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Pixel X800N Standard flash review


As you may know from our previous blog post, we will focus the review on stuff that ‘actually matters’ - important aspects of gear that truly have an impact on its purpose. For a Speedlight, I think that’s mainly ‘performance’ as a ‘standard flash’. Having 20 different modes, having the shortest flash duration, or having the best lit corners at 17mm focal length will not make the photographs of 99% of amateurs or professionals better.

Instead, we have used the flash for a few months on various occasions, and are now ready to publish a review that may be interesting for photographers that actually want to buy and use an on-camera flash.

To make things clear, the Pixel X800N Standard is a ‘conventional’ top-of-the-line flash without a built-in radio trigger. The X800N Pro, however, will come out soon and will have a built in-radio receiver. What that means is that you’ll be able to use it with a transmitter like the Pixel King Pro without any additional receivers.

First of all, our benchmark will be the tried and tested Nikon SB-900/SB-910 that Pixel X800N Standard is competing with. Personally, I have consumed two SB-900s and I’m using two SB-900s and two SB-910s at the moment, and my colleagues at FotoVriend have also used them for many, many years.

Of course, the X800N Standard has a near-identical version that works on Canon cameras that competes with the Canon 600EX-RT, although feature-wise it’s more in line with the X800N Pro since they both have a built-in radio receiver. 

Contents

Pixel was kind to provide as a production model as a testing sample - so the actual flash you can buy right now. The flash is packed in an interesting box with a pretty unique ‘flap’. I think it can be a little bit troublesome in transportation, but it surely is easier to open for the consumer than conventional boxes. Inside we find the flash in a diffuser, a stand, a pouch, and a manual - see Figure 1.

Figure 1 - Contents of the box (manual not on photo)

Inside the box:

  • Pixel X800N standard flash - more on that later
  • Diffuser or ‘omni-bounce’ - it can be very handy when you want to diffuse the light a little bit more to have softer shadows. Canon doesn’t supply these diffusers with their flashes (vexing many photographers), so it’s a a simple but nice touch. It fits tightly on the flash. Definitely excellent accessory!

Pixels provides and excellent diffuser, an average stand, a cheap but handy pouch, and a very concise English manual.

  • Stand; here you can fit the flash in and place it on a flat surface. There’s a standard 1/4” tripod thread below it, so you can screw it on all standard tripod heads and other accessories too. However, my gripe with this one is that it’s plastic. I hate plastic connections, and I broke many of those (not necessary these flash stands). The same applies to the supplied Nikon stand AS-21. That’s why I upgraded all of those to the AS-19 which has a metal connector. In practice, I don’t screw the stand on a tripod head, I just place it wherever I can. I always have such stand with me, as there are occasions that there’s unexpectedly a need for off-camera flash (I love off-camera flashes) when you don’t have all your equipment at hand or when you simply don’t have the time for an extensive setup. So, since Nikon does the same, Pixel didn’t do bad on this regard with its all-plastic design, but I’d personally appreciate it, if the thing would have that metal body. However, it doesn’t matter that much for most users, so I’m contradicting myself a little bit. :)
  • Pouch; the outer material is low grade and the stitching accuracy is of low quality, but obviously the pouch does its job. There’s no logo on the outside where you’d expect it, just a ‘tag’ inside. You can use it in combination with a belt if you like. There’s a pocket inside for the stand (as most pouches have), but there’s no place for the diffuser as the Nikon pouch has. Personally, I love this approach more since this drastically decreases the size of the pouch. You can throw that plastic diffuser anywhere in your bag when needed, and there are also people that don’t use the diffuser that often (including myself) and do not want a bigger than needed pouch.
  • Manual; this one has 12 pages while the Nikon manual is more than 10 times thicker. I love concise information that is straight to the point, but I appreciate all the nuances and specifications that are given more. There is probably nothing the manual of Nikon is lacking (unless you expect them to give all components, technical drawings, programming code, and assembly instructions). Pixel’s manual (a “quick start guide” is more fitting) is fine though, but they could improve a few details and their English translation. A little more information on for example batteries, usage of the flash and explanation of functions (what is the difference between the S1 and S2 mode?) is not asking too much, I think.

What is missing? Nikon’s offering is more ‘luxurious’ in general, with an extra booklet with many examples and interesting info about the flash. Also, what is indeed a nice touch is a set of colour filters. While the SB-900 had cumbersome and flimsy gels with a holder, the SB-910 has nice plastic fluorescent and incandescent filters supplied with automatic recognition by the flash. Very handy for those mixed light situations or creative purposes.

