Samsung’s new top-end compact system camera is the first to offer an online connection for photographers in the field as well as at home, but does this built-in Wi-Fi have any real benefits?
Samsung NX20 at a glance:
- 20-million-pixel, APS-C CMOS sensor
- Built-in Wi-Fi for email, social networking and transfer
- ISO 100-12,800
- Flip-out AMOLED viewing screen
- 1.4-million-dot electronic viewfinder
- 1920 x 1080 HD movie mode
- 8fps continuous shooting
- 1/8000sec top shutter speed
- Street price £899.95
Samsung was both early and late to the compact system camera market, announcing plans soon after Panasonic released details of the Lumix DMC-G1, but not actually producing a camera, the NX10, until 16 months later. The NX20 is the company’s fourth classic-shaped body – with that telltale bump on top that indicates a built-in electronic viewfinder – and its sixth model in two years. The new camera was announced with a pair of ‘style’ flat-topped non-viewfinder models, the NX210 and the NX1000, which we have yet to use, and which take the total number of bodies to eight and the total in the current range to three.
These figures may seem drawn out, but the number of bodies in a company’s range is, I think, a good indicator of how serious a brand is about working in that sector. This will be the first time Samsung has had three concurrent models – entry, mid-range and top-end – and perhaps means that the company is more determined to make a go of things. The engineers are certainly making an effort to include new features, and have gone to some lengths to produce extremely good lenses, although until now the bodies seemed to lag somewhat behind the optics.
Those who follow Samsung’s compact camera range will know that wireless connectivity has been creeping into the WB and DV models for a while, but this is the first time the company has incorporated such technology into its NX cameras. This addition, and that of a viewfinder and articulated LCD screen, is the principal point of difference between the new NX20 and the outgoing NX200. Yet the form factor, with that broad right-hand grip, eyepiece viewing and slightly greater mass, suddenly gives Samsung’s premium lenses a more natural and comfortable home.
As a manufacturer of interchangeable-lens cameras, Samsung has been rather underrated by both the serious enthusiast and the photographic trade, but the company has produced consistently good image quality since the inception of the NX series, and now has its own large sensor. In this model, perhaps everything will come together and, if the NX20 is good enough, photographers may begin to take notice.
The Samsung NX20 is an interchangeable-lens camera that features a 21.6- million-pixel sensor, of which 20.3 million are used to create images that measure a maximum of 5472 x 3648 pixels. The sensor is a CMOS type, is manufactured by Samsung, and at 23.5 x 15.7mm is APS-C in format. With this sensor, which was used previously in the NX200 and will be used in the NX210, the NX20 has the second highest pixel count of any compact system camera, behind the 24-million-pixel sensor in the Sony NEX-7. Images can be saved in JPEG or Samsung’s own raw format, or both at
the same time, and users have the option to shoot the native 3:2 proportions, or 16:9 widescreen or 1:1 square.
Until recently, Samsung used an uncompressed raw file, but a late firmware upgrade for the NX200 introduced 20% compression with the aim of reducing the time the camera took to write files to the memory card. The NX20 has also adopted this compressed raw process, although raw files still occupy 37-40MB on the memory card. Those shooting JPEG files can decide between three levels of compression and three choices of image dimensions smaller than native. If you shoot the largest file size, though, and believe that 300ppi is a suitable resolution for a file to be printed, you will be able to make ‘photo-quality’ prints of 18.24 x 12.16in without stretching the file.
The NX20’s headline feature is, of course, its wireless connectivity, and rather than skimming over it here I shall deal with it in the Features in use section below. Samsung is rather proud of the burst rates the NX20 can achieve, and claims that 8fps can be maintained for up to 11 full-resolution images. In the burst mode, though, the resolution is dropped to 5 million pixels, but the camera can achieve up to 30fps to a depth of 30 frames – or for 1sec.
Being a mirrorless camera, the NX20’s sensor is exposed directly to the elements every time a lens is changed, so Samsung has included Super Sonic Drive Dust Reduction, which shakes particles from the surface whenever the camera is switched on, or activated manually. Custom settings allow the user to choose when cleaning takes place – it can slow the camera’s readiness when set for ‘on start-up’.
