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Samsung NX20 review

CamerasReviews
7/10
by Cliff Smith, 17 Apr 2013Reviews
Samsung NX20 review

There are many rivalries in the camera industry, some of them going back decades. Nikon and Canon have been competing in the SLR sector for many years, and Kodak and Fujifilm were always close rivals in the film market, but few rivalries can match the ongoing contest between Samsung and Panasonic. These two huge companies compete in many markets, and the respective national pride of Japan and South Korea also come into play. It's not too surprising therefore that the cameras produced by these two industrial giants compete directly. Where Panasonic has its G-Micro mirrorless camera system, such as the Panasonic Lumix GH3, Samsung has its NX system.

Introduced in 2010, the NX system differs from the G-Micro in one fundamental respect. Where Panasonic uses the smaller Four Thirds sensor system, the Samsung system uses a full-size APS-C sensor, offering about 60 per cent greater surface area. Today I'm taking a look at the NX20, an SLR-style camera with a 20.3-megapixel CMOS sensor. It's a third-generation NX system camera, and a replacement for the 2010 NX10. It is currently selling for around £700 with Samsung's new 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 image-stabilised i-Function 2.0 lens. That makes it one of the more expensive compact system cameras (CSCs) on the market, about £100 more than the Panasonic Lumix G5.

Design and features

The overall body shape of the NX20 follows the conventional DSLR lines but scaled down in all dimensions, with a small but comfortable rubber-coated handgrip, a pop-up-flash on the viewfinder turret, and a chunky knurled dial for shooting mode selection.

The overall build quality is excellent, and although the body is made of plastic it feels very strong. Externally the camera is well finished, with very close panel joins and spring-loaded hatches with strong hinges. Unlike its predecessor, the NX10, the card slot is under the battery hatch, while the mini-HDMI and USB connectors have been moved behind a hatch on the right of the body. The reason for this is to make room for one of the NX20's new features, a fully articulated 7.6cm (3.0in) AMOLED monitor with a 614k dot resolution.

The NX20 also has an electronic viewfinder, another OLED display with a resolution of 1.44 million dots. It's not quite as sharp as the viewfinder on the Panasonic Lumix GH3, but the difference is pretty much imperceptible. It's certainly easily sharp enough for manual focusing, especially with automatic digital magnification in manual focusing mode.

The controls are sensibly placed for easy operation, with a dedicated video recording button, separate buttons for exposure lock, exposure compensation and metering mode placed close to the thumb grip, and a single control wheel mounted just behind the shutter button, along with a rotary bezel around the D-pad. All the controls are solidly mounted and clearly labelled, and operate with just the right amount of tactile feedback.

Samsung has paid rather more attention to the ergonomics than it sometimes does with its compact cameras, and the NX20 is well balanced and comfortable to hold despite its compact size. Even with the optional 50-200mm zoom fitted it handles well. There's no question that the NX20 is a very nice little camera. It looks and feels like a tiny fully functional DSLR, and offers the same level of creative versatility.

As well as the usual buttons and dials, the NX20 also features Samsung's i-Function system, which allows some camera functions to be controlled via the focusing ring on suitably equipped lenses. This is presumably hoping to appeal to the same aging enthusiast set that would buy the Panasonic Lumix LX7 for its aperture control ring, but in truth the iF system is fiddly to use, and actually slower than simply using the adjustment wheel and D-pad bezel as normal.

Performance

The NX20's overall performance is good, although there are a few issues. In its default setup, the camera will run a quick sensor-cleaning routine on start-up, which takes a couple of seconds. It's a good idea and helps keep dust off the sensor, but it can be annoying if you're trying to snap something in a hurry. Fortunately, this feature can be turned off in the menu, but even then the camera still takes approximately 3.5 seconds to start up and take a picture, which is pretty slow.

In single-shot mode, its shot-to-shot time is approximately 1.3 seconds, which is slower than I was expecting, mostly due to the slightly sluggish AF system. In JPEG mode it can keep this rate up indefinitely, but in raw plus JPEG mode it has to stop after just four frames to empty the buffer. The NX20 has two continuous shooting modes; a low speed option at 3fps, which can run for about a dozen shots, and a high-speed 8fps mode, which shoots for eight frames. However, when the buffer-full condition occurs in either mode (or the raw mode), the camera locks up for about 10 seconds while it writes the contents of the buffer to the SD card, displaying a "processing..." notice on the monitor. Since menu or playback functions also cannot be used while this is going on it makes the camera frustrating to use in continuous mode.

Battery duration is about average for the class. It is powered by a 1,300mAh li-ion rechargeable, which Samsung claims is good for 360 shots. I took about 250 shots plus some video clips while testing and the battery indicator was still showing two out of three bars, so that may be a bit on the conservative side.

Like most compact system cameras the NX200 uses contrast detection autofocus. It features single-point, multi-point, face detection and subject tracking AF, and works a little slowly but accurately in most normal lighting conditions. However, I found that it quickly ran into problems shooting a live concert, where the rapidly changing light levels caused it to fail frequently enough to be a problem.

Image quality

I'll usually forgive a camera for a few minor flaws as long as the image quality is good enough, and I'm happy to report that the NX20 earns itself a pardon for its few niggles. I was initially a little sceptical about its 20-megapixel resolution, since adding megapixels seldom results in any significant improvement in image quality, but the NX20 pulls it off without a hitch.

