Shooting with the Samsung Galaxy NX

An awkward convergence of ILC and smartphone

by Tim Barribeau | Posted: 06/24/2014

18mm, f/3.5, 1/60s, ISO 200

The Samsung Galaxy NX is in many ways the pinnacle of smartphone photography -- it's literally an ILC (Interchangeable Lens Camera) with essentially a fully functional Samsung smartphone embedded in it. (Standard voice calls are not supported, however VoIP calls are of course possible.) Yes, that means SIM card (T-Mobile Data SIMs only in the U.S.), lenses, exposed sensor, Android, the whole nine yards. The problem? It's an awkward marriage of styles, which I had hoped would combine the best features of both, but instead left me feeling distinctly dissatisfied on both fronts.

Samsung Galaxy NX 18-55mm Kit Lens Wide & Telephoto Comparison
18mm, f/6.3, 1/250s, ISO 100
55mm, f/5.6, 1/200s, ISO 100

At its core, the Galaxy NX is a pair of brilliant devices. Fundamentally, the camera side of the equation is excellent. Samsung makes good use of its APS-C sensor for sharp, low-noise images that are on par with a solid entry to mid-level mirrorless or DSLR camera. It has a great grip that most photographers will love for long shooting sessions. The touchscreen is huge, bright, and extremely high quality. You can see it clearly even in bright sunlight, and the inclusion of the full Android operating system means that you can tap into an untold number of alternative apps to edit, share, and use your images -- plus you can use it for all manner of non-photography related tasks.

18mm, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 100

The problem is that it's too much camera for someone who wants a smartphone, and too much smartphone for someone who wants a camera; an awkward combination of both that leaves you with the worst of either side, but paying for a device that's as expensive as buying one of each.

Let's tackle the price thing quickly. The Samsung Galaxy NX kit initially had a list price of $1,700 (currently $1,400). For that kind of money you could get a Sony A6000 and a Samsung Galaxy phone free of contract, and have enough left over for a nice bit of glass. Even at the $1,400 it's going for now, the Galaxy NX would only make sense if it perfectly replaced both your camera, and your phone. And, to put it bluntly, it doesn't.

18mm, f/4.5, 1/125s, ISO 100

The reason it fails as a smartphone replacement should be pretty obvious -- it's way too big. The huge handle is absolutely fantastic for long periods of shooting, but means there's no way it's going into your pocket. For actual phone calls, you could leave the Galaxy NX in your bag and utilize a Bluetooth earpeice and an app, but of course that requires you to purchase an accessory gadget. You're not going to use a camera hanging around your neck to read an e-book on the train, to check Twitter while waiting in line at the store, to get GPS directions to a hotel, or to get some sports scores at the beach. (Well, technically, you could, but you're not likely to leave your smartphone at home just because you have the Galaxy NX with you, especially since it doesn't support standard voice calling, and in the U.S., only T-Mobile Data SIM cards are supported.)

Bursting. When ready, the Galaxy NX's burst shooting capabilities are quick for fast-moving sports and action.

The problems as a camera aren't as immediately obvious, but are still pretty substantial, and they're mostly to do with the camera embodying some of the flaws of a smartphone -- but also embracing the wrong strengths of it.

By far the feature that will utterly ruin the Galaxy NX for most people is the speed. Don't get me wrong, when it's warmed up and ready to go, the AF speed felt decently quick, and it's capable of firing off images at a more than respectable speed (around 8 fps, though it's a bit slow to crunch RAW files afterwards). But it's slow to start up. Not just slow, but glacial. Because each time it powers up, it has to boot up like a smartphone does, from scratch.

What that amounts to, is that if it's fully powered down, it takes around 25-30 seconds to turn on and be ready to shoot. In that amount of time, anything that you're trying to capture will have likely wandered off, leaving you frantically waiting for your camera to be ready to take a photograph, and completely missing the moment. It's appallingly bad, and possibly the slowest start you could imagine.

