Sony NEX-3 Review

 
Camera Reviews / Sony Cameras / Sony NEX i Full Review
Basic Specifications
Full model name: Sony Alpha NEX-3
Resolution: 14.20 Megapixels
Sensor size: APS-C
Kit Lens: 3.00x zoom
18-55mm
(27-83mm eq.)
Viewfinder: LCD
ISO: 200-12800
Shutter: 30-1/4000
Max Aperture: 3.5
Dimensions: 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.3 in.
(117 x 63 x 33 mm)
Weight: 18.0 oz (511 g)
includes batteries, kit lens
MSRP: $600
Availability: 07/2010
Manufacturer: Sony
Full specs: Sony NEX-3 specifications
14.20
Megapixels
Sony E-mount APS-C
size sensor
image of Sony Alpha NEX-3
Front side of Sony Alpha NEX-3 digital camera Back side of Sony Alpha NEX-3 digital camera Top side of Sony Alpha NEX-3 digital camera Left side of Sony Alpha NEX-3 digital camera Right side of Sony Alpha NEX-3 digital camera
Imaging Resource rating

5.0 out of 5.0

Sony Alpha NEX-3 Overview

Reviewed by Dave Etchells, Shawn Barnett, Zig Weidelich, and Mike Tomkins
Hands-on Preview Posted: 05/11/2010
Updated to Full Review: 07/09/2010

As the fourth major manufacturer to enter the market for small, mirrorless digital cameras with interchangeable lenses, Sony had to make a big impression. We think they'll do just that with the new Sony NEX-5 and NEX-3, two cameras they're calling "alpha compact interchangeable lens digital cameras."

The promise of mirrorless digital cameras has been high image quality without all the bulk, and the photographic versatility of interchangeable lenses. The Sony NEX-5 delivers that better than any model so far, and does it with style and a sturdy build.

There are so many interesting innovations in the Sony NEX-5 and NEX-3, that it's difficult to know where to start. Easily the biggest news, though, is that the Sony NEX series is the first interchangeable lens digital camera system designed to tackle continuous autofocus and exposure adjustment while recording video, where all the components, bodies and lenses, support the feature. (Panasonic's GH1 was the first to take on this challenge, but only Panasonic's HD lenses support these advanced features, not every Micro Four Thirds lens.) Video is indeed the one major area, aside from size, where the two new cameras differ: The NEX-5 supports 1080i AVCHD video recording, while the NEX-3 is limited to 720p video capture.

A 14-megapixel Exmor APS HD CMOS sensor is responsible for the high quality we found in the images from both cameras, and a new Bionz processor is also hard at work in the two cameras.

Several hot features were brought over from recent Alphas and Cyber-shot digital cameras, including Sweep Panorama, Auto High-Dynamic Range shooting, Handheld Twilight, and Anti-motion-blur modes, each of which strategically combine and align several images into one seamless one. It's pretty impressive stuff. As if that weren't enough, Sony's also announcing an upcoming upgrade (even before the cameras ship!) that will enable a special 3D Sweep Panorama mode that will work with several as-yet unannounced Bravia TV sets coming in July 2010.

Both the Sony NEX-5 and NEX-3 sport a wide, 3-inch LCD with 921,000-dot resolution. The surprise is that the super-slim LCD tilts up 80 degrees and down 45 degrees for easy viewing. With TruBlack technology borrowed from Sony's picture frames, shooting in or out of doors is a pretty good experience.

Though by name the new cameras are Alphas, they no longer use the Alpha mount; instead Sony has christened a new E-mount, for which two lenses will ship right away, both as kit lenses. The first is a fairly standard 18-55mm f/3.5-6.3 lens with Optical SteadyShot, and the second is a 16mm f/2.8 pancake prime lens. Both have a beautiful aluminum barrel in brushed gunmetal gray.

An adapter is available for mounting Alpha lenses, but autofocus will be disabled with the NEX cameras. Two converters will also ship for use with the 16mm lens: an Ultra Wide Converter with a 12mm equivalent view, and a Fisheye Converter.

Finally, an 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 OSS lens is planned for shipment some time this year.

Both the Sony NEX-5 and NEX-3 accept both Memory Stick Pro Duo/Pro-HG Duo/Pro-HG HX Duo and SD, SDHC, and SDXC media.

The NEX-5A will ship in July with the 16mm lens for US$650, while the NEX-5K with the 18-55mm lens will sell for US$700. NEX-3A cameras with the 16mm lens will sell for US$550, while the NEX-3K cameras with the 18-55mm will sell for US$650.

 

Sony NEX-3 User Report

by Shawn Barnett, with Mike Tomkins

While "smaller and more aggressive" was the tactic with the NEX-5, the Sony NEX-3 takes a more conservative approach, taking on a size not much smaller than an Olympus E-P1. Both new Sony cameras evoke the memory of the Sony F505 through the F717, unusual looking cameras produced from 2000 to 2002, with a small grip and large, protruding lenses. Unlike the competition in this space, there's next to no camera body left of the lens, with all the body appearing either directly behind or to the right of the grip (as viewed from behind).

Look and feel. Unlike the rest of the SLD (single-lens, direct-view) digital cameras, the Sony NEX-3 doesn't try at all to look like an SLR or rangefinder. Instead it looks more like a midsize digital camera with a big lens grafted on. Bordering on the absurd, the NEX-3 manages to pull off this seeming overemphasis on optics if only because of the lens's shiny aluminum barrel, whose efficient shape speaks of precision. After several years of relative sameness among digital camera designs, it's refreshing to see something bold. Least inspired of the colors among the Sony NEX-3 line is the silver body we received, which makes it harder to get as excited about this camera's particularly understated finish, so I've used Sony's black body images for the first two shots. The Alpha NEX-3 is also available in red.

