Head to Head: Samsung NX10 vs. Sony NEX-5
by Allison Johnson -  6/17/2010

This installation of Head to Head pits two APS sensor-toting, interchangeable lens cameras against each other: the Sony alpha NEX-5 and the Samsung NX10. They may be lightweights compared to DSLRs, but they pack serious picture-taking power into their compact camera bodies.

Panasonic and Olympus were the first to introduce the compact interchangeable lens concept to the world. Their Micro Four Thirds E-P1 and GF1 put larger sensors into camera bodies not much bigger than large point-and-shoots. While the Four Thirds sensor is much larger than a typical point-and-shoot's, Samsung and Sony's APS-C sensors are significantly larger than the Four Thirds chip. A larger sensor usually means better performance in low light.

There's a lot more than just sensor size to consider when buying a camera. The look and feel of it, the feature set, the system of lenses - it's important to find a camera to match your needs and your style.

Both the NEX-5 and NX10 are the frontrunners in their respective product lines, so it seems reasonable to assume that many more advancements are on the way. However, now that we've got full reviews in for both the NX10 and NEX-5, there's no harm in a little friendly competition Head to Head style.

Sophistication and Style
Neither camera comes up short in the style department. The Samsung NX10 offers a whittled-down version of a full-fledged DSLR with a rounded handgrip, viewfinder, and a selection of dedicated control buttons on the top and back panels. With the 30mm pancake lens attached, the camera takes on a very svelte appearance. It fits easily into a small bag or purse, though it's still too bulky for coat pockets.

Samsung NX10

The NX10 is offered as a lighter and smaller alternative to a DSLR, and that's exactly how it comes across. The styling is traditional, but the compact form is decidedly modern.

The NEX-5, however, takes a different approach and ditches the classic DLSR look. It's angular, modern and sparsely furnished with buttons - the camera equivalent of an Ikea-decorated apartment. The lens mount extends past the camera body itself, making room for that large sensor. The mount is steel and the lens barrels themselves are brushed aluminum, adding to the slightly industrial look of the system.

Sony NEX-5

A control wheel and three "soft keys" are on the back panel. As different menus and shooting modes are accessed by the user, the keys are assigned different functions. It's a very non-traditional control layout for a non-traditional camera.

Sony NEX-5

The NEX-5 is available in silver and black, and the NX10 is offered in black.

Judging on looks alone, the Sony is a standout. It's attractive and it deserves recognition based on sheer smallness - you really couldn't make a camera with an APS-C sensor any more compact than the NEX-5. The NX10 is sure to please those with more traditional tastes, but the NEX-5 employs a sleek, minimalist style and innovative design.

Advantage: Sony alpha NEX-5

Features and Specs
One of the Samsung NX10's key features its 921k-dot electronic viewfinder. It offers an alternative to a nice 614k-dot 3.0-inch AMOLED on the back panel, which is difficult to use in bright sunlight. As the user makes changes to exposure settings, the image displayed in either the viewfinder or the monitor will show a live preview with those changes in place.

Samsung NX10

The NEX-5 does not offer a built-in viewfinder. It uses a 3.0-inch LCD with a 921-dot resolution. The monitor tilts upwards through 80 degrees of motion and downward by 45 degrees for tricky compositions. A clip-on electronic viewfinder is offered as an accessory.

Sony NEX-5

Both are equipped with similar 14.6 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, and being Live View-based cameras, they both employ a Contrast AF system. Sony lists the NEX-5's burst shooting rate at full resolution as 2.3 fps. We clocked it at 2.6 fps in our own studio tests, and it never stopped to clear the buffer. The NX10 shot 12 full-resolution frames at a rate of 3.3 fps.

Both cameras introduced a new system of lenses for their respective manufacturers. The NEX-5 has an "E" mount, and the NX10 features a proprietary NX mount. Currently, there are two E mount Sony lenses on the market - the f/2.8 16mm pancake and the f/3.5-5.6 18-55mm zoom. The 18-200mm zoom lens is due later this year. An alpha-mount adapter is available from Sony to expand the selection of available lenses.

Samsung NX Lenses

The NX10 launched with three lenses - the 30mm f/2, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, and 50-200mm f/5-5.6 - and five more are promised, including a 50mm f/2.8 macro and a 20-50mm f/3.5-5.6 compact zoom. A Pentax k-mount adapter has also been developed, expanding the lens selection to include Pentax's fine prime lenses. Novoflex has also announced plans to develop adapters for various lens systems.

Lens selection and quality will be important factors. Kelly Cook, DCR forum member, agrees. "As both systems are in their launch phase, I would say lens performance is critical. Low budget cameras have not had a great history for great lenses."

Sony provided DCR with the 16mm and the 18-55mm for our NEX-5 review, though the pancake lens was still in pre-production. Overall lens performance was fine, though saw some significant distortion at wide angle and telephoto using the 18-55mm lens. And unlike Sony's DSLR line, stabilization is in the lens, not the camera body.

The quiver of Samsung lenses we were provided with (30mm, 18-55mm and 50-200mm) proved quite capable, though victim to the usual kinds of barrel and pin cushion distortion we saw in the Sony lenses.

