Samsung Galaxy NX Digital Camera Review
Android makes the move to mirrorless, but hits some snags along the way.
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With Samsung dipping its toes into the Android-based camera waters with the Galaxy S4 Zoom and the original Galaxy Camera, it was only a matter of time before Android made its way to an interchangeable lens camera. As you might expect, the Korean juggernaut is the first to market with such a camera, in the form of the Galaxy NX (MSRP $1,599.99).
Sporting a thin body, giant rear touchscreen, and a 4G antenna, the Samsung Galaxy NX bridges the gap between high-end photography and mobile connectivity. Though plenty of WiFi-connected cameras promise easy access to social media, a mobile operating system like Android promises a nearly infinite level of customization and connectivity. Add to that the high-end image quality of what is essentially a repurposed NX300 and the Galaxy NX is quite appealing on paper.
However, the Galaxy NX is ultimately a tantalizing promise that's yet to be truly realized. Though the applications of a camera running Android are theoretically limitless, cost, poor controls, and the one-way progress of mobile app development continue to present an ongoing dilemma for Android-based cameras.
Design & Handling
A Phamera that brings the best—and worst—of both worlds
Normally when we talk about compact mirrorless cameras, we're talking about a camera with swappable lenses that sheds most of the bulk of a traditional DSLR. However, the Galaxy NX is actually quite large—it's big, bulky, and heavy. Everything here is oversized compared to most mirrorless cameras: Big grip, big screen, and enough space for a giant honking battery. But while having a larger screen, more accommodating grip, and a larger battery all seem like good individual additions, they wind up negatively impacting other areas of the design.
The highlight of the camera is that large, plush grip fills up your hand nicely, with a pleasant rubber texture on back that gives your thumb a natural resting point. But as good as the NX feels to hold, actually operating the camera is more difficult than it should be. For the most part that's because, though the NX looks and feels like a mirrorless camera in your hand, in practice it operates far more like a smartphone.
It's strange to think about the Galaxy NX as basically a big, oddly shaped smartphone, considering that on the shelf it looks like most other cameras. However, by building off a tweaked Android interface, you're stuck using an operating system that was built for touch control and touch control alone, rather than the myriad of physical controls all over the camera. Sure, you can use the control dial, shutter button, and other controls when in the default Samsung camera apps, but that's pretty much it. The need to operate via touch necessitates a larger-than-usual screen and eliminates real estate that could've gone towards greater physical control.
And Android is infinitely customizable, the fragmented nature of Android devices have resulted in an OS that's evolved to facilitate only the most basic camera functionality that almost all Android devices share. Since most devices lack shutter buttons, control dials, and all the other things we take for granted on DSLRs, most of the apps you might use on the NX can't take advantage of them. Stay in the walled garden of Samsung's default camera apps and everything is great, but open up Instagram and all the physical controls fail to respond to anything. Imagine if the volume keys on your phone only worked in one app and you get an idea of how frustrating this can be. You can't lay the blame entirely at Samsung's feet—it can't recode the world—but it's the fundamental flaw of all Android-based cameras and the primary reason why the NX feels like an incomplete.
Of course, there are some benefits to the large screen-based interface: You can rapidly review your pictures on a huge screen, pinch to zoom way into tiny areas of the image, and flip through your stored shots with the flick of a finger. Switching apps works in exactly the same way as it does on just about any Android device, and the NX works out of the box with tons of other Android apps that let you apply filters after a shot has already been taken. If you're an Android enthusiast and willing to live with the headaches, this is hands-down the best-performing camera you can buy with Google's OS.
But even if we limit our scope to just the default camera app, there are still issues. The NX tries to get by with just a single control dial. Samsung makes the most of this single dial by allowing you to push it inward as a secondary function. This lets you alternate through settings when shooting manually, so a single dial can control aperture and, after just a quick push, also alter shutter speed. This lets you control advanced settings with just one hand, rather than needing to hold a button in while rotating the dial, but it's an awkward experience that too often winds up with you pushing the dial and inadvertently adjusting the wrong setting.
When you actually get down to shooting, the NX has quite a lot to offer. Under the hood you'll find hardware to support both the smartphone and camera parts of the Galaxy NX. A 20.3-megapixel APS-C CMOS with a dedicated processor, interchangeable lens NX mount, popup flash, and EVF belong to the camera. A 1.6GHz quad-core processor, 2GB RAM, and TouchWiz-skinned Android 4.2 belong to the smartphone. Neither set of guts is worth the $1,600 asking price on its own, but combined you're getting what amounts to a roughly $700 mirrorless camera and a $700 high-end smartphone in a single device.