Smallest among the new line's competition, the Sony NEX-3 is also light. Its plastic body weighs just 10.5 ounces (0.69 pound, 297g) with battery and card, and adding the lens raises the weight to 18 ounces (1.1 pounds, 511g). By comparison, the Panasonic G2 weighs 21.8 ounces (1.36 pounds, 618g); the Olympus E-P2 weighs 19 ounces (1.2 pounds, 539g); and the Samsung NX10 weighs 21.5 ounces (1.3 pounds, 610g) each with kit lens, battery, and card.

Much like sportscars show their command of the road by contrasting their low profile bodies with large, fully exposed wheels, the Sony NEX-3 design shows its command of light by contrasting its small digital camera body with a large, burnished gunmetal lens (the 18-55mm is shown here). Lower left of the lens in this shot is the lens release button, and upper left is the AF-assist and self-timer lamp. Unlike the Sony NEX-5, there is no infrared remote control port on the NEX-3.

From the top you see the stereo microphones, rather obviously marked L and R, and the three holes for the speaker. Between these two mics is the accessory flap, which you lift up and back, pivoting on its rubber hinge, to access the small accessory port. So far, the port accepts the included accessory flash and the optional accessory microphone; for now we haven't heard of any plans for an accessory EVF, though Sony plans to release an optical viewfinder accessory with a 16mm field of view.

Thickness. While the Sony NEX-3's lens mount makes the Sony 16mm lens look thicker, it's really about the same thickness as the Olympus 17mm M.Zuiko. Click the image for a larger view.

The large rear-accessed power switch rings the shutter button. Note the wide, thinner grip. It's easily the least comfortable aspect of the Sony NEX-3, because it's too wide, and the grip angle is too shallow, giving the fingers less to grip, while the Sony NEX-5's grip is much thicker front to back, with a deeper angle. The Playback button is also on top, which is a bit of a nuisance, since it's one of the things you want to quickly find and activate while you're looking at the LCD.

Here also is the first evidence of the tilting LCD screen, just left of the Movie Record button.

The 16mm f/2.8 lens also has an aluminum barrel, and looks larger than it is, thanks to the metal mount, which is several millimeters thick. The lens is actually about as thick as the Olympus 17mm f/2.8 M.Zuiko pancake lens. The 16mm lens will also accept the Ultra Wide Converter lens (VCL-ECU1) and the Fisheye Converter (VCL-ECF1), which mount on the bayonet located on the inset plastic barrel that holds the actual lens elements.

Note the position of the two camera strap lugs. The Sony NEX cameras are designed to hang with the lens pointing down, just like their spiritual predecessors (the F505-F717 mentioned earlier). This has several advantages, one being that the screen is less likely to be scratched by shirt buttons, and the small camera body won't pitch forward at different angles depending on what lens you have mounted. Sony knows that the lenses will usually tip the camera forward, especially on a camera whose body is so light, so why not just hang the lens downward in the first place? What I discovered when I attached the strap was that several of the camera's design elements that seem awkward at first suddenly make perfect sense.

Tilting LCD. The 3-inch LCD tilts up 90 degrees and down about 45 degrees, and has a 921,000-dot resolution. The display also uses Sony's Clear Photo LCD Plus and Tru Black technology from Sony's line of digital picture frames.

With the strap attached, the LCD is always facing up, ready for chimping. Wrap your fingers around the Sony NEX-3's grip and bring your thumb around and up to the strap, and your thumb easily reaches the power switch. Draw your thumb back to use the Control wheel and soft keys. The Control wheel is very well designed, with a high edge around the perimeter with fairly sharp cuts for a good grip. Rather than fill the small space with expensive buttons, Sony has designed a new interface that's context-sensitive. The menu's responsiveness is very quick, with snappy clicks to accompany wheel motion and onscreen action. It's sometimes confusing, but always responsive. More on this later. We did notice that using the Control wheel to make frequent adjustments can wear on your thumb after only a short time, so beware.

Inside the Sony NEX-3

APS-C with digicam features. The NEX-3 uses an all-new Sony Exmor CMOS sensor that combines the large, low-noise pixels of APS-C format chips with advanced high-speed features previously found only in Sony's Exmor-R digicam sensors. The photo above shows the sensor from the NEX-3 next to an Exmor-R sensor of the sort used in Sony's X-series digicams. (TX7, HX5v, etc.)

Sensor. The Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5 have the company's third generation Exmor sensor. It is an APS-C sized HD-CMOS sensor that Sony says is 60% larger than a Four Thirds sensor, and 13 times larger than a typical video camera sensor, so they expect performance gains in both areas.

Dust. The Sony NEX cameras have a dust abatement and removal system, where they've included a charge-protection coating on the low-pass filter, and they also vibrate the low pass filter to shake dust free.

Processor. Sony doesn't say much about the new Bionz processor beyond that it's the third generation of the chip. Looking at the images, it could be a big part of what's improved their image quality so much.

Autofocus and metering. The Sony NEX-3 uses contrast-detect autofocus only. It has two autofocus modes AF-S for single and AF-C for continuous focusing. There are three autofocus area modes, including Center, Multi, and Flexible Area modes. You can also choose full Autofocus, DMF, which allows you to adjust focus after the autofocus operation, and Manual Focus. Focus is fast and fairly accurate. See the Shooter's Report or Performance tab for more.

The Sony NEX-3 has the option of Spot, Center-weighted, and Multi-area metering.

Optics. Sony's new lenses are designed to respond more quickly than conventional SLR lenses can, with the express purpose of enabling autofocus while shooting video. Most SLRs either disable autofocus while capturing video, or else they essentially ruin the bit of the video where you're focusing because of the lens motor noise and the excessive focus and exposure changes required.

Sony developed an all-new lens system for the new NEX line (shown here on an NEX-5, with a shorter flange distance (back-focus distance) to yield more compact lenses, and lenses with faster, more precise focus drive to meet the demands of live contrast-detect autofocus during video recording. The lens irises are also driven by stepper motors to provide continuous aperture adjustment to prevent sudden jumps in brightness as the aperture is adjusted while video is being recorded.

