Samsung's NX Mini is the latest camera to squeeze a large sensor into a super-small body. It's stylish and capable, but still suffers from an identity crisis.
What Is It?
The NX Mini is a tiny, interchangeable lens camera with a one-inch sensor packing 20.5 megapixels. That's about the same spec as the terrific Sony RX100 series. It uses a new lens mount called NX-M, and currently has two lenses to choose from, a 24mm equivalent prime lens with an f/3.5 aperture, and a 24-73mm equivalent zoom lens with an f/3.5-5.6 aperture. It does everything most digital cameras can do these days—Wi-Fi, Full HD video, optical image stabilization—and costs $550 with the zoom lens or $450 with the prime lens.
Why Does It Matter?
Every camera maker is trying to carve out their own market niche to entice people to use something other than their phones to take photographs. Samsung's strategy with the NX Mini is to go small, so small, while still offering the versatility of interchangeable lenses. That's unique, sure. Whether it makes for an effective camera is another story.
It looks fun! Straight, clean lines and a simple layout emphasize the NX Mini's slim profile. On the front you have the tiny protruding lens handsomely off-set to the right, while faux-leather adorns the left side, which you can get in white, black, pink, brown, and a sort of seafoam green. On the top are power, shutter, and Wi-Fi buttons, along with a port for attaching what I am assuming is some kind of flash attachment (though there is a tiny built in flash). On the back is the very well-executed flip-out LCD. This feature has suffered from poor design on many cameras, but Samsung gets it right with a single hinge and just enough tension.
On the side is a door you can open with a long enough fingernail, which hides the microSD card slot, USB port, micro HDMI port, and battery compartment that's also pain to get inside.
The design of the lenses is interesting. They are tiny and light, with no lens cap. This works for keeping things slim and unobtrusive, but I'd be surprised if your lens doesn't get scratched after a few trips through your coat pocket or purse, no matter how "scratch resistant" the coating is.
Forget image quality and controls. Front and center when discussing the NX Mini's chops should be how it handles as a compact. That's the sell here, after all. After carrying it around for a while, my initial skepticism was confirmed. This camera should not have interchangeable lenses.
First off, it makes the camera uncomfortable in a pants pocket, undercutting its whole mini appeal. It would be better suited with a fully retractable zoom lens with a decent aperture and zoom range. Its target audience (tweens?) likely doesn't want to pay for extra lenses anyways, and there are only two to choose from! Sure, the system could expand, eventually, but do you really want to wait?
The rest of the NX Mini's operation is pretty standard; it does a fine job of getting out of the way to let you take pictures. There are no dials or wheels to adjust, which is bad news for the experienced, but a boon to beginners. The touch-screen is what you rely on to change most settings. It works most of the time, but most people are going to keep this thing in Auto or P mode anyways. If you want to go manual, the familiar P/A/S/M modes are there for you. Focusing is snappy, battery life is quite good.
There are some quirks. For as much as the NX Mini wants to be the ultimate selfie machine (flip the screen open and the camera turns right on!), the shutter button is flush with the body, making it hard to find with your finger as your arm is extended. Also, as much as this claims to be "Smart," it's no different from any other camera that has Wi-Fi, NFC, and a clunky app, the latter of which is cumbersome and only works half the time. Also, The NX Mini uses teeny tiny microSD cards which you will most definitely lose, or at least roll over with your office chair. So stock up.
As for image quality, the one-inch sensor certainly ramps it up from most compact cameras you're likely to come across. But to be honest, it was hard to do a solid assessment for one reason: noise reduction seems to be baked in, even to RAW files. Normally we shoot RAW to really examine the detail of a photo, detail that JPG compression obscures. The NX Mini does shoot in RAW, but the muddy swirls of noise reduction still remain when examining the images close up. We tried all the settings we could find to turn the NR, but nothing worked. It's not very noticeable at low ISOs, but the effect is clear in low light shooting, where noise is most present. It limits using the camera's full potential, and prevents us from praising NX Mini's image quality. As for video quality, it's just OK, but will do the job for casual use.
All of our image samples were shot with the 9mm f/3.5 lens. You can find full-size versions of them in our Flickr gallery.
This 100% crop of the previous image shows the blurriness caused by in-camera noise reduction at ISO 1600.
The NX Mini has a super-slick design that isn't overdone and makes you want to carry it around. The large one-inch sensor produces images far and above cellphone capability. Despite being aimed at beginners, there are still a hearty amount of controls in exposure and focus settings. The touch screen is familiar and functional for those used to phone interfaces.
The interchangeable lenses are pointless and undercut the compactness of the camera. There are only two lenses to choose from, and neither offers compelling specs. There are no sharing features which distinguish the camera as being particularly "smarter" than other current generation competitors. Finally, the image quality suffers from baked-in noise reduction, even in RAW mode.
Should You Buy It?
I can see how the style and uniqueness of the NX Mini will find it a pretty solid market of young-folk. But I have a hard time recommending it as something to capture high quality photos with. The most formidable competitor is the Sony RX100. While the most recent generation of that camera costs significantly more than the NX Mini at $800, you can pick up the original for around $550, about the same price as the Samsung.
If you want the versatility of interchangeable lenses, you will be much better served by a larger mirrorless camera, such as a micro four thirds systems made by Olympus and Panasonic, or Sony's E-mount system. It's just not a good fit to build a camera that's meant to be so casual and easy with interchangeable lenses which are inherently so clumsy, not to mention costly. That's the identity crisis of the NX Mini.