How much are you willing to shell out for the first interchangeable lens camera to run Android? Can you afford to spend $1,700 for a smart camera, just to get some early-adopter bragging rights? Because that’s what Samsung is charging for the Galaxy NX, a mirrorless ILC that runs a smartphone OS ($1,600 if you just want the body). For camera makers the growing trend now is to embed wireless connectivity into their shooters. With the Galaxy NX, Samsung took it beyond Wi-Fi and has added a cellular option, which means it can theoretically stay connected all the time.
Samsung knows how make extremely good smartphones, and its cameras aren’t too shabby either. So, has the company successfully merged two devices into one, creating the Compact System Camera (CSC) of the future? Samsung deserves to be commended for thinking outside the box and taking risks, but unfortunately the Galaxy NX has some first-gen issues that show why combining a smartphone with a camera is a difficult merger. And, oh, let’s not forget about that absolutely high price tag.
Features and design
The Galaxy NX isn’t Samsung’s first go at this concept. It started with the Galaxy Camera that came out last year, followed by the recently introduced Galaxy S4 Zoom. But those two cameras are merely lackluster point-and-shoot models, while the Galaxy NX is geared toward the step-up/advanced amateur user with pro-like image capture and advanced shooting options.
Most of the time, it feels like we’re using two different, but really good products.
At quick glace the Galaxy NX has that familiar DSLR look, with a large grip, interchangeable lens, and viewfinder/flash/hot-shoe top. Unlike Samsung’s other CSCs that have a more compact, rectangular design, like the NX300 (a DT Editors’ Choice), the Galaxy NX resembles the Samsung NX20 or compact DSLRs. But when viewed from the top and the side, the Galaxy NX body is generally slimmer and less bulky that the aforementioned comparisons, with the chunky grip that contains the bottom compartment for the battery, MicroSD card, and SIM card. (It has similar design cues to the Galaxy Camera, just chunkier and with a removable lens.)
Specs wise, the Galaxy NX shares many of the camera components as the NX300, like the 20.3-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, hybrid autofocus system, NX mount that’s compatible with a range of Samsung NX lenses, and Samsung’s DRIMe IV image processor. Other camera-specific features include ISO of up to 25,600, burst mode of 7.4 frames per second, and RAW image support. But because it’s also packing a smart device, the Galaxy NX has another set of specs for running the Android portion: a 1.6GHz quad-core processor that powers Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean), 16GB of internal storage, 1GB of memory, not to mention antennas for Wi-Fi, GPS, and cellular (with support for LTE networks).
The Galaxy NX is first and foremost a camera, but it draws a lot of design inspirations from the smartphone. Whereas categorically similar cameras usually have lots of buttons and dials for specific functions, the Galaxy NX is aesthetically minimal. On the top you’ll find only the shutter button, red-dot movie record button, power button, a wheel Samsung calls the command dial, flash button, and a diopter adjustment dial for the viewfinder – no dedicated buttons for shooting modes, exposure compensation, playback, ISO, menu, etc. The most-telling aspect is the large 4.8-inch touchscreen – you won’t something this big on other cameras, but it’s also why Samsung had to do away with physical buttons in order to accommodate it. The LCD is rated at 1.44k dots, which is good and useable but not as bright as the OLED screens found in the NX300 or some of Samsung’s top-end phones – which is too bad considering the camera’s status as a flagship product and its asking price. All functions are handled through the touchscreen, and, depending on the type of user, you’ll either think it’s cool or the most frustrating thing to use (more on this and the user interface later). The screen doesn’t tilt, which would have been useful for framing shots at different angles.
Complementing the LCD is an SVGA electronic viewfinder that’s suitably bright, and it displays shooting information and real-time settings changes. A sensor automatically switches between the main LCD and EVF when you move toward/away from it, which worked find for the most part although we encountered moments where it was slow in handling the switch. From the EVF you can make settings changes using the command dial and the iFunction (iFn) button on the lens when you’re in one of the expert shooting modes (PASM), but it’s not the most efficient we’ve used. The EVF also performed much slower during low-light situations, and didn’t keep up as quickly as it did in normal conditions. Compared to the strong and bright OLED-based EVF in the new Sony Alpha A7/A7R, the Galaxy NX’s is just OK.
On the left side is a headphone/headset jack (useful for listening to tunes, watching YouTube clips, or making audio Skype calls), USB and HDMI ports behind a closed door, and a speaker that is surprisingly loud and clear. The front is a lens-release button, while on the bottom you’ll find the tripod mount and aforementioned compartment for battery and cards. A minor gripe is that we wish Samsung had stayed with traditional SD cards instead of MicroSD because they’re far easier to pop in and out for image transfers.
The Galaxy NX includes an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens. It’s not the fastest or best glass you can get, but it’s a good, standard all-purpose lens that’ll be fine for most casual users, but more advanced photographers might want to add some extra lenses (which will drive up the price even more).
