Samsung GX-1L SLR Review
The GX-1L is the entry-level Samsung dSLR for 2006. Its resemblance to the Pentax *ist DL is no accident; the GX-1L was jointly developed with Samsung's partner, the Pentax Corporation. The GX-1L incorporates the same 2 1/2-inch LCD monitor, firmware features, pentamirror viewfinder and shooting performance of the Pentax *ist DL, but increases the number of AF points from 3 to 5.
As with its *ist DL cousin, the first thing that strikes you about the GX-1L is its diminutive (for an SLR) size. It weighs-in at just over 2 pounds including batteries, SD memory card, strap and D-XENON 50-200mm lens, among the lightest dSLR's currently available. Its small size does not diminish its ergonomic qualities, however; the GX-1L is comfortable to hold and its controls are both logically organized and easy to operate.
The large 2 1/2-inch LCD monitor was a pleasure to use. Like other dSLR's, the LCD is used to review images, display image capture parameters and navigate the camera's menu system. Although it can not be used as a live viewfinder, the LCD can be used to preview composition, exposure and focus by rotating the Main Switch to preview with Digital Preview set in the Preview Method Custom Function . The LCD was usable in bright sunny conditions, although it would benefit from an anti-reflective coating. The menu text was very easy to read thanks to the large text, the LCD's brightness and contrast, and the colors chosen for the menu display. Review mode was very useful for field-checking images, offering a histogram, a display of shooting parameters, and the ability to zoom-in up to 12x magnification to critically examine the image.
The top-mounted monochrome data LCD panel presents a continuous display of shutter speed, aperture, battery condition, flash mode, white balance, bracketing indication, exposure compensation, drive mode, metering, focus point information and number of remaining shots on the SD memory card. The information presented on the monochrome LCD is nearly complete, but you'll find it difficult to use in dim lighting because no illumination is provided. More information is available on the color LCD by depressing the INFO button; in addition to reproducing the Monochrome LCD's information, you'll find image size and quality, shooting mode, contrast, sharpness and saturation settings, AF mode, Focusing area, image tone, color space, ISO, date/time and the focal length of the attached lens.
The eye level viewfinder is bright and informative, although the viewfinder indicators were somewhat difficult to read in bright midday sun. The use of a lower-cost pentamirror versus a pentaprism diminishes the viewfinder's brightness somewhat, but not enough to limit its usefulness. The viewfinder can be easily used by those wearing glasses thanks to a nice rubber eyecup and diopter adjustment. Outside the image area you'll find information vital to the exposure, including flash status, Auto Scene mode, shutter speed, aperture, focus indicator, EV compensation, remaining shot capacity of the SD memory card, MF indicator, AE lock indicator and ISO sensitivity warning. Because it displays complete exposure information, you'll be able to make adjustments while keeping your eye at the viewfinder, ready to release the shutter at the right moment.
Despite the effectiveness of the 5-point autofocus system, there will still be times that you'll want to use manual focus; the viewfinder's focusing screen provides a matte surface that you'll find very usable for this purpose. While using manual focus, the GX-1L's autofocus system is not entirely disabled; it monitors your focusing adjustments and provides both visual and audible feedback when it is in agreement with your focus setting. The viewfinder could be improved with brighter viewfinder indicators, but on balance I found it to be a pleasure to use.
Novice users will find a choice of six capture modes that optimize the exposure for Flash Off, Portrait, Landscape, Macro, Moving Object and Night Scene Portrait shots. If that's not simple enough, the GX-1L has AUTO Scene mode, which automatically selects one of the Scene modes based on image composition and focus distance; an icon representing the selected Scene mode is displayed in the viewfinder. The GX-1L provides eight additional Scene modes for more specialized conditions, including Night Scene, Surf & Snow, Text, Sunset, Kids, Pet, Candlelight and Museum. While the Scene modes of many cameras are completely automatic and offer the photographer no control, the GX-1L allows some flexibility; you can set exposure compensation, ISO, Focusing Area and Metering method (multi-segment, center-weighted or spot), and use exposure bracketing in its Scene modes. Other parameters, such as White Balance, Sharpness, Image Tone, Saturation and Contrast, are grayed-out in the menu system, indicating that they are unavailable in that mode.
Advanced users will find exposure modes of Shutter-priority, Aperture-priority, Manual, Bulb and Program. Missing, however, is a program-shift function that would allow the choice of different combinations of aperture and shutter-speed for the same exposure. Creative control of exposure can still be exercised, but you'll need to use Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority or Manual mode to do it. The GX-1L provides some help in Manual mode in the form of the AE-L button; depress it and the camera will set an initial combination of aperture and shutter-speed for an appropriate exposure; you can then adjust shutter-speed and aperture for the desired effect while monitoring the viewfinder's EV difference for proper exposure. This feature makes Manual mode less intimidating, and helps intermediate users improve their skills.
