Samsung Galaxy NX Digital Camera Review
Android makes the move to mirrorless, but hits some snags along the way.
With Samsung dipping its toes into the Android-based camera waters with the Galaxy S4 Zoom and the original Galaxy Camera, it was only a matter of time before Android made its way to an interchangeable lens camera. As you might expect, the Korean juggernaut is the first to market with such a camera, in the form of the Galaxy NX (MSRP $1,599.99).
Sporting a thin body, giant rear touchscreen, and a 4G antenna, the Samsung Galaxy NX bridges the gap between high-end photography and mobile connectivity. Though plenty of WiFi-connected cameras promise easy access to social media, a mobile operating system like Android promises a nearly infinite level of customization and connectivity. Add to that the high-end image quality of what is essentially a repurposed NX300 and the Galaxy NX is quite appealing on paper.
However, the Galaxy NX is ultimately a tantalizing promise that's yet to be truly realized. Though the applications of a camera running Android are theoretically limitless, cost, poor controls, and the one-way progress of mobile app development continue to present an ongoing dilemma for Android-based cameras.
Design & Handling
A Phamera that brings the best—and worst—of both worlds
Normally when we talk about compact mirrorless cameras, we're talking about a camera with swappable lenses that sheds most of the bulk of a traditional DSLR. However, the Galaxy NX is actually quite large—it's big, bulky, and heavy. Everything here is oversized compared to most mirrorless cameras: Big grip, big screen, and enough space for a giant honking battery. But while having a larger screen, more accommodating grip, and a larger battery all seem like good individual additions, they wind up negatively impacting other areas of the design.
The highlight of the camera is that large, plush grip fills up your hand nicely, with a pleasant rubber texture on back that gives your thumb a natural resting point. But as good as the NX feels to hold, actually operating the camera is more difficult than it should be. For the most part that's because, though the NX looks and feels like a mirrorless camera in your hand, in practice it operates far more like a smartphone.
It's strange to think about the Galaxy NX as basically a big, oddly shaped smartphone, considering that on the shelf it looks like most other cameras. However, by building off a tweaked Android interface, you're stuck using an operating system that was built for touch control and touch control alone, rather than the myriad of physical controls all over the camera. Sure, you can use the control dial, shutter button, and other controls when in the default Samsung camera apps, but that's pretty much it. The need to operate via touch necessitates a larger-than-usual screen and eliminates real estate that could've gone towards greater physical control.
And Android is infinitely customizable, the fragmented nature of Android devices have resulted in an OS that's evolved to facilitate only the most basic camera functionality that almost all Android devices share. Since most devices lack shutter buttons, control dials, and all the other things we take for granted on DSLRs, most of the apps you might use on the NX can't take advantage of them. Stay in the walled garden of Samsung's default camera apps and everything is great, but open up Instagram and all the physical controls fail to respond to anything. Imagine if the volume keys on your phone only worked in one app and you get an idea of how frustrating this can be. You can't lay the blame entirely at Samsung's feet—it can't recode the world—but it's the fundamental flaw of all Android-based cameras and the primary reason why the NX feels like an incomplete.
Of course, there are some benefits to the large screen-based interface: You can rapidly review your pictures on a huge screen, pinch to zoom way into tiny areas of the image, and flip through your stored shots with the flick of a finger. Switching apps works in exactly the same way as it does on just about any Android device, and the NX works out of the box with tons of other Android apps that let you apply filters after a shot has already been taken. If you're an Android enthusiast and willing to live with the headaches, this is hands-down the best-performing camera you can buy with Google's OS.
But even if we limit our scope to just the default camera app, there are still issues. The NX tries to get by with just a single control dial. Samsung makes the most of this single dial by allowing you to push it inward as a secondary function. This lets you alternate through settings when shooting manually, so a single dial can control aperture and, after just a quick push, also alter shutter speed. This lets you control advanced settings with just one hand, rather than needing to hold a button in while rotating the dial, but it's an awkward experience that too often winds up with you pushing the dial and inadvertently adjusting the wrong setting.
When you actually get down to shooting, the NX has quite a lot to offer. Under the hood you'll find hardware to support both the smartphone and camera parts of the Galaxy NX. A 20.3-megapixel APS-C CMOS with a dedicated processor, interchangeable lens NX mount, popup flash, and EVF belong to the camera. A 1.6GHz quad-core processor, 2GB RAM, and TouchWiz-skinned Android 4.2 belong to the smartphone. Neither set of guts is worth the $1,600 asking price on its own, but combined you're getting what amounts to a roughly $700 mirrorless camera and a $700 high-end smartphone in a single device.
For all our griping, there's one feature where the combination of smartphone and camera makes perfect sense: voice controls. Instead of setting a timer (which you can still do), you can corral your group, and when everyone yells "cheese" the camera will snap a shot. There are a host of other commands—some useful, others head-scratching—that you can use to take pictures without fiddling with the camera. When testing the Galaxy NX, I made liberal use of the voice commands in the lab because it was far easier than setting up a timer for every snap.
For more on the Android side of things, read our Android page.