What’s in the box
Besides the camera and 18-55mm lens, Samsung doesn’t include much in the box, not even a battery charger (the battery is charged in-camera via USB). There’s a USB cable, lens caps and hood, and AC adapter. There’s some basic booklets, but no full manual – that can be downloaded from Samsung’s website. The biggest added value is a copy of Adobe Lightroom, which is included on a disc.
Performance and use
Oh, where to begin. Most of the time it feels like we’re using two different products – a really good camera that takes great photos and a connected smart device that operates as smoothly as any smartphone. But when paired together the experience isn’t always as seamless as Samsung intended.
Camera and image quality
With the kit lens attached, the camera has a noticeable heft (it’s less than a pound without the lens) – not terribly heavy or uncomfortable to hold, but you’ll definitely want to grasp firmly onto it. Of course, weight is also determined by the lens you use; Samsung provided us with a 60mm f/2.8 macro lens to test with the camera, and the whole thing feels as heavy as any compact DSLR. At least there’s a sizeable grip for you to do that, as it fits nicely in your right hand. The command dial, shutter button, and movie button are located exactly where your thumb and fingers would be, making the Galaxy NX comfortable to shoot with.
There are some first-gen issues that show why combining a smartphone with a camera is a difficult merger.
When you hit the power button or the shutter button, the Galaxy NX goes straight into camera mode, although you can change the settings to have it go into Android if you wish. The camera wakes up from standby fairly quickly, although there were several times where we experience some lag between startup and first shot.
The Galaxy NX uses a similar camera user interface and navigation scheme as last year’s Android-based Galaxy Camera and the Galaxy S4 Zoom. For automatic users or those familiar with shooting with a smartphone app, it works fine since there’s not a lot to mess with – the camera is ready to shoot out of the box. Should they decide to get more daring and venture into the more advanced shooting modes, Samsung included some useful handholding features like dialogue boxes that pop up, explaining what a particular setting does and how it’s used. We also like when a certain indicator turns red to warn you that the setting you’re choosing might not be suitable for the situation. Plus, there’s plenty of scene modes and creative filters to choose from – just like a point-and-shoot or smartphone, with the advantage of a more sophisticated camera.
If you’re a more advanced photographer, or an “expert” user as Samsung calls it, navigating through the touchscreen or command dial is more involved. Instead of having all the main shooting settings laid out in front of you, you need to drill through different menus and submenus just to get to what you need. You can make adjustments to exposure compensation, shutter and aperture speed, and ISO by pressing on the tiny icons at the top of the screen or setting the command dial for that function, but everything else will have to go through the settings “gear” icon. Annoyingly the settings icon is next to the Home button, which kicks you out of the camera and into Android. We recommend choosing the “professional” user type from the settings menu, which adds a “quick menu” option that displays all the shooting options onscreen when you press the settings icon. Another puzzling thing is that when you turn the command dial left or right, the opposite occurs on the screen; the idea is that the dial mimics a finger swipe on the touchscreen, where swiping to the left of the screen would move something to the right. This can be frustrating if you’re making changes through the EVF using the command dial/iFunction feature, until you get used to it.
Once you become familiar with the camera’s operation, you’ll notice that it’s fast. The hybrid autofocusing system worked well to quickly lock onto objects/subjects, and there’s minimal lag between shots. Like the NX300, image quality is generally good with nice saturation and sharpness. When you crop in to 100 percent you’ll notice some noise and washing out from the compression if you shoot in JPEG, but most users – especially the ones this camera is designed for – will be more than pleased when viewed in smaller sizes. The optical image stabilization of both lenses we used worked well. The camera was slightly sluggish during low-light shots, with the EVF and LCD having some difficulty in keeping up, and the AF couldn’t focus as well – all to be expected when the camera is searching for light. That’s not to say the camera can’t handle low-light situations. We were able to push the ISO up to 6,400 and got some nice, usable photos, but go any higher than that and your images will start falling apart. The Galaxy NX is capable of shooting high-definition videos at up to 1080p/30 fps. We noticed some rolling shutter and focusing issues as we panned and zoomed – similar to our experience with the NX300 – but it’s fine if you’re shooting a short clip to post to Facebook. (Despite the optical image stabilization, our video was still shaky due to our hands shaking from the cold temperature!) Overall the Galaxy NX is capable of capturing really great images, if you can overlook the user interface.
The advantage of being a always-connected device is that you can share your photos via e-mail, Dropbox, Picasa, Facebook, YouTube, etc. You can do this quickly from the playback menu or from the app, and whatever you share is going to look much better than what comes out of a smartphone. The large touchscreen and UI works much better for playing back photos and videos, and you can do some light editing in-camera before you share it.
Despite the stance of a far more advanced camera, the UI, lack of controls, and simplicity makes it more useable as a point-and-shoot. The interface is clearly designed for someone who’s more familiar with a smartphone than a traditional camera; it’s far easier to pick a photo filter effect from the main menu than to change the white balance settings, for example. Samsung is obviously targeting the Galaxy NX to step-up users, because we’re not sure if advanced photographers would want to deal with the smartphone-style interface. The one plus about having Android as the OS, however, means Samsung could update the software and deliver a new camera UI. Another thing we will say is that the Galaxy NX has terrific battery life, considering that having a large screen, mini computer, wireless connectivity, and full-featured camera would drain a lot of power; Samsung did a great job here with battery management.
