There is one camera manufacturer that we’ve not paid much attention to here at Photography Life. For some reason, Samsung, despite its efforts to gain traction for its NX interchangeable lens camera system, failed to make enough impact to be mentioned as a worthy contender next to Sony, Olympus, Fujifilm and other mirrorless cameras. Whatever the reason for lack of popularity is, Samsung has only one option to make an impact – differentiate itself from the rest. And, judging by recent product launches, it would seem their differentiating strategy might be… Android OS.
Such a move begs a question. With photographers nowadays demanding WiFi and other connectivity options for their cameras, with online social life reaching its peak importance, are interchangeable lens cameras on the verge of embracing sophisticated mobile operating systems the same way feature-phones of old eventually did? After the launch of the first Android-running interchangeable lens camera from Samsung, it might seem that the transition has already begun, however slowly. Before we get to answer the question of smart camera concept, however, I feel it is necessary to talk about what I think was the main and wrong reason for Samsung to launch the first one and, consequently, why Galaxy NX is a wrong example of a smart camera.
1) Why Does Samsung NX Lack Popularity?
Samsung is a very competitive and experienced company that is not to be taken lightly. Thus it comes as no surprise that NX system, on paper, has plenty to offer. A camera itself is the heart of any system. But first and foremost it’s the lenses and accessories that go with the cameras that give a system necessary substance, and are also often the more difficult part to nail properly for some manufacturers (looking at you, Sony). So, here you are with your brand new NX camera. What can you mount on it? As it turns out, plenty. The system in total has 13 lenses available, young as it is. 8 of those lenses are primes with decently fast apertures ranging from f/1.8 to f/3.5 of the 10mm fisheye. Three of them are of super-compact pancake design. There is an optically stabilized macro and a classic 85mm f/1.4 (~128mm equivalent) portrait lens, too. In other words, in terms of lenses, Samsung NX is competent enough to be taken seriously. Yet if you judge it as a system in general and not parts of it, it is less convincing.
In almost all aspects, NX is completely inconspicuous. Fujifilm has the retro approach while still being technically advanced thanks to its X-Trans sensor and innovative hybrid viewfinder, not to mention those attractive prime lenses. Olympus and Panasonic are big on features, but small in size, and the lens selection is the best on the market. They are also attractively designed and some of the models offer serious weather sealing. Samsung’s inconspicuousness is a result of similarity with Sony’s system. Both manufacturers are electronics giants, both do much more than just cameras and compete in other markets as well. Both go for similarly designed cameras (small body, large-ish lenses), although Samsung is doing better at keeping its optics a bit more pocketable. Both feature high-resolution APS-C sensors and, lately, both have started using Wi-Fi, apps and Hybrid AF. Both see their biggest strength in technology and are relatively new to the camera business. Neither one is pretending to be what they are not. Fujifilm may have pulled off the retro rangefinder style with flying colors, but Sony and Samsung are modern and contemporary however you look at them. They attract customers by offering more for less. Numbers and words make these cameras sell – frames per second, video capabilities, EVFs, resolution and low-ish price, connectivity, touchscreens and simple design choices. All would be well, but it is a kind of “been there, done that” situation. Sony did everything first. They’ve even come up with relatively affordable full-frame mirrorless cameras. Samsung is yet unsure why its system should be attractive, what makes it standout from the rest.
All of that makes Samsung NX seem redundant. It is not a dead system, nor one without potential. But it is also not a flourishing one, at least among most aspiring amateurs.
2) Add some “Brain” to the Package
An obvious way for Samsung to gain some ground as a camera manufacturer is to come up with a distinction of their own. The first step was the innovative one-lens 3D technology, but, from what I see, the reaction died out very quickly. A more serious and controversial decision was made with the launch of Samsung Galaxy NX model (and, to a lesser extent, the Galaxy Camera before that). That, finally, brings us to a smart camera concept.
In some respects, it is a brilliant idea. Android OS adds virtually unlimited functionality to a camera with the help of apps if the camera sports necessary hardware to begin with. In the case of Galaxy NX, it does, being based on the popular Galaxy S3 smartphone model. So what you end up with is all the possible connectivity features you could want – bluetooth, WiFi, GPS. You can use popular Apps, too, such as Instagram, Facebook, Google+, etc. I am pretty sure even a lot of Nikon D4 and Canon 1DX users would love to have built-in WiFi at the very least, if not all of that smartphone functionality that comes with Android OS. Shot a wedding an hour ago? Why not edit some of those images right away, on your way home on the passenger seat – some basic RAW adjustments and the photos are already on Facebook. Clients would love it. And would it not be neat if your camera could remind you to charge the batteries a couple of days before a big shoot or a trip to France? On the face of it, a very good, even logical evolution. I am pretty certain Samsung Galaxy NX will actually find its niche among people who want to stay connected everywhere, always. Why, then, are you beginning to have a feeling I have a “but” coming?
