Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy NX
In contrast to more established camera makers such as Nikon or Canon, Samsung is a manufacturer that covers the entire spectrum of consumer electronics, from LCD TVs to laptops and from surround-sound amplifiers to tablets.
In the camera world, the Korean manufacturer is steadily growing its market share but remains in the shadow of better-established competitors. In the smartphone sector the situation is very different. Samsung has overtaken its biggest rival, Apple and its range of iOS devices, and is now the world number one in terms of units sold.
This puts Samsung in a unique position. It is arguably the only camera manufacturer (apart from maybe Sony) that has the know-how to design and manufacture an Android-powered "connected camera" without having to source either camera or mobile technology externally. The first result of this fusion of technologies was last year's Galaxy Camera, basically a cross between a Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone and the 16x zoom WB850F compact camera. The Galaxy Camera wasn't the first camera running Android but arguably the first one that was fun to use. Previous attempts at an Android/compact camera hybrid by Nikon and Polaroid seemed rather half-baked and not quite ready for consumption.
That said, the Galaxy Camera wasn't quite without its flaws. In our review of the device we found the camera interface to be a little clunky and the image quality did not really get anywhere near dedicated cameras in its price bracket. The Galaxy Camera was essentially a very expensive snapshot-camera with the ability to install and run hundreds of thousands of apps, the processing power of a smartphone, a very flexible 21x zoom range and a decent built-in flash. That made it a lot of fun to use and a great device for photo-centric smartphone users and that's not bad at all for a first generation product.
Now the Galaxy NX system camera is taking things an impressively large step further and shows how serious Samsung really is about making Android-powered cameras the image capturing devices of the future. The Galaxy NX is not only the first mirrorless system camera powered by Google's Android OS but also the first to offer a Raw file format, making it attractive to an entirely different user group than the Galaxy Camera.
The Galaxy NX combines the design of Samsung's NX20 mirrorless camera with camera components of the newer NX300. The specification of the smartphone components, such as processor speed and screen size and resolution look very similar to Samsung's 2012 model Galaxy S3 and are not quite on the level of the latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S4. At present though, we have no idea what it is likely to cost.
Samsung Galaxy NX headline specification:
- 20.3 MP APS-C CMOS sensor
- DRIMe IV image processor
- ISO 100-25600
- Samsung NX lens mount
- 1.6 GHz quad-core processor
- Android 4.2 Jelly Bean
- 4.8-inch 1280 x 720 pixel LCD screen
- SVGA Electronic Viewfinder
- 2GB RAM
- 16GB internal memory and Micro-SD slot
- WiFi and 3G/4G LTE connectivity
- 4,360 mAh battery
- Controllable via Smartcamera app from Android and iOS devices
Handling & operation
We've only had very little time to play with a prototype camera, so we'll have to wait for a final production unit before we can make any final assessments but it's already clear that shooting with the Galaxy NX will require some adjustment from photographers who are used to operating more "traditional" cameras.
As most settings are controlled through the camera app in Android the number of buttons on the camera is minimal. There are no controls at all on the back and on the top the video and shutter buttons, a control dial and the flash button is all you get. This lack of physical controls means that when you are framing your shots using the electronic viewfinder you rely almost exclusively on Samsung's i-Fn button on the lens to change your settings.
The control dial on the top should allow for easy modification of settings as well. However, by default the dial behaves as a mode dial when the camera is powered up. A long click on the control dial takes you into Android, but unfortunately doesn’t then take you back to the camera app.
The large screen, which is the same size and resolution as on the Galaxy S3 smartphone and the Galaxy Camera, and the hefty battery also mean that the camera is about the same width as a mid-range SLR like the Canon 60D or Nikon D7100, and the EVF means it’s almost as tall. The decision to make the Galaxy NX's screen as large as its smartphone equivalents means that you can operate the Android OS exactly in the same way that you are used to from your phone but it also means that one of the main advantages of mirrorless systems over DSLRs - their relatively compact dimensions - has been nullified.
This concept - a minimum of external buttons and controls, with a touchscreen central to the operation - worked reasonably well on a point-and-shoot camera like the Galaxy Camera but it remains to be seen how well suited it is for a camera that comes with an electronic viewfinder and is targeted at an audience that likes to play with their camera settings more frequently.
Camera app and Android OS
The Galaxy NX runs the latest version of Google's Android OS, 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, but comes with a proprietary camera app that is quite similar to the one found on the Galaxy Camera, so in theory you can operate the camera without any external controls at all. On the main screen you get a virtual mode dial plus shutter and video buttons. A range of shooting parameters is displayed at the top of the frame. A tap on any of them opens an animated array of "lens-barrel-style" control rings that you can slide to change parameters.
This interface is nicely designed but, like on the Galaxy Camera, can be a little cumbersome to use if you change settings frequently. The app also offers an electronic level and more settings can be accessed through the menu. The camera app also features "Standard" and "Expert" modes which change how complex it appears.
