Can Samsung’s NX1 Succeed In The Pro League?
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.
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).