3) The Problem
Merging a capable camera and flexible mobile operating system sounds like a recipe for success – two capable, useful, well thought-through components should make for a better tool together, right? In theory. In practice, it is a little bit more tricky. You see, Android was designed for mobile devices that you always have with you, like a smartphone. It is supposed to do everything, because a lot of people trust their smartphones with a huge portion of their lives and hardly ever leave anywhere without them. Phone numbers, friend’s address, agenda, photographs, music, email – all of this is supposed to be handled by a smartphone. Being able to do everything always results in a compromise, of course, but any inconvenience caused by such a device is well worth the abundance of functionality for all occasions, for most people. Cameras are different. There are plenty situations in which you would take your smartphone with you, but leave the camera at home, and only but a few in which the smartphone is the one to be left on a desk at home, unnecessary. I can not think of a person who would choose to carry a bulky interchangeable lens camera instead of a smartphone for making calls, checking email and so on, but current mobile operating systems are designed for these tasks among others. A camera does not need such functionality. And that means, for professional shooters at the very least, the compromises are not worth the flexibility anymore.
For starters, it is the speed of the camera that suffers thanks to Android. Nowadays, delays in camera operation are completely intolerable – you expect it to turn on instantly, turn off instantly and be able to snap a picture instantly. That is why mirrorless camera manufacturers put so much emphasis on these particular speeds when they announce new cameras. It is bearable if a camera takes a second to turn on (DSLRs are much quicker than that), but only just so for professionals, for example. Now, if you own an Android-running or possibly any other smartphone, try and remember how long it takes for it to finally start. 15 seconds? 30, perhaps? Can you imagine waiting so long for your camera to turn on? Thought so. It is ok for a smartphone which one rarely turns off. For a camera, not so much. Of course, Samsung Galaxy NX has a nice workaround – pressing the power off button does not actually turn it off, but engages standby mode. And it doesn’t use all that much power, too, so battery life doesn’t really suffer because of such an approach. Good idea, true. But the standby mode only lasts for around 48 hours, after which the camera will turn off completely. Then, imagine the following situation – you are out shooting a wedding or senior portraits, for example (and, yes, I believe some mirrorless camera systems to be very much suitable for such tasks). You’ve made around 400 shots and noticed the battery is running out. Makes sense – it is not a DSLR and the battery does not hold for as long. Not a problem – you just pop it out and put a fresh one in. With an Android-powered camera, taking the battery out will turn the camera off completely. Which means waiting nearly half a minute for it to turn on again. That, I imagine, would be quite irritating.
Another problem – one that reflects the core problem of an Android-powered interchangeable lens camera targeted at professional users – is the complex menu system. Yes, Galaxy NX can launch its camera app with a simple half-press of a shutter-button. But the camera app is still not the main one, not the one around which other apps are built, to which other apps are built into. It is merely one of the apps available, because Android was designed for a smartphone, where camera is not the center of attention. So you have all the homescreens, widgets, notification centers and app drawers. What you should have is a camera with extended functionality. So far, as weird as it may sound, it is the other way around with Galaxy NX.
Finally, it comes to the dependability and stability of the product itself. Android OS is very powerful, but that also makes it complex (and any mobile OS in general). Not once during the many years that I’ve owned my Nikon D700 did its software give up on me. It has never crashed, stopped responding for no good reason or turn off completely. I haven’t had a single hiccup that wasn’t somehow my fault or that of, say, CF card. Unfortunately, I can not say the same thing about my Android smartphone no matter how important it is to me. It has crashed, turn itself off, it has lagged terribly and been otherwise unstable every now and then. If a modern DSLR suffers from a malfunction of some sort, it is almost always the hardware part, not software. And so, I could not imagine a professional who would ever dare take an Android Jelly Bean powered camera to something like a wedding, simply because he would not trust his camera not to fail him. Not because it is Android, but because it is complex. And if you are buying a camera body for $1600, in the case of Galaxy NX – similar to X-Pro1 launch price and that, remember, is a camera people traded their full-frame DSLRs for – chances are you really do need it to be that dependable.
Analogue film cameras were simple. A few dials, a button – that is all you needed to set it up and take a photograph. Digital is way more complex with extensive menus and settings within settings, but a good compromise between simplicity and functionality in general. Smart cameras are a step further in the complexity department. And in my opinion, a step too far. Manufacturers such as Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm and others have been taking pieces of modern smartphones – mainly the connectivity bit and touchscreen functionality in some cases – and adding those pieces to cameras to improve them. Slowly but surely, GPS and WiFi are becoming a standard. Samsung went the other way. They took a smartphone and added a camera to it. In my opinion, Samsung Galaxy NX failed to address the need for simple connectivity and become the smart camera that people would actually embrace for one main reason. It is because Samsung’s goal was not to create a smart camera, their goal was to create a camera that runs Android OS – that is very different from what photographers need. The first goal would have been caused by the needs of photographers (at least some of them). The second one is caused by Samsung’s need to somehow differentiate itself from the rest of the manufacturers. They did not think it through, they chose the wrong reason to develop a smart camera. What they should have done is add some “smart” functionality to a more traditional camera – in other words, give photographers the connectivity and flexibility without taking away the huge speed and dependability advantages. That would have been a proper smart camera for those who wanted such a thing.
I would never dare say that a smart camera concept will never catch on. It will, most likely. In a few years, perhaps. All I hope is that, when such products arrive, software will be built for cameras and not the other way around. Android is simply unnecessary, quite the opposite. Galaxy NX might work as an experiment and even gain some amount of popularity, but in my humble opinion, Samsung should not bet its entire NX system on it.