Can Sam­sung’s NX1 Suc­ceed In The Pro League?

Sam­Sung nX1

ProPhoto - - FRONT PAGE - Pre­view by Paul bur­rows.

Sam­sung wants to play with the big boys in in­ter­change­able lens cam­eras so the NX1 has been given both the brawn and the brains.

With its plans for global dom­i­na­tion of the mo­bile com­put­ing and smart­phone mar­kets, you could for­give Sam­sung for be­ing a lit­tle dis­tracted when it comes to its cam­era business. It’s not that it hasn’t built quite a few good cam­eras over the last few years – the ear­lier NX Se­ries mir­ror­less mod­els have been more than com­pet­i­tive – more that th­ese haven’t been backed by the mar­ket­ing they needed. Con­se­quently, the likes of the NX20 and NX30 have pretty well sold them­selves and, it would seem, in suf­fi­cient num­bers to war­rant a num­ber of third-party sup­pli­ers of­fer­ing NX mount adapters for all man­ner of ‘legacy’ lenses.

With the new NX1, how­ever, Sam­sung is go­ing to have to be much more pro-ac­tive and this, we’re told, is in­deed the plan. Mind you, you sim­ply wouldn’t make a cam­era like the NX1 just for the fun of it… no, Sam­sung wants a slice of the all-im­por­tant enthusiast/semi-pro cam­era sec­tors and it’s pre­pared to do what it takes to get it.

Straight­away it goes up against some for­mi­da­ble com­pe­ti­tion in the mir­ror­less sec­tor alone – Fu­ji­film X-T1, Pana­sonic GH4 and Olym­pus OM-D E-M1 – and there’s some D-SLR heavy­hit­ters sell­ing for around the same money too – Pen­tax K-3, Nikon D7100 and Sony A77 II. It’s a big ask, but Sam­sung reck­ons it’s got what it takes with the NX1 and its sup­port­ing sys­tem. While you weren’t look­ing, Sam­sung has built up a sys­tem of 16 NX mount lenses which in­cludes, among other things, a 10mm f3.5 fish-eye (equiv­a­lent to 15mm), a 60mm f2.8 macro and a num­ber of ‘pan­cake’ primes. Like all its ri­vals, Sam­sung has also be­gun build­ing a sys­tem of higher-end ‘S Se­ries’ lenses which com­ple­ment the NX1 body by also be­ing weather-proofed. Cur­rently, there are only two mod­els – a 16-50mm f2.0-2.8 zoom (equiv­a­lent to 24-75mm) and, launched along with the NX1, a 50-150mm f2.8 tele­zoom (equiv­a­lent to 75-225mm). Both are hand­some beasts, with a sim­i­lar look and feel to the Zeiss-de­signed lenses for Sony. Of course, there will need to be more ‘S’ lenses and it looks almost cer­tain that the 300mm f2.8 pro­to­type shown at the 2014 Pho­tok­ina will go into pro­duc­tion,

“Shoot­ing a low fly­past by a fast-mov­ing Hughes 369E he­li­copter was a good test, yet the AF ac­quired the air­craft while it was still a dis­tant speck in the viewfinder and stayed res­o­lutely locked on it as it rapidly ap­proached.”

but Sam­sung’s other NX mounts lenses fill most of the gaps un­til then… as do the afore­men­tioned mount adapters.

On The Out­side

The NX1 is a hand­some beast too, de­lib­er­ately big­ger than its pe­tite NX Se­ries pre­de­ces­sors and more in the league of a mid-sized D-SLR than a mir­ror­less cam­era… both the GH4 and X-T1 are smaller. Of course, it’s styled to look like a D-SLR which is still pretty much a pre­req­ui­site in this sec­tor, and the con­trol lay­out is very sim­i­lar, in­clud­ing a mono­chrome read-out panel on the top deck.

The bodyshell com­prises diecast mag­ne­sium al­loy cov­ers with ex­ten­sive seal­ing to guard against the in­tru­sion of dust or mois­ture. It seems the weath­eris­ing (57 seals in all) may not be in the same league as that of a topend D-SLR, but suf­fi­cient to en­sure the NX1 will con­tinue work­ing in light rain or in sit­u­a­tions where it’s of­ten be­ing splashed. There’s a good-sized hand­grip and an op­tional ver­ti­cal grip is avail­able which adds an ex­tra bat­tery and bulks the cam­era up fur­ther. That said, in the hand, the NX1 doesn’t feel par­tic­u­larly big, although the 16-50mm ‘S’ zoom ac­tu­ally dou­bles the weight and then some, so it does feel more like you’re car­ry­ing around a D-SLR than a mir­ror­less com­pact.

