Samsung Galaxy NX review

The Samsung Galaxy NX is the company's second attempt at putting Android on a camera, building on the point-and-shoot Galaxy Camera. This time the company went with a mirrorless design, but it's as much held back by its Android operating system as it is helped by it.
Photo of Samsung Galaxy NX

In a year in which we’ve seen everything from affordable full-frame mirrorless cameras to the pocketable APS-C Ricoh GR, the Samsung Galaxy NX ($1,599.99 direct, body only) still takes the cake as the most ambitious digital imaging product to hit the marketplace. The mirrorless shooter features the same 20-megapixel image sensor and processing engine as our Editors’ Choice NX300, and the same 4.8-inch touch screen and Android functionality as the Galaxy Camera. As much as we appreciate Samsung’s ambition, the Galaxy NX lacks the physical controls that serious photographers expect, and is priced high enough to deter more casual shooters. Early adopters and Android aficionados might swoon over this one, but it’s not a threat to our Editors’ Choice high-end mirrorless camera, the Olympus OM-D E-M1.

Design, Features, and Android Camera Apps
The Galaxy NX is based on the NX20 in terms of design. It’s got the same style grip and EVF, but instead of loading the rear with control buttons, there’s a big touch screen that takes up the entire back panel. The NX measures 4 by 5.4 by 1 inches (HWD) and weighs in at 1.1 pounds without a lens; it’s just a bit bigger and heavier than the 3.5-by-4.8-by-1.6-inch, 10.3-ounce NX20. The Galaxy NX features a deeper handgrip; its body is a bit slimmer behind, and it extends out further. The camera is quite comfortable to hold, though I did find myself accidentally activating a touch-screen control with my right thumb as I brought the camera to my eye for a shot.

There aren’t a lot of physical controls of which to speak. There’s one dial on the rear of the top plate. It can scroll left or right (it doubles as the volume control for Android apps), and it can be pushed in to select functions. There’s a power button on the top plate, along with the shutter release and record button.

By default the dial toggles between shooting modes, but more advanced shooters will want to reconfigure it. In Option 2 mode, turning the wheel still changes the shooting mode, but pressing it in toggles between the shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, and ISO settings that run across the top of the LCD. With each press the active setting is magnified, and turning the wheel adjusts it. Option 3, my preference, uses the wheel to directly control the highlighted function at the top of the screen, and pressing it in toggles between the active settings.

But even that control scheme, which delivers the quickest access to shooting controls, needs some improvement. If you adjust exposure compensation, for example, the camera will move the active control back to aperture or shutter speed (depending on the mode). If you’re not paying close attention, you may end up adjusting a setting that you don’t want to adjust. From my perspective, the last active control should stay active.

The other issue with the control wheel is directionality. In order to dial in negative exposure compensation you move the wheel to the right; that’s the opposite of how most camera control dials work. The same goes for aperture (moving to the right opens the iris) and ISO (moving to the right decreases the sensitivity). The only control that corresponds to other cameras is the shutter speed: moving the dial to the right results in a shorter shutter speed. It’s puzzling that Samsung decide go against traditional controls when designing the software for the Galaxy NX.

That’s it for the physical controls. All other settings are controlled via the big touch-screen display. Tapping the gear icon brings up an on-screen menu that provides direct touch access to shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, ISO, white balance, metering, resolution, autofocus, drive mode, and flash output controls. There are also always-available touch options to toggle the amount of information shown on the display, lock exposure, and set the autofocus mode. One useful setting, the self-timer, is buried at the bottom of a submenu in the camera settings that occupy the next tab of the overlay menu, rather than getting a spot in the drive mode controls as you would expect.

The rear display is huge. It’s a 4.8-inch panel, the same as you’ll find on the point-and-shoot Galaxy Camera. The resolution is 921k-dots, which means that the pixels aren’t packed as tight as they are on 3-inch display of equal resolution found on the Sony Alpha NEX-7, but the Galaxy’s display is sharp enough to our eyes. More and more mirrorless cameras feature articulated screens, taking advantage of the fact that they focus just as fast using the rear display as an eye-level EVF, but the NX features a fixed display. That’s something we missed with the Galaxy NX; a hinged display makes it easy to shoot from the hip and get a different perspective on your subject.

