As a blogger, taking great, print-quality photos when covering events or doing reviews is a necessity. So carrying around a big DSLR or comparable digital camera system has become a necessary evil. I say evil because the camera world and I just don’t understand each other. The camera market has become stale and full of devices that cater to professional photographers, while seemingly ignoring the incredible innovations that have happened with mobile devices in recent years. Just because pro photogs want their tried and trusted physical controls and pricey glass, doesn’t mean there isn’t room for beautiful touch screens with easy to use UIs, WiFi, LTE connectivity, USB charging, and everything we love about the app and developer ecosystem that we get with Android.
Samsung is the only company that gets it: It’s the first to integrate what is essentially a full Android smartphone on the back of a full fledged, professional mirrorless camera system. It’s the big brother, high-end version of the Galaxy Camera (review) point and shoot it introduced last year. It’s an intriguing concept and certainly where I hoped camera manufacturers would look to when attempting to take their professional product lines out of the stone age, so I’ve been more than excited to have the opportunity to put the device to the test over the last few weeks.
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At first glance the Galaxy NX looks a lot like Samsung’s NX20 camera and it comes in just slightly larger at 5.37″ (W), 3.98″ (H), and 1.01″ – 1.48″ (D). That’s around the same size as Canon 70D, for example, but around half the depth and much lighter at 0.9lbs. It also uses Samsung’s 20.3MP CMOS APS-C sensor with an ISO range of 100-25,600, which is the same sensor that’s been praised in many other Samsung NX cameras, like the NX20 and NX300. The good news is the hardware feels decidedly higher-quality than the rest of Samsung NX line and more in line with what you’d fine on a high-end DSLR from Canon or Nikon. Its build quality feels like a $1000 – $2000 camera, and that’s a relief given the Galaxy NX is on the high end of that price range. And that’s before you turn it around to find a gorgeous and super-responsive 4.77-inch, 1280 x 720 touch display stretched across the entire backside of the device.
Viewing the large display outdoors never proved to be an issue for taking shots, and an “adapt display” mode does a good job of optimizing color range, saturation, sharpness, etc, depending on the app you’re using. Don’t get me wrong, in sunlight the display sometimes has as much glare as you’d get with your average high-end smartphone, but it was more of an issue for navigating apps than taking photos.
You’ll also get an SVGA (800 x 600) resolution electronic view finder (with hot shoe on top). It’s certainly nothing to brag about, but it more than gets the job done in the rare case that glare proves to be a problem. The cool part is a sensor that detects your eye and turns off the touchscreen accordingly (much like when placing calls on a smartphone).
Since this is essentially a full fledged Android device attached to one of Samsung’s NX cameras, the NX also packs in a 1.6 GHz quad core processor, 802.11 a/b/g/n 2.4+5GHz support, Bluetooth 4.0, and 16GB of built-in storage. The camera grip stores the microSD slot, but also a microSIM slot that enables 3G/4G LTE support and a large 4,360 mAh battery. That makes for quite a chunky handgrip, but it’s nice to have something substantial to hold on to while navigating the touch screen.
Battery Life: The Galaxy NX does a great job reserving battery life. Samsung says that you’ll get around 420 shots, but in real world use we got around 300 shots and 10+ 3 -5 minute long videos while capturing the IFA consumer electronic show in Berlin earlier this month. On top of power saving modes to automatically dim the display when not in use, the NX does a great job of reserving battery life by entering the same standby mode as your Android smartphone when tapping the power button. The battery lasted 10 hour days shooting at the show with a little juice left over.
Some have pointed out that the large touchscreen means lack of physical controls. You get an unlabeled control dial, shutter and flash button, and a separate physical button for video capture, but otherwise the display takes up the entire back of the device. Fortunately, Samsung has made it possible to control everything in the camera app without ever touching the touch screen. More on that below.
