Since the beginning of the digital imaging revolution, a new generation of photographers has come of age using point and shoot cameras. Amateur shutterbugs have grown progressively more sophisticated over those twenty odd years, but they still want easy to use cameras that produce excellent images with very little effort on the part of the shooter. Those legions of demanding P&S camera buyers have been the driving force behind the development of a completely new class of digital cameras -- the mirrorless interchangeable lens digital camera, which combines P&S convenience, compact size, and ease of use with DSLR-like performance, creative flexibility, and lens interchangeability. Entry level camera in this class are primarily marketed at P&S users who want to move up to a camera that provides more user control, better image quality, and the ability to use interchangeable lenses, but without accepting any significant increase in operational complexity or giving up any of the popular P&S features of the P&S digicams they've been using. Samsung's NX20 Smart Camera looks a lot like an entry-level digital SLR, but it is actually a mirrorless interchangeable lens digital camera with wi-fi image and video sharing capability.
But the Samsung NX20 enters a market that is jam-packed with fierce competition. Does this camera have what it takes to swim with the big fish?
The NX20 will appeal to entry-level ILC consumers because it offers the enhanced creative capabilities and expanded len versatility of a DSLR yet retains all the familiar convenience, popular features, and ease of use of a P&S. Samsung took that simple equation one step further by building the NX20 a bit larger than its competition to create a more professional looking and handling camera. The vast majority of mirrorless interchangeable lens digital cameras go for the compact P&S digicam on steroids look while the NX20's larger footprint actually makes it easier to use. While the NX20 may look like an entry-level DSLR it actually shares more technologically with the tiny Pentax Q than it does with entry-level DSLR's from Canon and Nikon.
The Samsung NX20 requires a bit more investment than your point and shoot cameras. In fact, its price tag is higher than most entry-level ILC cameras, too. The current street price for the NX20 with the 18-55mm lens is $850.
Build and Design
The NX20 replaces the popular NX10 in Samsung's NX series. The most obvious difference between the NX20 and its predecessor is a new 3.0" AMOLED 614K tilt-swivel LCD monitor whereas the NX10 had a fixed LCD screen. Add a new electronic level, a APS-C sized 20.3 megapixel TX CMOS sensor that Samsung claims, "produces images that rival those of any premium DSLR.", Full HD (1080p @ 30 fps) video output, a 1/8000th of a second top shutter speed, an 8 fps burst mode, and Image/Video Sharing via Wi-Fi.
The NX20's construction/build quality is excellent (polycarbonate body shell over a metal alloy frame) and fit/finish and dust/moisture seals are both impressive for a camera at this price point. The NX20's new larger and more rounded body makes it look a bit more capable than its predecessor. Eagle-eyed users may also notice that the NX20's handgrip is bigger than the handgrip on its predecessor, which is nice -- since a larger handgrip contributes to better stability and balance when using the camera. Still images can be captured in either JPEG or RAW formats.
Ergonomics and Controls
The NX20's user interface is logical and uncomplicated - all buttons and controls are clearly marked, sensibly placed, and easily accessed (by right-handed shooters). On the NX20's back deck, above the compass switch, are the AEL (Auto Exposure Lock), exposure compensation, and one touch video buttons. The NX20's compass switch (4-way controller) is surrounded by a rotary jog dial which I used primarily in review mode to compare saved images, other users might employ it to easily and quickly scroll through menu options. Next are the Menu and Fn (functions) buttons - the NX20's expanded "Fn" short-cut menu is the most comprehensive/graphic function(s) menu that I've seen to date.
Menus and Modes
Menus are comprehensive and necessarily a bit complex, but the layout is logical, navigation is easy, and the fonts are easy to read. Shooting modes encompass the entire range of automatic options loved by casual shooters along with the manual exposure settings preferred by more advanced shooters.
