Shortly before the first Galaxy Camera came out, we knew that Android cameras were going to land and stay. As cameras get smarter, the complexity of the software stack also becomes too hard to develop for camera makers (which are definitely NOT software-centric folks). Samsung is the company that has the best Android Camera offering today, and with the Galaxy NX, it just took the whole sector to the next level.
Optically, the Galaxy NX is more or less a Samsung NX300, a rather potent interchangeable lens camera that our friend Karsten Lemm has reviewed recently. The user interface is however a powerful Android platform that comes with everything that you can expect from a high-end phone, including a 4G LTE connectivity (you have to provide the subscription, obviously). The combination is the Galaxy NX, a smart camera that you use like a smartphone, but that has the image quality of an enthusiast shooter. I’ve used it for a few weeks, and I will tell you how my experience could map into your own.
Before we go any further, let’s get the specifications out of the way. It’s good that you know some of this before we continue, but you will quickly realize that this camera is not about the specs, but about the usage model.
- 20.3MP APS-C CMOS sensor (same as NX300)
- 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 kit lens
- ISO 100-25600
- 4.8-inch 921K LCD with capacitive touchscreen with Gorilla Glass
- SVGA (800×600) electronic viewfinder with diopter control
- JPEG, RAW, RAW+JPEG capture
- Movies 1920×1080@30fps, 1280×720@60fps
- Built-in GPS +GLONASS (A-GPS supported)
- 16GB internal storage + microSD (64GB max)
- 1.6GHz Quad-core processor
- DRIMe IV imaging processor
- Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean)
- 4360mAh battery
- Advanced Hybrid Autofocus: 105 points on-chip phase-detect; 247-point contrast-detect
- Focus peaking
- WiFi a/b/g/n 2.4GHz, 5GHz, Bluetooth 4.0 (LE), NFC
- 4G LTE/3G HSPA+42Mbps cellular data
- Adobe Lightroom (in the box)
- 8.6 FPS Burst Mode
How do I use my cameras?
I can’t say that I am a “photographer”, but I am a photo enthusiast and I have been working in computer graphics for a long time, so I really like nice imagery. As a camera user, I’ll happily admit that I am not an artist. I typically don’t spend a lot of time tweaking things before taking one shot, and although I try to take interesting pictures, I would rather do it in the instant, rather than preparing for hours before snapping the ultimate picture.
I would prefer cropping and working on a RAW file, rather than trying to get the perfect framing and settings on-site. Professionally, I use photography to illustrate what I see during trade shows or in reviews like this one. Cameras I use the most: Canon 50D, Sony NEX F3, Sony NEX 5N
From the outside, the Samsung Galaxy NX looks like a mid-size cameras. I would say that it looks DSLR-like but I can see why some people would think that. It is slightly bigger than an NX300 and that’s mainly due to the enormous 4.8-inch AMOLED display in the back, which feels just like a smartphone. The back is nearly 100% screen and there is no buttons of any kind.
At the upper-left, there is enough room to rest the thumb without accidentally activating any touch-screen functions. I was very surprised that during all this time, my thumb never tapped on a button. I was expecting that to happen from time to time.
As seen from the top, the grip is large and quite prominent. For those who have handled the NX20, this grip is noticeably larger and well suited for my hands (I wear M-size gloves). The top of the camera is home to the physical controls: Flash, Power, Generic Dial, Video Recording and Shutter Button. Interestingly, the dial is also a button if you press it towards the front. It opens up new possibilities that could be exploited by Android Camera apps later. Finally, the top also features an accessory shoe for flash, microphones, just to cite the obvious.
The interchangeable lens dominates the front view, and the lens-unlock mechanism is located on the left side. It’s very classic and easy to use, nothing much to say about this. Next to the lens, there is a white dot which is the auto-focus assist light.
The right side is pretty much empty, but the left side has a 3.5mm audio jack (output?), a micro USB for sync/charge, micro HDMI to connect to a display. The bottom of the camera is rather plain, with a tripod connector of course, and a compartment for the battery/microSD and SIM card.