Sony says the new E-Mount lenses have silent focus and silent, continuous aperture control. See our Optics tab for a more thorough writeup of Sony's new approach, as well as our completed test results for both kit lenses.

White balance options include Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Flash, Color Temperature/Filter, and Custom.

Menus. Sony's introducing a whole new menu system on the NEX series cameras, one that looks and sounds quite snappy as you navigate, but our pre-release cameras had a few problems that served as the only real negative points in our experience with the NEX-5 and NEX-3. See the Shooter's Report for more on that. The general interface is pretty good, if you stick to the basic controls.

Special features. The Sony NEX-3 comes with quite a few special features borrowed from the Cyber-shot line, the most interesting of those being the Sweep panorama feature.

First seen on Sony's TX1 and WX1 digicams a year ago, the high-speed ability of the NEX-3's advanced Exmor CMOS image sensor and the power of Sony's Bionz processor lets you capture in-camera panoramas by simply holding down the shutter button and "sweeping" the camera across in a short arc. The result can be a panorama up to 12,416 pixels wide, covering a horizontal angle of 149 - 226 degrees. Or, sweep the camera vertically, for a narrower/thicker panorama up to 5,536 pixels wide, covering a vertical angle of 106 - 151 degrees. Sony's high-speed technologies take SLD shooting into a whole new dimension. (And sometime in July of 2010, it'll literally take you to a new dimension, when a firmware update will let you create panoramas in 3D, for display on Sony's 3D HDTV sets.)


Storage and battery. The Sony NEX-3 is compatible with two memory card standards, each with various permutations. The first is Memory Stick Pro Duo/Pro-HG Duo/Pro-HG HX Duo, and like Olympus did with the Pens last year, Sony now also supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC media in the same slot.

The Sony NEX-3 uses a 7.2V 1080mAh lithium-ion battery with part number NP-FW50. Tested to the CIPA standard, the Sony NEX-3 is expected to get about 330 shots per charge. Expected Battery life is shortened somewhat because while the camera is on and in Record mode, the Sony NEX-3 will continue to seek focus whether you're in continuous or single focus mode.



Sony NEX-3 Comparisons

Size is a big advantage to SLDs, and the Sony NEX-3, while not as small as the NEX-5, is still smaller than most. But first, how much larger is it than the NEX-5?

Sony NEX-3 vs Sony NEX-5

With the silver against the black, it's hard to tell how much smaller the NEX-5 is than the NEX-3. In the hand it's more noticeable than it seems here, but they are indeed close, meaning that the NEX-3 is still pretty small.
This view gives a little better idea of the size difference, as lens pops up above the body more on the NEX-5.
From this angle it's mostly body thickness and grip width. The mounting flange also protrudes more on the NEX5, keeping the focal length the same despite the thinner body of the NEX5.


Sony NEX-3 vs Olympus E-P1

Up against the Olympus E-P1, the Sony NEX-3 is certainly shorter, and a little less wide than the E-P1.
The NEX-5's tilting, widescreen LCD is an obvious advantage over the E-P1, but the E-P1's menu has an easier menu design and more control buttons.
The E-P1 doesn't gain much advantage over the NEX-3 with its collapsible lens, especially considering its loose front optic. Still, the Sony is thicker overall with the kit lens.


Sony NEX-3 vs Pentax Kx

The Sony NEX-3 is noticeably smaller than one of the smallest SLRs on the market, the Pentax Kx.
The tilting LCD makes the NEX-3 more versatile in certain situations, while the extra controls on the K-x reduce menu diving.
The size advantage of mirrorless design is clear.

 

Shooting with the Sony NEX-5 and NEX-3

by Shawn Barnett

Sony makes cameras that are easy to love. Not all of them are perfect, but when it comes to design, Sony usually has an edge. That was lost with many of the Alphas, with the exception of the high-end of their body and lens lineup. We definitely see more of Sony's acute design skill built into the NEX-3 and NEX-5. Though physically they are very different, functionally they are nearly identical, so I'll talk mostly about my experiences that are familiar with both.

I had to be fairly stealthy when out shooting the new cameras, but they're small enough that I was able to conceal most of the camera with one hand. I just wrapped my thumb and index finger around the lens barrel and extended my palm over the grip: all you see is the front of the lens. That was true with both cameras, but easier to achieve with the NEX-5.

While they don't power-up quickly, the Sony NEX cameras do focus and fire quickly, especially in good light. Focus can take a little longer in low light, as with most contrast-detect cameras. Powering the camera on, though, is a little like watching yourself wake-up after a very deep sleep. You flip the switch, and nothing happens. Then after half a second, the icons appear onscreen. Then after another half-second, the view begins to fade in, from blackness to a dim vision, to full brightness. I confess I've never seen a camera do this. It takes long enough that I've more than once had to check to make sure the lens cap wasn't on.

Generally, if I'm out shooting, I have the camera on, so its power-up time hasn't been an issue. But know that it's not quick, at least not with our pre-release camera.

Although I'm a fan of many larger SLRs, and the Micro Four Thirds cameras from Olympus and Panasonic, I have to say, shooting with such a small camera feels very natural. I think there are plenty who won't like the large lens on the small camera body, but I can't think of anything more appropriate in the digital age. Lens, finder, and grip: that's what a photographer needs. No, an LCD isn't always the ideal viewfinder, but for the target market it's the right choice, and allows Sony to make the camera very small. (An optional optical viewfinder will be available, but it wasn't ready as of press time.)

Optics. To my surprise, I'm more drawn to the 18-55mm lens than to the 16mm. The opposite is true with the Micro Four Thirds camera, where the 17mm is pretty much all I use for the shooting I do. Since the 17mm is equivalent to a 34mm lens, it's natural I'd prefer that over the 24mm equivalent found in the 16mm. Though I used to love my 24mm on my old film cameras, the way the lens distorts faces at the edges makes for unappealing family photos. The good news is that it really grabs the scene, great for landscapes. The bad news is that you have to step forward quite a bit more than you thought you would to fill the frame with your subject, and the result is often distorted, unnatural people pictures.