To mitigate this, the Galaxy NX rarely shuts down fully, instead going into a sleep mode -- similar to what your smartphone or tablet does while it's locked. Waking up from this is much better, averaging 2-3 seconds, but it's still not as lighting fast as some of the competition. And if it's asleep for long enough, it'll shut down entirely.

The result? As I walked around the city with the camera in my bag, if I saw something going on I wanted to shoot, I'd pull out the camera, quickly hit the power button, and be left waiting for it to turn on, feeling utterly gormless.

Samsung Galaxy NX Start Up Timing Test

Because of the enormous touchscreen, almost the entire interface has been moved onto it; there are next to no buttons to speak of. There's the shutter button, a movie button, power/lock, flash pop up, and that's it. No dial for PASM. Only a single multi-function control dial for adjusting settings -- that both rotates and clicks inwards via a thumb press. No quick buttons to change metering, WB, or ISO. And this is a $1400 camera.

If you've ever spent much time with a mid-level system camera or better, you know that you quickly get a muscle memory of the button layout, and you can change things on the fly without having to pull your face away from the camera, and pore through menus. For the same price as the NX (body-only), you could get a Fujifilm X-T1 body, which has all the dials and knobs you could dream of, but with the Galaxy NX, you're out of luck. And since the primary interface point is the touchscreen, you can't change much looking through the EVF, and need to chimp to change many of the settings. If you love externals controls, buttons and dials, the Galaxy NX is probably not the camera for you.

The large LCD screen itself -- as you can see from the product images -- is absolutely massive, and beautiful. The screen is bright with great colors and sharp, crisp text. It's not difficult to see in full sunlight thanks to the gapless Super LCD panel, though you can still run into some reflections thanks to the glossy glass covering. For super-bright moments, there's also the EVF. Sadly it feels a bit cramped, has noticeable lag, and displays an RGB "tearing" effect around the edges of displayed text.

The Galaxy NX does well at higher ISOs, though the in-camera noise reduction processing applied to JPEGs by default is very noticeable when viewing images up close.
18mm, f/3.5, 1/40s, ISO 6400, -2/3EV

By relying on the touchscreen, the Galaxy NX has a flexibility of interface that's unparalleled -- but unfortunately, that primarily manifests as inconsistency. The interface radically changes depending on shooting mode, and the UI looks completely different menu to menu.

For example, if you're in auto mode, you have access to an extremely limited number of settings, which expand from a collapsed menu at the top of the screen. A similar menu at the bottom of the screen gives you shooting effects (which are only present in auto mode).

Standard vs Professional user type selector.

What's actually available on the mode "dial" on the right edge of the screen is dependent on whether you're in "Standard" mode or "Professional" mode, which is an option that's hidden in a totally different menu system. If you're in Standard mode, you're limited to just Auto, Smart, Expert, and My mode, whereas Professional mode also includes individual positions for PASM. But it gets even more confusing.

If you're in Standard mode, and select Expert, you get PASM controls, but they're this weird skeuomorphic style, designed to mimic physical dials on a camera, and take up a full third of the screen. If you're in Professional mode, exposure and shooting options are shown in a little special menu accessed from the gear icon at the top of the screen.

The skeuomorphic UI style PASM and other modes in "Standard" mode (left), which also doubles as the default way to adjust exposure and other shooting settings, compared to the simpler mode dial appearance of "Professional" mode (right).

That's only the tip of the iceberg. Say you're shooting in Professional mode, where you can change your exposure mode (aperture in A, shutter speed in S, etc.) by using the control wheel, but that's also used to switch between controlling exposure compensation, and ISO, so you have to frequently click through all of them to get back to where you want.

Professional Mode main shooting screen (top), with other settings accessed via the expandable ">" menu (middle). Even more settings and full exposure controls are also accessible in the "gear" menu (bottom).

By default, in Standard mode, the control dial is assigned primarily as a mode dial -- both rotating and clicking -- and any exposure changes are adjusted via the touchscreen UI. It's similar for Professional mode as well, however, the clicking behavior is different -- now you can click the control dial to activate exposure settings, and then rotate the dial to adjust accordingly. In both Standard and Professional modes, you can, however, change the behavior of the control dial -- Option 3, for instance, enables a little more familiar behavior, letting the control dial quickly change exposure settings without clicking or making you go into a menu.