Let’s jump right away to the crunchy part: photo quality. First of all I have uploaded TWO sets of photos to Flickr. One set was shot at high-resolution during normal use, and another shot at low-resolution during the CES 2014. The reason why I picked a low resolution is because these were files meant to be uploaded over a crowded network, or edited/transformed on a laptop or tablet. In both case, working with lower-resolution files is a necessity in terms of productivity.
As you can see in the set #1 (above), the photos quality is good, especially if you consider that I’ve never used a flash or setup the lighting in a particular way. The camera shoot well in both bright lighting environments, or at night in places full of neons and other lights sources that could be confusing to the metering system.
In low-light conditions, the camera will behave very much like a smartphone and will tend to do its best to make things legible and bright enough, even if that means adding some noise to the photos. In trade shows, we often get really bad lighting and we don’t have time to mess around with the settings, so that’s when a smart “auto” mode is very handy. You just want to shoot a good picture, and move on to the next thing.
Photo set #2 (with watermarks) should give you a very good idea of what the camera is capable of. These are live pictures taken at CES 2014 in the worst possible (photographic) conditions, typically in poor lighting, high contrast, and in a very crowded environment where one has to raise the camera up to avoid having heads popping in and out. Now I’ll recognize that this is not “great photography”, and with more time and better conditions, I could do better with the same camera. However, CES is what it is, and if you need to snap and send a picture *within seconds* over a 4G network while typing a report at the same time – this is not bad at all… and photos comes already watermarked with your logo! Hard to beat.
"HAPPY WITH THE QUALITY, BUT KEEP AN EYE ON POST-PROCESSING" Overall, I was pretty happy with the quality of the photos, however, there is quite a bit of image post-processing, dare I say: too much. This is something that phones tend to do more than regular cameras, and that’s particularly true in low-light photos where the post-processing tries to remove noise or smooth–out contours, sometime in a fairly obvious way (it looks blurry if you zoom in). This was not a real issue for me, but I can see why some photographers would raise an eyebrow, or two. Since there are plenty of samples, I will let you be the judge of this – please drop a comment to share your thoughts.
The video recording works well and I have been absolutely happy with the sound quality of out of the box, without the microphone accessory. The audio recording is better than any of our NEX cameras (we have two NEX 5N and one NEX F3) and other apparatus that I have used over the years – except when I had a directional microphone. This may be because the smartphone platform uses a sound processor like what Audience has, but this was a nice surprise. I have uploaded a couple of movies I shot during CES in a VERY noisy environment. I used 720p on purpose to reduce the upload file size. Here’s a video shot with the Galaxy NX is typical tech demo conditions:
Photo experience & user interface
Beyond photo quality, which you can judge by the samples provided, it is also important to talk about the experience of capturing and using photos with the Samsung Galaxy NX since it is completely different from conventional cameras. I have seen many “classic” photographers come to this and run away screaming because it does not look like what they know. Fortunately, the interface does look like something that you probably know: an Android smartphone.
Besides the physical camera form-factor, the Galaxy NX camera behaves nearly like a big camera-shaped smartphone. Even the camera app works (more or less) like what you would see on a Galaxy smartphone. For those who have already shot photos with an Android phone, this should feel completely familiar. That also includes the non-photos stuff like apps, settings etc.
Note that the Samsung Android user interface (called TouchWiz) is not present in the electronic viewfinder. It makes sense because there is no good way to interact with Android when your eye is looking in there, but I thought that I would mention it.
The Galaxy NX also comes with “Pro” and “Standard” modes. Depending on which you select, the on-screen user interface changes a bit to expose more “manual” controls to the users. I looked at it, but I have mostly stuck to the standard mode, which has been good enough for what I did. If the shot is too difficult, I would rather try to find a new angle or move the object rather than tweak the settings, but if you really want to – it’s possible.
Let’s face it, $1600 worth of camera equipment will buy you better image quality than this (what about a Canon EOS 7D with the kit-lens for that price?), so there has to be another reason for getting a camera like the Galaxy NX. And the obvious one is connectivity and Android apps of course.
