Mirrorless compacts with swappable lenses are the hot trend in cameras right now. They offer the best of both worlds -- the smaller body of a compact coupled with the versatility of a dSLR. Samsung knows that as well as anyone, which is why it's refreshing its line-up every few months.
The NX210 comes hot on the heels of the NX200, which made its CNET UK bow six months back. Much of the spec is the same, but with the addition of built-in Wi-Fi, it's now smarter and more capable than ever.
The Samsung NX210 can be bought online with an 18-55mm lens from around £640.
Intelligent lens system
A highlight of Samsung's compact interchangeables is the iFN button on the side of the barrel. This gives you direct access to toggling the most common shooting options for each mode.
So, set the NX210 to shutter priority and iFN alternates between shutter speed and exposure compensation. Switch to aperture priority and it swaps out shutter speed for aperture. If the camera's set to manual, then it switches back and forth between shutter and aperture. The button itself is paired with the focus ring at the front of the dial, so a twist of the ring adjusts each setting or, if you find it easier, you can use the regular top-mounted wheel instead.
It's supremely easy to use, well implemented and does much to encourage more creative photography. This is particularly true if you set the camera to lens priority mode, where the iFN button and focus ring let you switch quickly between preset scene modes, showing you live previews of how your photo will look in each instance.
The lens itself is an 18-55mm unit, which equates to 27.7-84.7mm with the NX210's APS-C-sized sensor. This is a pretty standard metric. Like the maximum aperture, which stands at f/3.5 and f/5.6 in wide angle and full telephoto respectively, it's common to many entry-level cameras. Minimum aperture is f/22, and minimum focusing distance is a fairly fat 28cm.
Samsung's complete line-up presently runs to eight lenses. This falls short of Panasonic (20 including conversion lenses), the Pentax K-01, (which can call on over 30 of Pentax's back catalogue of compatible units), and the forthcoming Canon EOS M (which can access Canon's complete EF lens line-up through the use of an adaptor). It does, however, cover all of the expected bases, from 16mm pancake to 18-200mm telephoto.
It takes around a quarter of a second to fix focus. While respectable, this lags a little behind the competition in both auto mode and shutter or aperture priority. The automatic mode is very quick to decide on the most appropriate exposure setting, but it takes about 2 seconds to wake from sleep, and switching between shooting modes briefly throws up a title screen explaining what the mode does. If you switch past several modes on the top-mounted selection wheel then these screens scroll past in turn. They're pretty quick, but still unnecessary once you've come to know the camera, and they do slow you down a touch.
NX210 in use
If you need to hold it for any length of time, then you won't get a much more comfortable camera than the NX210. It's fairly hefty, with the body weighing 222g and the lens an extra 198g on top, but the payback is an all-metal body and a well-crafted grip containing the battery and memory card that makes it extremely secure in your hand. The outer part of the grip has a rubber coating, while the inner face is textured where it meets the tips of your fingers. The complete package is extremely well balanced when used two-handed, with your left hand taking care of the zoom.
The rear screen is a bright 3-inch AMOLED display, which you can overlay with a choice of four grids and a histogram. There's no optical or digital eyepiece, but that's not a problem as the screen is easy to see outdoors in bright light. There's no built-in flash, but Samsung bundles an external hot-shoe mounted flash in the box, along with a lens hood.
There's a dedicated Wi-Fi slot on the mode selector that drops you into a menu from which you can email images directly, share them on social networks, back them up, view them on a TV and use a remote viewfinder on your smart phone.
As this Wi-Fi mode is the key difference between the NX210 and its predecessor, the NX200, it's probably not worth NX200 owners upgrading. The 20-megapixel sensor (5,472x3,648-pixel images), HD movie recording (1,920x1,080p, 30 frames per second) and sensitivity range of ISO 100 to ISO 12,800 (with compensation of +/-3EV in 1/3EV steps) is otherwise unchanged. For first-timers though, it could prove sufficient inducement to turn away from rival brands.
All this would count for nothing if the NX210 couldn't hold its own in the field, but there's no worries here.
I conducted my tests with it set to shoot raw files and JPEGs, with my analysis on the raw shots after importing them into Lightroom, which was set to convert them to Digital Negative (DNG) format.
Colour reproduction was particularly impressive. The NX210 ably handled subtle changes in tone under a variety of lighting conditions. The flower in the shot below is very pale, yet the NX210 perfectly rendered the gentle fades between pink and white on each petal and the predominantly green background. Despite this narrow tonal variation, it's easy to make out a high degree of detail, with the veins in each petal cleanly rendered across the full face of the flower and pollen clearly visible on the facing surfaces.
Focus is consistently sharp across the majority of the frame. Where objects fall outside of the area of focus, such as the trees behind the ducks below, the bokeh effect is attractive.
It coped well with uneven lighting and backlit subjects by retaining a high level of detail within shadow areas. In the shot below, the primary light source is the sky behind the church has naturally thrown the grass and hedgerow into silhouette. However, lifting the DNG's shadow areas in post-production reveals the leaves have been clearly recorded and it's possible to recover a high degree of detail.
The kit lens' geometry is excellent, as it very effectively preserves horizontal and vertical lines without introducing pin-cushion or barrel distortion into the results, meaning lines are kept parallel.
Furthermore, there's only the barest hint of chromatic aberration (or fringes of colour on sharply contrasting objects), if you zoom its shots to 100 per cent. Without very close examination, sharp contrasts set against bright backgrounds are clean and accurate.
However, there is some fall-off in the level of focus at the corners and edges of the frame, which is clear to see when examining very fine detail such as the needles on the tree below. This kind of fall-off is common in most cameras to some extent, because the lens is forced to bend the incoming light to the most extreme degree to focus it.
Low-light performance is very good, with only the barest hint of grain evident at sensitivities as high as ISO 800. In the image below, shot at that level, the grain isn't evident when viewed full screen. Even when zoomed to 100 per cent, it remains hard to make out, leaving plenty of clear detail and realistic colours in the finished result.
The NX210's video performance was good, but it fell a little short of what I had been hoping for on the back of its excellent stills.
As with the photos, it did a superb job of accurately exposing video footage throughout my tests, even when subjects were strongly backlit. And it was great at separating subjects from their surroundings when they shared a comparatively narrow colour palette.
However, compensation for changing light levels was stepped, rather than smooth, and there was some play in the lens when panning across a scene that encompassed significant movement in the point of focus. This was particularly true in the footage below, where I panned through a lock and canal and the footage can be seen to wobble as the lens compensates for the increasing distance of the subject matter.
The audio track is well recorded, despite there being no option to dampen ambient wind noise. While you can hear the movement of the lens cuff as you zoom when filming, it's not loud. Listen very carefully though, and you can hear some internal mechanics working when the camera compensates for changes to the level of light in the footage.
The NX210 -- like its NX200 predecessor -- is one of the most user-friendly mirrorless cameras going. A variation on the excellent i-Function lens system is something that competitors would do well to consider as it greatly speeds up the selection of common shooting settings. It encourages less experienced users to be more creative.
It's probably not a sensible upgrade for anyone who already has an NX200. But the NX210 would make an excellent entry into the world of mirrorless interchangeable lens compacts (variously called compact system cameras/CSC and digital single lens mirrorless/dSLM) for anyone looking to move up from a regular compact. Likewise, it will appeal to a dSLR user who wants a smaller yet versatile day-to-day camera for more casual photography.
It scores three and a half out of five, which is one star lower than I graded the NX200. This isn't because the NX210 is a poorer choice than the NX200 -- it isn't. It's simply that the competition has become that much stronger in the intervening six months.