Samsung's NX mini is a cute & unusual little camera.  It's also an interesting move; while it's mirrorless competitors all seem to be standardising around the micro four-thirds or APS-C sensor sizes, with the NX mini Samsung has opted for a Nikon 1-esque 1"  sensor.  It certainly lives up to it's "mini" credentials though - it's only 11cm long, 6cm tall, just over 2cm deep and weighing under 160g.  It really is mini!  With Samsung advertising it as "ultra slim & stylish", "perfect for selfies" and "capture & share on the go" I think it's fair to say that despite the set of full manual controls, it's almost certainly aimed at the more casual photographer who still wants the versatility of an interchangeable lens system.

 

Out of the Box

As well as the camera itself, you get a tiny flash, matching wrist strap, the included 9-27mm kit lens, charger & cable and a full version of Lightroom.  The latter, while being a nice addition, seems like an unusual choice for the selfie-snapping social media demographic the camera is targetted at.  Surely any processing or editing these users will do is likely to be on their phones or tablets, rather than in Lightroom?  It's definitely a welcome addition, just a curious one.  It doesn't come bundled with a micro-SD card though, something I'd have thought much more useful for it's audience than a copy of Lightroom.

Usage & Handling

An upfront admission - I'm a big guy, with big hands.  This camera was awkward to use because the controls are small, the camera is small and as you can see from the photos, it doesn't have any kind of moulded grip at all.  Normally I eschew any kind of strap on a camera if I can get away with it but for this one the supplied wrist strap was essential.  However, it's one of the thinner types available and I wasn't confident it'd stand up to too much abuse or too many sudden drops.  Paranoia, admittedly, but I've had similar straps break on me in the past!  Holding it one handed for a selfie didn't really fill me with confidence!

The controls themselves are pretty much what I expected although coming from regular SLR use they are all on the small side.  Still, unlike it's bigger brother the NX3000, they were generally more conveniently laid out.  The movie mode button especially - on the NX3000 it was constantly getting in the way but this was far less of an issue on the NX Mini.  Unfortunately there is no dedicated mode dial and certainly no quick aperture/shutter/ISO dials but this is hardly surprising.  Depending on the mode chosen these are accessible using a d-pad style arrangement on the lower back of the camera.  I did find that using the dedicated buttons was awkward and slow, however the MX Mini comes with a well implemented touch screen which makes using the camera an order of magnitude easier.  I've been fairly skeptical about the need for touch screens on cameras but here it proved it's worth.  Without dedicated controls, being able to control everything from the screen was great.

The screen itself is a decent size at 3" across the diagonal with 460k dots - certainly enough for framing your shot & in camera reviewing but a necessary compromise compared to some of the higher resolution screens we're used to.  Still, it does the job well although like all screens it's a real struggle to use in bright sunlight.  There's no dedicated EVF or OVF.  It's also articulated and able to pivot a full 180 degrees to make selfies easy and shooting discreetly at waist level was certainly possible too.  Compared to more aritculated displays on other cameras, 180 degrees around one axis was a surprise and a bit limiting, though considering it's really only there to enable selfies it's not a huge problem

Visually, the designers at Samsung have done a good job.  It looks sleek & modern with the omission of a dedicated hand grip helping in this regard.  Several different colours are available to match your outfits ;)

 

 

The lens is another oddity.  It's small and fits in beautifully with the aesthetic of the camera but has an unusual "lock" feature.  You can turn the camera on but can't shoot until you've rotated the lens a few degrees to unlock it.  If the camera has automatically shut down the back screen to save battery, maybe after you've not used it for a few minutes, then unlocking the lens turns it all back on - great, makes sense.  However, locking the lens when the camera is on doesn't then turn the screen off or shut the camera down either.  The locking mechanism isn't particularly stiff either, as evidenced by my accidentally unlocking it numerous times in a bag or pocket.  In the end, it just made me wonder why a locking feature was there at all?

Autofocus in almost all cases was well within the "good enough" category for speed and accuracy, especially considering it's a mirrorless camera.  Super fast movement on the street was a challenge to capture but in the majority of scenes I presented it, focusing was not really something I worried about.  It just worked, which is a good thing!  Manual focus is possible but so eye-wateringly difficult I only took it off AF once.

