Samsung NX500 Digital Camera Review
Samsung packs a Goliath sized punch in a David sized body.
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By the Numbers
It seems Samsung is finally getting some traction in the camera market with great performers like the NX1–and now NX500. The NX500 performed well during most of our lab tests and improved low-light performance significantly over its predecessor, the NX300. While its overall progress is trending toward improvement, Samsung still has a relatively weak ecosystem for its NX lineup, which is the next major hurdle for it to address.
When most people think cameras these days, companies like Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Olympus, Pentax, FujiFilm, and even Sony come to mind. One company that deserves a spot among that list? Samsung. That's something that Samsung has been pushing to change over the last few years, and last year, Samsung stepped up its camera game in a big way by introducing the NX1, a high-end camera that went toe-to-toe with the best mirrorless cameras in the market.
Two years after the popular NX300 was released, Samsung has finally got around to updating it with the new NX500 (MSRP $699.99). The NX500 borrows many of the best components of the NX1 and packs it into a bite-size version. With a 28-megapixel back-side illuminated APS-C sensor, 4K video, 30 frames per second burst shooting, and the same class-leading autofocus system of the NX1, the NX500 is easily one of the best values in the market.
Design & Handling
Like the NX300? You'll like the NX500.
The NX500, like the NX300 before it, is a stylish camera. It's offered in brown, white, and black leatherette with a metal finish on the rest of the body. The entire aesthetic design is aimed at providing a high quality look for people that don't just want performance, but a bit of class as well. The only thing that we found a little "cheap" feeling is the command dials, which are still plastic and feel slightly hollow.
Outside of the command dials, the NX500 handles well and balances with most NX lenses. In addition to the extra style, the faux-leather grip adds extra purchase ensuring you've got a proper grip at all times. Compared to the NX300, the shutter release has been tilted forward 25 degrees, more comfortably accommodating your index finger. I found most of the controls are easily accessible while shooting, with the exception of the WiFi, exposure compensation, and record button–which are separated so you don't mistakenly hit them.
I'm personally use to carrying around large full-frame DSLRs, so the NX500 was a nice change in size. I was able to just grab it, throw it in my bag, and be off without even noticing the extra weight. It also made shooting around town easier, as I tend to ride my bike around the city and sometimes my DSLRs are a bit too cumbersome. The size and performance combination make the NX500 a good candidate for those who need a heavy-hitting travel camera without the "heavy" part.
Making its return from the NX300 is the articulating touchscreen LCD. It's slightly smaller–down to 3 inches from 3.3–but it's much sharper. The touchscreen is quick to respond and allows you to touch-to-focus, but still doesn't allow you to drag the focal point. Samsung did add pinch-to-zoom which helps make playback more intuitive.
We praised Samsung on the NX300 for its menu design, and the menu on the NX500 hasn't changed. It offers a simple layout with plenty of options, striking a balance that most menus struggle to achieve. With only four main tabs that have settings beneath, it can be used with the touchscreen or the directional pad with ease.
Color and White Balance
Fujifilm cameras refer to color modes as the "Picture Wizard". There are 10 modes to choose from–and three customizable modes–ranging from Vivid to Forest to Portrait. You can adjust a variety of settings such as color, saturation, sharpness, contrast, and hue within each profile if you need more control.
Simply having the Picture Wizard off is the going to yield the most accurate results. When off the images averaged a 100% saturation with a ∆C 00 corrected mean of 2.44–a solid result for a camera in this class. You can also select modes such as Vivid, which boosts saturation to 118% while maintaining a ∆C 00 corrected mean of 2.57.
White balance is in a similar state as it was solid, but short of outstanding. Auto white balance averaged an error of 150-200 kelvins when shooting in fluorescent and daylight, but shot up to around 525 kelvins in incandescent light. Custom settings were more accurate, showing the largest error of 150 kelvins when in incandescent light.
Samsung seems to have learned from the NX300's less-than-stellar low-light performance by including a back side illumintaed APS-C sensor on the NX500. A back side illuminated sensor flips the wiring of a normal sensor to be behind the photocathode layer so that light can hit the photocathode layer without passing through the wiring layer–resulting in a significant boost in captured light.
