Samsung recently released “the world’s slimmest and lightest interchangeable lens camera.” Hold the NX Mini ($449 with 9mm kit lens, $549 with 9-27mm) in your hands and you’ll be amazed you can swap lenses on a camera slightly larger than a smartphone or pocket-sized point-and-shoot camera. The fact the world’s largest smartphone maker introduced it, leads to some fascinating speculation – could it represent the shape of a future Samsung Galaxy smartphone with an interchangeable lens mount, a predecessor to some later version of the Galaxy K? Before leaping into possibilities, let’s deal with reality – how good is this very small ILC?
Features and design
Cute and adorable are two words we rarely use when reviewing compact system cameras (CSCs) and DSLRs. Yet, that’s exactly what popped to mind when we took the 20.5-megapixel Mini out of its very small carton. This camera is amazing since it weighs a little more than 5 ounces and is less than an inch thick, without a lens (4.35 x 2.44 x .89 inches, to be exact). Put on the f/3.5 9mm pancake lens that came with our kit and it’s about 2-inches thick. You can easily carry it in your pocket and barely notice it’s there.
You’ll be amazed you can swap lenses on a camera slightly larger than a smartphone.
Design wise, the Mini is as plain and clean as can be, with hardly an intimidating camera function dial to be seen. Our review sample was white but it’s available in brown, mint green, black, or pink. The camera is constructed out of magnesium alloy, so it has a solid feel that’s more common with higher-end cameras. The key feature on the front is the new NX Mini (NX-M) mount. At this point there are only two lenses available, the 9mm pancake and an f/3.5-5.6, 9-27mm OIS zoom ($179). An f/1.8, 17mm OIS prime is in the works but no official release date or price has been given. Because the lenses are smaller and lighter, they feel more delicate than sturdier, larger interchangeable lenses we are accustomed to.
The Mini has a 2.7x digital crop factor due to its 13.2 x 8.8mm chip, so the 35mm equivalent for the lenses are 24.3mm, 24.2-72.9mm, and 45.9mm, respectively (smaller than the APS-C sensors found in Samsung’s larger NX models). It’s the same size/factor as the Nikon 1 series of CSCs. The 14.2-megapixel J3 ($400) would be the closest competitor from that group, but it’s larger and doesn’t have Wi-Fi. Pentax still has its Q7-series of small ILCs but they have tiny 12.4-megapixel 1/1.7-inch sensors (7.6 x 5.7mm), making them glorified digicams; their bodies are larger and heavier than the Mini as well. Note: Samsung offers an optional NX mount adapter ($149) so you can use the Mini with Samsung’s larger lineup of NX glass. Doing so would overwhelm the Mini, as many of these lenses are larger than the Mini itself, but at least the option for varied lenses is there (just remember the smaller crop factor).
Given its minimalist design, there are only a few things on the front besides the NX-M mount. There’s a built-in flash, a near-field communication tag (NFC, for quick pairing between the camera and another NFC device, such as a smartphone), the AF-assist lamp, and a lens release. Most of the surface has a textured finish but there’s no raised grip on the edge. Since it’s so small, the lack of a grip isn’t an issue, but may feel too tiny in large hands.The top deck has a mono speaker, compartment for an external flash, Wi-Fi Direct Link button, power on/off key, and shutter button. We’re not thrilled about the mono sound but hopefully the next version will offer two-channel stereo. Forget any top-mounted mode dial since all of the adjustments are done via the touchscreen LCD. The buttons – especially on/off – are really small and slightly recessed, making them a bit difficult to operate. This is slightly annoying but not the end of the world, given the Mini’s diminutive size.
The Mini very much resembles a point-and-shoot in form and function, but much more.
Like in the recently reviewed NX30, the Wi-Fi Direct Link button gives access to a variety of wireless options including MobileLink, AutoShare, and Remote Viewfinder. MobileLink lets you pick individual photos to send to your smartphone (via the companion app, Samsung Smart Camera, for iOS and Android), AutoShare sends all of them, while Remote Viewfinder lets you use your smartphone as a viewfinder and control basic shooting parameters. Samsung also offers a Baby Monitor function but you need to download a companion app to your phone in order to make use of it. Pairing the Mini to our Droid 4 via Wi-Fi was a breeze and there were no issues transferring images back and forth.