The con­trol lay­out cen­tres around a main mode dial – which has the op­tion of lock­ing its set­tings – with front and rear in­put wheels plus a very Nikonesque ar­range­ment which clus­ters four func­tion keys within another dial (for set­ting AF mode, me­ter­ing method, white bal­ance and ISO) with a drive mode se­lec­tor lo­cated be­neath (which in­cludes the self­timer and auto brack­et­ing). On the rear panel is a com­bined nav­i­ga­tor key­pad and con­trol ring plus the stan­dard keys for play­back, file delete and menu ac­cess. There’s con­sid­er­able scope for cus­tomis­ing the con­trols (Sam­sung calls it “key map­ping”), in­clud­ing the left/ right/down quad­rants of the nav­i­ga­tor and the con­trol wheel. A but­ton marked ‘Fn’ brings up what is es­sen­tially a quick menu screen, giv­ing di­rect ac­cess to all the key cap­ture re­lated func­tions such as ISO, white bal­ance, drive modes, me­ter­ing pat­terns and the fo­cus­ing op­er­a­tion. The mon­i­tor screen it­self is a ‘Su­per AMOLED’ dis­play that’s ad­justable for tilt (45 de­grees down, 90 de­grees up) and has touch con­trols (in­clud­ing Touch AF). It’s ad­justable for bright­ness and colour bal­ance, and has an auto bright­ness con­trol which works pretty ef­fec­tively when shoot­ing out­doors. The menu de­sign is new and or­gan­ised into four main sec­tions with scrol­lable pages. Nav­i­ga­tion is mostly via suc­ces­sive right clicks and the lay­out is very clean.

Un­der the SLR-like hump on the top panel is an OLED-type elec­tronic viewfinder which also has a good dy­namic range and colour fidelity while lag is re­duced to an im­pres­sive five mil­lisec­onds (0.005 seconds). It de­liv­ers XGA res­o­lu­tion from 2.359 megadots and, con­se­quently, the full set of dis­plays is very crisply de­fined. A prox­im­ity sen­sor set into the viewfinder eye­piece al­lows for auto switch­ing be­tween the mon­i­tor screen and the EVF when the NX1 is held up to the eye.

In terms of its han­dling and op­er­a­tion, then, the Sam­sung is more of a D-SLR ex­pe­ri­ence than some D-SLRs (yes, the OLED EVF is almost that con­vinc­ing).

The Inside Story

On the inside, the NX1 has an all-new ‘APS-C’ size CMOS sen­sor that’s been de­signed by Sam­sung and is also made by one of the company’s many di­vi­sions. It’s the largest ‘back­side il­lu­mi­nated’ (BSI) de­vice seen to date and this ar­range­ment – which puts all the cir­cuitry on the rear to leave more space for the pho­to­di­odes – en­ables the pixel count to be in­creased to 30.7 mil­lion while en­abling a na­tive sen­si­tiv­ity range equiv­a­lent to ISO 100 to 25,600.

Sam­sung has also fol­lowed the cur­rent trend of elim­i­nat­ing an op­ti­cal low-pass fil­ter (a.k.a. an anti-alias­ing fil­ter) in or­der to op­ti­mise the sen­sor’s res­o­lu­tion. As a re­sult of the BSI de­sign and re­vised fab­ri­ca­tion tech­niques, the pixel size is the same as that of the company’s pre­vi­ous 20 megapix­els CMOS. The ef­fec­tive pixel count is 28.2 megapix­els which gives a max­i­mum im­age size of 6480x4320 pix­els. RAW files are recorded at 14-bits per RGB chan­nel, ex­cept when the cam­era is shoot­ing con­tin­u­ously when it drops to 12-bit. This is be­cause the NX1’s slow­est speed is 8.0 fps and its fastest is 15 fps… which

