The most interesting part of the camera market right now lies right in between a point-and-shoot and a DSLR. Basically, the former category is being eaten alive by ever-improving smartphone cameras, and the latter is a fairly mature market without a lot of drastic change. So companies like Sony, Panasonic, and Olympus have developed the NEX line and the Micro Four Thirds standard, bringing excellent image quality to smaller cameras with smaller price tags.
The NX20 is the latest in Samsung's efforts to turn the mirrorless threesome into a quartet. The camera sticks to the required blueprints, packing a large sensor (in this case a 20.3-megapixel APS-C) into a small mirrorless body, and offering interchangeable lenses. Samsung also offers a couple of unique features, like a built-in Wi-Fi radio that lets your camera connect to your smartphone. At $1,099.99 with an 18-55mm kit lens, it comes in near the top of the price range of mirrorless cameras, and is knocking on the door of the DSLR market. Can Samsung's latest find its way into the in-crowd? Let's see.
Hardware / design
It's nicer than it looks
The NX20's body immediately makes you think it's a mid-range camera. The hard, textured materials are solid and sturdy, but they don't exude class or luxury by any means. At 4.8 inches wide and 3.5 inches tall, it's considerably larger than the Sony NEX-F3 — this is definitely not a small camera, and at 1.3 pounds it's not especially light either. Still, compared to a DSLR like the Nikon D7000 sitting next to it on my desk, it's positively svelte. There's a decent-size grip designed to help make the camera even easier to hold, but I didn't find it very comfortable: the grip is more angled than rounded, and my much-heavier D7000 is definitely easier to hold in one hand.
One part point-and-shoot, two parts DSLR
General feel aside, it's very clear that Samsung had a DSLR in mind when it was designing the NX20, because the camera is littered with buttons, controls, dials, ports, and flaps. It has a mode dial on top (take that, NEX-F3 and its awkward menu systems), along with a scroll wheel, metering control, video record button, function button, shutter release, and on-off switch. The on-off switch, by the way, is ludicrously difficult to move — you certainly won't turn the NX20 off by accident, but you might not turn it on when you want to, either. Next to the controls are the pop-up flash, a hump for the viewfinder, and a hotshoe for adding an external flash, mic, or accessory. The hump is flanked by stereo mics, and there's a speaker on the right side. A single door covering the card and battery slots is on the bottom, a spot I increasingly dislike; having to take your camera off a tripod to swap batteries or cards is a pain. There are Micro HDMI and Micro USB underneath another door, on the left side.
Around back there are more buttons and dials, from the standard five-way directional pad and playback buttons to a couple of DSLR-like buttons like Auto Exposure Lock. Generally, I love the layout — nearly everything is accessible to your right thumb, and I quickly got to the point where I could find the button I was looking for without needing to look away from the viewfinder or LCD.
Display and viewfinder
A good EVF is still an EVF
The most noticeable thing the NX20 has that most of its mirrorless competition lacks is a viewfinder. It's an electronic viewfinder, an 800 x 600 display that offers 100 percent coverage, meaning you can see the whole frame. This is a particularly good model, but many of the same advantages apply to all EVFs: you can see a lot of information on the display, and even review your photos without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. For me personally, that doesn't outweigh the simple fact that with the NX20 (and really any EVF), you just don't get an accurate representation of your photo through the viewfinder. The color profile is particularly off in this case, displaying photos with white balance problems they don't necessarily have. I'm always partial to optical viewfinders, because even if they don't show all the helpful information, they offer a far more accurate portrayal of the photo you'll capture.
If you're not a fan either, it's easy to avoid ever using the NX20's viewfinder because its display is so good. Samsung boasts often about how it's the most vertically integrated camera manufacturer on the planet — it makes virtually every part of a camera, for its own products and its customers' — and the 3-inch AMOLED panel on the back of the NX20 indicates the benefit of that arrangement. It's filled with 614,000 dots, which isn't as sharp as the 921,000-dot displays on some other cameras, but it's still a very good display, with great contrast and color reproduction. It also articulates, rotating out to the right side of the camera and then spinning 270 degrees so you can hold the camera at virtually any angle and still see the screen. As someone who constantly stands in the middle of crowds trying to shoot stages at concerts, or gadgets down in the middle of a crowd, it's a crucial feature.
Interface and features
Samsung doesn't quite go full-DSLR with the button and dial selection for the NX20, but it supplements the one-touch controls with a ton of two-touch settings. My favorite is the iFunction system, which takes place mostly on the lens. You press the iFn button on the lens itself, and then use the focusing ring to control one of a couple of important settings for whatever mode you're in. In aperture priority, for instance, you can change aperture or exposure without ever moving your hand off the lens or taking your eyes off the screen.
