Camera Review: Samsung NV11

What you get with this camera is a mostly typical 10.1-megapixel compact wrapped in a gorgeous body... and something your friends will certainly notice and ask about!

Camera-Review-Samsung-NV11

Camera-Review-Samsung-NV11

Sleek, sexy, stylish... not words you often hear when talking about compact digital cameras. But hear them you will if you take Samsung's NV11 out to take pictures. Samsung's NV line certainly looks good, and the NV11 looks just as stylish as its siblings in the line. How do the images that come out of it compare to its flashy exterior?

LET'S TAKE A LOOK

The NV11 keeps the 10.1-megapixel output of its NV10 predecessor, with a new lens with extended zoom range and a fast f/2.8 maximum aperture. The $279 (street) compact features a 5X Schneider-Kreuznach zoom lens (38-190mm 35mm equivalent), ISO speeds from 80 to 1600, shutter speeds from 15 to 1/2000th sec., a 2.7-inch, 230,000-dot LCD display, and a stainless steel black-finish exterior. There are the usual Auto, Program, and scene modes for exposure control, as well as manual control with a few restrictions. Movie recording is quite capable at 30fps in VGA-size (640 x 480 px), saved in MPEG-4 format.

The camera has the latest version of Samsung's "Smart Touch" interface, which has the user navigate menu and control functions by sliding a finger across multiple buttons that surround the LCD display on the rear. The Smart Touch interface is certainly unique, and we found it to be wonderfully easy for some operations, while absolutely annoying for others. Intuitive it's not... when we first picked up the camera we had to refer to the manual to do some of the most basic operations, something that doesn't happen often. With a bit of practice we got the hang of it, but there were still many times when the interface had us lost, confused, and frustrated. We let several non-photographers handle the camera and take some pictures, and their overall opinion of the interface closely matched ours -- odd. One person even managed to get so stuck in the menus that we had to once again pull out the manual to get back to taking pictures! Add to the confusion the fact that button sensitivity is a bit twitchy, making it easy to select the wrong option as you scroll your fingers around, and we have to give Smart Touch low marks for ease of use. Call it an interesting idea that probably needs more work to be truly useful.

Autofocus is fast and accurate in most cases, taking less than 0.5 seconds to focus except in very low light (when the focus-assist lamp on the front of the camera lights up to help out the autofocus system). Shutter lag -- how long it takes between your finger pressing the shutter button and the picture being recorded -- was very low, not noticeable in almost all cases. However, that doesn't exactly make the NV11 a speed demon. Once the picture is taken, it can take anywhere from 1 to 5 seconds before it's ready to take another, depending on the mode you're shooting in. Turning on Continuous shooting mode allows you to shoot at a sped-up rate of 0.6 frames per second. Two other continuous shooting options are available: high-speed mode, which takes a burst of three frames at 1.6 frames per second (the camera delays processing the images until the burst is done, making the wait after the 3-frame burst quite long), and "Motion Capture Continous Mode," which takes up to 20 lower-resolution (1024x768) images in a row at about 7 frames per second. In both of these modes the LCD is turned off while the images are being taken -- and with no optical viewfinder, there's no way to accurately follow a moving object without the LCD!

Images for the most part came out sharp and contrasty, a testament to the quality of the Schneider-Kreuznach lens. At the long end of the zoom range, however, the corners of images got quite soft, enough to easily notice even in small prints (see the 100%-sized crops in the gallery for examples). The maximum aperture of f/2.8 does give more ability to do selective depth-of-field imaging than many slower-aperture compacts, and out-of-focus backgrounds had a pleasing soft look to them. The maximum aperture is variable, giving f/2.8 at the wide end of the zoom and f/4.4 at the long end, a very usable range that's more versatile than many of its competitors at the long end. Zooming was smooth and easy via the rear up-down zoom control, which falls right under a fingertip in the usual "hold it out in front of you like a zombie" position for shooting with compact digitals. The lack of an optical viewfinder, while common these days, is regrettable, but the bright, high-definition LCD was quite visible outdoors on a bright day even though its shiny surface does produce some reflections.

Image quality is good, but doesn't really distinguish itself from other compacts in the 10-megapixel range. Noise is visible even at ISO 100, though it's not objectionable -- but by ISO 800 it is somewhat annoying. Noise reduction kicks in at ISO 200 and above, though it's somewhat heavy-handed and results in a loss of detail. Even with noise reduction, high-ISO shots are quite noisy. The results aren't that different from other compacts in this class, and you'd have to move up to DSLR territory to get this many pixels with really low noise (due to the larger sensors DLSRs use, which help control noise better).

