Cell phones have had a camera component incorporated into their platforms for years now--even my ancient Motorola RAZR flip phone has a primitive 2 or 3GB photo capability. Smart phones have raised the image capture bar even higher as camera resolution, sophistication and overall performance have inexorably improved. But it took until mid-2013 for someone to flip the equation with the introduction of a mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera running an Android operating system: the Samsung Galaxy NX.
The Galaxy NX platform is a mirrorless camera featuring a 20.3 megapixel APS-C sensor (1.5X crop factor) mated with Samsung's DRIMe IV Image Signal Processer and incorporates the Android 4.2 Jelly Bean operating system. Samsung formally describes the Galaxy NX as a "3G/4G LTE Connected Compact System Camera (CSC)". The monitor that caught my attention when I first unpacked the camera: a 4.8 inch HD LCD touchscreen through which you control virtually all camera functions.
Beyond the basic hardware listed above, the Galaxy NX includes an Advanced Hybrid Auto Focus (AF) System utilizing phase and contrast detection as well as a speedy 1/6000 second maximum shutter speed and a continuous shooting rate in excess of 8 frames per second. The camera features 16 GB of internal memory, but user-available memory is less due to storage of the operating system and software used to operate the phone features. Actual user memory will vary depending on the mobile phone operator and may change after software upgrades are performed. The camera has a single slot which accepts microSD memory media up to 64GB in size; a separate slot accommodates a SIM card. There is a full 1080HD video component and a built-in flash; the camera is compatible with lenses utilizing the Samsung NX lens mount.
The Galaxy NX is available as a body only or in kit form matched with an 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6 ED Lens. Here's a look at both ends of that lens focal range.
MSRP on the kit is $1700; body only is $1600. The camera can currently be purchased via reputable Internet vendors for about $1500 as a kit or $1400 body only. Samsung includes a camera strap, battery and USB charging cable with 120V plug, printed Quick Start Guide and a small Handbook along with a Photoshop Lightroom 5 CD with each camera. Camera Raw 6.7 in my Photoshop CS5 did not recognize Galaxy NX RAW files, but my Photo Ninja RAW Converter did; Lightroom 5 will also.
With regard to the aforementioned Quick Start Guide and Handbook: the handbook is a brief basic photography primer and the Quick Start Guide an equally rudimentary introduction to basic camera and phone function-- it doesn't, for example, explain how to format the camera memory card (among myriad other operations). Samsung offers a 212 page User's Manual on their website, and my first order of business as a new Galaxy NX owner would be to download this manual to the camera as a ready reference in the field, at least until one becomes familiar with the many nuances of this platform.
BUILD AND DESIGN
At a quick glance the Galaxy NX would appear to be a DSLR: body dimensions are approximately 5.37 x 3.98 x 1.01 inches and include an exaggerated handgrip at the right front along with a pentaprism-like bulge on atop the camera body, which in reality houses the built-in flash and an electronic viewfinder (EVF). That relatively narrow 1 inch body depth combined with the deep handgrip give the camera a somewhat ungainly look when viewed from directly above. Shooting weight (battery, memory card, kit lens) is 25.3 ounces. Camera construction is of composite materials with a metal lens mount; the kit lens features a composite barrel and metal lens mount. Both camera and lens are constructed in China.
Ergonomics and Controls
With the kit lens onboard the Galaxy NX offers a fairly pleasant carrying weight for extended shooting trips. The large handgrip is covered with a rubberized material that is a bit smoother than I would like but nevertheless in combination with a raised lip at the right rear edge of the camera body offers a firm and solid feeling grip for the right hand. The shutter button lies almost directly under the second joint of my index finger, requiring a conscious repositioning to activate the shutter with the tip of the index finger. The Galaxy NX can be configured to activate the shutter upon a verbal command of "capture", "shoot", "cheese" or "smile" --there's a more pronounced delay than using the shutter manually, but it's an easy way to trip the shutter without having to resort to the self-timer or a cable release.
