Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Samsung NX20: First Impressions

On a recent trip to Samsung's Seoul headquarters I got the opportunity to use the new NX20, and get a feel for how it performs. I only had a short time with a pre-production camera, but overall, my impressions of its handling and performance are very positive. Certainly, anyone who has used and liked the NX20's predecessor, the NX10, will find little to complain about in the new model, and much that is very familiar. 

Where it sits in the lineup

The NX20 sits at the top of Samsung's totally refreshed NX lineup, above the NX210 and NX1000. All three are based around the same 20MP CMOS sensor and all offer eight frame-per-second continuous shooting and Wi-Fi-connectivity and control, but the NX20 includes a handful of feature unique within the range.

The NX210 doesn't include a viewfinder, nor is its OLED screen articulated - making it less expensive - but it steps forward from the NX200 by adding Wi-Fi, faster continuous shooting and the option to use a cable shutter release and proprietary external microphone. The NX1000 is less expensive still, and features a plastic body, VGA rear screen and retractable kit zoom. Here we'll mainly look at the features of the NX20 that it offers over these other cameras, since they are what makes it the range-topping model.

Articulated 'Clear' AMOLED display

Externally, the most obvious difference between the NX20 and its predecessor is an articulated rear screen. The 3" AMOLED display offers VGA-equivalent resolution in the now-familiar Samsung 'pentile' arrangement, giving a perceptual resolution higher than its relatively-low dot-count of 614k dots might suggest. It's the same underlying OLED panel that we've seen on all of the NX models so far, and as such it is contrasty and detailed, with a wide viewing angle. Articulation makes the screen that bit more usable, of course, especially when it comes to shooting video or stills from high and low angles.

The NX20's display itself might offer the same specification as the previous-generation NXs, but there is one significant design change - the air-gap between the display and protective covering has been eliminated by filling it with a UV-cured resin that reduces internal reflections to improve contrast and visibility in bright lighting conditions. Samsung claims that this 'Clear AMOLED' display offers a 20% improvement in contrast ratio and, although I wasn't able to test the NX20 alongside an NX10, it does seem to deliver a genuine benefit in terms of clarity, and I was impressed by how usable the screen is in direct sunlight.

Aside from the articulated screen, the NX20 handles in a very similar way to the NX10. The main difference from more recent cameras like the NX100 and NX200 the provision of an electronic viewfinder, but the grip too has been changed - it is now more pronounced, making the NX20 a generally 'rounder' and more comfortable camera to hold. Where the NX200 looks sharp and stylish, the NX20 looks softer, curvier and more welcoming.

The softer, more rounded design belies a serious feature set though - 8fps at full-resolution and an electronic first-curtain shutter allowing a maximum shutter speed of 1/8000 sec with reduced shutter lag (40 milliseconds) are both pretty impressive. These improvements will be welcomed by enthusiast photographers, as will a new 'Custom Mode' feature that allows you to save up to three shooting setups as custom shooting modes. These can then be recalled, either from the Smart Panel, or from a dedicated 'C' position on the exposure mode dial.

Custom shooting modes can be named using an on-screen text-entry dialog or if you're in a hurry, saved automatically by date. Existing features have been given a refresh too - we've been very impressed by the evolution of Samsung's 'iFn' on-lens function feature in the NX range, and iFn 2.0 adds even more options. It's great to see an electronic spirit level added to the NX20, too, which indicates roll and pitch.

The 100% coverage electronic viewfinder is the key differentiator between the NX20 and the NX210, and although I was using an early sample which I was told may not have been up to production quality, I enjoyed using the finder for image composition. The resolution of the NX20's EVF is SVGA (800 x 600 pixels, 1.44M dots), and in my experience remains pleasantly contrasty and detailed in all but the strongest side light (where like the NX10, the screen image is prone to 'flaring out').

The only serious annoyance that came out of my short time with the NX20 was related to the position of its direct movie recording button. I shot a lot of movie clips on the NX20 when I used it, but most of them were recorded accidentally thanks to the prominence of the movie record button on the upper right shoulder of the camera.