Having a full blown Android running on the back of the NX allows for a few things that simply weren’t possible with a camera of this caliber before. When first turning on the camera you’ll be greeted with a familiar Android UI (familiar for anyone that’s used any other Galaxy device running Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay). A “Camera” icon is always present in the bottom left hand corner for quick access to NX’s camera mode, but otherwise it’s a pretty standard build of Android 4.2.2. Your standard onscreen Android navigation buttons for Back, Home, and Multitasking are present along the right side of the screen and easily accessible with your thumb when holding the camera’s grip.
There is, of course, also Android’s notification drawer that comes in handy for quick access to toggles for screen brightness, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, Hotspot and more. Samsung loads up a Camera Studio widget to the right of the home screen that includes quick access to camera modes, a few other recommended apps like Photo Suggest and Story Album, and you’ll also find all Samsung’s Android apps– ChatOn, S Translator, S Planner, Screen Mirroring, Photo Suggest and much more— preinstalled in the Apps section. S Voice is Samsung’s take on Siri. It’s not entirely accurate or useful, but it will let you snap shots and perform other tasks using just your voice.
Do professional photographers want to do final edits of photos using Photoshop Touch, or care about posting to Instagram while on the job? Probably not. But for me the experience of being able to easily share images with coworkers over LTE through Gmail & chat apps, post photos to Twitter, and upload photos and video directly to blog posts through the WordPress & YouTube apps has been truly incredible. You simply don’t get this experience with any other camera in the NX’s category, at least on anything that provides even close to the same image quality.
Unfortunately not every app just works with the NX. Since hardly any apps other than a few of Samsung’s own have been optimized for the NX, some are stuck in portrait mode. The NX is of course usually in landscape orientation when shooting and holding the device, but it does support screen rotation to allow Android, the camera app, and other apps to switch from landscape to portrait when rotating the camera. Apart from lack of landscape support in some apps (which should be coming to Instagram soon if a recent update to the iOS app is any indication), apps run just as smooth as you’d expect on any top of the line Android smartphone. While it’s fine for quick tasks like Twitter, messaging, checking notifications, uploading images etc, its size made it uncomfortable to hold the Galaxy NX for extended periods of time while browsing or composing emails. The Galaxy NX isn’t small compared to some of its competitors with similar camera specs, but it’s actually quite compact and lightweight if you’re used to lugging around a bulky DSLR.
I opted to create a Wi-Fi hotspot by downloading a tethering app on my HTC One and connecting the NX to that network. That worked great, but you can just as easily pop your SIM card directly in the NX and also enable it as a Wi-Fi hotspot for other devices.
Another nice touch: Samsung will give you 50GB of DropBox storage for two years and let you automatically back up everything you shoot on the camera. You could also use Google Plus photos or any number of other backup options.
The Camera App:
Launching the camera app is as easy as pressing the shutter button, but there’s also a camera button on the touch screen that’s always present in the bottom left corner of the Android UI.
In Standard mode (on by default), Samsung lets you use the unlabeled control dial to cycle through “Auto”, “Smart”, “Expert”, and “My Mode”. Everything is always accessible through the touchscreen as well, of course. Smart Modes will let you pick from a little over 30 presets for various portrait, landscape, close up/indoor, night-time, and action settings. You’ll also find some interesting modes that are more than just presets– like Sound & Shot for recording audio with photos, Drama Shot to merge continuous shots of a moving subject into a single shot, Animated Photo that allows you to animate an object within an image, and many others.
I personally welcomed the minimal physical hardware buttons in exchange for a large, responsive touch screen and Android. Everything felt right at home controlling elements on the display with my two thumbs while comfortably gripping the camera in a shooting position, and it instantly feels more efficient to tap and swipe to control settings opposed to scrolling through endless menus and fumbling for the right physical control. Many have reported that the lack of physical controls on the Galaxy NX wouldn’t be desirable to some that prefer a traditional control dial and DSLR button layout. Fortunately, the good news is that Samsung does in fact make it possible to control the entire camera UI using only physical controls.
