Shoot-Out: Interchangeable Lens Compacts

Sony's NEX-5, Samsung's NX10 and Panasonic's Lumix G2 tested and compared.

shootout main thin
shootout main thin

Consumer electronics giants are changing the way we photograph. Panasonic, Samsung, and now Sony are packing a slew of new features, from touchscreen focus control to 3D panorama shooting, into small cameras that have large sensors and trim lenses you can swap out. Indeed, among the traditional camera makers, only Olympus with its Micro Four Thirds Pen line has participated so far in the rise of interchangeable lens compact (ILC) cameras.

And the newcomers have opened up a new area of competition: sensor size. Sony, with its recently-released NEX-3 and NEX-5, and Samsung, with its NX10, use bigger APS-C-format sensors to compete with the pioneering Micro Four Thirds system.

We pitted three of the newest ILCs—ony's Alpha NEX-5 ($700, street, with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 lens; $650 with 16mm f/2.8 lens), Samsung's NX10 ($700, street, with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 lens), and Panasonic's Lumix DMC-G2 ($800, with 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 lens)—against each other in the Popular Photography Test Lab and out in the field. To determine the best of the bunch, we evaluated them based on image quality, ease of use, control and capability, and total system flexibility. What we found may surprise you.

Image Quality
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.

Ease of Use
Since camera makers aim ILCs primarily at people stepping up from compacts, they should be fairly intuitive and easy to use.

Panasonic brought some fresh ideas to the G2, most notably its touchscreen controls, dubbed Smart Touch operation. Touch Shutter lets you tap a subject in the LCD image shoot the picture, and Touch AF and AE let you base its autofocus and auto exposure on whatever you select. An included stylus (which attaches to the strap) makes it easier to pinpoint your selections more exactly and avoid jarring the camera. Hate touchscreens? There are plenty of buttons, dials, and switches for control, too.

On the NX10, Samsung stuck with an approach very similar to entry-level DSLRs, with single command wheel and a healthy number of buttons, including a function button to access a menu of commonly changed settings. Its role may not be immediately clear to newcomers, but it provides a good shortcut once you figure it out.

On the other hand, with the NEX-5 Sony completely rethought how to interact with a camera—with mixed results. The LCD is wider than usual to accommodate different labels for the “soft buttons,” two controls whose functions change according to what you’re doing with the camera. These were intuitive enough for us to figure out in our firrst day of shooting, even without consulting the manual. There’s also a clickable control wheel.

But despite the elegance of its design, Sony’s sparse array of physical controls force you to use menus too much. And these seemed odd: With one section named Camera, another named Setup, and a third called Brightness/Color, we occasionally looked in the wrong place to change a setting and wished we could find some functions together in one list rather than having to jump between sections.

For instance, you have to press four buttons and scroll around just to change ISO, and the NEX-5 pauses dramatically when going from the menu to the jazzy ISO selection screen. With the G2, not only can you switch from manual focus to single-shot AF faster than the NEX-5’s menu takes to pop up, you can also look at the switch while the LCD is off and know what your current setting is.

We ran into some small annoyances with the NX10, too. It tends to lock up when processing and writing an image to the memory card, making RAW or RAW + JPEG capture clunky. Sure, we’re used to having to wait to shoot as a camera’s buffer fills, but the NX10 won’t let you change your settings while you wait. Try adjusting the ISO, and the screen tells you it’s processing. Yet it still took less time than changing the ISO on the NEX-5.

With no through-the-lens prism finders as on DSLRs, ILCs view the scene either via the LCD screens or eye-level electronic view finders (EVFs). Both the Panasonic and Samsung have built-in EVFs, though the G2’s has significantly higher resolution than the NX10’s, while the Sony relies on the LCD. Of course, this makes them bulkier, while the NEX-5, without a lens, is the smallest, lightest ILC body on the market.

But the more we used these cameras, the more we liked holding them away from our faces to grab shots from odd angles. We often found ourselves shooting the NEX-5 at waist level, twin-lens-reflex style thanks to its tilting LCD.