The back has a tilting 3-inch touchscreen monitor rated a so-so 461K dots. The display has reflectivity issues and since there’s no electronic viewfinder, you’ll need to adjust your viewing angle in broad daylight even with the brightness cranked to the max. On the plus side, the screen flips up all the way into perfect selfie position, a feature that’s sure to be quite popular with the Mini’s intended users. To the right of the screen are the typical digital camera controls: there’s a red-dot movie button as well as four keys surrounding the four-way controller (Menu, Mode, Delete, and Playback). Around the center OK button is access to AF, Shooting Parameters, Burst Mode, and Display.
From a usability standpoint, the Mini very much resembles a point-and-shoot in form and function. If you’ve used a digital camera, you probably won’t need to look at the owner’s manual. But should you want to learn more about the features and advanced shooting modes, the manual is nicely written and illustrated, just like the one supplied with the new NX30.
There’s a compartment on the right side that has all your connections, plus slots for the battery and memory card. There are USB- and HDMI-out ports, MicroSD card slot, and the battery slot. The power pack is rated an excellent 650 shots when using the 9mm prime – far more than much larger CSCs. The figure drops to 530 when using the 9-27mm zoom, but that’s still respectable. We’re not big fans of MicroSD cards since they’re so small and prone to misplacement, but something’s got to give in order to create such a tiny ILC.
What’s in the box
The Mini comes inside an equally mini-sized carton. In it you’ll find the body and either the 9mm or 9-27mm kit lens, depending on which kit you purchase. You also get the battery, an AC adapter, and USB cable; the battery charges in-camera. There’s also a wrist strap, two CDs (one with the Samsung i-Launcher software and the full 199-page owner’s manual, while the other is a copy of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom), and two quick-reference guides (Quick Start and Quick Reference).
Getting a full version of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (version 5.0) editing software is like getting an ongoing Christmas gift from Samsung. The software alone costs $149, which really adds to the camera’s overall value. We usually disregard the software that comes with cameras, but this is a big plus that’s worth mentioning
Samsung covers the NX Mini with a limited one-year warranty.
Performance and use
Samsung provided us an NX Mini with the 9mm pancake lens for our review. Having just reviewed the NX30 full-sized CSC, we were pleasantly surprised to find a very similar menu system in the Mini. The Mini is somewhat limited when compared to the NX30 or any CSC or DSLR, but we doubt Mini buyers will care one whit about truly sophisticated features – even though they are available. This camera looks and feels like a pocket-sized point-and-shoot and performs as advertised if used as such, but things like bracketing, HDR, and shooting modes are available for experienced users.
To get started just press the mode key and seven buttons appear onscreen, giving access to Smart Auto, Smart (scene/special effects), PASM (program, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual), and Wi-Fi. Depending on your choice, adjustments are made using the touchscreen and the nearby buttons. Tap on a setting and you can make adjustments using taps/swipes or physical keys. It’s a nice system and the graphics are similar to the i-Function menu system on the much larger NX30. Again, we doubt many buyers of the Mini will use these various controls, but they’re available should users want to move beyond automatic. The Mini has a 20.5-megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor, with the maximum still resolution at 5472 x 3648 pixels (JPEG/RAW) and movies at 1080/30p (MOV file format) with mono sound. In our tests, the camera was set to best quality and we started off in Smart Auto, tapping the screen to move into other modes as we went along. Our review sample just had the fixed focal length f/3.5 9mm lens. We had no major problems using it, but it’s not a perfect lens (we’ll explain why next); you’ll need to physically move forward/backward to frame your subject, as there’s no zoom. Would we prefer wider aperture glass, say f/2.0? Of course, but this is a $449 system, and you don’t achieve low price points by giving everything away. Once done, stills and videos were reviewed on a 27-inch monitor.