Samsung's ASR (advanced shake reduction) recognizes when the shutter speed will be too low to avoid shake, and automatically ups the ISO value in order to get a faster shutter speed -- a feature that, while useful in some situations, often results in unexpectedly noisy images, and significantly increased processing time. Rather than being a menu item that can be turned on or off in any shooting mode, ASR is its own shooting mode, set by the mode button on top of the camera, meaning you can't use it in combination with scene modes or program/auto/manual modes.

One of the NV11's strongest new features was Samsung's Face Recognition technology, which works surprisingly well. While we've used other cameras with this feature, we found the Samsung's to be hard to fool -- it recognized and focused on faces no matter where they were in the frame, and with multiple faces available to choose from it did a good job picking the closest one. The focus square on the LCD jumps to the face that's being used as the focus point, giving nice visual confirmation of what it chose to focus on. The only downside to this nice feature is that it's not available in all shooting modes, forcing you to choose a limited set of "portrait" modes if you want face recognition. Turning this feature on and off also highlights the difficulties of the Smart Touch interface. While there is a specific button for it on the back of the camera (among 12 others of the same size and shape), Smart Touch often decided to scroll or bring up a menu rather than just turn face detection on or off. It became a ritual to double or triple check to see if it was on or not because of the quirky buttons.

The large choice of available scene modes (12 in all) is welcome, and all of the ones we tried gave the results you'd expect. The Landscape scene mode provides punched up colors and large depth of field; Backlight turns on fill flash to balance the foreground subjects with a bright background; and Beach & Snow mode avoids underexposure when shooting on a bright landscape. The camera delivered very good color saturation and color balance in pretty much every situation we threw at it, and results in bright sunlight weren't overly harsh or contrasty.

Movies recorded with the NV11 look very good, thanks to the 640x480 resolution and 30 fps speed (VGA). You can keep recording movies as long as your memory card has space on it, and pressing one of the Smart Touch interface buttons pauses movie recording, with another touch starting it up again, all recorded in one single file -- a nice feature that not many competitors can boast about. You can zoom in and out while recording movies, but the camera turns the microphone off while zooming (to avoid motor noise in the movie), resulting in odd sound dropouts if you zoom. Our advice: if the audio is important, say at your daughter's flute recital, don't zoom! Most of the same digital effects available for still pictures can be used for movies -- graphic frames, for example. And once the movie's recorded, edit out unwanted parts with the trim function, or grab a single movie frame and save it off as a still image. To get more movie time, you can reduce the resolution to 320x240, drop down to 15 fps, or both.

The NV11's playback mode stands out, with a variety of options for editing and showing your photos. You can adjust brightness, contrast, and saturation; you can resize, crop, and rotate photos (rotation being a necessity for vertical shots, since the camera has no orientation sensor); and you can apply the same effects (combining multiple images, using graphic frames and overlays, etc.) you could while shooting. There's also a redeye removal tool, though it didn't do a very good job in the few images we tried it with. With the mode dial set to Photo Gallery, playback allows you to organize your images into categories (such as family, friends, events, etc.), and set up fairly elaborate slide shows that include transition wipes and background music. Movies can also be edited and have effects added as mentioned above, and be included in slide shows. One downside to playback mode is that the one-line "help" explanations for functions don't show up as they do in recording mode, requiring you to memorize icons that are as often obscure as they are helpful -- or resort to the manual for explanations.

The camera is a pleasure to handle, with the hefty metal body feeling strong and substantial in your hands, and a well-placed rubber strip on the front of the protruding hand-grip providing a firm anchor point. The solid all-metal body makes it a bit heavier than some others in its class, and while it fits in a shirt pocket, it'll certainly make the pocket sag. Controls are solid and easy to operate, aside from the comments above about the Smart Touch interface. The power button is nicely recessed, helping to avoid accidentally turning the camera on or off. The built-in flash is adequate for its intended task, and works quite well as a daytime fill-flash though it seems a bit blue compared to standard daylight color balance.

We certainly got a lot of comments when out shooting with this camera. Its stylish looks drew attention and had lots of people asking about the camera. The image results, however, aren't nearly as cutting-edge as the styling. While images were good, and the camera performed about as well as anything else in this class, there wasn't really anything extraordinary about them. The same goes for the optics -- good in most cases, but with some softness at the long end that can detract from results. Then there's Smart Touch, an interface that engenders love and hate at the same time. What you get with this camera is a mostly typical 10.1-megapixel compact wrapped in a gorgeous body... and something your friends will certainly notice and ask about!

