Samsung NX1 vs. Full Frame CMOS: Challenge Accepted
In 1983, a clandestine effort was initiated by a well-established multi-national company with no budget restrictions or time constraints. It was to be a product that would represent the best of the company’s energies and skills, and redefine an entire market. That company was Toyota, and the product was the Lexus LS 400. The car was a tremendous success and eliminated the dominance of American and European luxury flagship sedans for over a decade. To this day, the Lexus LS remains the gold standard for reliability and in-cabin quietness and the current LS is actually quieter than a Tesla Model S on the highway!
Three years ago, Samsung embarked on a project with similarly lofty goals. This time, they wanted to build the world’s best interchangeable lens camera. It would be a system that would convince existing DSLR owners to jump to the Samsung platform and be a camera that demonstrated what the combined resources of Samsung could do. The product is the NX1.
Did Samsung succeed? In one word: yes.
I’m not going to take it easy on Samsung. I’m going to compare the Samsung NX1 with the 16-50/2-2.8 S “kit” lens against the Sony A7R with the Zeiss FE 35/2.8 and FE 55/1.8 primes and the Canon EOS 5D Mark II with the 24-70/2.8L II. I chose the 5D Mark II over the Mark III because it has better quality in good light at ISO 1600 or lower. (The easiest comparison is to look at the RAW images between ISO 100-1600 here and look at the why the cameras capture Mickey Mouse’s pants or the clarity of the Seychelles Islands on the globe). For low light comparisons, where the 5D Mark III shines over the 5D Mark II, I’ve already got an Sony A7R for comparison.
Samsung has already beat Sony when it comes to home appliances, televisions, tablets and smartphones, and with the NX1 they could easily challenge Sony as a supplier of APS-C sensors to third parties if they wanted to pursue that route.
When it comes to manufacturing semiconductors, the “process generation” refers to how small the transistors are. The smaller the transistor, the less power it needs to do the same thing. That’s how our modern laptops with 14nm FinFET CPUs from Intel can have hours upon hours of battery life. The smaller the transistor though, the more precise your manufacturing has to be and the more leakage that can occur (which generates heat). When it comes to CMOS camera sensors, process technology matters just as much as it does with regular computer processors and heat equals noise.
Right now, Canon sensors including the EOS-1Dx are manufactured on a 500nm process. That’s the kind of process technology from the AMD 486DX4 era and Pentiums in the early 1990s. The Nikon D4 sensor uses a 250 nm process. That moves us up to the Pentium II or AMD K6 era. The Sony A7R/A7S sensors as well as the D800 sensor are built on an 180nm aluminum platform. Pentium III or Athlon XP.
What Samsung has done with the NX1 is go to 65nm with copper interconnect, the process technology used in the Core 2 Duo (Conroe). That alone is enough to help decrease noise. Where Samsung went even further was to make the sensor a backside illuminated one which puts the circuitry behind the light detecting photocathode layer.
Read noise is excellent with spectacular results in the green channel at high ISOs although the sensitivity, or gain, isn’t quite as good. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the green Bayer Color Filters on the NX1 may simply be more narrow giving more precise colors (I’ll get to this later).
Sensor Analysis – Studio
To make this comparison, I took at Canon EF 70-200/2.8L IS II and placed it on a tripod at 200mm f/2.8. I then simply attached the lens to each camera, verifying focus each time with maximum-zoom LiveView. Fotasy mount adapters were used.
The high-resolution of the NX1 and A7R reveal a bit of motion blur at ISO 100 and 1/40s despite my setup being a Gitzo 6X CF tripod with a Markins M10 ballhead. Jumping up to ISO 800 gives us the shutter speeds needed to eliminate motion blur. In every case, it’s pretty clear that the NX1 is able to beat the 5D Mark II.
The NX1 and A7R seem like true peers. Pay close attention to the golden circle just to the right of the text “94V-0037.” At ISO 100 and 800, the A7R and NX1 look nearly identical.
Jumping up to ISO 3200, you can actually give the edge to the NX1 over the A7R. At this point, the A7R is starting to lose some of the color in that golden trace – it looks green rather than gold. Pause for a moment and realize what that means – an APS-C sensor with tiny pixels is beating a 35mm “flagship” sensor at high ISO under low-light conditions.