Kodak introduced the Autographic system to rollfilm cameras in 1914 – a system that allowed the photographer to write a note on the exposed frame about the scene just photographed. That footnote made the picture an instant postcard that could be printed over and over and sent to friends by post. It was a great idea, but never gained the popularity it deserved, principally because the system lacked convenience.
Samsung has introduced a modern version in its NX20 that is both more convenient and a good deal quicker to use. With a built-in wireless transmitter, the camera can connect to a wireless internet hotspot and send images directly from the memory card to social networking sites, such as Flickr and Facebook, or via email to specific recipients – the instant postcard! While in the past you might have had to return home to connect with your domestic system, the Wi-Fi Direct in this camera allows it to connect with a smartphone so that it can use the mobile internet to send the image with its caption , even when you are miles from a traditional hotspot.
The ability to connect to other devices allows the camera to stream its content to an internet-connected TV so the files can be scrolled using the TV remote control. The camera can wirelessly download its content to a computer, waking it up if necessary, and the right smartphone can be used as a live-view-playing remote-control device – and the camera can connect to Cloud storage to save lower-resolution versions of images online.
Connecting the camera to a TV was simple and I very much enjoyed seeing pictures big across the screen, making sharing a true family experience. I also got the camera to connect to a Samsung Galaxy Note in the field to upload progress reports on the test to Facebook friends. I sent picture emails, too. I’ve used the Remote Viewfinder app before with the Samsung SH100 and WB850, but despite my being assured the correct version of the app is available it did not show the entire graphic menu system as it was supposed to. I suspect the app is not final yet or the camera’s firmware needs a little upgrade. I had great success with Mobile Link after I updated my phone to Ice Cream Sandwich and reloaded the Mobile Link app.
If you are into social networking, the NX20 Wi-Fi feature provides an excellent way to update on the move. Emailing a photo from holiday is probably much easier than learning the word for ‘stamp’ – and hopefully the picture will be much better, too!
Build and handling
Although shaped like a DSLR, with that familiar inverted pregnant bump that houses the viewfinder and the pop-up flash, the NX20 is a good deal smaller than the smallest mirrored models. The main part of the body is quite slim, but the front-to-back distance is doubled at the eyepiece. Samsung has saved a few precious millimetres in the depth of the body by making the lens mount protrude slightly to take up the flange depth required by the lenses. This clever trick makes the bodies appear smaller while retaining a decent distance between lens and sensor so corner quality does not need to be compromised.
The right-hand grip is slightly more pronounced than it was on the last classic-shaped body, the NX11, and provides a more secure hold when the larger wide-aperture lenses are mounted. An indent on the rear, to house a thumb, doubles the insurance. Samsung has introduced sensors at the eyepiece to allow the camera to automatically switch its display methods between the electronic viewfinder and the rear screen according to which is in use. Whether at arm’s length, compact-style or at the eye, as you would use a DSLR, the camera’s principal body-mounted controls are all easy to find. For anyone progressing from a previous NX body, whether ‘classic’ or ‘style’ in design, all access points are exactly where we would expect to find them. The system is logical enough, too, for those coming from other brands, as well as those taking up photography for the first time. The camera’s menu system is straightforward and extremely easy to follow, but the default help guide, which will drive you crackers before you find where to switch it off, explains every menu setting surprisingly well.
Every Samsung lens, apart from the 30mm, is now equipped with an iFunction button, and it is worth making the effort to use it. In this incarnation of iFunction, Samsung allows us to customise the functions that appear on the screen when this lens-based button is pressed. We can opt for just one, which seems a shame, or any number up to six. More used to the function button on the rear of a camera, I have been making a special effort to try the iFunction lens method, including scrolling the options with the focus ring, and have found it a very good way of operating. It takes time to get used to, but I think it’s worth trying.
Some nice touches arrive new to the system in this model, and include a screen-based electronic level and an optional electronic shutter mode that allows the shortest opening to be reduced from the 1/4000sec mechanical limit to an impressive-sounding 1/8000sec.
