Samsung NX100 Review
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The Samsung NX100 is the second new mirrorless compact system camera this year from Samsung, following the more DSLR-like NX10 model. In addition to a lighter and more compact body and a boost in ISO speed to 6400, the biggest innovation is the NX100's lens. The i-Function button on the new 20-50mm and 20mm pancake kit lenses allows users to control the NX100 by scrolling through manual settings (shutter speed, aperture, EV, WB, and ISO) and using the focus ring to change the parameters for each setting. The NX100 also has a special i-Scene lens priority mode, which automatically selects scene options that are optimized for the lens currently being used. Just like the NX10, the NX100 has the same 14.6 megapixel APS-C sized CMOS sensor, 720p movie mode, dust reduction system and fixed 3-inch AMOLED screen. The NX100 also has a fast contrast auto-focus system, wide range of manual controls, a Smart Auto function which automatically selects the best shooting mode, and a Smart Range feature that captures detail in both the bright and dark areas of the picture. The Samsung NX100 is available in black, white and brown and costs around £449.99 / $599.99 with the new 20-50mm kit lens.
Ease of Use
Samsung may not have been first to market in the increasingly popular Compact System Camera category, but they're certainly making a big effort to capture as much share as possible. Following hot on the heels of the DSLR-like NX10 comes the release of the more compact NX100, which is smaller, lighter, less complicated and cheaper than its big brother. It uses exactly the same APS-C sized sensor as the NX10, which is around 1.5x physically larger than the Micro Four Thirds system, theoretically giving it the edge in terms of all-round image quality, whilst still maintaining a small camera body that is very similar to the likes of the comparable Olympus E-PL1. Since the launch of the NX10, things have moved on at a rapid pace, with Sony's NEX system also boasting an APS-C sensor and a much smaller body (although the lenses are bigger) and Panasonic's new DMC-GF2 making the overall size of a Compact System Camera and lens even smaller. With rumours of Nikon joining the fray, it's clear that the so-called CSCs are here to stay.
Just like the NX10, the Samsung NX100 is an unashamedly clear attempt to capture the mass-market, with an all-plastic body and 20-50mm kit lens with a plastic mount, which goes some way to explaining just how Samsung have managed to hit such an aggressive price point - a street price of under £400 / $500 for a pocketable APS-C camera complete with a lens is a real eye-opener, undercutting the main competition by some margin and competing with high-end compacts like the Canon PowerShot G12, Panasonic DMC-LX5 and Nikon Coolpix P7000. Despite this low cost, first impressions of the NX100 are positive, with the usual high build quality that we've come to expect from recent Samsung cameras - there really are no compromises here.
The NX100 sports a more futuristic look than either its main rivals or the traditional NX10, with a two-tone silver and black colour, rounded edges and a pronounced curve which forms the otherwise unadorned handgrip. While its more pleasing on the eye, we missed having something to get a real grip on, with the smooth plastic body proving difficult to hold firmly. On the plus side the NX100 does offer a logical and intuitive interface that belies the fact that this is a first generation product, striking a great balance between providing easy access to the main features and achieving an uncluttered control system whilst still managing to cater for both beginner and prosumer alike.
At 120.5 x 71 x 34.5mm, the NX100 is smaller and slimmer than the NX10, principally through the removal of the latter's electronic viewfinder and built-in pop-up flash. While the NX100's target audience probably won't notice the lack of an EVF, being more used to holding a camera at arm's length than holding one up to their eye, they will undoubtedly miss having a flash. This is provided for by an optional accessory (SEF-15A) which slots into the Smart Shoe on top of the camera, but it's an extra expense, adds to the bulk of the camera, and obviously isn't as well integrated as some of its main rivals. There's also an optional EVF (EVF10) which slots into the same connector, with the same caveats regarding cost and size, and you can obviously only use the EVF or the flash at one time. Neither are provided in the standard kit or were additionally provided for this review, so we can't comment further on their performance.