is per­formed with con­tin­u­ous AF and AE. The num­ber-crunch­ing is the work of Sam­sung’s next-gen­er­a­tion, high­speed ‘DRIMe V’ quad-core pro­ces­sor which also en­ables the NX1 to record 4K video in ei­ther the Cin­ema 4K or Ul­tra HD res­o­lu­tions. It also de­liv­ers more ad­vanced noise re­duc­tion pro­cess­ing – so the sen­si­tiv­ity range can be ex­tended to ISO 51,200 – and a novel multi-task­ing shoot­ing mode which is tagged ‘Sam­sung Auto Shot’. This is pri­mar­ily de­signed for han­dling fast-mov­ing ac­tion and com­bines the op­er­a­tions of the AF, AE and AWB to de­liver what’s es­sen­tially a more so­phis­ti­cated pre­dic­tive func­tion via sub­ject track­ing at a stun­ning 240 fps in or­der to ac­cu­rately de­ter­mine its speed. The shut­ter lag time is also taken into ac­count so the cam­era cap­tures pre­cisely the de­ci­sive mo­ment (for ex­am­ple, when a ball ex­actly hits a bat), but with a sin­gle press of the shut­ter but­ton. We saw this func­tion demon­strated at Pho­tok­ina, but have yet to try it out in a ‘real world’ sit­u­a­tion.

The new pro­ces­sor is also the driv­ing force be­hind the NX1’s up­graded aut­o­fo­cus­ing sys­tem which is called ‘NX Auto Fo­cus III’ and uses both con­trast­de­tec­tion and phase-dif­fer­ence de­tec­tion mea­sure­ments – the lat­ter’s sens­ing points em­bed­ded into the im­ager. There’s a to­tal of 209 con­trast-de­tec­tion points and 205 phase-dif­fer­ence de­tec­tion points – of which 153 are cross-type ar­rays – so the sys­tem is able to pro­vide very wide cov­er­age (over 90 per­cent of the frame area).

Ad­di­tion­ally, the low light sen­si­tiv­ity ex­tends down to EV -4.0 (at ISO 100) and, beyond this, the NX1 has a new type of il­lu­mi­na­tor which ac­tu­ally projects grid lines onto the sub­ject to ob­tain the nec­es­sary con­trast edge. Fur­ther­more, this is claimed to have a range of 15 me­tres which is sig­nif­i­cantly more than the three to four me­tres that’s usu­ally the limit with a con­ven­tional low-light as­sist il­lu­mi­na­tor. The AF re­sponse speed is quoted at 0.055 seconds and, in the ‘Ac­tive AF’ mode, the cam­era au­to­mat­i­cally switches from sin­gle-shot to con­tin­u­ous AF op­er­a­tion if sub­ject move­ment is de­tected. Man­ual fo­cus­ing is as­sisted by a mag­ni­fied im­age and a fo­cus peak­ing dis­play which can be set to one of three lev­els in a choice of three colours.

Ex­po­sure con­trol is based on the same 221-sege­ment (17x13) multi-zone sys­tem em­ployed in the NX30 with the op­tion of cen­tre-weighted or spot mea­sure­ments. The stan­dard set of ‘PASM’ con­trol modes is sup­ple­mented by a choice of 13 sub­ject/scene modes (which in­cludes a mul­ti­ple ex­po­sure set­ting), and there’s a choice of nine ‘Pic­ture Wizard’ pre­sets which are ad­justable for colour sat­u­ra­tion, colour tone, hue, con­trast and sharp­ness. Up to three user-ad­justed ‘Pic­ture Wizards’ can be cre­ated and stored. Auto brack­et­ing modes are avail­able for ex­po­sure, white bal­ance, depth-offield and the ‘Pic­ture Wizard’. The AEB op­er­ates over a se­quence of five frames (with up to +/-3.0 EV of adjustment), the other three over three frames. The NX1 also has multi-shot HDR cap­ture, an in­ter­val­ome­ter, in-cam­era lens cor­rec­tions, a dual-axis level dis­play and a USB 3.0 (‘Su­perSpeed’) ter­mi­nal.

The shut­ter speed range is 301/8000 sec­ond with flash sync up to 1/250 sec­ond and Sam­sung says the unit has been tested to 150,000 cy­cles. As is now common on both D-SLRs and CSCs, there’s the op­tion of switch­ing to a sen­sor-based ‘first cur­tain shut­ter’, mainly to shorten the lag time and elim­i­nate noise. The NX1 has a built-in, pop-up flash which can serve as the com­man­der for a wire­less TTL setup. Ex­ter­nal flash units con­nect via a hot­shoe, but there isn’t a PC ter­mi­nal.

