Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: This has a high chance of RTFM errors.
The Long Version: The Samsung NX11 is not exactly cutting edge anymore, but I was able to spend a little time with one recently. It came with the 18-55 II lens, and I have to admit that it's my first time working with a standard zoom with that particular pair of focal lengths. What can I say? I lead a sheltered life.
My first impression of the NX11 is that it's a nicely built little camera, with a solid and nicely sculpted hand grip. The pedestal for the shutter button looks awkward but feels perfect, and the right-side strap lug is slightly recessed into the body. Cameras from makers with dozens of designs haven't exhibited that level of thoughtfulness. There's a distinct camera-ness to the NX11 – something that I don't see in a lot of the mirrorless cameras from other makers whose names start with an "S" – that I find reassuring in such an untested brand.
The NX11 keeps the SLR-esque design that sets it apart from the Panasonic GF series, Olympus Pens, Sony NEX, Pentax Q, or Nikon 1's. It has a flash-equipped fairing for its EVF that also houses a hot shoe, which is TTL-compatible with Samsung's own flash system. It uses an eye-sensor to toggle between the EVF and LCD, but I had to learn not to look through the top of my glasses to be able to trigger it. Otherwise switching between the LCD and EVF needs a trip to the menu. I'm not sure why they weren't able to assign this function to one of the sixteen buttons on the outside of the camera – the one marked "DISP" would have been my pick – or add another one specifically for the purpose, but I suppose they have their reasons. Not having enough input from actual photographers or sufficient design testing is a reason, isn't it?
The overall size of the camera is about the same as the Panasonic GH1 that I own, and without a measuring tape or an internet flame war to guide me, I'd say that the sensors look pretty close as well. The Samsung is a 14.6 megapixel camera – it's quite proud of that – while the GH1 has twelve pickles. The result is a pair of sensors that are pretty much equivalent, although the generational difference does give an advantage to the Samsung at high-iso settings. It's not a huge difference, but I'd be a little happier using the NX11 at iso3200 than I would with the older Panasonic.
I've been known to take photos in parking garages even when I'm not trying out a loaner camera, so it was a natural place to take the Samsung. The NX11 goes up to iso3200, and does it fairly well. The photos above are heavily cropped (but still not 100%), one from a JPG straight out of the camera, and the other from the raw file that has had auto-levels and auto-WB in Lightroom. I don't find the noise in the raw photo all that objectionable, and vastly prefer it to the noise reduction that the camera applies. This can be minimized in the camera set-up, but the best choice is just to shoot raw when image quality is the priority.
Focusing in the dark is a slightly different matter. Comparing the NX11 and GH1 at a 28mm-e, the Samsung at f/3.5 and the Panasonic at f/4 widest apertures, the GH1 could lock focus in scenes where the NX11 struggled or failed completely. This takes a pretty low light level, on the order of a 60-watt bulb on the far side of the living room, but the AF targets had plenty of contrast. For fun I tried my c.1999 Nikon F100 with an ancient 35-70/2.8 lens, and it had no problem at all in conditions that sent both mirrorless cameras running away screaming. Even my 2003 Olympus E-1 with its 50mm f/2 macro lens did a little better than the mirrorless cameras, but took much longer to do it.
The NX11 has (optional) distortion correction for its jpeg files, which is effective if something of an under-achiever. Normally I'm quite picky about this, but people who are using a good-enough camera for jpegs will be well served by it. For comparison I tried the 18-55 lens on the Sony NEX-5, and the distortion changes visible on its LCD when zooming in and out on a fluorescent light fixture looked like a seagull flapping its wings.
For those who want to work harder at post-processing, Lightroom/ACR includes profiles for the 18-55II lens which remove more of the distortion. For this class of camera and lens, 'fix it in post' isn't an unreasonable solution. I also have to admit that the 18-55 lens performs better than I expected it to. It's nicely balanced and suits the camera, and while the whole package isn't exactly petite, it's smaller-enough that I would prefer it to a Rebel or similarly-sized camera.
Product photography is where I usually put cameras through their paces, and I learned a few things about the NX11 when I decided to do a Kleen Kanteen family portrait. That's where I fell over the NX11's exposure control. Being able to override the camera meter is essential for creative control, and a huge advantage for LCD/EVF cameras is that they can show exactly what the photo will look like. Not so much with the Samsung. Changing the exposure compensation doesn't alter the brightness of the pre-capture display, which is bad but tolerable, but the live histogram also doesn't change as the exposure compensation is adjusted. (UPDATED 4 oct: I've since been able to work with another NX11, and it performed properly, with both the display brightness and histogram responding to the exposure control. I'm not sure what the difference between the two was, but it's good to know that there's a fix.)
Colour reproduction and general image quality are quite good with the NX11. I didn't have enough time to spend with the camera to reach any solid conclusions, and there are much better sources to draw those from anyway, but I was satisfied with what the little Samsung could do. I would happily use it in the same way that I use my GH1 if I were to buy the NX11, which I won't, if Samsung had the same range of lenses available for it, which they don't. It's good at being the camera that it is, and that all I can really ask of it.
And penultimately, I do have to extend a note of compassion to Samsung. There's a tremendous shortage of letters and numbers for camera companies to choose from when naming products, especially when they want to convey the aura of modernity wrapped in fashionable shades of plastic. The letters "i", as in "iFunction," and "d", like in "DRIM processor" are particularly in demand. So I suppose it's inevitable that Sony and Samsung have picked very similar names for their new systems, names that just happen to sound reminiscent of the word "next". NeXT, of course, was the company that took over Apple Computer and installed Steve Jobs as its CEO, making it synonymous with revolutionary consumer electronics.
Naming snark aside, I have no doubt that someone who is committed to an NX11 can learn its quirks and navigate its limitations, which is always needed with any camera. I personally don't find it compelling, but that's also true for the EOS system and it appears to be doing quite well without me. As a former owner of an uncommon camera format, I wouldn't endorse buying into the NX system in the hope that it will eventually add the things that will make it right. If it's right for right now, then that's great and it will serve its owner well. There's no such thing as a universal camera, and there's no requirement to only own one at a time.
With my usual exceptional timing, the NX11 is discontinued and about to be replaced by the NX200 and (surely) another camera that shares the NX11's form factor. When spending time with it I wasn't looking at it as a buy/don't buy decision, but rather trying to learn a bit about the camera and system before I meet the NX200 and its siblings. Overall I like what I've seen, but there are a few issues that Samsung needs to improve before the camera is ready to be taken completely seriously. Hopefully the system will continue to grow and mature, and eventually break double-digits for the lens lineup. I can't see them rivalling the two big brands that make up the majority of the mirrorless camera market, but then people used to say that about Olympus SLRs as well.
Time will tell. Until then, there's no point in worrying or arguing about it. The NX11 is a decent machine and not a bad deal while it lasts.
The camera used for this review is an evaluation sample that I was able to borrow for a week; I had access to it because my day job has me standing around in a camera store. Samsung has no idea that I exist, and probably wouldn't care if they did.
last updated 4 oct 2011