Image: Low noise at ISO 400 makes handheld macro achievable even in dim conditions
It is a shame that Samsung hasn’t seen fit to correct a particular handling issue that arose in the NX200, however – that of manual-focusing screen magnification. When the camera is set to AF mode, the ability to manually override the system is always available. By turning the focusing ring of the lens, the area under the now inactive AF point will be magnified on screen to allow the user to see clearly the detail that needs the focus.
When operating in manual-focus mode, though (rather than just turning the ring while in AF mode), only the centre of the screen is magnified – and the magnified area cannot be shifted across the scene. In most situations this is really not much of an issue, as I suspect those using manual focus will be few and far between in any case. For anyone buying the really nice 60mm macro lens, though, it is only natural they will want to focus manually – that is what macro photographers do, after all – and they will probably want to focus somewhere that isn’t right in the middle of the frame.
If the camera is mounted on a tripod life becomes quite hard, and if not, the focus-reframe method makes things easier – but also usually makes subjects out of focus at such close range.
Another small, but significant, complaint is that there is no option, among the extensive lists of post-capture edits, to turn a colour picture black & white. Images can be shot in black & white along with all the same options there are for post-capture processing, but oddly the edit I would have thought most people would want is missing. This is only a recent thing, as every model up to the NX200 allowed b&w conversion.
The NX20 features a hotshoe for when flash units more powerful than the built-in, pop-up gun (GN 11m @ ISO 100) are needed. Samsung quotes only two compatible external guns, the SEF42A and SEF220A but, in fact, all of its previous guns for NX and even for the EX1 work perfectly. For more power, flashguns from the old GX-series DSLRs can also be used, but only in aperture priority mode. The benefit of using the GX guns, though, is that some feature wireless flash communication for synchronising groups of guns for more interesting lighting set-ups. Built-in flash control options include ±2EV flash exposure compensation, and rear and front-curtain sync. The shortest shutter speed that can be used with flash is a useful 1/180sec, which makes outdoor fill-in a more likely option with fast lenses. One wouldn’t expect a flash-sync socket on a camera like this, but the hotshoe is capable of triggering the usual array of manual and wireless adapters.
Another small point is that the NX20 uses a new remote-control shutter system that plugs into the camera’s USB socket. This is the first model to move away from the pin-type control as used on Pentax DSLRs and all previous GX and NX bodies (expect the NX200, which didn’t feature a remote release). It makes sense to save the space in the body, but the new USB release does not seem to add any extra functionality to the basic operation of the previous model.
Despite the compression of its raw images, the NX20 still finds dealing with these large files a challenge. Once an image is captured in raw and JPEG simultaneously, and the image has appeared on the rear screen for instant review, the camera will not allow any changes or further reviewing until the data is passed to the memory card. And it can take up to 9secs for the processing light to stop flashing, and for the camera to be free to allow anything other than apertures and shutter speeds to be altered. If you decide you picked the wrong white balance, or want another chance to check the composition, then you have a long wait. It seems slightly odd to me that the world’s largest manufacturer of DRAM memory should allow its flagship camera to be so underpowered. It also would surely be better to fit more memory, rather than compress raw files just to smooth their passage.
White balance and colour
I have always been impressed with Samsung’s colour rendition and white balancing in its NX and GX products, and the company has done nothing differently in the NX20.
Shooting in daylight mode produces an excellent realistic impression of the colours in any situation, and the auto mode does a decent job of correction when needed.
The fixed modes, such as tungsten and cloudy, are good starting points for conditions that can’t be tied to specific colour temperatures, and throughout this test seemed well balanced and capable of dealing with all but the most extreme situations. Each preset allows manual colour shifts to suit personal tastes, and the custom white balance setting is quick to use and in the main very good.
Image: Custom shooting adjustments allow users to create their own colour, saturation and contrast styles
Samsung produces moderate colours by default, but offers a wide range of tailoring for colour hue and saturation, as well as contrast and preset Picture Wizards should you want something different.
