This Samsung DSLM (Digital Single Lens Mirrorless camera) will have you smiling from the moment you unbox it, as the whole package seems clean, tidy and neatly arranged. It feels a bit like unwrapping a top-end smartphone. And, once in hand, the camera's brushed aluminium finish is an instant hit. The NX300 has gently curved edges, simple lines, with a rounded grip that makes the camera feel very nice to handle. Nothing jolts out from the camera's sleek body to spoil the flow of its general look. Samsung's designers have done a great job here, wisely opting for a tasteful two-tone finish (black and silver, brown and silver or white and silver) that gives the NX300 a slightly old-school air, playing on a retro 35 mm vibe rather an ostentatiously cutting-edge, tech-touting look.
Still, we do have one slight niggle with the design when the NX300 is loaded with one of Samsung's NX lenses. With their smooth, black finish, they don't really match the design of the camera body. They certainly don't have the same charm as the ridged rings sported on Fuji models. Plus, they bring a vague waft of cheapo plastic to this otherwise stylish camera. That said, on the left-hand side of the lens barrel just above the AF-MF switch, Samsung's NX lenses have a very handy "iFn" button, offering direct access to ISO settings, exposure correction or white balance. This feature is so darn useful that we can't help but wonder why no other manufacturers are using it.
Another nice feature is that the self-timer can be set from 2 to 30 seconds in 1 second increments. That may be unnecessarily precise, but it offers greater flexibility than many other manufacturers, who often only let you choose from two or three settings buried away in the depths of the menus.
The tab-based menus are easy to read thanks to the sharp AMOLED display with 800 x 480 pixels. There's plenty of info on hand to ensure both beginners and more advanced users will find their way around. Everything feels more or less logically organised. Still, the standard ISO settings are found in the first menu tab with other picture settings, while options for ISO Auto mode are in the third tab with custom settings. Surely it would have been more logical to keep them together? Similarly, why force users to go into the menu to switch between RAW and JPG when the picture format is clearly displayed on the (touch)screen? Why not just make the logos pressable? That probably just got overlooked—let's hope that Samsung puts it right with a firmware update.
Although we've generally raved about the NX300's design and handling, we do have a couple of downers to point out. First, the flash comes as a separate accessory, which is a bit disappointing when smaller mirrorless models like the Sony NEX-3N and Nikon 1 J3 come with flashes built directly into the camera body. OK, so the SEF8A flash unit is included and you only need to pug it into the hotshoe, but it's still not ideal (the excellent Olympus OM-D EM-5 does this too, but that's no excuse). The second drawback is that the Samsung Smart Camera Wi-Fi app only has a limited range of options, which is surprising from a firm that's also an expert smartphone-maker. Other than taking a photo or switching the flash on and off remotely, the function list falls way short of what's on offer in the Panasonic Image App. Plus, be careful not to accidentally download the "Samsung Smart Camera NX" app, which is basically a digital sales brochure. However, Samsung does make up for things by bundling the NX300 with a CD-ROM and product licence for Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4.
Clearly touting this camera as a speedy little shooter, Samsung has teamed up with the "world's fastest human" to promote the NX300. So just as Usain Bolt took to the track to prove his lightning-fast performances, the NX300 stepped into our test lab and go up against the stopwatch. Samsung has made some lofty promises with this camera, and although it's responsive, it doesn't quite manage a gold-standard performance.
The burst mode is perfectly good (and is another feature Samsung is keen to push), shooting the 8 frames per second promised in both JPG and RAW modes. However, the NX300 can only shoot 13 JPG shots or 5 RAW shots per burst. And, the NX300 is completely frozen for the time it takes to save all those photos to the memory card. Clearly more of a sprinter than one for going the distance, this mirrorless camera is held back by its insufficient buffer memory and processing algorithms that tend to slow it down when using the highest ISO settings.
The NX300 uses one of Samsung's home-grown sensors that's already been seen in the NX210, NX20 and NX200. Since it was first used in 2011, Samsung has had time to adapt and perfect its image processing algorithms to get the best out of this 20.3-Megapixel APS-C CMOS. And the good news is that Samsung's hard work has paid off. The NX300 is up there with the best when it comes to shooting at high ISO settings.
Picture quality is unshakable from 100 to 800 ISO. In fact, the NX300 can easily shoot at up to 3200 ISO without a second thought. Smoothing is very well controlled. It gets a little more visible at 6400 ISO (where there's a drop in saturation too), but 8" x 12" prints (20 x 30 cm) will still look fine. At 12800 ISO—the maximum setting in the NX300's predecessors—things get a bit more complicated. That said, right the way up to 25600 ISO, JPG shots from the NX300 manage to preserve some details that would have been wiped out much further down the ISO scale in competitor cameras. Nice work!
The next step for Samsung will be to reduce the level of colour noise in JPG shots, which increases with the ISO setting. But, to be honest, the South Korean tech firm has already done an excellent job here. Plus, you can always take RAW files into the Lightroom software supplied to make any edits you feel necessary. For example, you may want to use Lightroom to remove the unpleasant magenta tinge that appears in photos shot under halogen lighting.
Samsung NX300, @100 ISO, automatic white balance.
Otherwise, there's not much else to report. The 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 OIS iFn kit lens is OK, but not amazing, as we've already said elsewhere. Sharpness levels peak at around f/5.6, diffraction is visible from f/8, chromatic and geometric aberration is well controlled by the camera, but the edges of the frame are still weaker, no matter what aperture you shoot at. A sensor of this calibre really deserves a sharper lens to get the best out of its potential. But that's something we say about almost all the interchangeable lens cameras we review!
The NX300 follows the general trend for camera video modes with a 50 fps setting—another good idea the helps make this already excellent camera feel even nicer. The NX300 films Full HD video and has two mics placed 47 mm apart for recording spatial stereo sound.
Image exposure is fine, there's no fuzzy noise and sharpness levels are good. You can focus quietly and accurately via the touchscreen but you can't take a photo while filming. For access to aperture or shutter speed settings, the mode-selection dial can be set to the relevant PASM setting (A for aperture, S for shutter), but you can't change the ISO setting manually as the camera automatically switches to ISO Auto. Exposure correction settings aren't available either. Samsung therefore has a few minor handling issues to address, but they're not too much of a problem for this kind of camera.
- Picture quality up to 3200 ISO
- Stylish design, great handling
- Well thought-out ergonomics
- Kit lens has an iFn button for access to quick settings
- Multitouch AMOLED tilt screen with 800 x 480 pixels
- Still no built-in flash (external accessory supplied)
- Buffer memory is a bit tight
- Start-up and low-light focusing could be quicker
- Limited Wi-Fi functions (especially for piloting the camera via a smartphone)
- Onscreen image fidelity isn't 100% accurate
The NX300 may not be the world's fastest camera, but it's still a seductive snapper with plenty of great features. It's well made, well designed, well thought out, and ensures impressively good image quality up to 3200 ISO. Once up and running, the NX300 is responsive in decent light and Samsung's exclusive iFn button makes an excellent addition to NX lenses. This DSLM missed out on a fifth star by the skin of its teeth because it still doesn't have a built-in flash (although a separate accessory is supplied), it's a little low on buffer memory, and it could be quicker to start up and to focus in low light (by 2013 standards).