Hands-on with the Samsung NX200 camera: Promising but pricey

With potentially very good photo quality, solid performance and a very nicely designed body, the NX200 distinguishes itself in an increasingly crowded field. But $900 may be too much to ask.

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Thanks to the rather sedate pace of sensor development by Micro Four Thirds-backers Olympus and Panasonic, for a while it looked like interchangeable-lens cameras (ILCs) would be refreshingly free of excessive megapixelation. But manufacturers using APS-C-size sensors seem determined to undermine every advantage the larger sensor confers by packing them with increasing numbers of photo sites. Sony's latest Alpha NEX model delivered its 24-megapixel sensor, and now Samsung offers up a 20-megapixel sensor in its new NX200. (What I find interesting is that the companies driving the increasing resolution are all camera companies who also make sensors--Canon, Sony, and Samsung.)

Thankfully, there's more to the NX200 than just a lot of pixels. I had a chance to shoot with a preproduction version, along with a bunch of the new lenses, and liked it quite a bit. For one, it's much better than the NX100; it's smaller, yet conversely more comfortable to grip, and more solidly built. Samsung has also redesigned its i-Function lenses, and the new 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens, while slow as all the other kit lenses, operates much more smoothly and feels better constructed than its predecessor's 20-50mm model. It's not nearly as compact, though, which puts it at a slight disadvantage compared with, say, Panasonic's new Lumix X series collapsible lens . (I forgot to take photos of the lenses. D'oh!)

For those unfamiliar with Samsung's i-Function system, it consists of a button on the lens, which invokes shooting settings, such as ISO sensitivity or shutter speed, which you then change using the manual-focus ring. The system works well, and it feels much like shooting with the Canon PowerShot S95 or Olympus XZ-1. It distinguishes the NX cameras from the other ILCs in a way that adds to the shooting experience rather than detracts from it.

If you choose to go the traditional route, Samsung introduces a new (for it) Smart Panel interactive control panel interface that you pull up with the function button. It's easy to use, but I found myself missing the type of customization control that Panasonic's cameras offer over the interface, as well as the capability to save custom settings. You can program a raw override (as well as which options appear on the i-Function ring), but that's just not as much as I'd like.

The camera supports manual exposure controls during movie recording, though I was unable to get that to work. This is usually an interface issue, and without the documentation I find a lot of these cameras to be not obvious in this respect.

As for image quality, I was pleasantly surprised. There were no significant artifacts that I could spot at low ISO sensitivities except for some muddiness in out-of-focus areas that you see a lot in point-and-shoots. And I'm guessing that for midrange sensitivities--ISO 400 through ISO 1600--it would probably gain some latitude by shooting raw (I didn't have any raw processing software) and possibly from some tweaks to the firmware before shipping. Beyond that, I don't think there's much chance for improvement; but that's typical for this class of camera.

In daylight, though, the color accuracy looked quite good, the metering and exposure were generally both consistent and appropriate, and the sensor handled bright, saturated colors without blowing out detail. I didn't get a chance to really analyze the dynamic range in general or play with the settings that affect it.

The one aspect I hope Samsung can fix before shipping is the performance. Shooting speed is fine, though not (yet?) up to the level of the current generation of Olympus and Panasonic models. For the most part, the camera didn't get in my way or make me crazy, except when I accidentally set it to burst raw+JPEG. (You don't want to do that. Trust me.) But the autofocus with several of the lenses spent way too much time hunting, and at times couldn't lock. And sometimes it simply wouldn't try.

Furthermore, while the LCD is bright and contrasty, and doesn't wash out in sunlight, it's very reflective. Occasionally, all I could see were the stripes of my shirt. At moments like that I wished it had an articulated, or at least tiltable, display. And I think people will really miss the option to add an EVF; dropping the connector is the one potentially big boo-boo the company made when updating from the NX100.