The eye-level EVF is a bit of a disappointment. It’s the same 1,440k-dot LCD found in the NX20. It’s not on the same level as the sharper 2,500k-dot OLED EVF that Fuji puts in its X-E1 mirrorless camera. The Galaxy NX EVF is decently sharp, but it stutters and becomes choppy when used in low light.

Android and Network Performance
One of the selling points of using Android as the operating system for this camera is the ability to use popular photography apps with a large sensor and interchangeable lenses. We loaded Instagram, Vine, Twitter, and Facebook to see how the photo functions worked with each. Facebook and Twitter had no issues; you can even shoot in Raw only and post photos directly from these apps, although you won’t be able to apply Twitter image filters to Raw photos.

Instagram works well with a couple caveats; you can tap the Live View feed to focus, and use the on-screen camera icon to fire the shutter. If the camera misses focus, it fires an out-of-focus shot. This didn’t happen often with the standard 18-55mm lens, but the NX’s autofocus system had some issues with the 60mm f/2.8 Macro. (The inline images in this review were shot with the 60mm Macro; it’s one of the best lenses in the NX system.) The solution is to simply use the main camera app to capture an image, and then use Instagram to apply a filter (this also ensures that the original version of the photo is saved at full resolution). If you’re saving images on the internal 16GB of memory, it works perfectly, but Instagram refused to load images that were stored on my SanDisk 64GB microSDXC memory card. Recording video with Instagram worked without issue.

Vine is another story. It’s not possible to autofocus when using that app, and my experience was that it failed to work more often than not. We recorded about a dozen Vines with the Galaxy NX, and only one actually made it to the service. We tried it with and without the memory card installed, and just couldn’t diagnose the issue. If the Galaxy NX gains traction we can only hope that the app gets an update to rectify these issues. Oddly enough, the failed Vines are saved in the file structure, and although we weren’t able to bring them back in and post via the Vine service, we were able to upload them directly to Facebook. Samsung has not yet released the SDK for the Galaxy NX, and there’s a chance that these apps will be updated when that is made available.

If you use the included Lightroom application to manage your photo library, you’ll be a bit puzzled at the file name structure when importing photos. Photographers are used to seeing some sort of text prefix followed by a sequential numbering system for photos, with Raw and JPG copies of the same image bearing the same file name. That’s not the case with the NX; the files are named based on the date and the time, with different file names for Raw and JPG images. This adds an unnecessary complication to file management, especially if you prefer to display Raw and JPG images as single images in Lightroom.

The Galaxy NX is a peculiar device in the Android world, much like the Galaxy Camera before it. Its 4.8-inch display puts it firmly in smartphone territory, but the camera’s heft and design make it strictly a two-handed device. That gives it somewhat of a tablet feel from a practical usage perspective. The NX is powered by a quad-core 1.6GHz Exynos 4412 processor with 1GB RAM, which represents a slight clock speed increase over the Galaxy Camera. While certainly not the fastest setup, it shows Samsung’s commitment to the Android portion of NX—and it pays off with reliably brisk and responsive performance. In synthetic benchmarks, the NX proved to be a formidable device, turning in scores that went toe-to-toe with the Nexus 7. Web browsing results were very positive, with the NX finishing the SunSpider JavaScript test in 891 milliseconds, which surprisingly beat the Snapdragon-800-powered LG G2′s 1415 milliseconds. The Mali 400 GPU turned in solid results and ran graphically intensive games like Asphalt 8 without a hitch—though we can’t stress enough how ridiculous we felt tilting and turning the camera around during gameplay.