Two new lenses are being introduced at the same time as the NX100, the 20-50mm F3.5-5.6 and the 20mm F2.8 pancake, and both are available in kit form with the body. The standard zoom provides an unusual 35mm equivalent focal range of 30-75mm, not quite as wide or as long as most kit lenses. It also employs a lockable retracting design a la the Olympus 14-42mm (the Samsung lens is marginally shorter and a little lighter), which makes it easier to store in a coat pocket but slower to start shooting with the camera as you have to remember to unlock the lens (the NX100 prompts you to do this). Note that unlike the existing Samsung 18-55mm lens which shipped with the NX10, the new 20-50mm isn't optically stabilised, and as the NX system doesn't offer in-body stabilisation, this means that the NX100 completely misses out a key feature, something which compromises its effectiveness in low-light and also an important factor to bear in mind when comparing systems.
Both lenses feature the new i-Function button, an innocuous looking addition to the lens barrel which when pressed activates a sub-menu of key options and allows you to change them simply by turning the focus ring. Consecutive presses of the i-Function button moves through the five available settings - shutter speed and/or aperture, exposure compensation, white balance and ISO. The latter two settings can optionally be turned on or off in the main menu, allowing a degree of user customisation. While the i-Function button does provide a quick way of accessing certain key settings, I can't help feeling that the idea is best suited to a camera with an electronic viewfinder where you can hold it up to your eye, press the button and turn the focus ring with your left hand, and grip the camera with your right. Holding the NX10 at arm's length to view the settings while pressing the i-Function button and rotating the focus ring just seems cumbersome, especially when you can also use the rear control wheel to perform the same actions, something that I found myself doing by default.
Large metal neck strap eyelets are located on top of the NX100 at the sides, with the rear dominated by the fixed 3 inch LCD screen. On the left side of the body is a large cover that houses four different ports - DC In, HDMI for connecting the NX100 to a HD television or monitor, Remote socket for use with the optional remote shutter release, and AV Out. Having all of these connections in one location makes perfect sense. Next to this compartment is a small innocuous looking button marked with a C, which actually activates the Optical Preview (essentially a digital Depth of Field Preview) by default and can be alternatively set to either One Touch White Balance or One Touch RAW+, allowing further user customisation of the camera.
On the front of the Samsung NX100 is a small focus-assist and self-timer indicator lamp, lens release button, and the metal NX lens mount. Located on the bottom of the camera is the shared SD / SDHC / SDXC memory card slot and battery compartment, protected by a plastic lockable cover. The BP1310 battery provides up to 420 shots under the CIPA testing standard, on a par with the NX100's main rivals. Also found on the bottom of the camera is a metal tripod mount which is commendably located in-line with the centre of the lens mount.
The NX100 has a built-in dust-removal system that vibrates the sensor 60,000 times per second to remove any unwanted specks from appearing in your images. By default this feature is turned off, something of an oversight by Samsung, so make sure to enable it so that it works every time you start-up the camera (it only takes about one second). You can also perform a manual sensor clean at any point.
The NX100 has a so-called Smart Shoe that will accept compatible Samsung flashguns (currently the SEF-42A, SEF-20A and new SEF-15A models) and other accessories such as the previously mentioned EVF and the new GPS unit (GPS10). Also found on top of the NX100 are the mono mic, on/off switch, a small dial for setting the shutter speed and zooming into and out of images during playback, and a tactile shutter button. There's a traditional round dial with a positive click for the different exposure modes, which is a typical feature of DSLR cameras and enables you to quickly change between the various options. The usual selection of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual are available for the more experienced photographers, and the more beginner-friendly Scene modes, Smart Auto and i-Scene mode are also accessed via this dial.
When the new i-Scene shooting mode is selected, the NX100 automatically recognise what type of lens has been attached and suggests a list of scene modes to choose from that are tailored to that specific lens. While this helps to narrow down the usual vast number of choices, it would have been more effective if combined with the Smart Auto shooting mode, rather than being a stand-alone mode, as you still have to pick from the scene modes that are presented to you.