This was harder to do with the NX10, the only one of the three with a fixed LCD. The screen’s angle of view is good enough that you can still shoot from odd positions, but you have to hold it further away to see what you’re framing. Also, when in bright daylight, all three LCDs were harder to see. Tilting the monitor of the Panasonic and Sony helps compensate a little. Not so with the NX10.

Overall, the Panasonic G2 gets the prize for ease of use. We loved shooting with its touchscreen but, if you feel otherwise, you still have plenty of traditional, manual controls at your disposal. The Samsung comes in second here, despite the slow processor and fixed LCD, and Sony’s interface system bumps it to last. We do think that Sony will be able to evolve it into something better, but it still has some mutation to go.

Control and Capability
Another big promise of the ILC concept is that these cameras will offer the level of image control—in focusing, exposure, processing—found in DSLRs, plus the kind of innovative features found in compacts. As before, these three models are rather a mixed bag here.

Relying on contrast-detection autofocus as all three models do, none of them can focus as fast as a DSLR’s phase-detection AF. But one nice thing about their contrast AF is that you can focus on any part of the screen, rather than being tied to the AF points as on DSLRs. And all three focused faster than most compacts, and close enough in speed that we couldn’t call one significantly faster than the others.

In shooting video, they all did a decent job of focusing continuously—something no DSLR can do. The Panasonic has an edge here, since you can use Touch AF to change your focus from one subject to the next. (Careful! Touching the LCD while shooting video can jar the camera, but the G2’s stylus helped.)

While all three capture video, only the Sony shoots full HD at 1920x1080—the other two shoot 1280x720. It also lets you choose between AVCHD and MP4 files, while the G2 offers a choice of AVCHD Lite or Motion JPEG, and the Samsung captures just MP4.

The NEX-5 is also the only one to record stereo sound with its video. The other two are mono, though the G2 has a stereo minijack input for a microphone.

The actual footage we shot using kit lenses was pleasing in all three cases, with few artifacts, nicely saturated colors, and sharp images. But while we didn’t notice this on the other two in any significant way, the NX10 had a pretty bad case of the wobblies: Objects in motion seem to bend because the camera samples the sensor over and over instead of using a shutter in recording. So, in our footage of a subway train whizzing by, the doors looked like they were leaning at nearly 45 degrees.

With all three—and as is often the case with DSLR video—be prepared to transcode the video before bringing it into an editing program, and don’t expect to just upload your clip to Vimeo or YouTube right away. At the very least, you should run it through the software that comes with the camera before distributing it.

While the Panasonic and Samsung have built-in pop-up flashes equivalent in output, the Sony NEX-5 doesn’t have a flash built in. Instead, the camera comes with a small, comparatively weaker unit that screws into the top and folds down over the back of the lens when not in use. Why? Sony says you shouldn’t need the flash very often, given ISO 12,800 and Handheld Twilight mode, but we think it was just to make the body smaller. Strangely, Sony includes flash settings among the four things its command wheel lets you access quickly.

Among the convenient features Sony brought to the NEX-5 from its compact Cyber-shot line, Handheld Twilight shooting combines six images shot in a burst to minimize noise at the high ISOs you need in dim light. It recognizes when one of the elements in the scene moves between shots and will use only one frame for that area of picture.

Another feature, Sweep Panorama, combines many frames, shot in a rapid burst as you pan the camera, into one very wide image. The result isn’t quite as sharp as the regular pictures you’ll get from the NEX-5, but it’s by far the easiest way to make a panorama that we’ve ever tried. And a firmware update slated for July will let you display your image in 3D.

Despite the Sony’s neat features, we’d put it second to the Panasonic in control and capability, given the G2’s edge for everyday shooting considerations: video focusing, built-in flash, speed of control access. The Samsung lands in third place.