With that change we saw a large improvement in low-light performance over the NX300. We were able to get usable shots–without noise reduction–at ISO levels as high as 6400. Once past this mark, quality dropped significantly, but the use of noise reduction settings allow you to reduce the noise at the cost of detail.
Equipped with a 28-megapixel back-side illuminated APS-C sensor, the NX500 has ascended to the pinnacle of Samsung camera technology (to date). It shares many of the performance features seen in the NX1–a camera that's aimed at a more prosumer market. The NX500 is plenty sharp with the 16-50mm OIS kit lens, but it's not the best lens Samsung offers and we'd recommend picking up something else to get the most out of that beautiful sensor.
Image noise on the NX300 wasn't bad, but it's been improved on the NX500. Without noise reduction enabled, the NX500 produces usable images up to about 6400 ISO–after which the image quality drops rapidly. Unlike the NX300, you can set the NX500's auto ISO limit throughout the entire range of ISO options, but given the results, we'd recommend staying under ISO 6400. The noise reduction settings do help high ISO usage, but it does so at a loss in detail, making the tradeoff less than ideal.
If you want to tweak the color of your photos, you'll want to use Samsung's "Picture Wizard".The color accuracy of the NX500 is fair, but nothing special. There are 10 modes to choose from–and three customizable modes–ranging from Vivid to Forest to Portrait. You can change settings like color, saturation, sharpness, contrast, and hue within each profile if you need more control. That said, we saw the most accurate color when shooting JPEGS with this turned off entirely, with Normal coming in with the second most accurate result.
White balance is similar in that it's good, but not great. Auto white balance naturally struggled with incandescent light–as most cameras do–but it handled compact white fluorescents and daylight well. Custom white balance wasn't amazing, but it was twice as accurate as auto under CWF and daylight and four times more accurate under incandescent. Still, shooting RAW is always recommended to get the best white balance as you can adjust it easily in post production.
The NX500, like the NX1, is one of the few cameras around capable of recording 4K video. The latest trend in TVs and video, 4K videos pack four times the pixels of Full HD 1080p video. The largest issue with the NX500's video will possible be it's biggest advantage in the coming years–the H.265 codec. H.265 produces smaller files and allows the NX500 to film 4K without the need of a high-end SD card that pushes 100mb/s–making it easier for an average user to produce 4K footage.
The NX500, like the NX1, is one of the few cameras around capable of recording 4K video, which has four times the resolution of 1080p video. To wrangle all that data onto your memory card, the NX500 uses a new form of compression called HEVC, or H.265. It’s better at compressing video than the existing standard—H.264—but it requires more processing power.
That’s because current computers weren’t built with H.265 in mind. As a result, any video shot on the NX500 (including 1080p), needs to be converted before you can really do anything with it. Samsung sends a converter with the NX500, but on my 2014 MacBook Air it took over two hours to convert a five minute 4K video. Not ideal.
If you are able to get past the added work of converting the files, the NX500 actually produces excellent videos. In our bright-light sharpness test, the NX500 was fairly sharp for a 4K camera–probably being held back a bit by the lens. When we dropped the light down to 60 lux, it took only a slight hit in sharpness, but was still solid. It has also greatly improved over the NX300 in low-light sensitivity, requiring only 1 lux–previously 21 lux–of light to produce an image that registered 50 IRE on a waveform monitor. Granted the image produced at 1 lux is not very good, it could be used in a jam.
We tested the NX500 with the 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 ED OIS lens. While it holds its own, we would recommend upgrading to a better prime lens if picking up the NX500 to really maximize its performance. That said, we saw around 2,126 line widths per picture height at MTF 50. A 28 MP sensor tends to do pretty well no matter what lens is attached, but throwing a prime lens like the 45mm f/1.8 on would likely tap into much better results.
Features on features on features
Samsung has taken most of the things that made the NX1 a powerhouse mirrorless performancer and crammed it into a smaller, more approachable body. The first of which is the same 28.3MP APS-C image sensor, which is much larger than Four Thirds sensors in cameras like the Olympus E-M1 and Panasonic GH4 and on par with most DSLRs. The sensor is backside-illuminated which, in short, gives users better image quality in low light conditions.
