OLYMPUS OM-D E-M5 vs. SAMSUNG NX20

 OM-D E-M5

 THE CSC MARKET IS ROOMING WITH NEW RELEASES, RUT WHICH OF THESE TWO CONTENDERS MAKES THE BEST INVESTMENT?

With just two months separating their launch dates, Olympus s OM-D E-M5 and Samsung s NX20 are two of the latest models to make their mark in the increasingly popular Compact System Camera market.

Though similar in size, these two rivals don t share that many features. In terms of style and design, Olympus has opted to stray away from the well-known PEN tradition and concentrate on producing a camera that s reminiscent of the Olympus OM series of film SLR cameras that first began in 1972. In contrast, Samsung s NX20 clearly takes its inspiration from more contemporary models, and with a prominent handgrip and conventional button arrangement it looks similar to a DSLR, albeit slightly smaller.

They achieved similar ratings in our standalone reviews so we ve decided to put them up against each other to find out which makes the best compact alternative to choosing a DSLR.

To identify the advantages and pitfalls of each model we ve put them through a range of real-life tests, concentrating on the most important criteria-image quality, performance and handling. It s time then to let them battle it out for glory.

CHALLENGE ONE

SCENICS

KEY AREAS ASSESSED: SHARPNESS & DETAIL, DYNAMIC RANGE, BUILD

The key advantage that CSCs bring to anyone upgrading from a compact camera is superior image quality as a result of their less-populated sensors. Olympus, pioneers of the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) system with Panasonic, has moved away from the 12MP resolution as found in the PEN range and introduced a completely new 16.1MP sensor for the OM-D E-M5, making it the highest resolution of any Olympus MFT camera to date. Samsung, on the other hand, joined the CSC party slightly later in 2010 with the NX lens mount and NX-series lenses. With a 20.3MP APS-C sized chip squeezed inside its body, the NX20 has the larger sensor and a 4MP advantage. And we know what you re thinking-is there a conspicuous difference?

Testing the cameras with their kit lenses and a selection of primes revealed that the OMD s Four Thirds sensor records very impressive levels of detail. Reviewing images closely revealed crisp, sharp results that couldn t be complained at. The 4608x3456 pixel dimensions let you print comfortably at A3+ size and there s the option ol shooting in the 3:2,16:9 and 1:1 aspects besides 4:3. Likewise, the detail the NX20 produces is excellent and is poles apart from detail you d expect a compact with a 1/2.33 n sized sensor to record. There s little to pick between the detail produced by the OM-D and the NX20 when viewing images at 50%, however under closer inspection at 100% it becomes clear the NX20 renders finer detail fractionally better.

Both cameras produce a pleasing tonal range and it was difficult to tell which handled bright highlights and dark shadows best when reviewing our results on the cameras  screens. Back at our computer and studying the histograms of our files in Adobe Camera Raw we found out the NX20 offers the marginally broader tonal range. While there was little to separate the two when it came to assessing highlight detail, the NX20 captures slightly more detail in the shadows.

Studying the construction of both models, it s the OM-D that feels more rugged and solid. That s not to say the NX20 has a poor build quality-it doesn t-it s just that the OM-D feels more resilient and ready to take the occasional knock or heavier blow that a camera can get in general use. Much like a high-end DSLR it also features seals to keep inclement weather from reaching the internals, and the two command dials on the top-plate are made from metal. The NX20, meanwhile, does not offer weather sealing and both its command and mode dials on the top-plate arc made from plastic.

One other difference these CSCs have is the type of stabilisation they deploy. The OM-D relies on a new sensor-shift five-axis system, while the NX20 features image stabilisation within NX lenses.

 OM-D E-M5

CHALLENGE TWO

PORTRAITS

KEY AREAS ASSESSED:

AF PERFORMANCE, METERING, SKIN TONE, HANDLING

If you re going to be taking shots of family and friends on a frequent basis you ll want a CSC that focuses accurately, exposes the scene correctly and produces natural-looking skin tones. The OM-D s contrast-detect AF system features 35 focus points with Face Detection and AF tracking available, while the NX20 has a 15-point contrast-detect AF system that offers Face Detection but no AF tracking.

Testing showed the OM-D to have the edge over the NX20 with regards to its autofocus speed; where the OM-D locked focus in a blink of an eye, the NX20 was slightly slower by comparison. Neither camera lets you move the AF point to the far corners of the frame, though the addition of the OM-D s touchscreen certainly makes AF point positioning more intuitive. That said, we found the NX20 s swivel screen offers better manoeuvrability, better sharpness and displays more neutral colour.