Smart Auto is Samsung's equivalent of the intelligent auto modes on competitors from Panasonic (its Lumix range), Sony (the latest T-series Cyber-shots) and Canon (Digital IXUS family). You simply point the NX100 at a scene or subject and the camera hopefully recognizes it from 16 commonly used presets and automatically adjusts its settings to deliver optimum results. This means that it's not necessary for the user to manually delve into scene modes to call up the likes of 'landscape' or 'flower', making the NX100's operation merely a case of point and shoot.
In practice the Smart Auto system works very well, with the NX100 usually picking the most appropriate combination of settings for the current situation. Obviously not all situations are covered by the 16 scene modes that the system uses, but it does work for the majority of the time. It makes it possible for the less experienced photographer to easily take well-exposed, sharp pictures of people, scenery and close-ups by simply pointing and shooting the camera and is more intuitive than the traditional scene modes (which are still available).
Completing the mode dial is the familiar Video icon. The NX100 can record high-resolution HD 720p 1280x720 movies in the 16:9 aspect ratio and standard VGA 640x480 or 320x260 movies in the 4:3 aspect ratio, all using the H.264 format at 30 frames per second. The Movie mode is accessed by selecting the Movie option on the shooting mode dial and then pressing the shutter button to begin recording. Only Mono sound is recorded during video capture via the small internal mic on the top of of the camera. The HDMI port allows you to connect the NX100 to a high-def TV set, but unfortunately Samsung have decided to cut costs and not include a HDMI cable as standard in the box, which means that you'll have to purchase one separately to take advantage of this camera's HD connectivity.
You can shoot movies using the Program or Aperture-priority modes, giving you some control over exposure, and you can also change the aperture during recording, albeit at the expense of recording the mechanism on the soundtrack. The NX100 offers the ability to use any of the 9 Picture Wizard settings during video recording as well as still images, which instantly lends an interesting art-house effect to your home movies, the self-timer can be used, a voice clip can be added, and the Wind Cut function reduces the unwanted intrusion of wind noise.
You can also use a zoom lens during recording with focusing set as for still images by half-pressing the shutter button. On the negative side, you'll find that if you choose continuous auto-focus, areas of the video will be blurred before becoming sharp again as the camera tries to refocus and the noise of the AF system is a little intrusive. Using manual focus is trickier but will ultimately produce better looking and sounding movies. On a more positive note, having the AF system is better than not being able to auto-focus at all, as with most current DSLR cameras that offer video recording. Hand-holding the NX100 during movie recording inevitably leads to obvious shake, so for best results you'll need a dedicated video tripod.
Turning to the rear of the NX100, the NX100's 3-inch, 614,000-dot rear LCD screen is very impressive, incorporating AMOLED (Active Matrix Organic Light Emitting Diode) technology that provides a number of key advantages over traditional LCD screens. These include easier viewing in bright sunshine and a very wide viewing angle, 10,000 times faster refresh rate than conventional LCDs, less power consumption and a high contrast ratio of 10,000:1.
Above the LCD screen is a small DISP button which cycles through the various display modes on the LCD screen and the accessory port for connecting the optional Electronic Viewfinder, protected by a removable plastic insert. To the right of the LCD is a familiar round navigation pad with four buttons above and two below. Starting at the top are very handily placed buttons for locking the exposure and setting exposure compensation, then the Menu button.
The main menu system on the NX100 is very straight-forward to use. There are seven main menus presented as a row of horizontal icons, much like Canon's DSLR camera range. Due to the large LCD screen and restricting the number of on-screen choices to six, the various options and icons are clear and legible. If you have never used a digital camera before, or you're upgrading from a more basic model, reading the easy-to-follow manual before you start is a good idea. Unfortunately Samsung have chosen not to supply it in printed format, so you can't carry it with you for easy reference.