What I find most striking about the Galaxy NX is the absence of external controls on the camera body. The top left of the body contains a flash release button adjacent to the diopter adjustment knob for the electronic viewfinder. A power/lock button is positioned adjacent to the electronic viewfinder on the top right portion of the body, along with video record and shutter buttons as well as the command dial. That's it for the body--the kit lens has an "i function" button on the lens barrel that allows you to quickly select aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation and ISO for adjustment, depending on your particular shooting mode.
With my personal camera platform a pro-body DSLR, I've grown accustomed to a wealth of external controls that allow me to change camera settings in short order, so the largely control-free exterior of the Galaxy NX was worrisome at first. However, once you get past a one-time initial setup of the entire platform, control access via the touchscreen isn't too bad. One of the initial startup settings is to select the camera operating type: "standard" or "professional". As you might suspect standard is used for basic camera operations and emphasizes automatic modes so the user shooting options and input to settings are relatively restricted. The user can access semi-automatic and manual exposure modes from the standard operating type, but the process is slower as it is accompanied by explanations of the various settings and modes and requires more steps to implement. Professional is used for more advanced camera operations, offers automatic along with semi-automatic and manual shooting options in a more straightforward way than in the standard operating type and gives the user a wide variety of inputs into camera settings and capture methods. I shot the Galaxy NX in the professional operating mode for this review.
If you start up the Galaxy NX and it opens to the home screen, you'll see something like this:
Tapping the camera icon in the lower left of the screen produces this display, the basic camera setup for aperture priority:
Some things to note here are the camera and video buttons toward the right side of the screen --you can initiate still or video capture by tapping the appropriate button. The camera will acquire focus before initiating still capture, but starts video capture immediately as it attempts to autofocus. You can also initiate video capture via the dedicated video button atop the camera body, or still images via the shutter button, and there's that voice activated feature as well. You can select various settings displayed on the screen for adjustment by tapping their icons, but if you tap the cogged wheel toward the upper left of the screen you get access to these settings via the so-called "smart screen":
Adjustments here include shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, metering mode, photo size, image quality, autofocus type, autofocus area, shooting rate, and flash deployment. Selecting the camera icon in from atop this screen brings up an additional menu that includes the above settings along with others such as viewfinder brightness, focus peaking, manual focus assist, overexposure guide, framing mode, dynamic range settings, anti-shake, noise reduction, bracketing, distortion correction and color space selection.
Generally, most camera-related controls and settings can be accessed off of the basic camera shooting screen, but you'll search long, hard and unsuccessfully trying to find the format memory card control from here. In a setup I personally find a bit puzzling, the road to format runs through the home screen: you first have to select the "apps" icon at the lower right of the screen; next, select the "settings" icon and after that go to the upper right of the screen and select the "more" permissions box. Scroll the permissions screen to "storage", select it and then scroll down to "format SD card". Three more taps and you're done! While most of the camera controls on the Galaxy NX are relatively intuitive as you wander through the various touchscreen camera menus, the "format SD card" is located in a different part of the galaxy (sorry, couldn't resist) and is one reason why I would have the complete user's manual downloaded to my Galaxy NX until I had committed such a vital function to memory.
Menus and Modes
As you can see from the above, the differentiation between controls and menus is significantly blurred in the Galaxy NX compared to a more traditional DSLR or even the abundance of mirrorless cameras finding their way to market. There just aren't many external controls on the Galaxy NX with the exception of the i function button on the lens, so of necessity menus and controls are intertwined and everything runs through the monitor. Here's just a sample of what you get when selecting the "apps" icon on the homepage:
These three scrollable pages illustrate the icons present on the camera as it comes from the package, before user customization. Probably not out of the ordinary for experienced smartphone users, but for a primarily camera-oriented buyer it's a definite wake-up call that the Galaxy NX is a sophisticated and complex platform given its range of capabilities and features.
Shooting modes of the Galaxy NX set to the professional operating type are as follows:
The 4.8 inch LCD touchscreen display on the Galaxy NX offers 1280 x 720 (HD) resolution, approximately 100% coverage and is adjustable for range of brightness via slider control. Because virtually all operations of the Galaxy NX platform are handled by the touchscreen, smudging from finger use can make using the screen in outdoor light conditions problematic. Samsung states that the touchscreen is not compatible with a stylus, pointer or other artificial means; only fingers are recommended for touchscreen applications.