Colors are quite good in the bright sunshine, but indoor shots exhibit issues with white balance and noise.
We used the Mini in a variety of locales and lighting situations. Surprisingly, although it looks like a basic compact digicam, the camera has loads of shooting options, including native ISO of 160-12,800 (expandable to 100 and 25,600), shutter speeds of 30-1/16,000th of a second, 6 frames-per-second bursts, manual focus, and so on. This is all well and good but we were definitely limited by the lens. Sure, we got some nice images of the landscapes, cacti, and flora we could walk up to, but at a racetrack the lens didn’t cross the finish line: trying to capture speeding horses from behind a fence was a fool’s errand. The point in, while the pancake lens is a fine everyday lens, it may not be ideal in all situations.
If you’re shooting static scenes with plenty of light (and that you can actually get up-close to), the camera does well. Colors were quite good in the bright sunshine and focus was quick and accurate, making the Mini a good camera for walking-around vacations or spur-of-the-moment shots. As for shots taken indoors without the flash, the Mini had issues with white balance and digital noise. Since the camera has a relatively small sensor, it doesn’t have the imaging chops of APS-C chips, or even the 1-inch sensors found in cameras like the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 Mark II or RX10.
Let’s talk about one of the Mini’s best features, the 180-degree tilting LCD. Since the world has gone selfie crazy, the Mini is a fun tool for grabbing self-portraits or quick groups shots. One of the more unusual settings on the camera is Wink Shot. If you’re shooting a selfie, enabling this mode via the onscreen menu sets the camera to automatically shoot a photo when it detects a wink. A green light emitted from the AF Assist lamp monitors for a wink, and once it’s detected, a countdown appears onscreen, and then the flash goes off. Initially this was quite startling but we can see the benefit for selfie fans since there’s no need to press the shutter and possibly shaking the camera (keeping the image sharp and focus). If you don’t feel like winking, you can set up the Smile Shutter function to do the same thing. Just make sure you take the selfie in a situation where the sun isn’t directly hitting the screen.
We were a little concerned about cramming so many pixels on a small chip – and our fears were justified. The Mini is noise-free to about ISO 400, which then deteriorates as you increase sensitivity. You can get away with 6,400-12,800 for online sharing or small prints, but forget about nice 8×10 prints. This was one of the poorer ISO performers DT has handled in a long while. Too bad we didn’t have the f/1.8 17mm prime to see how it handled low-light situations. As it stands, the kit prime lens we tested is best used outdoors or with the built-in flash. And, unfortunately, the screen is really an issue in bright light.
Movies taken were good, especially those shot in bright light. Our lens didn’t have optical image stabilization so there were definite shakes as we panned the camera. Close-ups of a flowering tree shifting in the breeze were also good. The wind noise captured was amplified to tornado force by the mono mic, but this is typical.
When we first previewed pre-production samples of the NX Mini, we were blown away by the concept and the size, and thought Samsung could be onto something. The one thing we couldn’t test at the time was image quality. Now that we’ve had one to play with, does the Mini still hold the same appeal that wowed us?
Samsung gets the cheers for designing an incredibly small interchangeable lens camera. But, photographically, as a substitute for much larger (and stronger) CSCs and DSLRs, it has enough flaws that stop us from fully recommending it for those users. But, if you’re traditionally a point-and-shoot or smartphone camera user who likes the idea of interchangeable lenses but prefer the slim form-factor – and is willing to sacrifice some image quality for convenience – then the Mini definitely has appeal.
We recognize this is a first-gen product and we consider this a warm-up, so we’ll give the company some slack. We do think Samsung is onto something with the NX-M mount, so can’t wait to see the next iteration of the NX Mini, or possibly another product – a smartphone, perhaps – that incorporates this new lens system. Maybe then, we’ll finally see that camera-centric smartphone people have been waiting for.
- Amazingly small ILC
- Tilting 180-degree LCD
- Decent stills and movies with enough light
- Lens adapter for using traditional lenses
- LCD wipes out in direct sunshine
- Noisy at higher ISOs
- Controls may be too small for big fingers
- Mono mic