Good Con­nec­tions

As noted ear­lier, the NX1 can record 4K video and although Sam­sung doesn’t go as far with this cam­era’s video side as Pana­sonic has with the GH4, it still boasts pretty high lev­els of ca­pa­bil­ity and func­tion­al­ity. Cin­ema 4K is recorded at 4096x2160 pix­els and 24 fps while UHD footage is recorded at 3840x2160 pix­els and 25 fps (PAL stan­dard).

Sam­sung has adopted the new HEVC H.265 com­pres­sion which is much more ef­fi­cient than the H.264 codec, ac­tu­ally halv­ing the file size while still de­liv­er­ing a bet­ter im­age qual­ity. Ac­cord­ing to Sam­sung, 80 Mbps qual­ity in H.265 looks the same as 160 Mbps in H.264, and it ob­vi­ously ex­tends the record­ing time which is just as well be­cause, like the GH4, the NX1 only has a sin­gle SD mem­ory card slot. How­ever, it sup­ports both UHS-I and UHS-II speed de­vices, and un­com­pressed (and clean) 4K video (8-bit, 4:2:2 colour) can be streamed to the cam­era’s HDMI 1.4 port for record­ing via an ex­ter­nal de­vice. Al­ter­na­tively, 2K video (i.e. 1080p) can be streamed to the HDMI port and 4K video recorded simultaneously to the mem­ory card, but not the re­verse. There’s a choice of two qual­ity modes when record­ing 2K video and three for 4K video, but Sam­sung hasn’t yet pub­lished the ac­tual bit rates for th­ese.

The NX1 has built-in stereo mi­cro­phones, but is also equipped with a stereo audio in­put and an out­put for mon­i­tor­ing pur­poses (both 3.5 mm mini­jacks). Man­ual adjustment is pro­vided for the audio record­ing lev­els (over 12 steps) and there’s a wind-cut fil­ter.

Video func­tion­al­ity in­cludes con­tin­u­ous aut­o­fo­cus­ing and Touch AF con­trol, the full com­ple­ment of ‘PASM’ ex­po­sure con­trol modes, ‘SmartRange+’ dy­namic range cor­rec­tion, the fo­cus peak­ing dis­play, a ze­bra pat­tern gen­er­a­tor (which the NX1 also uses to in­di­cate blown-out high­lights in stills) and the ‘Pic­ture Wizard’ pre­sets. Sam­sung has boosted the cam­era’s WiFi ca­pa­bil­i­ties so it’s the first to support the 802.11ac pro­to­col which of­fers speeds as high as 800 Mbps, en­abling the stream­ing of 4K video. Ob­vi­ously be­ing a Sam­sung, the ini­tial em­pha­sis is on the An­droid op­er­at­ing sys­tem so there’s a very high level of con­nec­tiv­ity with th­ese de­vices. In­clud­ing a Blue­tooth trans­mit­ter al­lows for im­me­di­ate con­nec­tion with in-range de­vices, but NFC support is also pro­vided for faster pair­ing.

Given Sam­sung’s in­volve­ment in tablets and smart­phones, the NX1 is fairly uniquely po­si­tioned in terms of how eas­ily it in­te­grates with mo­bile de­vices which can sub­se­quently pro­vide a wide range of im­age man­age­ment (in­clud­ing back-up), edit­ing and shar­ing func­tions in the field.

Try­ing And Fly­ing

We had the chance to sam­ple the NX1 over a cou­ple days dur­ing the cam­era’s Aus­tralian press launch which was staged in and around Queen­stown, New Zealand. The com­fort­able han­dling and in­tu­itive op­er­a­tion (even with­out go­ing near the touch screen) were im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent, while there were also op­por­tu­ni­ties to eval­u­ate the aut­o­fo­cus­ing, high shoot­ing speed, wire­less con­nec­tiv­ity and weath­er­proof­ing (the lat­ter via a wet walk along a thickly-forested sec­tion of the Route­burn Track).

The wide-area aut­o­fo­cus­ing per­forms so ef­fort­lessly – in­clud­ing in very low light con­di­tions – you tend to for­get it’s there… be­cause it sim­ply never gives you cause to switch to man­ual con­trol. And it’s so fast, the sub­ject is fo­cused even be­fore you had a chance to think about it. Shoot­ing a low fly­past by a fast-mov­ing Hughes 369E he­li­copter (a.k.a. the Hughes 500) was a good test, yet the AF ac­quired the air­craft while it was still a dis­tant speck in the viewfinder and stayed res­o­lutely locked on it as it rapidly ap­proached and the NX1 rat­tled along at 15 fps. Shoot­ing aeri­als from a he­li­copter didn’t pose any prob­lems for the AF ei­ther.