System Flexibility
If you hoped to see a standardized lensmount for the APS-C-format competitors to the Micro Four Thirds system, your pipe dream has gone up in smoke. Sony, despite the NEX-5's Alpha branding, uses the new E-mount, and Samsung the NX mount. Having ample glass to fit is a big part of system flexibility.

So thanks in part to its huge head start, as well as to having more than one company developing new lenses, Panasonic (and, though not part of this shoot-out, Olympus) comes up big. We used three lenses to cover a range of 7–200mm (14–400mm full-frame equivalent) on the G2.

To its credit, Samsung debuted the NX10 with a range of 18–200mm (27–300mm equivalent) across two lenses. For its initial two, Sony has only a 16mm (24mm equivalent) and an 18–55mm (27–82.5mm), though it plans to release an 18–200mm zoom later this year.

All of the systems have relatively fast pancake lenses with equivalent focal lengths in the normal range, except for Sony’s 16mm f/2.8, a wide-angle that’s convenient for street shooters. But, only Panasonic has a macro lens, a 45mm (90mm equivalent) f/2.8.

We don’t yet have mounts to test ILC lenses on our lab’s lens bench, but we did run DxO Analyzer 3.2 tests on these cameras’ kit lenses for distortion, vignetting, and magnification. The results can be found on the test page.

All three manufacturers plan to release new lenses over the next year, though it’s hard to tell how many and how soon. And all three make adapters to use their DSLR lenses on their ILC cameras, and the Panasonic benefits from third-party adapters for tons of legacy glass, though with some compromise in performance. (The Samsung adapter works on Pentax K-mount lenses.)

A system means more than just interchangeable lenses: Take flash, for example. Both Samsung and Panasonic offer hot-shoe accessory units (Panasonic, a choice of three) in addition to their pop-ups. But Sony’s lack of a hot-shoe on the NEX-5 is a disadvantage here.

Plus, without a built-in viewfinder, the Sony offers fewer viewing choices—just an accessory optical finder whose wide field of view makes it useful with the pancake lens but not so much with the kit zoom.

Sony and Panasonic offer stereo accessory microphones as alternatives to the tiny mics built into their bodies. The Panasonic has a stereo minijack input so that you can use third party mics as well. Sony’s nonstandard accessory port prevents this on the NEX-5.

Again, Panasonic takes the lead, with Samsung coming in second and Sony third. We wouldn’t be surprised to see Sony round out its line before long, but it must add a body with a hot-shoe to compete as a system going forward.

SPECIFICATIONS IMAGING: 14.6MP effective, APS-C-sized CMOS sensor captures images at 4032x3024 pixels with 12 bits/color.
STORAGE: SD, SDHC, SDXC, Memory Stick PRO Duo. Stores JPEG, ARW RAW, and RAW + JPEG.
VIDEO: Up to 1920x1080, 60-fps AVCHD or 1440x1080 30-fps MP4; built-in stereo mic; continuous AF;Smart Accessory Terminal accepts optional ECM-SST1 stereo mic.
BURST RATE: Full-sized JPEGs (Fine mode), up to card capacity at 2.3 fps with SanDisk Extreme III class 6 SDHC card. RAW, up to 8 shots at 2.3 fps (12 bit).
AF SYSTEM: TTL contrast detection with 25 focus areas. Single-shot and continuous.
SHUTTER SPEEDS: 1/4000 to 30 sec, plus B (1/3-EV increments).
METERING: TTL metering using 49-area multi-segment (evaluative), centerweighted, and spot. EV 0–20 (at ISO 100).
ISO RANGE: ISO 200–12,800 (in 1-EV increments).
FLASH: Comes with clip-on HVL-7S fl ash unit for use in the Smart Accessory Terminal, GN 23 (ISO 100, feet). Flash sync to 1/160 sec.
DISPLAY: Tilting 3-inch TruBlack TFT LCD with 921,600-dot resolution.
OUTPUT: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, mini HDMI video.
BATTERY: Rechargeable NP-FW50 Li-ion, 1080 mAh. CIPA rating, 330.
SIZE/WEIGHT: 4.4x2.4x1.6 in., 0.6 lb with card and battery.
STREET PRICE: $700 with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 lens.

