Sony's entry-level NEX-3 Micro System Camera is compact-like in appearance but has changeable lenses and produces DSLR quality. The What Digital Camera Sony NEX-3 review...
Sony NEX-3 review – Features
Not to be confused with Micro Four Thirds (Panasonic & Olympus) cameras, Sony’s standalone venture into the Micro System Camera market employs the company’s new APS HD CMOS sensor, meaning the tiny-bodied NEX-3 benefits from a sensor the same size as that found in most DSLR cameras.
Producing 14.2MP stills up to a sensitivity of ISO 12,800 (at full resolution), the NEX-3, like its big brother NEX-5, is all about DSLR-like quality from a very compact package.
As well as being among the smallest and lightest system cameras on the market, the NEX-3 is also capable of capturing 720p HD movies using the Motion JPEG (M-JPEG) format that’s output straight from camera without the need to process.
Point-and-shoot capability is the NEX-3’s forte and yet there are full manual controls as well as an abundance of scene modes and Sony-exclusives. On the latter front there’s the Sweep Panorama mode that takes a series of images while you move the camera through 224º in real time to generate an auto-stitched 23MP panoramic image. Plus with a recent firmware upgrade this can be captured in 3D and output to a compatible 3D TV or device.
Sony NEX-3 review – Design
The NEX-3’s design is likely to divide opinion: It appears very compact-like at first glance, but this entirely depends on which lens you have attached to the front. Anything more than the 16mm f/2.8 and the balance between lens and body feels overly front-heavy, especially considering the lightweight polycarbonate finish. The lenses are big too – the optics need to make an image circle large enough to cover that large APS-C sized sensor and, with many offering a wide aperture too, the physical size simply can’t be skimped on.
Compared to the NEX-5, the NEX-3 loses much of the right hand grip which, again considering the weight and size of the lenses, makes holding it a little bit tricky at times.
It’s not just the physical design which has issues either – the menu system, while successfully simplified for ease of use in most situations, does bury many of the options that would be nice to quickly access instead. ISO sensitivity, for example, takes a whole series of button presses and wheel rotations to successfully adjust between one shot and another.
A flash unit is also included in the box, which attaches using a unique fitting on top of the camera. It’s a fiddly process to screw it in and takes far too long – a shame that Sony didn’t opt for a hotshoe-type fitting for greater ease of use. The flash itself is fairly mild in terms of brightness too, though has its uses for fill flash.
Sony NEX-3 review – Performance
The NEX-3 is devised to be a step up from a compact camera, but its design fails to entail the same ease of use when in more advanced manual modes. It’s a cinch to use for point-and-shoot work, and once fixed into a manual mode such as Aperture priority it’s easy to use the rear jog wheel to jump through the aperture options. It’s just some of the other controls that are buried that can cause frustration and slowed-down use.
However, despite this nuisance, the majority of the rest of its response its pretty nippy: the Quick AF Live View system (though not the same as that found in Sony DSLRs) is as fast as the next best contrast-detect based system in a Micro System Camera, meaning picking off subjects in all kinds of situations is a breeze.
Macro work can be a bit of a struggle as none of the current lenses focus any closer than 24cms from subject, a particular shame for the 16mm which, given its relatively wide angle, would otherwise lend itself well to closeup and macro work.
A struggle with the original firmware meant that the camera’s startup time was a couple of seconds though this has now been remedied somewhat thanks to a firmware update (the same update that enables 3D capture in Sweep Panorama mode). It’s good to see Sony is on top of addressing feedback promptly – the slow startup of the NEX-5 was one of its bigger downfalls and this prompt adjustment is a real step in the right direction for users. Start up time still isn’t lightning fast, but is a vast improvement.
The 3in, 921k-dot LCD on the rear employs Sony’s TruBlack technology and, despite no anti-reflective or fingerprint-resistant coating, handles bright sunlight fairly well. Fingerprinting can become a slight issue however. The tilt-angle ability is limited to vertical (upward or downward) angles, though does prove useful given the lack of any inbuilt viewfinder (only an optional fixed-16mm optical viewfinder can be purchased separately).
The new sensor is also capable of capturing HD movies at 720p using Motion JPEG. This is a ‘downgrade’ from the NEX-5’s 1080i AVCHD movie capture, though it’s the compression type rather than the resolution (arguably) that make the NEX-5 the marginally better of the two.
An abundance of modes also make an appearance to complement the point-and-shoot and manual modes, including the new Background Defocus Control which provides a live on screen depth of field preview. Auto HDR, Hand-held Twilight and Sweep Panorama are the three more prominent modes, with the 23MP output of the panorama providing generally well-stitched images, and Auto HDR and Hand-held Twilight using post-processing methods to counter too much dark/underexposure in dark or night time scenes.
Image Quality & Value
Sony NEX-3 review – Image Quality
An area where the NEX-system truly shines; hats off to Sony for the new APS HD sensor and Bionz processor which succeed in creating bold, bright, low-noise, high quality images. Plus, with any of the three current lenses available, sharpness is decent too.
Exposure is clean, well-metered and equal and even Auto White Balance is more consistent than some of Sony’s previous DSLR releases, showing progression in attention to detail.
To simplify: the NEX-3 (as well as the NEX-5) provide the current best image quality of any Micro System Camera on the market, bar none. Images are useable at all of its ISO settings, which is quite a feat considering the top-end sensitivity is ISO 12,800.
Sony NEX-3 review – Value
With the 16mm lens the NEX-3 is an exceptionally-priced £440. For what you get and the image quality that can be squeezed out of this impressive machine that’s a great price – especially considering some advanced compact cameras push the £400 mark these days. The only current ‘let down’ is that there are only three possible lenses that can be purchased, which doesn’t match up to the more considerable (and not compatible with Sony) Micro Four Thirds (Panasonic & Olympus) offerings on the market.
The NEX-3 is mightily similar to its NEX-5 brother. What it loses in body build and grip-size it makes up for by slashing the price. At £440 with the 16mm lens it’s an absolute bargain that has class-leading image quality just the same as the NEX-5. Some firmware updates have improved start up times and added headline-grabbing features like 3D Sweep Panorama – the latter may not be used by all, yet it’s good to see future-proof forward-thinking. Sony has come on in leaps and bounds lately and the NEX-series is an absolute testament to that. An excellent Micro System Camera that could well open up the market to considerably more people thanks to strong features and image quality. Its main letdown is the lack of a more user-friendly layout when in more advanced modes, though the layout as it is does add to the overall charm and makes up part of what the NEX-system is: a compact-like camera with changeable lenses and exceptional image quality.