Lowest-priced APS sensor compact mirrorless interchangeable lens camera
The sleek, curvy little NX100 offers a revolutionary new lens design, while a larger sensor promises DSLR image quality. Can it deliver?
Samsung's first try at a mirrorless, interchangeable-lens camera, the APS-sensor-based NX10, was really an EVF with a removable lens, and didn't really take advantage of the new technology's ability to make interchageable lens cameras really small. The NX100, besides being a step in the right direction size-wise, introduces a new approach to lens design that should leave its competitors slapping their foreheads saying “d'oh! Why didn't we think of that!”
The NX100, along with the Sony NEX 3 and NEX 5, are the only mirrorless interchangeable lens compacts (MILC) to use an APS sensor, the same size sensor found in all consumer and many prosumer DSLRs today. The other MILCs, made by Olympus and Panasonic, use Four Thirds sized sensors, which are about half the size of a 35mm frame while APS is around 2/3 the size—somewhat larger. Cameras with larger sensors will inevitably have an edge when it comes to image quality.
First, let's look at the camera, then the new breed of lenses especially designed for it.
In the hands
The first thing I noticed when I picked up the NX100 is that despite its unabashedly all-polycarbonate body, it seems well-constructed. Controls are placed within easy reach of the right thumb and forefinger, while the lens is operated with the left hand. This is important since the lens-operating hand will have more to do when operating this camera than in any other. There's a large area for the thumb to rest while using the camera (this may seem trivial, but you'd be surprised how many cameras cram buttons too close together for the thumb to find a comfortable resting place without pressing a camera control accidentally). The front grip area is small—it extrudes slightly near the shutter release and then quickly tapers off. The surface that the hand needs to grip is slippery smooth. I wish there was a bigger grip, or at least a rubberized texture to give the hand some purchase.
The NX100 edges the Sony NEX-5 in terms of weight (0.62 vs. 0.8 pounds) but is slightly thicker. There is no pop-up flash or eye-level viewfinder, but these are available as optional accessories.
A tour around the camera
Atop the camera, directly over the lensmount, is a Smart Shoe, which can accommodate one of three Samsung flash units: the SEF15A, SEF20A, or SEF42A, the Samsung GPS-10 GPS module, or the Samsung ED-EDF-10 electronic viewfinder ($200). However, it can only allow one of the above at a time. A small dash-shaped hole near the front of the camera's top plate is, in fact, a built-in microphone for videography. (There's no external microphone jack, and there does not appear to be an external mic option for the smart shoe).
The knurled Mode Dial offers up the usual PASM modes as well as Scene, which accesses the camera's 14 scene modes (hit menu then use the back thumb toggle switch to navigate), Lens Priority (turn front lens ring with your forefinger while pressing the “Fn” button on the lens barrel with your left thumb to change the scene modes), Movie mode, and Smart mode. In Smart mode, the camera analyzes the scene and choses from among the 14 scene modes to determine the correct exposure, color balance, ISO, etc. The dial is easy to turn and click-stops authoritatively.
Flower mode is one of 14 modes offered.
To the right of the mode dial is a forefinger-operated jog dial, an easy-to-turn wheel that helps you navigate through the menu items. The shutter release is placed towards the front, within comfortable reach of the forefinger. The halfway-press, which locks in focus and exposure settings, is easily discerned. Slightly below and behind the top plate is an on-off switch, which leaves you with no doubt as to whether the camera is on, off or on in sleep mode.
The back of the camera offers a typical array of controls. The 614k dot, 3-inch LCD monitor shows above-average resolution and brightness is adequate in direct sunlight.
Control buttons on the back of the camera from top down, are the AEL (autoexposure lock), exposure compensation (press while turning jog dial, controls exposure +/- 3 stops in 1/3-stop increments), and the menu button, which brings up the easily navigated menu. Use the jog dial and control ring (which seems very similar to the Olympus E-P1) to navigate.
On the left hand side of the camera is a mysterious “C” button. What does “C” stand for? Wouldja believe...depth of field preview? This oddly-labeled button seems out of place. Next to it a plastic doorway flips out to reveal HDMI, AV Out, DC In and Remote outlets. The battery compartment on the bottom of the camera also houses the SD card.
A new kind of lens
The kit lens is a 20-50mm (30-75mm, 35mm equivalent), newly designed for this camera. The zoom range is unremarkable (most APS camera kit lenses have a slightly longer range, usually 18-55mm—but they are also usually bigger. This little fella is remarkably small), but the intelligent function button on the barrel is something else entirely: You can control exposure, ISO, White Balance, and scene mode (depending on which settings your in) by simply pressing the Intelligent Function button and rotating the front lens ring!
Samsung's new lens design concept: Press the Fn button to access an in-camera feature, then turn the front ring to change settings. It's easy, elegant, and gives your left hand something to do besides cradling the lens when shooting. Why didn't anyone think of this before?
It took a few tries to get used to it, but within minutes I was spinning the lens ring and controlling key camera functions with ease. In Manual, for instance, simply press once and turn the ring to adjust shutter speed; press the button again and spin more to control aperture, again for white balance and ISO. Functions controlled by the ring depend on mode in use.