One area Samsung usually excels is in sharing & integration and the NX Mini is no exception.  Though I wasn't able to test the NFC image transferring, the other wifi features worked well enough, letting me get the image onto my phone and then onto social media like Facebook or Flickr - though I couldn't see any method of posting to Instagram/Tumblr etc. from the camera, it was easy enough to do so once I got the image onto my phone.  Other manufacturers should definitely keep an eye on how Samsung are innovating in this area. You're limited to porting over JPEGs, RAW files aren't supported. 

The supplied battery is small and as a result it doesn't have the longest lifetime.  Taking it on a daytrip to Sentosa I had run out of charge about 150 photos in and less than 3 hours into my day.  This was really frustrating, especially when you consider the only way to charge the battery is within the camera itself without a dedicated battery charger.  Having said that, with portable power bricks ubiquitous these days, I did experiment charging it from one of these using it's charger cable.  It worked, slowly, but did work.   Whether this means people will carry around a second brick to keep their camera charged is debatable but it would somewhat count against the small form factor if you always end up carrying a dedicated portable battery charger!  

 

 

Back to the lens, the 9-27mm kit lens supplied as standard is tiny and even next to it's sibling NX lenses it looks positively cute!  Optically it's about the same as most camera kit lenses - good enough but not stunning - but it also marks a new mount alongside the more established NX- mount.  NX-Mini lenses are limited to three options right now and it remains to be seen how well supported this range will be in future, either from Samsung or third parties, but it is possible to get an NX-M to NX adaptor if you already have some full size NX- lenses.  Even if doing so makes the whole setup look positively absurd with most NX lenses much larger than the NX Mini!  I did like the fact it wasn't a powered zoom and, being full manual, so much more accurate & responsive.

 

One of the touted features designed to make your selfie snapping a breeze is something called Wink Shot.  I confess I only got it to work a handful of times when shooting selfies and it all felt a bit gimmicky when I was already holding the camera over the shutter button anyway.  

Overall, the camera handles well enough for what it's designed for, namely point & shoot potshots and selfies.  Though it has manual controls I really don't see many people using them given the target audience.

 

 

 

 

Image Quality

In almost all cases, the image quality was good, surprisingly so.  With a 20.5 megapixel sensor, the majority of shots I took came out well and looked impressive without having to spend ages tweaking a RAW file.  I shot RAW and JPEG side by side for almost all of the review period and in practically every case the out-of-camera JPEG was good enough.  During the day & in reasonably well lit situations it did everything I asked of it.  As soon as it got dark though, image quality drops noticeably which given the size of the sensor is hardly surprising and entirely forgiveable.  It's just not designed for low-light work and I'm not going to criticise it in that regard.  

Take a look at these images to get an idea of the general image quality performance.  Although I shot across the full range of PASM modes I frequently left it to shoot full-auto, reasoning this is how most of it's likely users will use it in the real world and to see how the camera chose to render scenes.

 

Click on the images to open a larger example. 

 

Good sharpness across the frame and the highlights weren't blown at all.

Nice results from challenging conditions.

Taken during the busy Thaipusam festival, this was a huge challenge for the AF to lock on but it did it well.

 

 

One of the few images where it struggled during daylight was against a bright backlight.  Although I've cropped out the worst of the background behind these devotees, the lower contrast and slightly washed-out look of their skin can definitely be seen.

It could no doubt be improved significantly in Lightroom

Another from the astonishing Thaipusam festival.


 An abstract shot of an interesting light fitting, I thought the camera just nailed the exposure here.

A straight RAW conversion of a scene shot at the full extent of the kit lens' zoom range.  Pretty decent results considering the lens and certainly plenty to work with from the RAW file to get a decent image.

I tweaked this slightly in Adobe Camera Raw, deliberately lowering the contrast slightly to give it a bit of a retro film look - I assumed most of the people buying this camera will stick their photos through Instagram and go for something similar anyway!  I liked how it rendered the red tones without going completely saturated.  Generally, colour rendition was great.

Drawbacks

Don't get me wrong, for the VAST MAJORITY of the time I used the camera it was absolutely fine and for discreet street shooting it was a definite boon.  Having said that, there were some occasions where the behaviour of the camera was downright odd, most noticeably shooting certain scenes and how the resulting JPEG had been processed in camera.  Considering that these in camera JPEGs are the ones that will be ported across to your phone and shared, it was definitely strange enough - and common enough - to warrant highlighting.