Which brings us to the competition. Here's my view of where it stands:

  Olympus E-P3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G3 Samsung NX100 Samsung NX200 Sony Alpha NEX-5N
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 16-megapixel Live MOS 14.6-megapixel CMOS 20.3-megapixel CMOS 16.1-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3 x 13.0mm 23.4mm x 15.6mm 23.5mm x 15.7mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.0x 2.0x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 200 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200/6,400 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 12,800 ISO 100 - ISO 25,600
Continuous shooting 3.0 fps
unlimited (LN) JPEG/17 raw
4fps
unlimited JPEG/ 7 raw
3.0 fps
10 JPEG/ 3 raw
7fps
11 JPEG/9 raw
3 fps
unlimited 10 JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
Optional Electronic
1.4 million dots
100% coverage
1.4x/0.7x magnification
Optional plug-in EVF
201,000 dots
0.55x
(98 percent coverage)
None Optional
Autofocus 35-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 15-point contrast AF 15-point contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/4000 FP sync 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 2 minutes 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb to 8 minutes 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb to 4 minutes 30-1/4000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering 324 area 144 zone 247 segment 221 segment 1200 zone
Flash Yes Yes No Included optional Included optional
Image stabilization Sensor shift Optical Optical Optical Optical
Video 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps AVCHD 1080/60i/50i @ 17 Mbps; 720/60p/50p @ 17 Mbps or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV 720/30p H.264 MPEG-4 1080/30p H.264 MPEG-4 AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Stereo; mic input Stereo Mono Stereo Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch fixed OLED
614,000 dots
3 inches articulated
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed AMOLED
921,000 dots
3-inch fixed AMOLED
614,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 330 shots 250 shots 420 shots 330 shots 430 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.8 x 2.7 x 1.4 4.5 x 3.3 x 1.8 4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6
Body operating weight (ounces) 13.0 13.4 12.2 9 (est) 9 (est)
Mfr. Price n/a $599.99 (body only) n/a n/a $599.99 (body only)
$899.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $699.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $549.99 (est, with 20-50mm i-Function lens) $899.99 (with 18-55mm i-Function lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
$899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens) n/a n/a n/a n/a
Ship date August 2011 June 2011 October 2010 September 2011 September 2011

At $900, it's facing the E-P3, which has a few advantages, including class-leading performance, an optional EVF, and a much larger pool of lenses to choose from. More important, though, is that in the end it might not be sufficiently better/smaller than less-expensive options like the NEX-5N or DMC-G3. Or, as I said about the E-P3, you might want to just pay a couple hundred more and get the X100 for the photo quality--or possibly the NEX-7 for the features, depending upon what those photos look like.

The NX200 with all the current and as-yet unshipped 2011 lensess. Samsung

Samsung's making some strides in ramping up its lens selection, with a few more announced today (look at my photo samples for examples of shots taken with some of them). They're all i-Function models and cover a range of budget and quality needs. (I don't have pricing.)

  • 16mm f2.4, 7-blade aperture, 7.1 inches closest focus, available September. A decent, though not outstanding, pancake prime that's about as good as similar consumer-oriented primes available for Micro Four Thirds and E-mount. Hopefully, it's inexpensive.
  • 60mm F2.8 Macro ED OIS SSA, 7-blade aperture, 7.4 inches closest focus, available September. I really liked this lens; it's bright and sharp, though I didn't run any distortion tests on it. At 13.7 ounces it's heavy, but feels very well made. I wish it focused more closely, though.
  • 85mm f1.4 ED SSA, 9-bladed aperture, 32.3 inches closest focus, available October. I didn't get to try this one, but it sounds interesting--and expensive. Note that it doesn't have image stabilization. Plus it weighs a pound and a half.
  • 18-200mm f3.5-6.3 ED OIS, 7-blade aperture, 19.7 inches closest focus, available now. A standard all-purpose consumer zoom lens, I believe it will cost $799.

Check back after the camera has shipped for a more conclusive opinion about this increasingly confusing crowd.

 

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