The NX is running Android 4.2.2 with Samsung’s familiar TouchWiz styling throughout. You get three home screens to start, but they’re limited to 4-by-4 grids, so you have less room for app shortcuts and widgets. There’s no dock along the bottom; instead, there’s a persistent Camera shortcut on the left and app drawer shortcut on the right. Swiping down from the notification tray gives you access to quick settings, as well as your latest notifications. The NX has unbridled access to the Google Play store and ran every app we tested. We should note, though, that while you’ll hear system sounds through the small speaker grille on the left of the camera, in-app music or sound effects can only be heard by plugging in a pair of headphones.

There are no dialer or SMS apps, but the NX does have a SIM card slot and cellular connectivity. We were able to connect a pair of headphones with an inline mic and make a voice call via Skype using the NX. It’s not ideal, but definitely a nice fallback.

Unsurprisingly, the NX features robust media support for an array of audio and video formats. Video looked sharp on the 4.8-inch display, and the NX supports H.264, MP4, DivX, Xvid, and AVI video at resolutions up to 1080p.

The NX survived for more than 12 hours on our standard battery test. After playing a combined cut of the Lord of the Rings trilogy on its rear display at full brightness, it was left with 10 percent battery life. As far as picture-taking goes, CIPA rates the Galaxy NX for 440 photos per charge. That’s a good number for a mirrorless camera; the NX300 is rated for 320 shots.

All told the NX is a surprisingly capable Android device, but comes with obvious limitations stemming largely from its form factor. We still wouldn’t recommend this as a primary Android device, but it’s definitely no gimmick and adds some value. We’re less certain it adds enough value to justify the sizeable premium over non-Android cameras.

Network Connectivity
The Galaxy NX supports LTE on the AWS, 700, 850, 1900, 2100, and 2600MHz bands, and HSPA+ on the 850, 1700, 1900, and 2100MHz bands. That means it’ll work with T-Mobile and AT&T’s LTE and 3G networks in the US, with support for 3G roaming internationally. The NX qualifies as a tablet, so it’s eligible for T-Mobile’s free 200MB monthly data plan.

Samsung furnished us with a UK production unit for testing purposes, so we were unable to to test LTE speeds here in the US. We’ll update the review when a US unit becomes available, but the international model was able to hop onto to T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 21 network in New York City. It averaged 2-3Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream on that network.

Wi-Fi speeds were faster. The NX supports 2.4GHz and 5GHz on 802.11b/g/n networks. We managed 10-15Mbps downstream and 5.79Mbps upstream on our 5GHz corporate network.

Camera Performance and Image Quality
We normally test the amount of time that it takes for a camera to power on and grab a shot, but the Android boot process makes that duration excessively long for the NX (26 seconds). Most users will be bringing the camera out of standby mode to fire the first shot, a feat that requires roughly 3.6 seconds. If you’re at the Android home screen, that figure drops to a more reasonable 2.2 seconds. These tests were performed with a memory card installed; we noticed that going from standby to capturing a photo was a bit quicker when recording to the internal memory—that took about 2.5 seconds, and the lag dropped to 1.9-second when starting from an active home screen.

We weren’t using a slow memory card for our tests; the 64GB SanDisk Extreme microSDXC card is rated for write speeds of up to 50MBps. It’s not as speedy as the full-size 95MBps cards that we normally use in lab tests, however. In terms of burst shooting, the NX fared the same, regardless of whether you opt for internal memory or a removable memory card. It shoots at up to 7.4fps for up to 5 Raw or Raw+JPG images, or up to 25 JPGs. It does take a little time to write all of these images to a memory card—about 11.5 seconds for Raw+JPG or JPG, and 8.4 seconds for Raw.

Focus speed is quick. The shutter lag is only 0.15-second in good light, and the Galaxy NX locks focus with the 18-55mm lens in about 1.3 seconds in very dim light. The burst rate and focus speed are impressive, but the time to first shot is just too slow for a camera of this class. The Samsung NX300 uses the same image sensor and processor as the Galaxy NX, but it can start and capture an in-focus shot in just 1.1 seconds. Raw shooters should take note that there is about a 4-second delay between capturing a Raw image and having it write to the memory card or internal memory. During this delay you can’t adjust shooting settings, but you can trigger the shutter button so that the NX focuses and fires. This delay doesn’t exist when shooting in JPG mode.