The most obvious difference between the NX20 and its predecessor is the new articulated LCD screen. The 3.0" AMOLED display provides resolution of 614k. Screen articulation makes the monitor a bit more useful, especially when it comes to shooting video or stills from a high angle or when using the screen to compose macro shots at lower angles, or as a waist-level finder. Samsung claims the new Clear AMOLED display offers a 20% improvement in contrast ratio over the NX10 and, although I wasn't able to confirm this claim, the NX20's LCD monitor does deliver contrasty sharp LCD images with good detail rendition and accurate color. The NX20's LCD monitor also features a wide viewing angle and is easy to use for framing and composition - even in bright outdoor lighting. The new LCD couples very nicely with the NX20's (800x600 pixels SVGA) eye-level electronic viewfinder (EVF) which automatically turns off the LCD screen when the camera detects the user's eye at the EVF. The LCD monitor is the default viewfinder and cannot be disabled, except when utilizing the EVF - as soon as the user removes his eye from the EVF the camera reverts to the LCD monitor. There is a diopter adjustment for those who wear eyeglasses and coverage is almost 100%.
Timing is one of the two most important considerations when assessing digital camera performance - the other major criteria is image quality. The NX20 is a first rate general purpose digital camera that will dependably produce excellent still images and HD video clips not only for photography enthusiasts, but also for travelers, casual shooters, and family photographers. The NX20 features a self-cleaning sensor and the automatic dust clearing function is activated when the camera powers up and this slows start-up slightly, however the camera is ready to shoot about 2-3 seconds after it is turned on. Overall, the NX20 seems very quick and Samsung claims the NX20's shutter lag has been reduced to 40 milliseconds, which is very snappy -- more than fast enough to capture the decisive moment in all but the the most extreme shooting scenarios. The NX20 also features a new electronic first-curtain shutter which allows a maximum shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second and an 8 fps (at full resolution) burst mode as well as the new "Custom Mode" that allows users to save up to three personalized shooting setups as custom shooting modes. These custom shooting modes can then be recalled via the "C" position on the mode dial.
Shutter lag and AF acquisition times in good lighting were never a problem for me -- the NX20 seemed comparable, speedwise, to other mirrorless digicams I've used - a tiny bit slower than most entry-level DSLRs, but that can probably be blamed on its inherently slower contrast detection AF system since most DSLRs feature slightly quicker Phase Detection AF systems. I expected AF acquisition in dim lighting to be noticeably slower than in good light, but I was pleasantly surprised when the NX20 performed much better in low light than I expected, especially given the slow maximum aperture of the kit zoom.
The NX20 features a TTL Contrast Detection AF system with Center AF, Multi AF, Selective single-point AF, Tracking AF, and Face Detection AF. The NX20's AF system analyzes the scene in front of the lens and then calculates camera-to-subject distance to determine which AF point (in the default multi AF mode) is closest to the primary subject and then locks focus on that AF point. Press the shutter button half-way and the AF marks will turn green (if focus is achieved) or red if the AF system can't lock focus. AF is consistently quick and dependably accurate.
Pop up the NX20's flash and the unit deploys with a confidence inspiring thump. There is also a standard hot shoe for mounting external flash units like Samsung's SEF-42A or SEF220A. The NX20's multi mode pop-up flash provides an acceptable selection of artificial lighting options, including auto, auto & red-eye reduction, fill flash, slow sync, and manual. Flash output can be adjusted via (+/- 2EV) flash exposure compensation. Based on my very limited flash use, the NX20's flash recycle time is between 3-4 seconds. The NX20's built-in flash has a guide number of 11 at ISO 100, so the range will obviously be fairly short - even when shooting at the kit zoom's f3.5 maximum aperture.
According to Samsung, the NX20 is good for 360 exposures (without flash) on a freshly charged BP1310 rechargeable lithium-ion battery. The battery is charged outside the camera, utilizing the included charger, and requires about three hours to full charge the depleted battery.
The Samsung NX20 saves images and video to SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media.
When the NX20 is powered up, the zoom extends from the camera body automatically, once you've remembered to make sure the LCD screen is facing out and to remove the included pinch-clip lens cap. When the camera is powered down, the lens retracts into the camera body. Zooming is manual -- like in the old days, so speed is dependent upon the shooter. There is no motor noise which is nice when shooting video.