Being able to send images to a plethora of web services (including WordPress) or via email directly from the camera can be key to what you are trying to achieve. For example, I was able to upload photo of just-announced gadgets, with the Ubergizmo watermark only seconds after taking them. Most people would process things like this:"THE GALAXY NX CAN BE A GREAT TIME SAVER"
- Take one or more photos
- Copy the files to a computer via USB/WIFI/SDcard
- Turn on the computer if need be
- And take it out of your bag if need be
- Open some editing software to add the watermark
- Resize (width, height) to a manageable file size (KB)
- Send/upload with WiFi or 4G
With the Galaxy NX, it is like this
- Take one or more photos
- They are automatically watermarked with your logo and already in low-resolution
- Send/upload with WiFi or 4G from Android
Depending on the task at hand, the Galaxy NX can be a great time saver, and dramatically improve your workflow because file selection/copy and watermarking can be relatively lenghty. It is really up to you do figure out if it can help you or not, but typically, most people I know get an idea right away, or none at all. It’s fine either way, but a better workflow is why I think someone may need a Galaxy NX – that or you really like shooting photos from an Android app and a very good lens.
Keep in mind that in terms of workflow, I have added things like “pulling laptop from the bag” because if go from one booth to the next like we usually do, having a mobile device brings a lot of incremental gains because: 1/ you have it in your hands 2/ it turns on/off instantly (on PC/Mac, “instant” means 5-10 seconds + login…)
And of course, because it is running Android, the Galaxy NX can run any Androip app that would run on a smartphone or tablet (Dropbox, Box, WordPress, Typepad, etc..). At the moment, it is most useful if you want to do some basic image editing or if your company wants to build its own app. For example, Photo Mate is an app that would let you do all kinds of things with RAW images right on the camera – there is no need to pull a PC from your backpack.
There are a large number of apps available in the store, but we also need to point out a sad reality: the Android camera API is simply primitive when compared to the possibilities that the Galaxy NX Camera has to offer, so while you can build a camera app today, most of the settings are out of reach and you will have to rely on the system’s automatic settings – Android was never designed for this. We talked about this with Samsung and while they are confident that at some point, Android will come with a more complete API adapted to devices like this one, they will have to provide some software development kit (SDK) to developers in the meantime.
GPS: I haven’t used it, but you can of course tag your photos by location if you want to. Since this is a full-on Android device, you can also use it as a mapping / navigation device as well (check if your Nav app needs a live data connection). Since this is optional or lacking in many cameras, this is worth nothing.
File system visible during photo capture: while this is not really like “Remote Shooting”, a feature in which a camera can save photos directly a computer’s disk via a USB cable, the Samsung Galaxy NX can be mounted as a drive and shoot photos at the same time. This opens the door to scenarios where you setup a Galaxy NX to snap a photo every 5mn for days at a time. Since it is powered by the USB cable, the battery won’t run out and you can copy/delete files from the microSD card, space won’t run out. This is the first compact camera system that I know of which can do this, and select users will appreciate this. A true remote shooting would be a must, but in the meantime, this is an interim solution.
Things that could be improved
While I was using it, I have noticed a number of things that would need to be added/improved in the future, and I have divided them in two categories need and want.
Needs to be fixed
- Video auto-focus is chasing too often. This is probably my #1 item that requires a fix. Hopefully, a firmware update can address this, but in many videos I found the auto-focus looking for a firm footing. This is exacerbated by the fact that I’m mostly filming shiny gadgets, which are the worst subjects for any contrast-based AF system.
- The camera app locked up a couple of times on me. The AF would stop working and I couldn’t take pictures until I reboot. This should not happen at all.
- Some controls like image file size (super-fine, fine, standard) are only accessible in Manual Mode. I don’t think that this should be the case. Stuff like that is useful regardless of how you shoot the photos. In auto-mode, the smallest images (1728×1152) are 954KB big because they are in super-fine mode. If we could set “standard” instead of “super-fine” in auto-mode, the photos would go down to 321KB in size. That’s a huge difference.
Nice to have
- 1024×768 photos or user-defined photo dimensions
- Give me the watermarking for videos, or sell it as an in-app purchase, I don’t care. I want it.
