Samsung NX concept features compact footprint, APS-C sensor

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PMA 2009 doesn’t officially open for another day, but Samsung’s already trying to steal the show with the announcement of its NX concept camera.

Samsung NX

There have been rumors and reports since before last year’s Photokina show that Samsung was developing a compact camera with an APS-C sensor to compete with Panasonic/Olympus’s Micro Four Thirds technology. While the Korean manufacturer hasn’t put information on any actual model on the table today, they have filled in some technical details about the forthcoming camera and provided some nice visuals on what it might look like.

A “hybrid” concept
Samsung refers to the new NX series as a “hybrid” model, combining the performance and image quality of a DSLR with the compactness of a point-and-shoot. Like most current DSLRs, the NX series models will use an APS-C image sensor – significantly larger than sensors commonly found in point-and-shoot cameras. Larger sensors mean smoother images and better low light performance, giving the NX the image quality advantages of other interchangeable-lens cameras.

Samsung NX

At the same time, compactness rivaling an advanced compact camera is achieved by eliminating the cumbersome mirror box that has traditionally defined SLR design. The same approach used by Olympus and Panasonic in pioneering the Micro Four Thirds system, removing the mirror box allows Samsung to move the lens closer to the sensor – reducing the flange-back distance by around 60 percent in this case.

Working without a mirror
Without a mirror box to direct a through-the-lens image up to an optical viewfinder, the NX series models will incorporate a high-resolution electronic viewfinder, or EVF, instead. With nothing sitting between lens and sensor in this case, the NX concept is essentially a full-time live view camera, and will be able to provide image preview either through the viewfinder or on the back-panel LCD.

Samsung NX

This size-saving decision also mandates the use of contrast-detection auto focus – the technology used for point-and-shoot cameras – rather than the quicker and more reliable phase-detection systems used in DSLRs when shooting through the optical viewfinder.

Samsung NX

No word yet on what Samsung is doing on the AF development front, though with Panasonic’s G1 showing that “DSLR fast” contrast-detection auto focus is at least a technological possibility, AF performance has fewer questions hanging around it than it did when Micro Four Thirds was first announced.

Lens mount uncertainties
Although it wasn’t spelled out in today’s announcement, product shots and technical discussions suggest that the NX series will retain interchangeable lenses as well. Given the lack of concrete information on this front, it’s also not clear what lens mount Samsung might be planning to use – presumably, a new, proprietary one.

Samsung NX

What is known is that Samsung has a long history of building DSLRs around Pentax’s K mount. With lots of tiny “pancake” primes in Pentax’s DA Limited stable that would fit nicely with the equally compact NX, Pentax is the obvious frontrunner for a compatibility partner in our minds at this point (through an adapter, most likely). Assuming this pans out as expected, it would be a boon for Pentax shooters, providing a compact body option even smaller than the current Pentax K2000.

A significant move
Even in concept form with few technical specs, Samsung’s confirmation that the NX series will go forward as anticipated is a significant move for a company that hasn’t traditionally been one of the foremost players in the DSLR space. But Samsung – like Panasonic and Olympus – is banking on the viability of this hybrid concept as an important bridge between the compact and SLR markets.

Samsung NX

“We estimate that the hybrid digital camera market will be over 20 percent of the global digital still camera market by 2012,” said Samsung Digital Imaging’s CEO, Sang-jin Park, in a statement in today’s press release. This projection makes the NX series arguably the key piece of Samsung’s highly aggressive “goal to become the global leader in the digital camera market by 2012.”

Of course, whether Samsung will ultimately control a large stake of the compact interchangeable-lens camera space depends both on the final specs that an actual NX camera – the first of which is slated for launch in the second half of 2009 – brings to the table, and on whether powerful rivals like Olympus, Canon, and Nikon choose to respond in kind with similar products of their own.

We’ll see what more information about Samsung’s plans for the NX series can be gleaned once the show floor opens tomorrow.

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