Shooting performance is typical for an entry-level dSLR. From power-on till the first image was captured measured 1 second, while waking it from sleep mode took only 8/10 second. Shutter lag, the delay between depressing the shutter and capturing the image, was 1/10 second when pre-focused, and between 2/10 and 8/10 second including autofocus time for a high-contrast subject, depending on the degree of focus change. Shot-to-shot delay averaged about 4/10 second without flash; use of the internal flash extended shot-shot delay to between 1 and 4.5 seconds, depending on subject distance. Use of Red-eye reduction flash mode extended shutter lag by about 1/2 second. Continuous Shooting mode captured 5 JPEG/Best quality shots at 2.8fps, with subsequent shots at 8/10 second intervals as the camera emptied its full buffer. It required ~4 seconds to write a buffer full of JPEG/Best images to SD card before being ready to capture the next burst at full speed. The above times were observed using an OCZ 2GB 133x SD memory card, 18-55mm Pentax DA kit lens, flash off, AWB, 6M JPEG/Best image size/quality.
Shooting in RAW mode slows things down a bit. The Continuous burst mode captured 3 images at 2.8fps, with subsequent shots at 3.5 second intervals as buffer contents were processed; it took about 10 seconds to empty a buffer full of RAW images.
The autofocus system combined with both the Schneider D-XENON and Pentax DA lenses to produce sharp results. It has available settings that allow the camera to select the optimum focus point from the 5 available (Wide), or use the center AF point. The GX-1L does not provide a viewfinder indication of the focus point chosen. The setting of Single or Continuous Autofocus determines whether the GX-1L is in shooting priority or focus priority; Single AF causes the camera to refocus each time the shutter is released, while Continuous AF will allow the shutter to release even if the subject is not in focus. Low-light AF performance is exceptional even without the use of focus-assist lamps, but the GX-1L will fire its internal flash to achieve precise focus even in complete darkness.
The GX-1L provides 19 user-adjustable custom functions to personalize important camera functions and suit individual preferences. The custom functions are enabled or disabled as a set. You can set EV step magnitude (1/2 or 1/3 EV), Noise reduction (Off or On for long exposures), Automatic Sensitivity Correction, ISO Sensitivity Warning, linkage of AF and AE points, exposure meter operating time, and color space (sRGB or Adobe RGB), among others. The Custom Functions are quite useful and I was glad that they were included on this entry-level dSLR.
The camera can be powered by AA or CR-V3 type batteries so the user is free to choose from a wide variety of power sources. Using a set of 2500mAh rechargeable NiMH AA batteries, the GX-1L captured more than 300 images before a low battery warning. Much longer life can be expected from one-use CR-V3 type lithium batteries. CR-V3s are rather expensive but are excellent for the occasional user as they have a terrific shelf life. And if you're caught out in the field with dead batteries you can even pop in a set of one-use alkalines, just don't expect more than 50 frames from them.
Samsung provided only the Schneider D-XENON 50-200mm f/4-5.6 lens for our test. This telephoto zoom provides a focal length range of 75-300mm in 35mm equivalence. The lens produces a moderate amount of barrel distortion at its 50mm extreme, and moderate amounts of pin cushioning from the middle of its range to its 200mm telephoto extreme. Chromatic aberrations are well-controlled, showing very little purple fringing in high contrast areas.
We tested the GX-1L with several Pentax dSLR lenses, including the 18-55mm DA, 10-17mm DA fisheye zoom, 12-24mm DA wide angle zoom and 21mm DA wide angle; all worked flawlessly. Compatibility with the Pentax K-mount is one of the GX-1L's strong points, offering access to a wide variety of Pentax and third party lenses.
The default Image Tone setting of Bright produced well-saturated images right out of the camera. Images captured with the default sharpness setting were a bit soft; most users will prefer a hard sharpness setting, or the application of an image editor's unsharp mask filter. The image noise was practically non-existent at ISO 200, at ISO 400 it's still very clean, and at ISO 800 shadow noise becomes noticeable. At ISO 1600 noise becomes noticeable in highlights, but the images are quite usable. I would use ISO 3200 only if it made the difference between capturing an image or not. While noise is present at the higher ISO settings, the GX-1L compares favorably in this respect with the high-end prosumer digicams that overlap its price range. Please see our Sample Photos for examples taken under both controlled and real-world lighting conditions.
Samsung includes a copy of its Digimax Master software in the package. It provides an adequate set of image editing tools for JPEG files, and provides RAW image editing tools for White Balance, Exposure and Sharpness, allowing you save the edited RAW image as a TIFF or as a JPEG with a choice of quality settings. But the software does not provide an enlarged view of the RAW image, preventing you from critically examining the results of your changes.
We liked the Pentax *ist DL when we reviewed it earlier this year, and we like what is essentially its clone, the Samsung GX-1L, equally well. With a price point that overlaps well into consumer digicam territory, the GX-1L offers a compelling choice to upgraders, providing dSLR versatility and better high ISO image quality in a lightweight and compact package. Point-n-shoot upgraders can make the jump to a dSLR without a steep learning curve thanks to its array of automatic and scene modes, while learning how to use the camera's more advanced shooting modes and features at their own pace. Providing only 6-megapixels of resolution, the GX-1L may suffer in a direct comparison of specifications, but its $599 MSRP with 18-55mm kit lens, very good image quality, small size and light weight make it a good value and quite worthy of consideration.
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