 

Summed up: Pixels provides and excellent diffuser, an average stand, a cheap but handy pouch, and a very concise English manual. However, what is interesting though, is that it costs just €175,- while Nikon’s SB-910 costs €400,- and Canon’s 600EX-RT about €535,-. That means that it's more than twice cheaper than the Nikon and thrice cheaper than the Canon. You can buy a lot of accessories (or more flashes) with such a difference!

Of course, there are many offerings from other third-party manufacturers, but most of them do not compete in the upper market. Metz is one of the well-established firms from Germany that has a very good reputation. However, personally I had a few but not so pleasant experiences with them with digital Nikon cameras where communication between the camera and flash were not optimal. Also I have one of the most expensive Yongnuo flashes as a spare on some jobs. These seem to work fine in manual mode off-camera, but I couldn’t rely on them on-camera as I had some misfires and a lot of fiddling with the flash. Speaking about “fiddling”, a very inconvenient user interface also contributes to that. And “fiddling” is not one of the positive key words for a professional - it needs to work perfectly and predictably every single time!

Going cheap for allegedly the same product doesn’t mean you’ll be happy in the end. Personally I couldn’t justify the relatively minor difference of the Metz with Nikon versions, and the Yongnuo did not convince me either. We’ll find out in the next chapters how the Pixel X800N fares performance-wise in our tests and months of professional usage.

Build quality and software

Starting with the specs, we don’t see anything ground-breaking or lacking major features. Naturally, it has regular and “smart” TTL, manual and stroboscopic mode(s), optical master and slave modes, High Speed Sync, 1st and 2nd curtain sync, standard/evenness/centre weighted illumination, -7 to 90º tilting and 180º swiveling, overheating warning, built-in reflector card, and some more features that you can lookup on their website or manual. We will cover some of the most important and/or interesting aspects.

One of the biggest complaints about Asian third-party manufacturers is the significant lower build quality. I can happily say that this does not apply to Pixel, at least for this X800N (and the King Pro, King X, and some chords and remotes I have). It uses good quality plastics, is nicely built, there is no unnecessary wobbling, no screeching or other sounds… it just feels and looks great! The button layout is a copy of Canon’s version though, but frankly, all flashes look alike. A small improvement is that the Pixel is a little bit smaller and lighter (409 vs 420g) than the Nikon.

Figure 2 – Rubber covers that protect the external power source connector, USB port and PC-sync connector

I do have a few remarks about the build quality or usage where the Nikon fairs better though. In order of minor to more major remarks:

  • The Pixel is slightly slower than the Nikon on the start-up.
  • Nikon has an indication of the distance the currently set flash power covers on its display. Nice touch, but trivial. The X800N doesn’t have this.
  • The plastic covers for the connectors (external power source, PC sync, USB for firmware updates) are not as nice as the rest of the flash. Especially closing the PC sync cover needs some precise pressure with your nails. I practically never use these, so this is not such an important point. See Figure 2.
  • My particular copy has a small defect at the top of the screen (yes, it was there from the beginning), but doesn’t affect anything at all. See Figure 3.

The Pixel has an actual battery indicator! Is that so hard to implement, Nikon, after all those years being in the business?

  • The OK-button keeps turning instead of staying horizontal. Not a big deal, but it looks stupid, and I would think this could have been locked easily. See Figure 3.
  • I find that the Canon-esque lock of the flash on a camera or stand is less handy than Nikon’s switch. It’s visually more difficult to see whether it is locked or not, and the operation needs a small surface to unlock the flash - not handy with gloves!
  • The display’s viewing angle is smaller than the Nikon’s, which makes looking at the parameters of the flash mounted on a high stand harder.
  • The flash doesn’t sleep or wake-up with the camera. On one hand I find it unnecessary how much the SB-910 wakes up, on the other hand it’s very easy to check the flash without taking your finger from the camera. Moreover, “sleep with the camera” is always better since you probably won’t use the flash when your camera is off.
  • The only real problem I have with the flash as far as physical operation goes, is that turning the dial does not work half of the time. While it does give tactile and audible clicks, often the software does not register this. This is absolutely not handy as you need to pay close attention at the screen.

Figure 3 – Back of the Pixel X800N. The OK button and a defect in the screen are marked.