There are shortcut icons on the main screen for a number of common settings, but more are under an expandable menu at the top, as shown in the graphic on the left. For even more controls, there's a gear icon, which has two totally different UIs, depending on which sub-menu you're in.

Changing just about any setting requires multiple clicks and menus, and the inconsistent layout makes it difficult to know your way around the camera as quickly as you potentially could. It's harder to learn, and because you're faced with many different layouts, it frequently feels jarring.

There are a couple of other annoyances that have made their way over from the world of smartphones to this camera. You're meant to unmount the memory card before taking it out. Also, it uses MicroSD, which are extremely easy to misplace given their small size. And because it's a fully functional Android device, the majority of the user manual is actually about Android, rather than the camera itself.

Shooting with the camera feels a bit sluggish as shot-to-shot performance isn't very fast. I could, however, still keep taking shots, while the camera kept writing them to the memory card. In good lighting, single-shot Center AF was decently quick, though nothing to write home about, and Continuous AF did a decent job of locking onto targets, though you can still see some characteristic contrast-detect AF "wobble" as it attempts to adjust focus or keep a subject sharp despite the hybrid AF system. Tracking AF seemed to work decently well, especially locking onto a desired subject before shooting. When used in conjunction with continuous burst shooting, I did find a few out of focus shots in a burst of frames as the camera couldn't re-focus fast enough. Sometimes it worked well, for instance with a slow-moving subject with normal-speed burst mode, I was able to get 6 out of 6 shots all in focus. In another scenario, however, using the faster burst mode ("continuous high"), where I moved the camera toward the subject, I got 6 out of 10 frames in focus.

For fans of RAW+JPEG shooting, while the Galaxy NX includes this feature, its filenaming protocol is quite odd. Unlike a typical camera that uses some system of sequential numbering for each photo, the Galaxy NX uses a long timestamp in its filenaming. It puts year, month and day at the beginning, as YYYYMMDD, and then appends the exact time in hours, minutes and seconds (00:00:00 -- without the colons, of course). Now, when taking separate JPEG or RAW exposures this isn't a problem, but if you're taking a RAW+JPEG pair, it's possible for the RAW and matching JPEG to have different filenames. Normally, other cameras keep the same filename and just change the extension, so they're easily paired when browsing photos on the computer, but with the Galaxy NX, it creates the RAW file, and then the JPEG a fraction of a second later, which can give them different filenames. Sometimes I found the pair named the same, as if I timed it right, other times I got a mis-matched pair.

There are also an absurd number of scene modes in the "Smart" mode, which vary from the extremely useful (in-camera panorama), to those that mimic what someone with decent skills would be able to do manually (like the waterfall or silhouette modes), to some that are just frustrating.

In-Camera Panorama mode. (EXIF exposure data unavailable)
Waterfall mode. (18mm, f/10, 1/4s, ISO 100)
Manual long exposure. (18mm, f/22, 1.6s, ISO 100)

I spent a good 30 minutes trying to record a bird landing on a lake with the "Dramatic" mode, which overlays multiple shots of the same object in motion across the frame. But unless your subject is exactly the right size, moving at the right speed, and taking up just the right amount of the frame, you're out of luck for it actually working. I finally managed to snap one of a cyclist, but it was still a frustrating experience.

"Dramatic" Mode with multiple combined shots. (EXIF exposure data unavailable)

That's not to say it's all bad! There are a bunch of features that come from the Galaxy NX's smartphone heritage that are actually incredibly useful. For instance, when you're in Android land, you can pull up just about any photography or editing app, and shoot using the camera. Even though it's slightly limited in shooting controls, and the file will often be downsized, this is a really great feature.

With Android running the show, you can use your favorite camera and photo apps, like Instagram, just as you would with a normal smartphone.