Apart from this minor irritation though the NX20 is, like its predecessor, a pleasant camera to use, with an interesting and competitive feature set. The addition of Wi-Fi is of huge significance to Samsung as a step on the way to achieving its stated aim of creating a generation of 'connected cameras' and refinements like increased continuous shooting speed and display articulation add real benefit in day to day shooting.

I wasn't able to save (or even closely examine) images from the NX20 that I used in Korea, but there is nothing to suggest that image quality won't be broadly in line with our expectations based on experience with the NX200, which uses the same 20MP CMOS sensor. We should be receiving an NX20 shortly, and we will publish a more in-depth assessment and sample images as soon as possible.

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Nikon D3200 Hands-on Preview

Nikon has updated its entry-level DSLR offering with the addition of a 24MP CMOS sensor. This makes it equal to Sony's A65, A77 and NEX-7 in offering the highest pixel count we've yet seen at the APS-C sensor size, and second only to the full-frame professional-grade D800 in Nikon's entire range. The significant thing, though, is that it does so at a starting price of $699 (the same launch price as the D3100 and Panasonic DMC G3, for comparison). It may not be revolutionary, but it promises a lot of camera for a competitive amount of money.

Pixel-count aside, the changes from the D3100 are subtle but, with 1080p30 video, a 920k dot LCD and the option to add an affordable Wi-Fi transmitter, there are clear benefits over the D3100's pretty capable specification. As usual for Nikons at this level, the D3200 doesn't feature a built-in focus motor, doesn't offer auto exposure bracketing and has simplified Active D-Lighting options but beyond these, there's little missing that you could reasonably expect for this class of camera. It even regains the option to trigger the camera with an infrared remote - with the inclusion of sensors on the front and rear of the camera.

The inexorable rise of the mirrorless camera has undoubtedly put particular pressure on the entry-level end of the large sensor market. The smaller body sizes of mirrorless cameras, combined with their more compact-camera-like operation has helped win-over some people who would otherwise have bought a DSLR, as well as drawing people away from high-end compacts. However, entry-level DSLRs still offer a very attractive and polished photographic tool - and with continuous autofocus behavior that no mirrorless camera has come close to matching (aside from Nikon's own 1 V1 and 1 J1, which feature smaller 'CX' sensors). With this in mind, it's understandable Nikon would wheel-out a camera with a big headline specification to look impressive on the shop shelf.

Although its upgrades aren't necessarily the product of great leaps of ingenuity, the D3200 is a continuation of a carefully evolved - and tailored to suit its market - line of cameras, that offers tremendous capability with well thought-out ease-of-use. If the image quality comes anywhere near that of the 24MP Sonys, the D3200 is going to be a tough camera to compete with.

The only thing that seems odd on the D3200 is the lack of image processing filters at the point of capture. Since Olympus introduced its Art Filters to the E-30 back in 2008, processing filters have become increasingly common on most cameras. And, while they're not an essential feature by any means, they're nice to have, especially in a camera at this level. Given that Nikon's P7100 offers a selection of special processing effects, it's a little odd not to see them here. There's an option to re-process JPEGs, though - with examples in our preview samples gallery.
Nikon D3200 specification highlights
  • 24MP CMOS sensor
  • ISO 100-6400 (plus ISO 12,800-equivalent Hi1 setting)
  • Expeed 3 processing
  • 3.0", 920k dot screen
  • Full HD 1080p30 video (with 25p and 24p options)
  • Microphone socket
  • Twin IR remote receivers
  • 4 frame-per-second continuous shooting
  • Guide mode

Compared to its peers:

Side-by-side against the Panasonic G3, it's immediately apparent the size trade-off you make to retain an optical viewfinder. In this comparison the mirrorless Panasonic has a slightly smaller sensor, but Sony's NEX and Samsung's NX models aren't much larger than the G3 while boasting APS-C sensors.

The D3200 is very similar in size to Canon's Rebel T3/EOS 1100D, with which it nominally competes. The T3, while a very likeable camera, looks very off-the-pace with its 12MP sensor, 720P movies and 230k dot screen.

Wi-Fi option (WU-1a)

Alongside the D3200, Nikon announced an optional Wi-Fi transmitter for the camera. The WU-1a clips into the USB socket of the D3200 and allows you to broadcast its images to smartphones and tablets running a Nikon app. The unit allows the camera's live view output to be streamed to the smart device and allows images to be shot remotely (at a distance of up to 49ft, but with no control over the camera's settings).