Sony has a much longer history in lens manufacturing than Samsung does, though the new E-mount presents an entirely new line of lenses. The alpha adapter allows use of quality Zeiss optics, but they must be manually focused. Similarly, the brand new Samsung NX lenses are still a wild card, though Samsung has taken a committed stance in developing more lenses for the system. As it stands now, these two new systems seem to be on equal footing in terms of optics.

So what features make either of these cameras stand above the other? The NEX-5 has Sony's popular and mindlessly easy-to-use Sweep Panorama feature. It records 1080i (or 1080p MP4 files) HD video. The NX10 records 720p HD video. They both offer in-camera dynamic range tweaks - Sony's Dynamic Range Optimizer and Samsung's Smart Range.

Both cameras have plenty to offer. While the Sony's panorama mode and tilting LCD are great features, it's hard to pass up the Samsung's pop-up flash and EVF. By a narrow margin, the NX10 beats out the NEX-5 on feature set.

Advantage: Samsung NX10

Ease of Use
The NX10 and NEX-5 are both equipped with enough automatic shooting options and scene modes to give any beginner the tools they need to start snapping photos. As mentioned earlier, the Samsung design offers more dedicated buttons for the user, while the NEX-5 offers almost none.

The soft keys that Sony has implemented in the NEX-5 are easy to use. The on-screen prompts cue the user as to which button has been assigned which function. The big scroll wheel is another nice feature.

Sony NEX-5

The NEX-5 is by no means hard to pick up and start using, but diving into the menu system is another story. If you're a photographer who likes to make frequent changes to white balance, ISO and image processing settings, you'll struggle more with the NEX-5 than with the NX10. The NEX-5's menus are dense, while most of the NX10's control options come quickly to hand.

Samsung NX10

The NEX-5 does have an ease-of-use advantage in that it's physically smaller than the NX10, so it's more manageable to squeeze into a small bag or purse. Looking at the whole system though, the NX10 is just plain easier to operate. To make a smaller camera, some concessions had to be made. Doing away with many conventional controls may have whittled the NEX-5 down into the smallest camera in its class, but it made for a sometimes frustrating user experience. Advantage to Samsung in this category.

Advantage: Samsung NX10

Image Quality

The NX10 fared marginally better than the NEX-5 in our Auto White Balance studio test. The NEX-5 image shot a little bit warmer under the 3200k incandescent lights.

Sony alpha NEX-5 Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

Samsung NX10 Auto White Balance, 3200k incandescent light

Both cameras produced good images with nice, though slightly saturated colors in our studio test. To my eye, the NX10's images look a bit sharper under close inspection.

Sony alpha NEX-5, ISO 200

Samsung NX10, ISO 200

Cranking ISO up to 3200, the NX10 flattens colors more significantly than the Sony. Both images are predictably noisy viewed at 100%.

The Sony seemed to do a little bit better than the NX10 at very high ISOs, though as reviewer Jim Keenan stated in his NEX-5 analysis, "...differentiating the brands on the basis of ISO performance alone provides no clear cut winner."

Sony alpha NEX-5, ISO 3200

Sony alpha NEX-5, ISO 3200, 100% crop

Samsung NX10, ISO 3200

Samsung NX10, ISO 3200, 100% crop

So which camera gets the advantage in image quality?

Up until ISO 800, I'm picking the NX10 as the winner. Images have just a little more contrast and detail than the images I see from the NEX-5.

It really is a toss up, though. The NEX-5 offers a lot of options to tweak image quality including six "Creative Style" processing modes, four DRO Dynamic Range Optimizer settings, and six levels of High Dynamic Range exposure. The NX10 counts nine processing modes in its exposure options, along with Smart Range on/off. The NX10 may take the advantage in the image quality section of our comparison, but either camera will produce very good images for its user.'

Advantage: Samsung NX10

Price and Value
The Sony NEX-5 retails for around $650 in its least expensive configuration with the 16mm lens and $700 for the 18-55. This includes a small flash unit that clips into the accessory port, but not the EVF. The little brother to the NEX-5, the NEX-3, will cost $550 with the 16mm lens. You'll give up 1080p video recording and trade it for 720p for the lower price.

The NX10 is currently selling for about the same price. Do a little comparison shopping and you can find it for $650 with the 18-55mm lens. For everything the Samsung offers, it's a better value than the NEX-5. It's not a clear-cut point, though. If compact size and trend-setting style is more important than a built-in flash or EVF, then the NEX-5 has what you're looking for. Based on specs alone, the NX10 offers more bang for the buck, but it's hard to pin down exactly what a better-looking camera should be worth. For $650, you could do much worse than the NEX-5.

Advantage: Samsung NX10

The Samsung NX10 wins out if you add up the advantages category by category. But that's not the whole story. The NEX-5 has more to offer in terms of style and slick features like Sweep Panorama mode. As we've often mentioned here, the vast majority of currently available compact interchangeable lens cameras and DSLRs take great pictures. There's no real bad apple in the bunch. Your personal preferences and needs are going to dictate which camera should be the winner for you.

It wouldn't be a Head to Head if we didn't pick a winner though, and the frontrunner is the Samsung NX10. It doesn't have the curb appeal of the little NEX cameras, but it's easier to use, packs built-in accessories where Sony offers them as attachments, and it takes good quality pictures.

All we need now is a pocketable interchangeable lens camera with an APS sensor, plenty of dedicated control buttons, squeaky clean images at ISO 6400... well, we can keep dreaming.