A rather large 18-200mm is also planned for relatively early release, but an adapter that works with other Alpha-mount lenses will also be shipping. We used a sample of the adapter for many of our laboratory shots. The only drawback is that even these Alpha lenses must be focused manually, as they're not designed to work well enough with the NEX's contrast-detect autofocus system, according to Sony representatives.

With the 18-55mm, I like the way it feels to have just lens, grip, and LCD to frame my images: the bare necessities. It feels like I'm getting away with something.

Still, if you're looking for a wide-angle view, the 16mm is wide and flat, and you can make it even wider with the two accessory lenses that will also be available. The VCL-ECU1 is an Ultra Wide Converter that makes the 16mm into a 12mm lens thanks to its 0.75x magnification. The Fisheye Converter will give a very wide view with all the distortion you expect from a fisheye lens.

Low light. I like that they included the flash with the Sony NEX cameras, rather than made it an aftermarket purchase, as Olympus did with its first two Pens. I also like that you can take it off. It's absolutely tiny, rests right above the lens, and jacks in via a special connector concealed beneath a plastic door. A thumbscrew tightens the flash in place. As I say, it rests flat above the lens, but must be flipped up to activate. The camera senses when it's flipped up and fires in the selected mode.

Regardless, what's better than a cute little flash that comes off with ease? A camera that doesn't usually need a flash. And that's what you get with the Sony NEX-3. As if it weren't enough to have a camera that does Sony's cool Handheld Twilight mode, Sony made some strides that improve its high-ISO performance noticeably. It's no Nikon D3x, but it still does better than a good share of the market in our low light tests.

I really enjoyed shooting in low light with the Sony NEX-3, with only Auto ISO enabled. It's not going to perform miracles, but it does get you indoor shots that you'd never get otherwise.

Handheld Twilight
Anti-motion blur
Handheld Twilight mode captured six images at f/5, 1/8 second, and ISO 1,600 and combined them into one. Anti-motion blur mode chose f/5 and ISO 6,400 in a bid to raise the shutter speed to 1/25 second.

Handheld Twilight. A cool Scene mode called Handheld twilight (HHT) does a trick that some of Sony's backlit-sensor cameras introduced last year. No, this sensor is not backlit, but it will fire off six shots at a hand-holdable shutter speed and combine them into one usable image that you'd never get without using a higher ISO. But don't think that you're going to sneak into your kids' bedroom to get a cute shot of them sleeping, because the relatively loud -- if cool-sounding -- shutter has to fire six times, a salvo that's sure to wake most people.

Similar to HHT is Anti-motion blur mode, which biases exposure toward a fast shutter speed and also fires off several images that it combines into one to eliminate motion from camera movement, which is amplified by use of telephoto lenses. Again, this makes quite a bit of noise, and those nearby might wonder what you're doing. (Just tell them they wouldn't understand.)

Easy Panoramas. I'm also impressed that Sony managed to put their Sweep Panorama mode into the NEX series. The Sony NEX-5 and NEX-3 have to fire much larger shutters than their Cyber-shot counterparts, then combine the images into one shot.

Sweep Panorama. My first sweep test included cars in motion. Note the car without a middle just right of center, and one truck with an extra grill and one without a tailgate just left of center.
Better subject. The Sony NEX-3's Sweep Panorama is intended more for shots like this, I think, than for busy street scenes.

It does not work as well as Sony's Intelligent Panorama mode, which analyzes the scene to find moving objects and put only one image of said objects into the final panorama. For example, a car traveling through the scene might appear more than once as the camera sweeps across a scene, but intelligent Panorama would delete the multiple images from the scene when possible, leaving only one image of the car. As I swept across a street scene, all the buildings were fine, but cars moving with the pan had an extra tail and nose added to their length, while cars moving counter my motion were shrunk to just a noise and tail, with no middle. Not the best, but since most folks shoot panoramas of relatively static scenes, it'll work well enough in most common situations, where objects are distant and not moving rapidly. Note, too, that all of the Sweep Panorama images I made with our pre-release camera were somewhat soft, with a touch of motion blur. The top shot above, taken in bright sunlight at 1/250 second still shows motion blur, but it could be that Sony has some work to do yet. Later, when we reshot the tree scene, the shutter speed was slower, but we just let the Sony NEX-5 keep firing, and we got a much sharper result.

Auto HDR. When you know the camera's going to have a hard time capturing a scene like this, Sony's Auto HDR can help. Note the cosmetics on the shelf in the doorway in the bottom image and the shadow area under the tree.

Auto HDR. Another multi-shot mode designed to improve your images is the Sony NEX-3's HDR mode. Dynamic Range Optimization does a little electronic processing to enhance shadows and maintain highlights, but when that's not doing the trick, you can (after some fumbling in the menus) activate Auto-HDR. Again, this handy mode fires off three hand-holdable images that expose for the highlights, the mids, and the shadows and combine them into one image that has usable detail in all of these areas. Often, these images can look flat, because they essentially process out image contrast. The good news is that the Sony NEX-3 also saves a copy of the middle exposure before building the HDR image, giving it the next number in the series. While I've often been pleased with the HDR image onscreen, I was occasionally glad I had the regular exposure as well, since HDR can too often just look surreal. Not just from the NEX, by the way, but all HDR images.