Initially an app will be available for Android phones and tablets, with an iOS version expected in fall/autumn 2012. We're told the app will allow either full-size or VGA-resolution images to be transferred from the camera, but we have yet to see how long it would take to grab a 24MP image. We would also like to see how securely the unit attaches to the camera, given that it sticks out of the side, and looks like it might be a little easy to dislodge. It also requires the port cover that reaches all the way up the camera's flank to be left hanging open all of the time that it's in use.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

First Impressions: Using the Nikon D800

As updates go, the Nikon D800 is a pretty major one. Compared to its predecessor the D700, Nikon's newest DSLR features an impressive set of key specifications, and subtly refined ergonomics, too. After more than three years we expected the D800 to outclass its predecessor, but products don't exist in a vacuum, and it wasn't long after the 12MP D700's announcement that Canon brought out the movie-shooting EOS 5D Mark II.

Not only was the 5D II Canon's first video-equipped DSLR, but at 21MP it offered a class-leading pixel count, effectively equal in resolution to Canon's professional EOS-1 Ds Mark III. The D700 won plaudits for its versatility, low light image quality and 51-point autofocus system, but it couldn't compete with the 5D II on resolution, or of course, video.

The D800 changes all that. Compared to the D700, the D800 is a thoroughly modern camera, boasting a highly advanced feature set for both still and video shooting. At 36.3MP the $3000 D800 comfortably eclipses its competitors in terms of pixel count and makes the $8000 Nikon D3X look distinctly irrelevant, too.

Compared to D700: Specification highlights
  • 36.3MP CMOS sensor (compared to 12.1MP)
  • 15.3MP DX-format capture mode (compared to 5MP)
  • 25MP 1.2x Crop mode
  • 51-point AF system with 15 cross-type sensors, rated to -2EV* (compared to -1EV)
  • ISO 100-6400 extendable to ISO 25,600 equiv (same as D700)
  • 1080p video at 30, 25 or 24 frames per second, up to 24Mbps, with uncompressed HDMI output and audio monitoring options*
  • 3.2", 921,000 dot LCD with anti-fog layer* (compared to 3in, 921k-dot)
  • Maximum 4fps continuous shooting in FX mode, 6fps in DX mode** (compared to 8fps in FX mode)
  • Advanced Scene Recognition System with 91,000 pixel metering sensor* (compared to 1005-pixel)
  • 'Expeed 3' Image Processing*
  • Dual-axis Virtual Horizon (on LCD screen/viewfinder)* (compared to single-axis)

* Same or almost identical to Nikon D4
** Maximum frame rate in DX mode is dependant on power source

We've had a D800 in the office for a few days, and we've spent that time shooting with the camera not only in our studio but also out in the big, bad 'real world'. We're some way off being able to publish a full review, but I wanted to share with you some first impressions. You've already read our in-depth preview, and you know what the professionals think, but now that we've got a production sample to play with, I want to give you an idea of what the D800 is actually like to use.


The D700 was a generally pleasant camera to hold and use, and so is the D800. Nikon hasn't made many drastic changes to the handling experience, and those that it has made are broadly in line with Nikon's design philosophy for 2011/12. Gone is the 'traditional' MF/AF-S/AF-C focus mode switch on the lens throat, to be replaced by the same combined MF/AF switch and AF mode button control that we've seen on the D7000 and D4. This updated approach to focus mode selection is nice and neat, because it associates all of the many options with a single physical control point, but as I pointed out in my recent article about the D4, it does make switching between AF-S and AF-C less rapid than it used to be.
Of more signficance to the average D7000 user will be the D800's updated drive mode dial and dedicated live view switch. Live view mode on the D700 was very much a 'first generation' implementation and although effective and useful, setting it via the drive mode dial was a pain, especially if you needed to grab a quick high or low-angle shot.