There's also a quick-access settings menu available in most modes, too. Pressing the Fn button on the back of the camera brings up a handful of important settings and functions like image size, exposure, and drive mode, and you scroll through the settings with the rear dial and change them with the top wheel. Between this setting and the iFunction tool, Samsung does a really nice job of managing the menu system — not everything is one button-click away, but very few things are more than two. There's a bit of a learning curve while you figure out what's where, but it's a really good system once you're used to it.
If you do have to dig into the menu, you'll find a much more standard interface. It's all text-based menus, a combination of gray and white text, and blue highlights. It's simple to navigate, but gets a little cluttered until you turn off Samsung's too-helpful overlay menus that try and explain everything. They're Samsung's way of trying to teach you how to use the NX20 (and any camera, really), but it's mostly just clutter.
A smart mix of menus and buttons
Wi-Fi will be a great thing for cameras — eventually
The typical list of scene modes and filters are present on the NX20, giving you quick access to the optimal settings for shooting fireworks or taking shots at night. There are a few funky Instagram-like filters, like "Sketch" (which you see above), but the list is surprisingly small. Considering how many wacky things Samsung's other cameras can do with your shot — superimpose your face onto someone else's body, add a wig or makeup to your subject — it's almost odd how vanilla the shooting options are on the NX20.
One feature that does make it over is the NX20's Wi-Fi sharing functionality. There's a built-in Wi-Fi radio on the camera, and along with some companion apps there are a bunch of cool things you can do with your camera, smartphone, and computer. There's a remote viewfinder app for iOS and Android that connects via an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network to your camera and lets you use your phone as a viewfinder for your camera and even take pictures, control the flash, or set a timer. I tested it with a Galaxy S III, and it's a really fun feature.
Another app, MobileLink, gives you a really easy way to get pictures off your computer and onto your phone, so you can share them. Unfortunately, the MobileLink app doesn't work as you shoot, like an Eye-Fi card does — here you take pictures, and then later connect and select some to share — but Samsung has said it's working on that kind of feature. The closest current approximation is the NX20's Auto backup feature, but that requires even more specialized apps and setup. Of course, you can also just connect the NX20 to a local Wi-Fi network and send photos to Skydrive, send via email, or display them on your TV via Samsung's AllShare DLNA app. It's all in service of giving you all the sharing and communication options your phone brings, while also giving you a step up in image quality. If nothing else, it's also one of the easiest ways to get photos off your camera.
The Wi-Fi features are great, but they don't feel quite mature yet. Trying to set up the required ad-hoc Wi-Fi connections is hit-or-miss, and even when it works it takes a while to get going. It's also fairly basic for now, but when Samsung can work some more Eye-Fi-type features into the camera and smooth out the experience it could be a nice advantage for the NX20.
Image and video quality
Here's where Samsung's DSLR influences really pay off. The NX20 takes gorgeous photos that I'd place firmly into the realm of entry-level DSLRs. The kit lens definitely isn't the sharpest lens out there, which is a bit of a letdown — the NX20's 20.3-megapixel APS-C sensor means you can print huge photos, but because the lens isn't overly sharp pictures don't look as good at large sizes as they could. If you're not shooting billboards or magazine covers, though, pictures are certainly sharp enough. We've tested a couple of other Samsung lenses, like an 85mm f/1.4 prime lens, and it's clear that the NX20 is capable of taking tack-sharp shots — the kit lens just lags behind a bit. No matter the glass, photos are detailed and colors are impressively accurate — reds can occasionally be a little too saturated, but the effect is rare and not particularly pronounced.
Even in low light, I was impressed with what the NX20 could do. Its ISO range goes up to ISO 12,800, and though I don't recommend shooting quite that high it's actually not that bad — photos are awfully noisy, but still usable in a pinch. There's basically no noise up to about ISO 1600, and even ISO 3200 looks great. I suspect there's a significant software push behind this, since at high ISOs each photo takes a couple of seconds to process, but it does the job nicely without losing a lot of detail.
The NX20 has some definite problems with dynamic range — if you're shooting a subject with a bright background, you're stuck with either incredibly dark subjects or completely blown-out highlights in the background. That's most problematic when you're shooting buildings or people in daylight, and it's why you see white sky instead of blue in a lot of pictures from the NX20. The NX20 tries to correct some of the problems with its scene modes, but can't solve the problem entirely. Some problems can be avoided by shooting in manual modes, but there were still a number of shots I couldn't get without blown highlights or too-dark subjects.