The level of fine detail it captures rivals that of most mid-range DSLRs, and in raw mode its dynamic range and colour depth are excellent. Its high-ISO noise control could be a bit better, especially when compared to most current DSLRs and even to the Panasonic GH3. It produces very good results at up to 1600 ISO, but 3200 to 12800 ISO get progressively worse. It's by no means bad, but it is definitely lagging behind some of its rivals in this area.

The kit lens bears the Samsung brand name, but I suspect it still has some Schneider Kreuznach optical design inside, because it is very good indeed, producing pin-sharp detail right across the frame, with no corner blurring, optical distortion or chromatic aberration. If only all kit lenses were this good!

This review wouldn't be complete without a brief mention of the video recording mode; the NX can record in full HD 1,920 x 1,080 resolution at 30fps with stereo audio recorded via a pair of microphones on the top plate. Video quality is very good as one might expect, although the audio quality is a bit tinny, the automatic level control makes a horrible mess out of live music and the microphones are very susceptible to wind noise in even a slight breeze. Manual zoom can of course be used while recording and video files are recorded in H.264 format.

Verdict

For general-purpose photography, the NX20 is a very good camera. It offers all of the image quality and most of the features of a full-sized DSLR, and both handling and build quality are excellent. While its overall performance could be a bit faster, for the most part it's a very satisfying camera to use. It's not a lot smaller than a compact DSLR, and there are smaller and lighter CSCs on the market, but it's still a convenient size and weight for travel photography. The only handicaps are poor low-light focusing and slow processing, but if you can cope with these then this is a great all-round camera. The NX system itself is still a bit limited in terms of lenses and accessories, but the ones that are available are very good, although they don't offer much of a size or weight advantage over conventional APS-C system kit.


ISO performance

The full frame test scene at 100 ISO is shown above (click it for the full sized file). As usual all ISO test shots were taken using tungsten studio lights, tungsten white balance and +1EV exposure compensation. ISO sensitivity test shots were taken at progressively higher ISO settings and crops taken from the full size JPEG photos. These crops are displayed in the slideshow below.

200 ISO, f/8, 0.4 sec. At 200 ISO the results are pretty much flawless, with smooth colour and no noise.
400 ISO, f/8, 1/5th sec. At 400 ISO the results are virtually identical.
800 ISO, f/8, 1/10th sec. At 800 ISO there are still no noise problems.
1600 ISO, f/8, 1/20th sec. There's a little noise at 1600 ISO, but not enough to cause a real problem.
3200 ISO, f/8, 1/40th sec. At 3200 ISO the noise reduction is reducing the fine detail, and there is visible noise, but colour reproduction remains fairly accurate.
6400 ISO, f/8, 1/80th sec. Noise is very visible at 6400 ISO, and image quality is suffering, but the picture is still more or less printable.
12800 ISO, f/8, 1/160th sec. At the maximum 12800 ISO there is a lot of noise, but then you'd only be using this setting in extreme circumstances anyway.


Detail performance

Here's the usual shot of the carved door of 10 Cathedral Close, Exeter, which I take with all cameras so you can compare the level of detail. Click to see the full-sized original, but be warned it's 14.2MB. As you can see in the original file, the amount of detail that the NX20 records is very good, comparable to a good mid-range DSLR.


Lens distortion

The 18-55mm kit lens does an excellent job, producing no optical distortion even at the wide angle end. The centre of the full-sized original shows excellent sharpness and contrast, whereas the corners show minimal blurring and no chromatic aberration.


Dynamic range

In JPEG mode the dynamic range isn't bad; there's plenty of highlight detail but the shadows are a bit murky.

Shooting in raw mode brings out the full dynamic range of the big APS-C sensor, with loads of shadow detail and only the brightest highlights blown out.


Sample photos

Colour reproduction in raw mode is rich and well-saturated, but still retains detail even in the bright areas.

Close focusing is quick and accurate, and colour reproduction is rich and vibrant.

The NX20's main weakness is low-light focusing. It took several tries to get this shot of a Blues Brothers tribute band.


Specifications

Manufacturer and model

Samsung NX20

Image sensor

APS-C CMOS, 23.5 x 15.7mm

Max. resolution

20.3 megapixels

Zoom

By lens

Focal length (35mm)

By lens

Maximum aperture

By lens

Shutter speeds

30 sec - 1/8000th

Auto-Focus

Contrast detection

Manual focus

Yes

Exposure control

PASM, Smart Auto, Scene modes

Exposure metering

TTL multi-zone, C/W, spot

Image stabilisation

Optical stabilisation on some NX lenses

ISO range

100 - 12800

LCD monitor

7.6cm (3in) AMOLED, 614k dots

Viewfinder

SVGA 1,440k dots

Flash

TTL pop-up, GN11

Drive modes

Single, continuous (3 or 8fps, 8 or 15 shots), burst (10, 15, 30fps)

Image formats

JPEG, Raw

Video

1,920 x 1,080 HD, stereo audio, H.264

Memory card slot

SD/SDHC/SDXC

Supplied memory

N/A

Battery

1,300mAh li-ion, 360 shots (CIPA)

Ports

USB 2.0, Mini HDMI

Dimensions (W x H x D)

122 x 89.6 x 39.5mm not inc. lens

Weight (body only)

404g inc. battery & card, no lens.

Accessories

Neck strap, lens cap, software disk

Software

Intelli-studio 3.0, Samsung RAW Converter 4, PC Auto Backup

Warranty

12 months

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