The camera has a bit too much screen, however. Many times, when resting my thumb/pad of hand against the back, the touchscreen was activated. This could be avoided by making the right 1/5th or 1/6th of the screen non-sensitive to touch. I even question if this can be done through a firmware update. Could it be possible to make that part of the screen unresponsive to touch only while in camera mode?
The electronic viewfinder has SVGA resolution (800 x 600), offers approximately 100% coverage and features diopter adjustment. The viewfinder is enabled as a user places the camera next to his eye.
The Galaxy NX starts slowly, owing at least in part to the existence of the Android operating system--about 22 seconds to present a camera shooting screen. There is a sensor cleaning option available automatically on startup or anytime manually, and if enabled as part of the start sequence extends start up time to about 28 seconds. With an already lengthy startup time, an automatic sensor cleaning operation during shutdown makes more sense.
Single shot to shot times with the Galaxy NX are basically as quickly as you can take a shot, reacquire focus and shoot again. In this regard, however, the Galaxy NX AF system seems on a par with, or perhaps just a bit slower than an entry-level DSLR in good light; in dim light it seems a bit slower and tends to hunt unless presented with a high contrast point upon which to base focus. Samsung lists shutter lag for the Galaxy NX as 40 microseconds, and the shutter feels just a hair slower than an entry-level DSLR, although this perception may be based on the shutter sound relative to the actual instant of capture. Overall the Galaxy NX impresses as being in the entry-level DSLR league as far as speed in acquiring focus in shooting, albeit towards the slower end of that scale--not a bad performance per se, but just enough to be apparent.
Continuous shooting speed performance is pretty good, and Samsung has included a relatively decent buffer to go with a frame rate advertised as being up to 8.6 fps. Image quality and size have a direct impact on the buffer performance in this regard: JPEG images captured at highest resolution (20 MB) and image quality (superfine) that, depending on the nature of the scene can come in anywhere from 6 to 10 MB in size; ramping resolution down to 13 MB and normal image quality produces JPEGs of around mid-3 to low 4 MB size. At highest resolution/quality the Galaxy NX managed about 22 JPEG images at high speed before the shooting rate slowed; 13 MB/normal quality produced 32 images at high speed before slowing. 5 RAW files were all the camera could manage. Write times for the high resolution JPEGs ran about 45 seconds; the RAW images took about 17 seconds. These figures were obtained using an 8 GB class 4 microSD card provided by Samsung.
Swapping in a 16 GB class10 microSD card added one image to each of the bursts when shooting high resolution JPEG and RAW: 23 and 6 images, respectively, before shooting slowed or stopped. However, big gains were realized in write speeds, with the faster card clearing the buffer in 17.5 seconds for the JPEGs and 12 seconds for the RAW. No matter the speed of the memory card, the camera will allow you to continue taking photos in high speed rate as soon as there is sufficient buffer capacity during the writing process.
Samsung doesn't list a guide number for the built-in flash in the specifications table for the Galaxy NX, but experimentation leads me to estimate it as approximately 40 feet at 100 ISO. Best case flash recycle times are about five seconds, and the camera will not allow you to take an additional photo as long as the flash is recycling. Flash sync speed is less than 1/180 of a second, slower than you'd like to see.
The Galaxy NX battery provides 4360 mAh of capacity, which Samsung indicates is good for any of the following: capture of up to 440 still images; 190 minutes of video recording time; 104 hours of audio playback time; 14 hours of video playback time; up to 13 hours (3G) or 16 hours (Wi-Fi) Internet usage time. The 440 images standard is the concern here--I'd take a second battery for all day outings with the Galaxy NX. Unfortunately, Samsung does not at this time provide an external battery charger for the Galaxy NX--the battery must be charged in the camera.