The Pentax K-7 has this feature as well, but Sony's implementation automatically aligns all three images, even when handheld, while most of the K-7's shots need to be made on a tripod to avoid image misalignment. I found a perfect opportunity to demonstrate HDR's benefit: a beauty salon built into the old Woodstock Jailhouse with its door open. Part of its front is lit by bright sunlight, part is in shadow, and the open door is even darker. The key, though, is that I can see into the open door with my eyes, and I can also see detail in bright and shadow areas. But I knew the camera wouldn't. The shot at right shows this clearly. Yes, there are hints of the items seen in the room, but the HDR image manages to assemble a better sample of what my eye made out: cosmetics on a rack, stacked on a table. I think the bright part of the wall is a little too washed out, but it's about right for what my eye saw, so I can't complain. Overall, in this scenario, HDR did exactly what I think it's supposed to do: give you more of what your eye sees, in one image. Our eyes and mind are compensating as we look around a high-contrast scene like this, adjusting sensitivity as we go, but a digital camera really can't do this without the help of HDR; at least not yet.

Focus. Focus is active at all times, far as I could tell, whether I had continuous focus on or off. I usually choose the Center point AF option regardless what camera I use, but the Sony NEX-3 has a strange habit of just giving up and selecting the entire image as the center, especially in low light. I'm not really fond of that. I want to know that it's going to focus where I tell it, so I switched to Flexible Spot, which has the added benefit of moving to just about anywhere onscreen, corner-to-corner, just missing the edges. Not bad at all.

Focus is also fairly fast, pretty close to some of the other contenders in this space. Wide and tele full autofocus lag times average 0.44 second, and prefocus shutter lag is 0.12 second. Startup to first shot is about 1.0 second, but in reality it's about 2 seconds before the screen comes fully alive. I have no complaints about focus at all with the Sony NEX-3. If you set the camera to Continuous AF, though, focus will tend to wobble very rapidly as the contrast-detect AF system rapidly checks and rechecks focus many times a second. It can be quite strange to see an entire building pulsate as you try to hold the camera steady, but rest assured the camera is doing what you told it to.

Out of focus areas are a little softer and more appealing from the Sony NEX-5 (top) than the Olympus E-PL1, both shot wide open (f/4, f/3.9 respectively, at about 35mm eq.) with their kit lenses. (Click on the images for an 800-pixel version, then click again to see them full size)

Bokeh. Put simply, bokeh is the quality of the out-of-focus areas in an image, and Sony boasted that their larger APS-C sensor (which allows a narrower depth-of-field) combined with their optics give better bokeh than Micro Four Thirds cameras can. It seems to be true of the two kit lenses, with background elements appearing a little softer and smoother from the Sony. The quality of bokeh can vary quite a bit, though, depending on which lens you use.

Simpler menus? Of course, it's not all great news. The Sony NEX-3 is a blend of more traditional digital camera design with an SLR sensor and interchangeable lenses, but the best of both worlds were not always chosen. In this case, Sony says they completely redesigned the interface to make it easier to control with only a few buttons, but it really brings to mind the inconvenience of some of Sony's recent Cyber-shot menu systems. My first impression of the NEX-3's menu system was quite positive, because it was snappy and beautiful. The most attractive item is the Scene menu, in fact, which includes high resolution photos to illustrate the purpose of each. Very nicely done. For the first time, too, the sound that accompanies menu selections -- a sharp click -- is actually quite nice. Unfortunately, my initially positive reaction to the NEX-3's menus didn't survive my actually trying to use them.

Rather than using the truly simple menu from the other Alphas, which are among the best in the business, Sony opted for a more complicated scheme that uses buttons to get to icons to get to menus, some of which are pretty long -- and when you get to the bottom of some very long lists, the menus don't wrap back up to the top. Worse, once you've found and adjusted a menu item, you're dropped into Record mode, rather than back to the Menu, where you could make further adjustments. Instead, you have to hit Menu again and start all over from the top.

Leaving iAuto. Unfortunately, in Program mode, there is no Program Shift. But you can use Background Defocus, available in Intelligent Auto mode. Getting into Intelligent Auto isn't hard at all. Just press the Shoot Mode button, the virtual Mode dial comes onscreen, you rotate the dial, press the center button, and you're in. But now what was once the Shoot Mode button is now the Background Defocus button. How do you get back to Program or any other mode? Press Menu. Navigate to Shoot Mode. Press OK. Wait for black screen. Rotate the dial. Press OK. No, it's not horrible, but there are a lot of steps, and it's not obvious for the novice. Then again, perhaps that's the idea.

Thanks to the large, high resolution screen, there are plenty of icons to tell you about the camera's settings, but to change any of them, you have to first look on the four-way navigator, then hit the Menu button (provided it's available, since it is a "soft" button, whose use may change as the mode changes). Once the Menu pops up, you have to choose the right one from among six: Shoot mode, Camera, Image Size, Brightness/Color, Playback, and Setup. Here's where tabs would have been nice, because it's not exactly obvious that ISO and DRO are hidden under the Brightness/Color menu rather than the Camera menu.

And a Quick menu would make changing things like ISO or DRO/HDR more easily accessible. As it is, you have to press the Menu button, navigate to Brightness/Color, scroll down to DRO/Auto HDR, and press the center button. Then the screen goes completely black, and you're taken to the live view, where the little DRO/Auto HDR options pop out of the right side of the screen. Rotate the control dial until your selection appears and press the center button again. Take your shot! The big problem I have isn't how hard it is to turn on, though. It's how hard it is to turn back off, because I seldom want to shoot in Auto HDR for more than a few images, and then I forget I have it set for the next shot, and right when I don't want it to, the Sony NEX-3 will rattle off another three shots. It's then that I have to go back into the menu, navigate to Brightness/Color... You get the idea. What's worse is if you need to change a setting on the Setup menu, which contains 35 items. Format is number 29.

There are also many instances when a menu option is inexplicably unavailable. It's just grayed out, and the pop-up explanation doesn't offer any remedy. The Face Detection option for example, is grayed out by default, and the only way to activate it is to first turn on Multipoint AF and Multi-area exposure. While the camera has 80 photography tips, none of them address such a fundamental issue as this. There's always the manual, yes, but some of this stuff should just be automatic (turn on face detection and it automatically changes to Multipoint AF and Multi-area exposure).