“Sam­sung has come a long way with the NX1, but the com­pe­ti­tion is for­mi­da­ble and mak­ing any mean­ing­ful progress in this sec­tor will re­quire a sus­tained ef­fort.”

We mostly used the 16-50mm ‘S’ lens – which looks to be a match for the best glass from Sam­sung’s ri­vals – but we’ll cover the 50-150mm in our full test.

While the me­ter­ing sys­tem isn’t new, it too is very re­li­able, although in the NX1 there ap­pears to be a ten­dency to un­der­ex­pose slightly. The OLED EVF looks good in most sit­u­a­tions, but the AMOLED mon­i­tor is a real gem in terms of its colour fidelity, con­trast range and view­ing in out­door sit­u­a­tions, even bright sunny con­di­tions. Test JPEGs (large/su­perfine) look very promis­ing in terms of def­i­ni­tion, de­tail­ing dy­namic range, colour fidelity and the smooth­ness of the tonal gra­da­tions.

Sam­sung has come a long way with the NX1, but as noted at the out­set, the com­pe­ti­tion is for­mi­da­ble and mak­ing any mean­ing­ful progress in this sec­tor will re­quire a sus­tained ef­fort. And whether Sam­sung has gone quite far enough with some as­pects of the NX1 is de­bat­able… for ex­am­ple, dual mem­ory card slots, and more con­trol over the DR and HDR pro­cess­ing, would be thicker ic­ing on the cake. That said, the NX1’s main attractions are ob­vi­ous and com­pelling – AF per­for­mance, rapid-fire 15 fps shoot­ing, 4K video with smaller file sizes, ad­vanced WiFi con­nec­tiv­ity and an ex­cel­lent EVF – so while it might have taken a lit­tle while for Sam­sung to get here, it’s ar­rived with a very well-ex­e­cuted cam­era that’s more than ca­pa­ble of suc­ceed­ing in the big league.

Sam­sung’s NX1 is its first cam­era aimed at the top end of the mar­ket and has a mag­ne­sium al­loy bodyshell with weather-proof­ing. It’s also the first ‘APS-C’ for­mat cam­era to of­fer 4K video record­ing.

Sam­sung’s pro-level ‘S’ Se­ries lenses still re­tain the ‘i-Func­tion’ but­ton which en­ables di­rect ac­cess to a num­ber of cap­ture set­tings.

Top deck info panel has built-in il­lu­mi­na­tion. The NX1’s main op­er­a­tions cen­tre on a mode dial with front and rear in­put wheels.

Very sim­i­lar to the ar­range­ment used on Nikon’s higher- end D-SLRs; a clus­ter of four cap­ture func­tion keys is po­si­tioned above the drive mode se­lec­tor.

The ‘Su­per AMOLED’ LCD mon­i­tor screen is ad­justable for tilt and has touch con­trols.

Although the NX1 is mir­ror­less, its con­trol lay­out is pure D-SLR, in­clud­ing a mono­chrome dis­play panel on the top deck.

The NX1 of­fers a high level of video func­tion­al­ity in­clud­ing a stereo audio in­put and out­put (top) and a clean, un­com­pressed 4K video feed to its HDMI con­nec­tion. The USB sup­ports the lat­est 3.0 ‘Su­perSpeed’ data trans­fer rates.

Like Pana­sonic’s GH4, the NX1 only has a sin­gle mem­ory card slot. It sup­ports UHS-3 speed SDXC cards.

New menu de­sign is smartly de­signed and log­i­cal to nav­i­gate.

A ‘quick menu’ style dis­play is avail­able for the main cap­ture set­tings. Note the lens bar­rel graphic for the aper­ture, shut­ter speeds, ISO and ex­po­sure com­pen­sa­tion set­tings.

Re­play screens in­clude one with a full set of ex­po­sure his­tograms.

Live view screen in­cludes a re­al­time his­togram, grid guide, fo­cus­ing dis­tance scale and dual-axis level dis­play (not shown in this il­lus­tra­tion).

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