The ability to use swiping and pinching gestures can greatly speed up flicking through photos during playback. And it's nice that when you rotate the camera, the icons reorient themselves for vertical display.

With built-in Wi-Fi, there are also remote shooting capabilities with the Galaxy NX, which is very handy and works well, though the companion app is a bit basic on features. Like many other cameras, the Galaxy NX turns into a Wi-Fi hotspot to which you connect your smart device (iOS or Android) and then launch Samsung's "Samsung SMART CAMERA App."

Once connected, you have a live view of what the camera sees, with the ability to trigger the shutter, as well as adjust flash settings, self-timer, image resolution and the option to save images to the camera or both the smartphone and camera. Unfortunately, there are no options to adjust exposure, exposure modes, tap-to-focus or record video with the app.

The Galaxy NX also has 16GB of onboard storage with about 10GB free when it arrives from the factory, which is extremely handy if you run over your memory card -- and you can opt to save to one or the other. There's also a haptics system, where the camera will give a little vibration at certain times -- like when you hit the bottom of a menu that you're scrolling through.

Samsung has also used the power of a smart mobile device to introduce an almost bewildering array of built-in editing tools, including cropping, color adjustments, stickers, drawing on top, adding frames, a wide array of filters and portrait retouching tools. You can also share your image over just about any digital service you can possibly imagine, instantly beaming it to email, Dropbox, share over Bluetooth, Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts, Picasa and more. (Note: We did not fully test the Android "side" of this camera, such as standard smartphone features like web browsing or email, nor did we purchase a T-Mobile data plan to test its cellular connectivity.)

42mm, f/8, 1/200s, ISO 100

Video recording is pretty simplified and straightforward on the Galaxy NX, as there's no standalone video mode, just simply point and start recording from any exposure or shooting mode. If you're in one of the specialized scene modes like panorama, golf swing or waterfall mode, pressing the record button or on-screen icon will jump into a simple auto-exposure video recording mode. Although you have the same PASM exposure controls used for stills, you aren't given any exposure control during recording, including exposure compensation. You can adjust exposure manually before recording, which, in essence, is simply adjusting exposure for stills, but the shutter speed will be automatically adjusted depending on video frame rate (i.e. 1/30s minimum for 30fps video). Manually setting the aperture or ISO will however be maintained for video recording. If your lens includes optical image stabilization, it can be used for video recording (it can also be disabled, which is nice when shooting on a tripod).

Galaxy NX Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, MPEG-4, 30 fps
Download Original (143.5MB MP4)

According to the user manual, a Class 10 or faster memory card is require for high-resolution video. The Samsung-supplied memory card that came with this review unit was actually a Class 4 card, and although I was able to shoot an initial video clip at Full HD resolution, any subsequent attempts to shoot video were interrupted by a "Warning: Recording Failed" error. So, if you want to record videos in HD resolutions, be sure to get a fast card.

Summary. In the end, what it boils down to is that the Galaxy NX is very good at taking photos. But its downsides are so frustrating and many that they really overwhelm that fact. While the images may look great, the glacial startup speed, confusing interface, slowness of changing settings, and high price will give anyone pause for thought. A comfortable grip and low image noise will only do so much when you could buy an Olympus E-M1 for about the same price. Then there's also Samsung's new NX30, which offers a smaller size, similar feel, but without the Android operating system and cellular connectivity. With similar image quality and better performance, the NX30 is more of a traditional camera with lots of external controls, and it's less expensive at around $1,000 with a kit lens.

While there's a lot of promise with combining a mirrorless camera with a fully featured Android device, haphazardly bringing the most frustrating features of each into one device hardly seems to be the way to do it. Samsung has a good bit more experience than most to bring about the convergence of smart device and camera, and they're uniquely positioned to do so. (Given that they're a major manufacturer of both phones and cameras.) The Galaxy NX is an interesting device, and if you're looking for maximum integration between Android and a full-featured camera, it might be for you. For the rest of us, though, it's more of a step along the road to whatever the ultimate "convergence" product will look like.


Buy the Samsung Galaxy NX

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