Note: These comments are based on the NEX firmware version that was available at the time the review was written (v1.00). Sony has since released firmware update version 03, which addresses some of these UI issues and adds new features as well. We unfortunately can't go back and update reviews each time new firmware comes out, but you can view the list of improvements according to Sony in our NEX firmware update news article.

Another peculiarity is that you can't review both images and videos in Playback mode at the same time. Playback confines the list of available items to whatever you shot last. That is, if you've been shooting stills and movies, and the last thing you shot was a still, when you press the Playback button you'll only see still images. To see movies, you have to switch to Movie mode, or else a quick movie. You can also hit the Menu button, select the Playback menu item, and scroll down to Still/Movie Select, press that menu item, then select between Still and Movie on a separate screen. We think this might be because scrolling through movies takes a long time -- like two or three seconds per item -- while stills are easy to flick through. Rather than please consumers, though, idiosyncrasies like this are going to make users think they've lost images or videos. Hopefully this is due to the prerelease nature of the NEX cameras.

It may not be possible to make a lot of changes before release, given how close that is relative to manufacturing cycles, but here's a summary of things we'd like to see change in the NEX's menu system:

  • Add an option to the Setup menu that would let you configure the camera's default menu behavior to drop you back to the last-used menu position, rather than always at the top level. Call it something like "Menu Default," with options of "Return to last setting" and "Return to top."

  • Likewise, as noted above, an option for the camera to leave you in the menu system after making an adjustment, rather than popping you out to shooting mode again would be a real convenience.

  • Make the system less modal; let the user change more things regardless of the mode the camera is in. For instance, rather than requiring that the user first set AF area to Multi and change the AF mode to Autofocus or DMF before they can select Face Detection, why not just make the choice of Face Detection put the camera in AF/Multi-Area mode? Telling the user that the Face Detection function is disabled isn't at all helpful. And why shouldn't users be able to select digital zoom with zoom lenses if they want to? Ditto panorama direction or panorama size, when they're not in Panorama mode? Having items mysteriously greyed-out only makes the camera more confusing for users of any level.

  • If you can't get rid of the modal nature of the menus, add explanatory text, telling why an option is greyed out, rather than just saying "This function is currently disabled." - This would arguably hold more real end-user benefit than the current 80 pages of shooting tips.

  • In Playback mode, make the Menu button take you immediately to the Playback menu, and make the first option there be Still/Movie Select. (This is one place where the camera really needs one more button, as all the buttons on the back already have necessary functions assigned to them.)

  • Add a setup menu item that would let you configure the lower-right button as a custom function button, rather than defaulting to Shooting Tips. Let the user configure it to optionally control their choice of White Balance, ISO, AF area (it does currently turn into Focus when you're in Flexible Spot mode, so you can adjust the focus point, but it'd be nice if you could choose to make it select AF mode all the time as an option), Face Detection, Metering Mode, DRO/HDR, Creative Style, and possibly Steadyshot.

  • Add a Quick Menu, optionally activated by the lower soft button, to give quick access to a number of common settings. (The list above would be a good start, but add things like image size/quality, movie type/size, etc., as well.)

  • On future models, don't be quite so focused on reducing the number of buttons. Even one more button in the lower right corner of the rear panel, or to the left of the Movie button on the angled top panel could have really helped with some of the user interface complexity.

As we said, it may be too late to make any of these changes before release, but they'd be great to add to the firmware update slated to bring 3D Sweep Panorama sometime in July. Some would be more involved than others, but some of the simplest (default menu behavior options, for instance) should be trivial to add, and would make a huge difference to UI usability.

Stabilization. I didn't get a strong impression of the Optical SteadyShot's effectiveness with the 18-55mm, probably because I was so busy playing with all the other low-light features. But most of my shots were good, and as I hold the camera still, analyzing the image on the LCD, the system seems to absorb my heartbeats pretty well while I hold the camera as steady as possible. Sony expects it to deliver around four stops of correction, which seems about right.

Movie mode. Certainly the hot feature among SLRs these days is video capture with interchangeable-lens digital cameras. Their reasonably inexpensive optics open up budding videographers to new levels of creativity. The large sensor in APS-C-sized digital cameras allow better low light performance and let shooters use selective focus as a storytelling device, quickly switching attention from one subject to another using only the focus ring.

The Sony NEX-3 records 720p video at 30 frames per second. Most impressive is that it focuses fast enough to track a subject running full speed at the camera. There are some issues as to what type of subject is more likely to get its attention, but as I've already mentioned, the Sony NEX-3 seems to be checking focus all the time it's on, whether you're shooting stills or video.

Though we're not done with the NEX-3's review, check out Dave's very thorough writeup of on the Sony NEX-5's video capability on the NEX-5's Video tab.

 

Sony NEX-3 Image Quality

No camera is without its issues, and the Sony NEX-3 has a few, brought out by some of our laboratory shots.

See the crops and commentary below for more, and be sure to see our Optics and Image Quality pages for a more thorough analysis of image quality. (Note that we shot both the NEX-5 and NEX-3 cameras and found their image quality to be identical.)

Sony NEX-3 versus Panasonic G2 at ISO 1,600

Sony NEX-3 at ISO 1,600

Panasonic G1 at ISO 1,600
Going up against Panasonic's latest Micro Four Thirds camera at ISO 1,600 reveals some significant differences in how the two cameras handle noise vs. detail. Panasonic's trouble with yellows is also thrown into fine relief, as the top of the Mas Portel bottle appears green, as does the border on the mosaic image. Note also the difference in the shadow areas behind the olive oil bottle. The Sony has a blurry appearance, while the Panasonic opts for emphasizing luminance noise. This latter strategy actually works well in prints. Canon and Nikon manage to produce a gray background that's both smooth but seems flat and reasonably in-focus. Both of these approaches look fine in prints, but the gaussian appearance is indeed present if you look closely. The Sony NEX-3 does better with fine detail in all of the images, including the red leaf fabric.

