Hands-On with a Pre-Production Samsung Galaxy NX

by Dan Havlik | Posted: 06/20/2013

Look at the 20.3-megapixel Samsung Galaxy NX from the front and you may think it's a DSLR, but once you turn it around and see its impressive, 4.8-inch high-definition screen, you'll know it's something different all together. Of course, the Galaxy NX is not a DSLR at all. It's a mirrorless, compact system camera with cellular connectivity -- both 3G and 4G LTE -- and that massive touchscreen on back has its roots in smartphones. It's also the first interchangeable lens camera to run Google's Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean) operating system, making the Galaxy NX a truly unique device. And working with the camera, too, is a unique experience.

I got some hands-on time with a prototype Samsung Galaxy NX yesterday and I found it to be both wonderful, and at the same time a bit confounding. But first off, it's important to emphasize that the camera I shot with was not a finished model, and all early impressions should be taken with a grain of salt. It's also worth noting that I'm an iPhone user, although I have used and reviewed Android smartphones in the past. I'm also quite well versed in Samsung's "traditional" NX-series compact system cameras, which the Galaxy NX is partially based on, having reviewed several of them for Imaging Resource.

Either way, the Galaxy NX and its operating systems -- which not only includes Android but a dedicated, touch-based, camera interface as well -- takes a little getting used to. There are only a few external controls on the Galaxy NX and several layers of menus to choose from to make basic changes. If you're new to the set up, it's fairly easily to get lost in the various screens and dual operating systems. For instance, the Android apps and modes are entirely separate from the dedicated touch-based camera controls, although there is a camera app when you're in Android-land and the built-in Camera Studio feature makes it easy to customize Android photography apps to automatically use the Galaxy NX for their camera, with various user-created configurations of the NX's settings

There's a physical control wheel on top of the camera that helps you scroll through some of the Galaxy NX's functions but it was only later that I was informed that if you press the wheel it also functions as a button for confirming commands on the screen. At one point while playing with the camera I ended up in some kind of "factory mode" and the entire 4.8-inch screen turned into a giant calculator. Like I said, it takes some getting used to.

After a few minutes of touching and swiping (and poking and prodding) the Galaxy NX, I was able to get the hang of it, however. Early adopters, who are likely to be the initial buyers of this camera, will probably enjoy figuring it all out. Also, since Android is an "open" system, there will, no doubt, be many users out there creating and sharing their own custom user interface "skins" for the Galaxy NX. In the case of the Galaxy NX, this openness has been taken a good bit further than usual, in that Samsung has taken the unusual step of open-sourcing all of their mirrorless camera firmware, giving developers deep access to the camera's functionality. Either way, an Android-loaded, interchangeable lens camera with cellular connectivity is an exciting step forward and Samsung deserves kudos for bringing easy sharing features to a high-end shooter.

We've already reviewed the point-and-shoot style, cellular Samsung Galaxy Camera on Imaging Resource. That model also runs Android, and the new Galaxy NX seems like its natural extension; anyone who's used a Galaxy Camera will find the Galaxy NX's user interface immediately familiar. Holding the Galaxy NX in your hand, its large, comfortable grip makes it feel like a solid but modern, mirrorless compact system camera, much like the Samsung NX20. (Along with some design cues, both models share the same 20.3 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor.) I shot with the Galaxy NX using the 18-55mm OIS kit lens, which gives the camera a serious but still portable presence.

While the Galaxy NX shares the general body and system design of the NX20 (all NX20-compatible accessories should also work with the Galaxy NX), the sensor and processor have been updated to those found in the NX300. The sensor's resolution is still the same 20.3 megapixels as that in the NX20, but now also incorporates on-chip phase-detect elements for faster and more sure-footed focusing. Given the excellent test results we've seen from the Samsung NX300, we hold high hopes for the Galaxy NX's image quality and performance.

The lack of external controls on the Galaxy NX does seem a bit strange, but there's a hot shoe on top if you want to add an external flash, along with well-placed shutter and movie record buttons. The idea being that once you configure the camera the way you want it, you just shoot and share you images or video via the camera's cellular connectivity. The large screen on its back reinforces the idea of this connectivity, making you think it actually contains an Android phone which you can pull out from the camera and make a call with. You can't do that, but using Skype or a similar app, you will be able to make a video or voice call easily with the Galaxy NX. One other thing that struck me about the Samsung Galaxy NX while playing with it yesterday: you shut it down as you would an Android phone, not as you would a camera. There's a small power button on top which you hold for a few seconds, triggering a prompt on the touchscreen that asks you if you would like to shut it down. But as we do with our phones, it's best to just leave the Galaxy NX on, so it's always ready to shoot and share.

Bottom line, the Samsung Galaxy NX is a true quantum leap in photographic capability on the Android platform, finally bringing serious camera functionality to a segment previously limited to small-sensor image quality and very restricted options for optics or other accessories. I liked what I saw of the camera integration with Android-based apps, and think the ability to automatically upload high-quality images directly to Dropbox will be a boon to many event photographers and certainly family memory-keepers as well. As noted, the user interface takes a little getting used to for someone coming from the more conventional camera world, but one of the most exciting aspects of the Galaxy NX is the extent to which programmers will be able to play with and tweak the interface on their own. Huge kudos to Samsung for being so open with their source code, especially for exposing elements of the image-processing chain, an area of camera operation manufacturers normally treat as highly proprietary. The Galaxy NX looks like a photo-hackers dream product, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a rich ecosystem develop around it, as the most programmable, open camera system to date. I don't think it will be very long at all before we see the first third-party user interfaces appear for it. Regardless of all that, though, it's already a powerful tool for truly connected imaging, just as it stands.

There's no question that Samsung is cutting a wide swath in the interchangeable-lens system camera market; the new Galaxy NX will only further expand their reach.

Video tour of Android-based Samsung Galaxy NX mirrorless camera.

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