 

Nevertheless, there are also aspects that I like better than the Nikon SB-900/SB-910. Again, in order of minor to major benefits:

  • Less audible clicks when changing the head’s position, while still turning with a secure and good feel.
  • A ‘partial’ rubber water guard to protect the hot shoe (a ‘real one’ closes the whole hot shoe). See Figure 4.
  • Besides showing the flash exposure compensation of the flash itself on the display, it shows the in-camera flash exposure compensation (or “flash exposure value” - FEV) too (see Figure 5). As you may know, these two work in tandem. I know many people don’t understand the flash’s behaviour because they don’t know that they have two places where flash exposure compensation is applied. In addition, they confuse it with regular exposure compensation too. Anyway, the X800N shows clearly both the flash exposure compensations! Personally, I never use the FEV of the flash, but I find it both handy and assuring to see both FEVs on the display, without pressing and holding a button on the camera to check the camera’s FEV.

Figure 4 - The hotshoe with the water guard

  • An “off-on-lock” switch (also copied from Canon) compared to “off-on-remote-master” from the Nikon (see Figure 5). Mostly I use flashes off-camera in the same mode, so all I need is to turn it on and make sure that no settings have been changed. 
Previously, I liked that Nikon has physical switches for its “regular” and remote/master settings while the competition had difficult (and often not logical) multi-button operations to set flashes in the remote mode. With the Pixel, there’s a dedicated button for the these modes which is almost as good as Nikon’s switch. The benefit of Pixel’s approach though, will become apparent if you mostly use one mode: You can just turn around the switch to the end (to “lock”) without looking, and you’re done and don’t need to worry about unwanted changed settings. The mode stays the same during the interval between locations/jobs after you turn the device off.
 Using the Nikon, you need to precisely set the switch to the desired mode while also pressing the button inside the switch (the latter applies if you need to go to “remote” or “master”). Then you still haven’t locked the flash, for which you need to press two other buttons at the same time after you have turned on the Nikon flash in the desired mode. All of this is not very handy, especially with gloves (it’s starting to sound like I live in Antarctica). So personally I like this small detail that the Pixel has and the Nikon doesn’t.
  • An actual battery indicator! Is that so hard to implement, Nikon, after all those years being in the business? Anyway, I’m glad the X800N has it, so I can check whether the particular flash has fresh batteries or that I should change them before going out for a shoot. See Figure 5.

Figure 5 - The display shows the battery energy level and the FEV of both the flash and camera

 

Performance (part 1)

Lens coverage & evenness

One of the differences with the Nikon is that the motorised zoom covers 20-200mm, while the Nikon goes wider to 17mm. Oddly enough, testing it with a 16-35mm, the indication even goes to 18mm. Paying attention to the actual physical change of the zooming lens inside the flash, the first two steps actually happen on the transition of 22 to 23mm and from 26 to 27mm. Going back to the Nikon, it has physical transitions on every millimetre from 17 to 32mm. Very nice, but without much effect on real usage, I think.

Either way, they are both not really suitable if you plan to lit an even surface from a perpendicular angle on ultra-wide angle. But why would you? While I very seldom use an ultra wide angle lens with an on-camera flash, I’m sure there wouldn’t be any problems as long as you don’t place your subjects in the corners, like every normal human being. But let’s see what the actual difference is.

In Figure 6a and Figure 6b the flashes were used on their minimal output setting (1/128 power) on the same distance, wall, white balance, etc. with a 16mm lens. The same tests were also performed on other focal lenghts, with the same results, althoug less pronounced of course.

Figure 6a - The flashes compared on their minimum zoom setting with a 16mm lens

Figure 6b - The flashes compared on their minimum zoom setting with a 16mm lens and wide-angle adapter

These images above are made with exactly the same settings on minimum power. We observe the following things:

  • Both flashes struggle at evenly illuminating the scene on ultra wide angles
  • The wide-angle adapter helps a lot
  • Nikon is much more even than the Pixel
  • Nikon’s 1/128 power setting emits slightly less light than Pixel
  • Pixel’s colour temperature is warmer than Nikon’s

What can we conclude out of this? I’d still say that this doesn’t affect anything in actual usage. Nobody makes photographs on ultra wide angle with an on-camera flash and needs an even illumination of the whole scene at the same time. However, another aspect is is the minimum output level: if you shoot at large apertures at high ISO (to get a nice colourful background at dark scenes), you might like the Nikon's lower output that could have less tendency to blowout the foreground. I do this a lot, and indeed, with the Nikon I could be more assured that I had lower exposure levels of the foreground.

 

Efficiency

Another interesting aspect is the claimed 180 shots at full output with batteries and Nikon 165 shots (both specifications for usage with Sanyo Eneloop batteries). That means that the Pixel should be (180-165)/165 = 9% more efficient. Translating this to battery usage: if you plan to consume 12 sets with the Nikon, you can get the same amount of full power flashes with 11 battery sets. Just to be clear, that’s 48 vs 44 AAA batteries. Ok, maybe I went too far with this comparison, let’s stop at the point that Pixel claims to be a little more efficient. But the essence is that this improvement of battery efficiency is very small. Unless…

 

Power

…unless the output of the flashes is different: a “full power” for one flash can be effectively different from another. If the Nikon is more powerful, it wouldn’t be strange that it will last shorter when compared to the Pixel’s less powerful “full power” flashes.