The Galaxy NX is being evaluated as a body only, but we did have access to the standard 18-55mm kit lens during testing. Buying the Galaxy NX with that lens adds $100 to its price point. PCMag reviewed the 18-55mm lens along with the NX300, but we ran tests again to confirm that performance was similar with this camera. Imatest shows that the sharpness is just as impressive as it was on the NX300; the lens betters the 1,800 lines per picture height that we require to call a photo sharp at the wide, middle, and telephoto points of its zoom range. At 18mm f/3.5 the lens notched 2,333 lines, it managed 2,448 lines at 35mm f/4.5, and 2,255 lines at 55mm f/5.6.

But distortion is an issue. At 18mm the lens shows about 2.5 barrel distortion, so straight lines appear to curve outwards. Zooming to 35mm changes that to 1.6 pincushion distortion, which causes those same lines to bow noticeably inwards, and that distortion increases to 1.9 percent at 55mm. If you’re shooting JPGs with the NX300 this distortion is automatically corrected in-camera. But the Galaxy NX doesn’t appear to do this.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which can add an unwanted graininess and sap detail as the sensitivity to light is increased. The Galaxy NX keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 6400, a slightly better result than what we saw with the NX300. I looked closely at photos shot at higher ISOs on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display to confirm that detail wasn’t being washed away by overzealous noise reduction. Even at ISO 6400 a crop from our standard ISO test shot retains a good amount of detail at default JPG settings. The corresponding Raw file does a better job with color and detail, and while it’s a bit grainy, the grain is in a tight pattern that doesn’t distract from the content of the image. At ISO 12800, Raw images are a bit noisier, but still impressive in quality, but the JPG engine wipes away a bit too much detail at that ISO for my tastes. JPG images tend to be a little bit muted in terms of color when compared with their Raw counterparts, but you can tune the color output in-camera if you prefer a more vivid image, and if you prefer less noise reduction in the JPG output that can be adjusted to Off, High, Normal, or Low settings. Our tests are always done at default settings, which is Normal in this case.

The Galaxy NX records HD video at 1080p30, 1080p24, 720p60, or 720p30 quality in MP4 format. It also supports low-resolution recording at 480p360, 480p30, or 240p30. The footage looks sharp, smooth, and colorful at 1080p30, and the internal mic picked up the sound of our voices clearly. There was some noise audible on the soundtrack when adjusting the focal length of the 18-55mm lens, but there was no added audio as the camera refocused while the scene in front of it changed; the video autofocus is impressively speedy. There’s a combo mic/headphone jack, a micro USB port, and a micro HDMI port, all located on the left side of the camera. The battery compartment features two slots—one for a micro SIM card and the other for a microSD memory card. Samsung doesn’t include an external battery charger with the Galaxy NX; you’ll have to plug it into the wall to charge, or spend $70 on a bundled charger and extra battery.

Conclusion
Our feelings on the Galaxy NX are quite mixed. On one hand, the imaging engine is superb, and the Samsung NX lens library has some real gems, including the compact 30mm f/2 pancake prime and the 60mm Macro. Our benchmarks showed that its performance as an Android device is impressive, and there is something neat about being able to browse the web one second and raise the camera to your eye to grab a high-quality image the next.

That said, the design compromises that were made in order to put the huge touch screen on the back of the NX are a hindrance to its usability as a camera, and its dual functionality slowed the camera down unnecessarily. It’s a capable mini-tablet, but it’s one that’s not that comfortable to hold for extended periods, and while its image quality is superb, it’s a bit clunky in terms of imaging controls and user interface. Samsung will undoubtedly update the firmware for the device over time, and it shows some room for improvement; we’ll reevaluate the device if the software improvements merit doing so.