By ISO 6400 the A7R and NX1 are pretty close again and by ISO 25600, the A7R comes out ahead.
Sensor Analysis – Astrophotography
I did a rough-and-dirty comparison between the A7R and NX1 with long-exposure astrophotography. Under these scenarios, the images are a better reflection of how the sensors truly perform as light collecting devices. While these images of Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) were taken on two different nights and different exposures, this rough test did reveal and confirm some of my earlier thoughts.
These shots were taken with a Leica 180/3.4 APO-Telyt-R at ISO1600 under heavy light pollution in San Francisco. Polar alignment was restricted to a compass and inclinometer – no drift align was used. The Samsung had 25.5 minutes of integration while the Sony had 31.5 minutes of integration. Curves were adjusted in a way to give the best image possible, but wasn’t standardized between the two.
The Sony’s sensitivity in the green channel is better than Samsung’s at high ISO. We can see this in the color of the comet. It’s possible that with an additional 10 minutes of integration the Samsung would see more of the green color, but this really highlights the concept that different cameras see color differentially (which is not correctable in post-processing).
Sony’s lossy compressed RAW format generates posterization artifacts that are not present on the Samsung’s format.
The gaps in the Samsung’s star trails reflect capture errors where the tracking was not perfect. (Those images were not included in the processing)
Lens Analysis – Preliminary
Samsung reportedly has more than 100 people working on lens R&D and develops their aspherical lens elements for their high-end “S” line of lenses in house. The S-series is designed by a separate team and has a separate management structure from the rest of the NX line.
Although a “fair” comparison would be to look at the Samsung 16-50/2-2.8S against the Canon EF-S 17-55/2.8 IS, I want to put Samsung’s S lens against the flagships. The best fast standard zoom on the market is the Canon 24-70/2.8L II and the sharpest lens in my kit is the Sony Zeiss FE 55/1.8.
In the center, at F/2.8, the Samsung and Sony completely outclass the 24-70/2.8L II. In fact, I’d give the award to Samsung due to the very slight purple fringing that can be seen around the text.
At f/5.6, everyone sharpens up. The A7R/FE55 combo has a higher true focal length and the prime lens clearly has superior detail to the Samsung zoom lens. That said, at 50mm equivalent, the Samsung NX1+16-50/2-2.8 combo beats the 5D Mark II + 24-70/2.8L II combo. For years, the workhorse in the wedding photography industry would have been the classic “Mark I” version of the 24-70/2.8L with the 5D Mark II. An impressive showing by Samsung nonetheless.
My 35mm test was flawed in that the NX1 ended up being 30mm, but it’s fair to say that the NX1 held its own. Paradoxically, it is a little bit blurrier at f/5.6 vs. at f/2.8.
At 70mm, I just compared to the 5D Mark II + 24-70/2.8L II against the NX1 + 16-50/2-2.8S. It’s here that the $1150 Samsung lens with image stabilization vs. the $2000 Canon lens makes sense.
At 70mm, the Canon is exceptionally sharp wide open, even to the edge. Admittedly in the center, the Samsung does a nice job also with the body/lens combo edging out Canon. The edges of the frame are nowhere as good though, especially when considering the fact that the “edge of the frame” is much narrower on the Samsung APS-C vs. Canon’s 35mm sensor. For portraits, this may actually be advantageous, but I personally like sharpness across the frame.
Absolutely stunning. The Samsung samples the entire 28 megapixel frame before downsampling to 4K giving you much higher detail. Downsampling in this manner gives a more Foveon-like picture with additional color information per pixel. Both the Sony A7S and Panasonic GH4 use a 1:1 crop. When looking at my videos compared to the test-clips from Samsung/LG/Sony that get shown for 4K TVs, the Samsung is sharper.
These frame grabs were taken from videos show in Samsung’s DCI-4K mode (4096×2160) rather than the UHD 3840×2160 mode. The Samsung is actually sharper in the UHD mode…
In the current firmware, there is a bug that affects recording. You can see the “flicker” (or exposure drift) in my video around 34 seconds where the scene brightens/darkens. In analyzing the still frames, we can detect a glitch where a 16-bit TIFF will show the black level shifting from a range of 0-65535 (41668 avg signal +/- 17964) and then to 257-65535 (41069.349 +/- 17951.604). These shifts last for about 2 frames or so. This change in the floor only appears to affect the RED channel although there is a shift. It’s not entirely predictable when this happens – it’s rare for me, but others see it all the time.