As a smart device, the Galaxy NX excels. The smoothness of the operation is just as good as when we previewed it a few months back. If you’re already an Android user – Samsung’s TouchWiz skin, in particular – you’ll feel right at home. Apps run quickly without hesitation, and you can use the Galaxy NX to play videos and games or check email during some downtime. The one difference is the addition of a Camera Studio menu that groups together the apps that can benefit from the camera (it’s user selectable, so you can add whatever apps you use often with the camera), such as Dropbox for storing photos, Sphere for creating 360-degree panoramas, and, one of our favorites, Photo Suggest, which finds photos of interesting things others have taken, based on your GPS location – a handy tool for travelers to a new city. In fact, the Galaxy NX makes a great travel camera since it allows you share/archive your photos on the go. With that said, we’re not sure if you want to use it as your sole device while traveling. We used it to watch some YouTube clips and play some games during a short trip, and while it worked fine, our wrist started to hurt from holding it with the heavy 60mm lens attached. The lesson is, make sure you remove the lens if you’re going to spend time using the Galaxy NX as a smart device.
Samsung is obviously targeting step-up users, because the smartphone-style interface might be less useful to photographers.
When we tested the Galaxy S4 Zoom we noticed that not all apps took full advantage of the camera. For example, Instagram doesn’t utilize the zoom or the more advanced shooting modes, but Flickr does. The same is true with the Galaxy NX, but with Instagram, you can at least manually zoom the lens, but everything operates via the touchscreen, including tap-to-focus. The best way to get the photos on these sites is to first shoot with the camera, as you normally would, then upload them afterward. It’s extra steps, but this way you can really get the best photos onto Instagram or Facebook. Samsung is releasing an SDK that would allow third-party app developers to build in native support for the Galaxy NX.
Not all features can be handled as effectively as it would on a smartphone, however. For example, there’s no rear-facing camera, so you can’t conduct a two-way video chat unless you step in front of the lens. We initiated a Google Hangouts call, and while the process worked, the receiver couldn’t see us unless we turned the camera around, and in doing so we couldn’t see the other person. Even though you can add a cellular connection, there’s no dedicated phone app so you’ll need to use Skype, Google Voice, Google Hangouts, or some type of communications app. The onboard speaker and microphone worked well, but we recommend using a headset. Still, leave the phone calls to an actual smartphone.
Connectivity was never an issue via Wi-Fi. The camera easily found our network and connected to it without issue, and was fast – apps downloaded and photos uploaded fairly quickly. We weren’t able to test the cellular connection, as carrier support had not been announced yet during testing, but Samsung told us T-Mobile would be supporting it in the U.S. with tablet pricing; the Galaxy NX supports any GSM carrier, but we couldn’t get it to work with any of our T-Mobile and AT&T SIM cards.
Having Android in the camera is not a bad idea, but we think Samsung needs to develop a different user interface that better integrates both camera and smart device. Unfortunately, slapping a smartphone onto a high-end camera or vice versa is only half the battle. As it is, the camera functions more like a smartphone than a camera despite its camera-centric nature (if that’s Samsung’s goal, then it succeeded). While the simplicity is fine for casual smartphone photographers – in fact, we’ll admit that it takes the intimidation out of using such a camera – it leaves more to be desired for everyone else who’s looking for a well-rounded interchangeable lens camera that’s super connected. The appeal of the camera really depends on the type of user.
We had a sense of déjà vu while testing out the Galaxy NX. It brought to mind some of the things we encountered with the Galaxy S4 Zoom, mainly the difficulty of making a camera/smartphone hybrid experience work as well as it should. But the difference here is that the Galaxy NX is a far stronger camera. The Galaxy NX is a legit product, but, still, it demonstrates that simply slapping an Android device into a camera doesn’t completely solve the connected camera issue. Sure, you have the ability to share really nice photos whenever, but it’s at the expense of usability. For casual users looking for a smart device that can shoot great photos, $1,700 is a lot of money to spend – for anybody. If you want a connected device and can live without Android or cellular connectivity, get the NX300 and a really good smartphone instead.
This is one camera you definitely want to try out at your camera store. It’s easy to get entranced by the Android UI – the people who saw us using it thought it was awesome. We must admit, having Android onboard can be extremely useful and fun, and there’s potential for some great third-party apps, but Samsung needs to put back some proper camera controls and better integration between smart device and camera in the next version – perhaps a special Android-based UI. Ultimately, it’s the price that’s bothersome. If it was priced at around $1,000, we could easily overlook all the quirkiness. This is definitely early-adopter territory.
- Great image quality
- Fast hybrid autofocusing
- Full-featured Android OS
- LTE cellular option
- Outrageously expensive
- No physical camera controls
- Simplicity could be frustrating
- Not all apps support the full camera features