- Although it’s pretty fast, turning the camera ON and having the app ready to shoot is slower than on “dumb” cameras
System Specifications (Samsung EK-GN120, Galaxy NX model name)
- Android 4.2.2
- ARM SMDK4x12 1.60GHz + 2GB RAM
- 16GB internal memory, up to 64GB microSD
- USB 2.0
While the camera is gaming capable, I’m going to focus on the CPU capabilities here because I think that photo editing and video editing will be done mainly on the CPU since the graphics processor is not really “compute capable”. As you can see on the graph below, the NX isn’t really a top-performer, but it still outperforms handsets like the Moto X or the Mega 6.3 (which is itself close to the Galaxy Note II), so it’s still pretty interesting. As photo or video apps get more interesting, I would keep an eye on the chip performance. At the moment, I haven’t been in any situation where I was CPU-limited, so this is a good pointer, but that’s it.
Battery Life (excellent)
With a 4360mAh battery, this camera has almost 50% more battery life than a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 which is already considered to be a mammoth when it comes to battery capacity. I used the camera with a 4G SIM card, so this was probably the worst case scenario and I have been able to go by the busiest days at CES without charging the camera. I’m not sure how many shots you’re supposed to be able to take, but since the display and the 4G radio are the primary power depletion causes, I think that your usage pattern will define how fast the battery goes. For all practical purposes, I think that the Galaxy NX battery is fantastic.
I also *really* love the USB charging capability. This is not new and I have said as much before when I reviewed the Sony NEX F3. However, the NEX F3 cannot charge while it’s on, while the Galaxy NX can. That makes a huge difference to me because if I happen to forget to turn the NEX F3 OFF before doing to sleep, it won’t charge, and it will actually continue to draw power (!). This also means that while I’m working with the NEX F3 connected to my computer, it doesn’t charge."THIS IS USB CHARGE/CONNECT DONE RIGHT"
This is not the case for the Galaxy NX: it will happily charge while turned on, and I can even continue to capture photos while the USB cable is on. The photos will appear right away in the file explorer of my PC. That’s neat for working on reviews at the office since it cuts down on the connect/disconnect time.
More untapped potential
Although it does much more for me than the first Galaxy Camera did, there is still MUCH untapped potential in the Android camera space. Although there are many camera apps available, few if any would do an obviously better job than the Samsung one. In a possible future, there may be an app for each type of photographer and one to cover every need. In reality, this has not happened yet.
A lot of this hinges on Android’s ability to provide developers with a camera API that gives them a lot more access and control than what exists today. Secondly, Samsung and others need to create an eco-system big enough for developers to be able to make money. In time, and given how fast digital imaging is evolving it’s hard to imagine that it won’t happen, and I have the feeling that manufacturers that don’t have the know-how to build Android devices will be (badly) left behind.
Before this happens, the developer community needs to be involved. I’m just about 100% convinced that the bulk of the innovation will come from 3rd party developers and the folks at Samsung Digital Imaging seemed to agree when I raised this at CES.
Conclusion (A potentially formidable work tool)
There you go, as someone who owns a few types of cameras (DSLR, mirror-less…) I found that adding Android and 4G to a product like this can dramatically improve the workflow for very specific tasks. And that’s really the thing that you should come away with: I consider this camera to be a formidable tool for taking pictures that need to be processed and sent as quickly as possible. If anything, its pricing makes it a hard sell for non-professionals in my opinion."I WOULD JUSTIFY IT WITH THE INCREASED PRODUCTIVITY. I TRIED, IT WORKS"
If you are looking at this and wondering why you need it, then you simply don’t. But some professionals will rethink their workflow around these capabilities. I met a few people at CES that were already all over it. This is a camera for enthusiasts with a specific goal in mind.
Now, I can’t exclude that some Android-friendly users will want this to take pictures in a user-interface that looks like their phones. However, the newly announced Galaxy Camera 2 will hit a price point that is probably more attractive for them – it’s your money after all. If I had to spend $1600 for this camera, I would justify it with the increased productivity. I tried, It works.