COMPETITIVE SET

• Canon PowerShot SD900
• Casio Exilim EX-Z1080
• Nikon Coolpix P5000
• Olympus Stylus 1000

Samsung NV11
10.1 Megapixels (3648x2736 pixels maximum resolution)
7.2 x 5.3 mm CCD Sensor
2.7" LCD
38-190mm (35mm equivalent), f/2.8-4.4 Schneider-Kreuznach zoom lens
5X optical zoom, 5X digital zoom
80cm (31 inches) to infinity focus
10cm (3.9 inches) macro focus, 1cm (.39 inches) Super Macro focus mode
1-1/2000th sec. shutter speeds
f/2.8-11 aperture values
ISO settings: Auto, 80, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600
Program, Auto, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, Manual, ASR modes
Movie mode (640x480 pixels, MPEG-4 format, 30fps)
Center-weighted, Spot, Multi-Segment metering options
Flash: Auto, Auto plus red-eye reduction, Fill, Slow-sync, red-eye reduction modes
USB 2.0, video out connections
Lithium-ion rechargeable battery (charger included)
20MB internal storage, takes SD, MMC, SDHC memory cards

-- Paul LeFevre is a photographer, writer, and astronomer living in Southern California. He can be reached at flash@popphoto.com, or on the Popular Photography & Imaging forums as user AstroImager.

Samsung-NV11-Samsung-s-NV11-sports-a-stylish-rug

Samsung-NV11-Samsung-s-NV11-sports-a-stylish-rug

Samsung's NV11 sports a stylish, rugged, all-metal exterior finish that's bound to turn heads and get attention.2007 Paul Lefevre
Samsung-NV11-A-full-sized-crop-of-the-previous-im

Samsung-NV11-A-full-sized-crop-of-the-previous-im

A full-sized crop of the previous image. Noise is visible at ISO 100, but not objectionable. On 4x6 prints of this image, it's just barely noticeable.2007 Paul Lefevre
Samsung-NV11-The-Schneider-Kreuanach-lens-deliver

Samsung-NV11-The-Schneider-Kreuanach-lens-deliver

The Schneider-Kreuanach lens delivers good sharpness and detail at nearly every focal length -- in thisshot of grass tufts, you can see every individual seed pod.2007 Paul Lefevre
Samsung-NV11-Fully-zoomed-at-210mm-35mm-equivale

Samsung-NV11-Fully-zoomed-at-210mm-35mm-equivale

Fully zoomed at 210mm (35mm equivalent), the camera has adequate reach for far subjects, but corners area bit soft (see the next two images for full-sized crops of this image).2007 Paul Lefevre
Samsung-NV11-A-full-sized-crop-of-the-horse-field

Samsung-NV11-A-full-sized-crop-of-the-horse-field

A full-sized crop of the horse-field image, from the center of the frame at full-zoom (210mm 35mm equivalent).2007 Paul Lefevre
Samsung-NV11-A-full-sized-crop-of-the-horse-field

Samsung-NV11-A-full-sized-crop-of-the-horse-field

A full-sized crop of the horse-field image, from the corner of the frame. Images are visibly soft in the corners,with the result visible on 4x6 prints.2007 Paul Lefevre
Samsung-NV11-I-caught-this-newly-married-couple-s

Samsung-NV11-I-caught-this-newly-married-couple-s

I caught this newly-married couple sharing a kiss. The NV11 did quite well in bright sunlight, deliveringcrisp, saturated images that weren't overly contrasty.2007 Paul Lefevre
Samsung-NV11-Salt-Lake-City-s-Mormon-temple-in

Samsung-NV11-Salt-Lake-City-s-Mormon-temple-in

Salt Lake City's Mormon temple...in such contrasty light, the NV11's landscape mode kept whites from blowing outwhile still delivering detail in the shadows, along with good color.2007 Paul Lefevre
Samsung-NV11-The-NV11-s-face-recognition-mode-was

Samsung-NV11-The-NV11-s-face-recognition-mode-was

The NV11's face recognition mode was great for quick snapshots of family and friends, finding and focusing onfaces no matter where they were in the frame. In open shade, color balance is very good, with accurate fleshtones.2007 Paul Lefevre
Samsung-NV11-The-NV11-s-maximum-aperture-of-f-2.8

Samsung-NV11-The-NV11-s-maximum-aperture-of-f-2.8

The NV11's maximum aperture of f/2.8 allows selective focus control that's often missing from digital compacts.The lens gives smooth, soft out-of-focus backgrounds.2007 Paul Lefevre
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