When it comes to the final output, the Samsung NX1 definitely lives up to the hype. It is a crop-sensor camera that holds its own against high-end full-frame stalwarts from Canon and Sony. The electronic viewfinder is superior to the one in the A7R both in terms of fluidity and sharpness, especially in good light, as well as color accuracy. Reds tend to skew toward orange on the EVF on the Sony. Colors and skin tones have a Canon-like warmth to them as opposed to the slightly bilious tint that Sony’s Bayer filter and sensor imparts that is impossible to completely eliminate in post-production. In a way, it’s perfectly OK to be lazy with the Samsung NX1 and let it do its own thing in full auto mode.
When it comes to video, the NX1 has no parallel in its price class. Unlike the Panasonic GH4 which reads a 1:1 crop of the sensor for 4K, the Samsung reads the entire sensor and then downsamples it to 4K giving you a Foveon-like feel to it. Professionals have compared the output to that of Red’s Dragon sensor, with all of the advantages of having a fully self-contained and portable run-and-gun type setup. Samsung’s NX1 has already found its way to being used on Project Runway in the US and reportedly on an upcoming Korean drama on KBS (Korea’s public/national broadcast station).
Flash technology is an area where Canon and Nikon have had some of the most mature technology. The 600EX-RT and SB-910 are some of the best flashes for any platform. Sony’s HVL-F60M has some cool tricks up its sleeve like the built in LED light for video work, but the CRI seems off, and for a flagship flash, even the A7R with a 4 fps / 20 frame buffer is enough to cause the HVL-F60M to overheat and go into protect mode.
The Samsung ED-SEF580A flash is manufactured in Germany and is likely manufactured by Metz, a seasoned flash manufacturer. Since the flash wasn’t designed specifically for the NX1, however, there are a few silly ergonomic faults. When the flash is mounted to the body, you cannot open the battery door enough to replace the batteries. While the world has moved toward quick-release flash hot shoes, the Samsung is still a traditional screw-on locking mechanism. Though Samsung sells the flash for $500, it appears to be virtually identical to the Metz 58 AF-2 without secondary flash (which is $100-170 less).
Thankfully, overheating doesn’t seem to be a problem, but the flash is a little overpriced in my opinion. The ergonomic quirks carry over to the built-in pop up flash as well. When paired with the 16-50/2-2.8S, the lens, even without the hood, is prominent enough to generate a shadow on the bottom of the frame for close shots.
Autofocus in good light is fast. It definitely can track at 15 fps. In low light, the NX1 still hunts and while it’s a step up from the Canon 5D Mark II and A7R, it’s not at the level of a 5D Mark III/1Dx. The AF assist beam helps, but I seem to have better success with even a 5D Mark II + external flash as AF assist.
The NX1 has a 5-core custom processor running Tizen, a Linux-based operating system. Samsung is already planning to add plenty of features with the 1.20 firmware upgrade and have already committed to providing an SDK for developers to create their own apps. Instead of discounting the camera over time, they are trying to maintain the price of the camera, but continue to update it through software in a way that Red Digital or Tesla has done for their products.
While you have some silly features such as a selfie-mode where an audible beep lets you know when your face is in the center of the frame and in focus including an optional JPEG blemish-removal/skin smoothing algorithm, there are highly useful tools like dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi which lets you use a tablet or phone as a viewfinder (like Sony), but also upgrade the firmware over the Internet or email an image directly from the camera. What’s great is that the email service is handled by Samsung, so you don’t have to worry about configuring your camera for a specific SMTP server.
With 4K on-board HEVC, 15 fps, USB 3.0, and an AMOLED touchscreen and EVF, it’s hard not to give the camera 5 stars here.
Ergonomically, the NX1 is great. It’s not too small like the A7R and instead feels like a lightweight DSLR. The controls are reasonably laid out and idiosyncrasies such as having the Wi-Fi button right where you might want video record button are being addressed with firmware updates.