Resistance to mobile OS is futile
On paper, the decision to put Android on a camera makes a lot of sense, as the most popular cameras nowadays aren't point-and-shoots or the latest-and-greatest enthusiast cameras: They're smartphones. It's not hard to see why that's the case; they can upload pictures or video almost instantly over social networks, can access information from anywhere with a wireless connection, and most even fit in your pocket. And with camera sales struggling despite mobile photography's growing popularity, there's a growing sentiment of, "If you can't beat them, join them."
While we'll cover most of the camera-centric features in the performance section below, there's two key things that separate the NX from all other Android devices. The first is the ability to swap lenses. Samsung's NX mount will unlock a world of lenses previously completely inaccessible to devices running a mobile OS, and it's a fun time experimenting with higher-end glass. Samsung's lens lineup may not be as heralded as Nikon and Canon, but there are some real gems here, especially if you like fast primes. If you prefer to operate the Galaxy NX through the touchscreen, I recommend keeping the shooter mode in "standard," as that's the only way you'll be able to use the user-reactive "barrel" control that allows you to operate shooting controls with just your thumb and a little patience.
The second thing is RAW support, something that no other version of Android currently can offer. Though Google has confirmed that they're working on it as a standard Android feature, Samsung has beat them to the punch. The promise of mobile RAW development is pretty enormous. Unfortunately, since RAW isn't a standard feature on any other Android device, those apps are still in their infancy, and it'll be a while before something worthwhile is released in this regard. But at least it's there, and there's hope that the rising tide of an Android device with RAW could lift all boats eventually.
No matter how you slice it, the NX is a bleeding-edge camera struggling to merge two very different worlds. And unlike most first attempts, the NX's connectivity provides the ability for future updates to solve the worst software issues and add more features. Being able to command your camera to take a snap from across the room, tagging your snaps with GPS data, and removing all the steps previously needed to take picture from camera to Facebook is a huge boon that might breathe new life into a stagnant category.
A mixed bag underpinned by a very high-quality camera
All in all, there's nothing to really harp on in terms of performance with the Galaxy NX. The hardware is not only capable, but efficient. Color error and oversaturation is virtually nonexistent, noise is kept relatively in check, and despite the shortcomings of the kit lens you can always grab a better piece of glass. Given that the internal components of the Galaxy NX are very similar to what's in the NX300, it's not a surprise that this camera tested so well. If the natural comparison to a smartphone is to be made, this camera is in a league of its own in the realm of Android shooters.
The camera's sensor is extremely capable of recording sharp shots, though the kit lens adds in a lot of barrel and pincushion distortion at different focal lengths. You can sidestep this issue by using other lenses with the Galaxy NX—something you can't do with any smartphone or Android-running point-and-shoot. Though some of the quality is lost on social media apps that limit the resolution of shared photos, it's good to know that the hardware on the Galaxy NX is more than capable for when you want to print those shots out later.
One quirk that we noticed in many of our lab shots is the overuse of noise reduction. Even with the feature turned off, JPEGs out of the camera showed some detail lose due to smearing. It's not uncommon for cameras to do this, and you can always just shoot in RAW and truly eliminate the effects of nosie reduction.
The Galaxy NX also does well with video. Most of the clips are smooth and the NX performs well in low light, though high frequency patterns are a trouble spot. Much of the worst of it comes in the form of mild strobing when shooting high-contrast patterns like bike spokes or a checkered flag move. Otherwise, trailing and artifacting are kept in check even when shooting 1080p/30fps video. There's also not a ton of video control here, though that could possibly be fixed through future app development.
For all the juicy data on the camera's performance, check out the Science Page
Android cameras are improving, but you're paying a premium for a future that may not arrive
Above all the other issues that we have brought up about the Galaxy NX, there's one practical consideration that's paramount: its $1,599.95 price tag. Any way you approach it, it's hard to try to recommend the NX when it costs that much, especially because in terms of pure performance this isn't any better than your average $700 smartphone and a $700 NX300. Of course, the key is that this is those two devices in one.
And on paper, this combination actually works. Performance-wise, this camera blows every other Android-running camera away and it's not close. The APS-C sensor in the Galaxy NX holds its own against just about any other APS-C DSLR on the market, let alone the lilliputian image sensors found in most smartphones. And if we're comparing the Galaxy NX to any other DSLR, it has the trump card of advanced connectivity features and the promise of an adaptive Android experience.
However, in reality the Galaxy NX is hardly going to replace your smartphone. Even if you're taking the camera out for a day of shooting, you're probably going to have a smartphone with you anyway. So even for those who prize the ability to immediately get their photos on social media, all the NX saves you is the time it takes to move those shots to your phone. Traditionally that would probably involve a computer, but Samsung's own NX300 can automatically sync photos with your phone over WiFi. Same photos, same functionality, in practically the same amount of time for almost $1,000 less.
And while the NX's use of Android is forward-thinking, the current form of the OS only serves the lowest common denominator of all other Android devices that take photos. The result is an OS that should have limitless potential, but requires ongoing app development to truly realize its potential. With developers likely to focus their limited resources on features that benefit the greatest amount of users, niche devices like the Galaxy NX—however powerful they may be—are unlikely to see much advancement.
Without bespoke development taking advantage of the Galaxy NX's unique combination of Android and high-end camera hardware, NX shooters are just left with Samsung's in-house apps, a woefully ill-equipped touch interface, and a vanilla Android experience. Android enthusiasts will find a lot to love here, but the rest of us can probably get by with an NX300 and pocket the change.
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