For all our griping, there's one feature where the combination of smartphone and camera makes perfect sense: voice controls. Instead of setting a timer (which you can still do), you can corral your group, and when everyone yells "cheese" the camera will snap a shot. There are a host of other commands—some useful, others head-scratching—that you can use to take pictures without fiddling with the camera. When testing the Galaxy NX, I made liberal use of the voice commands in the lab because it was far easier than setting up a timer for every snap.
For more on the Android side of things, read our Android page.
Resistance to mobile OS is futile
On paper, the decision to put Android on a camera makes a lot of sense, as the most popular cameras nowadays aren't point-and-shoots or the latest-and-greatest enthusiast cameras: They're smartphones. It's not hard to see why that's the case; they can upload pictures or video almost instantly over social networks, can access information from anywhere with a wireless connection, and most even fit in your pocket. And with camera sales struggling despite mobile photography's growing popularity, there's a growing sentiment of, "If you can't beat them, join them."
While we'll cover most of the camera-centric features in the performance section below, there's two key things that separate the NX from all other Android devices. The first is the ability to swap lenses. Samsung's NX mount will unlock a world of lenses previously completely inaccessible to devices running a mobile OS, and it's a fun time experimenting with higher-end glass. Samsung's lens lineup may not be as heralded as Nikon and Canon, but there are some real gems here, especially if you like fast primes. If you prefer to operate the Galaxy NX through the touchscreen, I recommend keeping the shooter mode in "standard," as that's the only way you'll be able to use the user-reactive "barrel" control that allows you to operate shooting controls with just your thumb and a little patience.
The second thing is RAW support, something that no other version of Android currently can offer. Though Google has confirmed that they're working on it as a standard Android feature, Samsung has beat them to the punch. The promise of mobile RAW development is pretty enormous. Unfortunately, since RAW isn't a standard feature on any other Android device, those apps are still in their infancy, and it'll be a while before something worthwhile is released in this regard. But at least it's there, and there's hope that the rising tide of an Android device with RAW could lift all boats eventually.
No matter how you slice it, the NX is a bleeding-edge camera struggling to merge two very different worlds. And unlike most first attempts, the NX's connectivity provides the ability for future updates to solve the worst software issues and add more features. Being able to command your camera to take a snap from across the room, tagging your snaps with GPS data, and removing all the steps previously needed to take picture from camera to Facebook is a huge boon that might breathe new life into a stagnant category.
A mixed bag underpinned by a very high-quality camera
All in all, there's nothing to really harp on in terms of performance with the Galaxy NX. The hardware is not only capable, but efficient. Color error and oversaturation is virtually nonexistent, noise is kept relatively in check, and despite the shortcomings of the kit lens you can always grab a better piece of glass. Given that the internal components of the Galaxy NX are very similar to what's in the NX300, it's not a surprise that this camera tested so well. If the natural comparison to a smartphone is to be made, this camera is in a league of its own in the realm of Android shooters.
The camera's sensor is extremely capable of recording sharp shots, though the kit lens adds in a lot of barrel and pincushion distortion at different focal lengths. You can sidestep this issue by using other lenses with the Galaxy NX—something you can't do with any smartphone or Android-running point-and-shoot. Though some of the quality is lost on social media apps that limit the resolution of shared photos, it's good to know that the hardware on the Galaxy NX is more than capable for when you want to print those shots out later.
One quirk that we noticed in many of our lab shots is the overuse of noise reduction. Even with the feature turned off, JPEGs out of the camera showed some detail lose due to smearing. It's not uncommon for cameras to do this, and you can always just shoot in RAW and truly eliminate the effects of nosie reduction.
The Galaxy NX also does well with video. Most of the clips are smooth and the NX performs well in low light, though high frequency patterns are a trouble spot. Much of the worst of it comes in the form of mild strobing when shooting high-contrast patterns like bike spokes or a checkered flag move. Otherwise, trailing and artifacting are kept in check even when shooting 1080p/30fps video. There's also not a ton of video control here, though that could possibly be fixed through future app development.
For all the juicy data on the camera's performance, check out the Science Page
Android cameras are improving, but you're paying a premium for a future that may not arrive
Above all the other issues that we have brought up about the Galaxy NX, there's one practical consideration that's paramount: its $1,599.95 price tag. Any way you approach it, it's hard to try to recommend the NX when it costs that much, especially because in terms of pure performance this isn't any better than your average $700 smartphone and a $700 NX300. Of course, the key is that this is those two devices in one.