One of the most common, and annoying, issues came from dubious white balance adjustments.  On a normal, sunny day here in Singapore I'd expect the AWB to pick a suitable temperature and be consistent in doing so.  Although it mostly was, the images below show cases where the camera failed spectacularly.  Entirely fixable in Lightroom if need be but will the average user take the time to do that?

 

JPEG generated out of Adobe Camera Raw directly from the RAW file.

The chilly blue colour cast is obvious.

 

 

With the white balance corrected it looks MUCH better, and a lot closer to real life.  The contrast between this corrected shot and the ice-blue original is plain to see!

 

Final image tweaked to bring detail out of the shadows and highlights reduced to bring details out of the sky.  

 

My theory is that the camera detected one third of the image was sky and set a cooler colour temperature, assuming it was some kind of blue sky shot.  Had it actually been that kind of scene, I'd probably not have noticed.

Another persistent niggle related to metering, especially spot metering.  Although it's hard to see exactly where the spot is using the back screen, it's reasonable to assume the centre spot is in the centre of the frame.  This either wasn't always the case or the metering algorithms sometimes had quite a degree of lag.  I found it was possible to meter on the centre of the scene in dark shadows - this would, as you'd expect, render the centre correctly but blow out the skies.  So far so good.  However, moving the frame such that the central spot was then over the sky, the camera didn't update and still metered for the original spot.  It was only after moving the centre of the frame far from the original spot that the camera re-metered for the sky as I'd expect.  Using the default evaluative metering, or even partial, the problem occurred less frequently but still happened.

As soon as the sun sets, however, image quality & useability drops sharply.  Autofocus slows and is less accurate but moreso than that, the higher ISO levels really look quite rough.  ISO 1600 was good, 3200 was hit and miss but anything above that wasn't really useable.

I also noticed something peculiar when taking dark-frame comparison shots at different ISOs.  I'm building up a database of black frames shot at different exposure times - I put the camera in a black bag in a dark room with the lens cap on so there's no ambient light then take a photo at a range of times from 1/100th sec to 30 seconds.  What I've noticed is that when shooting at ISO 6400 or above, the noise creates such a bright image on the sensor the camera thinks it's overexpsoing and decreases the aperture size.  In other words, I can shoot at ISO 3200, f3.5 and 30 seconds but if I change the ISO to 6400 the noise on it's own is so bright it restricts my aperture to f8!  Very strange behaviour!

Conclusion

I'll freely admit I went into this review expecting to be underwhelmed by the NX Mini.  In that regard I'm happy to report I was wrong and the camera exceeded my expectations.  If you're reading this review, it's probably because you're wanting to know if this tiny camera will give you better results than your phone & a selfie stick.  In that case, I think yes it most likely will.  Leaving the whole thing on default settings and taking photos during the day will give you a ton of photos you'll be more than happy to stick on Facebook.  The manual controls mean you can even use the camera to take your photography a bit more seriously if you ever wanted to.  It's not a viable second body for a serious photographer or even a smaller option for an enthusiastic amateur.  It's aimed squarely at the selfie crowd, unashamedly so, but to it's credit it offers more than just another option for selfies.

Part of me is surprised why Samsung have bothered with this kind of camera though.  With point and shoot sales falling off a cliff, I'll be interested to see if all the selfie-oriented features will sell enough to make the camera & associated new lens line worth pursuing.  I also think that producing such a small form-factor camera then jamming a relatively large interchangeable lens on the front was baffling.  The lenses may be small, but when your camera is so much smaller it just seems like an odd choice.

In the end, it seems like Samsung are targetting those people to whom selfies & small, stylish cameras are important but are maybe looking to take their photography more seriously in the future.  For these people I think this is a serious option.  It's going to be fascinating to see how this new platform develops and the NX Mini is certainly an eye-catching offering.

ProsCons

  • Impressive image quality out of a small, light package
  • Low-light/night image quality
  • Good touchscreen with intuitive controls
  • Dubious battery life
  • Great for selfies... if that's your thing!
  • Yet another mirrorless lens mount type

How I Review

Although looking at MTF charts and DxO statistics is an important measure in judging lens quality, I like seeing real-world, hands-on reviews of a lens in an environment I could imagine myself using it.  Technical & theoretical attributes are definitely important but I prefer to try to expose equipment to a range of different usage situations and see how it holds up.  

Reviewed in January 2015.  Review sample provided by Samsung Singapore.