Samsung’s small, stylish camera with a big sensor is one of the best in its class.
2010 was littered with the carcasses of a wave of so-called EVIL digital cameras. The only one of these mirrorless, interchangeable lens, pseudo-rangefinder models I’ve really liked so far has been Sony’s NEX-5, which uses an APS-C sized sensor similar to what you’d find in a digital SLR.
While the NEX-5 had some faults, including a baffling menu system that made changing important settings such as ISO a chore, image quality was better than most of its rivals using smaller Micro Four Thirds size sensors. Yes, bigger sensors do help capture better photos, folks, no matter how cool looking or fully featured a digital camera is!
While the tiny NEX-5 was something of an ugly duckling—with its protruding 18-55mm kit lens attached, it reminded me of Jimmy Durante—Samsung’s NX100 is a rather stylish looking brute. Using a 14.6-megapixel APS-C sensor similar to the one in Samsung’s other EVIL (Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens) camera, the DSLR-style NX10, the NX100 is a curving plastic slab of a camera that ships with a small 20-50mm (f/3.5- 5.6) interchangeable lens.
DEW DROP IN
In its press materials for the NX100, Samsung says the camera was “inspired by the simple shape of dew forming on a leaf.” While this may be pretentious puffery there is something vaguely eco-chic about this model, especially if you get it in bark brown. (It also comes in tuxedo black presumably for urban dwellers.)
The NX100’s primarily polycarbonate body brings you down to earth and while I’d prefer it in stainless steel—like several of Olympus’s PEN cameras—that would’ve turned this large (4.7 x 2.8 x 1.4 inches) camera into a heavy doorstopper. Plus, the NX100 is one of the most reasonably priced EVIL cameras out there. I’ve seen it for as low as $499 with the 20-50mm lens included and the plastic build has likely helped keep the price down.
If there’s a design flaw to the NX100, it’s that the camera’s smooth, uninterrupted matte surface doesn’t give you much to grip on to. (It’s better than an early prototype of the camera I saw which had a slick finish that felt like a skating rink and attracted fingerprints.)
Users with small hands, particularly women, might find the chunky camera body to be too thick but I liked the heft and the simple design. One of the features that Samsung has been touting about the NX100 system is an i-Function button on the lens, which lets you quickly change settings.
While not exactly revolutionary, the button helped me swiftly cycle through and adjust important settings on the NX100’s screen such as White Balance, ISO, and exposure. Contrast this with the NEX-5, which was a trial to modify. Overall, I found the NX100’s menu system to be clear and attractive, which for some reason has been a rarity in EVIL cameras. I wasn’t so taken with the kit lens. I’d prefer to have something wider with a faster aperture to take advantage of the NX100’s APS-C sensor. Also, I found the zoom ring to be tight and sluggish and it was hard to track in quickly for a shot. This is definitely not a camera to shoot sports—or any type of fast action for that matter—though the autofocus system was surprisingly spry. (The Contrast Detection-based AF systems in some competing EVIL models have been notoriously slow.)
The NX100’s 3-inch AMOLED screen is another area where Samsung seems to have skimped some, perhaps to maintain that aggressive price point. The size is good but resolution is just 614,000 pixels so live footage looked coarse. And because the NX100 has no optical or electronic viewfinder built in, you’ll spend a lot of time staring at the screen while composing shots. Also, there’s no built-in flash, which is kind of a bummer. (You can attach a clip-on flash to the NX100’s hotshoe—which doubles as an accessory port—but as with all of these EVIL models, that sort of defeats the purpose of having a compact camera to begin with.)
I’ve had such mixed experience with image quality and speed from EVIL cameras, I was happy that shooting with the NX100 was generally pleasant. While not nearly as fast as even an entry-level DSLR to shoot with, the NX100 captured images at a brisk pace in single-shot mode. (There’s a high-speed continuous mode that can capture a burst of shots at a reduced resolution but I didn’t mess too much with that.)
Image quality at up to ISO 3200, was quite good. I’d put it a notch below the Sony NEX-5 but significantly better than its Micro Four Thirds competitors. Images were relatively noise-free up to ISO 800 and the camera showed a surprisingly good dynamic range in late afternoon winter shots of the Hudson River. Where most cameras would’ve blown out the highlights and gotten tripped up by the shadows, the NX100 produced a good balance.
I wish my shots were sharper but I blame that mostly on the chintzy lens not on the camera. Like all good high-end compact cameras these days, the NX100 can also shoot HD video, in this case at 720p. My HD video results were decent if not spectacular but you likely won’t be using this camera to shoot your next movie masterpiece, just to capture some fun high-def clips to post on YouTube, Vimeo or wherever.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While my experience with compact, mirrorless, interchangeable lens—aka EVIL—cameras has been hit or miss so far, the Samsung NX100 is one of the best of the lot right now. If it doesn’t offer the speed of a DSLR or the sharpness of a true rangefinder from a company such as Leica, Samsung’s stylish NX100 is a good “happy medium” camera. Image quality was surprisingly good and the NX100’s overall speed makes it a usable option in basic shooting conditions. In the end, you have to decide whether this type of camera is more of a cute novelty to you or something you would actually put to regular use. The good news is that the sub-$500 price tag means it won’t be a major investment.
Pros: A fun and relatively fast EVIL camera with above average image quality for its class; good price point
Cons: Are you sure you’re really going to use it?
Price: $499 with 20-50mm (f/3.5-5.6) kit lens