 

Sony NEX-3 versus E-P1 at ISO 1,600

Sony NEX-3 at ISO 1,600

Olympus E-P1 at ISO 1,600
Though the Olympus E-P1 uses the same sensor as the Panasonic G2, Olympus's processing does a little better in some areas. Still, the Sony NEX-3 eliminates more luminance and chroma noise, while still delivering more detail. Looking at the MA in the label in the top images, the E-P1 manages a little stronger detail without as much oversharpening, but it leaves a lot more chroma noise in the mosaic pattern. The leaf fabric appears to be a draw. Neither renders the swatch as it really is, but I might give the edge to the E-P1 for introducing less false contrast data. But as I say, neither does well enough for all-out praise (see the Nikon D5000 below for the truest representation of the bunch).

 

Sony NEX-3 versus Samsung NX10 at ISO 1,600

Sony NEX-3 at ISO 1,600

Samsung NX10 at ISO 1,600

The other big contender in this space doesn't fare quite as well against the NEX-3 at ISO 1,600. Your eyes can do the analysis easy enough on this one. The chroma noise in the shadows is overpowering, and the red swatch is just blurry by comparison. The NX10's mosaic image also doesn't look as "photographic," but this rendering prints just fine, despite the artificial appearance in this crop. The Samsung NX10 does just fine, producing great printed images, but the Sony NEX-3 does better.

 

Sony NEX-3 versus Canon T1i at ISO 1,600

Sony NEX-3 at ISO 1,600

Canon T1i at ISO 1,600

The Sony NEX-3's 14.2 megapixels stack up nicely against the Canon T1i's 15.1 megapixels. Overall, the T1i is a little softer, but with fewer sharpening artifacts. I prefer the Canon's treatment of the background shadow, even though it leaves some luminance artifacts. The extra noise makes it look more natural when printed. Where the Sony NEX3 has a clear advantage is in the red leaf swatch. The NEX-3 makes something of it, while all the T1i can manage is an unreasonable facsimile.

 

Sony NEX-3 versus Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600

Sony NEX-3 at ISO 1,600

Nikon D5000 at ISO 1,600

Pixel for pixel, the 12-megapixel Nikon D5000 has scored better than the Micro Four Thirds cameras on these particular crop elements, but the Sony finally exceeds it in every area but the red leaf pattern. Despite its soft appearance, the Sony NEX-3 does eliminate the chroma noise in the shadows better than the D5000, and the mosaic image, while not as rich looking as the D5000's rendering, has more usable detail. It's pretty close, though.

Detail: Sony NEX-3 vs Panasonic G2, Olympus E-P1, Samsung NX10, Canon T1i, and Nikon D5000

Sony NEX-3
ISO 200
ISO 3,200

Panasonic G2
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
Olympus E-P1
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
Samsung NX10
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
Canon T1i
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
Nikon D5000
ISO 100
ISO 3,200

Detail comparison. An ISO 1,600 comparison is only so helpful. A camera's ISO 100 and 3,200 performances are also of value, especially when it comes to fine detail, so I've pitted the same set of cameras against each other in the high-contrast detail department.

When we originally looked at the Sony NEX-3's high ISO images, we thought a new benchmark had been set. Indeed, the images do look pretty good, and may actually set a new high mark for overall quality, but these detail crops show that it's not quite a complete coup. The chief rivals for the top spot continue to be the T1i and E-P1 at ISO 100, and the E-P1 and T1i at ISO 3,200. At 3,200 the T1i renders more lines in the Lager letters, but that's partially a function of its slightly higher resolution (14.2 vs. 15.1). I'd say the Sony NEX-3 is probably the most even performer we've seen to date in this price and size range.

Also consider that this test is not independent of lens quality, focus errors, and other variables, so again take this mostly as a comparison of what each camera was able to do with the best standardized optics we can muster. The Samsung NX10 used its very sharp 30mm f/2 lens. The Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic G2 used the rather excellent Olympus Digital Zuiko 50mm f/2 Macro lens. The Sony NEX-3, Nikon and Canon used our laboratory-standard Sigma 70mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro lenses, which are very sharp.

 

Sony NEX-3 Print Quality

JPEGs look very good printed straight from the Sony NEX-3. Enlargement of these 14.2-megapixel images to 20x30 was a tad soft from ISO 200, but better than most 12-megapixel cameras can do. Shots at this size would be fine for wall display, and would sharpen up nicely in a photo editing program. That softness becomes a non-issue at 16x24, though. Color saturation is great and contrast seems a bit high, but not unpleasant.

ISO 400 shots look great at 16x24 too.

ISO 800 shots are also great at 16x24. You can raise your eyebrows now, because that's pretty amazing. Great detail in most areas, only the slightest softness in low-contrast areas, barely detectable unless you squint. Gray shadow areas have some surreal blurring, again if you look closely, but it's a lot better than the luminance noise that could be there.

ISO 1,600 images are a little softer in the low-contrast areas, and some detail starts to suffer, but it's not a problem at arm's length; so even these images are usable at 16x24 inches. Color and contrast are still quite good. The softness goes away at 13x19 inches.

ISO 3,200 images, as expected, start to show some weakness in the darker parts of the image, but high-contrast detail is still quite good at 13x19 inches. Very usable at this size, but naturally better at 11x14.

ISO 6,400 finally demands some reduction from 13x19 inches all the way down to 8x10 before the blotchy dark areas and shadows become acceptable for wall display.

ISO 12,800 suddenly looks quite good at 5x7, a surprise considering how much it seems degraded onscreen. Some colors are faded, but not as bad as we usually see. It makes a great 4x6, too, promising great snapshots in very low light.

Overall, the Sony NEX-3 produces very good prints at very large sizes, impressive considering its lack of an ISO 100 setting. You can print extremely sharp prints at larger sizes than most people print (above 11x14 and up) from ISO 200 to 3,200 without a worry at all.