Set up in the popular style, and very much in line with other cameras aimed at the middle-range enthusiast, the NX20 produces images fractionally lighter than those that suit my own taste. However, I was able to tame them with an almost permanent -1/3EV position in exposure compensation. In all metering modes the camera creates bright, clear exposures that will find favour with most people. What is more important, perhaps, is that the metering system is entirely predictable and performs as expected every time. When it is fooled it is in situations in which you know it will be fooled – and by how much – and the exposure compensation button is expertly placed to encourage users to play some part in the creation of their images. There are 221 metering segments across the screen and spot mode can be linked (or unlinked) to the AF point.
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
Images: Image noise only becomes noticeable from ISO 800. It is prominent at ISO 3200 and a problem beyond
The relationship between noise reduction and resolution is an inversely proportional one, and in the previous bodies Samsung has favoured resolution over the reduction of the little coloured speckles. The company claims that in this body new processing has allowed greater sensitivity with less noise and the maintenance of fine detail.
Our resolution charts do seem to support the idea that some advances have been made, as the figures the camera achieves even at the new highest ISO setting of 128,000 are impressive.
In raw as well as in JPEG formats, from the lowest sensitivities to the highest, the Samsung NX20 outperforms all the competition from the compact system camera market and a very large number of DSLRs, too.
Colour noise is noticeable in images at ISO 800 when well blown up, and is a feature of images at ISO 3200. The top ISO 128,000 setting can only have been created for bragging purposes, and while noise levels do allow enough detail to describe the subject, contrast is much reduced and coloured speckles alter real-life shades.
This is an improvement on previous NX models, though, and Samsung’s work has definitely shifted the usable ISO settings by at least 1EV. However, this achievement is shaded by the astonishing resolution figures.
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Samsung 85mm f/1.4 lens. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
The way autofocusing speeds are measured and declared in recent times has changed, and not necessarily in the direction of clarity.
With the introduction of mirrorless systems and the prevalence of contrast-detection AF systems in larger bodies, it has been easy to enhance AF start and travel figures in a way that doesn’t reflect everyday usage. ‘The fastest AF in the world’ is a common claim, but one that only really stands up in the lab and under certain conditions – usually once an AF module is already in action.
Image: Low noise at ISO 400 makes handheld macro achievable even in dim conditions
Samsung also makes claims about its contrast-detection system, and while it is good enough for everyday use and most subjects, it is not, in common with all contrast-detection cameras, good enough for sport or moving objects in general. I found in single-shot mode the camera performs very well. Obviously, the fixed-focal-length pancake lenses act with lightning speed, but the effort to shift the larger, and more weighty, elements of the 85mm f/1.4 optic slowed the operation slightly. The mighty 18-200mm megazoom lens works more slowly still, and together the camera and all-rounder found it hard to keep pace with the leisurely stroll of my local carnival procession in continuous tracking mode. Without focus priority, and even on a rare bright sunny day, many frames were recorded with missed focus.
The NX20 makes slightly heavy work of short focus distances with the 60mm macro lens. While perseverance is an essential virtue with all AF macro situations, I found my rate of intervention significant in only relatively low light. I suspect that the combination of yellow buttercups against green grass presented a limited tonal difference compared to the obvious chromatic drama our eyes enjoy. Perhaps we need colour contrast AF in these mirrorless bodies to assist the working of the tonal scales when there’s not as much difference as we might expect.
On balance, expect lenses such as the 16mm, 20mm, 30mm and the company’s two standard zooms (18-50mm and 20-50mm) to work at an impressive rate and present the best of the AF system. The 60mm, 85mm and 18-200mm optics are more challenged, although in bright light and at normal distances they work perfectly well with static subjects. Moving subjects are much more of a hit-and-miss affair.
Image: Colour and contrast are nicely moderate in standard mode, recording realistic images
In its default settings, the NX20 produces images with moderate contrast and colour, and while there is a tendency to believe that everyone wants bright images that risk the loss of highlights, the camera is capable of recording a wide range of tones in a single frame. The only time I noticed particularly that the tonal range had not been captured was when shooting a scene with sunlight reflected on the surface of a river.