The fourth button is the useful Fn, which provides quick and easy access to 7 of the most important camera settings, which are presented as a horizontal row of icons in the EVF or LCD screen. Used in combination with the four directions on the navigation pad that set the Focus type, White Balance, ISO and Metering, you really can access most of the NX100's key options with one press of a button, although changing them takes a couple more presses. Completing the rear controls are buttons for playing back and deleting your images, with the latter also doubling up as the Green button which is used in conjunction with other controls to reset them to default values, for example the exposure compensation.
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Surrounding the four navigation pad buttons is a circular control wheel which is used for, amongst other things, changing the aperture by turning from left to right and back again. As with the shooting mode dial, this is a common feature found on some DSLR cameras, so you'll be right at home if you've used a DSLR before - compact camera users will need to become accustomed to using this dial. In the Shutter Priority and Manual modes things are actually unexpectedly easy, as the Zoom dial on top of the camera comes into play. You simply turn the rear control wheel to to change the aperture and use the Zoom dial to set the shutter speed.
Unlike a conventional DSLR camera which uses a phase detection auto-focus system, the NX100 employs the same Contrast AF system that is commonly used by compact cameras. Experienced photographers will now be tutting loudly at the thought of having to use a traditionally slower system, but thankfully this decision hasn't resulted in a slow and unpredictable AF - quite the contrary in fact. The Samsung NX100's focusing speed is on a par with the speedy Panasonic G1 / GH1 cameras and most DSLRs. This means that it is noticeably quicker to lock onto the subject than the Olympus PEN series which crucially suffer from a 1/2 second lag. There were also very few occasions when the NX100 failed to lock onto the subject, especially when using the centre AF point, which can be usefully set to one of four different sizes.
There are four AF Area modes on offer, including Selection AF with a selectable focus area, Multi AF, Face Detection, and Self-Portrait Tracking, with Single, Continuous and Manual AF Modes available. The NX100 also has a useful AF Priority function that begins focusing as soon as you point the camera. Manual focusing is assisted by the 'enlarged display' function. Once you have selected manual focus mode on the lens barrel, turning the manual focus ring automatically increases the magnification on the LCD display, which is a big help in getting the focus spot on. This is real, non-interpolated magnification, very useful for accurate manual focusing - provided you find a way to steady the camera. The screen cleverly returns to normal magnification when you stop using the manual focus ring for a few seconds. Metering options include Multi, Center-weighted and Spot, while the ISO range runs from 100-6400. There are 6 white balance presets plus Auto and Custom settings and the ability to set a precise Kelvin value, and if you can't make up your mind the white balance, exposure and even the Picture Wizard settings can all be bracketed.
The start-up time from turning the NX100 on to being ready to take a photo is impressively quick at around 1 second. The NX100 successfully achieves focus most of the time with the 20-50mm kit lens, helped by the AF assist lamp - the NX100 doesn't have any notable problems locking onto the subject in low-light situations. It takes about 1 second to store a JPEG image, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card, with a brief LCD blackout between each image. Storing a single RAW image takes around 4 seconds, but thankfully it doesn't lock up the camera in any way - you can use the menu system or shoot another image while the first file is being written to memory. The Samsung NX100 has a fairly good Burst mode which enables you to take 3 frames per second for up to 10 JPEG images at the highest image quality, or 3 RAW images. The interesting Burst mode shoots at 30fps for 30 shots with a single press of the shutter button, but only for 1.4 megapixel JPEGs.
Once you have captured a photo the Samsung NX100 has a fairly good range of options when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can instantly scroll through the images that you have taken, view thumbnails (up to 20 onscreen at the same time), zoom in and out up to 7.2x magnification, view slideshows, delete and protect an image and set the print order. The Image Edit option offers a number of different ways to alter the look of an already-captured photo, including redeye fix, backlight, changing the photo style, resizing, rotating, face retouch and apply smart filters. The DISP button toggles detailed settings information about each picture on and off, such as the ISO rating and aperture / shutter speed, and there are small brightness and RGB histograms available.