Actually, now's a good time for a quick mention of the NX20's lens ecosystem. It's an okay ecosystem, with a nice mix of prime and zoom lenses, but with just nine or so available and only a couple more in the works, you're definitely not getting nearly the range of options (both in price or specs) that you'd get with a Canon or Nikon camera. For many people that doesn't matter, but it's something to think about.
Outdoors or in bright light, the NX20's focusing performance is typically quite fast, locking on almost instantly. It's also impressively consistent, picking the same spot over and over — many cameras will try to focus on a new part of the image every time you half-press the shutter, but the NX20's confident in its choices. Problem is, it's wrong just often enough that it's frustrating — it'll lock onto a spot just behind your subject, and stubbornly refuse to focus anywhere else. But usually, it finds the right spot.
Once you get into lower light, focusing becomes a bit of a struggle. The NX20 will often go toward its focus point, find it, and then rack beyond it just to make sure it found the optimal point. That helps contribute to accurate focus, but it makes the contrast-detect autofocus system even slower. There's a lot of hunting involved, which there's not always time for.
The NX20 can shoot 1080p video at 30 frames per second, and output it as .MP4 files. That's a great feature: many cameras will only shoot 1080i, or only in AVCHD codecs — 1080p MP4 videos are easy to edit and upload to the web, and they look great. The NX20's video performance was excellent: autofocus is accurate and smooth, with an almost cinematic feel as it shifts.
Colors looked great, as do details in the shot — though as with still images, you might run into trouble with dynamic range. Samsung's lenses use in-lens optical image stabilization in addition to the in-camera stabilization, which helps a lot; footage wasn't very shaky even when I walked while shooting video.
Performance and battery life
For the most part, the NX20 is fast without being notably so. It can turn on and take a shot in about 2.5 seconds (it'd probably be a little faster if the power switch weren't so hard to flip), and once on can take a shot about every 1.5 seconds. In continuous shooting mode, the NX20 can capture about eight frames per second. That's really fast for a camera this size, but it comes with a price: once you've filled up the buffer, which takes 12 or 13 shots, the NX20 actually freezes while it processes all the photos (even if you have a very fast card). Most cameras slow down once the buffer's full, but the NX20 won't let you take a picture for the 15 seconds or so it spends writing the shots you took onto the SD card. That's a huge problem, and in a lot of ways defeats the purpose of having such fast burst modes — if you picked the wrong two-second window to shoot, you're going to miss your shot.
As you flip through menus or shooting modes, the NX20 keeps up nicely — I always try to turn dials as fast as possible to see if I can overpower the processor, but the NX20's settings changed as fast as I could spin the wheel. Starting a video recording is often a source of lag, but not here — the NX20 only took about a half-second to switch modes and start shooting.
Battery life is solid, but its measurement is a little frustrating. I took 300 or so pictures and 5 minutes of 1080p video before the battery meter went down at all, but from that slightly-below-full spot to completely dead was only another 100 shots or so. 30 minutes of charging later, I was back up to the almost-full battery meter, which subsequently drained to zero in another 100 shots. Plan to get 400-500 shots from the NX20 before it dies, no matter what the meter tells you. The battery refuels in a huge separate charger, like most cameras — but the NEX-F3 can apparently charge via Micro USB, and now I want every camera to do the same.
Fast, but quirky
A very good camera, but for whom?
When I first took the NX20 out of its box, I was prepared to dislike it — the look and feel just don't measure up to some of its classier competition. But I was wrong. I really like the NX20: it's smartly designed, offers good manual control once you figure out how to use it, is fast enough to not cause problems, and most importantly takes excellent photos and video.
The biggest problem facing the NX20 is its price tag. The $1,099.99 camera is far more expensive than the Sony NEX-F3 or a handful of Micro Four Thirds cameras like the Panasonic GF3, and doesn't bring enough of a performance improvement to merit the extra outlay. It's also hard to pitch the NX20 over an entry-level DSLR like the Canon T3i or the Nikon D5100, both of which come with far larger lens ecosystems, even more control, and image quality that at least rivals the NX20. Plus, when you consider that Samsung's kit lens really isn't very good, you're going to quickly increase your outlay as you buy more optics for the camera.
The NX20's one truly differentiating feature is its Wi-Fi capability, and though it's a great idea it's not nearly developed enough to be a selling point on its own. All in all, much though I like the NX20, I'm not sure who I'd recommend it to.
Dante D'Orazio contributed to this review.