000′s Raw files – while detailed – are fairly soft, although the JPEGs are given a considerable boost in sharpness. The Nikon J2′s Raw and JPEG files are far more consistent by comparison, being moderately sharp in the former and just a touch sharper in the latter, with the Sony F3 images showing precisely the same thing. The J2′s JPEGs are most affected by chromatic aberration in the edges of the frame. Of course, this changes as different lenses are used, although most people will no doubt be using the camera with the supplied kit lens.
Kit lens performance
The F3′s 18-55mm lens sees good sharpness in the centre of the frame let down by disappointingly soft edges and corners which only improves at f/8 and smaller. Samsung’s 20-50mm lens not only controls sharpness well across the frame, but also does well to control distortion at its wide end. The other two lenses show pronounced barrel distortion at their widest focal lengths.
Sony NEX-F3 vs Samsung NX1000 vs Nikon J2 – Value
At £400 with its 18-55mm kit lens, the Sony NEX-F3 is currently the cheapest of the three models, with the Samsung NX1000 and Nikon J2 priced at £480 and £500 respectively for their own kit options. Given the resolution of its screen, focusing performance and lack of image stabilisation over the others, the NX1000 may appear somewhat overpriced, although the premium is perhaps justified in part by the higher-resolution sensor and inclusion of wireless functionality.
Although the Nikon J2 is also considerably more expensive than the Sony F3, its similarity to its J1 predecessor means that it’s well worth considering that older model, particularly as it can now be found for around £160 less than the J2. True, you’d miss out on the improved display, metallic body and the Creative Mode, but considering the significant saving some will no doubt be happy to make those sacrifices.
Although it’s not quite the cheapest CSC available – Panasonic’s G3 and Olympus’s EPL-3 both being cheaper yet still credible competitors – the Sony F3 appears as the bargain option out of the three. Anyone interested would also be advised to also consider its NEX-5N sibling which is only around £20 dearer at present, as it has the advantage of a faster burst rate, wider ISO range and, if indeed it’s considered to be an advantage, touchscreen operation. If wireless functionality is of interest, Sony’s latest wireless-enabled NEX-5R and NEX-6 models are also worth considering.
Sony NEX-F3 vs Samsung NX1000 vs Nikon J2 – Verdict
If this test proves anything it’s the suitability of different Compacts System Cameras to different requirements. In use it appears as though the Nikon J2 walks over the other two in many areas, but closer examination of its images shows just why Nikon has limited the resolution to 10.1MP. The other two cameras each have charms and foibles in equal measure. The NX1000 may not produce the most dynamic and pleasing images straight out of the camera, and its write times are frankly appalling, but images are at least rich in detail while parameters such as colour and contrast can always be tweaked in-camera. Likewise, the Sony F3 may not have the most intuitive graphic user interface, and its few direct controls will discourage some, but handling is excellent, colours are pleasant and it’s significantly cheaper than the others too.