The 3.5/5.6 18-55 III OIS kit lens is stabilized and showed a bit of softness in the corners when set to maximum aperture at both the wide and telephoto ends of the lens, with the wide end being a bit softer than at telephoto. Closing down to f/5.6 and f/8 at the wide and telephoto ends, respectively, improved corner sharpness a bit. There is a bit of barrel distortion present at the wide end of the lens, and pincushion distortion at telephoto. The Galaxy NX has a lens distortion feature that, when enabled, nicely corrects both of these defects. There's a bit of chromatic aberration (purple fringing) present in high contrast boundary areas at both the wide and telephoto end of the lens, with the effect being a bit more pronounced at the telephoto end. However, this defect is relatively benign and requires enlargements of 200 to 300% to become noticeable with careful scrutiny. Overall, lens performance was in keeping with most kit lenses of similar specifications from other manufacturers.
Video quality out of the Galaxy NX at the highest quality setting in the NTSC format was quite good. Continuous autofocus performance of the camera is about average, which is to say the camera hunts a bit when dealing with moving subjects that are closing or opening distance relative to the camera's position, or when panning from a one subject to another that are not situated at approximately the same distance from the camera--autofocus performance on moving subjects that are staying at approximately the same plane relative to the camera was good. The camera's built-in microphone is wind sensitive but there is a wind cut feature that may be enabled by the user.
Because it is equipped with a CMOS sensor, the possibility of rolling shutter effect when involved in video capture with the Galaxy NX exists, but Samsung has done a good job dealing with the effect in all but the most exaggeratedly fast pans.
Default image quality out of the Galaxy NX was quite nice as to color rendition and detail, but a bit too soft for my liking. Ramping up sharpening to the maximum in-camera produced very pleasing JPEG images out of the camera. Given the connectability provided by the Galaxy NX Android operating platform, this camera has the potential to share/transmit some very high quality images within seconds after capture.
In the professional operating type Samsung provides adjustment for color, saturation, sharpness, and contrast via menu, but the camera doesn't have a color palette per se, such as Canon's "picture style" or the Pentax "color effects". However, the Galaxy NX offers smart mode shooting options such as landscape, sunset, and dawn that fulfill a similar purpose. Here's a look at the default color standard along with the preceding three options.
You can also opt to capture images using filter effects such as vignette, greyscale (B&W), sepia, vintage, faded colors, turquoise, tint, cartoon, moody, rugged, oil pastel or fisheye - but at reduced resolution. Here's a look at the color default setting along with greyscale and sepia filter effects shots. The original was at 20 megapixel resolution but the camera captured using the filter effects at 10 megapixels.
If you have the Galaxy NX set for either 20 or 16MP resolution still image size, you'll get a notification from the camera when you go to the filter effects screen and apply a filter that filtered images will be output at either 3888 x 2592 (3:2) or 3712 x 2088 (16:9) resolution. The practical effect of this is 20 or 16MP images are captured at 10MP resolution; if your Galaxy NX is set for 10 or 13MP as the base resolution, filter effect images will be captured at that resolution and you don't get a prompt. After finishing with filter shooting, make sure to go to the "no filter" panel and select that before returning to normal image capture--you'll be limited to 10 or 13MP size resolution options if you don't; the Galaxy NX returns to your original resolution once filters are disabled.
The Galaxy NX also features a panorama shooting option in the smart mode that will capture up to eight images with a single push of the shutter as the camera is slowly panned and then combine them into a single image. You can also apply filters in the post processing phase via the Galaxy NX2 gallery, but the post processed filter images weren't recognized by my Photoshop CS5 despite being JPEGs. However, my PhotoNinja RAW Converter did, so apparently the post processing produces a JPEG format not recognized by my older software--and this probably explains why Lightroom 5 is included with the Galaxy NX. If you're running older photo software be aware that you may encounter some problems with post processed JPEGS out of your Galaxy NX, or plan to get up to speed on Lightroom. One other thing--post processed JPEGs were all downsized to the 600-700KB range, and the panorama came out of the camera about that same size as well. I couldn't find anything in the manual about changing/keeping the original resolution, and couldn't find anything in the menus as well. Of course, the downsized images make for easier sharing, which is of course part and parcel of the Galaxy NX platform in the first place.
The camera also allows you to set it up to produce a single HDR (high dynamic range) image out of three shots bracketed automatically by the camera with a single activation of the shutter button. The camera saves the first image of the exposure bracketing along with the image produced by combining the three shots. Here's a look at the inside of the two shots saved of the interior of Mission San Luis Rey.
Multi metering is the default setting in the Galaxy NX, but there are center weighted and spot metering options available. In practice, multi did a fairly good job across a wide range of scenes but as is typical with many cameras tended to lose highlights in high contrast situations.
I used auto white balance for all images captured for this review and it did a very good job across a range of light including daylight, overcast, open shade, flash, and tungsten (3200 K temperature). In addition to auto there are presets for daylight, cloudy, fluorescent, tungsten and flash, along with user established custom and Kelvin temperature options.
ISO noise performance in the Galaxy NX is quite good, with 100, 200 and 400 sensitivities virtually identical, although some very strict pixel peeping will show just the tiniest hint of grain in the 400 setting. Slight grain increases are noticed at 800 and 1600 but both of these settings are still quite clean. The apparent increase in grain observed in the jump from 1600 to 3200 is the most significant to this point, and the jump from 3200 to 6400 is a bit more dramatic, but even at 6400 the Galaxy NX is doing a fairly good job dealing with noise. A definite tipping point is apparent as 6400 gives way to 12800, with the latter setting showing the first signs of color blotching as well as fading. 25600 is significantly worse than 12800, with pronounced color blotching and graininess.
ISO 100 ISO 200
ISO 400 ISO 800
ISO 1600 ISO 3200
ISO 6400 ISO 12800
The ISO images were captured with the camera set for default noise reduction, which is to say "normal" high ISO noise reduction.
Additional Sample Images
What to make of the Galaxy NX? As a digital camera it certainly offers up image and video quality superior to that of a smart phone camera, with the ability to customize camera performance with a variety of interchangeable lenses. Overall performance is pretty good, still image quality and video are pretty good as well, and the camera impresses me as performing at or near the level of a competent entry-level DSLR. As a "smart" device it offers up 3G/4G LTE/Wi-Fi connectability along with apps and features of the Android operating system, but without the capability to make a phone call (without a VoIP or Skype app). The connectability feature alone makes the camera an intriguing choice as a work tool for someone in a business where rapid processing and transfer of images is a major consideration. Daily print media such as newspapers comes to mind...I just don't envision the Sports Illustrated guys on the sidelines at the Super Bowl shooting with a Galaxy NX. What formally would have required a camera and a phone/tablet/laptop can probably now be accomplished with a single instrument, with the Galaxy NX packing post processing options to massage images even further before shipping them onto their ultimate destination.
In the case of the Galaxy NX, cost might be the 800 pound gorilla in the room. For someone who's already got a smart phone a DSLR with a Wi-Fi capability can be had for much less than the $1500 going price for a Galaxy NX kit. Even if you don't currently have a smart phone, service providers can put you into a pretty high-end model for a couple hundred dollars or less on a multiyear service contract and that Wi-Fi capable DSLR still gets you in business for less than the price of the Galaxy NX. Assuming, of course, that you can get along with texting/messaging instead of a voice component.
But for someone content to stay connected without the need to directly speak to people, the Galaxy NX might be a way to go. On a vacation, for example, you could take your Galaxy NX along with a couple lenses to give you a nice focal length range and have decent photos and connectability in a single package - the camera just seems too bulky for everyday use for texting or messaging alone. Finally there is always the intangible "cool" factor--and frankly, the Galaxy NX idea of a decent camera combined in a single platform with Android operating system connectability, applications and performance seems kind of cool. The only question now is how many people are willing to spend $1500 for cool.
We applaud Samsung for designing a camera that has seamless connectivity while giving us the added functionality of interchangeable lenses. We also love the forward thinking that goes into moving technology to the next level. They have made it incredibly easy to automatically sync your images to social media or even a cloud storage service, but the immense amount of apps and Andriod functionality might actually be distracting from the camera's native purpose--to take great photographs.