IMAGING: 12.3MP effective, Four Thirds-sized Live MOS sensor captures images at 4000x3000 pixels with 12 bits/color.
VIDEO: Up to 1280x720, 60-fps AVCHD Lite; built-in mono mic with optional mic input; continuous AF.
BURST RATE: Full-sized JPEGs (Fine mode), up to card capacity at 3.2 fps with SanDisk Extreme III class 6 SDHC card. RAW, up to 7 shots at 3.2 fps (12 bit).
AF SYSTEM: TTL contrast detection with 23 focus areas. Single-shot and continuous.
SHUTTER SPEEDS: 1/4000 to 60 sec, plus B (1/3-EV increments).
METERING: TTL metering using 144-area intelligent multiple, centerweighted, and spot. EV 0–18 (at ISO 100).
ISO RANGE: ISO 100–6400 (in 1/3-or 1-EV increments).
FLASH: Built-in pop-up with TTL autofl ash, GN 36 (ISO 100, feet). Flash sync to 1/160 sec. Panasonic hot-shoe accepts optional flash units.
EVF: Approximately 100-percent field of view, 0.7X magnifi cation, 1,440,000-dot resolution.
DISPLAY: Tilting, swiveling 3-inch TFT touchscreen LCD with 460,000-dot resolution.
OUTPUT: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, mini HDMI video, composite video.
BATTERY: Rechargeable DMWBLB13 Li-ion, 1150 mAh. CIPA rating, 360.
SIZE/WEIGHT: 4.9x3.3x2.9 in., 1.1 lb with card and battery.
STREET PRICE: $800 with 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 lens.

IMAGING: 14.6MP effective, APS-C-sized CMOS sensor captures images at 4592x3056 pixels with 12 bits/color.
VIDEO: Up to 1280x720, 30-fps MP4; built-in mono mic; continuous AF.
BURST RATE: Full-sized JPEGs (Fine mode), up to 10 at 3 fps with SanDisk Extreme III class 6 SDHC card. RAW, up to 3 shots at 3 fps (12 bit).
AF SYSTEM: TTL contrast detection with up to 35 focus points. Single-shot and continuous.
SHUTTER SPEEDS: 1/4000 to 30 sec, plus B (1/3-, 1/2-EV increments).
METERING: TTL metering using 247-area multi (evaluative), centerweighted, and spot. EV 0–18 (at ISO 100).
ISO RANGE: ISO 100–3200 (in 1-EV increments).
FLASH: Built-in pop-up with TTL autoflash and GN 36 (ISO 100, feet). Flash sync to 1/180 sec. Samsung hot-shoe accepts optional flash units.
EVF: Approximately 100-percent field of view, 0.86X magnifi cation, 921,000-dot resolution.
DISPLAY: 3-inch AMOLED with 614,000-dot resolution arranged in a PenTile matrix for 640x480 output resolution.
OUTPUT: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, mini HDMI video, composite video.
BATTERY: Rechargeable BP1310 Li-ion, 1300 mAh. CIPA rating, 400.
SIZE/WEIGHT: 4.2x3.4x1.6 in., 0.95 lb with card and battery.
STREET PRICE: $700 with 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 lens.

And the winner is...

It took first place in three out of the four criteria in our shoot-out. And even though it came in second in Image Quality, a factor we give double weight in our shoot-outs, that was enough to win.

It was a close call between Sony and Samsung after that. Both have their quirks and their merits. Ultimately though, the Sony’s image quality gave it the lead over Samsung.

All three are worthy cameras and can make very nice images, but Panasonic’s thoughtful approach to the body design and controls, along with the fi rst mover advantage of the Micro Four Thirds system, make it a clear winner this time. Much as in the Wild West, the first one on the draw usually wins the shootout.