And on paper, this combination actually works. Performance-wise, this camera blows every other Android-running camera away and it's not close. The APS-C sensor in the Galaxy NX holds its own against just about any other APS-C DSLR on the market, let alone the lilliputian image sensors found in most smartphones. And if we're comparing the Galaxy NX to any other DSLR, it has the trump card of advanced connectivity features and the promise of an adaptive Android experience.
However, in reality the Galaxy NX is hardly going to replace your smartphone. Even if you're taking the camera out for a day of shooting, you're probably going to have a smartphone with you anyway. So even for those who prize the ability to immediately get their photos on social media, all the NX saves you is the time it takes to move those shots to your phone. Traditionally that would probably involve a computer, but Samsung's own NX300 can automatically sync photos with your phone over WiFi. Same photos, same functionality, in practically the same amount of time for almost $1,000 less.
And while the NX's use of Android is forward-thinking, the current form of the OS only serves the lowest common denominator of all other Android devices that take photos. The result is an OS that should have limitless potential, but requires ongoing app development to truly realize its potential. With developers likely to focus their limited resources on features that benefit the greatest amount of users, niche devices like the Galaxy NX—however powerful they may be—are unlikely to see much advancement.
Without bespoke development taking advantage of the Galaxy NX's unique combination of Android and high-end camera hardware, NX shooters are just left with Samsung's in-house apps, a woefully ill-equipped touch interface, and a vanilla Android experience. Android enthusiasts will find a lot to love here, but the rest of us can probably get by with an NX300 and pocket the change.
By the Numbers
Considering the guts of the Galaxy NX are very similar to those found in the NX300, there were some seriously high expectations for the Android-running behemoth. Though the Galaxy NX replicates most of what made the NX300 such a potent performer, there are a few issues that cropped up through our lab testing.
Color Error and White Balance
Right on the nose
The Galaxy NX has a single standard color mode, but offers over 30 different stylish filters to tweak the final output. In our color testing we found it was best to go without the filters, however, resulting in a color error of ∆C00 (saturation corrected) of 2.01. Anything less than 2.2 is great, placing the NX in line with other high-end cameras.
Color saturation is a different story, but not a bad one: The Samsung Galaxy NX saturates color in images to 99.8% of the sRGB gamut. This is very accurate, though the subjectively the shots could use a little punching up after the fact. Given that the camera runs Android proper, there's no shortage of apps that can do just that.
When it comes to automatic white balance, the Galaxy NX is quite capable. Though most cameras can correct well for daylight and fluorescent light well to begin with, and the NX performs extremely well here, posting errors of 65 kelvins and 116 kelvins respectively. Like most other cameras, the Galaxy NX struggles a bit with incandescent light, however. Drifting around 1572 kelvins on average, you'll immediately notice an orange sheen on your pictures when you leave the auto white balance on in incandescent lighting. Keep in mind that you can also manually set the white balance by taking a sample shot in the menu, so if the coloration really bothers you, the worst errors can be avoided with a little extra time.
In general, we typically see cameras with APS-C sensors hit around 7.5 stops of dynamic range or less in this test, because we use a brutal 10:1 signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) in our scoring. In comparison, most people think of a 1:1 SNR when they measure dynamic range, but that only tells you so much about the quality of the snaps you'll take.
The Galaxy NX falls squarely in the middle of the pack with 7.42 stops of high-quality dynamic range at base ISO, but then trails off the faster ISO speed you use. This is down a little bit from what we observed when testing the NX300, though it's worth noting we tested with a different lens and there's a normal variance whenever you test two different cameras.
Not the worst, but could be better
At low ISO speeds, noise produced in the Galaxy NX's image is kept very well in check. Added garbage to your snaps doesn't even reach 1% until you cross past ISO 400, and you won't run into major problems with noise unless you ramp up the ISO speed to 12800 and above. From there, it crosses over 3%, and gets dramatically worse at 25600.
The fact that noise is kept below 2% up to ISO 6400 is a feat for a consumer camera, and in some ways a little better than previous models. It's always comforting to know that you have the ability to set the ISO bracketing and not have to worry so much about added noise in a photo, especially when lighting conditions change on you. Part of this is due to noise reduction being employed at the expense of fine detail, but it's not overdone.
For best results, we'd recommend keeping the ISO speed set to 1600 or under, as you start to see some detail loss and grain from that point on. Still, if you're shooting stills that will eventually wind up on Facebook, you may not care as much. It's all about context what settings you use, but the Galaxy NX has got your back—especially if you shoot in RAW and edit later.
Itch to upgrade glass
To kick things off here about sharpness, you must keep in mind that results will vary based on what lens you use. For our testing, we used the included kit lens, which introduces some issues that are completely independent of the sensor. With that in mind, note that you may be able to improve upon the performance outlined here by investing in another lens.
