Byungdeok Nam, Senior Vice President of Samsung's R&D team in the company's Mobile division, pictured at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, January 2015

Since releasing the NX1 late last year, Samsung has been gathering feedback from users, and is preparing a major firmware update before the end of this month. Firmware 1.2 brings a range of refinements to both still and video shooting, and addresses a lot of our initial frustrations with the NX1.

We made time at International CES in Las Vegas to sit down with Byungdeok Nam, Senior Vice President of Samsung's R&D team in the company's Mobile (formerly Digital Imaging) division to speak about the NX1, the new firmware, and the mirrorless camera market in general.

Firmware 1.2 is a big update to the NX1. Is this a new approach for Samsung, to continually update the product?

Yes. Our users require new functions and ask us for changes to the user interface. We gather that information and implement those requirements through firmware. Communicating with our customers is very important.

A lot of the improvements in Firmware 1.2 are focused on video. How many of your customers are using the NX1 for shooting video?

In Korea, the NX1 is being used by KBS [the Korean Broadcasting System] to shoot a drama series. They’ve replaced older, more expensive systems with the NX1, which is also much simpler. And we’ve added functions specifically designed for this use case scenario. For example, when shooting movies, you don’t always want very fast autofocus, sometimes you want a slow focus movement between two people in a scene. So we changed the AF speed options in firmware 1.2 to make it slower and smoother for video. In the USA, ‘Project Runway’ is also using the NX1 for handheld 4K video shooting.

[Jay Kelbley - Samsung USA] For the past few years there has been a very aggressive attempt from the R&D team to get feedback from customers and quickly implement it. 

How was the process of researching and developing the NX1 different from previous NX models?

About three years ago we started planing the NX1, with the target of making the world’s best mirrorless camera, to compete with DSLRs. Even though the sensor isn’t full frame, we wanted to get the highest possible image quality so we developed an APS-C format BSI sensor. This is a world first, and we achieved a maximum ISO sensitivity of 51,600. The new sensor technology reduces noise and allows us to process images at a high speed, despite the 28MP resolution.

How long did it take to develop this sensor?

About the same length of time as the camera - about three years. Also we developed a new SOC [system on a chip] and implemented a new video codec - H.265/HEVC (High Efficiency Video Codec) - to allow us to record 4K footage to a conventional SD card. To do this, compression is very important. H.265 is twice as compressed as H.264.

Were those compression algorithms developed in-house?

Yes. On the sensor we also developed a new phase detection autofocus system. Mirrorless cameras have been poorer than DSLRs in terms of their viewfinders and also autofocus, but semiconductor technology has improved so much that we’ve achieved an extremely fast AF system which rivals DSLRs. Also the electronic viewfinder in the NX1 has been improved, and the time delay is very short - just five milliseconds. So there’s no lag.

When you’re developing a high-end product like the NX1, what is your benchmark? Is there a camera that you have in mind that you want to match?

Full-frame, high-end DSLRs. The ones around the $5000 level. That’s our benchmark. 

Did you design the NX1 from the beginning to record 4K video?

Yes. Three years ago of course the format was still not standardized but we intended the NX1 to shoot UHD [4K] video from the start.

How much of your resource is dedicated to R&D of lenses, as opposed to cameras?

We have more than 100 people working on lens R&D and I can tell you that compared to compact camera lenses, high-quality lenses for our interchangeable lens cameras require twice or three times the engineering resources. Large-diameter aspherical lens elements, for example - we can’t just buy in from somewhere else, so we develop those in-house. 

The new ’S’ series lenses are a big step up in terms of quality compared to previous NX lenses. Are they created by a separate team?

Yes, they are. With a separate management structure. 

As you’re designing these new lenses, is quality your priority, or size and weight?

Optical quality. Even though they’re APS-C lenses they are relatively big, and heavy. Optical performance is the most important thing with these lenses. Compare the 16-50mm F2.-2.8 with our 16-50mm power zoom. The S lens is heavy, but that’s to achieve the best optical quality. 

With the NX1 you’re trying to attract existing DSLR owners. One of the biggest obstacles to swapping systems is cost. Are you trying to keep the NX1 to a certain price point, to make it more attractive to these people?

No, we don’t want to decrease prices in the market. But with firmware 1.2 we just upgraded and added several new functions, for no cost.

What would you say is your main competitive advantage? Why should I as a consumer pick your camera over any other?

Firstly image quality. In my opinion it’s better than the competition. Also 4K movie recording, which we have in the NX1. Also the speed - 15 frames per second, and the autofocus speed which is also very fast. And the EVF, which is very fast and high-resolution. Also connectivity. It’s easy to connect the NX1 to a television and to mobile devices. There’s a new feature in the new firmware which allows you to use your phone as a remote trigger for the NX1. Not as a remote viewer, but just a simple trigger via BlueTooth. 

The sensor readout is very fast - 240 frames per second. For autofocus object tracking we read at 120Hz. We can do full resolution sensor readout at 25 frames per second, and digital signal processing [with a new chip and algorithms] at 15 frames per second. 

Do you think there’s anything that DSLRs still do better?

No, not really. At least not for customers who want small sized cameras. If we put the NX1’s functions into a DSLR it would be much bigger.  

When will DSLRs become extinct?

I wouldn’t like to say, but since 2008 when mirrorless systems were announced, mirrorless didn’t grow very rapidly. In the last year, however, market reports are predicting that in 2018/19 mirrorless cameras will outsell DSLRs.