Like the Galaxy Camera the NX also offers a feature that you wouldn't find on most conventional cameras: voice control. Once activated in the settings you got a range of voice commands at your disposal that allow you to take a picture, record a video, switch to Auto mode and go to the Gallery app among other functions. This can be useful as a remote-control substitute in situations when you don't want to touch the camera to avoid shake or simply for shooting a self-portrait.
This being a Samsung device the NX is of course loaded with a whole array of Samsung proprietary apps and modes:
- Photo Suggest gives you location-based recommendations of popular photography spots which are sourced from a library of images taken by other photographers.
- Story Album allows you to create digital photo books which can be viewed and shared on your other devices.
- Multi Exposure merges two shots
- Animated Photo combines still images to create a moving GIF file
- Sound & Shot stores sound with an image
- Camera Studio is a customizable widget screen where you can put your favourite photo-related apps all in one place. So you get a screen with all your apps inside a graphic outline of a camera.
Once you close the camera app the Galaxy NX operates just like any current Android smartphone, albeit a very bulky one. That said, despite 4G connectivity you cannot place a phone call with the 'stock' Galaxy NX. Apps like Skype will let you do that, but be prepared for some puzzled looks from bystanders...
Because the Galaxy NX is an Android device you can install most apps available through the Google Play store. In theory you could use the NX for navigating to your destination on Google Maps, check a restaurant on Yelp, or simply play a round of Angry Birds in Space but in practice third-party camera and editing apps will of course be the most interesting ones to install and use.
However, what we've seen when testing the Galaxy Camera will likely also be true for the Galaxy NX. Namely, although you will be able to install third-party camera apps, unless developers update them for 100% compatibility with the NX, you won't be able to shoot at full resolution and/or use the entire ISO range. There is a good chance some of the controls won't work either but we will only find out once we get a reviewable test unit and can install some third-party apps such as ProCapture or Camera FV-5 on it.
In contrast most of the popular editing apps such as Snapseed or Pixlr-o-matic should be fully compatible and usable in the same way as they would be on any Android phone or tablet. However, one thing to bear in mind is that most editing apps don't allow you to save an edited image at full size. On the one hand, this makes images more easily shareable via wireless connections, but on the other it also means that your output images might not have enough pixels for printing or displaying at large size. At 612 x 612 pixels, the popular filter and sharing app Instagram is one of the worst offenders in that respect. Snapseed's maximum image size is a more useful 2304 x 1728 pixels but that is still a long way away from the Galaxy NX's 20.3MP pixel count.
That said, its ability to record Raw files makes the Galaxy NX more interesting than any other Android device in the context of thirdy-party editing apps. The Photo Mate App, for example, includes a fully fledged Raw converter that offers similar levels of control to what you're used to from Adobe ACR or other desktop Raw converters, much more than what we've seen on the built-in Raw conversion functions on some other cameras. Installed on the NX, this would allow for full Raw editing on the go without ever getting close to a computer, as long as you're happy to do it on a 4.8-inch screen.
The Galaxy NX's Android OS and connectivity features also give you a plethora of options for sharing your images via Wi-Fi or 3G/4G. You can post your images to Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter and any other social networks, just as you would from your smartphone. It's also easy to save your images directly to the cloud via apps such as Dropbox, Google Drive or Amazon Cloud Drive, and then access and view them from any device or share them with others.
The Galaxy NX also comes with various Samsung-specific sharing functions. Share Shot allows you to share pictures right when they are taken with other Samsung devices that support this feature. This includes the Galaxy S3/S4, the Galaxy Note 10.1 and the Galaxy Note II.
There is also the Buddy Photo Share feature which uses facial recognition to match your photos with your contacts. By tagging photos you can send and share pictures, and sort them in your gallery by faces.
By implementing Android in a mirrorless system camera Samsung demonstrates how serious it is about using the Google OS not only in point-and-shoot devices like the Galaxy Camera but also models that are aimed at more serious shooters who value the ability to change lenses, the better image quality of large sensors and the flexibility of processing Raw files.
On paper the Galaxy NX comes equipped with more than capable hardware components but the large dimensions mean it's almost as bulky as a mid-size DSLR and due to the small number of external controls photographers who frame their shots through the electronic viewfinder and like to change their settings frequently will have to seriously adapt their shooting style. The Android camera app offers a whole new way of operating the camera including voice control but only a full-test will show how well the concept works on a system camera.
Another important factor for the system's success will be the willingness of Android developers to optimize their third-party camera and editing apps for the NX. Unfortunately this relationship is a circular one. The better the NX sales figures will be the more attractive the device will be to developers and the more fully compatible apps are available the more attrative it is to consumers. We will have to wait and see if Samsung can can come up with any creative solutions to tackle this chicken-and-egg situation.
Overall the Galaxy NX looks like an interesting concept that doesn't appear to be without its flaws, but Samsung diserves some kudos for the bold move of implementing Google's Android OS in a mirrorless system camera and we are looking forward to receiving a production unit for testing.
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