Again, let’s see what the manufacturer’s specifications are: Pixel claims a guide number of 60m at ISO100 and 200mm (I assume in “standard” illumination mode), while Nikon states a guide number of 53m (ISO100, 200mm, standard illumination in FX mode) for its SB-910. Interesting!

But what does that difference of 7 meters mean? It means that you can use for example f/6 at to illuminate a subject correctly from 10m with the Pixel (6*10=60m) while the Nikon would need more light for the same distance (53/10 = f/5.3). Is that a big difference? To be precise, that’s a difference of 2*ln(60/53)/ln(2) ≈ 0.358 = about a third of a stop. Again - a trivial difference in my opinion.

 

Just to recapitulate: Pixel claims to deliver 9% more flashes with the same charge as the Nikon, while these flashes are a third stop more powerful too. Not a huge difference in real life usage, in my opinion, but every improvement is a welcome one!

However, don’t forget that so far, we have used by the manufacturers stated figures. Well, we know that manufacturers have very different standards, testing equipment, general bias, and other aspects. In any way, the result is that you cannot compare blindly on such specifications to compare. That’s why we’ve put the Pixel X800N to the test…

 

Performance (part 2)

Tests

I’m not planning to take 350 shots to test whether that 9% difference in efficiency is correct, but I can state that during 4 months of actively using the X800N alongside the Nikon flashes, there occurred no difference in battery usage. Whether that 9% difference is unperceivable, or that it’s not possible to compare specifications stated by the manufacturers (I think both those statements are true), fact is that the Pixel is on the same level as the top-of-the-line Nikon flashes as efficiency goes, and that’s a very positive point.

Regarding the power, during professional usage, the Pixel did feel more powerful than I expected from my experience with Nikon. I must say though, that I mostly use flashes on-camera at very low settings (for f/1.4 and moderate ISO values) and off-camera, once in a while there’s a lot of power required to compete with the sun and a small difference would not make any difference. So again, in real-world-usage I think the Pixel is on par with the Nikon.

Still, we wanted to test the actual difference. You can check the result in Figure 7. Again, all settings were exactly the same, with the flashes set on 50mm. While we did measure the output with the light meter, the results are not as interesting to show. As you can see, result on the actual images is that the Pixel and Nikon are very much alike.

Figure 7 - Off-camera power outputs at 50mm

 

In the tests of the different illumination patterns, mostly both flashes performed as expected. “Centre weighted” illumination gives an emphasize on the centre of the scene with significantly darker corners. “Even” illumination tries to illuminate as evenly as possible (not kidding!), and “standard” illumination is in between these two. What’s interesting though, Pixel’s “standard” illumination is more like a “centre weighted” illumination. Meaning that the centre is strongly illuminated and the corners not so much.

This was the most clear with Figures 6  (on wide angle at the lowest power setting), but you can also this see one sample in Figure 8, where both flashes were used on-camera on full power in standard illumination on 200mm with 0º tilt from a moderate distance.  We also performed the same test on shorter and longer distances, with different illumination patterns with different zoom settings and with both 0º and -7º tilt – all with more or less the same results.

Figure 8 – 200mm setting in standard illumination and 0º tilt

 

The figure above is a very interesting comparison. What we observed during all tests is that Pixel indeed is more powerful, but slightly at the expense of evenness. Switching to “even illumination” gives a decrease in intensity but gets more on par regarding the evenness with Nikon's “standard” setting. This applies to zoom levels up to about 105mm, on 200mm the illumination mode does not affect much of the light. On one hand, GN60 seems to be a modest figure (assuming Nikon's GN53 is correct, making it a third stop less powerfull than the Pixel), as it can be seen that there is a quite significant difference at the centre of the frame in Figure 8. That is quite a thing!

What we observed is that Pixel indeed is more powerful, but slightly at the expense of evenness.

So the outcome is that the Pixel X800N is more powerful than a Nikon SB-900/SB-910, but with a less even illumination. Normalizing the illumination (by switching to “even illumination), both of the flash perform comparably. Personally, I’d argue that the difference in evenness (better with Nikon) is not an aspect that you will need in real-world usage. More power (better with the Pixel) will affect your images more often.