As a Canon user, the zoom ring goes the wrong way… Samsung makes up for this by rethinking the focus-by-wire nature of the NX lenses through the “iFunction tool.” Since you’re often not manual focusing anyway, you can use the iFunction button to treat the focus ring as another selection tool for the camera. You can therefore convert your MF ring to be an aperture ring, an ISO ring, or a number of other capabilities.
The NX1 loses half a star for the problems with the flash. It’s disappointing that I can’t change the batteries on my external flash without un-mounting it and equally disappointing that the pop-up flash doesn’t clear the bundled lens.
The other area where the NX1 loses another half star is the battery charger. The standard NX1 only charges through the USB cable and the NX1 Pro Kit includes a “charger” which connects to a USB cable charger. The NX1 isn’t an smartphone or tablet, so Samsung shouldn’t be adopting the same type of charger. If anything, the Pro Kit should have included dual battery chargers like the classic Canon D30 or 1D did.
The NX1 feels sturdy, but lightweight. The shutter release doesn’t have a mid-click détente, but allows you to squeeze the shutter gently. Weather sealing on the NX1 is not rated in the way the 1D series of cameras are rated, but there are O-rings around all openings and the lenses themselves have O-rings just like Canon’s L line up. (Which isn’t the case w/Sony’s premium E-mount lenses).
If you’re recording 4K video, the value is 6 stars. There simply isn’t a parallel to the setup, especially once the 1.20 firmware that was demo’d at this year’s CES is released. The NX1 is competitively priced, and the S-line of lenses is somewhat competitively priced. Even though the upgrade pathway is unlikely to include a “35mm full frame” sensor, few of us complain that our 35mm equipment is unable to upgrade to a 645 medium format size.
There will always be inherent physics that limits the quality of APS-C. As good as the NX1 may be against the Sony A7R, if Samsung applied the technology in the NX1 toward a full-frame sensor with larger pixels, the picture quality from that hypothetical sensor would be even better.
Likewise, although I’ve shown that the NX1 is highly competitive against a flagship $2000 Canon zoom lens, it’s still not as good as the flagships. Therefore, the NX1 isn’t a camera for ISO 102,400. It isn’t a camera with CPS/NPS support for getting a loaner 400/2.8 or a system with a breadth of specialty lens options that you might find on other systems.
And yeah, I still can’t get over the flash idiosyncrasies – Samsung really needs to price that closer to the $200 range instead of the $500 range.
It’s a game changer, but I’ll be the first to admit that the NX1 isn’t good enough to get owners of the 5D/1D or D4/D800 lineage to jump to a different brand. Still, Samsung has gone from a company that happens to make digital cameras to a company with a product that should be on your wish list and a roadmap to watch. This is their first try at a high-end ILC and they truly have something to be proud of.
Just as the original Nikon D1 and Canon D30 were game changers in their era against the film world, the NX1 is a game changer for the camera industry as well. Samsung has shown that they can develop a sensor that competes against the very best in the industry and put it in a body that can compete against some pretty hefty competition when only minor idiosyncrasies being the limiting factor. Though the lenses have room for improvement, they’re not horrible, and with 15 fps and 4K video you’ll be able to capture images and videos that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
With the 16-50/2-2.8 and 50-150/2.8, you’ve pretty much have a combo that will let you focus on your photography and videography and cover 95% of focal lengths you may want. If Samsung wants photographers to commit to APS-C who have otherwise shot full frame in the past, I’d like really like to see an 8-16mm zoom from Samsung in the S line with the quality matching the 16-35/4L on Canon.
Where I think Samsung has a great opportunity are the Canon and Nikon owners thinking about getting a Sony A7II/A7R/A7S as a secondary camera. The Sony line is great for someone looking for a lightweight camera with the opportunity to use vintage glass, some of which is superior to modern equivalents due to the not-harmful-for-consumers-but-harmful-to-the-environment-and-employees-involved-in-manufacturing leaded glass elements and Thoriated glass. Samsung’s opportunity is with 4K video.
In the end, all of us should be thrilled with the release of the NX1 because there is nothing better for the consumer than competition. The Samsung NX1 delivers a true threat to Canon, Nikon and Sony in a way that Micro 4/3rds and Fuji have not been.
About the Guest Contributor
Alan Dang is a photography enthusiast with 16 years of experience as a freelance technology analyst. He’s been a friend to the SLR Lounge team for years.