Throughout the test I didn’t have any concerns that the camera would not cope with what I was asking it to do, and while the dynamic range is not exceptional it is extensive enough. Samsung does offer an ‘optimisation’ feature called Smart Range, but this is a contrast and brightness adjuster rather than anything that combines multiple exposures in-camera to genuinely extend the range of tones represented.
LCD, viewfinder and video
In previous NX classic models the electronic viewfinder and rear screen have been fine for general use, but low resolution has made manual focusing and focus checking in captured images difficult. I find it amazing still that a company that produces some of the best screens in the smartphone market thinks it is fine to use low-resolution panels in its imaging devices.
At the last IFA electronics show in Berlin, Germany, the NX200 suffered the humiliation of being the product with the lowest screen resolution on the Samsung stand, and the NX20 suffers that same fate. The screen is improved somewhat, as is that used in the viewfinder, and a boost in contrast and the way the screen is layered has made a significant difference to the appearance of detail and the usefulness of the two panels when it comes to fine work. However, neither compare to the screens
of Samsung’s own Galaxy S and Galaxy Note phones.
The compact system camera market has grown a lot over the past 18 months, and while once it belonged to Panasonic and Olympus there is now competition from Sony, Nikon and Pentax. If we consider the resolution of this model to be its principal selling point, we should look to Sony and Fujifilm for our alternatives.
Image: Sony NEX-7
The Sony NEX-7 has 24 million pixels spread over the same-sized APS-C sensor, while Fujifilm’s X-Pro 1 has 16 million in a unique formation that seems to have increased its ability to collect detail.
All three cameras are worthy rivals, although perhaps Sony’s lens collection makes it a slightly weaker choice. The Fujifilm X-Pro 1 has excellent lenses, but is somewhat more expensive, a good deal larger and in fact resolves less detail. All three cameras have very strong characteristics to recommend them, including style and substance, but for an all-round type of camera (and none of the three excels at moving subjects), I’d be inclined towards the NX20 for its resolution, easy handling and excellent optics.
If detail resolution is your ‘thing’, and you like smaller cameras, the Samsung NX20 is very hard to beat. It certainly has better detail-recording ability than any compact system camera we’ve tested so far, and it beats the vast majority of DSLRs, including some of those with more pixels on their sensor. The quality of the system’s lenses is exceptional, and really helps the NX20 to show its strengths. Resolution isn’t everything, of course, and those who rely on responsive AF systems for fast-moving subjects will do better to look for a camera that doesn’t use contrast-detection AF, but for most normal uses the NX AF does OK.
The company has designed a good menu system and decent handling, except for those processing delays, and a well-shaped and comfortable body. And that is enough to convince me. The Wi-Fi is a great idea, and it will be made to work more effectively soon, but even without it the NX20 is a very good camera.
Samsung NX20 – Key Features
Sensors at the base of the EVF detect when it is held to the eye and switch the viewfinder on automatically. The 1.44-million-dot resolution gives a clear-enough view, and enhanced contrast helps with focusing.
Having a flip-out screen is great for shooting from unusual positions, but even with it tucked in against the body its wide viewing angle makes it easy to see.
The NX20 offers single-shot, continuous and manual-focusing options, and full-time manual override with most lenses. When the manual-focusing ring is turned, the screen view magnifies to assist.
With face detection and sensor-group AF settings, the camera allows a single point to be placed anywhere on the screen.
Log-on to Wi-Fi
An on-screen keyboard, navigated with the thumb rocker switch, allows text to be input to the camera – for adding a password for access to a network, or for adding a caption to a picture for emailing or uploading. It is a little time-consuming, but is effective enough.
Movie capture in this model has a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels and a fastest frame rate of 30fps. Stills can be cut from a movie, and picture effects applied during shooting. Twin microphones on the top plate record sound in stereo.
The latest version of Samsung’s iFunction menu system is 2.0. This allows users to customise the number of features that appear on screen by pressing the lens-based iFn button. It’s a good idea, and makes the system even more usable and useful.
This button gives the user access to a Smart Panel menu that includes most frequently needed features and which is quick to navigate and to use
A button under the right thumb provides direct access to movie recording start/stop on a single press.