Expert mode pops up various shooting modes (Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual), but once you’ve selected one you’ll be able to view and adjust settings through an unobtrusive menu along the top of the preview screen and customizable shortcuts.
Samsung includes an ‘iFN’ button on the side of its NX lenses. Pressing the button allows you to cycle through and settings like ISO, Aperture, Shutter Speed, and around 30 other settings, and the command dial or optionally a focus ring on the lens will let you adjust the currently selected setting. You can also switch to a manual focus through a button on the lens if you’d rather use the control dial to adjust settings and focus ring to manually adjust your focus.
The camera app does a good job of making everything easily customizable, too. Shortcuts can be dragged from an extended menu of settings for functions like one touch access to white balance, AF/MF, AF Lock, etc, on the preview screen. You can also turn on a “Professional” mode in settings that will enable “Smart Panel” in Settings. This essentially allows you select all controls in an extended settings menu using physical controls.
You also get a number of live effects and basic editing features right from within the camera and gallery apps, but the beauty of Android is that you’ll often find more powerful solutions available to download through third-party apps.
The first thing you’ll notice when first snapping photos on the Galaxy NX is the Hybrid Autofocus that combines contrast-detection and phase-detection. A number of focusing modes are available, but thanks to Android and the large 4.77-inch touch display, you also get touch-to-focus AF mode that lets you tap to focus right on the display. I found the AF system extremely quick to lock in just in even low lighting conditions, and tapping the touch screen to focus makes it easier than ever to focus in quickly on subjects.
I also found the auto white balance to be incredibly consistent, and overall didn’t experience too much saturation with most shooting conditions producing accurate, vivid colors. Using the 18-55mm kit lens that Samsung bundles with the camera, it’s not that surprising that the 20.3MP APS-C sensor was able to capture an incredible amount of detail.
Image noise only proved to be an issue at ISO 3,200, but everything below produced noise-free, clean shots in most cases.
You’ll of course be able to set the Galaxy NX to save JPEG or RAW files, and you can also select to choose a copy of both, but keep in mind that applying effects in Samsung’s camera app will limit the file size to 1.1MB.
The Galaxy NX also shoots 1920 x 1080 video at 30fps, or 60fps if you drop down to 1280 x 720. I had nothing but great first impressions shooting video even in less than desirable lightning conditions like in the video above from the IFA show floor.
Should you buy it?
As someone who spends most of the time on a day to day basis taking pictures with my iPhone 5 or HTC One, and someone who does most of my photo sharing through apps available for those devices, the DSLR and compact mirrorless camera systems on the market feel 10 years behind my mobile device in many respects. Canon, Nikon, Olympus, etc, all the big camera manufactures are continually turning out refreshed cameras with user interfaces and feature sets that haven’t changed much in a decade.
Some companies are taking a different approach with bringing professional level photography to the Android world. Sony, for example, is opting to bring its lens technology straight to mobile devices with its new CyberShot lens, rather than bringing the Android ecosystem to its professional camera lineup. There could be a big market for products like CyberShot, but it’s not exactly competition for the Galaxy NX.
At around $1700 with the included lens or $1600 for the body, Galaxy NX is in a category of its own as the first professional-level camera system to offer a full Android experience. It’s hard to compare with comparable mirrorless camera systems and DSLRs from the big camera manufacturers given everything Android has to offer, but it is definitely much more expensive than many of its biggest competitors. A Canon 70D, for example, can be had for much less than the Galaxy NX, and even Samsung’s own NX line offers similar camera specs for much less cash. You’re paying a premium for Android, a 1.6 GHz quad core processor, WiFi/LTE connectivity, and a large 4.77-inch touchscreen, but you’re also getting an extremely capable camera system on top, and you simply can’t get that with any other camera.
The price tag is a hurdle for some, but an inevitable price drop to bring it closer to $1000 will make this my go to recommendation for a mirrorless in that price range. The Galaxy NX is available in the UK now and will land at US retailers in the coming weeks.