Review: Samsung's NX100 camera: beautiful images, compact design
Zak Billmeier grew up in southern Vermont and coastal Maine. After graduating from Mary Washington College with a Geography degree he still isn't sure quite what to do with, he eventually settled in the mountains of Central Virginia. He spends his free time chasing his daughter around, taking pictures, gardening and cooking. Zak traces the roots of his interest in electronic gadgets to the Casio wristwatch with a built-in calculator he received as a gift one year as a child. He joined Crutchfield's car A/V team in 2007.
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Samsung's NX100 is the latest entry into a growing family of interchangeable-lens "hybrid" cameras that sport sensors as big as most DSLRs, but in a much more compact body. They accomplish this by doing away with the traditional mirror box; without a reflex mirror in the way, the camera body can be shrunk and lenses can be made smaller, since they don't need to take the flipping of the mirror into account. Bottom line? You get a lot of the benefits of DSLR cameras in an easier-to-carry package.
The NX100 features a sensor roughly the same size as most Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Sony DSLRs. It's actually a little bigger than Canon's sensor if you're being picky. It's bigger than 4/3" sensors found in cameras similar to the NX100, such as the Olympus Pen series, the Panasonic GF1, and others. Why is this important? Because sensor size is one of the most important factors pertaining to photo quality in digital cameras.
The NX100 is available as a kit with the 20-50mm lens (30-75mm equivalent, with the crop factor), and it's compatible with all of Samsung's NX-mount lenses. This is a new lens mount, so the pickins are thin at the moment...but Samsung's working on several more you'll be able to add in the near future.
The 20-50mm lens features Samsung's i-Function technology, which lets you change some shooting settings on the fly by tapping a button on the lens and twisting a dial on the lens barrel. It's a good idea, but I didn't find myself using it too often — there's something weird about holding a camera at arm's length and twisting the lens barrel to change settings. Additionally, there's no way to program the i-Function so the thing you really want comes up at the first tap of the button; the functions always come up in a pre-determined order (keep tapping the button to activate different functions). That problem feels like a firmware fix, though. Fortunately, the NX100's controls are laid out intuitively enough that I didn't need i-Function to do what I wanted anyway.
I grabbed the tiny 30mm f/2 lens and Samsung's compact SEF20A flash (the NX100 lacks a built-in flash) for review purposes — the NX100 plus the 30mm f/2 makes a truly compact package, whereas the kit lens protrudes a little. Not much, but just enough to throw off the balance when I was carrying it around on a strap. Really, though, I wanted the smaller lens' f/2 aperture to let me shoot in dimmer light and throw backgrounds way out of focus.
I like that Samsung makes it pretty easy to get to the important shooting controls — shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure lock, and exposure compensation. There are two dials, one on the back near your right thumb, and a smaller one on the top right behind the shutter button which you use to change settings in the various shooting modes. You can lock exposure by tapping its dedicated button with your thumb, and dial exposure compensation up and down by holding its button with your thumb and simultaneously spinning the small top dial left or right with your pointer finger. It's nice to be able to do both of these things without fiddling with a menu.
Samsung's auto-ISO feature is well-implemented. I was able to set the upper limit of the ISO range to 1600, at which point image quality begins to fall off a cliff (this is true of most DSLRs, too). The NX100 will shoot up to ISO 6400, but I don't recommend it — get the flash if you plan to shoot in such dim light. Still, ISO 1600 is usable, and by setting that parameter I was able to forget about setting the ISO all the time and focus on taking pictures. In auto-ISO mode the camera automatically chooses the lowest ISO setting possible.
There's no viewfinder, so you need compose your shots using the 3" screen, as with a point-and-shoot. Samsung's screen is very nice, but sadly does not tilt & swivel, making it tough to shoot from the waist or overhead. Still, it's big and bright, and it lets you clear away most of the shooting info for easier compositions. Reviewing the photos you've taken on the screen is a joy ‐ images are sharp and contrasty ‐ though it's a little slow when you want to zoom in on one, and there's no way to scroll diagonally.
The NX100 is set up well for shooters who prefer not to fiddle while they shoot, too. You'll find plenty of scene modes and a Smart Auto Mode that figures out what type of scene you're shooting and applies appropriate settings. If you're used to a point-and-shoot, the NX100 is an instant friend.
Samsung did something surprising, too — I was leafing through the NX100 manual, and came across two pages of "Concepts in Photography." Here you'll find explanations of basic photographic concepts like aperture, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity, and how all those factors affect your photographs. Read those two pages, and you'll have a better understanding of exposure, depth-of-field, and compositional aids like the "rule of thirds." Understanding these basic concepts will make your pictures better. Way to go, Samsung!
Overall, I like the NX100. Its large image sensor lets you take a lot of the same shots you can get with a DSLR, and the camera will get more and more interesting as Samsung makes more NX lenses. The NX100 is a worthy addition to the interchangeable-lens "hybrid" family of digital cameras.
If you get this camera, I recommend the 30mm f/2 lens very highly. It's tiny, and it's a great performer. With the crop factor of Samsung's sensor, it behaves like a 45mm lens on a 35mm camera. That's what we call a "normal" lens, neither wide nor telephoto. The important thing is that it has a large aperture to let in more light.
- large sensor for nicely-blurred backgrounds and dim-light shooting
- good image quality up to ISO 1600 (especially when shooting RAW)
- intuitive layout of controls
- well-implemented auto ISO feature
- wonderful 3" screen
- nice manual-focus assist
- adapter available for Pentax K-mount lenses (manual focus only)
- smooth finish is a little slippery
- slower autofocus than a DSLR
- not a lot of lenses available yet (but several are on the way)
- screen does not tilt or swivel
- no built-in flash
- no camera setup memories, cannot program i-Function