At this end of a manufacturer's product range there's just no room for errors in design and handling. Samsung is certainly aware of that too, and has evidently been hard at work to keep the EX1 in line with competitors. The camera body is impeccably well made. The lens barrel feels reassuringly robust and the connections compartment door doesn't feel like it's about to snap off. The screen's swivel hinge also feels sturdy and hard wearing.
The 3-inch swivel screen has a very high resolution, although it perhaps doesn't look quite as sharp as a Sony NEX-5 screen, for example. In any case, it makes lining up shots and focusing a highly pleasant experience. Plus, as it's an AMOLED panel (Samsung's speciality), it gives genuinely deep blacks and truly bright whites. The screen is easy to see outdoors, in spite of its all-too-shiny surface, and the viewing angles are pretty much perfect.
It's no surprise that Samsung has packed the 'expert' EX1 full of direct-access shortcuts. So without having to fiddle around in the menus, you can access the flash, sensitivity, exposure metering and lock, drive modes, focusing and video modes all via the dials under your thumb. You can also press the EV dial on the front of the camera (right under your middle finger) to bring up the exposure settings and adjust them. A Function button provides fast access to other settings such as white balance and resolution. The navigation wheel features both directional buttons and a click-round wheel for scrolling though menus quickly and easily.
Samsung hasn't, however, included any advanced options for customising the interface. In the Ricoh GR-D and GX200, for example, you can choose which settings you want to put in the Quick Menu or assign the shortcuts of your choice to Function buttons. Therefore, in the EX1, you can't recycle the often-redundant flash button (some will only ever use the flash in Forced or OFF modes) and turn it into a shortcut button to white balance or another more useful option. It's also impossible to switch round the functions on the scroll wheels: it's speed at the front and aperture at the back and that's the way it'll have to stay.
Plus, a surprising and slightly inexplicable design feature of the EX1 sees you use the zoom ring to ... wait for it ... adjust the focusing distance and the intensity of the flash. Surely, even in M mode, a simpler system could have been found (how about a click on the EV dial to bring up focusing settings in MF mode?).
In a camera with such very high ambitions, it might also have been nice to see a depth of field meter in A mode, full manual focusing, and why not even an 'instant shutter' mode (once again, as seen in Ricoh cameras) to lock the camera on to the hyperfocal distance.
Finally, the camera's battery life isn't up to much. The SLB-11A battery may be slim, but it's not all that powerful. Samsung's product spec gives a lifespan of just 240 shots, compared with 390 shots for the Canon G11 or 350 for the Ricoh GX200. Worse still, there's no point investing in a second battery, as Samsung doesn't supply a separate battery charger. That means you can't take the camera out and about while a spare battery charges at home, and that's a real shame for a camera that's designed for intensive use.
The EX1 takes what feels like an age to start up. In fact, you'll have to wait almost three seconds before you can take the first picture, although you can gain a little time by holding down the shutter release button (fully depressed) as you switch on the camera. Just make sure you don't need it in a hurry!
Once it's started up, the EX1 is a responsive camera. Focusing is very fast (no doubt helped by the large aperture) and saving a photo is almost a second faster than with the G11. In fact, without its sluggish start-up, the EX1 would have got a fifth star in this category too.
If it really wants to appeal to its 'expert' target audience, Samsung can't afford to make the slightest mistake with the EX1, and especially not in this field.
Noise handling is fine. The first hints of speckling start to crop up at 400 ISO, but it's not until 800 ISO that noise is visible in actual viewing conditions, i.e. on an A4 print or displayed on-screen. However, the image processing aimed at dealing with noise at high sensitivities does lead to a sharp loss in saturation, leaving the pictures looking somewhat dull. This is almost certainly caused by the processing techniques used to reduce colour noise (random coloured dots), something Samsung evidently handles less well than Canon.
The EX1 lens is really quite good. The middle of the picture is sharp at all focal lengths, even at full aperture. A speckling of aberration is just very slightly visible at the widest angle, which also suffers from strong barrel distortion. You'll have no such problems in telephoto though. A problem often seen in very fast zoom lenses is inconsistent picture quality across the frame. Here, at full aperture, the edges aren't quite as well defined as the centre of the picture, although you wouldn't notice a thing on a 21 x 28 cm print. In telephoto the whole image is impeccable from f/3. In wide angle, there's no noticeable improvement between f/1.8 and f/3.9.
There's not much to say in this category really. The image quality is OK, but it's still VGA resolution with mediocre mono sound. The only good feature is that you can zoom while filming.
- Pleasant, sharp AMOLED swivel-screen
- Ultra-wide-angle lens with record aperture
- Picture quality in centre of image (and from f/3)
- Very well made and user-friendly design
- Decent padded carrying strap provided
- Complicated system for accessing manual focusing functions
- Interface can't be customised
- Only VGA video
- Slow to start up
- No automatic image rotation
As a first attempt at an expert compact, the Samsung EX1 is certainly a success. It's a nice camera to use, with decent performances to match. It does have a few small teething problems, most of which could probably be corrected by a simple firmware update. It also doesn't handle noise quite as well as its main rival, the Canon G11.