Other performance aspects

Some other things: the SB-900 has problems with overheating. Personally, this occurred during <1% of my shoots, and the last 2-3 years I didn’t have this at all. The SB-910 has been improved on this regard, and I did not have any overheating issues with it. So apparently I’m not pushing those flashes to the limit, but I can say that I did not have any overheating issues with the X800N either. Which could have been worse!

Regarding the cycle time, when setting both flashes in remote mode on full power and triggering them simultaneously, they seem to to be done charging at the same time (tested with fresh batteries). Maybe the Nikon was a little bit faster, but this is absolutely not significant. So if the Nikon takes 2.3 seconds to recharge, as stated in the manual, the Pixel takes 2.4 or 2.5 seconds.

A surprisingly good implementation of the optical sensor is another thing that I am very pleased with. It’s difficult to replicate and test, but I have the feeling that it is just a little more sensitive than the sensor on the side of the Nikon flashes. On occasions where I knew a SB-900/SB-910 could have problems receiving the signal of the built-in flash of a D800, the Pixel did not have any problems.

On top of that, using it with the Pixel King Pro and King X receivers worked flawlessly. With the Nikon flashes I previously had some problems where the flash fired only at full power, despite my settings. This problem somehow went away, and I’m not sure whether the problem was the communication between the Pixel devices, or the King X with the Nikon flashes. Either way, the X800N had no problems in the 4 months I’ve used it.

Oh, there are S1 and S2 manual optical slave modes, which Pixel even doesn’t explain in its manual. I think these are not interesting modes for most people, but if you are wondering what they do: S1 slave mode communicates with studio strobes and manual flashes and S2 slave mode communicates with TTL flashes from other manufacturers. Frankly, I still don’t understand the difference, since the S1/S2 modes are manual modes and I don’t see what it matters if it’s triggered by a manual or TTL-flash.

Lastly, one thing I find important is the auto focus assistant for those awfully lit wedding parties for my f/1.4 lenses, which are not the best lenses with respect to auto focus performance in the dark. See Figure 9. On one hand, the Pixel’s assistant is brighter and wider. On the other hand, the pattern does not cover Nikon’s enormous height, which is a little problematic for close or far distances (<1m and farther than 10m) since it emits its light too high or too low respectively. The real problem, however, is that it does not work if you use single point AF in another place than the dead centre. Which happens something that I use a lot, so I had no assistance at all from the Pixel.

Figure 9 - Different AF assistant lights in the flashes

 

 

Conclusion

Pros

Cons

  • Good build quality
  • Good diffuser, usable pouch, stand is included
  • Battery indicator and camera’s FEV indicator
  • Simple menu and operation
  • Comparable efficiency
  • High intensity output
  • Comparable speed
  • Sensitive optical sensor
  • Good AF assistance light (if you use an automatic mode or centre AF point)
  • Superb quality for the price
  • Very good support
  • Poor manual
  • Slightly worse design
  • Round dial doesn’t register all clicks
  • More uneven lighting than Nikon
  • Nikon is a little faster
  • Nikon has more options
  • Colour temperature is slightly different
  • AF assistance light is unusable with some AF modes
  • Nikon’s overall offering is more refined
  • Repair centre in China

 

As you may have noticed, I’m very positive towards the Pixel X800N, even in respect to the acclaimed Nikon SB-900/SB-910. My foremost aspects any gear should comply with are reliability and ease of operation. Regarding the former, I had no problems at all with the X800N, I could trust it and use it at every occasion. That’s how good as it gets. In addition to that, it is very easy to use, so I never hesitated to use the product.

Of course, performance is very important too. In this regard, the Pixel did not disappoint, and I can’t say I can see or even feel difference in real-word usage. As you can see in the Pros and Cons above, the conclusion can be made that it’s very comparable to the top-of-the-line Nikon flash and the worse parts are not very significant. The X800N is more powerfull if you don't mind a little more unevenness (I don't), and if you normalize this by switching the mode, it performs equally to the Nikon flashes.

All in all, I can and will highly recommend the Pixel X800N to anyone who is looking for a something of the likes of a Nikon SB-910. Yes, if money is no issue, go for the Nikon - it's a more refined flash and after hundreds of jobs I've used it on, it did its job. The Pixel will do probably the same, with even a few aspects where it exceeds the Nikon (mostly regarding the power output and the optical sensor).

I’m always proponent of ‘sticking to the brand’, but in this case it’s hardly justifiable to pay twice or thrice the price for a product that will give you exactly the same result in your pictures.


Score

Contents

70%

Mechanical quality 

80%

Software quality

80%

Performance

80%

Value for purpose

90%

Value for money

100%

Few Samples

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