The word Android is great for marketing departments, especially those rallying against fading digital camera sales. And, if the operating system was able to stay out of the way and supplement the camera functionality, it’d be a boon. But as of right now, that’s not the case. Android handicaps the speed at which the Galaxy NX can go from a standby position to capturing a photo, and the amount of screen real estate occupied by the LCD limits the number of functions that are accessible via direct physical control. If you operate in automatic mode, the latter isn’t a concern, but you can get a camera with similar image quality and snappier startup time for less money. The NX300 also supports Wi-Fi, and it supports direct upload to Facebook, Picasa, YouTube, and SkyDrive. That one doesn’t have the Android wrapper, so you can’t tweet or Instagram from the camera, but it’s easy enough to push photos over to your phone and do so from there.

There’s also the price. The Galaxy NX is $1,600, and $100 more if you’d opt to add the basic 18-55mm zoom lens. That’s a hefty investment, and you’ll likely want to add a data plan if you want to get the most out of it, at an additional monthly cost. More and more top-end cameras are getting integrated Wi-Fi, and there’s always the option of the Eye-Fi Mobi card. With the Mobi you can go out and about and automatically push your photos to the phone that’s already in your pocket, and with Wi-Fi cameras you can use that same phone as a hotspot and push images online directly from the rear LCD.

Yes, Android sets NX apart from the crowd, but it does so at the cost of functionality. In the right situation it can be a useful tool—there’s been talk about the office about just how useful it could be for covering trade shows like CES. Dropbox is included, along with a 1-year trial of a 50GB account, and you have the option of pushing images directly from the camera to that cloud storage service. But most folks aren’t tech reporters. Unless you’re a serious gadget fan, the more practical choice right now is to live in a two-device world when it comes to cellular data connectivity and image capture. We wonder why Samsung didn’t just take the already-excellent NX300, make a few to tweaks to its lean, mean firmware, and add a cellular radio. A device like that could deliver a lot of the functionality of the Galaxy NX, without the slow start times and the huge touch screen that leaves little room for actual camera controls.

This not to say that fusing Android and an interchangeable lens camera is a faulty concept. Processors will get faster, and it won’t be long before the capturing an image from standby is just as quick as turning on a good mirrorless body and snapping a shot. If more emphasis is put on traditional camera controls—likely necessitating the downsizing of the touch screen—you could end up with a device that delivers the best of both worlds. The Galaxy NX is impressive for a first attempt, but it’s got a lot of the problems that first generation products tend to have. Early adopters and those who gather news and need to get it online with immediacy may be willing to live with some of the foibles. But most shooters looking for great image quality and connectivity will be better served with a mirrorless camera or D-SLR with Wi-Fi or an Eye-Fi memory card.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1 is a very different beast than the Galaxy NX, but is our Editors’ Choice for high-end mirrorless bodies due to its impressive build and image quality and, yes, integrated Wi-Fi. But that’s likely too much camera for more casual shooters. They’d be better served with the NX300, our Editors’ Choice for mirrorless cameras under $1,000, or another less expensive, Wi-Fi-capable camera like the Sony Alpha NEX-6 or the recently-announced Nikon D5300 D-SLR.

Specifications
Dimensions 4 x 5.4 x 1 inches
Interface Ports micro USB, micro HDMI, Mic, Headphone
Megapixels 20 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.13 seconds
LCD dots 921600
LCD size 4.8 inches
Touch Screen Yes
Media Format microSD, microSDHC, microSDXC
Maximum ISO 25600
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
GPS Yes
Boot time 3.6 seconds
Sensor Type CMOS
Weight 1.1 lb
Lens Mount Samsung NX
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 16
Image Stabilization None
Shutter Lag 0.15 seconds
Sensor Size APS-C (18 x 24mm) mm
EVF Resolution 1,440,000 dpi
Viewfinder Type EVF

Verdict
The Samsung Galaxy NX is the company's second attempt at putting Android on a camera, building on the point-and-shoot Galaxy Camera. This time the company went with a mirrorless design, but it's as much held back by its Android operating system as it is helped by it.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc