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We have to thank Olympus for igniting the recent move toward retro-designed camera bodies. It's a trend we love and support and hope stays around forever. There's nothing more satisfying than mechanical manual control while you're out shooting, and we're so glad the PEN system had as much influence as it did. The next step, of course, was to transfer this design to an even higher-end product. Enter the OM-D E-M5, which has quickly become one of the year's most popular cameras.
Samsung, meanwhile, was hard at work on their best camera yet, the NX20. No retro design elements have inspired this camera, all it offers is fantastic performance. But does that alone mean it's a better camera?
Samsung's NX20 offers slightly more accurate color representation than the E-M5, and very slightly better noise performance. However the differences are so small that, although our tests could detect them, no average person is going to see a difference between the two. The NX20's true advantages don't become clear until we start examining sharpness and dynamic range....
First, the NX20's kit lens is far better than the E-M5's. It achieved superior sharpness results, and handled chromatic aberration better too. This is not a small disparity but a vast one, the NX20 is considerably sharper out of the box.
Dynamic range also demonstrates a fairly wide gap between the two. Although the NX20's range drops off fairly quickly as sensitivity increases, it's still capable of recording usable data across nine full exposure stops at ISO 100 and 200. That's remarkable. The E-M5, by comparison, maxes out at just a hair over six stops, and falls off from there.
This section was easy. The NX20 produces images of much higher quality.
Winner: Samsung NX20
Features & User Experience
Time for Olympus' big comeback. Features and user experience are the exact areas where Samsung struggles, and the exact areas where Olympus excels.
One of the NX20's big features is WiFi, and we think this is just a bad idea. We see no practical use for internal WiFi when it comes to enthusiast photography, and wish the feature had been omitted and the price dropped accordingly. The NX20's menu system also has just a touch of sluggishness, not enough to drive you crazy, but enough to notice. The button layout could use some work too, important dials are smaller than we like, even though handling and grip are comfortable.
The E-M5, on the other hand, is loaded with features we actually care about. Mechanical dials are all over the top plate, not to mention manual control on many of the lenses. The body is mostly magnesium alloy, and it's sealed against weather and dust. Continuous burst mode is even faster than the NX20, capable of touching 10.5 frames per second.
Olympus's new five axis sensor shift stabilizer is widely regarded as excellent, however our in-house stabilization test could not verify this reputation. Still, the rest of the internet seems allied against us on this topic, but the NX20's kit lens offers competitive stabilization performance anyway.
We can confirm the E-M5's reputation for fast autofocus though. It's shockingly fast for a contrast detection system, and remarkably accurate too. Low light seemed to have no effect on this system's performance or accuracy, giving the Olympus another huge advantage over the NX20.
Winner: Olympus OM-D E-M5
We're not quite sure how to handle this one. Samsung's NX20 dominates image quality, but the E-M5's user experience is way more fun. Then again, for many people, taking the most attractive shot is the fun part.
Bottom line: if your purchase decision comes down to these two cameras, and you want the absolute most gorgeous photos possible, stick with the NX20. But if you're a hobbyist who enjoys the act and experience of photography itself, the E-M5 is a joy to shoot with.
Overall Winner: Tie (NX20 for image quality, E-M5 for fun)