The NX20's 18-55 kit zoom was better than I expected it to be and noticeably better than the kit zoom offerings of most of the NX20's competitors. Images were a bit soft in the corners at wide angle, with very slight light falloff and some noticeable barrel distortion. At the telephoto end of the zoom, corner softness had dissipated substantially. Corners were uniformly sharper at the long end of the zoom than they were at the short end. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) was largely absent at 18mm and, while visible at 55mm, is very well controlled. Current NX20 lens options are adequate, but a bit slim -- consisting of 3 zooms (18-55mm, 20-50mm, and 50-200mm) plus three pancake primes (16mm, 20mm, and 30mm) and a 60mm f/2.8 macro lens. Samsung claims the NX20, "...produces images that rival those of any premium DSLR" - a claim that I won't quibble with.
The NX20's sensor shift image stabilization system reduces blur by rapidly and precisely shifting the 23.5mm x 15.7mm CMOS sensor to compensate for involuntary camera movement. Image stabilization allows users to shoot at shutter speeds up to three f-stops slower than would have been possible otherwise. Image stabilization is also helpful when shooting in dimly lit indoor venues where flash is inappropriate or where flash use would be obvious when viewing the image.
The NX20 records video at 1920x1080p @ 30fps with stereo audio. The zoom can be used during video capture and since the zoom is moved manually no lens motor noise will be recorded. The video clip that accompanies this review was shot in the late afternoon of a cold winter day in an old dimly lit building used for boiling maple sap down to make maple syrup. Given the very dim lighting and zoom extension video quality is impressive.
The NX20's image files and videos are clearly optimized for accurate real world colors and slightly hard contrast. Images display very good resolution (sharpness) with neutral colors and almost no noise up to ISO 800. Viewed on my monitor - images from the NX20 look a lot like the ISO 100 Agfa slides I shot while I was living in Germany.
Most consumer digital cameras boost color saturation - reds are a bit too warm, blues are noticeably brighter than they are in real life and greens/yellows are overly vibrant. Veteran shooters call this "wet paint color" because casual shooters like bright bold colors. The NX20's images are highly-detailed and surprisingly sharp with highly accurate hues and good contrast.
The NX20 provides users with a very good selection of white balance options, including auto WB, daylight, cloudy, fluorescent 1, fluorescent 2, tungsten, and custom (manual WB). The NX20's auto WB system does a very good job across the board, even under incandescent and fluorescent lighting.
The NX20 provides a very impressive range of sensitivity options, including auto and user-set options for ISO 100 to ISO 12800. ISO 100 and ISO 200 images are essentially indistinguishable. Both settings show neutral colors, slightly hard native contrast and virtually no noise. ISO 400 images were also very good, but with a tiny bit less pop. At the ISO 800 setting, noise levels are noticeably higher and there's a perceptible loss of fine detail.
Our sample images show, however, that highlights can be easily blown out and fine details have the ability to get lost in the shadows.
Additional Sample Images
The NX20 provides DSLR-like image quality, creative flexibility, and lens interchangeability without giving up any of the popular point and shoot features and ease of use of smaller cameras. The NX20 was designed for entry level ILC users, but novices and experts alike can achieve exceptional results with this camera. Image quality is first rate and the Samsung 18-55 kit zoom is noticeably better than most similar kit zooms from other manufacturers. Colors are dependably accurate and saturation is more neutral than most of the NX20's competition, so while this camera offers many popular P&S camera features, images generated by the NX20 are very good and can achieve a professional look.
One downside to this camera system is not even the camera itself. The NX20 enters a genre that is packed with some amazing contenders. Olympus dominates the mirrorless market with the OM-D E-M5. Sony recently released the popular NEX-6. And Panasonic has the impressive GH3. All of these cameras lead the market. The Samsung NX20 offers great image quality and an impressive feature set, but is a bit pricey for its entry-level position. Overall, we are afraid this well-rounded camera it's going to get lost in the crowd.
The NX20 will do a great job for advanced amateur shooters, photography enthusiasts, and semi-pro users. Beginners or those looking for a less expensive option in the Samsung lineup will probably find the smaller, cheaper, less complex, and similarly featured NX210 or NX1000 models more appealing.