Improved Automatic ISO Sensitivity Mode

The D800's automatic ISO mode is inherited from the D4 and is improved over the same mode in earlier Nikon DSLRs. Previously, auto ISO customization was minimal, and consisted simply of an option to set the maximum ISO and minimum shutter speed when the camera was used in auto ISO mode. The currently-set ISO counted as the minimum ISO sensitivity (and in fact still does). This system was fine for shooting with a fixed focal length lens, but less useful with zoom lenses, where a 'safe' minimum shutter speed at either end of the focal range might be several stops apart.

In the D4 and D800, Nikon has (at long last) added an 'Auto' option to the minimum shutter speed options, which allows the camera to automatically set the minimum shutter speed based on its knowledge of the focal length that you're working at. This response can be biased in 5 steps, from 'slow' to 'fast' depending on whether you'd like the camera to err on the side of slower or faster shutter speeds. A small change but one that takes Auto ISO a little closer to being the 'set and forget' function that it should have been long ago.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 Review

The Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS20 is a compact travel zoom camera with a pretty elaborate GPS setup. Not only does the ZS20 log your location, it also has a database of a million landmarks and maps of ninety countries. The ZS20 also packs a new 20X zoom lens, 14.1 Megapixel MOS sensor (which Panasonic says has less noise than the CCD used in the ZS10), super-fast autofocus, 10 frame/second continuous shooting, a great auto mode, in-camera panorama stitching, and Full HD 1080/60p video recording. 

Compared to ZS10 and ZS15

As with all of Panasonic's recent travel zooms, the ZS20 has a little brother known as the DMC-ZS15. The ZS15 shares much in common with the ZS20, except for its lens (same as the ZS10), sensor (which is the same as the one on the DMC-FZ150 super zoom), and movie mode. It also lacks the touchscreen LCD and GPS functionality found on both the ZS10 and ZS20.

If you read last year's GPS-equipped Compact Ultra Zoom comparison, you may recall that I was quite disappointed with the DMC-ZS10, mostly due to its image quality. Panasonic says they've taken care of that on the ZS20. Did they? Find out now in our review!

Note that the DMC-ZS20 is known as the DMC-TZ30 in some countries. The DMC-ZS15 is also known as the DMC-TZ25. 

What's in the Box?

The DMC-ZS20 has a rather unremarkable bundle. Then again, so do most cameras these days. Inside the box, you'll find:
  • The 14.1 effective Megapixel Lumix DMC-ZS20 digital camera
  • DMW-BCG10 lithium-ion battery
  • AC-to-USB adapter
  • Wrist strap
  • USB cable
  • DVD featuring PhotoFunStudio 8.1 Premium Edition, Map Tool, and LoiLoScope trial
  • 34 page basic manual (printed) + full manual (on CD-ROM)
Despite being their flagship travel zoom camera, Panasonic has built just 18MB of memory into the DMC-ZS20. Needless to say, you'll want to buy a memory card right away, unless you have one sitting around already. The ZS20 supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards, and I'd recommend a 4GB card for most folks, and an 8GB or 16GB card for movie enthusiasts. You'll want a card rated Class 6 or faster for best performance, especially when it comes to movies.

The DMC-ZS20 uses the same DMW-BCG10 lithium-ion battery as its predecessor. This battery packs just 3.2 Wh of energy into its plastic shell, but thankfully Panasonic manages to squeeze pretty good battery life out of it, as you can see in this table. Note that battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer, and are calculated with the GPS turned off.

The ZS20's battery life is a bit above the group average. That said, you might want to pick up a spare battery, as that GPS is power-hungry, especially if it's on all the time (more on that later). An extra battery will set you back around $32.

Panasonic has changed the way in which batteries are charged on their 2012 models. Batteries are now charged internally via the USB connector, which can be plugged into the wall or your PC. The reason why manufacturers are using this method more and more is pretty obvious to me: it costs a lot less to include a small AC-to-USB adapter than a full external charger. The bad news is that internal charging is a lot slower -- it takes a whopping 260 minutes to fully charge the ZS20's battery. Thankfully, Panasonic still sells the external charger (model DE-A65BA), which can be yours for about $25. It's more convenient than internal charging, allows you to charge a spare, and it's 100 minutes faster, too.

Something else about the included charger: while it's an AC adapter, you cannot use it to power the camera -- it's for charging only. If you want to use the ZS20 on "shore power", then you'll need to buy the hard-to-find AC adapter listed below.