The OM-D s 324-zone Multipattern metering system is also extremely accurate, defining scenes very well. Inspecting our portrait images it had a tendency to offer brighter and punchier results than the NX20 without losing detail in the highlights. The TTL 221(17x13) block segment metering system found in the NX20 provides Multi, Centre-weighted and Spot modes just like its rival, and though the images it produces look good in isolation, it s only when you compare them directly up against the OM-D that you realise they re lacking a touch of contrast.

As for skin tone, there s nothing to separate the two cameras and both produced clear, natural-looking results. Handling wise it s the NX20 that provides more purchase than the OM-D with its bulkier, well-sculpted handgrip. The additional HLD-6 battery grip enhances the OM-D s handling no end but it is a costly extra at ?219. Another point to consider is that the OM-D has no built-in flash like the NX20. Mercifully, Olympus includes the FL-LM2 flash as an accessory in the OM-D box so there s no need to fret: you won t be without a flash.

CHALLENGE THREE

LOW LIGHT

KEY AREAS ASSESSED: ISO PERFORMANCE, AF IN LOW LIGHT WHITE BALANCE

Naturally there will be times when you find yourself shooting in low-light situations so it s vital your CSC performs well in this criteria.

 OM-D E-M5

Of the two cameras its the OM-D that offers the broader sensitivity range spanning from 200-25,600. Comparing this to the NX20 s sensitivity of 200-12,800 it s the OM-D that has a 1EV advantage at the high end. A broad ISO range is all well and good on paper but we must not forget it s always the end results that really count.

ISO is quick to set up on both models. The OM-Dquick menu and ISO is activated by hitting the OK button and using the d-pad. These buttons feel quite spongy so occasionally you may find your adjustment isn t made because you haven t pressed it hard enough.

The NX20 has its own dedicated ISO button or alternatively there s the option of using the i-Fn button on the lens that enables control of ISO as well as other variables by physically rotating the manual focus ring. Inspecting our high-sensitivity results revealed that the NX20 is superior at handling image noise.

Up to ISO 800 there s little to call between them but as the sensitivity is cranked up to ISO 3200 there s a more obvious difference and more noise is produced by the OM-D. Inspecting the NX20 s ISO 12,800 results revealed a magenta cast and at ISO 12,800 and 25,600 on the OM-D there was an obvious purple cast over images.

Testing the cameras  low-light capabilities was also a good chance to analyse AF speed in a dark environment. The OM-D showed no signs of hesitation and almost as soon as we d half depressed the shutter the green square and AF beep confirmed focus had been achieved. As for the NX20 it s less responsive, and we experienced a fair amount of hunting before it locked onto our subjects, which in turn slowed down the speed at which shooting was possible. As for white balance we kept both CSCs set to Auto for most shots. Neither system was inaccurate as such, although the OM-D s images were marginally warmer than the NX20 s.

VERDICT

What you have with the OM-D and NX20 are two very capable Compact System cameras, and there s not a huge amount to separate the two when talking about detail and sharpness. While the NX20 handles image noise at the high end of the sensitivity range fractionally better, and offers a DSLR-style grip that gives it a superb feel in the hand, the key area where the OM-D pulls ahead is in processing power. Shooting an 8fps burst in Raw, the NX20 took 35 seconds to write the data to our Lexar Professional 8GB SDHC card. The OM-D, which shoots 1fps faster, wrote its data in 24 seconds. Unlike the NX20 which is locked down while data is written to the card-something that s extremely frustrating if you d like to take any impromptu shots-the OM-D allows you to keep shooting.

Then there s the topic of how well supported both CSCs are when it comes to lens choice. At present Samsung produces eight optics for the NX20 covering focal lengths between 16mm and 200mm. Comparing this number to its rival it s the OM-D that s better supported. There are ten Olympus lenses produced for the OM-D and we shouldn t forget that Panasonic Micro FourThirds lenses are also compatible bringing the total amount to almost 30. So which CSC would we choose? Based on the lens support, performance and robust build the OM-D was the camera we preferred. It works out at ?250 more but if you re willing to pay the extra you ll get a better performer.

OLYMPUS OMD-EM-5

PROS Fast focusing, excellent metering, 9fps burst mode, build

CONS Spongy buttons, screen colour, additional grip (?219 extra)

SAMSUNG NX20

PROS Detail, screen, handgrip, i-Fn technology, ISO response

CONS AF performance, plastic dials, lens support, no AF tracking

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