Samsung doesn't make a traditional dSLR. Instead, it's concentrating its high-end efforts on compact system cameras (CSC). This class pairs a traditional interchangeable lens set-up with a compact body, as seen elsewhere in the Panasonic GX1 and GF5, Pentax K-01 and Q, and Nikon 1 J1 and V1.
Although not the smallest CSC I've tested lately, the NX20 is light and extremely comfortable to hold for extended periods. It takes the best of a regular dSLR, including the viewfinder (digital rather than optical in this instance), and sculpted grip, and packs it into a slightly squeezed body.
Around the back is a vivid 3-inch screen that's articulated through 180 degrees horizontally and 270 degrees vertically. If you don't want to take overhead or low shots, you can turn it back on itself and fold it flat to the back of the camera. There's a hard window in front of it for protection. Combined, these features make the NX20 very satisfying to use for extended periods.
The Samsung NX20 can be bought now for £900.
I tested the NX20 in aperture priority mode so that I could control the depth of field, while leaving all other decisions about exposure and sensitivity up to the camera. I set it to write JPEGs in camera, but you can opt for raw or a combination of the two for maximum flexibility.
The kit lens I used in these tests was fast to focus and sharp once locked onto its subject. In the image below, which demonstrates some very stark contrasts where the weather vane passes in front of an overcast sky, the edges are well defined. The grain in the wood, which you might expect to be silhouetted by the brighter background, is clearly rendered. Even the screw thread that connects the vane to the post is easily made out.
It coped well with images containing only a limited colour palette in which it had to rely largely on luminance changes rather than contrasting colours to render the scene.
The image below of a wooden badge on the front of a VW Camper Van is a case in point. The paintwork and wood are very similar tones, yet there's plenty of detail in each as the NX20 brings out the underlying texture, while maintaining smooth and unstepped changes to luminance.
The lens was fast to find focus and easy to fix on specific points in the image. There's no touch-to-focus as it's not a touch-sensitive screen, but the Area AF zone covers around half of the display. Continuous auto-focus takes about half a second to fix on a new subject when you shift the lens, so long as you can hold the camera body fairly steady.
The results are sharp, with texture, grain and tiny imperfections in my test subjects clearly picked out. The paint on the air line below is starting to peel, leaving parts of the white backing exposed. Even from a distance of 4m, using a moderate amount of zoom, the imperfections are laid bare, with further scratches in the red paintwork and even the slightly corroded nut below the face revealed.
Focus remains sharp right into the corners of the image. In the still-life test below, the subjects in the upper left and both of the lower corners are roughly the same distance from the lens as the centre point subject, and they're sharp and cleanly focused. There's no evidence of stretching or smearing, where the lens has problems bending the light to an extreme degree to focus it accurately on the sensor.
Naturally, this means the NX20 doesn't suffer unduly from chromatic aberration either. This is an undesirable colour fringing effect where fine subject matter or sharp contrasts may be traced with a pink or turquoise halo where they meet brighter backgrounds, such as the sky.
That could have been the case in the shot of the hay wagon below, where the leaves of the bamboo to the left, fir in the centre and fruit trees to the right overlay the brighter sky. However, the NX20 accurately focuses each wavelength of visible light in sync for a crisp, neat result. The same was true with the shot of the weather vane, seen above.
It produced very natural skin tones, as can be seen below. Both the well-lit forearm and the face, where it falls in shadow, have a natural, balanced colour. This is despite the brighter, unnaturally coloured teapot being the focal point of the frame.
The NX20 shoots Full HD video at 1,920x1,080 pixels at 30p. There are supplementary options for 1,920x810 pixels at 24p, 1,280x720 pixels at 30p, 640x480 pixels at 30p and a specific web-sharing mode that shoots up to 30 seconds of footage at 320x240 pixels.
The regular shooting modes -- Aperture or Shutter priority, program and manual -- are also available when filming movies. You can even tweak the speed at which it's shot to accommodate playback speeds of between 0.25x and 20x the normal rate.
I used regular 1x speed recording in my tests and the NX20 achieved results that matched the quality of its bright, sharp stills. Colours were realistic and light was well handled, with smooth transitions where it encountered changes in the level of luminance.
It had no trouble capturing fast-moving subjects such as scenery passing both sides of the frame at close quarters. The microphone pickup was very sensitive, cleanly recording bird song in my tests. The only dampener was a faint recording of the camera's mechanics playing with the lens as it compensated for changes in the level of incoming light.
Features and specs
Two features help this camera stand out from the crowd. The first is Samsung's i-Function lens system. The second is built-in Wi-Fi.
The i-Function lenses have a dedicated iFN button on the side of the barrel. Pressing this lets you change specific settings for the selected shooting mode by turning a ring on the end of the barrel, outboard of the zoom cuff. Press it when set to aperture priority and you can control both aperture and exposure compensation. Use it in shutter priority mode and it controls exposure compensation and shutter speed. It very quickly becomes second nature to click and twist when you need to make an adjustment.
The built-in Wi-Fi lets you back up your photos, email them or share them online. You can also view them on a suitably equipped TV connected to the same access point.
Beyond these stand-out features, the rest of the specs can more than hold their own. Its native resolution is 20.3 megapixels, producing stills of 5,472x3,648 pixels. Sensitivity runs from ISO 100 to ISO 12,800 with compensation of +/-3EV in 1/3EV steps.
Maximum shutter speed is 1/8,000 second, while the longest possible exposure is 30 seconds. That top speed is faster than many rivals, while a 30-second exposure would be perfect for shooting night-time scenes with illuminated buildings and streaking headlights.
The set-up I tested came with the 18-55mm kit lens, which matches the lens bundled with many consumer-grade dSLRs and represents a modest zoom of 3x. The camera's APS-C-sized sensor has a 1.5x crop factor, so it actually acts like a 27-82.5mm unit, with an aperture range of f/3.5 at wide angle, down to f/5.6 at full telephoto. The tightest aperture is f/22 for a fairly regular set of aperture metrics all round.
Individual shot-to-shot times in my tests were around a second each, with maximum burst mode running at 8 frames per second. At this rate the buffer fills after 11 shots and it needs to pause to offload data to your media card.
Shooting with the NX20 is effortless and fun. Samsung's industrial designers have done a great job of building a gadget that feels good in your hand and has all the crucial controls perfectly placed to fall under your fingers. Chief among them is the implementation of the i-Function lens, which makes it far easier to change common shooting controls with your left hand, while keeping the fingers of your right hand poised over the shutter release.
All of this would count for nothing if the quality of its output wasn't up to scratch, but there's no cause for concern there. Colours are realistic, illumination is balanced and sharp contrasts were a consistent feature of my tests.
Just about the only complaint you could level at it, beyond the slightly high price, is that the body isn't that much smaller than a consumer dSLR. Don't let this put you off though. It's a first-class camera and it produces first-class photos to match.