The NX500's sensor also has the same 205 point phase-detection autofocus system as the NX1, which works even when shooting video. It samples the autofocus points up to 120 times per second, which combos well with its 10fps continuous shooting at full resolution. Additionally, it can capture bursts of up to 30 fps at the reduced resolution of 7 MP. Overall, the speed of focusing and shooting felt identical to the NX1, which is almost overkill, but a ton of fun to see in action.
Like the NX1, the NX500 offers the ability to shoot 4K video. However, it's a bit of a double edged sword due to the fact that it uses H.265 HEVC compression. That lets you use regular class 10 SDHC cards, but most computers aren't yet able to encode or decode it efficiently–meaning you'll have to use a 4K TV or convert it to H.264 in order to view or edit the footage. As mentioned before, if you are doing video production immediately, it will be a lot of extra work and I don't recommend it.
For still shooters, the NX500 has continued the in depth image-editing tools that were included in the NX300, with sliders for controlling brightness, contrast, saturation, RGB adjustments, color temperature, exposure, and hue. The touchscreen, though smaller, has received a big resolution bump, which makes editing in-camera much more enjoyable than previously. And while in the past I'd say having this much editing in-camera is unnecessary, in today's fast paced, instant sharing, world of social media, it's more handy than ever before.
Speaking of the world of social media, the NX500 has all the connectivity that you could possibly need. It has WiFi 802.11n–with a dedicated button to connect–that allows you to use your mobile phone as a remote viewfinder while instantly transfer high-res photos from the camera. It also has bluetooth and NFC connectivity, allowing you to share when WiFi isn't available.
Like many cameras in this class, there are several modes that help users create a variety of images. The NX500's features range from 12 scene mods to a time lapse mode. With time lapse modes, you can adjust the interval between 1 second and 24 hours, and it even converts the stills into a 4K video. The Samsung Auto Shot mode is also nice, helping users get the "perfect" shot for sports and action. It uses an algorithm to track movement and automatically fire the shutter at just the right moment.
Big camera, little body
As for the NX500, it's already amongst the best cameras you can buy for under $1,000. Equipped with a 28MP BSI APS-C sensor, 4K video, RAW shooting, tilt-screen, intuitive controls, simple menus, compact design and clean aesthetics, the NX500 gives users a balance of portability, approachability, and performance.
There are a few hiccups, though. The NX500 poses a problem for less tech-savvy users who want to shoot 4K video, as you'll have to watch everything right from the camera or spend hours converting it. As a result, I'd hesitate recommending it to people that are looking for something to capture and share footage right away–at least until H.265 support is more widely available.
There aren't too many areas that the NX500 didn't outscore most cameras in its class. However, for still shooters the NX500 is fast, accurate, sharp, and lightweight. Its sensor is incredible, even if Samsung's lens system only has a few pieces of glass that can truly stretch its limits.
Regardless, if the H.265 speed bump and the still growing ecosystem doesn't bother you, the NX500 is a very capable camera. It offers amateurs a camera to continue to grow with while offering experiences shooters a powerful new tool. It's a remarkable achievement for such a young player in the camera world, and Samsung doesn't seem to be stopping any time soon.
Video on the NX500 is exceptional–especially for its class–but it currently is being held back by the transition from H.264 to H.265. Everything on the NX500 is encoded in the newer H.265, which allows 4K video to be recorded on more accessible memory cards. The issue is, that most computers aren't equipped to decode the H.265 codex, meaning you'll have to convert it to the much more common H.264 if you wish to view it.
Aside from that, the video performance is rather remarkable for such a small camera, as we saw a whopping 1250 lp/ph in bright-light testing. All low-light video performance was greatly improved on the NX500 thanks to the new BSI sensor. We observed around 1100 lp/ph in our low-light (60 lux) sharpness test–meaning the drop in sharpness was fairly small with the reduced light. Low-light sensitivity went from needing 21 lux on the NX300 to merely 1 lux on the NX500. Granted the image produced at 1 lux is not very good, it could be used in a jam.