 

In the Box

The Sony NEX-3 ships with the following items in the box:

  • Sony NEX-3 body
  • 18-55mm w/lens hood or 16mm lens (depending on kit)
  • Flash
  • Body cap
  • Lens caps
  • Lithium-ion battery
  • Battery charger
  • USB cable
  • Shoulder strap
  • CD-ROM
  • Quick Start manual
  • Warranty card

 

Sony NEX-3 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Compact design
  • Power switch is placed just right
  • Lens barrels have an excellent feel, look great
  • Still has good heft despite light weight
  • Camera strap loops hang this lightweight camera down, so lenses don't pitch the camera forward
  • Stereo audio recording
  • Excellent detail from 14-megapixel sensor
  • Decent kit lenses (see Cons about corner softness, distortion and CA)
  • Tilting LCD
  • High-resolution, high-contrast display looks good just about everywhere
  • Very good exposure accuracy outdoors
  • Very good high ISO performance, the best from an SLD thus far
  • HDR mode works well, has adjustable levels
  • DRO has adjustable levels
  • Hand-held Twilight mode captures and aligns multiple images into one sharp shot
  • Anti-motion Blur mode raises the shutter speed and combines multiple images for a single shot
  • Sweep Panorama captures wide panoramic images with one sweep across the scene
  • Snappy overall performance
  • Fast autofocus for contrast-detection
  • Very fast Speed Priority burst mode at 7 fps
  • Very fast download speeds
  • Dual card format slot
  • Detachable flash included
  • Live AF during movie recording
  • AF tracks subject motion during movies quite well
  • Low-light video capability much better than other SLD cameras we've tested
  • Autofocus, aperture adjustment, and image stabilization are virtually silent: Zero impact on movie audio tracks
  • Included external flash is compact, surprisingly powerful, and recycles quickly
  • HDMI-out port
  • Instant-on Movie Record button
  • The same still capture image quality, performance, and almost all the features of the NEX-5 for less money
  • Extreme corners are soft from both kit lenses
  • Moderately high levels of chromatic aberration and geometric distortion at wide-angle
  • Macro images are soft from the 18-55mm lens
  • Large macro coverage area with 16mm lens
  • Only two noise-reduction settings (Auto, Weak)
  • Weak NR setting shows more chroma noise, but smears detail in Still Life red fabric
  • Auto-exposure struggled in very low-light
  • Rear dial wears on your thumb after awhile
  • Non-standard flash connection
  • Very narrow coverage from flash
  • No wireless flash support
  • Proprietary lens mount with limited selection of autofocus lenses
  • Video AF area is overly broad, camera is prone to picking up background or extraneous objects more contrasty than the subject
  • No ability to set AF point during movie recording: AF points selected in still-capture modes don't carry over
  • No user control of aperture, shutter speed or ISO during video recording (aperture control was added in firmware v03)
  • HD movies limited to 720p
  • Scrolling through movies in Playback mode is glacially slow
  • Odd either/or movie/still playback is a nuisance
  • Confusing menu system
  • No ability to trim movies in-camera
  • Battery charges very slowly
  • Very audible click in audio track at the end of every movie, from the button-press that ends recording
  • CIPA battery life rating is decent, but live display, continuous focus, and video recording make for short life in practice
  • Bundled external flash is short, so large lenses and even the kit lens's lens hood cast shadows on the subject
  • Camera is noisy when shooting Panorama, HDR, and other multi-frame modes
  • No support for wireless remote (unlike NEX-5)

Sony has done just what they needed to: They've shaken up the camera market. Even though they were fourth to the Single Lens Direct-view digital camera category, the Sony NEX-3 and NEX-5 are unique cameras that will be remembered for their design as well as their excellent image quality.

As a longtime Sony fan, I've been waiting for a camera that really feels and works like a Sony. While I wish Sony had stuck with the tried and true Alpha menu system, everything else about this design represents Sony at its finest. Dave and I agree that despite the menu, we'd both be happy to own and carry the NEX-3 to just about any event where an SLR would be inappropriate or cumbersome, and I might even feel confident using the NEX-3 or NEX 5 as a backup camera should my SLR fail.

The Sony NEX-3 is not a camera for the seasoned pro, but it just might serve anyone wanting digital SLR quality in a very small, pocketable form factor. We were surprised by the NEX-3's good image quality at all ISOs, and its printed quality was remarkable. For a small camera to output ISO 3,200 images that look amazing when printed at 13x19 inches: that's worth noticing.

What was more of a surprise was Sony's ability to build in Sweep Panorama mode and both Handheld Twilight and Anti-motion blur into a camera with a larger sensor and large shutter, since these modes were first introduced in Cyber-shot digital cameras.

Overall, we are really impressed with the Sony NEX-3 and the NEX-5. Both offer higher image quality than any of their rivals, all in a package that's smaller than all of their large-sensor rivals. They are fun to carry and shoot, and gorgeous to behold with a bevy of features you're going to want to explore. The plastic body of the NEX-3 has less dramatic impact than the slimmer, metal body of the NEX-5, some of us liked the grip better than others, and the HD video is 720p instead of Full 1080i, but it's the still image quality that impresses us most, and they both serve up the best quality we've seen for this form factor. If Sony can improve the menu, fix the Playback mode, and add a Quick menu, we'll be even more excited, but for now we're content to have great looks, great features, and excellent, category-leading image quality, making the Sony NEX-3 a Dave's Pick.

Be sure to read the rest of this review on the tabs that you'll find at the top and bottom of this page. Dave, Mike, and Zig spent a lot of time writing about the new features and analyzing the image quality of the NEX cameras. Check it out, you'll be glad you did! Start with Design and hover over each item for a full description, then go to any of the others you like: Operation, Viewfinder, Modes and Menus, Video, Optics, Exposure, Image Quality, Flash, Performance, Specs, Samples, and Gallery (NEX-5)! If you want to get really technical, check out the Imatest Results, High ISO NR, and RAW pages as well.

 

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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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