As for optical quality, the lens showed some barrel distortion at the widest focal length but minimal distortion as you zoomed out; flare was well controlled for such an inexpensive lens.
Reaction time: While I was able to pan with my dog as he ran around the yard, the camera's momentary hesitation as the lens focused messed up my split-second timing. Otherwise, this might have been better composed. A future firmware fix, perhaps?
In the field
This is not a camera for sports photography: Focus was somewhat searchy, especially when it came to low-light and low-contrast subjects. Lag time improved greatly in manual exposure mode, although the shutter hesitated for up to a second after two or three rapid-fire exposures while waiting for the cache to clear.
The sun-drenched white fence that dominates this photo could have thrown the meter off, but the camera's intelligent exposure mode automatically picked “beach” mode, which compensated well.
The LCD monitor projected a bright enough image that one could compose and adjust exposure in direct sunlight, although it was not bright enough to judge focus accuracy. Speaking of focus, when you turn the front ring (I can't call it simply a focus ring any more since it does so much more now) the center of the image is enlarged, making it fairly easy to focus. Focusing from close to infinity required less than a full turn, which is good.
Changing settings from the lens was easy to master, although out of literally decades of habit I often forgot that this was an option! Menu navigation was straightforward.
The NX100 rocked at ISO 100 and in all-manual. Using the lens rings to manually set aperture, shutter speed, white balance and ISO, I was able to get a good, sharp exposure of the wheel of my car. Below: same shot, 100% enlargement. Look—no noise!
At ISO 100 and 200, there was virtually no digital noise, as one would expect from a camera with an APS sensor. Grain starts to become apparent by ISO 400 although not objectionably so. By ISO 800, noise is more obvious. Given that this is a modern APS sensor camera I would have expected less noise at this speed. I wouldn't recommend shooting at ISO 1600 or higher unless you are going to use noise reduction software or plan to convert to black-and-white, where grain often seems less objectionable (that's my subjective opinion!) or only intend to make small prints or view at screen resolution.
Grab shot of a family moment at ISO 800 under dim light looks pretty good at screen resolution, and would probably hold up well as an 8x10-inch print. But there is a fair amount of noise if you look closely or make a large print (see 100% detail, below).
ISO 800, 100%: Some noise, even with in-camera noise reduction applied to JPEG. Is this too noisy? That's a matter of personal taste!
My pooch at his favorite perch, with a sunrise behind him: I cranked up the ISO to 1600 for this shot. Again, at screen resolution, it appears fine. But it's a different story when you pixel peep!
ISO 1600 image detail at 100% reveals a lot of grain.
Converted to black-and-white, the noise is still there, but to my taste, it doesn't seem so objectionable even though we lose the sunrise.
Video quality is very good, with very little jumpiness due to motion. In this video, you can see how the camera handles both subject and camera movement. For family videos and the like, the camera turned in a fine performance although I do wish there was some way to add an external microphone for better sound quality.
Lab test results (Provided by DxOMark):
Maximum ISO for acceptable image quality (digital noise): 400
Maximum ISO for acceptable dynamic range: 800
Color depth: Excellent (22.6 bits on a scale of 1-25)
Overall image quality: Very good (62 on a scale of 1-100)
Dynamic range: Up to 10.7 stops
DxOMark test results bore out my in-the-field observations, that image quality in low light and high ISOs was average for a modern APS sensor, and that the results were comparable to the smaller-sensor Micro Four Thirds MILCs. Signal to noise results were virtually identical to the Olympus E-PL2, dipping below 30dB (the lowest acceptable noise reading) at around ISO 570. The Sony NEX5, on the other hand, is the only other MILC on the market (along with the NEX 3) to have an APS sensor, and it showed acceptable noise at ISO 800.
Close-up at f/5.6 shows good, smooth Bokeh. Why did I photograph this part of my car? Because Samsung's new lens design represents a shift in lens technology!
Conclusion and recommendation
For bargain hunters, the NX100 represents the best price you can get for a mirrorless interchangeable lens compact camera (with the possible exception of the Olympus E-PL1, a camera that was introduced a year ago and therefore with older technology). The ability to control the camera via the lens ring is a simple but elegant piece of engineering that actually works well. You do sacrifice a few features for the price (the camera body feels and looks like plastic, and some users may wish there was a built-in flash) while autofocus performance could be better. Image quality is not stellar, but is certainly acceptable for most uses. I would like to see Samsung work on upgrading the sensor for the next generation to be more competitive with other APS sensor cameras. A firmware upgrade could help improve autofocus speed.
The NX100 comes in a variety of configurations for between $480 and $850, depending on which lenses and smart shoe accessories are included. While the NX100 does not challenge the Sony NEX5 as the MILC category's image quality leader, it wins on price and in general, image quality is perfectly fine for most uses. If you want to get in on the compact, mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera revolution but are on a tight budget, the Samsung NX100 is well worth considering.