First the good: with a mix of the camera's processing and a good sensor, the Galaxy NX is capable of taking very sharp shots. Results will vary depending on what focal length you're using with the kit lens, but overall there aren't any problems that are inexcusable. You will notice barrel and pincushion distortion at the more extreme zoom positions, but that's to be expected in less expensive glass with short focal lengths.
There's some performance dropoff at either end of the focal range, but in general there are the same issues that can be found on other cameras with a less expensive kit lens: soft lines at the edges of your photos, best sharpness in the middle, and a little bit of software oversharpening in some places. Changing the aperture size also didn't seem to make much of a difference, either, which is a plus considering some lenses lose sharpness at certain settings.
Sensitive to light, but not that sharp
The Galaxy NX is notably good with video, with a few exceptions. It has surprisingly good low light capabilities, and fair sharpness in motion, but some issues like trailing and strobing make for slightly imperfect cinematics.
Sharpness in motion is a bit mediocre. Posting readouts of 650 lp/ph horizontally and vertically in bright light, the Galaxy NX falls about in the middle of the pack when it comes to video sharpness. In dimmer light, this number falls to 575 horizontal, 525 vertical; not bad, but not all that great, either.
However, where the Galaxy NX surprises is low-light sensitivity. Able to maintain a broadcast-quality image (50 IRE) down to 7 lux, the Samsung Galaxy NX can record in low-light situations fairly well, though additional lighting is almost always a plus.
Welcome to the future
The inclusion of a mobile operating system in a compact mirrorless camera like the NX isn't just a novelty, it's a sign of things to come. With smartphones eating the bottom out from the point and shoot market, companies going after patents to allow smartphones to have removable lenses, and the dramatic increase in mobile sales, these trends are not going to stop any time soon.
So what does that mean for cameras? Well, for starters, interface design is now absolutely critical to function intelligently across multiple platforms. To bridge the gap between smartphone interface and traditional camera, Samsung developed a juiced-up camera app that lives on their own version of Android 4.2 (TouchWiz). Though it makes sense that Samsung would stick with what they know, Android has some very serious design issues that need to be addressed before it can be used well on a camera like the NX. Smartphones and mirrorless cameras are very different devices in your hand, and until the control schemes of Android reflect that, there will always be rough edges.
Fantastic features, crappy controls
It bears mentioning that your brain sees your hands as the most important body part after your noggin for interacting with the world around you. So much so, that it devotes a lot of resources to manipulating them and interpreting sensory data from them. Why is this important? In short, it's because we speak to the gadgets we own through our hands, and not by other means.
Though we sometimes can issue voice commands, it's a lot more efficient to use a tactile command like flicking a lever, pushing a button, or typing a phrase. Given that, the control schemes of gadgets designed to be operated while being held should reflect where the hand and fingers rest. However, most mobile software just isn't quite there yet, and it's most obvious on devices that demand the use of one or both hands to operate. This is due in part to a lack of sensory input from touching the controls.
Having a mostly-untouched Android 4.2 TouchWiz is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, users familiar with Samsung's mobile devices will feel right at home with the app and feature-laden NX, and many of the bonuses found on the camera are absolutely fantastic. Being able to use Android's voice recognition software to take pictures at a distance? Awesome. The ability to share those snaps in under a minute to someone halfway across the country? Even better. On the other hand, the confused control layout hampers easy operation of the Galaxy NX if you shoot in manual or program mode.
When it comes to interface design, mobile devices are quite green. I mean really, when you think about it the graphic user interface (GUI) often looks very similar in layout to a computer desktop. Icons are strewn about in a grid pattern, and many of the universal controls are laid out at the top or bottom of the screen (when it's easier for your hand to hit them on the sides or corners). Desktop GUIs don't really have to accommodate how your brain interacts with the physical world because all controls rest underneath your hands in either a keyboard or mouse. However, the mode of interaction with a mobile device is much different than that of the desktop because you are physically touching UI elements.
Strangely, the same desktop design elements pop up on the NX: Icons are strewn about the screen in a desktop-like grid, and the only attention paid to the natural resting points of your fingers is in the camera app itself—the GUI hasn't changed to reflect its input change, making it difficult to reach key controls in some situations. Though this software works well for a phone because the entire screen rests underneath fingers, the same is not true for Samsung's compact mirrorless Galaxy NX: Sometimes you're forced to choose between holding the camera comfortably and using it because the device is so big.
I will take the time to make special mention of the camera app's "Standard" interface mode. Instead of burying options within menus, all the settings can be reached by a nesting fan of controls shaped like a semi-circle, anchored virtually where your thumb meets your hand. In short, these controls are easier to hit with your right thumb, speeding up operation of the camera, and making settings easier to accomplish. However, despite the effort to make the touchscreen viable, you can still only change one setting at a time.