Optional Accessories

A pretty short list, yes, but then again, the ZS20 is a compact camera. As I've hinted at several times, Panasonic accessories can be very hard to find - I don't even have prices for half of the stuff!

Panasonic includes PhotoFunStudio 8.1 Professional Edition software with the Lumix DMC-ZS20. This Windows-only software handles basic tasks fairly well, though the whole "wizard" system gets tired quickly. On the main screen you'll see the usual thumbnail view, and you can view photos by folders, date, or by things as specific as scene mode. The software can learn to recognize faces (much like the camera itself), which offers you another way to browse through your pictures. Available editing features give you the ability to crop, rotate, or change the aspect ratio of your photos, as well as adjusting color, brightness, saturation, and more. You can apply special effects to photos, overlay text, or remove redeye. Something else that's nice is that the software maintains a history of the changes you've made to a photo, so you can go back in time if you don't like something you've done.

Another included program is Lumix Map Tool (for Mac and Windows), which lets you choose which maps of the world you want to load onto your memory card. The North/Central America map is 1.88 GB, so maybe getting that 8 GB SDHC card isn't such a bad idea, after all. Another important application, known as GPSASIST, is actually built into the camera itself. When you attach it to your Mac or PC via USB, select "GPS Assist Data" on the camera, and you'll find the software on the virtual disk mounted by the camera. Loading the GPS Assist Data can reduce satellite acquisition times.

As with other recent Panasonic cameras, the ZS20's manuals are split into two parts. In the box is a leaflet that will get you up and running, but not much further. For more information about the camera, you'll have to load up the full manual, which is in PDF format on the DVD that comes with the camera. The full manual certainly won't win any awards for user-friendliness, but it should answer most questions you'll have about the ZS20. Instructions for using the included software is installed onto your PC.

This review was first published at www.dcresource.com, and is presented here with minimal changes, notably the inclusion of a full set of product images, our usual studio comparisons and an expanded samples gallery, plus the addition of a standard dpreview score.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Analyst Says the Apple iPhone 4S Is Heading for Sprint, T-Mobile

 The next smartphone from Apple will be called the iPhone 4S, according to one industry analyst. This model will supposedly be offered by not just AT&T and Verizon, but also Sprint and T-Mobile.

 This information comes from Peter Misek, a telecommunications analyst from Jefferies & Company, who says he got it from "industry checks". Apple itself has not yet said anything about its next-generation handset, which up to now many have been calling the iPhone 5.

For many years, AT&T was the exclusive provider of Apple's smartphones. Earlier this year, though, Verizon was allowed to introduce the iPhone 4. So adding two more carriers to this list would be a departure from Apple's current strategy, but not a huge one.

According to Misek, some versions of the iPhone 4S will support HSPA+, a 4G wireless networking standard used by AT&T and T-Mobile. It won't, however, have LTE or WiMAX, the 4G standards used by Verizon and Sprint, respectively. AT&T is also building an LTE network, and Apple supposedly wanted to add LTE support but the necessary chips won't be ready in time.

The analyst from Jefferies went on to predict that this model will have better cameras, though he didn't specify what the new resolutions for the front- and rear-facing camera will be. Previous reports have said the rear-facing one is going to jump from 5 megapixels to 8 megapixels.

He also said that it is going run the Apple A5 1 GHz dual-core processor. This same processor is used in the Apple iPad 2, and there's a general consensus that this company's next-generation smartphone will be built around it too.

Misek's sources said the smartphone will include unspecified "minor cosmetic changes". However, they apparently made no mention of the next iPhone having a larger screen, a feature of many previous reports about this handset. According to those earlier sources, this bigger display will not increase the overall size of the device. A few images and renderings supposedly showing this new configuration have appeared on the Web.

Coming this Fall?
This analyst said nothing about when the iPhone 4S is going to be released, just that it's headed for all four of the top U.S. wireless carriers. However, there's growing evidence from other sources that it's not going to hit store shelves until months after many had previously expected.

For several years now, Apple has released a new smartphone near the beginning of each summer. This year many be different. There are reports from an array of sources such as analysts and even an AT&T employee that the fifth-generation iPhone isn't going to debut until late summer or early fall.