Samsung NX1 Review: Smartcamera
I’ll be honest: the Samsung NX1 is a camera I didn’t want to like. In a landscape as diverse as the mirrorless camera market already is, having yet another manufacturer in the fray makes the process of choosing a camera just short of debilitating. Nonetheless, I found a review unit in my hands, and after a delicious and nutritious breakfast at Pine State Biscuits, I was in need of a walk. So I grabbed the NX1 and headed out along NE Alberta street in search of grungy street art.
What I found instead was an almost complete lack of grunge. But, I guess that was good, because the Samsung NX1 is one of the most by-the-book normal cameras ever made. It is bulky and heavy for being mirrorless, but to compare the NX1 to other mirrorless cameras may be a mistake. It is spec’d, priced, and sized like a top-of-the-line APS-C DSLR. Combined with a gigantic kit lens, it will never be mistaken for compact. Somewhat ironically for a maker of popular smartphones, Samsung doesn’t seem to intend for the NX1 to be a camera that fits into your everyday life. As I was surprised to discover, this is actually a serious camera, for serious business. In fact, it comes packaged in a briefcase.*
The design of the NX1 looks as if Samsung paid zero attention to what other mirrorless camera companies were doing. It looks almost exactly like a DSLR, and is in fact larger and heavier than entry-level DSLRs. Samsung didn’t make the NX1 mirrorless to save space; they made it mirrorless because that is the current state of technology. After all, Samsung is a tech company, and a reflexing mirror box is about as high-tech as a ham sandwich. (Although, this doesn’t explain why Samsung includes a CD-ROM with the NX1. I mean, who uses those anymore? CD-ROM. Just saying it takes me back to the ‘90s.)
Forgoing the mirror allows the NX1 to shoot at 15 frames per second in full resolution, 3 fps faster than Panasonic’s flagship GH4. That’s also faster than its DSLR competitors, the Canon 7D and Nikon D7200. There are, of course, a couple of problems with the NX1’s burst shooting. First, at 15 FPS, the LCD and viewfinder stop showing you a live feed and instead simply display the frames you’re capturing as you capture them, making it very difficult to anticipate where to aim the camera to follow a moving subject. Second, the type of photographer who wants 15 FPS also needs really good autofocus with subject tracking, and this is where the NX1 simply can’t keep up with DSLRs. Even with a slow-moving subject and in single-shot mode, it took several seconds for the camera to lock on and fire, causing me to miss the moment. And that wasn’t the only time the AF failed me. Overall, I found that on one out ten or so exposures, the camera wouldn’t even try to focus; it would just show me a red box without moving the lens at all. Simply lifting my finger off the shutter button and then trying again would fix the problem, so I imagine this glitch could be easily patched in a future firmware update.
It’s a shame that those AF issues exist, because they mar an otherwise excellent shooting experience. When it works (which, to be clear, is most of the time), the AF is lightning fast and silent, shutter lag is imperceptible, images look amazing on the OLED screen, and the large, high-resolution viewfinder is a dream to use. The camera itself feels very solid and well-made, with controls that are laid out intelligently. Unique to Samsung, an iFN button on the lens can be customized to various functions. When pressed, you can control that function by turning the focus ring on the lens or by using a control dial on the camera. I set the iFN button to toggle ISO. Combined with dedicated shutter speed and aperture dials, this gave me immediate access to all exposure settings without ever needing to move my hands from shooting position.
The menu system is also set up well. It is clean, easy to read, and simple to use. Samsung’s experience with user interface design has paid off here. Their experience building semiconductors also came into play, as their unique 28MP APS-C sensor scores on-par with the best sensors of that format out there. In the image quality department, the NX1 won’t leave you wanting.
My shooting experience was also aided by a great lens. There aren’t many available for the system yet, but there is at least one very good one. I tested the 16-50mm f/2-2.8 “kit” lens. I put “kit” in quotation marks because, while this is indeed the lens that comes in the NX1 kit, it is not like any normal kit lens. For starters, it has an maximum aperture that is about two stops faster than most other kit lenses. This does mean that it is pretty big, though: it felt more like shooting a Nikon D750 with a 24-120mm f/4 than it did a mirrorless camera. (Although, maybe I’m contradicting myself here, because I recall saying the D750 felt more like a mirrorless camera than a full-frame DSLR, so perhaps both of these cameras exist in some sort of classification twilight zone.)
Having that type of light gathering capability and depth of field control is fantastic in a kit lens, but it will cost you a premium: $2799, a full $1300 over the base camera price and with zero discount over the à la carte price. Now if that seems odd to you, take note: at the time of writing, Samsung is offering a $400 instant rebate on the kit. If I had to guess, this is one of those “permanent” rebates, but don’t hold me to that.** Even taking price out of the equation, the 16-50mm isn’t perfect. Wide open, it’s not exactly what I’d call sharp. It suffers from chromatic aberration and distortion at the wide end, even in JPEG mode, where I assume some in-camera correction is going on. Even so, that’s not really any different from many kit lenses that are wide open at f/3.5. Therefore, Samsung’s 16-50mm f/2-2.8 is one heck of a kit lens—if you can afford it.
On the video front, the NX1 shoots at 4K resolution using the new h.265 codec. If you don’t know what that means, h.265 will soon replace h.264 as a more efficient codec for ultra high definition content. If you don’t know what that means, well basically, it offers a smaller file size, thus requiring less space on a memory card and making for better Internet streaming performance. Unfortunately, in the present, it means your computer is likely not fast enough to handle it without converting to something else first. For professionals, the Sony A7s and Panasonic GH4 offer benefits the NX1 does not, but for consumers, the video quality of the NX1 is superb right out of the camera.
Overall, Samsung has created a camera that is packed with technology, yet still offers a clean, friendly user experience. Whereas other cameras have often suffered in the wake of “feature creep,” Samsung has found a way to build a machine that will appeal to technophiles even as it remains approachable to newbies. One thing is oversimplified, though: despite looking like a DSLR, it charges like a smartphone, via USB. An external charger is a must-have for pros, and it would have been nice to include one in the box (replace the CD-ROM with a charger, Samsung!)
Perhaps my biggest fear going into this review was that I assumed Samsung would have emphasized tech over photography. My preconceptions were completely wrong, as I found the Samsung NX1 to be a camera first, computer second. Even old-school photographers who have spent their entire lives behind the viewfinder of a Canon or Nikon SLR would have no problem picking up an NX1 and shooting with it right away. Despite my initial misgivings, by the end of my time with this camera, I was sad to let it go. Casual photographers may be turned off by the size and weight, and action shooters will look elsewhere for better AF performance, but there aren’t many other kinks that need to be worked out. I could draw attention to how this is Samsung’s first attempt at a real camera, but that kind of qualifier is completely unnecessary. Nothing about the NX1 feels like a first-generation product. The image quality, the build quality, the user interface, the technology—everything adds up to make a camera that is, quite simply, astonishing.
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*No, it doesn’t.
**This statement is the author’s opinion and does not reflect the views of Pro Photo Supply. Please don’t be mad if that rebate goes away.