Some control problems can be overcome through instruction, but if you were to look at the interface through the eyes of someone just learning how to use a smartphone, you'd note that the Android does extremely little to teach you about its use. This is a problem for someone who isn't familiar with the interface: Having a lot of features can be great, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Users coming from the world of DLSRs will find that there's an extremely high interaction cost to operating the NX: In other words, it not only takes a long time to get the shot settings correct, but also takes a lot of effort. The control scheme that SLR shooters have been using for decades—reliant on muscle memory more than sight—are almost completely tossed out, replaced by a strange mix of touchscreen icons and a dial with no other buttons. Though the camera and mobile worlds are colliding, there are too many controls and commands necessary to use at the same time for the camera to function the way it's "supposed to." Remember when I said sometimes pressing a button is more efficient? On more serious cameras, that will remain true for a good, long while.
Apps, apps, everywhere, and not a shot to take
On the upside, using third-party social media apps is rewarding, and you can even throw some unexpected curveballs by using such a capable camera and lens. Even learning the basics will produce great shots for sharing. It's a shame that the controls are inconsistent, but I don't want to leave you with the impression that the camera is unusable. The Galaxy NX can do a lot, but it does so at the cost of time and effort.
The ability to use just about any app on the Play Store—including Angry Birds—is an interesting addition to the mirrorless camera. Owners of the NX will be able to use the camera's 4G and WiFi antennas to share images across their favorite social networks at an unprecedented speed for a system camera. In theory it's a great capability—you mix the convenience of your smartphone with the (relative) quality of a more serious camera—but in practice there are a few quirks to be aware of.
First off, data plans are going to suffer unless you stick with whatever WiFi you can find. There are very few truly unlimited data plans in the US, and shipping out a 5472 x 3648 image to Facebook or to a friend is going to burn through your available bandwidth quicker than you think. Though some apps crunch the images down a bit ahead of time before upload, be careful to monitor your data cap if at all possible—this problem can be sidestepped entirely by smart use of WiFi.
We've had the NX in the office for quite a while now, and we've used it in many scenarios to see how it works. We found that many apps like Instagram would ignore certain functions of the camera: You couldn't change the aperture or use autofocus with some of the better NX-mount lenses, and use without a tripod was extremely difficult.
But you don't have to take my word for it: You can see for yourself! Earlier in 2013 we slapped a really high-end piece of Samsung glass on the Galaxy NX and shot a short Instagram video for our review of the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite, and it worked—in a sense, anyway. Due to the issues mentioned above, aperture was a tough issue to deal with, and you can see how narrow the depth of field was in the video caused by the aperture defaulting to its widest setting.
Many apps aren't coded for use with an interchangeable lens camera, so you're still operating them through the screen, which is tough considering many apps lock the camera's usable orientation with the handle on the bottom—a rather unnatural position to hold such a heavy device. It's also assumed that you know everything about the mobile software, and that people picking up the camera for the first time will have owned or used a Samsung smartphone extensively. You need to know the ins and outs of each app in order to operate the Galaxy NX, but that's not a huge stumbling block.
Reading the tea leaves
When consumer electronics categories collide, there are often some really messy problems to sort out in terms of what the new product is. For example, hybrids between laptops and tablets are stuck in somewhat of an odd in-between phase that's taking a while to come together. Though combinations of both devices face some strange user problems, it's clear that both categories are merging. So what's going to happen when cameras and mobile devices start crunching together? The Samsung Galaxy NX is illustrative about what might be.
Considering that both mirrorless camera and smartphone are radically different devices needing a lot under the hood to work properly, it will probably take a long time to solve the problems caused by their merger. However, that doesn't mean that these hurdles are impossible—just that it'll take a while. Specifically, the user interface has to be addressed.
Until someone can figure out a good way to control the camera without looking, mobile operating systems unchanged from their original format will be the norm on many devices. Whether this feat is accomplished by manual buttons or a complete UI design overhaul like this one designed for cars, it's clear that the one-dial-plus-Android isn't the best way to shoot on a mirrorless. We've seen fan-like controls work on larger phones like the LG G-flex, so it's not all that tough to imagine the Galaxy NX will see some TLC in the software department.
Given that this camera is the first of its kind, there were bound to be rough edges. Despite that, we stand by what we said when this camera was revealed for the first time: We admire the audacity. It takes a lot of chutzpah to take a risk like this, and Samsung certainly didn't hold back. However, there are a number of problems that still need to be solved for this to be considered a home run.
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