Central to the concept of ILCs is the idea of a small—even pocketsized—camera body that houses a sensor equal to what you can get in a DSLR.
Olympus and Panasonic were quick to point out that the Four Thirds sensors in their models have more than 5 times the surface area of the largest sensor you’ll find in a true compact camera.
Now, Samsung and Sony are giddy to tell you that the APS-C sized sensors in their ILCs have 1.5 times the surface area of Micro Four Thirds and more than 8 times that of the largest compact sensors. This might make you think these cameras should deliver more resolution while keeping noise low.
Guess what? That’s not necessarily the case.
While the Samsung NX10 sports a 14.6MP CMOS sensor and the Sony NEX-5 a 14.2MP CMOS, neither of them out-resolved the 12.1MP Live MOS in the Panasonic G2. In fact, all three ILCs scored within 50 lines per picture height of each other in our test—impressive for the lower-megapixel G2, not so much for the others.
Noise was another story. Our official test results reflect the noise we measure in TIFF files converted from RAW, using whatever software comes with the camera at the default noise-reduction setting. And, as usual for its cameras, the Panasonic proved noisy. That’s probably because the SilkyPix software included with the G2 applies no noise reduction when left at its default settings.
But Samsung gives NX10 buyers a modified version of SilkyPix, whose default is lots of noise reduction. Sony’s software seems to vary the amount of noise reduction applied as you ramp up the ISO, though the default Auto setting doesn’t show you how much is being applied. Although we didn’t include it in this shootout, the Olympus Pen E-PL1 (tested in our June 2010 issue) produced less noise than the Sony all the way up to ISO 1600.
Out of curiosity, and to mimic the results you’d get if you don’t bother with RAW, we also ran our noise test on highest-quality, full-sized JPEGs from all three of these cameras.
While this brought the G2’s noise numbers down quite a bit, the comparative results were the same: Panasonic was the noisiest across all ISOs. The Samsung delivered cleaner images at its lowest settings, but by ISO 800 the Sony took the lead and held it, with noise in our Acceptable range up to ISO 3200, while the Samsung remained Acceptable only to ISO 800. (For JPEGs only, Sony tackles this with a mode called Handheld Twilight, discussed later.)
Sensitivity itself varies over the three ILCs. The NEX-5 lets you shoot at up to ISO 12,800, while the G2 reaches up to ISO 6400 and the NX10 tops out at ISO 3200.
Color accuracy is far and away the Panasonic’s biggest strength. It served up outstandingly accurate colors, while the Sony barely made our cutoff of 8.0 for an Excellent rating, and the Samsung was among one of the few cameras with a larger sensor we’ve tested in the past several years not to achieve an Excellent rating in our test .
So, while all of these ILCs can make very pleasing images in the right real-life circumstances, none of the three particularly stands out in terms of overall image quality as tested in our lab.
Still, the Sony NEX-5 wins here, since it has the best balance of resolving power, noise control, and faithful color rendition. Though noisy, especially at higher ISOs, Panasonic takes second place with its overwhelmingly accurate colors. And, though third, Samsung’s NX10 is no slouch.